Apparently the guy who shot up the mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand had “Charles Martel” emblazoned on his gun, and designated Anders Breivik a “Knight Justiciar.”

Get ready for another round of accusations that the study of the Middle Ages is inherently racist.

Not that I approve of shooting people as they’re going to Friday prayers. Even Charles Martel fought like a man, on the field of battle. If you simply must participate in some counter-jihad, go where the actual wars are, like in northern Nigeria or northern Iraq. Or do a stint in the IDF.

Note to the Sun: a masjid is a mosque. It makes no sense to talk of “Masjid Al Noor Mosque” or the “Linwood Masjid Mosque.”

A friend of mine suggests that the shooter deliberately picked Christchurch as the place for his massacre, because it highlights the irony that there are mosques in a place called Christchurch. But there are Christian churches throughout the Dar-al-Islam! Why not live and let live? Sheesh.

Pedantic Professors

A followup to a post below. Sam Fallon writes in The Chronicle of Higher Education:

In recent weeks, Donald Trump’s pursuit of a border wall between the United States and Mexico has worked its way back in time — to the Middle Ages. Trump has happily agreed that his proposal is a distinctly “medieval solution.” “It worked then,” he declared in January, “and it works even better now.” That admission proved an invitation to critics, who inveighed against the wall as, in the words of the presidential hopeful Senator Kamala Harris, Trump’s “medieval vanity project.”

The response from medievalists was swift and withering — not just for the president, but also for his opponents. Calling the wall “medieval” was misleading, wrote Matthew Gabriele, of Virginia Tech, in The Washington Post, “because walls in the actual European Middle Ages simply did not work the way Trump apparently thinks they did.” On CNN.com, David M. Perry, of the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, insisted that “walls are not medieval.” And in Vox, Eric Weiskott, of Boston College, urged readers to “take it from a professor of medieval literature: calling things you don’t like ‘medieval’ is inaccurate and unhelpful.”

Along with every other medievalist, I take umbrage at the negative connotation of “medieval” in popular discourse. But on this particular issue, I think that our politics have gotten the better of us. No, boundaries between states were generally not walled in the Middle Ages (unlike in the Roman Empire or in Imperial China) – in fact, they often weren’t even defined. But any city worth the name was surrounded by a wall, for the obvious reason that it might be attacked, and given the military technology of the time, a wall formed an effective defense against such attack.

The walls of Orleans helped save the city from an English siege in 1429, which even involved the use of canon. Wikipedia.

All that Trump would like to do is to treat the country like a medieval city. One can take issue with his idea that the great hordes of illegal aliens swarming across our southern border really constitute an invasion force or otherwise threaten our way of life, or that a wall will be the best way of keeping them out (proper visa tracking and compulsory e-verify might be more useful on this front). I note, however, that a lot of the people who are in favor of not enforcing our immigration laws live in places where they don’t have to experience the externalities of the policies they champion, often surrounded by actual barriers, or otherwise protected by private security forces or just astronomical prices to keep the riffraff out. I read somewhere that the choice for America going forward is this: either a wall on the southern border, or lots of little walls throughout the country.

So yeah, walls are medieval… and they just may be something worth reviving.

Panem et Circenses

There is a theory that “Rome fell” because of its policy of “bread and circuses” – that is, in the Roman republic, the average citizen was a stout, independent yeoman farmer who participated in government through the plebeian assembly and served in the army out of duty. But as the republic became the empire such people were transformed into the proletariat – they sold out to the latifundia, and moved to Rome, where they lived in slums, and cared for nothing beyond their daily bread ration and for watching gladiatorial combat and supporting their favorite charioteers. Thus does the expression “bread and circuses” indicate the Roman policy of buying off the lower orders with cheap carbs and free entertainment. No longer were they politically engaged – they simply let Rome fall while they amused themselves to death.

Does this remind you of anyone? Are we not content as long as we have our junk food and ESPN on massive television screens? I’d call it Plato’s Cave if that weren’t another classical metaphor.

But I don’t think that this “portentous” reason for the Fall of Rome is necessarily useful. For in an age of social media, many people treat politics way more seriously than it deserves to be. I know people who cheer for their political party in the same the way that some people cheer for the Georgia Bulldogs, or that some ancient Romans cheered for the drivers of the Blue team. You could say that they’re politically engaged, for sure, but not in a useful way. Politics ought to be a small part of life, but when it becomes all-consuming, that too is symbolic of a certain decline.


Eric Weiskott in Vox:

Last month, Dana Milbank wrote for the Washington Post that President Trump’s proposed wall along the Mexico–US border was “medieval.” “It’s true,” Trump responded later the same day, “because [a wall] worked then and it works even better now.” CNN’s Jake Tapper mocked Trump’s response on his newscast with a cartoon depicting the president as a medieval European king.

Take it from a professor of medieval literature: calling things you don’t like ‘medieval’ is inaccurate and unhelpful. It’s inaccurate, because we don’t live in the Middle Ages. The things that most anger, disgust, or offend us are relatively new in the grand scheme of history. And it’s unhelpful, because the ‘medieval’ label reinforces our overconfidence in ourselves and our modernity. That attitude goes all the way back to the Enlightenment in the 18th century. Not coincidentally, the Enlightenment is the movement that cemented the idea of the Middle Ages as a distinctive—and distinctly regrettable—period of European history, spanning roughly the 5th to the 15th centuries.

