The Human Story – Imperial China: A 2,000 Year History

You may be wondering how we are just now, at the ninth installment of the series, discussing Ancient China. Weren’t they one of the earliest civilisations? Well, yes but this article will span thousands of years of Chinese history, philosophy and social development.

As an added bonus for your patience and sticking with us up to now we will delve a little deeper into the history of Ancient China than we have done in previous articles.

Let’s go!

China was one of, if not, the first modern state and by that we mean that it had a centralised government with a core of bureaucrats (or Mandarins) who would execute the wishes of the government of the day. This form of civil service lasted in pretty much the same form from roughly 200 BCE to 1912 CE and provided one of the major outlets for social mobility in Chinese society. It would also later serve as the model for the civil service systems developed in other Asian and western countries.

We’re off to a great start: how Ancient China influenced modern western liberal democracies (I’m sure the irony will not be lost on some of you). But where can we go from here?

The Dynastic Tale

The Ancient Chinese were among the first people to write and record their history. In fact, one of the Confucian Classics is called Shujing (Classic of History). This is great news for us as we can see the things that these pioneering Chinese historians recorded as happening, but it is also problematic due to the way that the narrative is told.

Chinese history is, rather conveniently, divided into periods (much like the history of that other super long-lasting civilisation, Ancient Egypt). Most of these periods are named after the dynasties who ruled at the time (but some of the more chaotic periods, as you will see, are not). So long as the family (or dynasty) keeps producing emperors and these emperors keep on ruling then the dynasty continues. However, these dynasties did not last forever and always fell after the emperor was overthrown, usually in the wake of rebellion or war.

Let’s have a quick look at the different periods and the dynasties throughout Ancient China:

  • Xia (2070 – 1600 BCE) Most likely fictional
  • Shang (1600 – 1046 BCE) First dynasty with archaeological evidence
  • Zhou (1046 – 256 BCE) Longest reigning dynasty in Chinese history – although chaotic period
    • Spring & Autumn Period (771 – 476 BCE) Zhou authority over vassal states waning
    • Warring States Period (475 – 221 BCE) Basically a massive civil war that lasted centuries
  • Qin (221 – 206 BCE) Shortest dynasty but hugely influential as first dynasty of Imperial China
  • Han (206 BCE – 220 CE) Widely regarded as a Golden Age for China
  • Three Kingdoms Period (220 – 280 CE) No single dynasty ruled over all of China
  • Jin (266 – 420 CE) Chaotic period – empire split into two, like Rome, with west and east
  • Northern & Southern Dynasties (420 – 589 CE) Political chaos and civil war
  • Sui (581 – 618 CE) Unified north and south and sinocised formerly nomadic tribes
  • Tang (618 – 907 CE) Regarded as a Golden Age of cosmopolitan culture
  • Five Dynasties & Ten Kingdoms Period (907 – 960 CE) Name says it all really
  • Song (960 – 1279 CE) First government in global history to issue paper banknotes
  • Yuan (1279 – 1368 CE) The Mongol dynasty, founded by Genghis khan’s grandson Kublai Khan
  • Ming (1368 – 1644) Famous for vases
  • Qing (1644 – 1912 CE) Final Imperial dynasty with fourth largest empire in history

Palace.jpg

So that is a brief summary of what happened throughout Chinese history until the early twentieth century, but the interesting part is why it happened and especially why people writing about it at the time said that it happened.

(Drum roll)

The Mandate of Heaven

The concept of the Mandate of Heaven was first used to support the rule of the kings of the Zhou dynasty way back around 3,000 years ago. Modern scholars believe that it was invented in order to get rid of the Shang dynasty. Before the Zhou, early Chinese society had no concept of heaven, but the Zhou did (they called it Tian) and they wanted to portray the idea of heaven as eternal, so they ascribed the idea of the Mandate of Heaven back to a time before the Shang. This explained why the Shang were able to conquer the Xia. To put it quite simply, the Xia kings had lost the Mandate of Heaven.

