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.