Chockablock with History

ON THE WINE DARK IONIAN SEA – We drove from Palermo to Agrigento, thence to Syracuse and finally Catania. This was a quick visit to Sicily, not enough to learn very much.

Sicily is complex. It deserves time. If we had more, we would rent an apartment and get to know it better. But now we are on a ship, headed to the Greek island of Santorini.

 

mediterranean

 

mediterranean 2Mediterranean views…

Photo credit: fmh

 

We’re back-tracking the route perhaps used 2,800 years ago by the Greek settlers who colonized Sicily in the eighth century B.C. They set up shop at Syracuse and spread all over the island. A few decades later, they were fighting for their lives against the Carthaginians

Then, in 264 B.C., it was the Romans who aimed to take over. It was the nearly 50-year-long battle against the Romans that displayed the full range of the classical era’s greatest genius – Archimedes.

 

Roman_conquest_of_ItalyWhen Rome conquered Italy – shortly after sending Phyrrus of Epirus (yes, that Phyrrus) packing, the Romans started their first war with Carthage, which at the time controlled most of Sicily, but had been weakened considerably by Phyrrus’ Sicilian excursion (Phyrrus wanted everything, and got nothing in the end). Rome finally managed to grab Sicily in the 2nd Punic war in 218 BC – click to enlarge.

 

A stone fortress sits at the edge of the Isola Ortigia, guarding the entrance to Syracuse’s harbor. To take the town, the Romans had to dislodge the Syracusans, including Archimedes, from the fort. It wasn’t easy, because Archimedes invented novel machines – such as “the claw” and the “heat ray.”

“The claw” was mounted on a giant crane. It reached over the walls of the fortress and lifted Roman ships up out of the water, dropping them so they broke up on the rocks. The “heat ray” consisted of a series of mirrors that focused the sun’s rays on the Roman ships’ sails, causing them to burst into flames.

 

$_57The claw of Archimedes in action at Syracuse, 264 BC. The contraption was used to hook and overturn attacking Roman ships.

Image by Giulio Parigi

 

Recent tests have found it difficult to reproduce Archimedes’ results, making us wonder if the reports of his genius were not exaggerated. Despite Archimedes’ innovations, the Syracusans lost the battle after a two-year siege.

According to legend, Archimedes was so lost in his thoughts, pondering the significance of circles, that he didn’t even notice the Roman soldier who advanced to kill him. Sicily is chockablock with history. And prehistory. If we were in the mood for it, we would take the time to dig deeper into it.

 

archimedesAs the story goes, one fine morning in Syracuse, Archimedes was busy drawing circles in the sand and thinking about new death-ray machines he could build to foil Rome’s invasion plans, when a Roman soldier entered his abode and thoughtlessly stepped on his drawings. Archimedes was not pleased and complained, upon which the brute killed him. Archimedes reportedly told him: “μὴ μου τοὺς κύκλους τάραττε!” (Mē mou tous kuklous taratte!). The Roman soldier probably didn’t understand him. Archimedes should have said “Noli turbare circulos meos” – who knows, if he had done that, he might have lived.

 

A Better Life

Houses are cheap in Sicily’s forgotten mountain towns. Food and wine are cheap too – and plentiful. We’ve been wondering about how we could live better on just $500 a month. And our briefpériple in Sicily reminded us of how taste and style figure so largely in what is “better.”

An apartment in the town of Piazza Armerina, where you could dine on the plaza… hear the bells of Sant’Anna… and discover Sicilian culture, history, and the unique Lombard dialect – would that be better than living in a motor home in a Walmart lot?

 

piazza armerinaThe village of Piazza Armerina in Sicily.

Photo via esplorasicilia.com

 

It depends. Our aim is to live better. An obvious way to live better is to live in a better place and eat better. Of course, “better place” can mean a lot of different things to different people. Some will want to live near the sea; others will want to live in the mountains. Some will favor the suburbs; others will prefer city life.

De gustibus non est disputandum, as the Romans said. You can’t argue about tastes.

 

A Simple and Easy Idea

But one idea seems simple and easy. At least to us. In theory, it must be possible to buy small farms in many parts of the U.S. for just $30,000. If so, we could buy one if we could save $500 a month for five years. Or financed at 5% – this is only about $150 a month.

But when we looked to see what we could find for that price in West Virginia, we found almost nothing of interest. Most everything that was interesting (to us) was about $150,000.

 

virginiaAn old farmhouse in West Virginia

Photo credit: Bud or Dell

 

So, either we already have some capital available… or that idea won’t work. Even if we saved $500 a month for five years and used that money for a down payment, assuming we could get something for $130,000, that would leave us with a $100,000 mortgage. Too much for a $500-a-month budget.

But if you can swing the purchase, then you have an environment that you can control. Many of the small farms you will find are isolated. Many are surrounded by natural beauty. Many have old farmhouses that can be fixed up to match your tastes. (It helps if you are handy!)

 

Trading Up

Put in a wood stove and fireplaces for heat. Build a greenhouse onto the main house for heat and food. Plant a garden. Create an orchard. Make sure you have an Internet connection and learn to preserve food by canning, drying, and freezing. Raise a pig. Keep a cow. Bees. Rabbits. Chickens. Buy an old pickup truck.

You will develop calluses. But they may be happy calluses – the kind you get from doing things that you like doing. Property taxes on the little farms we looked at were only $300 to $500 a year. Some come with free natural gas. Almost all have substantial timber. Your food and utility costs could go down to almost zero.

Would your quality of life go up? Or down? In our imagination, it could take a big leap upward. No more planes to catch. No more Terminus Nord in Paris. And say goodbye to the Charlotte Street Hotel in London.

Oh, and cruise ships in the Mediterranean? No chance. In exchange, we get a life of quiet labor and calm routine. Like Diocletian, who gave up power in Rome to grow cabbages in Split, we think we might be trading up.

 

diocletian-palace-split-croatia1Emperor Diocletian’s retirement den in Split.

Photo credit: Armand Rroshi

Image captions by PT

 

The above article originally appeared at the Diary of a Rogue Economist, written for Bonner & Partners. Bill Bonner founded Agora, Inc in 1978. It has since grown into one of the largest independent newsletter publishing companies in the world. He has also written three New York Times bestselling books, Financial Reckoning Day, Empire of Debt and Mobs, Messiahs and Markets.

 

 

 

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One Response to “A Simple Recipe for Living Better for Less (Not for Everyone) …”

  • wmbean:

    Can one achieve happiness and quality of life on $500 a month? Well, that assumes one can define quality of life in a way that allows one to achieve it. I think you glossed over a couple of points in your posts. What should be obvious is that living in metropolitan or urban areas, including suburbs, requires a sufficient income stream to cover the expenses of living in that area. One need not buy property, a house, apartment, so long as one can afford the rent and the other expenses of living in that situation.

    The other point is that in order to live in the “country” or more rural areas, one must make an investment in a property asset. Small towns with populations under ten thousand have few rental units available and as one might surmise, the going rate is determined by the demand. Hence, while one may need a reduced income stream in a small town, one still needs the minimum asset investment.

    What does this mean to those individuals who may fine their investments greatly reduced and income streams severely curtailed? It is too expensive to stay in the city and yet the asset based entry to rural living may be too high a barrier. And the more individuals swo seek the return to the rural areas the higher that demand will push asset prices. Existence comes before quality of life.

    You have provided many with some food for thought.

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