The Zhou were fairly specific in how the Xia had lost the Mandate. The seventeenth Xia king, Jie, was a particularly nasty and immoral ruler who, at the behest of his favourite concubine, ordered a lake of wine to be created so they could sail upon it whilst an orgy of drunken men and women bathed. It was said that three thousand men were ordered to drink the lake dry with Jie and the concubine laughing when they all drowned. Other stories of Jie’s cruelty involve very detailed dietary requirements and riding upon one of his minister’s backs as if he were a horse. All the stories involve death.

This was not the behaviour expected of a ruler and therefore heaven saw fit to intervene and strip the Xia of the Mandate to rule and allowed the Shang to take power. But, of course, the Shang, too, lost their Mandate. Why? Interestingly, much of the actions of the final sovereign of Shang mirrored those of Xia Jie. In order to please his concubine, he too ordered the construction of a lake made of wine with naked men and women chasing one another around it. It was also reported that he strung the nearby forests with human meat. Obviously, this is far from acceptable moral behaviour for a ruler and the Shang lost the Mandate of Heaven. Much of this may be hugely exaggerated or may not have happened at all, but it does explain why the Mandate of Heaven passed to the Zhou.

Basically, the fact that one dynasty falling and being replaced by another in a cycle that lasted over 3,000 years can be explained by Divine Intervention based on whether one ruler behaves in a proper and moral manner. It’s very much an after the fact examination that has the virtue of being impossible to disprove as well as explaining some very messy political history. More importantly, though, is that it reinforces the vision of moral behaviour that is the foundation of Confucianism, which we will get to momentarily. Before we do though, let’s see an example of the Mandate of Heaven in action.

The Qin dynasty only lasted for 15 years but it was also one of the most important dynasties. It was so important, in fact, that it gave its name to the country: Qin-a. The great accomplishment of the Qin was that it re-unified China under a single emperor for the first time in 500 years, ending the Warring States Period. As one can imagine, this omelette required quite a few eggs to be broken and the great Qin emperor, Qin Shi Huang and his descendants acquired a reputation for brutality which was justified but probably exaggerated so that the successor dynasty, the Han, would seem more legitimate in the eyes of heaven.

When recounting the fall of the Qin, the historians focused on how a eunuch and the prime minister turned a Qin emperor into a puppet and tricked him into committing suicide. So, the Mandate of Heaven turned away from this suicidal puppet emperor which set up a lovely contrast with the early Han emperors, such as Wen who came to power in 180 BCE and ruled benevolently, avoiding extravagance in personal behaviour and ruled according to Confucian principles. By behaving like a wise Confucian was how Wen maintained the Mandate of Heaven, according to the ancient Chinese way of observing history.

Confucius and his Teachings

So just who was this Confucius guy anyway?

Confucius was a minor official who lived between 551 and 479 BCE during the Spring and Autumn Period who developed a philosophical and political system that he hoped would lead to a more stable state and society. He spent a great deal of his time attempting to persuade the powerful lords to embrace his system. Unfortunately for Confucius, none ever did. He did, however, get the last laugh as his ideas would later be adopted as the backbone for Chinese governance, the economy and Chinese society as a whole.

Confucious.jpg


Unarguably one of the most influential thinkers of history, Confucius was conservative and argued that the key to bringing about a strong and powerful state was to look to the past, particularly the sage emperors (who were morally upright mythical kings of pre-Xia China). By following their moral behaviour, Confucius reckoned, the ruling emperor could bring order to China.

Confucius’ idea of moral uprightness essentially boils down to a person knowing his or her place in a series of hierarchical relationships and acting accordingly. Everyone lives their life in relationship to others and is either the other’s superior or inferior.

Confucianism teaches that there are five key relationships:

  1. Ruler to Ruled
  2. Father to Son
  3. Husband to Wife
  4. Elder Brother to Younger Brother
  5. Friend to Friend

The key to understanding Confucius is through his ideas of the Father to Son relationship which includes filial piety: a son treating his father with reverent respect. The father is supposed to earn this respect by caring for the son and educating him. This does not mean that the son has the right to disrespect a neglectful father. Ideally, both act accordingly and harmoniously and the goal is for both to become superior men or “Junzi”. If all men strive to be Junzi, society will benefit.