It’s not just Trump’s wall. ‘Medieval’ is often used to describe something cruel and archaic, a nod to a dark age that precedes the modern era. In December, the satirical website The Daily Mash ran a story with the headline, “‘No deal’ Brexit plan suspiciously similar to Middle Ages.” During the second 2016 presidential debate, while deflecting a question about the Access Hollywood tape, in which he can be heard boasting of sexually assaulting women, Trump described “a world where you have ISIS chopping off heads” as “like medieval times.” In Pulp Fiction, Marsellus Wallace famously threatens his rapist, Zed, “I’ma get medieval on your ass,” evoking the Middle Ages’ unearned reputation for creative torture. The threat is supposed to promise Zed a fate worse than death. Wallace mentions “a pair of pliers and a blowtorch.”

Quite right! Blowtorches were not medieval instruments. Read the whole thing.

This is the End

From the BBC (hat tip: Ron Good), a spine-tingling article on civilizational collapse:

While there is no single accepted theory for why collapses happen, historians, anthropologists and others have proposed various explanations, including:

CLIMATIC CHANGE: When climatic stability changes, the results can be disastrous, resulting in crop failure, starvation and desertification. The collapse of the Anasazi, the Tiwanaku civilisation, the Akkadians, the Mayan, the Roman Empire, and many others have all coincided with abrupt climatic changes, usually droughts.

ENVIRONMENTAL DEGRADATION: Collapse can occur when societies overshoot the carrying capacity of their environment. This ecological collapse theory, which has been the subject of bestselling books, points to excessive deforestation, water pollution, soil degradation and the loss of biodiversity as precipitating causes.

INEQUALITY AND OLIGARCHY: Wealth and political inequality can be central drivers of social disintegration, as can oligarchy and centralisation of power among leaders. This not only causes social distress, but handicaps a society’s ability to respond to ecological, social and economic problems.

The field of cliodynamics models how factors such as equality and demography correlate with political violence. Statistical analysis of previous societies suggests that this happens in cycles. As population increases, the supply of labour outstrips demand, workers become cheap and society becomes top-heavy. This inequality undermines collective solidarity and political turbulence follows.

COMPLEXITY: Collapse expert and historian Joseph Tainter has proposed that societies eventually collapse under the weight of their own accumulated complexity and bureaucracy. Societies are problem-solving collectives that grow in complexity in order to overcome new issues. However, the returns from complexity eventually reach a point of diminishing returns. After this point, collapse will eventually ensue.

Another measure of increasing complexity is called Energy Return on Investment (EROI). This refers to the ratio between the amount of energy produced by a resource relative to the energy needed to obtain it. Like complexity, EROI appears to have a point of diminishing returns. In his book The Upside of Down, the political scientist Thomas Homer-Dixon observed that environmental degradation throughout the Roman Empire led to falling EROI from their staple energy source: crops of wheat and alfalfa. The empire fell alongside their EROI. Tainter also blames it as a chief culprit of collapse, including for the Mayan.

EXTERNAL SHOCKS: In other words, the “four horsemen”: war, natural disasters, famine and plagues. The Aztec Empire, for example, was brought to an end by Spanish invaders. Most early agrarian states were fleeting due to deadly epidemics. The concentration of humans and cattle in walled settlements with poor hygiene made disease outbreaks unavoidable and catastrophic. Sometimes disasters combined, as was the case with the Spanish introducing salmonella to the Americas.

RANDOMNESS/BAD LUCK: Statistical analysis on empiressuggests that collapse is random and independent of age. Evolutionary biologist and data scientist Indre Zliobaite and her colleagues have observed a similar pattern in the evolutionary record of species. A common explanation of this apparent randomness is the “Red Queen Effect”: if species are constantly fighting for survival in a changing environment with numerous competitors, extinction is a consistent possibility.

More at the link.

The Late Roman Republic

The century from 130 to 30 BC marks the transformation of the Roman Republic into the Roman Empire – that is, a polity ruled by an actual emperor, not just a large collection of territories, which it was already. In fact, Rome’s expansion to rule the entire Mediterranean basin outshot its ability to change its constitution peacefully. Eventually the constitution did get changed, but only after a century of intermittent civil war, and mostly as an expedient: Augustus held ultimate power, because that was better than chaos. Of course, Augustus’s rhetoric was that he “restored the republic,” but that was one of those statements that everyone had to publicly agree to, while simultaneously acting as though the reverse was true. If the President were to hold his office for life, and simultaneously act as Speaker of the House of Representatives and Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, also for life, no one would think that the United States was still a republic in any meaningful sense, because there would no longer be any separation of powers.

At one point most educated people knew about the decline of the Roman Republic. It is an epic tale anyway, but it also provided instructive examples for subsequent generations. The biggest one, I think, is the notion that republics are inherently unstable, that in order to function properly they are too dependent on the personal integrity of their public servants, and it is only a matter of time before they break down into faction and civil war as human nature reasserts itself. It took a long time before people were willing to take a risk on republicanism again, at which time republican Rome served as an example of certain things to avoid: it is generally a bad idea that politicians should simultaneously act as military officers, for the obvious reason that they will be too tempted to use their armies to further their political ambitions. In the United States, you can seek a political career after a military one, but you have to resign your commission first.

