The Thirty-Eight Minute War

As you may have guessed, this article is about a war that lasted less than forty minutes. Throughout recorded human history there have been thousands of wars and conflicts with the average duration being around 2 years. Some lasted less than a month but very few can claim to last less than a week and only one can have the distinction of being the shortest conflict ever fought.

That accolade is held by the Anglo-Zanzibar War which raged from 09:02am to 09:40am on 27 August 1896.

The immediate cause of the war was the death of the pro-british Sultan Hamad bin Thuwaini two days earlier on 25 August and the subsequent succession of his cousin Khalid bin Barghash who declared himself as sultan. The British preferred Hamud bin Muhammed, who was more favourable to British interests. A treaty signed in 1886 required one condition for accession to the sultanate to be that the candidate must first obtain permission from the British consul. As Khalid had not fulfilled this requirement the British authorities considered this a casus belli (an act justifying war) and sent an ultimatum to Khalid demanding that he order his forces to stand down and leave the palace by 09:00am on 27 August. In response, Khalid mobilised his palace guard and barricaded himself, along with his force, in the palace.

By the time that the ultimatum had expired the British had gathered three cruisers, two gunboats, 150 marines and sailors and a further 900 Zanzibaris loyal to Britain in the harbour area. Around 2,800 Zanzibaris defended the palace; most were pressed from the local populace, but this number also included the sultan’s palace guard and his servants and slaves. The defenders possessed several artillery pieces and machine guns, which were set in front of the palace sighted at the British ships in the bay.

The ships opened fire on the palace at 09:02am and the bombardment set the palace on fire, disabling the defender’s artillery.

A small naval action took place, with the British sinking the Zanzibari royal yacht HHS Glasgow and two smaller vessels. Some potshots were fired at the pro-British Zanzibari troops as they advanced on the palace and the flag was shot down. Fire ceased at 09:40 and the war was over.

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Sultan Khalid’s forces had sustained roughly 500 casualties during the brief skirmish, while only one British sailor aboard the gunboat HMS Thrush was injured before making a full recovery. Khalid received asylum in the German consulate before escaping to German East Africa where he was captured by the British in 1916 and exiled to Saint Helena. He was allowed to return to East Africa where he died in 1927.

The pro-British Hamud bin Muhammed was quickly placed in power at the head of a puppet government which issued the final decree outlawing slavery on the island in 1897. The war marked the end of the Zanzibar Sultanate as a sovereign state and ushered in a period of heavy British influence that lasted until 1963.

The Rest is History

 

 

 

Dutch East India Company

Unimaginable Wealth

When we think of the world’s most valuable public companies our minds tend to gravitate to the mammoth US tech companies like Amazon and Apple – both of which have been (and at the time of writing are fluctuating around) valued at over US$1,000,000,000,000. Yes that is twelve zeroes, and yes that is a trillion with a “T”. Surely, no company in history could compete with the Tech Giants of today on market value.

Apple may have been the first public company in history to be valued at over US$1 trillion (it is thought that the Saudi Arabian state owned oil giant Saudi Aramco is worth several trillion dollars), but when adjusted for inflation there have actually been several. The most valuable of them all was the Dutch East India Company (Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie in Dutch or VOC).

The peak value of the VOC was so high that it puts modern companies, and even economies, to shame. If we add the market capitalisation of twenty of the worlds largest companies, including Apple, Microsoft, Facebook, Amazon, ExxonMobil, Berkshire Hathaway, and Wells Fargo, together we get to around the same valuation of the VOC at its height – Unbelievable! And yet true.

The company was historically an exemplary company-state rather than a pure for-profit corporation. Originally a government-backed military-commercial enterprise, the VOC was the wartime brainchild of leading Dutch statesman Johan van Oldenbarnevelt. From its inception in 1602, the company was not only a commercial enterprise but also effectively an instrument of war in the nascent Dutch Republic’s War of Independence (1568 – 1648) against the powerful Spanish Empire.

Origins

Before the Dutch Revolt, the city of Antwerp (in modern Belgium) had played a major role as a distribution centre in northern Europe. However, after 1591, the Portuguese began dealing with influential German families and banks that preferred to use Hamburg as their northern port to distribute their goods, effectively cutting Dutch merchants out of the trade. At the same time, the Portuguese trading system was proving inefficient and unable to increase supply to satisfy growing demand for spices, particularly pepper – each lag in pepper supply was causing a sharp rise in price.

The Portuguese crown was united in personal union with the Spanish crown, with which the Dutch Republic was at war, in 1580. The Portuguese Empire therefore became an appropriate target for Dutch military attacks. These factors motivated opportunistic Dutch merchants to enter the intercontinental spice trade and a four-ship exploratory expedition set sail for Banten, the principal pepper port of West Java, in 1595. Half of the crew were lost before the expedition made it back to the Netherlands the following year, but enough spice to make the venture profitable also made it back.

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By 1598, an increasing number of fleets were sent out by competing merchant groups from around the Netherlands. Some fleets were lost, but most were successful, with some voyages proving massively lucrative. In 1599, a fleet of eight ships made it all the way to the “Spice Islands” of Maluku (western Indonesia), the source of pepper, completely cutting out the Javanese middlemen. This particular expedition made a 400 percent profit!

In 1600, the Dutch joined forces with the Muslim Hituese in the region in an anti-Portuguese alliance, in return for which the Dutch were granted the sole right to purchase spices from the Hitu on Ambon Island. This was just one island of many though and the Portuguese and Dutch duked it out for many years to determine which power would be the dominant trading force in the region.

At the time, it was customary for a company to be funded only for the duration of a single voyage and then be liquidated upon the return of the fleet. Investment in these expeditions was a very high-risk venture, not only because of the obvious dangers of piracy, disease and shipwreck, but also because of the economic factors of inelastic demand and relative elastic supply of spices that could make prices tumble. In order to manage such risks, the forming of a cartel to control the supply seemed the logical solution. In 1600, the English were the first to adopt this approach by bundling their resources into a monopoly enterprise, the English East India Company, thereby threatening their Dutch competitors with financial ruin.

A Brief History

The Dutch government soon followed suit and in March 1602 sponsored the creation of a single company that granted monopoly over the Dutch spice trade for 21 years: the VOC was born. For a time in the seventeenth century, the VOC were able to monopolise the trade in nutmeg, mace and cloves and sold these spices across Europe and India for between fourteen and seventeen times the price that they paid for them in Indonesia. While Dutch profits soared, the local economy of the Spice Islands was devastated. The charter of this new company granted it the ability to build forts, maintain armies and even conclude treaties with Asian rulers.

In February 1603, the company captured the Santa Catarina, a 1,500-ton Portuguese merchant ship off the coast of Singapore. She was such a prize that her sale proceeds increased VOC capital by more than 50%.

Also in 1603, the first permanent Dutch trading post was set up in Banten, West Java, and another was established in Batavia (later Jakarta) in 1611. The post of Governor General was set up to more firmly control affairs in Asia. The Governor General effectively became the main administrator of the VOC’s Asian activities, although the Heeren XVII, a body of 17 shareholders continued to officially control the company.

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In 1619, the newly appointed Governor General, Jan Pieterszoon Coen, saw an opportunity for the VOC to become a political, as well as economic, power in Asia. He backed a force of nineteen ships to storm Batavia, driving out the local forces and established the city as the VOC’s Asian headquarters. During the 1620s almost the entire native population was driven away, starved to death or murdered in an attempt to replace them with Dutch plantations which were used to grow spices for export. Coen hoped to settle large numbers of Dutch colonists, but implementation of his policy never gained ground, mainly because very few Dutch were willing to emigrate to Asia.

Another of Coen’s ventures proved more successful. One of the major problems in European trade with Asia was that the Europeans had little to offer that Asian consumers wanted, except silver and gold. This meant that the spice traders had to pay with the precious metals, which were in short supply in Europe except for Spain and Portugal. The metals had to be obtained by creating trade surpluses with other European nations. Coen began an intra-Asiatic trade system, whose profits could be used to finance the spice trade with Europe. This avoided the need for exports of precious metals, but at first it required the formation of a large trading-capital fund in the Indies. The VOC reinvested a large share of its profits into this scheme – it paid off! The company traded throughout Asia through their innovative trading system. Silver and copper from Japan were used to trade with India and China for silk, cotton, textiles and porcelain. These products, in turn, were used to trade for the coveted spices.