How to be a Junzi

For a man to become Junzi he must know how to behave properly. How does one learn how to behave properly? You look to the historical antecedents, of course. Particularly the sage emperors who ruled over a period of great peace. The study of history is important to the Junzi and by doing so he will discover all the great things that the sage emperors discovered and invented. For example, the sage emperors helped introduce the use of fire, taught people how to build houses and invented agriculture. These incredible accomplishments do not stop with these men: they extend to the women of their lives too. The wife of one of the emperors is credited with the invention of silk culture: a very important part of the Ancient Chinese economy.

DragonAs well as the study of history, the Junzi is expected to be well versed in poetry and painting in order to truly appreciate the beauty around him.

The Junzi must adhere to the ideas of Ren and Li. Both concepts are incredibly complex but let’s have a stab at explaining them shall we. Ren usually translates as Propriety, meaning the understanding of and practising proper behaviour in every possible situation which of course depends upon who you are interacting with (see the Five Relationships above).

Li translates as Ritual and refers to the rituals associated with Chinese religions, most of which involve the veneration of one’s ancestors. And this brings us back, full circle, to the fundamental problem of how early Chinese scholars wrote their history.

Completing the Circle

Traditional Chinese historians were all trained in the Confucian Classics which emphasised the idea that good emperors behaved like good Confucians. In order to maintain the Mandate of Heaven, the emperor had to refrain from riding their ministers around like horses and stringing human flesh from trees (seems pretty obvious, really, when you think about it). In this way of thinking, the political success of the whole dynasty ultimately rests upon the shoulders of one man and his actions.

The Mandate of Heaven acts as an incredibly flexible explanation for historical causation. It explains why dynasties often fell simultaneously with the coming of terrible weather, floods or peasant revolts. If the emperor had been behaving in the correct manner then surely none of that horrible stuff, upsetting every day society, would have occurred?

Well, not exactly.

As many modern historians have pointed out, the negative effects of floods and peasant revolts often lead to a change in the leadership. However, to take the moral aspect out of Chinese history is to diminish the importance of Confucian scholars because these same scholars can tell you that one of the best ways to learn how to be a good emperor and thereby maintain the Mandate of Heaven is to read the Confucian Classics which were written by – that’s right, you’ve guessed it – Confucian scholars.

In short, the complex circularity of Chinese history is mirrored by the complex circularity of the relationship between those who write it and those who make it. This is something to think about, no matter whose history you are reading. As Winston Churchill is often mistakenly thought to have said, ‘History is written by the victors’ and there is no greater victor in Chinese culture than Confucius. He really did have the last laugh.

The Rest is History

Bonus Round – Noteworthy Chinese Emperors

As promised at the start of the post, here is a little extra for making it this far with us. A country with over 3,000 years of history has obviously had a lot of rulers and we will have a quick look at some of the more prominent imperial rulers of China.

Qin_Shi_Huang_statue

Qin Shi Huang (259 – 210 BCE) was the first emperor of a united China and the founder of the short-lived Qin Dynasty. Defeating the other six Warring States, Qin founded the empire of Qin, unifying, for the first time, all of China under one powerful ruler.

After the unification, the Emperor began to unify Chinese writing, measuring standards and coinage across the empire, facilitating exchanges between the different peoples living there. He also undertook mammoth projects, including expanding and improving the Great Wall to strengthen the empire’s northern border and the Terracotta Army, which was built to defend their emperor in the afterlife.

Wu of Han (156 – 87 BCE) was the seventh emperor of the Han Dynasty and cited as a pioneer of the nation due to the vast territorial expansion that occurred during his reign. He is best remembered for the strong and centralised Confucian state that he organised: if Qin Shi Huang was the emperor who territorially unified China then Wu of Han was the emperor who ideologically unified China.