But that was not the case in the first century BC. The days of Cincinnatus were long gone. The Senate called Cincinnatus (519-430 BC) out of retirement and granted him dictatorial powers to deal with a crisis. Cincinnatus did so with dispatch, and immediately resigned, even though he could have stayed on for the remainder of his six-month term. His name thereafter became a byword for civic virtue – a shining example of someone who served because it was his duty, and not because he was hoping to profit from the office. George Washington, because he resigned his command of the Continental Army, and because he resigned the presidency after two terms, is naturally known as the American Cincinnatus. A club for revolutionary war officers and their descendants took the name the Society of the Cincinnati in honor of Cincinnatus; the city in Ohio takes its name from this group.


But how can you compel politicians to act like this? Well, you can’t. All you can do is praise the people you would like to serve as models, and even then the narcissists and sociopaths who are attracted to power won’t care a toss about any “virtue.” It is very difficult anyway, over the long run, to enforce the custom of self-sacrifice for the greater good. Eventually it gets really old, both for individuals and for societies.

Thus, by 130 BC, the people who did very well out of the wars against Carthage and Macedonia were quite enjoying their power and wealth, thank you very much, and were not interested in giving it up. Some of them bought up land in Italy and worked it with huge gangs of slaves. There is no way that the independent yeoman farmer could compete with this, rather as America’s small-town mom-and-pop stores cannot possibly compete with Walmart and other big-box retailers. What could a plebeian do but sell out to the latifundia (as these plantations were called), move to the big city, and try to find some form of work there? Rome’s population ballooned during this time, mostly on account of poor people taking up residence in the slums of the city – a phenomenon noticeable in the Third World today.

The Gracchi brothers, Tiberius (d. 133) and Gaius (d. 121), deplored this situation and sought to arrest it. They both served as tribune – an office created in the early fifth century to act as a “voice of the people” against the patricians who dominated the Senate and all the other offices of state. Tribunes were licensed to “speak truth to power” and thus possessed sacrosanctity, a kind of diplomatic immunity: anyone harming a tribune could be instantly killed. This is why so many newspapers call themselves “tribune” – they are hoping that their readers will think of them as a fearless voice of the people against powerful interests.

The brothers Gracchi both promoted land reform. Generally, they wanted to limit the size of the latifundia, and redistribute the surplus to veterans, so that these people who had served Rome would at least have something to live on in their retirement. But the senators did not really appreciate this return of old Rome, the Rome of the independent plebeian farmer, and so contrived to have them both killed. Killed! Despite their sacrosanctity. This sad episode marks the beginning of a cycle political violence that was to plague Rome for a long time to come. It also reminds me of the story of Jacobo Árbenz, president of Guatemala 1951-54. Árbenz also proposed land reform – the government would buy up some of the extensive holdings of the United Fruit Company and redistribute it to landless Guatemalan peasants, compensating the company for the value of the land as it had been reported for tax purposes. Of course, the land was worth much more than that, and the United Fruit Company lobbied the US State Department to oppose the policy, on the principle that this was Communism! (“If it walks like a duck and it quacks like a duck, then it’s a duck.”) The CIA then fomented a military coup, which installed Carlos Castillo Armas as president, who obligingly ended the proposed land reforms. Árbenz was not killed in the coup, but he died drunk and in exile in 1971, and Central America was made safe for American capitalism. This episode is not well known in America, but it is very well known south of the Rio Grande, along with all the other instances of American meddling in Latin America over the course of the twentieth century, for fundamentally selfish reasons.

One of the problems of the Roman latifundia is the same problem faced by all slave economies: the slaves represent a security risk. Naturally, they resent their condition, and if they outnumber their owners, they will take any chance they get to rebel. One of the most famous slave rebellions in history was that of Spartacus (d. 71 BC), a gladiator who organized his fellow gladiators at their school in Capua, who rose up and killed the owners, escaped from the school, and spent the next two years ravaging southern Italy, freeing latifundia slaves and killing anyone who opposed them, and amassing an ever-greater army. Eventually this force was defeated by Pompey and Crassus, two Roman generals who had been tasked with doing so. The body of Spartacus was never found, but some six thousand slaves were crucified along the Appian Way as a warning to survivors never to try such a thing again. Nevertheless, Spartacus became a hugely inspirational figure for slaves throughout history: Toussaint L’Ouverture, the leader of the Haitian Revolution, was sometimes called the Black Spartacus, as was Nat Turner, leader of a slave rebellion in Southampton County, Virginia in 1831.


Communists were also inspired by Spartacus, on the principle that industrial workers were basically slaves. Thus we have Rosa Luxembourg and Karl Liebknecht’s Spartacus League, a post-Great War Marxist revolutionary movement in Germany, the Soviet athletic club Spartak, and the Spartakiad, a communist answer the Olympic Games.


Of course, we also got a great sword-and-sandal movie out of it, and a more recent television series. The scene at the end of the movie, when all the slaves in turn proclaimed “I’m Spartacus!” in order to protect the real Spartacus, has been inspirational to subsequent films and to US Senators.

