Colonial Seals of Canada

Warning: this post is technical and pedantic.

Two years ago I wrote a post about the evolution of Canada’s coat of arms. Prior to Confederation in 1867, though, it seems that no colony regularly used a coat of arms. Instead, colonies represented themselves with emblematic seals, on the rare occasions when they needed to. Few people know about these seals nowadays; it seems that joining Confederation and adopting a coat of arms went hand-in-hand.

One place where you can see some colonial-era seals is in the Parliament buildings in Ottawa, near the entrance to the House of Commons. I took these pictures in 2006, but I only noticed just now that they aren’t exactly parallel to each other. 

Upper Canada (i.e. Ontario).

Lower Canada (i.e. Quebec).

New Brunswick.

Nova Scotia.

You will notice that the seals of both New Brunswick and Nova Scotia have renditions of the royal arms hanging over an emblematic scene, a feature that does not exist in the seals of Upper and Lower Canada. This wasn’t always the case, however: Conrad Swan’s Symbols of Sovereignty (1977) illustrates colonial-era seals for both New Brunswick and Nova Scotia that are simply the emblematic scenes. 

“Obverse (proof impression) and reverse of the 1817 Great Seal Deputed of New Brunswick of George III.” From Swan, Symbols of Sovereignty, 150.

“Great Seal Deputed of Nova Scotia of George III, in use from 1818.” From Swan, Symbols of Sovereignty, 128.

Or rather, what we have here are double-sided seals, with the emblematic scene on one side, and the royal arms on the other. There was a time when official instruments featured seals hanging by ribbons from the bottom of the document, in which case it was possible for a different design to be impressed on either side of the wax. Letters Patent originating from the College of Arms in London are still done this way, as is the honorary grant of arms to the Virginia Senate:

What seems to have happened, over the course of the early nineteenth century, is that dependent seals went out of fashion, and seals impressed directly into the document became more common. Thus, the royal arms had to migrate from one side of the seal to the other, so that both the arms and the scene could appear on the same side. This shift occurred in Upper and Lower Canada as well:

“Proof impression of the Great Seal Deputed of Upper Canada of Victoria.” From Swan, Symbols of Sovereignty, 167.

“Proof impression of the Great Seal Deputed of Lower Canada of William IV, 1832.” From Swan, Symbols of Sovereignty, 111.

Note the dates here: the first is from the reign of Queen Victoria (1837-1901), and the second from the reign of King William IV (1830-37), while the double-sided ones are all from the reign of George III (1760-1820). 

Actually, the seal of Upper Canada for Victoria could not have seen much use, because in 1841 Upper and Lower Canada were united to form the United Province of Canada (subdivided into “Canada West” and “Canada East,” but still one polity). The seal of the United Province of Canada showed both seals of Upper and Lower Canada together, under the royal arms, as had become the custom by that time. 

A. & P. Vachon Collection, Canadian Museum of History.

So I would say that the display in the House of Commons could have been done slightly better. It should either show four emblematic scenes alone, for Upper Canada, Lower Canada, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia – or it should show only three seals with the royal arms over the emblematic scene: Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and United Canada, as representing the political situation on the eve of Confederation. (People forget that only three colonies came together in 1867, because immediately Canada was redivided into Ontario and Quebec.)

But as I say, each of these now-provinces has a coat of arms, and that’s what people know. These coats of arms are what got engraved into the provincial seals. From Wikipedia, here is Ontario’s:

The royal arms appear in the centre, while Ontario’s arms are at the base, both of them within a glorious Victorian-Gothic frame. 

Apparently this was a template: other provinces have the same design. Quebec certainly did:

From Swan, Symbols of Sovereignty, 114.

Swan designates this as the “Present Great Seal of Quebec” but the design did not last very long after his book was published in 1977. The previous year, you see, the Parti Québécois had taken power in Quebec, and proceeded to refashion it in their image. From Wikipedia, here is the real present seal of Quebec, which dates from 1979:

So they jettisoned both the royal arms and their provincial arms, which features references to Britain and Canada as well as France. (Frankly, I’m surprised that they haven’t changed this as well.) 