Emperor Wu dispatched an envoy to Central Asia to seek an alliance against the Xiongnu, a powerful tribe in northern China who posed a formidable threat to the Han. The attempted alliance was a failure, but an unintended consequence of the embassy was the establishment of the Silk Road which served as a route for cultural and economic exchange between the east and the west.

Wen of Sui (541 – 604 CE) was the founder of the Sui Dynasty and unified the country after it had undergone serious splits over hundreds of years, sparing the people from the suffering of war. During his reign Wen began construction of the Grand Canal, connecting the Yangtze and Yellow Rivers. At 1,794 kilometres long, this Grand Canal of China is still the longest man made waterway in the world.

Wen also introduced a new system to choose government officials, the imperial examination (the first standardised test) which was the forerunner for the modern examination, providing anxious students with panic attacks since 587 CE. Wen made good use of this new calibre of government official and opened a great period of prosperity not seen since the Han Dynasty. It was said that there was enough food in storage to last for 50 years during his reign.

Tang Taizong (599 – 649 CE) was the second emperor of the Tang Dynasty and is often regarded as the wisest Chinese Emperor due to his full consideration of his subjects, particularly the peasants. The Sui Dynasty had fell due to peasant uprisings and Taizong realised that the peasant masses could provide a dangerous opposition unless treated favourably by the government. Tang Taizong amended the land dividing system which greatly lifted the taxation burden of peasants as well as implemented policies to boost the development of the economy and society.

Under Emperor Taizong, China’s prosperity and openness brought more frequent economic and cultural contacts between the Tang and foreign countries. A great deal of China’s silk, porcelain, tea and paper were sold abroad, and huge numbers of Chinese left the Tang Empire to visit the world. Tang Taizong’s twenty-three-year reign brought the most prominent era of peace and prosperity in Ancient China’s history and the Tang Empire emerged as the most powerful in the world at the time.

Wu Zeitan (624 – 705 CE) was the only female empress in Chinese history to ascend to the throne and ruled her empire for over half a century. Although Confucian beliefs at the time were against a woman ruler and very much in favour of a patriarchal state, Wu Zeitan smashed down the barriers and seized power for herself.

Before Empress Wu, who had been Emperor Tang Taizong’s concubine, became the empress regnant, she had been heavily involved in political affairs when her husband, Tang Taizong’s son Tang Gaozong, had reigned for over thirty years. Zeitan had exiled, murdered (yes, you read that right) and manipulated enough of her children in order to gain the throne for herself and was officially crowned Empress in 690 CE.

During her reign, Wu Zeitan reinforced centralisation and attached great importance to agricultural development. She launched a campaign to elevate the position of women to challenge Confucian beliefs and encouraged talented people to take up posts within her government. In spite of the deadly ambition and ruthless rise and reign of this woman, Empress Wu proved to be a competent ruler and throughout her reign the country prospered.

Kangxi (1654 – 1722) was the second emperor of the Qing Dynasty and the longest reigning emperor in the history of China, ruling for 61 years. During his early reign, Kangxi cracked down on the rebellious plot of one of the ministers appointed to assist him in governing the country when he ascended to the throne at the age of eight. He later suppressed the Revolt of the Three Feudatories, forced the Kingdom of Tungning in Taiwan and assorted Mongol rebels in the north to submit to Qing rule, and blocked Tsarist Russian expansion at the Amur River.

Emperor Kangxi’s reign brought about long-term stability and relative wealth after years of war and chaos. He initiated a period of prosperity known as “High Qing” which lasted for several generations after his death. His court also compiled the Kangxi Dictionary in 1710 which became the standard Chinese dictionary for the 18th and 19th centuries.

Now we have seen some of the great men and women of Chinese history, next week we will be turning our attention back west to visit the life and times of another great man. A man who by the age of thirty had conquered most of the known world and then wept for there was nothing left to conquer. I am, of course, talking about Alexander the Great.

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

The Human Story – Hinduism, Buddhism & Ashoka the Great

When we study history, we tend to focus on unified polities such as Egypt, France or the League of Nations. This emphasis on unity often leads to labels that mask much of the historical differences associated with the institution in question. One needs only think of Europe and the many different cultures spread across time to understand this idea. I mean, what even is Europe when analysed through a historical dimension?

