Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Key Dates of European History: 286 AD

As I mentioned in an earlier post, the Roman Empire did nothing but expand between 386 BC and 117 AD. The Romans incorporated vast territories by ruthless conquest, clever diplomacy, and sometimes, sheer intimidation. Scipio, Caesar and Augustus are the big names remembered even two thousand years later. After Augustus, Roman conquests lost quantity, but gained quality. Claudius, Domitian and Trajan conquered only few provinces, but they were vast and rich. As long as these conquests went on, Rome could breathe, because expansion was the very foundation of its society. If a region would get overpopulated, people could move away to Roman colonies founded in order to pacify and stabilise a new province. It was never an official policy to Romanise them, but it was a pleasant side-effect.

Much more important, each war Rome waged brought thousands of new slaves to the empire, a workforce that guaranteed the empire's economic prosperity. New provinces also needed to be equipped with various resources, so new trade routes were established throughout the empire, and everybody had a piece of the pie. Imperial growth was economic growth.

But then, Rome hit its limits. In the north, Celts and Germanic tribes halted Roman expansion. To the south lay the vast Sahara desert, and to the east, the Parthians were an opponent of almost equal military capability. Trajan was the last emperor to conquer new provinces, and his successor Hadrian even gave up three newly acquired ones. After that, the Romans were in constant defence, and had to ward off Germanic and Parthian attacks incessantly.

It went well for about seventy years. Marcus Aurelius, Septimius Severus and Caracalla led major campaigns that could not necessarily stabilise the borders, but at least continued the flow of prisoners of war and kept the empire going the way it had been. But the military pressure proved too big for the empire, and by the middle of the 3d century AD, Rome drowned in civil wars, led by people whom their own troops had declared Roman emperors. All political stability had been lost, and the empire was further strained by attacks from Germanic tribes and Persian armies. Only a miracle, it seemed, could save the empire from total collapse.

It was not exactly a miracle, but it was an extremely ruthless, but brilliant man who did. His name was Gaius Aurelius Valerius Diocletianus, or Diocletian. He actually managed to become sole emperor of the Roman Empire in 285, but unlike some others who managed to defeat all their enemies temporarily, he kept a cool head. He realised that if Rome wanted to survive, it had to split. For several decades, two parts of the Roman Empire actually became autonomous, and formed the Gaulic and Palmyran empires. They would have fared rather well with it, hadn't they been forced to concentrate their powers to both warding off outward enemies, and other Roman troops. Diocletian saw the potential that lay within this idea, and initiated a more sophisticated, and more importantly, legal split.

I won't go into detail about this - Starting in 286 AD, he basically split the empire in four, legally united but factually autonomous. The system, known as the Tetrarchy didn't last long. He resigned in 305 to ensure stability in transition, but the whole thing fell apart while Diocletian himself was even still alive. In 312, Constantine defeated all his opponents, and in 325, he took over control all by himself and the Roman Empire was once more one political body under one emperor. All back to normal?


Diocletian may have failed with the Tetrarchy, but he did create one thing that was to last. He turned Rome into an absolute, hereditary monarchy, a system that would legally and morally dominate Europe until 1789, until the French Revolution.

Wait a second. Am I seriously arguing that prior to Diocletian, Rome was not a monarchy? What about Augustus?

Of course, the Roman Empire was a monarchy, and in contrary to what some people will have you believe it was even a hereditary monarchy. But at least formally, most emperors followed Augustus' idea. They considered themselves a primus inter pares, a first among equals- the equals here being the Senate. The emperor only relieved the Senate of the dirty work, and the troops were still commanded by senators. In order to be morally acceptable, you had to pledge allegiance to the Republic. The Republican order remained the highest moralic authority.

Diocletian changed that. He simply took away all power from Republican institutions. No longer did senators command the troops, and no longer did they govern the provinces. The senate was reduced to what it had originally been, the city council of Rome. A new, imperial aristocracy emerged that now took over control. You no longer had to confess your loyalty to the Senate and people of Rome. You now did it to the emperor himself. He now possessed a divine component, much like the Great Kings of whatever political entity existed in Iran, and disobedience was blasphemy. Hence, Diocletian is also remembered for his unprecedentedly cruel pogroms against Christians.