Instead, the current seal just features a simple fleur de lys, done in the standardized Quebec style (and a ring of fleur de lys around the exterior, like the hem of the old Quebec Nordiques sweaters). You’ll also note an acute accent over the first “e” in Quebec, even though accents are optional on capital letters – and no reference at all to Quebec being a “province.”

Vive le Québec libre! 

“Hard Lessons From the Russian Civil War”

From Reason (hat tip: Alex Bryant):

The official 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, which birthed the world’s first Communist state, came and went two years ago. But the revolution actually played out over five horrific years known as the Russian Civil War. A century ago this summer, the anti-Bolshevik White forces were running a fully functional government in northern Russia. Their “Supreme Ruler,” Admiral Alexander Kolchak, was internationally recognized as the head of state, and their army was crushing the Bolsheviks in the South. By November 1919, the tide had turned. By the time the war was over, between 7 and 12 million were dead, and the Communists were victorious….

While many of the White movement’s leaders ostensibly espoused liberal ideas, it is safe to say that freedom had no real friends in the Russian Civil War. Still, it’s a virtual certainty that Russia—and most likely the world—would have been better off if the Whites had won.

They didn’t, for many reasons. They were just as unpopular as the Bolsheviks and more divided. Their leaders clung to Russia’s “great power” status and were adamantly opposed to Ukrainian independence or autonomy for other regions, which forced them to fight both the Bolsheviks and the separatists. The Bolsheviks, meanwhile, were not only more unified but more unscrupulous in their strategic alliances: They joined forces with Makhno’s anarchists only to turn on them the moment the White Army was no longer a threat.

A hundred years later, Russian Communism is gone; in its place is an authoritarian regime that promotes Soviet nostalgia…. The most trenchant lesson for the modern age is one that also seems increasingly relevant to the West: When political adversaries are no longer fellow citizens to live with but rather enemies to be crushed, we all lose.

Read the whole thing

The Cherokee Nation

I like a lot of what Massachusetts senator and presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren has to say, but the fact remains that she repeatedly and deliberately claimed Cherokee ancestry over the course of her academic career, for the sake of whatever boost that particular valence of identity would give to it. Frankly, I don’t understand how people can get away with this grift. Unlike the categories of “Hispanic” and “African-American,” “Native American” is buttressed by a specific legal status. The “Cherokee grandmother” (or worse, “Cherokee princess”) that you’re supposedly descended from might be interesting to you, but it is of no more moral significance than having Italian or Irish ancestors. Unless you are a member of a federally-recognized tribe, then you don’t get to say that you’re a Native American! Alas, a seller’s market exists for these claims: liberal academic institutions are so desperate for American minorities, both as students and faculty, that they (apparently) won’t investigate them too deeply. But it is still fundamentally dishonest, not much different from plagiarism, that is, stealing someone else’s stuff and passing it off as your own, which is the unforgivable academic sin.

I was glad, therefore, to read this piece by Rebecca Nagle on Huffpost Personal (hat tip: Funk Heritage Center):

The center of this controversy is not Warren’s political career, it is Cherokee sovereignty and self-determination. The monster I am trying to wrestle to the ground is not one white woman who claimed to be Cherokee. It is the hundreds of thousands of white people claiming to be Cherokee and the broad social acceptance that emboldens them. It threatens the future of my tribe. Warren is just the most public example.

When white people took over our land, they outnumbered us. Today, Cherokees are once again outnumbered by outsiders, claiming not our land, but our identity. In the last U.S. census, there were more white people claiming to be Cherokee than there are Cherokee citizens enrolled in our tribes. These fakes are writing our history, selling our art, representing us to the United Nations, fighting for the same legal status as our tribe, and stealing millions of dollars from federal programs set aside for people of color. And they all have stories that sound just like Warren’s. 