The VOC also played a large part in introducing European ideas and technology to Asia, as well as supporting Christian missionaries. For over two hundred years (1641 – 1854) the only place where Europeans were permitted to trade with Japan was on an island off the coast with Nagasaki named Deijima. The Dutch controlled Deijima.

The VOC managed to break the Portuguese monopoly of the cinnamon trade in 1640 when they captured Galle on the island of Ceylon (Modern Sri Lanka). In 1659, the Dutch expelled the Portuguese from the island, securing the cinnamon monopoly for the VOC.

In 1652, an outpost was established in the southwestern tip of Africa at the Cape of Good Hope to re-supply VOC ships on their journey east. This outpost later became a fully fledged colony, Cape Town, when more Dutch and other Europeans began settling there. Throughout the seventeenth century VOC trading posts were also established in Persia, Bengal, Malacca, Siam, Formosa, and the Malabar (southwest) and Coromandel (southeast) coasts in India. Direct access to the Chinese mainland finally came in 1729 when a factory was opened in Canton. The company also came to dominate and eventually monopolise all trade with the Aceh Sultanate (western Indonesia).

All of this trade brought unimaginable wealth to the VOC and by 1669 it was at the height of its power. The VOC was the richest private company that the world had ever seen with over 150 merchant ships, 40 warships, 50,000 employees, a private army of 10,000 soldiers – even Apple doesn’t have a private army. The company was paying an unbelievable 40% dividend payment on the investor’s original investment.

When you reach the summit there is only one way left to go – down.

Several events caused the growth of VOC trade to stall. Firstly, the highly profitable trade with Japan began to decline. In 1662 the Chinese, under Ming loyalist Koxinga, ended the Dutch dominance of Formosa (modern Taiwan), and this combined with internal struggle on the mainland (the bloody transition from the Ming dynasty to Qing dynasty was in full swing) brought an end to the silk trade after 1666. Secondly, the shogunate in Japan enacted a series of policies to limit the export of silver and gold from their country. This limited VOC opportunities for trade and Japan ceased to function as the linchpin of the intra-Asiatic trade of the VOC by 1685.

Even more importantly than these Asian setbacks was the outbreak of the Third Anglo-Dutch War in 1672. Although the war ended in 1674 with a Dutch victory, the war did temporarily interrupt VOC trade with Europe. The war caused a spike in the price of pepper which encouraged the English East India Company (EIC) to aggressively enter the market. The EIC flooded the market with pepper from India and the VOC was forced into a crippling price war. However, the VOC (whose capital was significantly larger than their English counterparts) could afford to wait out their rivals, which they did and by 1683 the EIC came close to bankruptcy.

However, the writing was on the wall and other similar companies, like the Danish East India Company and the French East India Company also began to make inroads on the Dutch trade system. The importance of traditional commodities in Asian-European trade was beginning to diminish by this point anyway and the military presence that the VOC required to enhance its monopoly could no longer be justified. However, this lesson was slow to sink in and at first the VOC made the decision to improve its military presence on the Malabar Coast (hoping to curtail English influence in the region). In 1710, the Zamorin of Calicut was forced to sign a treaty undertaking to trading exclusively with the VOC and expelling all other European traders. This briefly appeared to change the company’s floundering fortunes… that was until 1715 when the Zamorin renounced the treaty with the encouragement of the EIC and began to trade with the French and the British.

In 1721 the VOC decided that it was no longer worth the trouble to try and dominate the Malabar pepper and spice trade. The decision to strategically scale down the Dutch military presence in the area and effectively yield to EIC influence was taken.

The Dutch were defeated by the warriors of Travancore in southwest India at the Battle of Colachel in 1741. this defeat is considered the earliest example of an organised Asian power overcoming European military technology and tactics. It also signaled the decline of Dutch power in India.

The attempt to continue as before as a low volume-high profit enterprise with its core business in the spice trade had failed. The VOC had, however, already began to follow the example of other European competitors in diversifying into other Asian commodities, like tea, cotton, textiles and sugar. These commodities provided a lower profit margin and therefore required a larger sales volume to generate similar revenue. This structural change in the VOC’s commodity composition and business model had began as early as the 1680s, after the temporary collapse of the EIC in 1683 offered a fantastic opportunity to enter these markets. The true cause for the change, however, lies in two structural features of the new era of intercontinental trade:

  1.  There was a change in the tastes affecting European demand for Asian commodities around the turn of the 18th century.
  2. A new era of an abundant supply of capital at low interest rates suddenly opened around this time which enabled the company to easily finance its expansion into these new areas of commerce.

The tonnage of ships returning to Europe rose by around 125% in this period, but the VOC’s revenues only rose by 78%. This reflects the basic change in the VOC’s circumstances that had occurred: it was now forced to compete on an equal footing with other suppliers – gone were the days of its monopolies. Naturally this made for lower profit margins.

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After 1730, the fortunes of the VOC began to decline further with five major problems explaining its decline over the next fifty years to 1780:

  1. External political and economic factors that were out of the VOC’s control led to a steady erosion of intra-Asiatic trade. These factors led to the company being squeezed out of Persia, Suratte, Bengal and the Malabar Coast, forcing the company to confine its operations to the belt that it physically controlled – Ceylon through the Indonesian archipelago.
  2. The way that the company was organised in Asia, with its centralised hub in Batavia, began to cause serious disadvantages due to the inefficiency of shipping everything here first before moving it on to its final destination.
  3. The greed and immorality of VOC personnel, though a problem for all European East India Companies of the time, appears to have plagued the VOC on a larger scale than its competitors – the phrase “perished under corruption” came to summarise the company’s corporate environment and future.
  4. High mortality rates among employees decimated the ranks and fatigued the survivors of all East India Companies, and the VOC was no different.
  5. The dividend distributed by the company exceeded the surplus it garnered in Europe in nearly every decade from 1690 to 1760. While profits fell the dividends only slightly decreased from earlier levels.

Despite these problems, the VOC remained an enormous operation in 1780 and the prospects of the company were far from hopeless – or so it seemed. The Fourth Anglo-Dutch War (1780 – 1784) saw British attacks in Europe and Asia which reduced the VOC fleet by half, removed valuable cargo from its control and devastated the company’s remaining power in Asia.

After the war, the company was a financial wreck. – a husk of its former glory. After several vain attempts at reorganisation by the provincial states of Holland and Zeeland, the company was finally nationalised by the new Batavian Republic on 1 March 1796 with most of the former possessions subsequently being subsumed by expanding British interests during the Napoleonic Wars, although some were returned after the creation of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands in 1814. This made no difference to the Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie which was dissolved on 31 December 1799 – the sun had finally set on the most profitable private company that the world has thus far seen.

Significance of the Dutch East India Company

In terms of global business history, the lessons from the VOC’s successes or failures are critically important. With its pioneering institutional innovations and powerful role in global business history, the company is often considered by many to be the forerunner of modern corporations – in many respects, modern corporations are the direct descendants of the VOC model. It was their 17th century institutional innovations and business practices that laid the foundations for the rise of giant global corporations in subsequent centuries.

In his book Amsterdam: A History of the World’s Most Liberal City the American author and historian Russell Shorto made the argument that no company in history has had such an impact on the world and that the company’s surviving archives can be measured in kilometeres. It expanded the world whilst also bringing Europe, Asia and Africa to one another in an early example of globalisation.

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A pioneering model of the multinational corporation in the modern sense, the VOC is usually considered as the world’s first true transnational corporation. In the early 1600s, the Dutch East India Company became the world’s first company to ever be listed on a formal stock exchange. In many ways, modern-day publicly listed global companies are descended from the business model pioneered by the VOC in the 17th century – even the contemporary English/British East India Company’s operational structure was altered to duplicate the superior VOC one.