Today we are going to attempt to tackle something that is even more complicated and hazy than European history: Ancient India. Indian history is comprised of many diverse and distinct cultures which existed over thousands of years and as such, it is rather difficult to put together a clear, coherent and unified history. But we will try.

The (Very) Basics of Hinduism

Hinduism, as with all other world religions, is extremely complex and this article could never, in no way, do justice to the intricacies of it. That being said, hopefully you will understand a little more of the religion (if you don’t already know much) as it is important to comprehend the basics of Hinduism to understand the evolution of history on the Indian subcontinent. So, let’s go.

The Vedas

Remember our old friends, the Indus Valley Civilisation from the fourth instalment of this series? Remember how they were one of the earliest civilisations, but they basically just disappeared under a veil of mystery around 1750 BCE? Well their civilisation was replaced by migrating Aryans (not to be confused with the Nazi’s “master race”) wandering east from the Caucasus. The reason that we know about these guys is because, unlike their predecessors, they left behind some of the earliest religious texts, the oldest of which are known as the Vedas. These Vedas lie at the core of what would later become known as Hinduism.

Not much is known about the authors of these texts as they tend to focus on the ideas rather than on the authors themselves. This allows the reader to look at the message without being influenced by the messenger. There are tonnes of stuff in the Vedas which we do not have time to look at but one of the more culturally important messages to come from the scriptures is the idea of the caste system.

The Caste System

The caste system is one of India’s most enduring and fascinating (and from a western point of view certainly, unjust) establishments. One of the Vedas speaks of Purusha, the cosmic man, whose sacrifice by the gods led to the creation of all life on earth. This parable puts forward a divine explanation for the caste system known to Hindus as the Varna:

  1. Brahmins – the top class are represented by Purusha’s mouth as they are the ones that speak to the gods.
  2. Kshatriyas – the arms of Purusha represent the ruling class, including the warriors and administrators.
  3. Vaishyas – the third caste are the merchants and artisans who provide the money for the priests and the warriors. This caste come from Purusha’s thighs.
  4. Shudras – the bottom class are represented, unsurprisingly, by the feet of Purusha. This class consists of labourers and farmers who are the foundation of the social order.

The caste system is infinitely more complex and intricate than this but this division into four basic classes remains constant throughout much of India’s history. The caste system lays the foundation for another huge concept in Hinduism: dharma.

Dharma

'2'_Dharma_Wheel,_The_Wheel_of_Life_at_Sun_Temple_Konark,_Orissa_India_February_2014.jpg

One’s role in life and society is predestined and defined primarily by birth and by caste. Someone must fulfil the role that they were born into, even if they are terrible at it. It is better to be an awful warrior than the world’s greatest actor if your role in life is to be a warrior. This is dharma, and someone is better fulfilling their own dharma poorly than playing the part of someone else’s, no matter how well.

Samsara, Moksha and Karma

There are both personal and social reasons for performing your own dharma. The social reasons are rather obvious: dharma and caste combine for excellent social cohesion. There will always be the exact correct number of priests and the exact correct number of farmers and the exact correct number of toilet cleaners (I think you get the picture).

Samsara is the cycle of rebirth (or reincarnation), the idea that when we die our soul is transferred to another living thing as it, itself, is being born. If one fulfils his or her dharma, then they are born into a higher being. This would lead someone, not of this culture or religion, to believe that being reincarnated as a brahmin is the ultimate goal but this thought would be incorrect. The eventual goal of dharma is to be released from the merry-go-round of reincarnation altogether. This release is known as moksha and the law that holds all of this together is karma.

These laws are a great way to organise the social order from top to bottom. Everyone has a role to play in the community and society stays in balance because there is a religious element to it.