Read the whole thing

St. Maurice and the Eagle

This post comes almost two years too late, but this falsehood has shown a remarkable tenacity:

Background: the “Unite the Right” rally, held in Charlottesville, Virginia on August 12, 2017 really unnerved a lot of people. The idea is that Donald Trump’s election emboldened members of the far (or “alt-“) right to “come out,” and to start demonstrating in favor of racism, nativism, and xenophobia – and to kill a counter-protester by running her down with a car. Donald Trump then claimed “moral equivalence” between the two sides, thereby illustrating his fundamental awfulness. Some of the participants in the rally made reference to things medieval, on the principle that the Middle Ages represent white Europe unsullied by mass non-white immigration. Such references seemingly implicated the discipline of Medieval Studies, and they provoked a huge reaction: the Medieval Academy, along with almost thirty other groups, unequivocally condemned “the appropriation of any item or idea or material in the service of white supremacy,” and continued:

As scholars of the medieval world we are disturbed by the use of a nostalgic but inaccurate myth of the Middle Ages by racist movements in the United States. By using imagined medieval symbols, or names drawn from medieval terminology, they create a fantasy of a pure, white Europe that bears no relationship to reality. This fantasy not only hurts people in the present, it also distorts the past. Medieval Europe was diverse religiously, culturally, and ethnically, and medieval Europe was not the entire medieval world. Scholars disagree about the motivations of the Crusades—or, indeed, whether the idea of “crusade” is a medieval one or came later—but it is clear that racial purity was not primary among them.

This impulse has animated some people ever since. They are not willing to ignore such things as being beyond their concern or control (people refer to the Middle Ages all the time for various reasons, and there’s nothing professional medievalists can do about it, because they don’t actually “own” that time period) or as just a small part of the overall imagery presented at the rally (Charlotte Allen counted “exactly two” medieval costumes, and as Tom MacMaster notes, the protestors made far more use of nineteenth and twentieth century imagery than they did medieval). Instead, it has become extremely important for some people to present the Middle Ages in such a way that “rescues” them from white nationalists. Now, I’m no white nationalist, but as I said before, I don’t care for truth-bending either, no matter how noble the cause.* It’s a bit of a stretch, for instance, to designate the Vikings as “multicultural and multiracial.” (No, you can’t cherry-pick the one former Arab slave who took a Danish wife and settled in Normandy. You need a proper population sample! Numbers are of the essence here. That Vikings ended up losing their identity wherever they settled is the opposite of multicultural.) And as Andrew Holt said about the Crusades:

I can understand Professor Gabriele not wanting to give ammunition to those on the political right with whom he disagrees, particularly when they make crass calls for medieval solutions to modern problems, but misrepresenting what scholars of the crusades think is not the way to do it, and will backfire in the end.

This brings us to the black eagle of St. Maurice, referenced in the tweet above. The story goes that St. Maurice was a third-century commander of the Theban Legion, a Roman unit recruited in Upper Egypt and composed entirely of Christians. Emperor Maximian ordered them to march into Gaul, where they were to be employed in putting down a rebellion. Ordered to sacrifice to pagan gods for the success of the mission, the Thebans refused, and were twice decimated as a punishment – with the survivors then massacred. This took place at Agaunum, now Saint-Maurice, in Switzerland. As the name change reveals, St. Maurice became the stand-in for all the other martyred Thebans, some 6600 of them, and a monastery was established there in his honor. St. Maurice subsequently became a popular medieval saint, a patron of Savoy, Lombardy, Burgundy, and Sardinia, a patron of soldiers (particularly the Pontifical Swiss Guard), and of weavers and dyers, and the namesake of many religious foundations, including twenty-two English churches. Most important, for our purposes, is his patronage of the Holy Roman Empire, which seems to date from the reign of Henry the Fowler (919-936). Henry granted the Swiss canton of Aargau to the Abbey of St. Maurice in return for Maurice’s lance, sword, and spurs, which became part of the regalia used at Imperial coronations. Henry also built Magdeburg Cathedral, dedicated to St. Maurice. Emperor Otto the Great translated the saint’s relics there in 961, and had himself entombed there upon his own death in 973.

