Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Ancient and Beyond Ancient

When we read history, our sense of temporal distance can become distorted. Didn’t Julius Caesar have lunch with Hammurabi?

The Greeks and the Romans flourished over a series of centuries. One hinge of classical history is the morphing, around 27 BC, of the Roman Republic into the Roman Empire. The Greeks started getting attention when Homer wrote his two major works around 750 BC.

Just as we look back 2,000 years to see Roman history, the “ancients” - the Greeks and the Romans themselves - looked back equally far to see civilizations which predated them by the same amount of time.

Between 2334 and 2279 BC, a leader named Sargon united the regions of Akkad and Sumer and thereby founded an empire. The empire later became known as Babylonia, and its capital city was Babylon. In Sargon’s era, these names were probably not yet widely used.

The city of Babylon is mentioned already in the 23rd century BC, but only years later did it rise to prominence. As historians Joachim Marzahn and Klaudia Englund write,

When Athens flourished, Babylon was but a provincial town; the desire of Alexander the Great as ruler of Asia to make the city once more the capital of an empire was thwarted by his untimely death; when the Roman legions conquered Europe, its name was scarcely remembered. The tradition passed on derived for the most part from the Bible and was all but praiseworthy: “The Babylonian Whore”. The city became a symbol of vice and lechery. For a long time Europe only knew this image. Yet Babylon was once a thriving metropolis, situated on the navigable Euphrates, in the midst of abundant fields and palm gardens. It was the center of international trade and of specialized industries, the abode of the god Marduk and his powerful priesthood, as well as the seat of political power of an empire comparable to that of the Romans. Our knowledge of these facts only became available when, in the 19th century, excavations commenced in the Near East.

While Babylon represented a high degree of civilization, it also remained a human and therefore essentially flawed society. While assembling complex legal, economic, and scientific patterns, it also displayed, along with best of human efforts, the baser side of human nature, as John Noble Wilford writes:

A new examination of skulls from the royal cemetery at Ur, discovered in Iraq almost a century ago, appears to support a more grisly interpretation than before of human sacrifices associated with elite burials in ancient Mesopotamia, archaeologists say.

Thomas Cahill notes:

We do know that human sacrifice was not beyond the Sumerians.

To contextualize this data, however, it’s worth noting that human sacrifice was part of every known civilization at that time.

By the time the city of Rome was founded around 753 BC, Babylon was well over a thousand years old. By the time the Roman Republic was founded around 509 BC, it was almost two thousand years old - or possibly older; the data is unclear. By the time the Roman Empire began, Babylon was an insignificant town.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Alaric Outwits Rome: the Goths Arrive

Could someone live during the decline and fall of the Roman Empire and not know it? The large contours of history are always clearer in hindsight.

Perhaps those living in the empire during its last days assumed that they were experiencing merely a temporary setback, and that there was still a chance for the empire to revive itself.

Thus it came to many as a surprise when the Goths, led by Alaric, attacked and sacked the city of Rome in 410 A.D.

Alaric led the Visigoths - the western Goths in contrast to the Ostrogoths - and conquered much of the Italian peninsula. Alaric understood that the key to holding Roman territories would be controlling Africa, and the shipping to and from Africa, because Rome had become dependent on imported food.

Rome’s economy had undermined domestic food production, and Alaric understood how the interplay between military strategy and economic strategy would enable him to consolidate his hold on Rome.

Sadly, Alaric died before he could complete his conquest of Rome.

A generation after Alaric, Theodoric, leader of the Ostrogoths, would see the final fall of the Roman Empire. Wealth and a sense of security weakened the Romans.

The Goths eventually bested the Romans because the Goths were continually innovative, living by their wits, with no historical momentum behind their empire.

Lulled by their tradition of success, the Romans awoke too late to the fact that the Goths were competing with them. Historian Thomas Cahill writes:

Though it is easy for us to perceive the wild instability of the Roman Imperium in its final days, it was not easy for the Romans. Rome, the Eternal City, had been untouched since the Celts of Gaul had sacked it by surprise in 390 B.C. In the ensuing eight centuries Rome built itself into the world’s only superpower, unassailable save for the occasional war on a distant border. The Gauls had long since become civilized Romans, and Rome offered the same Romanization to anyone who wanted it - sometimes, as with the Jews, whether they wanted it or not. Normally, though, everyone was dying to be Roman. As Theodoric, the homely king of the Ostrogoths, was fond of saying: “An able Goth wants to be like a Roman; only a poor Roman would want to be like a Goth.”

Rome’s continuous centuries of hegemony may have been its undoing. The Goths were more ambitious.

After taking from the Romans their gold, silver, and other treasures, Alaric required them to free their slaves: their “barbarian” slaves. The Romans had derisively called the Germanic tribes “barbarians” - the Goths, and other less famous groups like the Cimbri and Cherusci - but now the Germanic tacticians had outwitted the Romans.

The leaders of the Roman senate, seeing all that they had lost to Alaric, asked him, “What will you leave us?”

Alaric’s historic answer: “Your lives.”

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Byzantium Besieged

Centuries before the Crusades (they began around 1095 A.D.) and even decades before the Islamic invasion of Spain (that was in 711 A.D.) the newly-minted Muslim armies were on the march.

Muhammad died in 632 A.D., and even before his death, Islamic invasions were conquering large parts of the ANE (Ancient Near East). After his death, the Muslim military continued to gain new territory.

Due to their superior horsemanship and swordsmanship, the Muslims managed to expand their empire - their ‘caliphate’ - rapidly. They moved westward, conquering large parts of northern Africa. They advanced toward the northeast, defeating Syria and moving into Persia.

Islam next set its eyes on Europe. Historian Rodney Stark writes:

Having defeated the Byzantine armies in Syria and Egypt, and having begun a successful campaign to conquer the entire north coast of Africa from Byzantium, in 672 the caliph Muawiyah decided to strike directly at his enemy. From his new capital in Damascus, the caliph directed his fleet to transport an army through the Dardanelles (the narrow strait linking the Mediterranean Sea with the Sea of Marmara). Numbering about fifty thousand men, the caliph’s troops captured the peninsula of Cyzicus, across the water from Constantinople, and fortified it as their principle base, from where they began a siege of Constantinople.

This siege, from the principal base across the water, was unsuccessful.

After this attack in 672 A.D., the Muslims tried again in 717. Defeated but persevering, they assaulted the city of Constantinople again in 718. In fact, Islam assailed the city repeatedly for several centuries. It finally fell in 1453.

The assaults on Constantinople were part of a three-front strategy. Islam hoped to stretch Europe’s defenses thin by striking from the southwest at Spain, from the south at Italy and Sicily, and from the southeast at Constantinople.

This left Europe with thousands of miles of coastline to defend: a difficult task at best, if not simply impossible.

After enduring decades of attack all along the Mediterranean south, and offering ad hoc defenses, Europe decided to organize a strategic counterattack: to stop the invasions at their source in the Middle East, rather than wait for Islamic armies to arrive yet once again on European shores.

