The Early Chinese Empires: Qin and Han is a readable overview of the histories and culture of the first two dynasties of imperial China, a period last...moreThe Early Chinese Empires: Qin and Han is a readable overview of the histories and culture of the first two dynasties of imperial China, a period lasting from 221 BC to AD 220. It’s the first in a series of histories about China published by The Belknap Press of Harvard. If they maintain the quality evidenced in this book, I’ll be interested in seeing subsequent volumes. However, one of the drawbacks in any work of this sort is that the reader flies at a tremendous height over China’s landscape, only dipping down occasionally to take a look at an interesting feature of the geography, getting little in the way of a sustained argument for a particular interpretation. If a reader doesn’t have some background in Chinese history, they can easily get lost. That, I think, is my strongest criticism of Lewis’ effort – he may assume too much prior knowledge on the general reader’s part. I wouldn’t recommend this book to anyone other than a person who already has a good but not extensive background in the period and wants to know more without necessarily getting bogged down with academic focuses like “The Development of Han and Wei Yueh-fu as a High Literary Genre.” A fascinating article, I’m sure, but probably more information about that particular topic than the general reader wants to know. Which is why the bibliography and the notes are two of the more attractive features of the book – anyone interested in a specific topic has a good resource to find more specialized knowledge (I acquired four books for my own To-Read shelf). To get a better handle on the general history of the period a reader might want to start with an edition of Jacques Gernet’s A History of Chinese Civilization or Wolfram Eberhard’s A History of China.
The book is divided into ten chapters that cover the usual suspects starting with “The Geography of Empire” and continuing through “A State Organized for War,” “The Paradoxes of Empire,” “Imperial Cities,” “Rural Society,” “The Outer World,” “Kinship,” “Religion,” “Literature” and “Law,” and a short concluding essay. One of the greatest pleasures in reading was that every chapter held heretofore unknown information and/or made me see China in a slightly different light, enhancing my understanding of the era.
Chapter one: Early China was divided along two axes – an east-west one (the floodplain of the Yellow River and the highlands west of the Hangu Pass) and a north-south one (the Yellow River and Yangzi River valleys, respectively). The eastern side of the axis (Guandong) represented the economic and cultural center of early Chinese life; the western half (Guanzhong) represented the military and political focus of the empire. In this period, the north-south divide was one of culture – the north was the home of civilization; the south was full of uncultured barbarians still, it’s later economic and demographic dominance awaited the Song dynasty. From its earliest days, the empire struggled to suppress local customs, laws and culture in its effort to create a unitary, universal kingdom. The superior man (the sage) was someone who knew the text-based, universal wisdom of Shang and Zhou; inferior was the man who only knew the wisdom of a particular region, which (at best) was the corrupted knowledge of the ancient sages.
Even before unification, Qin had been a highly regimented state devoted to maintaining the army and the agricultural base that supported it. These policies (reminiscent of Sparta’s in the West) were carried over into the empire and were a major cause in Qin’s overthrow. Yet Han also tried to maintain a base of small, independent farmers to man and feed their armies. Unfortunately, imperial policies didn’t always lead to imperial goals, and the Han were less and less successful in curbing the centrifugal developments that eroded imperial authority.
Another stereotypical feature of Confucian governance – its loathing of the merchant class – found early expression in imperial policy: Income from mercantile activity was taxed at twice the level of landed wealth. A strong incentive for the wealthy to convert as much of their wealth into land as possible; and an irresistible force pushing peasants into tenancy and turning the wealthy into landlords.
Chapter two picks up and amplifies the discussion of Qin’s political organization. Much of its success during the Warring States period was due to its subsummation of other priorities to waging war. Qin fielded armies better led, trained and supplied than any of her enemies could hope to muster (or were willing to). But this organization proved inadequate to governing a unified state and, as we saw in Chapter one, led to the first dynasty’s collapse not even a generation from its founding. The most interesting section of this chapter is Lewis’ discussion of strong evidence for a growing, powerful regionalism that the Qin and Han ruthless suppressed. He suggests that, absent the Qin, Chinese unification was not a foregone conclusion. In an alternate universe, a China as politically and culturally diverse as Europe is not farfetched.
Chapter three charts three trends that led to a political unification that has shown surprising resilience for the last two millennia. The first is the professionalization of the armies. A process that every major state undergoes when its peasant levies or citizen militias prove inadequate to the demands of the state. The second factor was the enforcement of a common imperial culture as the government assumed control over the patronage of art and literature. Local variations continued, of course, but their legitimacy went unrecognized, and any ambitious man was perforce obligated to master what the capital prescribed to secure any position. The third factor in unification was the growth of an elite commited to imperial service, which owed its position and wealth to local networks of family and allies (an uneasy compromise between the interests of court and gentry).