Still, the Christians later adopted that idea. A monarch who was essentially chosen by God seemed like a good idea, and it did work for a long, long time. Without Diocletians creation, it may be argued whether the idea of divine right, which dominated politics and theology throughout the Middle Ages and beyond, would ever have become accepted in Europe. Unwittingly, Diocletian, perhaps the most bloodthirsty enemy the Christians ever faced, paved the way for Christian Europe. Only one year after his death, in Milan, this course was confirmed. But that is another story.

Sunday, 25 October 2009

Key Dates of European History: 330 BC

I admit this one is a bit of a placeholder date. 330 BC marks the year in which Alexander the Great assumed the throne of the Persian Empire, arguably founding a joint Greek-Iranian monarchy. I could have included any given date that is in relation to Alexanders campaign: 334 (start of the campaign), 331 (Battle of Gaugamela), 323 (death of Alexander)... there would be many possibilities. What matters is the deeper meaning of Alexander's campaigns per se. The political entity Alexander created is of little importance, because it fell apart right after his death. But Alexanders lasting creation is what is called the Age of Hellenism.

The term "Hellenism" was coined by the Prussian historian Johann Gustav Droysen (1808-1884) and describes the era in Greek and Middle Eastern history between the campaigns of Alexander (started 334 BC) and total Roman domination in the Greek world (30 BC). It is meant to denote the vast political, cultural, social and economical changes that occured in the wake of Alexander's conquests.

Until this point, Greece had been dominated by small city states such as Sparta, Athens or Thebes, which struggled to gain hegemony over the Greek world. The cultural significance of Classical Greece has been pointed out in a previous post. But what exactly did Alexander change?

First off, he expanded the geographical scope of the Greek world. No longer was "Greece" restricted to the Aegean world, southern Italy and various other bits of the Mediterranean and Black Sea; suddenly, huge new Greek kingdoms appeared in Egypt, in Asia Minor, Syria and Mesopotamia. This extension of the Greek world had a good number of consequences. Had the Greek and Middle Eastern worlds previously been more or less clearly separated - Independent Greek cities here, Persian Empire there - they were now one. Anatolia, Syria and Egypt were now part of the Greek world, and the identity of these countries now merged. While the Greek culture more or dominated these areas in the centuries to come, Middle Eastern elements were now also adopted in Greek, and by extension, Roman and European culture. Christianity is the prime example of this: an oriental religion, enriched with Greek philosophy and Roman spirituality.

I will come to the individual 'oriental' elements of Christianity in a later post, but I will say as much as that it was basically the perfection of an already happening symbiosis of original Jewish and Iranian - more precisely, Zoroastrian - thought, and it would not have been accepted as readily as it was had the people of the Mediterranean world not accepted the Levant as part of their own.

New ideas emerged within the West, if you want to use this term, as well, and the ideas of what art and literature were supposed to represent changed profoundly. Artists now sought to better capture reality, and not always, though sometimes, idealise it. More liberty was granted in intellectual discourse, and opposing ideas were allowed to spread more freely than before. People could travel more freely and write more about their impressions of lands previously out of reach. Books about regions ranging from Britain to India were written, and the wisdom of these countries was received. Knowledge was considered something that was to be preserved- a great Hellenistic capital such as Pergamon or Alexandria was not complete without a great, famous library.

What is sometimes forgotten is how far Greek culture traveled. Today, Greek ruins can be seen in Tajikistan and Pakistan. Greek colonies were founded throughout the territories conquered by Alexander, and lasted for centuries. Even the first kings of Sasanian Persia considered the Greek language to be of such importance in Iran that inscriptions were written in Greek in the early 3rd century AD. The Buddhist Gandhara culture, which lasted until the 6th century AD was deeply and visibly influenced by the Greeks- the most famous testament of this were the Buddha statues of Bamiyan.

Of course, Hellenism was also an age of War. Antigonid Macedonia sought to dominate Aegean Greece, Seleucid Syria and Ptolemaeic Egypt struggled fiercly and bitterly for the Levant. Attalid Pergamon appeared as a predator in Asia Minor. In the east, the Parthians steadily expanded at the cost of the Seleucid and Graeco-Bactrian empires. The great Hellenist kingdoms weakened themselves so greatly that soon the Romans could pick provinces in the east like ripe fruits.