This defensive counterattack would be called ‘The Crusades,’ but that title would not be given to it until centuries after it happened in 1095 A.D.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Reflections on the Middle Ages

Feudalism, which was the political system for most of the Middle Ages, provided advantages over the system which had prevailed in western and southern Europe during the Roman Empire. The imperial system had been centralized; power was distant, difficult to influence, and consolidated in the hands of a few people.

By contrast, feudalism was localized, so that one could meet face-to-face with those who managed the estates. Power was distributed among many estates, so that no one individual had much of it.

Impressively, feudalism created a structure with mutual obligations: the serfs, the common farmers at the bottom of the social structure, owed certain duties to their lords, but the lords also had certain responsibilities toward the serfs.

The economic system which paralleled feudalism was manorialism. Feudalism and manorialism are inseparable. Manorialism contained the economic analogues to feudalism’s political advantages of a decentralized, localized, flexible system in which the greater answered to the weaker as much as the serfs answered to their lords.

This was unlike the old Roman empire, in which those at the bottom owed a great deal to those at the top, but those at the top owed nothing to those beneath them. Historian Irma Simonton Black writes:

Since the distances from castle to castle were so great, each large estate had to be maintained separately, and the people living there relied on each other. Everyone, from the lowliest serf to the lord of the castle, had his own duties. They welcomed exciting diversions, like tournaments.

There was a diversity of Christian churches around the world: Coptic, Syriac, and others. In Europe, until 1054 A.D., “there was only one Christian church.” After that year, eastern Europe and western Europe each had its own type of church.

Almost every small town or village had its own church, and larger towns had several. Aside from churches, monasteries were major institutions for both learning and social services. “Monks, who dedicated their lives to God,” were responsible for copying by hand the manuscripts which preserved the literature and philosophy of the ancient Greeks and Romans.

Because these monks were extremely familiar with texts by authors like Aristotle, Plato, and Cicero, monasteries became the home to mathematics, physics, and philosophy. Monks had detailed discussions of these and other academic topics. During the centuries we call ‘the Middle Ages,’ monks developed more advanced forms of logic, mathematics, astronomy, and physics.

The monks, who “lived in peaceful monasteries,” were also responsible for helping the poor. People who had no food or clothing, and couldn’t otherwise earn any, received these things at monasteries. The monks “tended gardens and went about a wide variety of spiritual and temporal duties.” The monasteries additionally provided employment and a place to live for homeless individuals and families.

Not everyone who lived or worked in a monastery was a monk. Many ordinary people were employed there. They were given houses in which to live and fields in which to grow crops.

It is difficult to mark a precise beginning point or ending point for the Middle Ages. A convenient starting point is the fall of the western Roman Empire in 476 A.D.; an endpoint is much less clear.

The end of the Middle Ages is often thought to be the beginning of the Renaissance, but that is equally ambiguous. Some historians mark the end of the Middle Ages as the time when Petrarch’s career reached its height, around 1341. Others see the rise of the printing press, around 1453, or Islam’s destruction of the city of Constantinople at about the same time, as the endpoint of the Middle Ages.

The reason it’s difficult to find exact dates for the Middle Ages is because this “age” is not a real or concrete historical event. It is a “construct” - an idea made up by later generations. Like most types of generalizations, then, it is difficult to pin down, liable to exceptions, and subject to competing interpretations.

Life on the great estates and in the monasteries went on as it had for many centuries, but very gradually a few things began to change. By the end of the Middle Ages, a new and powerful middle class had appeared in the fast-growing towns: one example of the progress made toward modern times during this very important period.

The economic developments of the Middle Ages - the rise of a cash economy to replace bartering and payments “in kind,” the emergence of the middle class, and the organization of skilled craftsmen into guilds - as well as the technological innovations like the printing press arose from the creativity fostered by the spiritual atmosphere of the times. Irma Simonton Black writes:

Inside the abbeys, monasteries and convents of the Roman Catholic Church life was orderly and serene. Many religious establishments dotted the landscape of the Middle Ages, and the churchmen and churchwomen who inhabited them were directly subject to the great Holy Father, or Pope, in Rome. They lived by stringent rules which forbade fighting.

The monasteries brewed beer and made wine, selling some of it to nearby towns. Monks and nuns took vows of poverty, and most of them lived up to those vows. The monasteries, therefore, did not spend much money on luxuries, and could direct funds to create schools, build libraries, and help the poor.

Because most of the monks and nuns were also pacifists, the energy which might have been devoted to war was instead used for artistic and scientific progress. By the mid 800s, one monastic philosopher, Johannes Scotus Eriugena, was already directing doubt toward the old Ptolemaic view of the universe.

The Greek language was also kept alive in Medieval Europe, from Ireland to Saxony, among the monks. Although some historians felt that Greek learning had died out, it was in fact never disrupted: continuously from 476 A.D. onward, the texts of Plato and Aristotle were studied in their original language across Europe.

The Medieval synthesis was, then, a mixture of preserving and analyzing the classical Greco-Roman heritage on the one hand, and on the other hand advancing areas of study like physics and mathematics with new and original scholarship.

Roman learning was preserved in monasteries and abbeys. Monks copied books and kept brief accounts of important happenings. They wrote in Latin, the language of the scholars.

Monks often knew three or more languages: their native language along with Greek and Latin. “The monks also taught” in the schools of the monasteries. They helped “young people to read and write.” Although the schools started in the monasteries, they also soon were planted in larger towns, where they were called ‘cathedral schools’ because they were usually located in the central church of the region.

The word ‘catholic’ means universal: for centuries, there was only one type of church in any region of Europe. This is unlike the modern United States, where you can find many different types of church in each town: Methodist, Baptist, Lutheran, Episcopal, Presbyterian, etc.

The word “catholic” means general or universal, and the Catholic Church was just that for all the Christians of the Middle Ages, for they all belonged to one church.

Most of Europe was over 90% Christian, or at least more than 90% of the people in the region called themselves ‘Christian.’ The remaining people were Jewish. Relations between Christians and Jews in medieval Europe were varying. In some places and times, the two groups coexisted and even cooperated in a peaceful and friendly manner. In other situations, anti-Jewish hatred arose among those who called themselves Christians.

Islam first appeared in southwestern Europe around 711 A.D., when Muslim armies invaded and laid waste to parts of Spain. Similar incursions and plundering would take place in France and Italy, but Islam would not become a fixed presence in Europe until long after the Middle Ages.

Because Christianity had become legal only after 300 A.D., the Middle Ages was the first time that history had a chance to attempt to organize a society around the teachings of Jesus. There was a tension between the new patterns of life found among the Jesus followers on the one hand, and on the other hand that tendency toward selfishness and violence which had made itself apparent in the five or six thousand years of history leading up to the Middle Ages.