Of course, it must be said that, in common with many early martyrs, there is no historical evidence that St. Maurice or the Theban Legion ever existed. The earliest sources attesting to them date from 150 years after their alleged executions, although it is entirely possible that some Christians really were put to death in the area, from which an elaborate story was later spun. According to an article in Greenwich Time, St. Maurice wasn’t depicted as black until the thirteenth century. Why this particular attribute? It’s logical that someone whose origins were so far up the Nile should acquire a sub-Saharan phenotype, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the etymological similarity of “Maurice” to “Moor” had something to do with it. Why this shift should have happened in the thirteenth century I do not know, although it does point to medieval European knowledge of non-white Christians, perhaps inspired by contact with Ethiopians during the Crusades (Ethiopians maintained a presence in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher), or as the result of an Ethiopian embassy to the pope in the late fourteenth century. Just as the Three Kings, from the twelfth century, could be depicted as European, African, and Asian, one for each of the three known continents, so also does a black St. Maurice point to the universality of Christianity. In this sense, the medievalists are right: medieval Europeans clearly were not “racist,” but only because they were deeply Christian, and truly believed that every person on Earth was a potential member of the faith. (An artistically black St. Maurice says nothing about the presence of phenotypically sub-Saharan Africans in Europe.)

Lucas Cranach the Elder & Workshop, Saint Maurice, ca. 1522-25.

But the tweet above was about another emblem: a black eagle borne by one young man on a shield at Charlottesville, and by St. Maurice on a banner in a painting dating to the sixteenth century, judging by the style of the armor. Why does St. Maurice carry such a banner? The image tweeted seems to be a preliminary sketch or an elaboration of a painting of St. Maurice by Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553). It originally formed part of an altarpiece, commissioned by Cardinal Albrecht of Brandenburg, for a church in the Saxon city of Halle. Saxony, of course, was within the Holy Roman Empire, and the banner that St. Maurice holds is actually the banner of the arms of the Holy Roman Empire – a black eagle displayed on a gold field.

“Shield and Coat of Arms of the Holy Roman Emperor, drawn in the style the late medieval period. Also used as shield of arms (generic) by the King of the Romans.” Wikipedia.

One finds other Imperial representations of St. Maurice bearing this shield.

Apparently from the Church of St. Antony, Bitterfield-Wolfen, c. 1499.

Design for Reliquary bust of St. Maurice. Heiltumsbuch, fol. 228v., 1525-1527. Aschaffenburg Hofbibliothek.

In other words, the eagle is associated with the Holy Roman Empire, and St. Maurice is one of the patrons of the Empire; thus does he bear the shield of the Empire. It’s not actually “his,” or it’s only his at second hand. We see this with other saints – sometimes St. George, a patron of England, is shown bearing the three lions of the kings of England, and sometimes St. Michael, a patron of France, is shown bearing the fleur de lys of the kings of France. It might be somewhat egotistical for a votary to assign his own attribute to his patron saint (rather than for a votary to bear his patron saint’s attribute as an act of devotion), but it did happen from time to time.

St. Maurice, therefore, is by no means the “original” bearer of this standard. The reason eagles are associated with the Holy Roman Empire is because the Romans themselves employed eagles as identifying devices, particularly of their legions, and when heraldry developed in the twelfth century it was only natural that the Holy Roman Emperors should have chosen an eagle as an identifying device. Eagles were also used by other successor empires to ancient Rome, including the Byzantines (specifically, the Palaiologos dynasty that ruled it from the eleventh century), the Tsars of Russia, and Napoleon as the Emperor of the French. You could say that Maurice, as the commander of a legion, has a natural right to an eagle as his own attribute, but it would make far more sense for this to be in the form of a Roman aquila (a three dimensional sculpture of an eagle atop a pole), and you would need to find actual artistic evidence of him doing so prior to the twelfth century and the elaboration of heraldry. In other words, the succession seems to be Eagle -> Empire -> St. Maurice, not Eagle -> St. Maurice –> Empire.