During its golden age, the company played crucial roles in the business, financial, socio-political-economic, diplomatic, ethnic, military, and exploratory maritime history of the world – there are not many entities that can make that claim. With its pioneering institutional innovations and powerful roles in world history, the Dutch East India Company is considered by many to be the first major, first modern, first global, most valuable, and most influential corporation ever seen.

It was not all roses though, and the VOC has been critisced for a litany of unethical and questionable activities, including its quasi-absolute commercial monopoly, colonialism, exploitation, slavery, environmental destruction, its candid use of violence and being overly bureaucratic in its organisational structure.

But this post has rambled on for long enough now so I will leave you with this final criticism – the VOC’s economic activity on the island of Mauritius largely contributed to the extinction of the dodo, the flightless bird that was native to the tiny island.

The Rest is History

If your business history curiosity has not been satiated yet then why not check out the Rest is History article on 10 Really Old Companies?

The Real Game of Thrones – Part 2: Seven Times History Inspired G.R.R. Martin

This is Part 2 of Rest is History’s “The Real Game of Thrones” – Click Here to check out Part 1 if you have not already done so.

Unless you have been living under a rock in recent years, you will have no doubt heard of the hit television show Game of Thrones, based on the fantasy novel series by author George R.R. Martin. Much of Game of Thrones and it’s source material are taken from history, with Martin’s wondrous fiction woven through them as they blend into one massive incredible tale. The backbone of Martin’s story is lifted straight from the English Wars of the Roses which you can find over in Part 1.

This article will look into seven instances where the show touches on historical themes, people and events. Before we start though, two quick caveats: the story lines that I’ll be looking at come from the television show rather than the books, mostly because I believe more people are familiar with them and partly because I have not read all of them yet. Secondly, it goes without saying that this article contains spoilers, so if you are not fully caught up then read at your own peril!

1 – Lyanna’s Abduction and the Rape of Lucretia

Before Rome was an empire it was a republic, and before it was a republic it was a kingdom. What brought around the end of the Roman Kingdom was an act so heinous that the people of Rome were horrified and decried that they “would rather die a thousand deaths in defence of their liberty than suffer such outrages to be committed by the tyrants.”

Legend has it that in 510 BCE, Lucretia was assaulted and raped by Sextus Superbus, the son of Rome’s last king Tarquin (Targaryen), while he was staying with Lucretia’s husband, Collatinus, on a military campaign. The next day Lucretia told her father what had happened, asking for vengence before plunging a knife into her heart and dying in his arms. Revenge came swiftly as her husband and uncle led a rebellion that drove out the Tarquins and established a republic.

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There are many similarities between this tragic (most likely mythical) tale and the story of Lyanna Stark, sister of Ned Stark, whose immediate family became the standard bearer’s of the revolution (Robert’s Rebellion) that did away with the Mad King. It was her brother Ned Stark and betrothed, Robert Baratheon, who led the armies after her supposed abduction by Rhaegar Targaryen.

We now know, thanks to Brann’s vision that Lyanna was not forcefully taken, but fled willingly and married Rhaegar in secret. But, as Game of Thrones likes to drill home – history is written by the victors, and as Robert’s Rebellion was successful and the Targaryens were all but annihilated, the truth behind the revolt was buried with them.

2 – Valyria and Rome

Just as medieval Europe clawed its way out of the ruins of the Roman Empire, Westeros too stands in the shadow of an older and, yet, superior civilisation: the Valyrian Freehold. Both conquered vast swathes of land through their military and technological superiority; both prospered off the back of slave economies; and both ultimately crumbled.

Upon arriving in Valyria in Season 5, Tyrion Lannister asks Jorah Mormont: “How many centuries before we learn how to build cities like this again?” There is evidence of people being equally awestruck when looking back at Roman architecture during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. While gazing upon the dome of the Pantheon in the early 1500s, Michelangelo opined that it seemed of “angelic and not human design.” The Roman temple was already over 1,350 years old by this point. It was not just the architecture that the people felt nostalgic for. Valyria’s language was taught as part of the education of Westerosi nobility – much like Latin was (and still is) an important part of the Catholic Church and European nobility of later ages.

For all that the Roman Empire contributed to the world in terms of laws, language, markets, technology, architecture, and infrastructure, it was still not enough to prevent it’s downfall. A series of factors, including political incompetence, military defeats and loss of traditional values led to Rome being sacked by the Visigoths in 410 CE. This was not the case for Valyria, which was wiped out through natural, rather than man-made, causes. In making the “Doom of Valyria” a catastrophic volcanic eruption, Martin draws inspiration from two other civilisations: one historic, the Minoans; and one mythical, the city of Atlantis.

3 – The Wall

In northern England there stands the remnants of an ancient Roman wall that stretches 117 kilometers (73 miles) from coast to coast. Although little more than a ruin nowadays, in its heyday this wall stood at a formidable 6 metres (20 foot) high. This is the famous Hadrian’s Wall and inspired the 300-mile long, 700-foot-tall Wall that spans the two coastlines of Westeros in the frozen north. Scientifically, Martin’s Wall would never stand, even in the sub-zero temperatures of his fictionalised North, had it not been for the magic that bound it together. However, the 8,000-year old structure did not fair too badly… until it came up against an Ice Dragon!

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Back to reality. After its completion in the late 120s CE, Hadrian’s Wall marked the northernmost frontier of the Roman Empire, shutting out Rome’s enemies. It was not the undead army of the Night King that the Romans were trying to keep out, but the northern British tribes and Caledonians. While the army of the Night King represents the antithesis of the people of Westeros, non-Roman tribes too were seen as “other” and considered barbarian in Roman thinking. This is evident in not just the Britons north of Hadrian’s Wall but also with the Germanic and Gallic tribes – the Romans used these peoples against whom the Romans could differentiate themselves with culturally.

4 – The Iron Bank of Braavos and the Medici

The Iron Bank of Braavos lurks behind the scenes of Westerosi finance from the first season. Ned Stark arrives in King’s Landing to find that the Iron Throne is in considerable debt, owing half to the Lannisters and half to the Iron Bank. Even Tywin, the powerful head of the Lannister family fears the Iron Bank, acknowledging its power as an inflexible operation that can not be evaded, lied to, or avoided.

Institutional money lending stretches back well into antiquity, with interest rates being set in law codes such as the Hammurabi Code (1754 BCE) in Ancient Mesopotamia and examples of pawnbroking in Classical Greece. It is not until 15th century Italy, however, that we see anything as formidable as the Iron Bank. Combining sound financial investment with political scheming, the Medici family went on to finance (and produce) popes and fund European kings. The money that their investments returned, however, they poured back into their city, Florence, partly to keep up the façade that it was still a republic and that there was no all-powerful family ruling over the citizens.

One way that the Iron Bank makes its fortune is by financially backing those that they believe will win. But as both the show and history has made clear, the uncertain nature of war proves to be the greatest enemy of certainty – the Bank invested considerably in Stannis Baratheon but lost it all when he was killed by Brienne of Tarth.

We also have parallels between the Iron Bank of Braavos and the Medici family during England’s Wars of the Roses. The Medici’s London branch got itself into serious trouble after lending to King Edward IV who defaulted, as did his enemies, the House of Lancaster, who also owed the Medici a considerable amount. This failure brought business in the London branch to a close and marked the beginning of the end for the Medici’s dominance over European banking.

5 – The Ironborn and the Vikings

Aside from the Dothraki hordes being inspired by the Mongol hordes, one of the most obvious comparisons between the people of Westeros is the Ironborn and the Vikings. The cultural disparities between the feudal system on the main land and the militarism of the Iron Islands are highlighted in the show through Theon Greyjoy. As Ned Stark’s hostage, he is exposed to a different, more softer, way of life at Winterfell than that of his fellow Ironborn.

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In Theon’s father, Balon Greyjoy, we see indications of the Viking King Ceolwulf, who was installed on the Mercian throne, replacing the previous king. Ceolwulf was little more than a puppet, answerable to those he derived power from.

The extreme violence of the Ironborn’s liestyle boils all the way down to their bartering system – the “iron price” generally being beating one’s enemies to death until the desired possession becomes yours. King Balon’s brother, Euron Greyjoy, proves very talented at bludgeoning his opponents with his axe. This choice of weapon fits him within a Viking context as they were the most commonly used weapon of the Norsemen.