The conduct of the military was shaped by the spiritual outlook of those who were serious followers of Jesus:

The knights, for instance, who were the trained fighters of the day, were taught by the Church to respect God and defend the Christian faith, to protect the poor and weak. It was the Pope who proclaimed the Truce of God, which forbade all fighting on Saturdays and Sundays.

The ideal of protecting the poor and the weak was a medieval innovation. Even if it wasn’t carried out uniformly, it was a new concept in human civilization. The weekend ceasefire likewise was a humane attempt to reduce casualties and offer a chance for a diplomatically negotiated solution.

Most, but not all, knights conducted themselves in attempt to honor the ethic of Jesus - admittedly a difficult thing for a military man to do, given that Jesus was a pacifist who neither engaged in combat nor carried a sword. There was, however, at least the new thought of trying to introduce some humane aspect into the conduct of war: avoid harming civilians, women, and children; protect the weak and the poor.

Although “knights would sometimes disregard the Church’s commands,” this new sense of honor was unique among the world’s cultures. Medieval Europe’s sense of honor was a millennium earlier than Japan’s bushido and peculiarly more humane.

This sense of honor fits more naturally into civilian life than into the military. The feudal lords “recognized the Church as a peaceful influence in their world.” There were occasions, naturally, when it was necessary to correct or reform the Church itself, when it strayed away from the selfless pacifism which Jesus introduced. But, “in general, the nobles were willing to support the Church with money and gifts.”

Medieval Europe was a mixture of economic, political, and spiritual thoughts, trying sincerely but perhaps imperfectly to make a concrete social reality corresponding to its distinctive ethics of selflessness, pacificism, individual liberty, and a respect for human life.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Saving History

Columba Stewart is the executive director of Minnesota’s Hill Museum and Manuscript Library. He’s also been working diligently to preserve papyri, parchments, and other ancient texts in various Islamic nations, where the terrorist group “Islamic State” (ISIS) has destroying artifacts and historical manuscripts.

The “Islamic State” attempts to obliterate large segments of human history, claiming vaguely that it is either blasphemous or idolatrous. Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra and Gordon Govier interviewed Stewart and wrote:

The swift ISIS takeover in Iraq meant there was little time to hide thousands of documents, he said. Many have been destroyed.

Zylstra and Govier also interviewed Major Corine Wegener (U.S. Army), who’s been on the ground in the Middle East, leading efforts to preserve not only manuscripts, but also paintings and sculpture: the objects which ISIS works to destroy.

Terrorists from the “Islamic State” adhere to the Muslim belief that artistic images are idolatrous and should be destroyed. Major Weger works with networks of individuals attempting to preserve humanist treasures:

“I tell people, look to yourself and your family first,” Wegener said. “If you are still a caretaker of your collection and you see the opportunity where it looks like things are bad, you have to make that judgment call.”

Although there have been individual Muslim scholars over the centuries who’ve allowed for the possibility that artistic images are permissible, and there have been Muslim artists who’ve created paintings or sculptures, the mainstream of Islam in the Middle East has studiously avoided images. Accepted Muslim artists have kept to nonrepresentational and abstract forms: calligraphy and architecture.

Muslim artists who create representational art, and their artworks, have been safer in other parts of the world.

Meanwhile, the “Islamic State” has been equally happy to smash classical Greek and Roman sculptures, Buddhist sculptures, or Hindu sculptures. Hellenistic artworks, created in the wake of Alexander the Great, have been destroyed in large numbers.

Major Wegener leads the U.S. Committee of the Blue Shield, which she coordinates with the Association of National Committees of the Blue Shield and the International Committee of the Blue Shield:

Most stories of saved artifacts won’t come out until the conflict is over, she said. When Islamic extremists were threatening Timbuktu, Mali, in 2012, a local library curator created a system for smuggling more than 275,000 pages of priceless manuscripts by donkey, bicycle, or boat to the south of the country.

Both ordinary private citizens and officers in the U.S. Army work to preserve centuries and millennia of human history from the terrorists of the “Islamic State.”

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Your Language, Your Empire

Widespread imperial presence leads to the widespread adoption of the empire’s language for business and political purposes. The peak of an empire’s military and economic influence, however, regularly antedates the peak of the imperial language’s ubiquity.

Greek and Macedonian influence arguably reached its zenith sometime prior to 250 BC, but the Greek language would become most widespread a century or two later.

The Roman Empire arrived at its apogee well before 476 AD, but Latin usage, both written and spoken, continued to expand for several centuries afterward. More texts were composed, and more of them have survived, in Latin after 476 than before.

Visually, this phenomenon could be represented on a Cartesian plane. The horizontal axis shows time, and the vertical axis would represent intensity and geographical spread. Something approximating the familiar bell curve would map an empire’s political, military, and economic significance. A second curve, of similar shape, would mark the spread and use of that empire’s language. This second curve would be offset to the right, such that the peak of an empire’s geopolitical importance would occur temporally prior to the greatest spread and use of its language.

The spatial distribution, and frequency of use, of an empire’s language is still increasing when the empire itself is in decline.

The Spanish, French, and British empires were already in decline while the Spanish, French, and English were becoming increasingly widespread.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Aurelian Kills Followers of Jesus

During the years from 30 AD to 313 AD, the majority of the Jesus followers were located somewhere within the Roman Empire. The imperial government was bent on extinguishing the new belief, and persecuted the Jesus followers, arresting, jailing, beating, and killing them by the thousands and by the tens of thousands.

Why did the Roman officials feel so threatened by the Jesus followers? One reason, perhaps, is that they misunderstood this new group.

The words of Jesus included terms like ‘kingdom’ and ‘king’ and ‘judge’ and others which were prima facie political vocabulary. Jesus had used them, however, in a metaphorical sense. He claimed to have, e.g., a kingdom which was ‘not of this world.’ He was referring to an invisible and metaphysical kingdom.

Roman bureaucrats had no inclination or patience for parsing and interpreting the words of suspicious groups. The Jesus followers seemed like a potential political power movement, and should be eliminated.

Adding to the tension was the fact that the Jesus followers not only worshipped their own God, but that they refused to also worship the Roman gods. For the Romans, worship was not merely a personal preference, but rather a public civic gesture of national participation.

The importance of this civic religion to the Romans can be seen in the fact that they attributed sustained national defense to the Roman deities. The fact that many of the Romans didn’t believe in these gods and goddesses was not relevant to the fact that the Romans saw this communal practice as essential to the fabric of society.