In “Imperial Cities,” I was struck by the dual nature of most Chinese cities: There were two quite distinct districts. One was devoted entirely to the government; the other was devoted to residents and the economic pursuits of the city. Lewis argues that this was the physical expression of the deep divide existing between the state and the urban elements that threatened its power: mercantile wealth; gangsters and “wandering swordsmen”; and the grey market of esoteric teachers, beggars and prostitutes.
Chapter five is an unfortunately (but unavoidably) cursory overview of rural China. As with all premodern civilizations, the overwhelming majority of Chinese were farmers, and imperial policy was explicitly formulated (at least in theory) to support them. It discouraged trade, inhibited landlordism and protected the small farmer. In theory. As mentioned above, the state constantly struggled to curb the growth of large estates full of tenants not paying their taxes.
One of the more interesting sections here was Lewis’ discussion of the elite’s ethos – namely, the strong ethic to redistribute wealth. To accumulate too much was to invite immorality – “wealth was of value only when circulated” (p. 123).
Chapter six takes a look at the early empire’s relations with its neighbors, primarily the nomads to the north and west. For most of the time, these were represented by probably the first of the great nomadic “empires” that periodically arise in the steppe – the Xiongnu. It’s interesting to note that the Chinese emperors (huangdi) acknowledged the equivalency of the Xiongnu leader (chanyu), which departed from later dynasties that made all rulers subordinate to the suzerainty of the emperor. Ultimately this policy failed: The Xiongnu were broken in the late second century AD, no similar nomad empire took its place, and the Chinese were never able to understand the nomads as anything other than a mirror image of the imperial court. A cultural blindness that made it difficult to respond effectively to nomad threats. It didn’t help, either, that the Eastern Han (post AD 25) tended to neglect the western provinces and the army.
“Kinship,” Chapter seven, is a fascinating essay. Lewis highlights the competing visions of the family. On the one hand you have “lineages,” tracing descent from father to son across generations. Competing with this vision is the “household,” defined by the nuclear family and the relationships between husband/wife and parent/child. Also under the Han, children first became the topic of literary reflection. Adumbrating the “Baby Einstein” craze of a few years ago, Chinese philosophers stressed the importance of the prenatal environment in the child’s destiny. What the mother saw, ate, heard, said and did were critical to producing a “good” child. Or – to be avoided – Damien from “The Omen.”
Chapter eight introduces us to early imperial religious practice. There were four primary intersections between the secular and spiritual. The first was at the sacrificial shrine or altar. The second was contact with spirits, usually mediated by a shaman. The third consisted of geographical foci – mountains, lakes, streams, etc., or the extreme ends of the earth (the Taoist Immortals were rumored to live on floating islands to the east, for example). The final contact with the supernatural was via divination, which didn’t predict specific events so much as illuminated general trends and possibilities. Religion, as a whole, is characterized by a lack of systematized mythology or creation myths, and focused on maintaining a proper order betwixt the quick and the dead, heaven and earth. The afterlife is of a nature with this one; so much so that it’s just as prone to bureaucratic inefficiency as the earthly empire. (For the interested, Gore Vidal’s novel Creation is the marvelous account of Zoroaster’s grandson’s adventures as the Persian ambassador to the kingdoms of China and India where some of these differences between eastern and western spirituality are explored in a setting that doesn’t demand knowledge of or even great interest in Chinese history.)
Passing quickly to the final two chapters: “Literature” discusses what the Chinese (the elite, at any rate) were reading. In its efforts to control thought, the empire quickly established several classes of “legitimate” writings: The canons (jing) (which included belles lettres) and their commentaries (zhuan or shuo), which were universal principles and explanations that showed how to apply them. Of somewhat lesser stature were the encyclopedias, which endeavored to gather together the sum of all knowledge. The last class of literature is the history, which aimed to give expression to the “project of empire” (p. 214). As with every aspect of imperial culture, authors such as Sima Qian were remarkably focused on upholding and justifying the idea of a unified empire under a universal monarch governing with universal principles. The very idea of intellectual disunity reflected decay and social disorder. An attitude which strongly mitigated intellectual curiosity or dissent.
“Law” proved to be another fascinating chapter. There’s a surprisingly modern “feel” to the rules for investigating crime scenes. The investigator is supposed to carefully inspect the physical evidence; closely question witnesses and suspects; and extract a confession from the guilty. Punishments were usually corporal, usually brutal, often fatal, though there was in increasing tendency for many to be condemned to serving as laborers or in the armies.
The concluding essay wraps things up nicely. Lewis argues here that the fundamental reason for Eastern Han’s collapse was that its court lost touch with its subjects and, more importantly, lost its monopoly on violence, i.e., it lost control of its armies, which became the personal militias of landlords and generals. A phenomenon all too common in both modern and premodern states.(less)
When I began my undergraduate career I was part of an honors seminar where this was one of the books we read.