As for the other eagle, that appears to be a commercial product of an outfit called West Wolf Renaissance:

From the website:


This is a beautiful handmade and hand-painted wooden Viking shield featuring a Black Eagle design inspired by Viking and Norse shields of old. This shield features a solid oak body which measures about 30 inches across and is 1/2 inches thick…. Because this shield is made of real wood, please note that the wood-grain background shown in the pictures may vary slightly from the shield you receive (this is simply due to the nature of the wood). The front of the shield has also been applied with several coats of topcoat/varnish to protect it through the centuries. So whether for the wall or the battlefield, this shield is well balanced and ready to serve.

Note that the design is “inspired by” Norse shields – it is not necessarily a reproduction of an actual shield. It looks to me like it was taken from Wikipedia’s rendition of the Raven Banner:

Other shields offered for sale by West Wolf Renaissance feature medieval, classical, Mayan, and even cinematic designs (e.g. the emblem of the Galactic Empire from Star Wars, or the houses from Game of Thrones). The company also offers reproduction/fantasy jewelry, clothing, and weapons. Who buys this stuff I do not know, but presumably there are LARPers or “fandoms” out there who enjoy playing medieval dress-up, without scrupulous attention to historic detail.** It might be possible, therefore, that the company helped itself to the shield of the Holy Roman Empire and reimagined it in a Viking style, but my hunch is that the two shields actually have nothing to do with each other. To show an eagle “displayed” (i.e. spread out) is a logical way to show it, black is a common enough color to show it in, and the background hue is coincidental – the HRE shield is formally gold, whereas the Viking shield is just natural wood. (Actually, if the shield is based on a real Norse model, then it would have priority over the shield of the HRE, since the Vikings were active before the development of true heraldry, and we could accuse the HRE and St. Maurice of bearing a stolen Viking shield! Furthermore, it might not even be an eagle: note that it’s in the style of the Raven Banner, and one of the words in the URL is “raven.” It would certainly make sense for the bird to be a raven, given that it’s an attribute of the Norse god Odin.)

Any symbol can have a variety of referents. As the lion is the king of the beasts, so also is the eagle the king of the birds, and like all emblems has been used at various times and various places, by various people, to reference various things. (Actually, in a Christian context, an eagle is most likely to be associated with St. John the Evangelist.) Even a black eagle “displayed” on a lighter-colored background is not the exclusive property of any one group, and you simply cannot take two superficially similar things and juxtapose them in the service of “proving” anything. This is one reason why Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code is so ridiculous. No, you actually need to establish a chain of transmission, and you would think that art and cultural historians would understand that.† I mean, St. Maurice can also be shown wearing a red cross – does this mean that the “true, original” bearer of this device is St. Maurice, not St. George, St. Ambrose, or the Diocese of Trier?

Medieval Milanetc.

But what do you expect from Twitter? The place is a sewer, the “crystal meth” of social media, and it seems to encourage people in their worst habits of mind. Not only is there the 140-character limit, which prevents the elaboration of complex ideas, there is also a great premium on winning social status through scoring “sick burns” or at least by acquiring lots of followers. Thus our tweeter’s assertion that “Nazis aren’t happy” about her juxtaposition. Who are these people, and are they really all “Nazis”? Or is this all just an imaginary setup to prove to her claque how brave a fighter she is?

Alas, memes can be powerful things, and this one has firmly lodged itself in the medievalist consciousness. Even the executive director of the Medieval Academy went in for it (from All Things Considered, September 2017):

LISA FAGIN DAVIS: There was one young man who was carrying a shield with a black spread eagle that was clearly co-opted from either the Holy Roman Empire or – there’s actually a saint. And it’s kind of ironic. He’s an African saint who carries that standard. And I suspect the gentleman carrying the shield didn’t realize that.

ULABY: That was St. Maurice, revered during the medieval period. He came from Egypt.

