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Kicked to the Curb: 5 Romans in Exile

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Wikimedia Commons

Banishment from Rome was many things—a political trick, an act of revenge, and a terrible verdict even its best citizens fell prey to. When you own much of the known world, it’s easy to stick someone in a corner. Here are five people the Romans booted.

1. Agrippa Postumus

Exiled to: Planasia, 9 CE
Cause: It’s not quite clear
Recalled: Never

Agrippa Postumus (top) was Caesar Augustus’ grandson through his daughter, Julia. When Agrippa's father and brothers died, he moved up in the line of succession. The other option to inherit the throne was Tiberius, a man Augustus wasn't fond of. At 44, Tiberius was an experienced general, while Agrippa Postumus was a brawling, cavorting 15 year old. Like it or not, Augustus decided Tiberius was the better choice. The next year, Augustus sent Agrippa away from Rome and in 9 CE he permanently banished him to Planasia (now Pianosa), a minuscule island off Tuscany.

Under guard, Agrippa was forbidden any news of home. He died about the same time as Augustus in 14 CE, likely murdered on the orders of the now-ruling Tiberius. His mother Julia, also in exile, died shortly after.

And then ... he came back. A man claiming to be Agrippa traveled toward Rome in 16 CE, shoring up the lingering support Agrippa's father and brothers had built long ago. In reality, this was Agrippa’s slave Clemens. The man was fake, but Tiberius feared a very real conspiracy and executed Clemens later that year.

Agrippa Postumus may have been exiled for political reasons or simply because he was an uncontrollable wild child. But his exile and death (twice!) helped Tiberius hold the power Augustus didn't want to give to him.

2. Metellus Numidicus

Exiled to: Rhodes, 100 BCE
Cause: Revenge
Recalled: 99 BCE

Quintus Caecilius Metellus Numidicus was, by most accounts, an aristocrat beloved by the common Roman. Even rumors of war profiteering in Africa, which were spread by his lieutenant Gaius Marius, couldn’t dim his popularity. Marius ended up taking Metellus’ consulship and command, but Metellus was nonetheless received by Rome in triumph in 107 BCE.

When he was elected censor in 102 BCE—which put him in charge of maintaining the census, supervising areas of the government's finances, and policing public morality—Metellus tried and failed to expel Marius' political ally, the tribune L Appuleius Saturninus, from the senate. 

Marius and Saturninus brought legislation that was deliberately offensive to the aristocracy. Metellus refused his oath and paid the necessary fine. After Saturninus charged him with treason, friends of Metellus armed themselves and prepared to prevent it. Metellus wanted no civil unrest on his account, so he told them to stand down and he went quietly into exile in 100 BCE.

In Rhodes, Metellus was able to study Greek philosophy and cultivate an interest in war and the arts far from the machinations of Rome. Saturninus was killed that same year, and Marius’ power wasn’t enough to keep Metellus away. Metellus' son called for the exile to be lifted, and Metellus Numidicus was recalled to a hero’s welcome, after which he retired to private life. A little time away can work wonders.

3. Gaius Marius

Exiled to: Africa, 87 BCE
Cause: Sulla
Recalled: He marched back in 87 BCE

Gaius Marius was once considered the “3rd founder of Rome.” Country-bred, Marius raised a successful army from Rome’s poor and landless and won five consulships through foreign wars between 104 and 100 BCE (in addition to his first, earned in 107). Only one other Roman had ever held six consulships. Nearing old age, Marius felt destined to break that record.

In 88 BCE, consulship over the war in Asia went to Marius’ one-time subordinate, Cornelius Sulla. Nearly 70, Marius wanted the command. A political tussle led to street fighting. Sulla lost, but he bet on the loyalty of his army, who refused Marius and followed Sulla into Rome.

No Roman had ever marched on the immortal city before, and the invasion was a struggle. Unable to pay his own army to fight for him, Marius sent his son to Africa and fled across Italy. Bad winds kept Marius from sailing. Separated from friends, he hid in a swamp until he was captured and held in a house in a town south of Rome. A German slave was sent in to execute him, but Marius’ loyalty to the poor and landless paid off. The slave ran away, crying, “I cannot kill Gaius Marius.” Freed thereafter, Marius found his allies waiting on an island off Naples.

They sailed for Africa and half were killed in Sicily when they stopped for supplies. When they reached Africa, they were denied entry. Disheveled and weary, Marius camped in the ruins of Carthage before finding his son.

Rousing a force of his old soldiers, Marius got a second wind. Besieging Roman ports on the way, he landed in Italy, adding freed slaves to his growing army. Joining forces with the ousted consul Cinna, Marius again marched on Rome.