The failure to honor the Roman deities was, in the eyes of the Romans, not a spiritual violation but rather a political one. The Roman officials didn’t care if you believed in their gods - because many of these officials themselves didn’t believe - but they cared greatly if you were willing to participate in communal festivities. Failure to thus participate was a rejection of the community. Historian Ernest Gottlieb Sihler writes:

This aloofness of the Christians, as we clearly see, was officially and by the foremost representative of Rome in that province branded as civil or political treason or sedition, treason in the underlying convictions, sedition in the practice of religious dissent and non-conformity with the rites of the commonwealth. When in 271 A.D. the Marcomanni had invaded northern Italy, the Emperor Aurelian sent orders to Rome to have the Sibylline books consulted, and the Senate subsequently recorded its official conviction, that the gods had aided the state in recognition of the sacrifices prescribed by the Sibylline records. Aurelian had inherited from his mother the cult of the Sun. To it at Rome he dedicated a huge temple with anniversary games and on one of his own coins antiquarians still read: “The Sun, Lord of the Roman Empire.”

Aurelian managed, according to most sources, to restore a level of stability to empire after it threatened to break into three separate empires in the mid 200s. He became emperor in 270 AD and solidified imperial unity.

The civic religion was part of Aurelian’s unification program. He instituted universal worship of the Roman sun god. Citizens were free to worship any of the other Roman deities alongside this sun god, but some acknowledgement of Sol Invictus was mandatory.

Aurelian’s effort to unify Roman society by means of civic religion intensified the already harsh persecution of Jesus followers.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Edmund Burke: Freedom, Prosperity, and Ethical Reflection

The thoughts and writings of Edmund Burke contain a complexity which prevents them from being simply categorized. While some historians want to dismiss him as a relativist, and other find him to be the founder of modern political conservatism, the reality is much more nuanced.

From the very beginning, Burke was not easily pigeonholed. His mother was an Irish Catholic, while his father was Anglican whose English family had settled in Ireland several generations earlier.

Burke cheered on the American Revolution of 1776, but despised the French Revolution of 1789, after his analysis found the two movements to be based on utterly different premises.

One of Burke’s theses was that tradition merits respect, and that those who respect it will find it advantageous. Burke did not want men to be slaves to tradition, but neither did he want them to cast it aside thoughtlessly - as he saw the leaders of the French Revolution do.

Burke predicted the outcome of the French Revolution, although he did not live to see it. He foresaw that, having demolished the monarchy, they revolutionaries would proceed to experiment with a series of various governmental forms, and to be satisfied with none of them.

Likewise, Burke criticized the British officials in India who did not stop to study or understand the traditions of the Hindus. They missed, Burke saw, a chance to decide judiciously which of them to keep.

In the course of reviewing William Byrne’s book about Burke, Daniel Foster writes:

A reform-minded, pragmatic British MP, he had expressed sympathy for the American Revolution, worked on behalf of the oppressed Catholics in Ireland, and stridently opposed the Crown’s imperial policies in India. So Thomas Paine, who’d assumed he had a natural ally in Burke, was perhaps understandably taken aback by Burke’s pique at the revolution in France in 1789, and his famed Reflections on the same. Similarly, though Burke was a Whig during most of his parliamentary career, he counted no less a figure than Samuel Johnson — who had called Whiggism “the negation of all principle” and japed that “the first Whig was the Devil” — as his good friend and admirer. Burke despised the programmatic fixity of “metaphysicians,” but wrote a treatise on aesthetics that influenced the young Immanuel Kant.

One way of understanding Burke’s hypothesis is that political liberty is dependent on personal self-discipline. Governments are tempted, or forced, to impose regulation on public and private life when citizens fail to conduct themselves rationally and ethically.

Burke was no anarchist, but he would agree with James Madison that “if men were angels, no government would be necessary.” From that axiom, Burke concludes that the closer men are, in their behavior, to angels, the less regulation the government will want or need to impose on them.

Burke encourages, then, a social and cultural structure which will save citizens from regulatory tyranny by encouraging appropriate behavior. Daniel Foster notes:

Ben Franklin wrote in 1787, a year of some moment, that “only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters.” In many ways, avoiding the latter consequence was the central preoccupation of the Anglo-Irish statesman and philosopher Edmund Burke, a Franklin contemporary.

The French Revolution, because it sought to destroy not only the government, but also the social and cultural order, was doomed to end in tyranny. The destruction of social and cultural structure will leave a vacuum. That vacuum will necessitate, or tempt, a government to impose order.

Thus, a revolution initiated as quest for freedom ended in a government whose totalitarian tendencies were limited only by the technology of the time. Foster continues:

There is much going on here. In the aftermath of the French Revolution, Burke saw the substitution of a cold and unmoored rationalism, novel in the worst sense of the word, for the body of mores and morals that had long held French civil life together.

Burke’s task, then, is to find a formula by which the traditional structures of society and culture can be reinforced so that the imposition of governmental regulations can be relaxed. A civilization with maximal socio-cultural edifice can enjoy minimal governmental intervention.

To this end, Burke encourages what he calls ‘prejudice.’ This word merits examination. Many readers in the early twenty-first century, shaped by several decades of debate about civil rights in the United States, have associated this word with injustice, racism, and other unpleasant phenomena. But in Burke’s day - he wrote this particular text in 1790 - the word had different connotations.

By ‘prejudice,’ Burke meant something along the lines of developing a moral instinct or refining and training one’s ethical judgment. By ‘prejudice,’ Burke meant bringing one’s education - one’s knowledge of tradition - to inform one’s judgment.

Between 1790 and 2015, the word ‘prejudice’ has changed its connotation significantly, and even its denotation somewhat. By ‘prejudice,’ Burke is asking the reader not to make decisions in a vacuum, not to make uninformed decisions, but rather to inform one’s decisions by the inherited wisdom of tradition. Daniel Foster phrases it this way:

Burke understands our moral faculty as an admixture of reason and sentiment. Healthy judgments of right and wrong come from an application of what he repeatedly calls “prejudices” — instincts, habits, virtues culturally inherited — aided by reason. White papers, economic models, and graduate seminars get you only so far. The rest requires the wisdom of “nations and … ages” (Burke’s words) that is all too often dismissed as (our words) “the conventional wisdom.”

Studying and internalizing one’s cultural heritage equips one to make ethical decisions. To discard, as the French Revolution did, social tradition creates a vacuum in which every decision must be made ex nihilo and ab initio. One is forced, morally speaking, to perpetually reinvent the wheel. If one must reinvent the wheel several times a day, then one will sometimes get it wrong.

Discarding all tradition, one throws the individual, stripped of all culture, intellectually naked and unequipped into a sea of moral dilemmas. Faced with the need to make decisions about what is permissible, what is obligatory, and what is forbidden - incest, prostitution, polygamy, slavery, defamation, libel, slander, greed, selfishness - the individual is forced to undertake a long and arduous moral inquiry, which at the least mires society in endless moral debate, and at worst creates endless pitfalls for making bad decisions.

By analogy, we do not ask a nurse or a physician to begin with a study of all known chemical elements when a solution is needed to sterilize medical instruments. We have already on hand a knowledge of which substances meet that need, and we have supplies of such substances. Likewise, we do not ask the individual to begin a thorough examination of all possible ethical axioms when faced with a practical decision in daily life. We have a supply of such things already on hand. Burke himself writes:

Prejudice is of ready application in the emergency; it previously engages the mind in a steady course of wisdom and virtue, and does not leave the man hesitating in the moment of decision, sceptical, puzzled, and unresolved. Prejudice renders a man’s virtue his habit; and not a series of unconnected acts. Through just prejudice, his duty becomes a part of his nature.