It was relayed on in December 2017:

One man carried a round shield decorated with a black eagle. It was a curious choice, considering the eagle image is strongly associated with a Saint Maurice, a Roman general of African descent who became a saint in the early Middle Ages

The white supremacist in Charlottesville carrying that image was probably unaware that it’s strongly associated with a black Catholic saint, and this disconnect illustrates a larger trend. Hate groups that adopt medieval iconography as symbols of white supremacy usually have misconceptions about that historical era. One of the most common? That Europe in the Middle Ages was unvaryingly white.

Earlier this year I heard a speaker who repeated the idea that the Viking eagle of Charlottesville was really the eagle of a black saint, and just recently another friend posted this to Facebook, from one of her students’ exams:

Historians have the difficult job of interpreting sources in the context they were intended. With white supremacy, gender equality, and current social classes, it is nearly impossible to see the past through an unbiased scope uninfluenced by these current issues. In Charlottesville many protesters used a medieval symbol as a symbol of racial hatred, when truthfully the symbol was worn by a black saint.

So it looks like this notion will be with us for some time to come…

Once again, I state that I am not in favor of white supremacy – although I confess that, apart from the car crash, I didn’t find the Unite the Right rally to be any more shocking than what Antifa routinely gets up to at its demonstrations. But in general I am in favor of proper historical analysis, developed with as much detail as necessary, and not superficial Twitter-zingers, even in the service of things we dearly want to believe.

In brief:

• The arms of the Holy Roman Empire date from the twelfth century and are a reference to the Roman eagle.

• St. Maurice, as a patron of the HRE, bears the arms of the HRE in some depictions, but it’s not a symbol of St. Maurice as such.

• St. Maurice, as an Egyptian, only began to be portrayed as black starting in the thirteenth century.

• The West Wolf Renaissance shield is either a reproduction of a Viking design, or an imagined one (they did not answer my email enquiry).

• If it is a reproduction, it predates the shield of the HRE, and is probably better seen as Odin’s raven; either way, its connection to the shield of the HRE is almost certainly coincidental.

• Truth exists, and it’s more important than feelings.

• Academics should get off Twitter.

* But… quod est veritas? This is an interminable debate, which might go back to the conflict between realists and nominalists in medieval universities, or to Livy and Pollio, if Robert Graves is to be believed. Postmodern historians are fond of saying that there’s no such thing as truth, only competing narratives, and that all history writing is essentially fiction. No, there is no such thing as an omniscient and unbiased historian – we all come to the table with our perspectives and areas of strength (and weakness). But there is a big difference between people who acknowledge this and still hold up the idea that events actually happened in the past, and we can get at them through studying sources that have come down to us from those events, and people who believe that since truth is so elusive, we might as well not even try, and we can say anything we want about the past, because why not?

I cannot abide this position. Any respect that historians get is utterly dependent on people trusting us to deal honestly with the past. They know we are liberal, but they still think that we know some facts that others don’t. However, when we say whatever we want because it is in accord with our politics, that is a problem.

** I am of two minds about this. In general, just as I favor a search for Truth in historical scholarship, I am also in favor of getting the details right in any sort of historic recreation. But I am also fully aware that such concerns can border on pedantry and wet-blanketness. If the goal is to have fun, then why not go for an overall effect, rather than get bogged down in all the details?

† No, I am not prepared to accept any arguments based on “serendipity” or “synchronicity” or any other such mumbo-jumbo.

Ayasofya Camii

Thomas D. Williams on Breitbart:

Erdogan Floats Reverting Hagia Sophia to a Mosque

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan floated the idea of turning Istanbul’s iconic Hagia Sophia back into a mosque in an interview Sunday.

“It is not an abnormal proposal. It is not something impossible, it could be done easily. We could even name it as the Hagia Sophia Mosque instead of a museum so that everybody can visit it without charge,” Mr. Erdoğan replied to the question whether the museum could be opened free of charge for Turkish citizens.

“Its status of museum could be stripped off. Actually that status was given by a step taken with the mentality of the [Republican People’s Party] CHP. We can take that step taken by the CHP mentality back,” he added.