Hinduism does have one major design flaw though for those ambitious brahmins and kshatriyas wishing to forge an empire. Originally the brahmins had tried to set themselves up as the political elites but Hinduism does not place a premium on its worshipper’s obeying the leaders because everyone’s path to salvation is an individual and personal experience (perhaps giving a religious tinge to Margaret Thatcher’s famous quip that “…there is no such thing as society.”)

Buddhism

Budha

Historians cannot pinpoint the beginnings of Buddhism exactly but according to traditional biographies the story begins in the sixth century BCE with a prince who had known wealth and opulence his whole life. Prince Siddhartha Gautama’s father had locked him in the palace because a prophecy foretold that the family would lose the kingdom if the young prince ever left. This was, however, extremely comfortable as house arrests go: he had fine foods, entertainment and a beautiful wife. Naturally, however, the curious prince began to believe that there must be more to life and snuck out from the palace on several occasions. The legend tells that on his travels, Siddhartha encountered an old man, a sick man, and, finally, a corpse. Having realised the ubiquity of suffering and death, Siddhartha decided to leave the palace and renounce the crown and seek out the holiest men to discover how it was that life could come to such a miserable end.

Siddhartha became an ascetic, abstaining from much of life’s pleasures and fasting and meditating for days on end hoping to find enlightenment. Finally, after meditating for seven weeks under a tree it finally came to him: Siddhartha had achieved nirvana.

He finally understood the meaning of life and began to teach it to people who became his disciples. Siddhartha had become the Buddha (which means Teacher) and taught the Four Noble Truths. These are the principles that form the foundation of Buddhism and they are:

  1. All life is suffering
  2. The source of suffering is desire
  3. To stop suffering, one must rid themselves of desire
  4. The eightfold path – the path to freedom from suffering:
  • Right View
  • Right Intention
  • Right Speech
  • Right Action
  • Right Livelihood
  • Right Effort
  • Right Mindfulness
  • Right Concentration

As a religion Buddhism requires a lot of meditation and moderation and not much fun rituals and Buddhist monks have literally no power unlike the priests of other religions and they must renounce everything. (The exception being Shaolin monks: I mean, who doesn’t want to be a Kung Fu monk!?)

However unattractive Buddhism may have seemed to the higher classes, it was an exceptionally attractive option to the lower caste Hindus. In theory, anyone who follows the eightfold path can be free of suffering and achieve nirvana, maybe even in this life rather than having to be reborn for potentially thousands of years.

Ashoka: the Buddhist Emperor

  For the vast majority of history on the Indian subcontinent, India was not one place but rather many different principalities and city-states. India did, however, experience indigenous political unification twice in its long history: the Mauryan Dynasty (321 – 185 BCE) and the Gupta Dynasty (320 – 550 CE). One particular ruler of the Mauryan Dynasty, Ashoka the Great, is worth mentioning as he attempted to rule through quasi-Buddhist principles.

Initially, Ashoka had been a great warrior who expanded the empire that his grandfather had founded but experienced a conversion to Buddhism after witnessing his own army devastate the vanquished kingdom of Kalinga. Ashoka built stupas (mound like monuments to the Buddha) all over the kingdom to show his devotion. He also erected pillars that proclaimed his benevolent rule and described how he was going to rule through something called “Dhamma” which was his policy for public welfare.

1597px-The_great_stupa

Ashoka’s empire was not governed with individualistic goals in mind like we see in Hinduism but was rather run through relational goals. This is one of the reasons that his empire was not all that Buddhist; Buddhism is not concerned with the order of the world but argues that fulfilment of the self will lead to the order of the world.

In the end, Ashoka’s empire did not outlast him by much and Buddhism declined in India, almost to the point of extinction.

The Bigger Picture

Hinduism is the most flexible of the world religions largely down to it being polytheistic and the belief that the many gods can, equally, take many forms. This makes it easy for Hindus to assimilate other religious traditions. This is precisely what happened with Buddhism and in time the Buddha became worshipped as another incarnation of one of the Hindu gods rather than as a mortal teacher. In the end Hinduism enveloped the Buddha rather than eradicating him. This meant that Hinduism, with its tremendous amount of variety and flexibility with it’s core values of samsara, karma and the caste system have provided an incredible amount of cultural and social unity to the Indian subcontinent for millennia.