There are, however, a number of important differences between the Ironborn and the Vikings. While Martin would have the Ironborn as an almost totalitarian warrior society, the real Norsemen were a lot more socially stratified. There was so much more to Viking society than the brutish raping and pillaging that is, too often, associated with them. Vikings such as Leif Erikson and Erik the Red led voyages of exploration and the culture relied heavily on trade, both things that the Ironborn are against. The men from the Iron Islands represent the absolute worst of the Vikings and their culture.

6 – The Red Wedding and Scotland’s Bloody Past

George R.R. Martin revealed that two events from Scottish history inspired his infamous “Red Wedding” scene. The first was the execution of the 16-year-old William Douglas, 6th Earl of Douglas and his younger brother, David, in 1440 at an incident known as the “Black Dinner”.

The brothers had been invited, in the name of 10-year-old King James II, to visit the king at Edinburgh Castle in November. They were entertained at the royal table, where King James was charmed by them. During the feast, a platter was brought to the table and placed in front of Douglas. When lifted, the platter revealed the head of a black boar – a symbol of death. The brothers were dragged to the courtyard, given a short mock trial over trumped-up charges, and beheaded, over the protests of the young king.

In a showing of family disunity worthy of Game of Thrones, historians tend to agree that the boys’ great-uncle, James Douglas, was the main perpetrator of this shocking event. He became the 7th Earl of Douglas, and gained most from the executions. History remembers him as “James the Gross”.

The second event took place at Glencoe in the Highlands of Scotland. The massacre of thirty-eight members of the MacDonald Clan took place here in February 1692. For nearly two weeks the members of the Campbell Clan had been staying as the guests of the MacDonalds in Glencoe, but just as in Game of Thrones, the reality behind the massacre was more convoluted. Just as it was actually Tywin Lannister who organised the Stark’s massacre with the help of the Boltons, the order at Glencoe was given by the Scottish Secretary of State, John Dalrymple, 1st Earl of Stair.

Dalrymple was no fan of the Highland Clans in general as he viewed them as an obstruction towards a political union with England. After the first Jacobite uprising in 1689 failed to restore the Stuart monarchy, a Royal Proclamation was offered to those who swore allegiance to King William of Orange by January 1st 1692. Alisdair MacIain’s (head of the MacDonalds in Glencoe) failure to sign the oath of allegiance provided Dalrymple with the excuse he needed to eradicate the MacDonalds and send a message to the other clan heads who had failed to swear fealty to the new king.

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Robert Campbell’s soldiers arrived at the MacDonald’s stronghold in Glencoe on 1 February and took shelter from the harsh winter conditions whilst being treated to the hospitality that they were entitled to under the Highland hospitality code. On the night of 13 February 1692, as a blizzard raged outside, the Campbells set about murdering every sleeping MacDonald they could find. Thirty-eight lay dead inside the fort the next morning and around forty others, mainly women and children, who had fled, ended up dying of exposure in the winter storms.

To this day the Glencoe Massacre still brews feelings of bad blood: visit the Clachaig Inn in Glencoe and you’ll read a sign declaring: “NO HAWKERS OR CAMPBELLS”.

7 – The Night’s Watch and Medieval Catholic Military Orders

The Night’s Watch was established as a military order tasked with defending the realm of men from the “Others“, beyond the Wall, shortly after the end of the Long Winter. The men of the Night’s Watch share many similarities with some of the Catholic Military Orders of knights throughout Medieval Europe and the Middle-East.

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One such group was the Knights Templar who were a military Holy Order charged with protecting pilgrims passing through the Holy Land. Another was the Teutonic Order, originally set up in 1190 to care for the sick and wounded during the Siege of Acre, similar to the Knights Hospitaller, but soon began to militarise in 1198. Both Templars and Teutons took vows of celibacy, renouncing all female contact; and this observation of chastity rings echoes in the vow of the Night’s Watch: “I shall take no wife, hold no lands, father no children. I shall wear no crowns and win no glory.

We do not know the wording of the original vow sworn by the knights of the Teutonic Order or the Knights Templar, but its safe to assume that it centered around defending the Holy Land and the Christians who sought to visit the lands of Christ. We do know that there were many similarities with the Night’s Watch vow, including encouraging poverty and chastity.

Additionally, there are a number of similarities regarding the hierarchical structures of the fictional and historical orders. Just as men of the Night’s Watch are entirely loyal to their elected Lord Commander, the Templars and Teutons were utterly obedient to their elected Grand Master. Both the fictional and real military orders were autonomous: they were not answerable to kings or countries as they swore allegiance to their order which they viewed as serving a higher purpose.

The Rest is History

Click Here to read The Real Game of Thrones Part 1: The Wars of the Roses

The Real Game of Thrones – Part 1: The Wars of the Roses

Unless you have been living under a rock in recent years, you will have no doubt heard of the hit television show Game of Thrones, based on the fantasy novel series by author George R.R. Martin. It is no secret that Martin borrows heavily from European history for his themes of power struggles. Even the map of the main continent, Westeros, appears to be an upside down Ireland attached to the bottom of a slightly warped England.

Much like real European history, Martin’s fantasy world is full of multi-layered, Machiavellian politics, brutal behaviour and family drama. Plus magic and dragons. But if you strip away the ice zombies, prophecies, magic and dragons what is left is a clear jumble of some pretty savage history.

This will be the first of two articles exploring the historical analogies from which Martin drew inspiration for his epic fantasy series. Initially, I had planned on doing one post but the struggle for the Iron Throne and dominion over the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros was plucked directly from the three-decade-long Wars of the Roses fought between the House of Lancaster (Lannister) and the House of York (Stark). This war really is deserving of more than a few paragraphs.

Click Here to read The Real Game of Thrones Part 2: Seven Times History Inspired G.R.R. Martin

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The Roses

The conflict originated after the Hundred Years’ War (1337 – 1453), fought primarily between England and France. Defeat in this lengthy war at the hands of the French and their allies left England in social and financial turmoil that, combined with the eventual mental health problems suffered by King Henry VI, revived an interest in Richard, Duke of York’s claim to the throne.

King Henry VI and his House of Lancaster was represented by a red rose whilst the Yorks were symbolised by a White Rose – even today, the counties of Lancashire and Yorkshire associate with these colours and flowers.

Neither family had dragons or crippled youths with magical abilities to warp time and control animals, but the story of the Wars of the Roses does include plenty of throne rivalry, shifting loyalties, weak monarchs, murdered princes, and scheming protectors of the realm (Hand of the King/Queen). Much like its fictionalised counterpart, the Wars of the Roses were a complex and brutally violent series of events that rocked the kingdom. The Battle of Towton (1461) is considered the largest and bloodiest battle ever fought on English soil – upwards of 50,000 men fought for hours amidst a snowstorm with 28,000 losing their lives. George R.R. Martin was able to take these events and put them at the centre of his fantasy world, expanding outward with an interlaced tale of history and magic.

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To truly understand and absorb the complicated history of the Wars of the Roses takes far more energy and effort than this post can adequately achieve, so we will look at the  summarised version and how it pertains to Game of Thrones.

A Right Royal Muddle-Up

The death of King Edward III in 1377 sparked the drama. Edward’s eldest son, Edward the Black Prince, had already died, but his grandson, Richard II, was ten years old and he was crowned king, leapfrogging Edward’s three other surviving sons. This skip of a generation created numerous claims to the throne within the family. This entitlement became particularly strong within the Lancaster and York lines of the family. Fans of Game of Thrones will note similarities between this historic feud and the claims made by the brothers of Robert Baratheon, Stannis and Renly, upon his death.

Richard II was deposed in 1399 by his cousin, Henry of Bolingbroke (Henry IV), which installed the House of Lancaster onto the throne. The Lancastrian hold of power continued through Henry IV’s son Henry V who died in 1422, leaving the throne to his eight month old son, Henry VI. The young king proved weak-willed and was easily manipulated by his advisors, who convinced him to marry Margaret of Anjou to gain French support. She was both beautiful and ruthless… Queen Cersei, anyone?