It was an eye-opening experience and prob...moreWhen I began my undergraduate career I was part of an honors seminar where this was one of the books we read.
It was an eye-opening experience and probably did as much as anything at that time in propelling me to specialize in Medieval history. Montaillou was a village in southern France that suffered an inquisitorial investigation in the mid-14th century because of a recrudescence of the Cathar heresy (which had been "eradicated" in the previous century, or so the Church believed). The book's fascination and brilliance lies not so much in its discussion of the inquisition but in the insight the inquisition's depositions (that it took from the peasants) gives into the lives of the people of Montaillou.
LeRoy Ladurie is a major figure in the Annales strain of Medieval historiography, which focuses on such sources to tease out how people lived and thought, and Montaillou is one of the better examples for a general reading audience to enjoy.
It's been 20 years since I read this book but I can still remember the sexual peccadillos of the village cleric, Le Clergue, and I would recommend this book to anyone interested in the period and looking for something other than a history that relies upon the usual sources - monastic chronicles, primarily - and talks about the usual "stuff" - politics & economics.(less)
I would describe this book as a professor's collection of undergraduate-level lectures about the Dark Ages - which, as he correctly points out, weren'...moreI would describe this book as a professor's collection of undergraduate-level lectures about the Dark Ages - which, as he correctly points out, weren't quite as "dark" as the general public might think. Of course, John & Jane Q. Public don't often consider the Dark Ages except when they're watching scurrilous TV shows or movies, and then, do they care?
Among the cognoscenti of amateur and professional Late Antiquity/Early Medieval historians, Wells is not exactly breaking new ground.
Among this collection of lectures, he does present some interesting information about the evidence for trade and culture and wealth that refutes the hoary notion of howling barbarians, burning cities, ravished populations and empty landscapes.
If I had come across this book in high school or early in college, I'd probably be more excited about it. As it is, I've read this before and at much greater and incisive depth (Goffart's Barbarian Tides and Whittaker's Frontiers of the Roman Empire immediately come to mind).(less)
I read this book in 2nd or 3rd grade. I can remember the scene: The teacher had spread out a group of biographies on the Willie Harris Elementary scho...moreI read this book in 2nd or 3rd grade. I can remember the scene: The teacher had spread out a group of biographies on the Willie Harris Elementary school library's table and asked us to chose one to read and do a report on. For whatever reason, I picked up Booker Washington's and enjoyed it. It was probably my first conscious introduction to slavery and blacks in American society; and his philosophy of self-reliance and education has influenced my own outlook to this day.
I don't know how I would react to it today but it's probably one of those books that I should reread.(less)
Reading this extended essay, I can easily see why Fuller's military career came to a screeching halt post publication. He takes the high commands of e...moreReading this extended essay, I can easily see why Fuller's military career came to a screeching halt post publication. He takes the high commands of every army in the Great War to task for what he sees as a catastrophic failure of command, and warns against the increasingly coarse conduct of war that is turning the modern army (c. 1935) into a soulless machine indiscriminating murdering soldier and civilian. It's that last concern that sets Fuller apart from the usual, technical critique of generalship. It's not enough that a general be competent and a good leader but the army he leads must be correctly motivated. Fuller is "old school" -- steeped in the values of the Enlightenment and republican government latterly shat upon by modern and post-modern critics. But its that in-many-ways-admirable tradition that allows him to justify the soldier's role in a democratic republic and to write:
"(War are) (n)ot `the rage of a barbarian wolf-flock,' not wars begotten by bankers, squabbling merchants or jealous politicians but wars of self-defence. `To such war as this,' he (Ruskin) says, `all men are born; in such war as this any man may happily die; and out of such war as this have arisen throughout the extent of past ages, all the highest sanctities and virtues of humanity.'" (p. 26)
Later in the essay, Fuller laments the emergence of the "general staff." While the complexities of modern warfare make such an institution inevitable, the form it's taken turns command into a depersonalized matter of paper shuffling, further dehumanizing and brutalizing an already inhuman and brutal occupation. (pp. 67f.)
The primary lesson to be drawn for the general is to be flexible. It's all well and good to have routines and chains of command but a successful general can adapt tactics and procedures to meet new conditions ("thinking outside the box," in modern idiom). This is a theme both Fuller and Liddell-Hart emphasize in their biographies of great military leaders (Scipio Africanus or Alexander, for example).
For the military historian or armchair strategist, this should be an interesting read, particularly in light of Fuller's clear-eyed perception of the increasing brutality and destructiveness of war, evidence for which is all around us today in the daily dispatches from Iraq, Afghanistan or the Occupied Territories, where the dehumanizing and coarsening tendencies are exhibited in horrifying detail.