As unfortunate as it was for the Buddha to have his teachings disregarded in his homeland of India, it was also fortunate that his teachings migrated east to China. And next time, we will follow his teachings and make the same journey eastward.

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

5 Terrible Roman Emperors

The post-republic ancient Roman Empire lasted from 27 BCE until 395 CE before it split into two separate Empires: the Western Roman Empire and the Eastern Roman Empire. In that time the Empire, which dominated the Mediterranean world saw 71 emperors and co-regents. Some of them good, some of them bad, and some of them just downright terrible. Today we will have a look at five of the worst emperors and examine some of the atrocities committed by these dictators.

It is worth remembering at this point that many of the men featured on this list were despised by their own citizens and that some of their actions may have been embellished, if not completely fabricated after their deaths. With that said, these men were hated for a reason.

In chronological order:

Caligula 37 – 41 CE

caligula

Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, better known to history by his nickname “Caligula” (the name translates as “Little Boots” and was provided by his father’s troops who took great joy in watching the young boy march around with them) was selected to be emperor by his great uncle Tiberius.

Initially, the empire rejoiced at the accession of the young Caligula. For the first seven months or so, he was loved by all. He paid handsome bonuses to the military, to get them on his side, and recalled many whom his predecessors Augustus and Tiberius had exiled. In October 37 he became seriously ill and it was not the young, beloved emperor that emerged but rather one of the most reviled and evil men in human history. Caligula has been accused of some of the most disgusting, insane, and explicitly depraved crimes against humanity…and most of them are more than mere accusations!

The young despot began ordering the murder of anyone who had ever dared to cross him, or even disagreed with him on mundane matters. And Caligula had a very good memory. He exiled his own wife, and proclaimed himself to be a god, dressing up as Apollo, Venus (a goddess), Mercury and Hercules. He demanded that everyone refer to him as divine whilst in his presence.

Whilst he was a boy, a soothsayer told Caligula that he had no more chance of becoming emperor than riding a horse across the Gulf of Baiae. As an adult, Caligula had a pontoon bridge built across the Gulf, put on the breastplate of Alexander the Great, and paraded night and day across the makeshift bridge. Another mad thing that he did was attempt to have his favourite horse, Incitatus, instated as a consul in an effort to belittle the politicians of Rome.

One story has it that a citizen once insulted him to his face in a fit of rage. Big mistake! Caligula responded by having the man tied down and beaten with heavy chains… every day… for three months. The man was brought from the dungeon and beaten, until Caligula was too offended by the smell of the man’s gangrenous brain, whereupon he was beheaded.

Perhaps the most sickening act that Caligula is accused of was to have another insulter and his entire family publicly executed one after another in front of a crowd. The man and his wife were first, followed by the eldest child down. The final member of the family was a 12-year-old girl, who having just watched her entire family killed was almost spared as one onlooker shouted that she should be exempt from execution as she was still a virgin. Caligula ordered the executioner to rape her and then strangle her.

The people of Rome were finally spared the evil man’s tyranny when he was murdered by the Praetorian Guard and some senators after his announcement that he was going to move to Egypt where he wished to live as a living god. The prospect of Rome losing its emperor and thus its political power was the final straw for many. Such a move would have left both the Senate and the Praetorian Guard powerless to stop Caligula’s repression and debauchery. Imagine how ruthless he would have been without a leash!!

Nero 54 – 68 CE

nero_bust

Nero is perhaps the most well-known of the bad Roman emperors, and the one that we love to hate the most. He was, however, a rather competent administrator, and was aided in his stewardship of the Empire by some very able men, including his tutor: the writer and philosopher Seneca the Younger.