Pompey and Crassus subsequently dominated Rome as members of the First Triumvirate. The third member was of course Julius Caesar, a man of overwhelming ambition who was in the process of subduing Gaul and making sure that everyone knew about it. He would send reports of his exploits back to Rome to be read in the Forum; collected, these reports comprise Caesar’s Gallic Wars, a classic text for Latin instruction. Pompey and Crassus doubtlessly felt that an alliance with Caesar would be to their benefit. But Crassus was killed fighting Mithridates of Pontus, and Pompey, in Rome, grew suspicious of Caesar’s popularity and so recalled him from Gaul. Caesar did return, but at the head of his army. He had command of Legio XIII in Gaul, but not in Italy, so when he crossed the Rubicon River, which formed the boundary between the two provinces, he was in essence declaring war on the Roman state. Thus has “crossing the Rubicon” come to indicate an irrevocable decision, for which the only results can be death or glory. “Alea iacta est,” Caesar is alleged to have said as he entered Italy: “the die is cast” (“die” as singular of “dice,” and “cast” as in “rolled” – it’s not a reference to casting bronze or iron in a mould, as some people believe).

The HBO television series Rome at one point has Caesar’s lieutenant Marc Antony telling his boss that “some would call it hubris.” “It’s only hubris if I fail,” replies Caesar – and it’s true, ultimately Caesar won, against Pompey, against the forces of Ptolemy XIII in Egypt, and against Pharnaces of Pontus, a victory that was so easy that Caesar coined the memorable Laconic phrase “Veni, vidi, vici” to commemorate it. (“I came, I saw, I conquered” gets referenced every now and then, including in the movie Ghostbusters and by Hillary Clinton.) Caesar, it seems, was a master of rolling the dice.

Back in Rome, Caesar aggrandized himself, to the consternation of some people. He contrived to get the Senate to name him dictator for life, and he put his portrait on coins and named a month after himself (previously, only gods got such treatment). His relationship with the Egyptian Queen Cleopatra did not help on this front – her visit to Rome was a tableau of oriental decadence. Naturally, there was a great deal of alarm over this extremely un-Roman behavior, which led to a senatorial conspiracy to oust him. Since they couldn’t vote him out of office, murder was the only option. And so on March 15, 44 BC, in the Theater of Pompey, Caesar received 23 stab wounds from at least as many Senators, who hoped to prevent the republic from reverting to a monarchy. One of the conspirators, Marcus Junius Brutus, felt he had a reputation to live up to, since his ancestor Lucius Junius Brutus had taken a leading role in the overthrow of the original Roman monarchy in 509 BC. “Sic semper tyrannis!” Brutus is alleged to have cried as he stabbed Caesar, a line recycled for the motto of the Commonwealth of Virginia, with George III in the role of the “tyrant.”


“Brutus” has thus become a byword for “assassin,” for either noble or base motives. Perhaps the most famous example in American history, after Lee Harvey Oswald, is John Wilkes Booth, the murderer of President Abraham Lincoln at Ford’s Theater on April 14, 1865. Booth is alleged to have shouted “Sic semper tyrannis!” as he shot Lincoln in the back of his head as he watched the play Our American Cousin from his box.


The most well-known representation of this historical episode in English is William Shakespeare’s 1599 play Julius Caesar. (Booth himself had acted in the play in the previous year, although not in the role of Brutus.) Julius Caesar is responsible for the popularization of the expression “the Ides of March.” The “ides” of a given month occurred halfway through it, i.e. the fifteenth on average. “Beware the Ides of March!” warns a soothsayer in Julius Caesar, advice that Caesar should have heeded, since eventually everyone’s luck runs out. The coin pictured above was issued by Brutus in the autumn of 44 BC, with a cap of liberty between two daggers, and the legend EID[IBUS] MAR[TIIS], “on the Ides of March,” a rather bold statement on his part.

But as it turns out, Brutus and Cassius did not have quite the support that they had hoped for. Caesar may have been a dictator, but he was a dictator with whom a lot of people agreed. An American might be conditioned to respond positively to the word “republic,” but in Roman terms “republic” meant “aristocratic control.” Caesar, for his part, was allied with the Populares, a party favoring the cause of the plebeians, as the Gracchi brothers originally were. So Caesar was a dictator who supposedly acted on behalf of the little guy. To illustrate this, Shakespeare has Marc Antony publicly reading Caesar’s will, which promises a certain amount of money to every Roman citizen, and which bequeathes his private parks for public use. Public opinion then turns decisively against the assassins. Historically, Marc Antony, Caesar’s great-nephew Octavian, and the general Lepidus formed the Second Triumvirate, which defeated the forces of Brutus and Cassius at the Battle of Philippi in 42 BC.

American Greatness.

One cannot help but think that current American politics are a distant echo of the conflict between the Senate and Caesar. When President Trump declared this week that the situation at our southern border constitutes a national emergency, more than one of my Facebook friends specifically compared him to Caesar acting the dictator. This comparison is superficially true – Trump is certainly an ambitious egomaniac with Petronian tastes who has set himself up as an opponent of career politicians and other agents of the “deep state,” and who thus enjoys a great deal of support in flyover country on the supposition that he’s standing up for the ordinary people who live there. His emergency declaration, however, is well within recent constitutional history – indeed, according to the article from which the image above is taken, “Trump Is Bad at Being a Tyrant.” He deserves to be watched, of course, but in general his offensiveness seems far more aesthetic than legal.