Burke argues that many different aspects of civilization owe their strength to inherited cultural tradition. Literature, he argues, depends on its predecessors - even that literature which makes its claim that it is a sharp break from the past.

Business and economics, Burke asserts, is no mere application of algebraic rules, but rather also depends on a social heritage. A thriving commercial environment, which offers income and opportunity freely, fairly, and equally to all its citizens, is possible only on the foundation of a cultural tradition.

Thus the French Revolution not only, in its attempt to create more freedom, ended up destroying freedom, but also, in its attempt to create prosperity and opportunity, ended up destroying economic opportunity for the lower classes. Burke does not criticize the noble desires of the French Revolution, but rather points out that its methods will bring about the precise opposite of those desires. Burke writes:

If, as I suspect, modern letters owe more than they are always willing to owe to ancient manners, so do other interests which we value full as much as they are worth. Even commerce, and trade, and manufacture, the gods of our economical politicians, are themselves perhaps but creatures; are themselves but effects, which as first causes, we choose to worship. They certainly grew under the same shade in which learning flourished. They too may decay with their natural protecting principles.

Burke’s vision is, then, one which empowers the individual to make ethical choices, and which one creates commercial prosperity accessible to all classes. Burke’s vision, unlike the failed French Revolution, is based on the solid tradition of cultural heritage.

Any endeavor toward freedom, ethical maturity, and economic opportunity will not only fail, but bring about its opposite - tyranny, moral confusion, and poverty - if it is not based in the inherited traditions of civilization.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Rome: Imperial Instability

Perhaps one mystery about the Roman Empire is not why it fell, but why it ever stood in the first place. In contrast to the Roman Republic, the empire contained within its very structure, or lack thereof, the seeds of its own destruction.

This inherent instability was crystallized in the question of succession. Because the empire was structured around the empty pretense of continuing the republican form and procedure, no clear procedure for, or line of, succession was codified.

The result was a built-in motive for assassinations, and an increased likelihood of power struggles, if not civil wars, between competing pretenders to the throne.

That there was never a smooth transition of power, and that an emperor ever died a natural death, is something of a marvel in these circumstances.

The system did apparently work to a limited extent for the first five emperors, whom historians treat together as the Julio-Claudian Dynasty. Of these first five, one was indisputably assassinated: Caligula. Nero committed suicide in order to avoid assassination. Of the remaining three - Octavian, Tiberius, and Claudius - the evidence is ambiguous as to whether their deaths were natural or contrived.

Despite the dubious causes of death, the mechanisms, if improvised, for the transitions of power functioned relatively smoothly, up until the death of Nero in 68 A.D.

After Nero’s death, Rome lived through “the year of four emperors,” as it is routinely called, and problem of succession emerged as one of the clear weaknesses of the imperial government.

This tumultuous pattern of succession would continue for many years, interrupted occasionally by bits of stability. Historian Ernest Gottleib Sihler describes the situation among the emperors of the early third century:

Caracalla, the cruel elder son of Septimius Severus, perished through Macrinus, commander of the Imperial Guard, in 217 A.D. In the very next year this short-lived Emperor was in turn slain while fleeing from the unspeakable Elagabalus, priest of the Sun and incarnation of every possible form of sexual depravity. This monster in turn was killed by his own praetorians after the world had endured him for four years, in 222 A.D. A nobler youth succeeded, known in history as Alexander Severus, but he, too, was done to death by his own troops, on the Rhine, in 235 A.D.

That the empire functioned for nearly five centuries is perhaps due to the efficiency of the civil service. The bureaucrats at the middle and lower levels kept the system running.

The instability in the succession process was matched by instability caused by powerful tribes who threatened the borders of the empire. The whole of these two problems was more their sum.

The attacking tribes created a need for a loyal and devoted military to defend the empire. But given the ambiguity about the emperor’s claim to sovereignty, such dedication was more difficult to find, instill, or call forth.

Ultimately, the emperors could rely only on the raw assertion of power to back up their claims to sovereignty. As long as they maintained the appearance of republican government - the senate met regularly throughout the centuries of the empire, even though its true power was microscopic - there could be no talk of dynastic succession or divine right. The emperors would also not tolerate the thought of being in any way confirmed or elected by the senate.

While the senate did formally declare some of the emperors to be emperor, this was again merely a formality for the sake of appearance.

Over the centuries of the empire, as Christianity went from being a ruthlessly persecuted underground movement to a legally accepted and acknowledged part of Roman society, the cultural impact of belief also impacted the power structure.

Historians diverge on the question of how the new faith affected Roman civilization: did it strengthen it or weaken it? Professor Sihler writes:

After this the emperors, one and all, were simply military pretenders, creatures of their own legions. None of them succeeded in establishing a dynasty. Persians, Goths, Sarmatians, Franks, Alemanni, began to overrun the frontier provinces of the Empire, the integrity of which was more and more threatened by its vastness. At the same time the inner unity and loyalty of the subjects were felt by the Roman officials to be gravely impaired by the aloofness of the religious sect ever growing at the cost of the idolatrous nations - felt perhaps by some statesmen of Rome to be a state within the state - the Christian church, an element of disintegration.

On the one hand, as Sihler notes, the followers of Jesus were perhaps at times less inclined to invest themselves fully in imperial power struggles and political machinations. On the other hand, the early Christians were less likely to seek power and initiate self-aggrandizement campaigns.

Finally, after the reign of Constantine, Christianity was given a recognized and legal status, and under the subsequent Christian emperors, Rome’s older polytheistic paganism was tolerated alongside Christianity. By ushering in an era of religious toleration, Roman unity may have been threatened by religious diversity, but energy and resources were not wasted in efforts to suppress or exterminate any one faith.

The net impact of Christianity on Rome, then, is ambiguous, or at least disputable. In any case, it was overshadowed by succession problems and by threats from external nations, among other challenges faced by the empire.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Manzikert in Context

To understand why the Battle of Manzikert is a turning-point, one must see first what caused it, and second what it caused.

The Seljuq Turks were a migrating ethnic group from central Asia. Turks had lived in central Asia for centuries. After most of them embraced Islam, they set out for lands to conquer. The Seljuqs - also spelled ‘Seljuks’ - were but one migrating group of Turks. The Mongols were another. The Seljuqs and the Mongols were cousins.

As the Seljuq Muslims moved southwest from their Asian homeland, they eventually encountered the territory of the Byzantine Empire. It is helpful to remember that ‘Asia Minor’ and ‘Anatolia’ and ‘Turkey’ all refer to the same piece of land.

Over a period of years, the Islamic Seljuqs attacked the Byzantine Empire in a number of battles. They also attacked other sovereign territories as they made their way across large portions of southeast Asia.