York Triumphant

Queen Margaret was prone to persecuting anyone who threatened her… Queen Cersei, anyone? She also harboured a deep distrust of Richard of York, a prominent figure in the Royal family who still held a legitimate claim to the throne. In the Game of Thrones narrative, Richard of York translates into Eddard “Ned” Stark. Guess who is no fan of Ned Stark… Queen Cersei, anyone?

York was Henry VI’s closest ally, advisor, general and trusted confidant so naturally, the Queen did everything possible to keep York from further climbing the political ladder and attaining higher position. Richard of York began to protest and openly argue with the Lancasters at this treatment. He was exiled to Ireland for his efforts. Meanwhile, Queen Margaret’s malicious tactics and questionable alliances caused great distrust of her husband’s rule among the people.

Richard of York eventually returned to England with an army and became Lord Protector of England, the real-world equivalent of Hand of the King. He was appointed as the regent in charge of the government after King Henry VI suffered a mental breakdown. Unfortunately for York, the King soon recovered from this confused state and reversed York’s position at the request of his Queen. Once again, York attacked with an army, was reinstated as the Lord Protector of England and succeeded in securing his and his heir’s succession to the throne following Henry’s death.

Richard of York was killed along with one of his sons by Margaret’s forces at the Battle of Wakefield in 1460 but his eldest son took the throne soon after in 1461 and was crowned Edward IV.

King Edward IV continued to battle the House of Lancaster, including at the violent blood-letting of the Battle of Towton, mentioned earlier. The former King Henry IV was captured in 1465 and imprisoned in the Tower of London whilst his Queen was captured in 1471 after a battle in which their only son, Edward of Westminster, was killed (the only Prince of Wales to ever fall in battle). Edward of Westminster was allegedly an exceptionally cruel and hot-tempered child who served as the template for one of the most loathsome characters in Game of Thrones: King Joffrey.

The Plot Thickens

Edward IV’s success was undermined when he backed out of an arranged marriage with a French princess, secretly marrying the widow of a minor noble instead – how dare he marry for love rather than political gain!! Edward’s marriage to someone of a lesser station than himself at the expense of a more politically gainful marriage is clearly the foundation for Robb Stark’s ignored betrothal arrangement to the daughter of Lord Walder Frey.

King Edward IV’s marriage alienated some of his allies, especially the Earl of Warwick (inspired Roose Bolton in Game of Thrones) who turned many people against the king and briefly had Henry VI reinstated. This did not last long, as Edward took the throne back and imprisoned Henry in the Tower once again, where he died in 1471 under suspicious circumstances – most likely at the orders of Edward to prevent any further contest. Edward’s reign continued, mostly peacefully, until his death in 1483.

…then the violence recommenced.

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Edward had a 12 year-old son due to succeed him, but his younger brother, Richard declared that the boy did not deserve the crown, arguing that the son was the product of his father’s secret and inappropriate marriage. Richard had himself crowned King Richard III in 1483 and imprisoned his nephews in the Tower of London: the “Princes in the Tower” were never seen again. It is easy to see how William Shakespeare could portray Richard as a Machiavellian villain who ruthlessly committed numerous murders in order to claw his way to power. Richard III’s argument rings similar to that of Stannis Baratheon’s about the legitimacy of King Joffrey.

King Across the Sea

Two years after Richard III stole the crown from his nephew, a figure from across the English Channel (Narrow Sea) challenged his reign. Henry Tudor, a direct descendant of the first Duke of Lancaster, had been raised in exile after his father’s death. Any of this sound familiar? Game of Thrones also knows of a character directly descended from royalty who was raised in exile across the sea after their father’s death: Daenerys Targaryen.

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Henry Tudor succeeded in winning the support of some dissatisfied York allies, raised an army in France, crossed the English Channel, and defeated King Richard’s forces and was crowned as King Henry VII. His final victory at the Battle of Bosworth Field was the final time that an English monarch won their crown on the field of battle. Henry married Elizabeth of York, the older sister of the “Princes in the Tower” and daughter of Edward IV, thus securing the legitimacy of his crown further. This linked the Houses of Lancaster and York for the first time, ending the Wars of the Roses after 32 years. The Tudor family, who combined the White and Red Roses in one, continued to rule over the Kingdom of England until 1603 when King James VI of Scotland became King James I of England in a personal union after Queen Elizabeth died without an heir.

Beyond the Wars of the Roses, George R.R. Martin draws on other histories for the different groups and factions within his story. The second part of “The Real Game of Thrones” will look into some of these other events and factions that draw on real-world history for inspiration.

The Rest is History

Click Here to read The Real Game of Thrones Part 2: Seven Times History Inspired G.R.R. Martin

 

The Human Story – The Roman Republic. Or Was It Empire?

The Romans. The ancient world’s kings of badassery! Or, perhaps “king” is the wrong word to describe them.

Legend has it that the city of Rome was founded on seven hills in 753 BCE by a chap named Romulus who, along with his twin brother Remus, was raised by a wolf. Romulus and Remus had a falling out and the former killed his brother in a rage (in Romulus’ defence, I cannot imagine that there was much in the way of emotional education during their canine upbringing). As its founder Romulus was, naturally, appointed to act as the first King of Rome with six more were to follow him.

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The final and seventh king was a man by the name of Tarquinius who grew to become a very unpopular king despite various military victories (usually something that proved very popular throughout Roman history). He diminished the size and authority of the senate by killing some senators and refusing to replace them, and he failed to consult the senate on matters of government anyway. In another break with tradition, he judged capital criminal cases without the advice of counsellors, thereby creating fear amongst those who may oppose him. The final straw came when his son raped Lucretia, a married noblewoman, who could not live with the shame and tragically stabbed herself and died in her father’s arms. The people were so disgusted and horrified that in one voice they cried “that they would rather die a thousand deaths in defence of their liberty than suffer such outrages to be committed by the tyrants.”

And so, it was. The Roman people overthrew their monarchy in 509 BCE and established the Roman Republic with Lucius Tarquinius Collatinus and Lucius Junius Brutus, the two men who had led the revolution, as the first co-consuls.

Governing the Roman Republic

In order to understand the transition from the Roman Republic to the Roman Empire we need to indulge in a bit of Great Man History. No man epitomises this transition as much as Julius Caesar, “great man” that he was.

Caesar was stabbed in the back by some of his colleagues from the senate because they were convinced that he was going to destroy the Republic. Even if he that was what he was planning, we still need to ask ourselves two questions:

1. Was the Roman Republic worth preserving?
2. Whether or not Caesar actually destroyed it?

One thing that made the Roman Republic endure as long as it did (509 – 27 BCE) was its political balance. The Greek historian Polybius said that the three forms of government – Monarchy (although in the Republic’s case “Diarchy” – two-person rule would be more accurate), Aristocracy and Democracy – could all be found unified within the structure of the Roman political system. At the heart of this blended system was the senate (the body of legislators chosen from a group of elite families). Essentially, Roman society was broken into two broad categories:

Patricians – Small group of aristocratic families (where the senators were selected from)
Plebeians – Everyone else

The senate was a mixture of legislature and advisory council whose main job was to set policy for the consuls. Each year the senate would choose two co-consuls from amongst its ranks to serve as the heads of Rome – the monarchy (diarchy) aspect of Polybius’ description of the Republic. Two senators were elevated to the rank of consul in order to check one another’s ambitions and so that one could deal with domestic issues whilst the other was off fighting Rome’s enemies and conquering new lands. There were also an additional two checks on power. Firstly, the single year term – I mean, how much trouble can someone really cause in one year? Secondly, once a consul had served then he was forbidden from holding that office again for at least ten years (or at least that was supposed to be the case anyway).