Built as a Christian church in 537 AD, Hagia Sophia served as the seat of the Greek Orthodox Church after the Great Schism of 1054 and became a mosque in 1453 after the Muslim conquest of Constantinople — modern-day Istanbul. The building was later converted into a museum in 1935 as part of the secularization project of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, founder and first president of the Republic of Turkey, and is a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1985.

Erdoğan began allowing the recitation of verses from the Qur’an in the Hagia Sophia in 2015, at which time, the government of Greece protested, saying that Islamic prayers in the basilica were “not compatible with modern, democratic, and secular societies.”

“Hagia Sophia is a UNESCO world heritage site. The attempt to convert it into a mosque—through reading of the Koran, holding of prayers, and a number of other actions—is an affront to the international community, which needs to be duly mobilized and to react,” the Greek Foreign Ministry said.

Earlier this month, several hundred Muslim demonstrators protested the New Zealand mosque shootings outside Hagia Sophia, calling for the edifice to be reconverted into a mosque. The demand came in response to a taunt by the Christchurch gunman in his “manifesto,” in which he reportedly said “Hagia Sophia will be free of minarets.”

Speaking of minarets, I noticed last year that Hagia Sophia’s minarets don’t really match.


OK, the two on the left do, but the two on the right are differently shaped, and the one in the foreground is even a different color. Apparently it wasn’t always a four-minaret mosque, and the number was increased over the years, in different styles.

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.

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 in 53 fighting the Parthians, 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 and Ludacris.) 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.

“B is for Beria (and Bering Strait)”

Gail Heriot on Instapundit:

On this day in 1953, LAVRENTIY BERIA met his end. Stalin himself had died nine months earlier, and his chief henchmen were turning against each other. Beria, Stalin’s chief of the secret police (NKVD), was arrested on charges of treason and tried in secret.  And then shot.

It’s not easy to work up sympathy for such a bloodthirsty killer. But the rest of the story is truly bizarre. Less than a month later, the Soviet Encyclopedia sent a notice to subscribers enclosing new pages.  In translation, it said the following:

The State Scientific Publishing House of the large Soviet Encyclopedia recommends that pages 21, 22, 23, and 24 be removed from Volume 5 as well as the portrait [of Beria] between pages 22 and 23 to replace which the pages of the new text are enclosed.

The aforementioned pages should be cut out with scissors or blade, leaving inside a margin on which the new pages can be pasted.

The substitute pages were an article on the otherwise obscure Friedrich Wilhelm von Bergholtz and pictures of the Bering Strait.

Subscribers dutifully cut Bering out of the encyclopedia.  Failing to do so would be dangerous.

Death in Australia

Something I just discovered: Harold Holt, Prime Minister of Australia from early 1966 until late 1967, disappeared while swimming near Melbourne on December 17, 1967. His body was never recovered, leading to a conspiracy theory that he was abducted by a Chinese submarine. John McEwan succeeded him as Prime Minister.

This is rather the opposite of another famous Australian death: the Tamam Shud case, for which there was a body, but no identity. An unidentified man was found dead on Somerton Beach near Adelaide on December 1, 1948. He carried nothing that revealed who he was, and even the tags on his clothing had been removed. An autopsy revealed no obvious cause of death. The mystery deepened when on January 14, 1949, a suitcase likely belonging to the man was recovered from the Adelaide railway station, which contained a number of things, none of which could help establish who he was. Shortly after that, a tiny piece of rolled-up paper was found in a fob pocket in the man’s trousers. It had been cut out of a book and bore the words “Tamam Shud” – Persian for “ended” or “finished,” the final words of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. Following a public appeal, the edition from which the paper had been excised was found – along with indentations from handwriting on the inside of the back cover reading:


What this means has never been satisfactorily explained, and the identify of the Somerton Man and the circumstances of his death remain a mystery.

George Bush

(I refer to him as he was referred to at the time of his presidency. Having to insert “H.W.” as his middle initials is proleptic.)