All in all, Hellenism was an era in which West and East, for one priceless moment, grew together. The possibilities that lay in this symbiosis were endless, and both benefited greatly from it. Sadly, it was not to last, and this fragile building gradually fell apart due to ignorance and bigotry from both sides.

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

Key Dates of European History: 386 BC

If the Greek culture that could freely blossom after the events of 479 BC was the intellectual birth of Europe, then what happened in 386 BC could be considered as its political birth.

In the early 4th century BC, a Gaulic tribe known as the Senones invaded northern Italy. Led by a warlord called Brennus, the Senones wrought havoc to much of rural Italy before encountering a small confederation of city states known as the Latin League. The Latin League was weak, unorganised and disloyal. So when the Senones appeared at the river Allia, the Romans stood there alone. And were defeated. Soon afterward, the Senones appeared at the outskirts of Rome.

Legend has it that the Senones attacked the city at night, while the people were sleeping. When they attempted to storm the Capitol, however, the sacred geese of Iuno woke up and alarmed the entire town. The population fled to the Capitol and withstood the Senones for seven months until buying their freedom with a humiliating tribute that led Brennus to say, “vae victis” – “woe to the vanquished”.

So far, so good. During all of antiquity, cities of varying size and importance were besieged, conquered and plundered. Some survived, some didn’t. Why was this different?

The Romans, humiliated and scared, vowed to never let something like this happen again. The ‘Gaulic Scare’ became a vision of horror that accompanied them for centuries to come, and they saw only two methods to stop the ruthless barbarians from attacking their home again: First, build a wall. Second, expand their resources.

In the following decades, the Romans managed to turn the Latin League into a tool of their domination. It didn’t go without fighting and wars, but in the end, the League was not much more than an embryonic Roman Empire, soon to become the province of Latium. At the same time, the Romans pushed back whatever it perceived a threat from the Apennine Mountains. It went fast. By 270 BC, the Romans were undisputed lords over all of Italy, including the powerful Greek city states of the south. Rome was strong enough to challenge Carthage, the greatest power of the western Mediterranean- and win. Perhaps their victory over Hannibal was luck, the Romans considered it fate. In 203 BC, the terrible Gauls of northern Italy were defeated, and by the mid-2nd century BC, Rome had gained the upper hand against the powerful Hellenistic kingdoms of the east. Province after province fell to the Romans, and it was only with the death of emperor Augustus in 14 AD – a full 400 years after Brennus’ invasion – that the breathtaking expansion of the Roman empire slowed down. Within the next 100 years, few, however major, provinces fell to the Romans, and only the death of emperor Trajan in 117 halted Roman expansion. By 166, the Romans were no longer expanding, but defending their empire against foreign threats. In 455, Rome itself was conquered by the Vandals- the first time since 386 BC that the city was under foreign occupation.

386 BC was the starting point of the Roman Empire. For five centuries, the Romans did nothing but expand, bringing the greater part of Europe under their control and shaping it their way. Undoubtedly, the Romans were the most influential civilisation in European history, and their traces can be found deep in territories that have never been under their direct control, and entire libraries could be devoted to the influence the Romans had. In their expansion, the Romans also spread Greek wisdom spoken of in the previous post, and for the first time tied Europe together politically and spiritually.

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Key Dates of European History

Many people reduce history to a mass of dates and facts. This is the way history is usually taught in schools and often presented in various media. Usually, a timeline consists of a number of dates and brief facts next to them. I personally believe that it is essential to know a number of dates to have a reasonably accurate chronological view of history, but I also think that it is necessary to know what these dates mean exactly, and why we have to remember precisely these dates.

As a European, I identify myself with European culture and history. While I won't attempt to trace the political, cultural and social reality that the European Union is - or will hopefully become - to a more or less imagined historical foundation as has been done before (Charlemagne, anyone?), I do believe that there is a certain, vague cultural identity that has tied Europe together throughout its history. I will try to trace this cultural identity in a series of posts here, in timeline fashion, because that is perhaps the easiest way to both present and understand... however, I also believe that the events themselves are of little importance. If you want to know more about them, read Wikipedia. What I find much more relevant is the meaning of these events. Each timeline entry is a new post, in which I explain why I believe these dates are of unique significance to European history. Sometimes they may seem like a cliché, but sometimes, they might be a straight-out surprise.