In the 30s BC, the Second Triumvirate suffered the same fate as the First: one member (Lepidus) was sidelined, and the remaining two fell out with each other. At the naval battle of Actium in 31 BC, Octavian’s general Marcus Agrippa defeated the forces of Marc Antony and of Cleopatra, with whom Marc Antony had taken up. Octavian chased them to Egypt, where they both committed suicide, Marc Antony by falling on his sword, and Cleopatra by venom from an asp.


Cleopatra has not served as much of an “example” for subsequent generations but she is one of the most fascinating figures of this period of history, and has been portrayed many times on canvas, stage, and screen, including in another play by Shakespeare.

Octavian, the last man standing, was still fairly young, and continued to rule for over forty years, finally dying in AD 14. Known to history as Augustus (meaning “revered,” a title bestowed on him by the Senate), he succeeded where Julius Caesar had failed. By holding several republican offices at once, and in perpetuity, by making sure that the Senate was packed with his supporters, and by having his Praetorian guard take out any potential troublemakers, he consolidated power for himself, and established a new arrangement for ruling the vast territories that Rome had acquired, an arrangement that was passed on to his groomed successor Tiberius. The shift from republic to empire is deplored in the extended Star Wars narrative, in which the Galactic Republic ruled by the Jedi is good, but the Empire that displaces it is very bad indeed. However, Augustus was not entirely self-serving in pulling a similar move, and enjoyed a certain amount of support in carrying it out, because at least he brought peace. He also had an eye for public relations: like his mentor Julius Caesar, he cultivated a certain image (in his case, as a “family values” candidate). He was also lucky in that his reign coincided with Latin coming into its own as a literary language. Thus Virgil’s Aeneid, composed between 29 and 19 BC, which not only glorifies Rome as such, but also specifically praises Augustus. When you set your story in the past, you can have your characters make very accurate predictions about the future, and when Aeneas visits the underworld in Book 6, the Cumaean Sybil tells him:

Now fix your sight, and stand intent, to see
Your Roman race, and Julian progeny.
The mighty Caesar waits his vital hour,
Impatient for the world, and grasps his promis’d pow’r.
But next behold the youth of form divine,
Caesar himself, exalted in his line;
Augustus, promis’d oft, and long foretold,
Sent to the realm that Saturn rul’d of old…

Shakespeare uses this technique in Macbeth, written to celebrate the accession of James I to the throne of England in 1603. Set in the eleventh century, the play nonetheless shows Banquo’s descendants with “two-fold balls and treble scepters” – a reference to the fact that James was king of Scotland and England (and by extension Ireland).

I hope this post serves as a demonstration of the double importance of history. The original events are important in themselves, and they also serve as a prism though which subsequent generations understand the events of their own times. So in studying the late Roman republic, not only will you learn about the republic itself, you’ll learn about the English Renaissance, the American Revolution, the Haitian Revolution, twentieth-century Communism, and even the present day.

The Centennial of the Armistice

Lapel poppy as sold by the Royal Canadian Legion.

For the past four years we have been observing the centennials of the various events that comprised the Great War, including the Battle of the Somme (July 1, 1916) and the Battle of Vimy Ridge (April 9, 1917). Today we mark the end of it: on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, 1918, an armistice went into effect, ending hostilities on the Western Front, which had thus far killed over three million people and wounded over eight million, all started by some damned fool thing in the Balkans. And, as everyone knows, the settlement that ended the war simply set the stage for the next one: the Treaty of Versailles was not as fair as Wilson had promised in his Fourteen Points, nor as punitive as it needed to be to ensure that Germany did not rise again. So just as the Great Famine of 1315-22 weakened the immune systems of a whole generation of Europeans, and made the Black Death of 1346-51 more virulent than it otherwise would have been, so also did the First World War lead directly to the Second, which then overshadowed it in cultural memory.

Garden of Remembrance, St. Paul’s Cathedral churchyard, City of London, November 11, 2010.

This is especially true in the United States, which only joined the First World War in 1917, and only as a result of a potential threat as revealed by the Zimmerman Telegram. The United States also joined the Second World War “late,” i.e. over two years after Germany invaded Poland, but it did so as the result of a direct attack on its naval base at Pearl Harbor. The Americans played a significant role in defeating Nazi Germany; they played an even bigger role in the defeat of Imperial Japan, including through the use of the atomic bomb, which they had developed at great expense. So it’s only natural that, to an American, the Second World War means more than the First.

The Cenotaph, Whitehall, 2018.