In our culture, one does not speak ill of the dead, but public figures usually merit some sort of even-handed evaluation. However, most of the obituaries I have read about George Bush, 41st President of the United States (1989-1993), have been rather hagiographic in tone, praising Bush’s class, civility, and devotion to public service. This is, of course, a deliberate and pointed jab at the current administration, whose leader is the cultural antithesis of the patrician Bush, and who has made a lot of enemies through his abrasive boorishness. But by no means was Bush praised for his class when he was in office! Back then, he was the Skull and Bones son of privilege, out of touch with how ordinary Americans actually lived. I thought of this as recently as July, when during one of his rallies President Trump said:

You know all the rhetoric you see here, the “thousand points of light” – what the hell was that, by the way? The “thousand points of light.” What did that mean? Does anyone know? I know one thing: “Make America Great Again” we understand. “Thousand points of light” – I never quite got that one. What the hell is that? Has anyone ever figured that one out? Ay. And it was put out by a Republican.

Some earnest CNN talking heads took issue with that, saying that it was about volunteerism and civic mindedness, obviously, and who could have a problem with these most American of values? They were shocked that Trump would run down a fellow Republican and war hero. And I was reminded how, when in power, Republicans are evil incarnate, but when they’re no longer in power, they become respected elder statesmen. For I remember the “Thousand Points of Light,” and how, to Doonesbury at least, it was a disturbing abdication of responsibility. Since Republicans hate poor people, you see, they gut social programs and then offload the function to private charity, which is a weak substitute with no guarantee that anything will be delivered. But the CNN folks apparently forgot that critique.

(It’s obvious to me what Trump was doing: signaling that it’s not the Bushes’ party anymore! In addition to pointing out that his slogan is more straightforward, and thus more inspiring, than Bush’s “poetic” one, Trump was simply playing to the base that elected him, and that had been disaffected by establishment Republicanism, most notably over the issue of illegal immigration.)

So I must say that I appreciated this article on The Intercept, shared by a couple of Facebook friends, about Bush’s legacy, even if I disagree with some of it. For instance, I fail to comprehend what was so bad about the Willie Horton ad. But his actual role in the Iran-Contra scandal, his pardoning of some of the perpetrators, and the dishonest case his administration made for the war against Iraq, all deserved to be remembered. (Along with the ADA and NAFTA of course.)

I do like revisiting the time when he overcame the “wimp factor” with Dan Rather in 1988:

I want to talk about why I want to be president, why those 41% of the people are supporting me. And I don’t think it’s fair to judge a whole career by a rehash on Iran. How would you like it if I judged your career by those seven minutes when you walked off the set in New York. Would you like that? I have respect for you but I don’t have respect for what you’re doing here tonight.

But he wasn’t always so deadly with his words. Everyone knows about George W. Bush’s “they misunderestimated me” or “Is our children learning?”; people tend to forget that Bush himself committed a few verbal infelicities, e.g.:

“For seven and a half years I’ve worked alongside President Reagan. We’ve had triumphs. Made some mistakes. We’ve had some sex – uh – setbacks.” —in 1988

“We’re enjoying sluggish times, and not enjoying them very much.” —in 1992

“I just am not one who – who flamboyantly believes in throwing a lot of words around.” —in 1990

“Please don’t ask me to do that which I’ve just said I’m not going to do, because you’re burning up time. The meter is running through the sand on you, and I am now filibustering.” —in 1989

“I put confidence in the American people, in their ability to sort through what is fair and what is unfair, what is ugly and what is unugly.” –in 1989

“You cannot be President of the United States if you don’t have faith. Remember Lincoln, going to his knees in times of trial and the Civil War and all that stuff. You can’t be. And we are blessed. So don’t feel sorry for – don’t cry for me, Argentina. Message: I care.” —speaking to employees of an insurance company during the 1992 New Hampshire primary

“I’m not the most articulate emotionalist.” –in 1989

“It has been said by some cynic, maybe it was a former president, ‘If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.’ Well, we took them literally—that advice—as you know. But I didn’t need that because I have Barbara Bush.” —in 1989

“Please just don’t look at the part of the glass, the part that is only less than half full.” –in 1991