Tuesday, December 4, 2007

The Plague

[Norman F. Cantor taught at Princeton, the University of Chicago, and several other universities. The following is from his book about the Plague:] In the England of 1500 children were singing a rhyme and playing a game called "Ring Around the Rosies." Children holding hands in a circle still move around and sing:

Ring around the rosies
A pocketful of posies
Ashes, ashes
We all fall down

The origin of the rhyme is the flu-like symptoms, skin discoloring, and mortality caused by bubonic plague. The children were reflecting society's efforts to repress memory of the Black Death of 1348-49 and its lesser aftershocks. Children's games were - or used to be - a reflection of adult anxieties and efforts to pacify feelings of fright and concern at some devastating event. So say the folklorists and psychiatrists.

The meaning of the rhyme is that life is unimaginably beautiful - and the reality can be unbearably horrible.

In the late fourteenth century a London cleric, who previously served in a rural parish and who is known to us as William Langland, made severe reference to the impact of infectious diseases "pocks" (smallpox) and "pestilence" (plague) in Piers Plowman, a long, disorganized, and occasionally eloquent spiritual epic. As translated by Siegfried Wenzel:

So Nature killed many through corruptions,
Death came driving after her and dashed all to dust,
Kings and knights, emperors and popes;
He left no man standing, whether learned or ignorant;
Whatever he hit stirred never afterwards.
Many a lovely lady and their lover-knights
Swooned and died in sorrow of Death's blows....
For God is deaf nowadays and will not hear us,
And for our guilt he grinds good men to dust.

The playing children, arms joined in a circle and singing "Ring Around," and the gloomy, anguished London priest were each in their distinctive ways trying to come to psychological terms with an incomparable biomedical disaster that had struck England and most of Europe.

The Black Death of 1348-49 was the greatest biomedical disaster in European and possibly in world history.

A third at least of Western Europe's population died in what contemporaries called "the pestilence" (the term the Black Death was not invented until after 1800). This meant that somewhere around twenty million people died of the pestilence from 1347 to 1350. The so-called Spanish influenza epidemic of 1918 killed possibly fifty million people worldwide. But the mortality rate in proportion to total population was obviously relatively small compared to the impact of the Black Death - between 30 percent and 50 percent of Europe's population.

The Black Death affected most parts of the Mediterranean world and Western Europe. Some historians believe that the Black Death, which reached Sweden by 1350, caused an era of intense pessimism and widespread feelings of dread and futility. Others see that people rose to the occasion, nobly enduring hardship and danger, to see that their communities survived. After the devastation, the core of the civilization had been preserved, and new creativity could be based on it.

But the great medical devastation hit no country harder than England in 1348-49 and because of the rich documentation surviving on fourteenth-century England it is in that country that we can best examine its personal and social impact in detail. Furthermore, there were at least three waves of the Black Death falling upon England over the century following 1350, nowhere near as severe as the cataclysm of the late 1340s, whose severity was unique in human history. But the succeeding outbreaks generated a high mortality nonetheless.

The Effect of the Crusades on European Civilization

Much is said and written about the Crusades - and some of it is even true! We may note three phases: from 637 A.D. (Islamic armies conquer Jerusalem) until 1095 A.D., there is a period of unchallenged Muslim military expansion, included the invasion and sacking of Spanish cities, and southwestern France. The second period would start in 1098 (the beginning of the first Crusade) and end in 1250 (the end of significant Crusades); this would be the phase of counter-attack by Europe in response to the first phase. The third and final phase would begin in 1250 (the last serious attempt to settle or calm the source of attacks on Europe; after this, the aggression toward Europe, displayed prior to the beginning of the first Crusade in 1098, reappears.

But what is the cultural legacy of the Crusades? In a book entitled The Humanities in the Western Tradition, written jointly by The City University of New York and The University of Akron, the authors note that an important architectural example, "the cathedral Santiago de Compostela ... was destroyed by Muslims in 997." Much valuable artwork was lost in the Islamic attacks on Europe, attacks to which the Crusades were a response.

The same book notes that the scientific, philosophical, mathematical, and political developments of Europe would have been lost "if the Arabs had been able to break through Byzantine defenses and advance into eastern Europe." Imagine - no calculus, no modern physics, and no theory of government resting upon equal participation and freedom of expression!

If Europe had not been defended, history would indeed be very different!