Three additional plusses for this book:
1. It's public domain - I downloaded an HTML version for nothing from Internet Archive (http://www.archive.org/index.php). 2. It's less than 100 pages long. 3. It's a pleasure to read simply because of the cultured and erudite tone of the prose. It is to be mourned that no one can aspire to such eloquence today.(less)
Ernst Junger's memoir of his time on the Western Front (1914-1918) is a powerful glimpse at what it's like to be a soldier, made all the more powerful...moreErnst Junger's memoir of his time on the Western Front (1914-1918) is a powerful glimpse at what it's like to be a soldier, made all the more powerful because it's unadorned with philosophical introspection or politics. The reader joins Junger as he joins his unit in Champagne and leaves him during his final convalescence in a Hanover hospital. In between, we vicariously experience the daily life of a German officer and his men - and "vicarious" is about as close as any rational person would want to get to war.
Junger is not a pacifist. He did not enter the war an eager, young idealist only to have reality turn him into a burnt-out cynic or ardent pacifist as often seems to happen in other, perhaps better-known memoirs. He entered the war an ardent nationalist and patriot, and came out no less so. He is not, however, blind to the horrors and rampant stupidity and the capricious fortune that makes one man a hero and another a coward (or dead). A couple of examples: In the final months of the war, Junger's company (about 80 men) is ordered to advance againt the British lines. They enter the maze of trenches, quickly losing their way and stumble upon an equally confused group of British (New Zealand) soldiers (about 200). The surprise is so complete, the "fog of war" so dense, that, without a melee, Junger's men capture them all. In another engagement, Junger is ordered to take 14 men across the no-man's zone in a reconnaissance mission and to capture some soldiers for interrogation. Almost from the beginning, the patrol goes awry and 10 of the 14 never return. Needless to say, the mission objectives remained unfulfilled. But that appears to be par for the course - little exercises designed to keep the men occupied but with little or no tactical value.
A few of the more affecting passages and observations follow:
The chapter titled "Guillemont" is a nice snapshot of the war. Endless days in the trenches, the filth and physical misery, interrupted by pointless forays against enemy positions. Here and all through the book, Junger's emotional distance strikes the reader (or at least this reader). Colleagues and soldiers drift in and out of the narrative, often with little or no introduction and (perhaps) the briefest of leave takings.
In that same chapter, Junger defines what makes the "good soldier": "Nothing was left in this voice but equanimity, apathy; fire had burned everything else out of it. It's men like that that you need for fighting" (p. 92).
There are flashes of sardonic wit, as when the author describes the travails he encounters trying to protect his bicycles from shellfire: "To this unpleasant bit of target-practice I lost four bicycles.... They were comprehensively remodelled and cast to the four winds" (p. 139).
In that same chapter ("In the Village of Fresnoy") we get another glimpse into Junger's idolization of war and the soldier: "There was in these men a quality that both emphasized the savagery of war and transfigured it at the same time: an objective relish for danger, the chevalieresque urge to prevail in battle. Over four years, the fire smelted an ever-purer, ever-bolder warriorhood" (p. 140).
The hypocrisy and lying in war (regarding the write-up of an action): "Then we discussed the most important aspect of the affair: the report. We wrote it in such a way that we were both satisfied" (p. 155).
Evidence that even a "warrior" need to psych himself up to kill: "...I chewed my pipe and tried to talk myself into feeling brave.... Several times I murmured a phrase of Ariosto's: `A great heart feels no dreadof approaching death, whenever it may come, so long as it be honourable'" (p. 171).
And finally, a troubling sentiment that's excused all sorts of atrocities: "The state, which relieves us of our responsibility, cannot take away our remorse..." (p. 241).(less)
What the Koran Really Says is a collection of papers representing critical assessments of the Koran in a variety of areas – Introduction; Background;...moreWhat the Koran Really Says is a collection of papers representing critical assessments of the Koran in a variety of areas – Introduction; Background; A Question of Language; Sources of the Koran: Essenian, Christian, Coptic; Suras, Suras, Suras; Emendations, Interpolations; Richard Bell: Introduction and Commentary; Poetry and the Koran; and Manuscripts.
This is definitely a volume for the specialist – someone with a pretty extensive background in the subject and a grasp of Arabic (and Semitic languages in general). None of which I have in any great abundance. Which is not to say that there aren’t articles here of interest to the generalist. Many, however, assume a breadth of knowledge the average reader will not have.
Thus I wandered, lost, in many articles (e.g., the paleographic treatise “The Problem of Dating the Early Qur’ans”). For the uninitiated there were some fascinating papers, though. Warraq’s introduction, for example, offers an overview of Koranic studies since the middle of the 19th century; and shows how, despite the claims of the faithful, the Koran is anything but the “clear” (mubin) Word of God. Not only is it unclear now whether the Arabic it’s written in was ever actually spoken but, like its rival Christian and Jewish scriptures, it’s replete with obscure and confusing text. A circumstance even its earliest, Muslim commentators wrestled with.