Marius returned a conqueror, but in a fine display of passive-aggressiveness he declared he could not legally enter as a fugitive. Voting to repeal his exile began, but Marius got bored and entered anyway, his fanatical slave army killing at the slightest nod of his head. Cinna had to slaughter the Marians as they slept to stop the bloodshed.

Amazingly, exile restored Marius’ clout. Duly elected in 86 BCE, he finally earned his seventh consulship. Sulla was exiled and Marius died just weeks later.

4. Cicero  

Exiled to: Macedonia, 58 BCE
Cause: Executing citizens without trial
Recalled: 57 BCE

There were degrees to every banishment. Full exile stripped wealth and citizenship and would be a devastating loss. Cicero felt its sting at the hands of a noble he unsuccessfully charged with blasphemy, P Clodius Pulcher.

Cicero was well-respected, and in 63 BCE, he was named "father of the fatherland" for uncovering a plot against the state.

Using his own good connections as tribune, Clodius charged Cicero with executing the conspirators without due process. Cicero appealed, but the consuls were in Clodius’ pocket and mobs waited to uphold the guilty verdict with violence. Even Cicero's ally—and one of Rome's most powerful men—Gnaeus Pompey stood back.

Banished to Macedonia, his houses destroyed and lands dedicated to the goddess of Liberty, Cicero fell into a depression. In letters home, he despaired at the shame he had brought on his family. But people were sympathetic. Pompey needed Cicero back and had the new tribune, Milo, campaign for his return. Clodius’ thugs campaigned in opposition and days of street fighting ended only when Milo’s own gang guarded the senate while it voted for Cicero’s recall. Clodius cast the only vote against.

5. Ovid 

Exiled to: Tomis, 8 CE
Cause: He wouldn’t say
Recalled: Never

Getting kicked out of Rome was bad enough. Worse, sometimes, was where you ended up.

Ovid, a man about town and a poet with no political motivations, loved Rome for Rome. Famed for erotic poetry, he ran up against moral reforms that Augustus enacted. However, this might have been a smokescreen to punish Ovid for a less tangible “mistake.” Ovid writes it was not a crime but more of a "fault" that greatly offended Augustus and that it was not safe to talk about. Scholars agree it was something he saw or heard, perhaps entangled with Augustus' family life.

Tomis, a coastal town on the Black Sea, was wild and untamed. A rural exile for an urbane man was a twisted punishment. Ovid missed Rome's vines and orchards.

Technically, Ovid was not fully exiled, just “relegated,” but still able to keep his property. He left his wife in Rome to manage their estate and he addressed poetry to Augustus asking to be forgiven. Augustus was unmoved by his verse.

His early work was stripped from public libraries and his exile poetry was circulated privately. His most famous poem completed in exile, the Metamorphoses, ends, "wherever Roman might extends ... in my fame forever I will live."

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
technology
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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iStock
Animals
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Scientists Think They Know How Whales Got So Big
May 24, 2017
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iStock

It can be difficult to understand how enormous the blue whale—the largest animal to ever exist—really is. The mammal can measure up to 105 feet long, have a tongue that can weigh as much as an elephant, and have a massive, golf cart–sized heart powering a 200-ton frame. But while the blue whale might currently be the Andre the Giant of the sea, it wasn’t always so imposing.

For the majority of the 30 million years that baleen whales (the blue whale is one) have occupied the Earth, the mammals usually topped off at roughly 30 feet in length. It wasn’t until about 3 million years ago that the clade of whales experienced an evolutionary growth spurt, tripling in size. And scientists haven’t had any concrete idea why, Wired reports.

A study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B might help change that. Researchers examined fossil records and studied phylogenetic models (evolutionary relationships) among baleen whales, and found some evidence that climate change may have been the catalyst for turning the large animals into behemoths.

As the ice ages wore on and oceans were receiving nutrient-rich runoff, the whales encountered an increasing number of krill—the small, shrimp-like creatures that provided a food source—resulting from upwelling waters. The more they ate, the more they grew, and their bodies adapted over time. Their mouths grew larger and their fat stores increased, helping them to fuel longer migrations to additional food-enriched areas. Today blue whales eat up to four tons of krill every day.

If climate change set the ancestors of the blue whale on the path to its enormous size today, the study invites the question of what it might do to them in the future. Changes in ocean currents or temperature could alter the amount of available nutrients to whales, cutting off their food supply. With demand for whale oil in the 1900s having already dented their numbers, scientists are hoping that further shifts in their oceanic ecosystem won’t relegate them to history.

[h/t Wired]

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