Because co-consuls only reigned for one year, the calendar year was named after the reigning consuls of that given year. For example, 509 BCE, the first year of the Roman Republic was known as the “Year of Brutus and Collatinus” whilst 82 BCE was remembered as the “Year of Marius and Carbo”. An additional post was created for times of extreme danger when the Republic itself was in danger. This post was filled for the first time in 494 BCE when the Republic was scarcely a teenager and the senate decided that Manius Valerius Maximus was the right man for the job. However, the archetypal dictator was Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus – the selfless Roman general (and ex-consul) who came out of retirement from his farm, took command of an army and defeated Rome’s enemy before relinquishing power and returning to his modest life on the farm. He did this twice!! First in 458 BCE and and then again in 439 BCE.

The Life & Times of Julius Caesar

Now, back to Julius Caesar and Great Man History.

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Gaius Julius Caesar was born in July 100 BCE (Year of Marius and Flaccus, in case you were wondering) to one of Rome’s patrician families. It is often claimed that he was born of Caesarean Section, hence the name. This is, however, false – his family gained the name “Caesar” after an earlier ancestor had been born via this operation.

Seeing as Caesar was from the upper class of society it was only natural that he would serve both in the army and the senate. He proved to be a competent general and was rewarded with the post of governor of Hispania Ulterior (modern southern Spain) before deciding to run for the office: that of consul. However, Caesar was in debt and in order to win the consulship he needed financial aid. He turned to Marcus Licinius Crassus, the richest man in Rome at the time.

In 59 BCE, Caesar was elected to the office of consul and aimed to dominate the Roman political arena by allying himself with Crassus and Rome’s other powerful player, General Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (better known as Pompey – who you will remember egomaniacally styled himself as “the Great” in homage to Alexander).

Crassus, Pompey and Caesar made up the First Triumvirate and this alliance worked out exceedingly well for Caesar. Meh, not so much the other two.

After his year as consul, which involved getting the senate to pass laws largely through intimidation of Pompey’s troops, Caesar landed the governorship of Roman controlled Gaul. He quickly conquered the rest of the territory and his four loyal Legions became the source of his own personal power. He continued conquering new territories in the north, and even brought parts of Britain into the Roman sphere of influence.

While Caesar was off fighting his Gallic Wars, Crassus, the governor of Roman Syria (one of the richest Roman provinces, thanks in no small part to the Silk Road trade routes) by this time, was killed in battle with the Parthian Empire. Crassus’ wealth and political influence had acted as the counterbalance to the other two egos of the Triumvirate and the alliance quickly began to unravel after Pompey was elected consul. The senate and Pompey decided to strip Caesar of his command and recall him to Rome. Caesar knew that if he returned without his army he would have been prosecuted for corruption and exceeding his authority. So instead he returned to Rome with the Thirteenth Legion, crossed the Rubicon River and cast the die.

Pompey fled the city and by 48 BCE Gaius Julius Caesar was named both consul and dictator (although he resigned the office of dictator after only 11 days). He promptly left for Egypt to track down his old friend, only to discover that he had already been killed by the Pharaoh Ptolemy. Egypt had its own problems, however, and was also going through its own civil war between the pharaoh and his sister, Cleopatra. Ptolemy had been trying to gain favour with Caesar by killing Pompey, but Caesar was furious as he had wanted to capture his nemesis alive and so sided with Cleopatra after she seduced him. He withstood the Siege of Alexandria and later defeated the pharaoh’s forces at the Battle of the Nile in 47 BCE and installed Cleopatra as Egypt’s ruler.

Eventually, after much celebration, he made his way back to Rome, stopping off to defeat a few enemies in the east, most notably the King of Pontius. He then travelled the length of the Mediterranean Sea to defeat Pompey’s sons in Hispania Ulterior. When he arrived home he was, once again, declared as dictator and this was extended to 10 years and then for life. In 46 BCE he was elected consul and in 45 BCE he was elected as the sole consul. Julius Caesar truly was the undisputed master of the Roman Republic and he pursued reforms and policies that only strengthened his own position and consolidated his power. He granted land pensions for his soldiers; he restructured the debts of a huge amount of Rome’s debtors; and he changed the calendar to look much more like the one we have today; think of the “Julian Calendar”. Between crossing the Rubicon in 49 BCE and 44 BCE, Caesar established a new constitution which intended to accomplish three separate goals:

1. Suppress all armed resistance out in the provinces and thus bring order back to the Republic.
2. Create strong central government in Rome
3. Knit together all of the provinces into one single cohesive unit

The first of these he achieved after defeating Pompey and his supporters. He needed to ensure that the central government faced no internal challenge in order to secure the other two goals. Using his position as dictator, he simply assumed these powers by increasing his own authority which, in turn, decreased the power of Rome’s other political institutions.

By 44 BCE many senators were, understandably, beginning to feel that Caesar controlled too much power in Rome. According to the Roman historian Eutropius around 60 senators conspired to kill the dictator. Caesar was attacked and stabbed 23 times on the senate floor on the 15th March, a Roman holiday known as the Ides of March.

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The conspirators believed that the death of Caesar would bring about the restoration of the Roman Republic. Boy, were they wrong!!

Out With The Old, In With The New

There was one thing about Caesar’s policies and reforms…. they were very popular with the people who were quick to acknowledge his adopted son (his maternal great-nephew) and named heir Octavian, Caesar’s second in command, Mark Antony and his friend and ally Marcus Aemilius Lepidus as the Second Triumvirate.

This new Triumvirate proved to be an even bigger disaster than the first one and the Republic descended into another civil war. Octavian and Mark Antony fought it out with Octavian emerging as the victor. He changed his name to Augustus and became the sole ruler and first emperor of Rome. Augustus liked to pretend that the structures and form of the Republic were still in tact but the truth is that he made the laws and the Senate was reduced to nothing more than a rubber stamper.

So, the question remains. Did Caesar destroy the Roman Republic?

Well, he did start a series of civil wars that ravaged the Roman Republic, seized power for himself, subverted the ideas of the Republic and alter the constitution to suit his own ambitions. But he would only be to blame if he had been the first to do these things. Spoiler – he was not.

The General Gaius Marius (an uncle of Julius Caesar) served as consul seven times and rose to power on the strength of his military leadership and willingness to open the army up to the poor. He promised land in exchange for service and because of this Marius’ soldiers were loyal to Marius, not to Rome. There was one small drawback to this scheme, however. In order to grant these new lands to the soldiers, the army had to keep conquering new lands.

Another General, Lucius Cornelius Sulla Felix (Sulla), was around at the same time as Marius and he ensured that his armies pledged loyalty to him. The two men fought a brutal civil war, which many believe to be the beginning of the end for the Republic. Sulla emerged triumphant and installed himself as dictator, executing thousands in a political purge in 81 BCE.

Julius Caesar grew up during these violent and uncertain times. He was nothing more than a product of his time who was, himself, on the list of Sulla’s political enemies due to his connections with Marius’ regime. The threat against him was only lifted after the intervention of his mother’s family, which included supporters of Sulla. The dictator gave in reluctantly and is said to have declared that he “saw many a Marius in Caesar.”

All of this occurred only 20 years before Julius Caesar first took the office of consul. Ideas of grandeur must have been formulating in Caesar’s head during these formative years.

Another way to look at the question of whether Julius Caesar destroyed the Roman Republic is to set the Great Man outlook of history aside and focus on the fact that Rome became an empire before it had an emperor because… well, Rome was an empire. If we think back to the Persian Empire, we will remember that the empire had some characteristics that made it imperial:

1. A unified system of government
2. Continual military expansion
3. Diversity of subject peoples

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The Roman Empire possessed all three of these empire-creating qualities long before it became the “Roman Empire”. It may have started out as a city, but it soon morphed into a city-state and then kingdom before it became a republic. That entire time, it comprised only the area around Rome and was wholly confined to the Italian peninsula. During the fourth century BCE the Roman Republic began to incorporate neighbouring cities and their territories, such as the Latins and Etruscans, and pretty soon Rome was the undisputed king of Italy. However, there was not really diversification of subject peoples at this point.