Monday, November 26, 2007

The Empire's Last Chance

The emperor Theodosius is known as "Theodosius the Great" for several reasons, but his fame rests largely on the fact that his rule was a turning point in history. He was the last Roman Emperor to rule over a united empire. After his death, it split permanently, east and west.

For over a hundred years prior to Theodosius, there had been a continuous tension between the eastern and the western ends of the territory. It split temporarily several times, and was reunited by various leaders. Theodosius worked to create unity, but it did not last.

He faced a number of difficulties: First the Goths, a Germanic tribe from the north, proved beyond any doubt their military superiority to the Romans. Theodosius was forced to allow the Goths to settle inside Roman borders, but they retained their own government in these settlements: a clear weakening of Roman sovereignty.

Secondly, there were civil wars lead by competing Roman politicians; these used up precious resources, and further weakened the credibility of the imperial government.

Thirdly, paganism threatened to make a comeback. Christianity had been growing steadily, but when Theodosius's co-emperor was murdered, suspicion fell onto polytheists as the possible assassins. When a pagan was appointed to replace the fallen co-emperor, it was clear that the polytheists were planning a comeback. Eager to avoid a return to human sacrifice, the ceremonial raping of young virgin girls, and other cruel practices of the pagans, Theodosius began to officially encourage Christianity. He stopped allowing imperial money to be used for pagan ceremonies.

The most powerful contribution to both peace and unity during his reign was Theodosius's support of the Council of Nicaea. This boosting of social harmony would be the Roman Empire's last chance. He died in 395 A.D.


When we study the early cultures of the Ancient Near East, we learn that many of them were Semitic - just as many cultures in that same location today are Semitic. But what is Semitic?

First of all, let's clarify a common misunderstanding: "Semitic" is not another word for "Jewish"! Some people use "anti-Semitic" to mean "anti-Jewish," but those two terms actually have different meanings. For example, an Arab is a Semite, and therefore an Arab cannot be anti-Semitic, however much he may hate Jews.

All the cultures which are Semitic share a common cultural base, including linguistic elements and artistic traditions - music, stories, food, clothing, etc.

There was once only one group of Semitic people: scientists call this "Ur-Semitic" or "Proto-Semitic," and gradually, over time, this group broke into smaller groups: Arabs, Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Ethiopians, Hebrews, Canaanites, Phoenicians, Urgaritic, Aramaic, and Akkadian. These are the Semitic groups, in ancient times, as well as now. To this day, there are similarities between the Hebrew and Arabic languages.

Important to note are those groups which are not Semitic, and therefore are closely related to European languages like German and Russian: Hittite, Sanskrit, and Persian. Modern-day Iranians are Persians, not Arabs, and therefore not Semitic.

Understanding who's Semitic and who's Indo-European will help you understand the dynamics of the Ancient Near East, and perhaps also the Modern Near East!

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Marcus - or Not

The Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius wrote his book of philosophy, which was not really widely read or published until long after this death in 180 A.D. It has become popular, and is a clear example of late Stoic philosophical writing. Some college students even claim it as a source of personal inspiration! There is no doubt that the book is entertaining, and is, in any case, by far the most well-liked piece of writing by a Roman emperor. Who would have thought that, nearly two thousand years after his death, Americans would be buying thousands of copies of his book? And mainly people who are not students, and not assigned to read him by a teacher or professor!

Yet, despite his "best-seller" status, we label him as "historically insignificant"! Why? In the line of Roman emperors, he either represents no clear turning point, or, at most, a negative turning point, inasmuch as his successor and son was generally regarded as a far worse emperor than he. During the reign of Marcus Aurelius, the empire neither contracted nor expanded in a major way, nor did the nature of the Roman government alter itself perceptibly. For most of his reign, he was not in Rome, but rather in the provinces, mainly in Gaul, fighting with his army against various tribes. In the big picture of Roman history, he was the proverbial "blip on the screen."

Although historically insignificant, he was, however, philosophically significant. His book is the latest clear statement we have of Stoicism, before it ceased to be a belief system with any significant number of followers.

Given his prominent role in the history of Stoicism, it is worth comparing his life to his actions: how well does a life, the last twenty years of which were devoted to nearly constant warfare and to routinely signing execution orders for the thousands of Christians who were being put to death, match up with the sagely calmness of his book?

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Variety is the Spice of Life!

As we study the numerous and significant ways in which religious beliefs direct the flow of historical events, it is always important to look at the subtle distinctions within belief systems.