The Seljuk leader, Alp-Arslan, led his Muslim soldiers not only against the Byzantine Empire, but also against Egypt, Armenia, and Georgia. Emperor Romanos Diogenes led the Byzantines in their attempt to defend themselves. Historian Avner Falk writes:

In 1071, the Seljuk Turks, led by Arp-Arslan (1029-1072), had fought a battle with the Byzantines at Manzikert in eastern Anatolia (now Malazgirt in eastern Turkey), defeating the “Eastern Roman Emperor” Romanos Diogenes, whom they captured, blinded, and exiled to an island in the Sea of Marmara, where he soon died. This battle was an important milestone in the Turkish settlement of Asia Minor. The warlike Seljuks went on to capture Egypt and Syria, including Palestine.

A more detailed telling of the events informs us that Alp-Arslan, whom Falk’s text perhaps misspells, captured the Emperor Romanos Diogenes, held him captive until massive sums were paid for his release, and then returned him to the Byzantines. During his brief stay in captivity, a coup in the palace meant that when Romanos Diogenes returned home, he was no longer emperor. Those who had taken power in his absence had him cruelly blinded.

While the Battle of Manzikert was significant, it was far from the only significant attack mounted by the Muslims. In a large context, the invasion of Anatolia by the Islamic Seljuqs was a continuation of the pattern begun by Islam’s invasion of Spain in 711 AD, and continued by Islamic invasions of France, Italy, and Mediterranean Islands like Malta, Sicily, Cyprus, Sardinia, and Corsica.

Manzikert was, therefore, not the beginning, but rather the continuation, of a long string of Muslim attacks.

Manzikert was also not the end of, but rather one in a series, of subsequent instance of Islamic aggression.

The Seljuqs continued to assault Byzantine territories in Asia Minor for decades and centuries, chipping away at Byzantine civilization, until the capital city Constantinople was savaged by Muslim invaders who largely destroyed the city in 1453 and thereby ended the Byzantine Empire.

At the same time, other Islamic forces continued their attacks on Italy and various portions of Europe. Avner Falk continues the narrative:

Some historians consider the Battle of Manzikert a major cause or origin of the Crusades. A few years later, the Seljuks created their “Sultanate of Rum”, the sultanate that ruled Anatolia in direct lineage from 1077 to 1307, with capitals at Iznik and Konya, and, at times, at Kayseri and Sivas. At its height, the sultanate of Rum stretched across central Turkey from the Mediterranean coast to the Black Sea. In the east, the sultanate absorbed other Turkish states and reached to Lake Van. Its westernmost limit was near Denizli and the gates of the Aegean basin.

After decades of enduring Islamic savagery, Europe had been attacked on many fronts: Spain, France, and Italy. It was clear that an invasion through Greece and the Balkans would be next. If the Seljuq Muslims consolidated their hold on all or most of Asia Minor, then that territory would become their launching pad for Islamic invasions deep into the heart of Europe.

Manzikert was one of many causes of the Crusades; it was not the only cause of the Crusades. The Crusades were a response to long pattern of unprovoked attacks.

Finally, to borrow an athletic metaphor, Europe decided that the best defense would be a good offense. Rather than brace for more attacks, it would be best to go to the source of the attacks, to stop the invaders before they reached Europe. The so-called ‘Crusades’ (they were not given that name until centuries after they ended) were an attempt to go into the Islamic world and there stop the armies of Muslim conquest headed for Europe.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Guilt vs. Shame - What Motivates Literary Characters?

Examining various societies, and the literature they produce, scholars have noted a difference between ‘outer-directed’ and ‘inner-directed’ civilizations.

Authors like Homer and Virgil reflect an ‘outer-directed’ (or ‘other-directed’) worldview, and their characters are motivated by shame, or by a desire to avoid shame.

Writers like Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky, and Kafka express an ‘inner-directed’ (or ‘self-directed’) society, and their characters are deeply affected by guilt, or by the effort to avoid guilt.

The inner-directed character seeks justice and forgiveness as the remedy for his guilt. The outer-directed individual seeks to restore honor and fulfill expectations which society places upon him. Jayson Georges writes that scholars

identify three responses to sin in human cultures: guilt, shame, and fear. These three moral emotions have become the foundation for three types of culture: (1) guilt-innocence cultures are individualistic societies (mostly Western), where people who break the laws are guilty and seek justice or forgiveness to rectify a wrong, (2) shame-honor cultures describes collectivistic cultures (common in the East), where people shamed for fulfilling group expectations seek to restore their honor before the community, and (3) fear-power cultures refers to animistic contexts (typically tribal or African), where people afraid of evil and harm pursue power over the spirit world through magical rituals.

The third category, the ‘fear-power’ culture, is less relevant to literary contexts, because these societies leave little belletristic text. They are examples of a pre-religious phase, centered on myth as explanation and magic as an attempt to manipulate nature.

The ‘guilt-innocence’ culture and the ‘shame-honor’ culture do not attempt to control nature or to concoct explanatory fables.

Instead, the guilt culture seeks confession, forgiveness, restitution if possible, and reconciliation. The shame culture seeks a renewed recognition in the wake of a moral failure.

In this way, readers can understand the motives and actions of characters liked Raskolnikov, Gregor Samsa, Aeneas, Odysseus, and Achilles.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

A Glimpse into Hammurabi’s World

The code of Hammurabi - also sometimes transliterated into our alphabet as Hammurapi - is a staple for history classes. It stands as an early marker for the concept of the rule of law.

Beyond its legal ramifications, however, it can tell us about Babylonian society at the time. A law code reveals the values and the problems of a society: nobody bothers to make a law against something unless someone’s been doing it.

Hammurabi’s society has quite of bit of magic and superstition: talk of casting “spells” and of “sorcery” inhabits the code, and such things are dealt with through trial by ordeal, which implies either that the river has supernatural powers, or is being manipulated by some supernatural spirit.

The class structure of Babylon is quite rigid, and the laws can confidently mete out punishments based on whether a crime was committed against an aristocrat or against a commoner. In any case, human life is quite cheap, and is readily extinguished for mere crimes against property.

The coarse equation of human life with money is evidenced in cases concerning the death of a slave or of a pre-born child.

Despite its underdeveloped pre-religious spiritual outlook, the economics and mathematics of Hammurabi’s code are relatively sophisticated. There is talk of altering interest payments during years in which the weather reduced the harvests.

Likewise, the legal documentation is not simple-minded, as is independently confirmed by other cuneiform texts from the same era.

Gender inequality is starkly presented in cases of adultery. A woman convicted, or in some cases even merely accused, receives capital punishment. It is implied that a man in the same circumstances receives a lesser punishment, if any.

Hammurabi’s code, probably written sometime prior to 1750 B.C., reflects a modern sensibility against incest; a man who sleeps with his daughter is exiled.