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The real expansion of diversity began during the Punic Wars (so called because the Romans called the Carthaginians, their enemies, the Punics). There were three Punic Wars in all. The first one broke out because Rome wanted the island of Sicily which was under the control of the Carthaginians. Rome won the war and captured Sicily which made quite a few Carthaginians upset, so they began the Second Punic War. This was the war of the Roman Republic! In 219 BCE the Carthaginian general Hannibal attacked a Roman town and led an army through Spain and up across the Alps (all the more impressive as he brought war elephants with his army). Hannibal delivered stunning and monumental victories for Carthage but ultimately was unable to win the war, the result being that Rome took the Iberian Peninsula. Now, the people of Iberia are definitely not Roman and so the argument can be made that Rome had an empire in all but name as early as 201 BCE. The Third Punic War was really nothing more than a formality – Rome found an excuse to attack Carthage and utterly destroy it. Eventually, the whole area of North Africa (Carthage was located in modern day Tunisia) and much, much more became incorporated into Rome’s system of provinces and millions of people found themselves living in this Roman Empire.

To argue that Rome was not an empire before Augustus became its first official emperor is ludicrous. By the time that Augustus dissolved the Republic and proclaimed himself as Emperor, Rome itself had already been an empire for nearly 200 years.

There is a good argument to be made that the death of the Roman Republic came long before Caesar and probably around the time that it became an empire.

If anything destroyed the idea of republican Rome it was the concentration of power into the hands of one man – it was always an ambitious general. You cannot march on Rome without an army, after all. Why were there such powerful generals capable of this in the first place? Well, because Rome decided to become an empire and empires need to expand militarily (particularly the Roman Empire as it always needed new land to dole out to retired troops). This military expansion created the all-powerful general and the integration of diverse peoples into the army made it easier for the individual general to extract personal allegiance from his soldiers rather than them be loyal to the abstract idea of the Roman Republic.

Julius Caesar may often be accused of dissolving the republic and creating emperors, but the truth is he did not, he was just a catalyst. In the end it was empire that created the emperors of Rome.

The Rest is History

Enjoy this? Then check out the rest of the series in the links below:

  1. The Wise Man’s Journey
  2. The Agricultural Revolution
  3. Early Settlement
  4. The Indus Valley Civilisation
  5. Mesopotamia
  6. Ancient Egypt
  7. West Vs East
  8. Hinduism, Buddhism & Ashoka the Great
  9. Ancient China
  10. Alexander…the Great?
  11. The Silk Road & Ancient Trade

Black Agnes – The Sassy Thorn in The English Lion’s Paw

Agnes, Countess of Dunbar and March, better known as Black Agnes due to her dark complexion, was the wife of Patrick, 9th Earl of Dunbar and March. She became renowned for her heroic defence of Dunbar Castle in East Lothian, Scotland against an English siege led by William Montague, 1st Earl of Salisbury.

The Second War of Scottish Independence (1332–1357) was in full swing when Salisbury arrived outside the gates of the formidable castle on 13 January 1338. Dunbar Castle overlooks the entrance of the town’s harbour and is defended on the west, north and east sides by water. Nonetheless, this should have been a relatively easy castle for the English army to take as its lord, Patrick Dunbar, was away fighting an English army in the north.

The English never banked on the resilience of the Lady of the Castle, though.

Women were known to take charge of castle or manor business while their husbands were away during the Middle Ages and even defend it if needs be. With just her servants and a handful of guards, this was exactly what Black Agnes was intent to do in the face of a 20,000 strong English army. When ordered to surrender the castle she replied:

Of Scotland’s King I haud my house, I pay him meat and fee, And I will keep my gude auld house, while my house will keep me.

Basically, Agnes was telling Salisbury that it was on!

The Siege

Salisbury’s first attempt to take the castle centred on catapulting massive rocks and lead shot against the ramparts. This was met with complete disdain by Lady Agnes, who, between attacks, sent her ladies-in-waiting, dressed in their Sunday finest, to dust off the ramparts with their handkerchiefs. In a showing of true sass, she literally brushed the attack off!

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Next, Salisbury rolled out his secret weapon – an enormous siege tower, known as a sow. Black Agnes was ready for this attack and advised Salisbury to “take good care of his sow” before ordering one of the giant boulders, which had been hurled at the castle earlier, be thrown from the battlements. The sow was smashed to pieces, sending the surviving Englishmen fleeing in every direction for their lives.

Frustrated that he was unable to make any progress through arms, the Earl of Salisbury attempted more Machiavellian, and less chivalrous, tactics. He bribed the guard of the principal entrance to Dunbar Castle, advising him to either leave the gate unlocked or to leave it in a manner that the English could easily break through. However, in an equally unchivalrous act, the guard accepted the money and then informed Agnes of the plan. Salisbury led his men to the gate, but at the final moment one of his men pushed past him just as the garrison lowered the portcullis, separating him from his comrades. Agnes, of course, had meant to trap Salisbury and taunted him from the battlements by shouting:

Farewell, Montague, I intended that you should have supped with us, and assist us in defending the Castle against the English.

At one point, having earlier captured Agnes’ brother, John Randolph, 3rd Earl of Moray, the English paraded him in front of the castle and threatened to hang him if Agnes did not surrender. She simply pointed out that should her brother, who had no children, be killed then she would personally greatly benefit as she would inherit his title, lands and holdings. The humiliated Salisbury quickly recognised the flaw in his plan and let the earl live.

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Salisbury had one final throw of the dice and moved to isolate the castle from roads and any outside communication in an effort to starve the garrison into surrender. Fortunately for Agnes, Sir Alexander Ramsay of Dalhousie, who had earned a reputation for being a thorn in the English king’s side, heard what the English were attempting to do and moved from Edinburgh to the coast with forty men. Ramsay and his company approached the castle by sea, with supplies, and entered the castle via the half-submerged postern (secondary gate) next to the sea. Utilising the tactic of surprise, the Scotsmen charged out of the castle and pushed their enemy’s advance guard all the way back to their camp.

Salisbury, realising that he was not going to get the better of Agnes, Countess of Dunbar and March, finally admitted defeat five months after arriving at the castle and lifted the siege on 10 June 1338. The triumph of a Scotswoman over an English army lives on in a ballad made up by the English as they marched away:

She makes a stir in tower and trench,

That brawling, boisterous, Scottish wench;

Cam I early, cam I late,

I found Agnes at the gate.

The Rest is History

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Human Story – The Silk Road & Ancient Trade

In the last chapter of this series, upon looking at the life and legacy of Alexander the Great we briefly touched upon the impact that he had on trade and culture across his Afro-Eurasian empire in the centuries following his early death. We will follow up on this and delve into the incredible network of road and sea commerce routes that evolved, in part, from Alexander’s legacy. This trade network is colloquially known as the Silk Road and we shall now take the magnifying glass to this massively significant historical anomaly.

Before we do though, let’s first imagine the life-cycle of the ubiquitous t-shirt. Let’s assume that it was designed in France and contains cotton from both India and Texas which was turned into cloth in China. This in turn was stitched in Haiti, screen printed in England and sold to me in Scotland. When I tire of it then it will find its way to Kenya or Cameroon or possibly back to Haiti. The fact that most t-shirts see more of the world than most people is quite astonishing really! This is possible due to globalisation and international trade.

The Silk Road was how complex international trade was facilitated in the ancient world and it is nearly impossible to overestimate just how important these trade routes were to the human story and the subsequent development of civilisation: the first truly massive cultural exchange.

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Ancient International Trade

The Silk Road was not the beginning of trade in the ancient world, but it radically expanded its scope and the connections formed between the (now mostly unknown and forgotten) traders and merchants arguably changed the world more than any political or religious leader ever did. One of the more amazing things about the Silk Road was that it did not only benefit the rich. To paraphrase one John F. Kennedy speech, “everyone’s boat was lifted by this particular rising tide”. Sure, the rich now had more things from distant lands to spend their money on other than temples and palaces but the poorer citizenry also benefited from the free transfer of ideas across thousands of miles. The Silk Road touched the lives of nearly everyone living in Afro-Eurasia.