It’s somewhat different in Britain and the Commonwealth. Once the United Kingdom declared war on Germany on August 4, 1914, all the Empire, even the Dominions, immediately followed, and fought, and bled quite profusely, for the sake of Britain’s allies on the continent. For well-known reasons, the war bogged down into a bloody stalemate where the advantage was always to the defense, and it soon became obvious that this was going to be a war of attrition – the first side to run out of men and materiel was going to be the one to lose, and this is more or less what ended up happening. Four years of mass industrial slaughter on the Western Front was deeply traumatizing, and gave birth to rituals of remembrance that Americans generally don’t share: the sanctification of November 11 (at first designated Armistice Day, and now as Remembrance Day), the wearing of a lapel poppy* in the run-up to this, the ceremonial placement of wreaths of poppies at war memorials on the day itself, and the two-minute silence at 11:00 AM. (November 11 may be Veterans’ Day in the United States, but memorializing the war dead is the function of Memorial Day in May, which derives from the Civil War. The VFW occasionally sells poppies, but the practice is nowhere near as ubiquitous as it is in Canada or the United Kingdom.) Of course, as with the United States, the UK and its Commonwealth also remember the Second World War, and probably to a greater extent, given Churchill’s refusal to make a deal with Hitler, his inspirational speeches, the evacuation of Dunkirk, the Battle of Britain, the Blitz, D-Day, and an unconditional surrender forced on a monstrously evil regime.

Tomb of the Unknown Warrior, Westminster Abbey. Wikipedia.

All the same, the First World War does loom larger in the Commonwealth than in the United States. And it deserves to be remembered, in both places. As pointless as all the killing was, the Great War turned out to be the Great Divide, and represented the real end of the nineteenth century and the birth of the twentieth. When the dust settled, four empires – the German, Russian, Austro-Hungarian, and Ottoman – had fallen, and many smaller nations won their independence. Communists took over Russia, and the stage was set for what Henry Luce called the American Century. Women were granted the right to vote in both Britain and the United States. Perhaps most importantly, the Great War shattered European self-confidence, and caused the mainstreaming of skepticism, pessimism, and “uncertainty” (one of the reasons, unfortunately, why Britain and France did not stand up to Hitler until it was too late).

Diamond War Memorial, Londonderry, Northern Ireland.

So I was pleased to learn that a World War I memorial is being planned for Washington DC. From a BBC article about it published last year:

“The Great War” was overtaken in the national consciousness by the Great Depression and World War II, says Edwin Fountain, vice-chairman of the WWI Centennial Commission. The commission has been authorised by Congress to build the new memorial in Washington, DC, as well as increase awareness of the war.

“The Centennial is the last best opportunity to teach Americans that World War I was in fact the most consequential event of the 20th Century,” he says. “It had effects that we live and struggle with today, overseas and at home.”

“The debate about the role of America in the world, the balance between national security and civil liberties, the place of women, African Americans and immigrants in our society – all those issues were vigorously discussed during WWI.

“You cannot contribute to those discussions today without understanding our historical roots.”

Gable end mural, Northland St. (arbitrarily renamed “Thiepval St.”), Belfast, Northern Ireland.

At the same time, how the war was fought, and not just its aftermath, deserves closer attention too. If anyone knows anything about the Great War, it is an image largely created by Remarque’s great autobiographical novel All Quiet on the Western Front. Historian Dan Snow recently countered several myths about it, including that most soldiers died, that it was the bloodiest conflict in history to that point, that the upper classes got off lightly, and that soldiers lived in the trenches for years on end (in truth, they were cycled out regularly).

Mural, Glenwood St., Belfast, Northern Ireland.

Still, it was no picnic, as a recent article in the Economist reminds us:

The first world war was not just a grand tragedy. For the 67 million who fought, it was a sordid hellscape. Few of the ten million killed in combat died from a “bullet, straight to the heart”, as pro forma telegrams to relatives put it. Many more bled to death in no-man’s land, their wails lingering for days like “moist fingers being dragged down an enormous windowpane”, as a British lieutenant wrote of the Battle of the Somme. Traumatised survivors sometimes slept in open sewers, and begged for their mothers as superiors ordered them over the top.

They guarded what slivers of humanity and dignity they could. At Compiègne today visitors can view silver rings from the trenches bearing initials (LV, MJ, SH or G) or four-leaf clovers; pipes with marks worn where teeth once clenched; a tube of insect-bite cream; letter-openers fashioned from shell casings, the names of yearned-for correspondents etched into their blades (“Marguerite”, “Mlle Rose-Marie”). A certain stoic humour also played its part. “I was hit. I looked round and saw that my leg had shot out and hit the fellow behind me (who got rather annoyed about [it])” wrote Charlemagne’s great-grandfather in his diary in 1915, just outside Ypres.

The article goes on to note that (emphasis added):

The first world war happened because a generation of Victorian leaders took for granted the stable order that had prevailed in most of Europe for decades. They should have read their history books. Yet the war was also a tale of forces beyond the power of any leader, however well-read; of nations and continents not as trains on history’s railway lines, run by drivers and switchmen, but as rafts tossed about on history’s ocean, dipping at most an occasional oar into the waves. Fate was the real grand homme of the “Great War”. The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914 would not have happened had his driver not taken a wrong turning in Sarajevo. The German army’s initial advance was halted at Nieuwpoort by a Belgian lock-keeper who flooded the surrounding marshlands. Political twists in Berlin, not crushing defeat on the battlefield, pushed Germany to sue for peace in 1918.

I am chary of drawing “lessons” from history, but it seems in this case that history really does provide us with an instructive example.

Memorial to Lt. Col. John McCrae, Guelph, Ontario, 2015.