The lex talionis is quite literal between equals, but a freeman who harms a slave can simply offer money as restitution.

A certain liability is born by someone who knew that his ox was in the habit of goring. The frequency of agricultural specifics reveals the extent, and the type, of farming which supported the society.

Hammurabi’s code is a rather neutral legal document, as opposed to a moral statement. Certain actions entail specific consequences, but are not condemned as immoral, and no imperative against them is given. One might simply understand the fine of silver coins as the price to be paid if one wishes to injure a neighbor’s slave.

The code is designed to support, reinforce, and maintain the status quo in Babylon. It reflects a static society, not a revolution in social forms. This fits a circular sense of time, rather than a linear conception of time which allows for progress.

Hammurabi’s people were outer-directed, motivated by shame or the avoidance of it. Motive does not play a large role in legal consideration.

Moses will form, in many ways, a counterpoint to Hammurabi, in a Hebrew society which, only a few decades after Hammurabi, will be quite different on some of these points.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

The Wrong Way to Teach History: The Migration Era as an Example

Many history books and history courses are organized around a framework of eras: the Age of Exploration, the Age of Ideas, the Age of Revolution, the Age of Reason, the Age of Darkness, the Age of Industry, the Age of Enlightenment, the Age of Absolutism, the Age of Progress, the Age of Methodism, etc.

This approach, however, is misleading. The world does not move from one “age” to another. At midnight, Monday becomes Tuesday, or Wednesday becomes Thursday. But there was no defining stroke of midnight which changed “the age of ideas” into “the age of reason.”

Such ages are called ‘constructs’ and are the products of (over) generalization. Rather than beginning with such generalizations, history should begin with the study of specifics, of the data points which are given: people, places, and events.

When beginning with concrete evidence, we can give clear answers. If studying about Voltaire, we can learn the year of birth, the year of his death, and the towns in which both occurred. If we study the city of Leipzig, we can learn the geographical data about the distance between it and other cities, and learn which individuals were, or were not, in it at some point in time.

By contrast, if we attempt to study the Gilded Age, the Space Age, the Modern Age, the Hellenic Age, the Hellenistic Age, or the Global Age, we cannot give specific answers to questions about when this age began or ended, or about the geographic extent of its physical presence. We cannot definitively decide who was, or was not, a part of this age.

We see, then, that doing history as a series of “ages” fails to reflect the fullness of evidence given in the data. Such constructs are unnecessarily ambiguous and are generalizations which can ultimately mislead students.

Diligent historians have long realized the deficiencies to this approach. Avner Falk writes:

Most historians like to divide history neatly into periods, such as Classical Antiquity, the Middle Ages, and Modern times. In reality, historical developments are much more complicated. The “Migration Period”, or the “Barbarian Invasions”, is a name given given by historians to the great wave of human migration which lasted about four centuries, from about 300 CE to 700 CE, and even later, to 1000 CE, in Europe, marking the transition from Late Antiquity to the Early Middle Ages.

Using the era of the Völkerwanderungen as an example, Falk already notes the ambiguity in the endpoint of the alleged “age.”

Mass migrations are documented throughout recorded history, going back at least to 1400 BC, with the “Sea Peoples” recorded in Egyptians texts and the Exodus of the Hebrews from Egypt.

Such mass migrations continue up to the present time, e.g., as refugees flee war-torn regions in the Middle East and Africa.

It seems at best artificial, and at worst simply wrong, to demarcate a segment of time and label it the "Age of Migrations," given the presence of migration across all history. Abandoning generalizations and listing specifics, Avner Falk continues to describe the Völkerwanderung era:

During that time, especially in the fifth century, after being divided into a Western and Eastern part, the Western Roman Empire was destroyed by marauding tribes. The migration included the Huns, Goths, Vandals, Swabians, Franks, and other Turkic, Germanic, and Slavic tribes. The Huns were confederation of Central Asian equestrian nomads or semi-nomads (like the Mongols), with a Turkic aristocratic core. The migration of the Germanic tribes may have been triggered by the incursions of the Huns, which were connected to the Turkic migrations in Central Asia. Eight centuries later, in the thirteenth century, the Mongols made the vast “migration” which led them to conquer most of Asia and large parts of eastern Europe.

By noting that the Mongol events also constituted a “migration,” Falk further undermines the notion of a finite “Age of Migration,” because it has now been extended to the thirteenth century.

Overgeneralized notions of a migration era fail to register the divergent natures of the groups (e.g., Germanic or Turkic), of their motives (aggression or seeking food), of their varying levels of social and economic development, of their routes, of their points of origin, or of their final stopping points.

To structure of history of those centuries around the narrative of each group, rather than around a construct of an era in which groups migrated, gives the student more data, and a more usable conceptual framework into which to lodge that data.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Romans, Germans, and Foreign Trade Policy

The amazing civil engineering projects which the Romans completed in central Europe together form the Limes, a series of border fortifications, garrisons, walls, and barracks. Between the Rhine and Danube rivers, a sophisticated border structure was built.

But the purpose of these military constructions was, perhaps, not directly military. Instead of preparing for massive confrontations and battles, the goals of these efforts may have been economic and diplomatic. Historian Andrew Curry writes:

For centuries emperors used a mix of threats, deterrence, and outright bribery to secure peace. Rome negotiated constantly with tribes and kingdoms outside its frontier. Diplomacy created a buffer zone of client kings and loyal chieftains to insulate the border from hostile tribes farther afield. Favored tribes earned the right to cross the frontier at will; others could bring their goods to Roman markets only under armed guard.

A manned border would enable Roman officials to enforce the distinctions they had negotiated between various Germanic tribes. Vindolanda was a military installation just south of Hadrian’s Wall in England. Some of the men who staffed this location were from Germanic regions, or from other areas outside the empire.

Trade with northern Scotland or the northeastern Germanic tribes flourished at times during the Roman Empire, which last from 27 B.C. to 476 A.D.

Loyal allies were also rewarded with gifts, weapons, and military assistance and training. Friendly barbarians sometimes served in the Roman army; after 25 years, they retired as Roman citizens, free to settle anywhere in the empire. Vindolanda alone was home to units recruited from what are now northern Spain, France, Belgium, and the Netherlands. Iraqi bargemen once sailed England’s rivers under the banner of Rome, and Syrian archers watched over the bleak countryside.

Roman coins have been found in locations as diverse as Denmark, Sweden, or the northern Scottish island of North Uist. Germanic exports, like amber from the Baltic, were traded deep inside Roman imperial borders.

Individual Romans may have settled northeast of the Limes, outside the empire, and created agricultural estates for themselves. A settlement located in Hechingen-Stein, for example, is near the Limes. Whether it was inside or outside the empire might have varied: the exact borders changed over the decades, as aggressive or cautious policies correspondingly expanded or contracted the empire by a few miles.