Franz Rosenthal’s “Some Minor Problems in the Qur’an” struggles with problems of interpretation in some very important suras – primarily Sura 9, which lays the basis for collecting the jizya, the tax levied against the People of the Book. The phrase an yadin, which occurs in the verse, resists adequate translation and even its meaning in the Arabic has stumped commentators for centuries. The following paper, Claude Cahen’s “Koran X.29,” suggests that it refers to a rite of submission but admits that there’s no textual or anthropological evidence for it. As I learned, many scholars have come to the conclusion that many of our problems stem from the fact that the suras’ original contexts were long since forgotten by the time the first commentaries were written.
James Bellamy’s “Some Proposed Emendations to the Text of the Koran” questions the fanatical resistance to changing any word in the received text, even when an error is obvious. Bellamy quotes Uthman (the third caliph), who, when he noted mistakes in the text, said, “Don’t correct them for the Bedouin Arabs will correct them with their tongues.” Bellamy argues that this intransigence does a disservice to the text and to believers’ understanding of their religion as it has forced subsequent commentators to do linguistic somersaults and concoct far-fetched explanations for nonsensical passages. Passages which become perfectly clear and meaningful when one realizes that a copyist forgot a stroke or added one too many. It’s of interest to compare this attitude with Christians’ and Jews’ attitudes toward their respective scriptures. By and large, Christians and Jews have actively sought the best reading of their Bibles; in fact, there’s a cottage industry that aggressively scours various editions and translations. It will be interesting to see if a similar spirit takes root in Muslim scholarship.
The final half of Ibn Rawandi’s essay “On Pre-Islamic Christian Strophic Poetical Texts in the Koran: A Critical Look at the Work of Gunter Luling” brings up the recent spate of revisionist histories (mainly Western in origin, I gather) that argue against the traditional story of Islam’s origins. Some of the more radical notions include the idea that Islam arose in northern Arabia, in towns bordering the Roman and Persian empires, between AD 650 and 800; that “rasul Muhammad” was a title and no one man named Muhammad ever lived; or that Islam is an offshoot of a heretical Christian sect (or a Jewish one). Fascinating stuff, though I can see how even a moderate, believing Muslim might become uncomfortable with the fundamental questions being asked (it’s akin to a Christian reading about how Jesus Christ never existed and Paul invented Christianity – yes, the theory’s out there). But as the author quotes Pascal – “There is always enough evidence for those who want to believe, and never enough for those who do not.” In my opinion, as long as questions are posed in the respectful, scholarly atmosphere of these papers, it shouldn’t cause offense. After all, it’s the message, not the medium that matters, whether the Word came from a south Arabian trader, a Jewish rabbi, the Son of God, or some other prophet.
But I wax too philosophical for a simple book review.
Weighing in at 744 pages of text and due to its specialized audience, I can’t really recommend this to anyone though the notes and bibliographies might be mined for further study. (less)
Reading The Punic Wars, I was reminded of Rick Atkinson’s An Army at Dawn, which I had read just prior to this book. Both are largely straightforward...moreReading The Punic Wars, I was reminded of Rick Atkinson’s An Army at Dawn, which I had read just prior to this book. Both are largely straightforward and well written accounts of epochal wars and both have to do with campaigns in North Africa and Italy (if one were to stretch the comparison to include Atkinson’s Day of Battle, his account of the Allied invasion of Italy). The only reservation I have against the current book (at least the edition I read) is not one of content but of editing – there are far too many easily caught typos, at least two instances where battle sites are confused (the one I noted because I was near pen and paper at the time was confusing Cannae with Zama), and they misspell the North African city of Hadrumetum as “Hadrumentum.”
The Punic Wars were a series of conflicts between the rising state of Rome and the dominant power of the Western Mediterranean, the Phoenician city of Carthage. It comprised three officially declared wars and lasted from 264-146 BC. Naturally enough, Goldsworthy divides the book into three parts corresponding to the three wars, and I will follow suit in this review.
First though, as in all histories of the Ancient World, a note on sources – or, better, their lack. We truly have only a handful of sources, and the closest in time to the periods under discussion (Polybius) breaks off at Cannae and only survives in fragments thereafter. Beyond that all surviving sources are Roman or pro-Roman (though we know of at least two histories written by Greeks who traveled with Hannibal). Unfortunately, archaeology is of little help since the politics of the period, the organization of armies, the economies, and all that other interesting stuff is not preserved in the rock strata. Despite these handicaps, Prof. Goldsworthy does an admirable job of synthesizing what we can know and reasonably speculating about what we can’t.