479 - The battle of Plataeae

When the Persian King Xerxes I (rg. 486-645 BC) launched his infamous Greek campaign in 480 BC, nobody believed that this tiny, poor and unorganised collection of warring city states would ever be able to put anything against him. Sure, the Greeks had previously beaten the Persians, ten years before at Marathon; but at that time, the Persians did not seriously intend to conquer mainland Greece. King Darius I only sent out to recapture lost territories and punish what he considered a treacherous ally.

It was different in 480. Whatever his motivations may have been, King Xerxes, son of Darius, wanted to conquer Greece and incorporate it to the Persian Empire. I have discussed the actual size of his army before; but in any case, what Xerxes came up with seemed like an idiot-proof plan: The seemingly unlimited resources of the largest empire the world had seen to that point against a handful of mountain tribes. It was a sure thing. So sure that even the Carthaginians allied with Xerxes, just to be on the winner’s side and not become a Persian province themselves some time in the future.

Two things made Xerxes’ plan fail: A sudden sense of unity in Greece, and Greek geography. Despite being arch-enemies, the Greek cities of Athens and Sparta allied and vowed to stand together, along with a number of other city states. Only few Greek territories chose to stay neutral and even less sided with the Persians.

At the same time, the Persians underestimated the viciousness of Greek terrain. Be it the bottleneck of the Thermopyles or the unrest of the Aegean Sea, Xerxes’ army was held up long enough for the Greeks to evacuate their territories, mostly Athens and Attica, and come up with a strategy to beat the Persians. Truth be told, in the small-scaled Greek countryside, the size of the Persian army was a major disadvantage. Try to imagine a narrow corridor with concrete walls and a huge Stalin-eque tank running through it and you’ve got a picture of what the Persian situation was like. Add to that the fact that the Greeks knew how to deal with their country, and the Persians didn’t- the Greeks had the superior army. Quality won over quantity. After decisive victories at Salamis (480), Plataeae and Mycale (both 479), the Greeks expelled the Persians from their country for good. No Persian army would ever set foot on mainland Europe again.

I am a bit wary when people cite this as a victory of freedom over slavery and all that sort of stuff. Being a part of the Persian Empire wasn’t all that bad. Persian rule usually reduced itself to two things: A governor appointed by the Great King, but with a few notable exceptions usually part of the local aristocracy, and the fact that the province had to pay taxes to Persia. In times of war, the provinces also had to send soldiers to the imperial army, but this only happened a few times in the 200-year long history of the empire. The comparison of the Greeks serving nobody, and the Persians being slaves to their king is also poor: Both the Greeks and the Persians alike served their gods. The only basic difference is that the Persians believed their king was appointed by the Gods, hence disloyalty to the king was blasphemy. From a theological perspective, there is no difference. In fact, Zoroastrian theology explicitly states that it is a peoples right to rid themselves of an unjust ruler.

These thoughts aside, it remains undisputed that the Greek victories at Salamis and Plataeae were defining moments in European history. Whatever would have happened after a Persian victory, good or bad, it would have been profoundly different. To clarify this importance, we only need to ask ourselves a few questions. Without the Athenian expansion and hegemony in the 5th century BC, would the Athenian agora have become a place of intellectual and cultural discourse that brought together Socrates, Sophocles, Aeschylus, Phidias and Hippocrates? Would Plato have founded his academy? Would Thucydides have developed the scientific method if Persian overlords prevented the terrible wars between Athens and Sparta? Would Aristotle have developed his ideas of science and logic if the Macedonian kings would not have gathered the greatest thinkers of their time to compete with the southern Greek states?

Ancient Greece laid the foundation of what we today know as the European civilisation and all that derived from it. The only danger to be faced when arguing that the Greek-Persian struggle originally kick-started the development of Hellenic civilisation is that the analogy is carried to the modern world. Despite this historic fact, there is no inherent struggle of East vs West by which either civilisation is defined. Moreover: Even though Europe’s spiritual genesis lies in ancient Greece, the influence of neighbouring – oriental – cultures is profound. Clio likes to deceive us into drawing easy conclusions by offering simple, superficial facts, but historic truth is always much more complex.