Although known as the Silk Road, it is better to think of it as two distinguishable routes with a halfway hub station located in Central Asia. These routes were:

  • Eastern Mediterranean -> Central Asia
  • Central Asia -> China

Han China (207 BCE – 220 CE) expanded their trade routes in the Central Asian section around 114 BCE through the missions and explorations of the Chinese Imperial Envoy Zhang Qian who visited much of the region, including the Bactrian country of Daxia (modern northern Afghanistan, southern Uzbekistan, and southern Tajikistan) with its remnants of Greco-Bactrian rule (the progeny of Alexander’s army at the eastern most extent of his empire). Zhang Qian also provided reports on the countries that he did not visit: India to the south and the lands of Mesopotamia to the west.

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Believe it or not the Silk Road actually came into existence largely due to horses. The Chinese lacked horses strong enough to carry soldiers and so Zhang Qian sought to trade with the nomads of the Eurasian steppes, who in turn sought goods that only agricultural societies produced, such as grain and silk. This Chinese westward expansion and exploitation led to the opening of the Silk Roads which gave people the chance to exchange goods, cultures and ideas.

A Maritime Silk Road equivalent soon opened up, connecting China with Indian and Sri Lankan ports as well as Roman ports via Roman controlled Egypt. Many goods and ideas also found their way from Central Asia to the islands of Japan and even Java (modern Indonesia). According to the Chinese Histories, it was through these sea routes that the first Roman embassies made their way to China in 166 CE during the reigns of Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius and Emperor Huan of Han.

So, we should not think of the Silk Road as a purely land based road but rather as a series of interconnected trade routes.

Just as now, the goods travelled more than the people who traded them (think of the t-shirt analogy). Very few traders traversed the entire Silk Road (there were exceptions of course, such as the Italian explorer and merchant Marco Polo who famously documented his nearly 24,000 kilometre journey of the Silk Road in the 13th century) but rather moved back and forth between towns and trading posts selling their goods and wares to other traders. These new owners would then take the goods to the next town and further along the route and towards its final destination with each trader marking up the prices along the way.

What Was Traded?

What exactly was traded along the Silk Road? Well, silk for starters duh. For thousands of years silk was only produced in China (the earliest example of silk found was in tombs at the Neolithic site of Jiahu and dates back an astounding 8,500 years!).

Silk is spun from the cocoons of mulberry worms and the processes involved in silk making as well as the techniques for using the worms were a closely guarded state secret as much of China’s wealth came from silk production. As an export, it was mostly used for clothes as it feels light in the summer and, yet, keeps the wearer warm in the winter. Silk proved to be the number one way to display wealth in the ancient west.

It may now be known as the Silk Road (the phrase was coined in 1877 by the German traveller and scientist Baron Ferdinand von Richthofen) but the trade flowed in both directions. Some of the Mediterranean world’s exported goods included olives, olive oils, and wine. China, in turn, traded jade, silver and iron as well as silk. India provided fine cotton textiles whilst East Africa traded in ivory and the Arabian Peninsula exported spices, incense, and tortoise shells.

Money, Money, Money

Until this point, we have mainly focused on the city-dwelling “civilised” types but with the opening and growth of the Silk Road the nomadic peoples of the Central Asian steppes became much more important to the human story. The majority of Central Asia is not particularly great for agriculture, but the barren, rocky and mountainous terrain that makes it poor for growing crops also makes it an incredibly difficult region of the world to conquer (even the great Alexander of Macedon failed to meaningfully conquer the lands around the Hindu Kush mountain range).

The lands of the area lend well to herding and seeing as nomadic people are definitionally good at moving around from place to place they made natural traders. They were moving from Point A to Point B anyway; so why not make an extra bit of scratch from simply moving goods with them? Another benefit to all that travel was that it made them a hardier people who became more resistant to disease.

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One group of nomads, the Yuezhi, were defeated and humiliated in battle by a rival group, the Xiongnu, in 176 BCE and split into two separate migrating groups: the Greater Yuezhi and Lesser Yuezhi. The Greater Yuezhi eventually settled in Bactria (modern Afghanistan, Pakistan and northern India) and defeated the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom – the aforementioned descendants of Alexander the Great’s soldiers who had previously settled the area. The victorious Yuezhi formed the Kushan Empire (30 – 375 CE) which stretched south into the Indian subcontinent and wrapped east and north around the Himalayan mountain range. The Kushan Empire went on to play an integral role in the development of trade on the Silk Road as well as the introduction of Buddhism to China; particularly through the patronage of Emperor Kanishka the Great who was a great advocate of the religion.

Although trading around the routes that would later become the Silk Road had begun as early as 1,000 BCE it really accelerated in the second and third centuries CE and the Kushan Empire became a huge hub for that trade. By that point nomadic traders were beginning to be eclipsed by professional merchants who travelled the trade routes, often making huge profits, and the cities founded by the once nomadic peoples became hugely significant. They continued to grow because most of the trade along the Silk Road was increasingly being done by caravan and these caravans had to frequently stop for food, water, shelter, companionship – all the usual things that make life possible and worth living really.

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These towns and cities became fabulously wealthy. Palmyra in modern Syria was particularly important as all the incense and silk that travelled to Rome had to go through here. Silk was so popular amongst the Roman elites that the Senate repeatedly attempted to ban it, complaining about trade imbalances and that the material’s delicate characteristics were inadequately modest and immoral. Despite these arguments, all of the Senates attempts to ban silk failed. This speaks volumes to how even in the ancient world, just as it does today, wealth shaped the governance of the society.

Trade provided people with the opportunity to become wealthy without the need to be a king or a lord who took a cut of whatever the citizenry produced through taxes and levies. This new Merchant Class that grew along with the Silk Road even came to acquire a fair amount of political clout. In some ways this new class with its wealth began the tension that is still so obviously present in the modern world between wealth and politics.

How the Silk Road Changed Everything… For Everyone

The goods that were exported along these trade routes only really changed the lives of the wealthy but the Silk Road itself affected everyone else for three primary reasons:

  1. Economic Impact – Relatively few people could afford silk, but a lot of people were employed in the production of it. As the market for silk grew, more people chose to dedicate their lives to the production and exportation of the product. This was true of many luxurious items across Afro-Eurasia: the trade routes provided economic opportunity to a greater number of people.
  2. Trading Ideas – It was not just goods that travelled across the Silk Road, but it also provided the ideal tool for the proliferation of ideas. The Silk Road routes provided a cultural bridge between east and west and no idea benefited more from this than the teachings of Siddhārtha Gautama. The trade routes acted as the primary route used for the spread of Buddhism east into China and Japan. The religion was beginning to dwindle in its Indian homeland but the ideas of the Buddha were transported along the routes and it, once again, began to flourish when it came into contact with other traditions and cultures. Today, Buddhism is regarded as one of the Great Religions of the world. Many traders became strong supporters of monasteries which, in turn, became convenient way stations and staging posts for the travelling caravans – all the better for preaching.
  3. Disease – The world-wide interconnection of populations and civilisations led to the spread of disease. Measles, smallpox and bubonic plague all found their way across the trade routes. Terrible outbreaks of bubonic plague travelling from east to west occurred on numerous occasions with the most devastating outbreak beginning in 1347. This was one of the deadliest pandemics in human history and we now know it as the “Black Death” and it is estimated to have wiped out between 75 and 200 million people – two-thirds of the city of London alone died in the outbreak. This plague created a series of religious, social and economic upheavals, which had profound effects on the course of European history. This probably would not have happened without the Silk Road and its convenient intercontinental transportation for vermin and bacteria.

When we view the Silk Road from these different angles, it becomes clear that the interconnectedness fostered by the Silk Road had a much broader impact on the lives of the every day man or woman than simply buying clothing material or trinkets from far-off lands. Much like globalisation of the modern era affects everyone – from the poor child searching the scrap heap for minute amounts of precious metals in discarded mobile phones in a developing country, to the wealthy businessman transporting his infectious flu across continents in the airplane on the way to his meeting – the Silk Road affected more than just those wealthy enough to afford silk.

The Rest is History

Enjoy this? Then check out the rest of the series in the links below:

  1. The Wise Man’s Journey
  2. The Agricultural Revolution
  3. Early Settlement
  4. The Indus Valley Civilisation
  5. Mesopotamia
  6. Ancient Egypt
  7. West Vs East
  8. Hinduism, Buddhism & Ashoka the Great
  9. Ancient China
  10. Alexander…the Great?