1st Punic War (264-241)
The first war happened almost by accident; there’s little evidence that Carthage and Rome’s relations were particularly hostile prior to 264. Nevertheless, both sides found themselves drawn into a direct confrontation over the disposition of Sicily. Goldsworthy argues that the escalation was largely the result of the nature of Roman politics. (pp. 74-5) Consuls served for only one year and, before these wars, pro-magistracies (extensions of authority beyond the stipulated term) were rare. Thus to win glory and honor, magistrates were compelled to move quickly, and the consuls for 264, Claudius Caudex and Fulvius Flaccus, saw opportunities in Sicily. I won’t begin to narrate the course of the first war but what emerges from Goldsworthy’s account are two distinct differences between the foes, which proved decisive in all three wars. The first was the nature of the armies involved. The Carthaginians relied almost entirely on mercenaries, primarily Spanish, Numidian and Libyan. In fact, it’s only the final army that faced Rome in the third war where a sizable Punic contingent is noted. While individual units may have been well-trained and led, the armies as a whole were composites where communication between units was difficult and coordination awkward. One of the factors in Hannibal’s success in the second war was that he managed to forge a unified fighting force but only after years of preparatory warfare in Spain. In contrast, the force he led at Zama had only been marshaled recently, lacking the esprit de corps that his Italian army enjoyed.
Roman armies, on the other hand, though made up of citizen conscripts and allies, were far more homogeneous and spoke related languages so communication was easier. Beyond that, they were highly trained to work together.
The second factor that ultimately led to Rome’s success was how both sides viewed war. Carthage’s view was the quintessential Hellenistic one – wars were fought between rival states to secure advantages. They often boiled down to a single, decisive battle (after much maneuvering), and the subsequent peace treaty left both sides intact and didn’t change the nature of their relationship. For Rome, though, war was “total.” The only conceivable outcome was unconditional victory for Rome (the enemy being destroyed or reduced to dependency) or her utter defeat. The idea of a “negotiated settlement” between equals was foreign to Roman ideas of diplomacy. Thus, what was a standard, Hellenistic style war to the Carthaginians was an existential threat to the Romans. The difference is clear in Rome’s response to defeat in battle – They lose a fleet? They rebuild it! They lose 50,000 men at Cannae? They recruit younger and older men and reconstitute the legions! Hannibal appears before the walls of Rome? They have a land sale, which includes the ground he camps on!
The first war was fought and won at sea. From a solely land-based Italian power in 264, Rome became a formidable naval one by 241 and dictated harsh terms to the Carthaginians. Rome was still not powerful enough and its political constitution and military organization not flexible enough to fully exploit its new found dominance. Despite Carthage’s defeat, it remained a power to be reckoned with. Though it was forced to abandon its designs in Sicily, Carthage immediately began to exploit opportunities in Spain.
The Second Punic War (218-201)
The second war is one of the relatively best documented periods in ancient history. Hannibal was the “devil” of Roman nightmares and Scipio Africanus, who defeats him at Zama, one of Rome’s greatest generals. Hannibal started it deliberately when he marched out of Spain, across modern-day Provence and down into Italy, where he terrorized Rome and her allies for the next sixteen years. (Even at the end, cornered in Italy’s boot heel, no Roman general relished confronting him so they sent legions to invade Africa instead.)
Unfortunately for Hannibal’s efforts, Carthage was still fighting a Hellenistic war and he received almost no support from the city and, despite a potentially powerful fleet, there was never any serious attempt to contest Rome’s mastery of the seas. With any other state any of Hannibal’s three great battles – Trebia, Trasimene and Cannae – would have brought both sides to the negotiating table. Instead, Rome dug in her heels, raised more legions and avoided engaging Hannibal in battle. As Goldsworthy points out, forcing unwilling armies to fight was extremely difficult. Most battles were fought between commanders who felt they enjoyed the upper hand and wanted to do so. Absent this attitude, most wars settled into maneuvering to control towns, disrupt supply lines, and win allies. All conditions which favored Rome. Adding to the Punic general’s woes and critical to his eventual failure in Italy was the political situation among the city-states that defected to his side. Though anti-Roman, they weren’t necessarily pro-Carthaginian and they proved unable to work together (indeed, freed from Rome’s oversight, some went to war with each other).
More so than the first, the second war fundamentally changed Roman society and set it firmly on the path to empire. Among other things, I’ll mention two notable developments. First, the army evolved into a highly professional organization. Under Scipio, it achieved miracles that would have been unthinkable in the first war and at the start of the second, and impossible in the Carthaginian ranks. Second, the heavy losses amongst the ranks of the Roman elite changed the makeup of the legions – unpropertied and poorer men in the ranks (at the lowest ebb, even slaves) and the promotion of middle-ranking citizens to the senatorial class. That, combined with the increasing custom of multiple magistracies and pro-magistracies, sowed the seeds that would bring down the Republic 150 years later.