* The poppy as a symbol of remembrance derives from the poem “In Flanders Fields” by Lt. Col. John McCrae of Guelph, Ontario, who was serving with the Canadian Expeditionary Force and who died of pneumonia in January, 1918. He was by no means the only English-language war poet: the First World War produced a remarkable amount of poetry from the viewpoint of its participants, a product of the war taking place after the advent of mass literacy but before other forms of entertainment relegated poetry to a niche interest (see Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory for more on this). I was pleased to see the memorial to sixteen representative war poets in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey this summer, including the greats Robert Graves, Rupert Brooke, Siegfried Sassoon, and Wilfred Owen.

Sadly, the poppy is “political” in some parts of the world, and not just because people believe that it justifies war. Among the nationalist community in Northern Ireland, the poppy represents “Britain’s War,” and thus represents British imperialism and British oppression. Nationalists, as noted, wear lilies in memory of the Easter Rising, and will generally refuse to wear poppies, even going so far as to taunt those who do.


An interesting discovery by Tim Furnish in a local Starbucks:

The website of Young Templar Ministries gives no indication where it is physically headquartered save for the Atlanta “770” area code in the founder’s phone number, and that they’ll be having a rally at 6835 Victory Lane in Woodstock, Ga. They don’t claim to be associated with any Christian denomination, but their beliefs section (“The Holy Bible is the inspired Word of God… Jesus was the final and complete sacrifice for the sins of humanity. Salvation is Given, not earned. It is freely given through Grace because of faith in Jesus Christ,” etc.) suggests fundamentalism and evangelicalism.

This seems a little odd. Why should a medieval crusading order serve as inspiration for a twenty-first century American youth movement? Christian warfare (the website references “Young Soldiers” and “God’s Army”), even of the metaphorical kind, is not exactly hip these days. The Templars, especially, are supposed to be inspirational to the alt-right and thus even more dodgy. And let’s not forget how they ended, and consequently how inspirational they were to esoteric and/or dissident groups.

Or is that the point – that anyone persecuted by the medieval church can’t be all bad? Or (more ominously) is Christian warfare really coming back into fashion?


I have no idea whether the title of this post is a real thing, but it seems to describe Erdogan’s schtick, at least as revealed in a recent speech (from The Conversation, via Instapundit):

On our third trip to Istanbul, my wife and I visited the 19th century Dolmabahce Palace, once the administrative centre of the Ottoman Empire. As we toured the 285-room palace my wife was struck with not just how well preserved it was, but that it was one of at least five palaces from the Ottoman era in Turkey that are now museums open to the public.

This is telling, because it is not something found across the rest of the Middle East and Arab world, where such palaces are still very much in use as palaces – for example, the nine palaces in Jordan. Turkey is a modern republic created from the heart of the former Ottoman empire, established since the 14th century. Few of the other former regions of the empire across the Middle East and North Africa can boast of such a long political history, with countries such as Jordan not yet even 100 years old.

Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, is well aware of this fact, and does not distinguish between glorious empire and modern republic. “The Republic of Turkey is also a continuation of the Ottomans,” he declared in a recent speech. The empire is more than a memory. It is a symbol of political clout, and the prospect of once again leading the Muslim world. This symbolic power is captured by the presidential palace at Ankara, a towering structure that puts the mansions of modern-day monarchs to shame. At a cost of over US$500m, Aksaray or “white palace” is bigger than Trump’s White House or Putin’s Kremlin, and has led critics to say the president is acting “like a sultan”.

Erdoğan seeks a return to Islam’s golden age. Increased public finance has been made available for Islamic schools – Erdoğan attended an Islamic school, one that has since been named after him and enjoyed an US$11m upgrade. “The joint goal of all education and our teaching system is to bring up good people with respect for their history, culture and values,” Erdoğan emphasised at a ceremony to reopen his childhood school. These values include an understanding of Ottoman achievements over Western ideas.

More at the link, although as a commenter at Instapundit said, “so he’ll be seeking out the most direct blood-descendant of Mehmet the Sixth to re-establish the House of Osman and sit on the renewed palatial throne? They are still present, scattered around Europe but it is known who they are.

“Because there can be no ‘Ottoman Empire’ without them.”

Quite right! I remember thinking along these lines when I visited China back in 2005. “Tibet has always been a part of China,” our hosts helpfully explained to us. “China has not always been ruled by the CCP,” I was too polite to counter. “Where is the Son of Heaven these days?”

It’s always amazing how we remember what we want to remember, how we cherry-pick what we want from the past and turn it into a moral example, while ignoring everything else as “just something they did.”

Hindu Nationalism

Another misuse of history. From Reuters (courtesy Stephen Bartlett). Choice excerpts:

By rewriting history, Hindu nationalists aim to assert their dominance over India

By RUPAM JAIN and TOM LASSETERFiled March 6, 2018, 11 a.m. GMT

NEW DELHI – During the first week of January last year, a group of Indian scholars gathered in a white bungalow on a leafy boulevard in central New Delhi. The focus of their discussion: how to rewrite the history of the nation.

The government of Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi had quietly appointed the committee of scholars about six months earlier. Details of its existence are reported here for the first time.