Trade was also a foreign policy tool: The Roman-Germanic Commission in Frankfurt, part of the German Archaeological Institute, has a database of more than 10,000 Roman artifacts found beyond the limes. Weapons, coins, and goods like glass and pottery show up as far away as Norway and modern-day Russia.

It seems, then, that the borderlines of the empire were at least porous, and possible designed to not only allow trade, but to encourage it.

The Roman Empire, like the Roman Republic before it, had large amounts of foreign trade as an essential component of its economy. It cannot have escaped Roman bureaucrats that the borders should be managed in a way to encourage, regulate, and monitor imports and exports, and to collect tariffs and other taxes in the process.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Hadrian Had More Than One Wall

During the reign of the emperor Hadrian, the Roman Empire, which had arisen around 27 B.C. from the political rubble of the Roman Republic, changed its military and imperial strategy from expansion to defense. Having rapidly grown to an enormous area, the empire realized that it would have difficulties retaining its already-annexed territories, and that further expansion would bring the empire to an untenable and unsustainable size.

Hadrian was born in 76 A.D., became emperor in 117, and died in 138. He and his successors reconfigured to the Roman military hold the external borders of the empire against threats like the Germanic tribes, the Scots, and the Irish.

The Romans had expanded northeast into Germanic territory. The seemingly natural boundary between the Romans and the Germanic tribes was the line connecting the Rhine and Danube rivers. When the Roman placed settlements northeast of this line, they soon realized that they had overextended themselves, and needed to pull back. Hadrian ordered a sort of strategic retreat, surrendering the territory to the Germanic tribes. Historian Andrew Curry writes:

Hadrian may simply have recognized that Rome’s insatiable appetite was yielding diminishing returns. The most valuable provinces, like Gaul or Hadrian’s native Spain, were full of cities and farms. But some fights just weren’t worth it. “Possessing the best part of the earth and sea,” the Greek author Appian observed, the Romans have “aimed to preserve their empire by the exercise of prudence, rather than to extend their sway indefinitely over poverty-stricken and profitless tribes of barbarians.”

The Rhine was difficult to cross, and formed an obvious natural boundary. While there was some valuable farmland on the far side of it, the Roman drive to expand, in this case, was based more on pride than on the value of this particular piece of land to the empire.

Although wise, Hadrian’s policy was not an easy sell to the expansionist Roman collective ego. The glory of Rome had been its ability to continuously expand, and to do so quickly and easily. Hadrian had to convince the Romans, and especially the Roman military, that they should stop overreaching. Quote fellow historian Anthony Birley, Andrew Curry writes:

The army’s respect for Hadrian helped. The former soldier adopted a military-style beard, even in official portraits, a first for a Roman emperor. He spent more than half of his 21-year reign in the provinces and visiting troops on three continents. Huge stretches of territory were evacuated, and the army dug in along new, reduced frontiers. Wherever Hadrian went, walls sprang up. “He was giving a message to expansion-minded members of the empire that there were going to be no more wars of conquest,” Birley says.

Hadrian transformed the Roman army in significant ways. Instead of a mobile force for attacking and invading, it became a stationary defensive force.

The Roman army began to build substantial structures of wood and stone. It was attempting to established a clear, permanent, and defendable border.

By the time the restless emperor died in 138, a network of forts and roads originally intended to supply legions on the march had become a frontier stretching thousands of miles. “An encamped army, like a rampart, encloses the civilized world in a ring, from the settled areas of Aethiopia to the Phasis, and from the Euphrates in the interior to the great outermost island toward the west,” Greek orator Aelius Aristides noted proudly, not long after Hadrian’s death.

Probably the most famous of these border structures is Hadrian’s Wall, separating England from Scotland. On the island of Great Britain, the Romans had successfully occupied the southern half, but the Scots proved unconquerable.

The wall cut the island in half, from coast to coast: a spectacular engineering and construction feat.

That “outermost island” was where Hadrian built the monument that bears his name, a rampart of stone and turf that cut Britain in half. Today Hadrian’s Wall is one of the best preserved, well-documented sections of Rome’s frontier. Remnants of the 73-mile barrier run through salt marshes, across green sheep pastures, and for one bleak stretch not far from downtown Newcastle, alongside a four-lane highway. Miles of it are preserved aboveground, lining crags that rise high above the rain-swept countryside.

While spectacular, Hadrian’s Wall is not the only, and not the greatest, civil engineering accomplishment of the Roman army. In central Europe, a 31-mile section of the wall there is so close to perfectly straight that it deviates only 36 inches over its course.

The total mileage of the Limes wall between the Rhine and the Danube exceeds that of Hadrian’s Wall in Britain, and the physical structure of the wall and its accompanying watchtowers, barracks, and garrisons is more complex.

More than a century of study has given archaeologists an unparalleled understanding of Hadrian’s Wall. The wall, perhaps designed by Hadrian himself on a visit to Britain in 122, was the ultimate expression of his attempt to define the empire’s limits.

Although the wall on the northern border of England is called “Hadrian’s Wall,” the walls in central Europe and other remote parts of the empire are equally his.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Juan de Mariana: Lockean before Locke?

Juan de Mariana was born in 1536, and is therefore by any reckoning a very late scholastic. Working in the tranquility and freedom of a Spain which had, in 1492, finally been freed from the oppression of Islamic occupational armies, he wrote copiously: one of his works, a history of Spain, was thirty volumes.

Significantly, he wrote in a startling way about political liberty. He advocated freedom of assembly (the freedom of association), and that a government may not arbitrarily spy on its citizens. Like Locke, he asserted that a government’s legitimacy was based on the consent of the governed. Unlike Locke, he did so in the 1500s. Historian Jesús Huerta de Soto writes:

In Spain, although the authorities were not enthusiastic about it, the book was respected. In fact, all Mariana did was to take an idea - that natural law is morally superior to the might of the state - to its logical conclusion. This idea had previously been developed in detail by the great founder of international law, the Dominican Francisco de Vitoria (1485-1546), who began the Spanish scholastic tradition of denouncing the conquest and particularly the enslavement of the Indians by the Spaniards in the New World.

Examining scholastic notions of civil law, Juan de Mariana began to articulate a connection between property rights and other forms of liberty. Against the notion that property rights are somehow low or base, he saw that tyrants inevitably violate property rights, and inasmuch as human effort is spent acquiring property, the tyrant’s confiscation of such property is de facto slavery.

But perhaps Mariana’s most important book was the work published in 1605 with the title De monetae mutatione (On the alteration of money). In this book, Mariana began to question whether the king was the owner of the private property of his vassals or citizens and reached the clear conclusion that he was not. The author then applied his distinction between a king and a tyrant and concluded that “the tyrant is he who tramples everything underfoot and believes everything to belong to him; the king restricts or limits his covetousness within the terms of reason and justice.”

He asserted that the king should not be able to tax, or raise taxes, without the consent of the people. We associate the slogan ‘no taxation without representation’ with Anglo-American sources, but here we find a different and earlier source for the sentiment behind those words.