The Third Punic War (149-146)
The third war was almost an afterthought. As a political power and threat to Rome, Carthage was impotent. So why the war? Goldsworthy argues that Rome “needed” the war because her position in the Mediterranean was slipping. It had been over 50 years since Rome’s legions had so thoroughly triumphed at Zama. The veterans were all dead and the legions’ professionalism was long gone. Roman prestige was at stake, and it was not helped by the arrogant, rapacious and brutal policies of its politicians and soldiers.
Despite its weakness and because of Rome’s ill preparedness, Carthage mounted a doomed but effective resistance for three long years before admitting defeat. Rome enslaved its citizens, razed most of the city (there’s evidence the harbor remained in operation after 146) and incorporated Africa into its growing network of provinces.
For Goldsworthy, the legacy of the wars was threefold:
(1)Overall, it marked Rome’s emergence as a world power and arbiter of foreign affairs throughout the Mediterranean.
(2) It accustomed Rome to long-term commitments of troops and resources overseas, and made an already highly militarized society even more so.
(3) And the need for such long-term military service destroyed the small-farmer class of citizens that had formed the bulk of the legions. By the end of the Republic they had been replaced by the vast, slave-worked estates of the Roman elite and a professional army was increasingly estranged from the State, becoming personally loyal only to its generals.
Enthusiastically and most definitely recommended to any interested in the period.(less)
This is an interesting look at the eastern arm of the Christian church, which survived for a thousand years under non-Christian polities (largely Musl...moreThis is an interesting look at the eastern arm of the Christian church, which survived for a thousand years under non-Christian polities (largely Muslim) and, arguably, flourished up through the 14th century AD. Only because of the vagaries of history (or the inscrutable machinations of God, depending upon one's point of view) did Western and Orthodox Christianity survive, that survival feeding the myths that the heterodox sects were suppressed by the Romans and that there were no Christians of any number outside of the empire. In fact, there were any number of Christians outside of the empire and in those darks days when Western Europe lay under the hands of the "barbarians" and the Eastern Romans were busy just trying to survive the Saracen onslaught, they enjoyed a vibrant intellectual life and greatly influenced the early Islamic empire both politically and theologically. Beyond that, they managed to evangelize as far afield as China and were influential presences in some of the most surprising places - like the courts of Mongol conquerors and Indian rajahs. Beginning around AD 1300, give or take a few decades, these communities began to disappear; Jenkins chronicles their survival and offers some reasons for their eventual destruction. (They were not entirely exterminated in many cases, however, but the believers had to go underground and avoid the attention of the governing polity.)
This is a very slim volume (only 262 pages of text) for the amount of ground it covers (over a 1,000 years of history and lands stretching from Gibraltar to Japan) so the reader is often left hungry for more information for just about every era Jenkins touches upon, especially as to causes since Jenkins is quite good at recognizing the variety of events that nurtured or killed Christian communities. For example, the disappearance of the North African church after AD 700 involved no large scale massacres of believers or serious persecutions but by 800, it's as if Augustine and Tertullian had never existed. In contrast, the Coptic church in Egypt commanded the alliegiance of a large minority of the population for centuries. It was finally broken only after generations of discrimination, persecution and the occasional pogrom.
The chapters "How Faiths Die" and "The Mystery of Survival" are provocative examinations of how beliefs live and die. For the believer of any stripe, some of Jenkins' conclusions may be a bit uncomfortable: There is no guarantee that any religion will survive no matter how successful it may appear at a given moment and some religions that appear "dead" can rebound spectacularly (consider that in AD 800, no one would have predicted that Western Europe and Christianity would be the dominant culture and faith a thousand years later; based on political and intellectual success alone, it should have been Islam).
The chapter "Ghosts of Faith" is an equally provocative look at the eastern Christian roots or influences on Muslim practices and beliefs, particularly among the Sufis. Jenkins even brings up the extremely tendentious argument that the Quran derives from Syriac Christian liturgies and gospels. While I have no brief for any particular scripture, I should note that Jenkins does seem to go out of his way to emphasize, perhaps overemphasize, the Christian influences on Islam.
On the whole, though, Jenkins is very balanced in his treatment of the various religious traditions. He is, after all, chronicling Christian disasters and the "villains" are often Muslims but he's careful to point out that some "deaths" stemmed from non-religious causes and that every religion has been guilty of discrimination and massacre.