Minutes of the meeting, reviewed by Reuters, and interviews with committee members set out its aims: to use evidence such as archaeological finds and DNA to prove that today’s Hindus are directly descended from the land’s first inhabitants many thousands of years ago, and make the case that ancient Hindu scriptures are fact not myth.

Interviews with members of the 14-person committee and ministers in Modi’s government suggest the ambitions of Hindu nationalists extend beyond holding political power in this nation of 1.3 billion people – a kaleidoscope of religions. They want ultimately to shape the national identity to match their religious views, that India is a nation of and for Hindus.

In doing so, they are challenging a more multicultural narrative that has dominated since the time of British rule, that modern-day India is a tapestry born of migrations, invasions and conversions. That view is rooted in demographic fact. While the majority of Indians are Hindus, Muslims and people of other faiths account for some 240 million, or a fifth, of the populace…

According to the minutes of the history committee’s first meeting, Dikshit, the chairman, said it was “essential to establish a correlation” between ancient Hindu scriptures and evidence that Indian civilization stretches back many thousands of years. Doing so would help bolster both conclusions the committee wants to reach: that events described in Hindu texts are real, and today’s Hindus are descendants of those times.

The minutes and interviews with committee members lay out a comprehensive campaign to achieve this, including the dating of archaeological sites and DNA testing of human remains.

Culture Minister Sharma told Reuters he wants to establish that Hindu scriptures are factual accounts. Speaking of the Ramayana, the epic that follows the journey of a Hindu deity in human form, Sharma said: “I worship Ramayana and I think it is a historical document. People who think it is fiction are absolutely wrong.” The epic tells how the god Rama rescues his wife from a demon king. It still informs many Indians’ sense of gender roles and duty.

Sharma said it was a priority to prove through archaeological research the existence of a mystical river, the Saraswati, that is mentioned in another ancient scripture, the Vedas. Other projects include examining artifacts from locations in scriptures, mapping the dates of astrological events mentioned in these texts and excavating the sites of battles in another epic, the Mahabharata, according to Sharma and minutes of the committee’s meeting.

In much the same way that some Christians point to evidence of an ancient flood substantiating the Biblical tale of Noah and his ark, if the settings and features of the ancient scriptures in India can be verified, the thinking goes, then the stories are true. “If the Koran and Bible are considered as part of history, then what is the problem in accepting our Hindu religious texts as the history of India?” said Sharma.

Modi did not order the committee’s creation – it was instigated by Sharma, government documents show – but its mission is in keeping with his outlook. During the 2014 inauguration of a hospital in Mumbai, Modi pointed to the scientific achievements documented by ancient religious texts and spoke of Ganesha, a Hindu deity with an elephant’s head: “We worship Lord Ganesha, and maybe there was a plastic surgeon at that time who kept the head of an elephant on the torso of a human. There are many areas where our ancestors made large contributions.” Modi did not respond to a request from Reuters that he expand on this remark.

This is nuts! I repeat my query: Is it not possible to value your country, and the truth, at the same time? Bartlett told me of another forum of this dispute, in which Hindu nationalists triumphantly claimed that a study of mitochondrial DNA proved that “the Aryan invasions never happened!” Unfortunately for them, this conclusion was overturned pretty quickly, since mDNA is passed down from mothers – but not by Y chromosome DNA, which marks for maleness. A study of that suggests, indeed, that (male) warriors arrived and procreated with local women.

My Hanson and Curtis world history text has an inset box dealing with a similar issue (page 69):

Whose History of Hinduism is Correct?

Historians of religion often have a different understanding of a given religions tradition than do its adherents. Studying documents and art objects from specific periods, historians see all religions as changing over time, and they often have evidence revealing that different groups – the illiterate and literate, men and women, rich and poor – understand the teaching of a religion in divergent ways. In contrast, believers sometimes maintain that since their own understanding of a religions tradition has been true since the founding of the religion, it is the only correct view. Pluralists see Hinduism as an evolving, changing set of beliefs, while the centralists lean toward the view that the Vedas have always been the primary texts of Hinduism, which they believe existed since time immemorial.

These two views have collided head-on in India. In 2010, Penguin Press published a book entitled The Hindus: An Alternative History, by a professor of religion at the University of Chicago, Wendy Doniger. The book offers a pluralist perspective, presenting materials in languages other than Sanskrit, the language of India’s high tradition, to highlight the experiences of women and untouchables. Because Hindus debate certain core beliefs of Hinduism, such as vegetarianism, nonviolence, and the caste system, Doniger argues that there is no single, correct teaching, or orthodoxy.

In 2011 a small Hindu group, called Shiksha Bachao Andolan (Save Education Movement), led by a retired school principal, filed a civil claim against Penguin in Indian courts. “The book is in bad taste right from the beginning,” the principal told BBC. “If you see the front page, the picture there is also objectionable since it portrays a deity in vulgar pose.” The book cover features a painting of the blue-skinned deity Krishna riding on a horse made up of multiple bare breasted women.

Choosing to settle out of court, in February 2013, Penguin India recalled all remaining copies of the book and promised to destroy them….


Sigh… I wish publishers would not be so willing to succumb to the heckler’s veto (cf. Yale UP’s decision to publish a book about the Danish Mohammad cartoons, without actually publishing the cartoons).