In the ancient world, we can't merely make generalizations about Jews, because two thousand years ago, we find several differing currents within Jewish though. There were Pharisee, Essene, Zealot, and Sadducee groups. To complicate matters further, recall that Christianity was, at first, regarding as simply another type of Judaism.

Among the Christians, we find by the early 400's A.D. that quite distinct forms of Christianity arose. Thus we have a Coptic Church in Egypt, a Syriac Church, a Chaldean Church in Babylonia, and a powerful and well-developed Persian Church in what is now Iran.

The same is true today: among modern Jews we find Orthodox, Hasidim, Lubavitcher, Satmar, Breslov, Conservative, Reform, and Messianic. Among Christians, we see Lutherans, Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, and many other groupings.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Pliny and Trajan

As you review the passage, note the tone with which Pliny addresses Trajan; note the calmness with which Pliny states that he has executed and tortured Christians; note his distaste for the idea that, among the Christians, a female slave might obtain a position of authority over free male Roman citizens; note Trajan's affirmation of what Pliny has done.

As you read Marcus Aurelius, note his tone, in contrast with the constant military conflict in which he lived most of his life, and in contrast with the orders he issued to have thousands of people, including women and children, executed for being Christians.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Cicero and Natural Rights

Cicero writings show us that he had studied Aristotle, Polybius, and Zeno of Citium. Cicero also gave us one of the first clear statements of Natural Law theory. But his texts also present us with some questions:

Was Cicero a stoic, or did he merely report stoic ideas?
What, exactly, is stoicism?
Did stoicism have any significant influence in Roman society, or is it simply frequently mentioned?

Understanding the difference between discovered objective Natural Law and legislated subjective Civil Law, and the accompanying difference between Civil Rights of Citizens and Natural Rights of all humans, will be the key to understanding the lasting influence of Natural Law Theory, including the present day.

Saturday, November 3, 2007


How unusual, that a Greek aristocrat, captured and enslaved, would write a book praising the city and empire into which he was taken - yet that is precisely what Polybius does, and in the process offers us a detailed description of the Roman government. He outlines the three branches of the Republican government, and tells us what each one does, and how they balance each other in terms of power.

He also offers a prediction of the forces which will ultimately bring down the Republic. Internal issues, not external attacks, will be the end of this structure.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Aristotle's Politics

Because Aristotle sees society as being built out of small units of human relationships, he also sees the problems of society as being the problems of these individual relationships.

Because a large nation is composed of many parent/child units, many man/woman units, and many employer/employee units, if something starts to go wrong with the way people treat each other in those settings, it will be a problem for all of the nation. Specifically, for Aristotle, three problems that can affect society are: divorce, adultery, and illegitimacy. A marriage is a contract, a covenant, a working relationship, and a promise: if people do not fulfill their commitments to treat each other well, and to care about each other, then not only will the marriage suffer, but society as a whole will suffer, and if there are too many divorces, it will be a serious problem for the nation. Adultery is a failure to be faithful to one's spouse: too much of it will bring down a nation. If a child is born illegitimately, not only will the child face hardships, but the energy of the nation will be partially spent trying to rectify the situation, and that energy will not be available for other needs.

Remember that Aristotle discovers these principles as natural laws, like the laws of chemistry and physics. Human societies all start as monarchies, and the human tendency toward forming a state is simply part of natural human growth.

Monday, October 1, 2007


Thucydides holds up two scenes for us: a speech by Pericles and a record of discussions between a delegation of Athenians and a delegation from the island of Melos.

The speech by Pericles is complex: on the one hand, he mainly makes some attempt to paint the Athenians with an element of the moral high ground, but on the other hand, he occasionally also lets some of their merciless aggression show. One certainly gains the impression that he is doing his best to present Athens as noble, and he uses the words "virtue" and "virtues" a number of times. The matter is compounded by the fact that he is giving this speech at a funeral during the Peloponnesian War, which the Athenians can hardly paint with the brush of ethical righteousness: if Athens wins this war, it means that they can continue the financial exploitation of the other Hellenic communities.

The record of the negotiations with the island of Melos is more direct in showing the Athenian motives: the Athenian diplomats - one is tempted to call them thugs - begin by saying that they're not even interested in discussion justice, and acknowledging that their aggression against Melos is largely unprovoked. The Athenians will make no effort to justify their actions, they simply point to their military superiority and make demands.

Thucydides presents us with both events; he wants us to wrestle with the contrasts between the high-sounding attempts by Pericles to paint Athens with a virtuous brush, and the blunt reality of the military annexation of Melos.