While not, perhaps, a "must read," Jenkins is a welcome and interesting look at yet another aspect of history largely ignored in our assessments of the past and especially apropos considering current relations between the self-proclaimed children of Israel and Ishmael.(less)
Ah, “Star Trek.” So good yet so...frustrating. In one of its better episodes, “Bread and Circuses,” Kirk, Spock and McCoy find themselves on a world w...moreAh, “Star Trek.” So good yet so...frustrating. In one of its better episodes, “Bread and Circuses,” Kirk, Spock and McCoy find themselves on a world where Rome never fell; gladiatorial combats are broadcast on live TV; and 2,000 years after its founder’s death, Christianity is only now beginning to spread. As an erstwhile historian I have many misgivings about how this parallel history works out. For example, how does English become the lingua franca of the empire when it’s a child of Rome’s barbarian conquerors? But in regard to ST’s relationship to this book, one line in particular always makes me cringe when I hear it. The landing party has been captured by a group of escaped slaves who worship the “sun” (as Kirk, et al., assume), and McCoy makes the observation that it’s odd that these people would worship a solar deity. When Spock asks why, the doctor replies: “Because, my dear Spock, it’s illogical. Rome had no sun worshipers. Why would they parallel Rome in every way but that?” But, of course, Rome had plenty of sun (and Son) worshipers. As a symbol of power, prosperity, virtue and all good things, the sun has always been an important part of Indo-European mythologies. Among the traditional gods, Apollo and Helios (Sol) were solar deities. The Emperor Elagabalus (aka, Heliogabalus) was high priest of a Syrian solar cult. And the subject of this review attempted to reinvigorate the state cult by focusing worship on the Unconquered Sun (Sol Invictus).
What has this digression to do with Aurelian? Not much but I always think of him when I watch the episode, and inevitably am reminded of the show when I read about the emperor.
And the chance to bring in a “Star Trek” reference is an opportunity not to be missed.
Alaric Watson’s* Aurelian and the Third Century is a well written, straightforward account of one of the most critical, if all too brief, reigns in imperial history. In AD 270, the empire looked to have reached the nadir of its fortunes. A century of invasion and civil war had reduced the institutions established by Augustus three centuries before to chaos. A rival emperor ruled in the West, and Odenathus and Zenobia had created a separate state around Palmyra in the East.
Appearances were deceiving: By 275, when Aurelian was assassinated, the empire was reunited, the armies (for the most part) were disciplined and loyal, the currency was in the process of recovering its value, and reforms had begun that would restore fiscal health to the imperial treasury. Due in large part to Aurelian. Without his reign, it’s unlikely that Diocletian’s would have been possible a decade later.
The first part of this book is a narrative of the political and military events of the reign, the bulk of which revolve around the so-called Palmyrene Wars against Zenobia. Part two, focuses on the religious and economic reforms Aurelian undertook. Aurelian’s military campaigns restored unity to the empire and his reforms restored discipline and loyalty, which served his successors well in the decade after his death. His fiscal reforms were not entirely successful but they slowed the economic decline and formed the basis for Diocletian’s more thorough and successful efforts. Only in religion did Aurelian clearly fail.
The image of Aurelian has suffered much because our sources (particularly the notorious Historia Augusta, the Fox News Corp of its day) were written by members of the fading senatorial class, whose influence was being extinguished by the professional military and mandarin classes emerging in the third century. Consequently, they present Aurelian as a bloody-handed tyrant. While, admittedly, Aurelian was not a gentle soul, he showed surprising (for the times) forbearance to most of his enemies. Tetricus, his Western rival, held important posts in the imperial bureaucracy after his defeat; and Zenobia married a Roman senator and comfortably retired to an Italian estate.**
Of course, the officers who murdered Aurelian were convinced that their lives were in danger so we can’t exaggerate the emperor’s clemency too much. In 275, a disgruntled eunuch forged documents purporting to show that Aurelian was preparing to move against certain generals. In a pre-emptive strike, they moved and murdered him at Caenophrurium. The emperor’s loyalists (including the future Diocletian, who was known as Diocles at the time) were able to seize power as the conspirators had no political motivations for their deed and no plans for succession, and the empire was largely spared another debilitating civil war.
As a kid, at the beginning of my love affair with history and Rome in particular, Aurelian quickly became my favorite emperor, bar none. One reason was the name. I really like the name – it sounds and looks good. It’s fortunate that I’m childless since in all likelihood any son of mine would be saddled with that moniker. A second, more substantive, reason is that I was impressed by Aurelian’s foresight and political courage displayed when he evacuated the untenable province of Dacia (which lay on the northern side of the Danube). Watson’s biography reinforces that admiration and respect, and I recommend it to those interested in Roman history. The book breaks no new ground nor does it propose any seriously radical reinterpretation but it’s a lucid and interesting account of what most likely happened, incorporating the scholarship available at the time of writing (1999).
* “Alaric.” Now there’s a name to conjure with. How could a boy named “Alaric” not become a historian of Late Antiquity?
** The marriage may not have been entirely voluntary but considering that the alternatives involved any number of gruesome executions, Zenobia was probably relieved.
*** My favorite emperors and some recommended books about them (both fiction and nonfiction):