However, Nero did not always use his capable managerial skills for the good of the people and he was, unquestionably, a murderer, starting with his step-brother Britannicus, with whom he had been supposed to share power, and moving through his wife, Octavia, whom he deserted for his lover, Poppaea. Octavia was executed on trumped-up charges of adultery. Next on the hit list was his own mother, Agrippina. The initial attempt, using a collapsible boat, failed so Nero sent an assassin to finish the job. Her last words, supposedly, being “Smite my womb”, the implication being that the first part of her to be destroyed should be the part that gave birth to the vile emperor. Once Poppaea was with child and married to Nero he kicked her to death in a fit of rage!

Contrary to myth, Nero did not start the Great Fire of Rome, nor did he ‘fiddle’ (his instrument of choice was the lyre anyway), while the city burned. The truth is that Nero organised relief work for the victims. However, this brief popularity rapidly gave way to intense hatred after he built his huge “Golden House” complex (including the Colossus of Nero – a 30-metre bronze statue himself) in the ruins of what had been the public area of central Rome, destroyed in the fire, which he paid for by heavily taxing the populace.

Nero was terribly fond of his own music and poetry. He forced senators to sit through his own endless and talentless recitals which they were awfully embarrassed with; entertainers in Roman society were viewed as the lowest rung of non-enslaved society and it was viewed as very unfitting for the emperor to be performing these lowly arts.

Nero was finally toppled by an army revolt and he committed suicide (or rather got his private secretary to do the deed) uttering the words “Qualis artifex pereo” (“What an artist dies with me”) whilst he paced up and down preparing for death.

Commodus 180 – 192 CE

Commodus.jpg

Commodus was the son of Marcus Aurelias, the Philosopher and last of the rulers traditionally known as the Five Good Emperors. Unfortunately for the people of Rome who had just experienced eighty plus years of “good” leadership, the apple fell far from the tree with this one.

Commodus was a debauched, corrupt megalomaniac who viewed himself as the reincarnation of the Greek god Hercules and had himself portrayed as such in countless statutes. However, Commodus was said to be lazy, leading a life of idle debauchery who surrendered his palace to his friends and Praetorian Prefects, who then in turn sold imperial favours.

In 192 he renamed the city of Rome ‘Colonia Lucia Annia Commodiana’. The months of the year, the legions, the fleet, the senate, the imperial palace, and the citizens of Rome themselves were all renamed after him too.

His love of the games was such that he disgraced his royal status by performing like a slave in the arena, slaughtering hundreds of exotic animals such as ostriches, elephants and the ferocious giraffe. Commodus, the emperor, also fought gladiators who had been handicapped (think of Joaquin Phoenix’s portrayal of the character in the film Gladiator where he stabs Russell Crowe’s Maximus before the fight) and dared not triumph anyway. Commodus charged the state a massive fee for each appearance. This ridiculous spectacle horrified the populace and ultimately led to his demise.

When Commodus revealed that he intended to celebrate the rebirth of Rome by fighting in the arena on New Year’s Day in 193, his mistress and advisors attempted to talk him out of it. When they were unsuccessful, his mistress, Marcia, attempted to poison him. When the poison failed, Commodus’ fitness coach, Narcissus, choked the emperor to death whilst in the bath the day before the games on December 31 192.

Caracalla 198 – 217 CE

Caracalla.jpg

Caracalla was the son of Emperor Septimius Severus and ascended to power along with his brother Geta. However, the two sons had never got on and had developed a burning hatred for one another over their formative years which only intensified as adults. When Caracalla and Geta became co-emperors they decided to divide the palace into two halves: such was the pettiness of the men. It was only a matter of time before one killed the other and after numerous attempts from both siblings it was Caracalla who finally triumphed in the most shocking way: he had his men murder Geta in front of their mother!

Once Geta was out of the picture Caracalla had all memory of him erased from history by the Senate, statues destroyed, and his followers slaughtered. It is estimated that 20,000 people fell victim to this condemnation of memory.

Edward Gibbon, the great 18th century historian of Rome and writer of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, referred to Caracalla as “the common enemy of mankind” whose reign was characterised by “rapine and cruelty”. And for good reason. Caracalla spent little time in Rome, choosing instead to imitate his hero, Alexander the Great, with conquests in Africa and the Middle East. He reintroduced Alexander’s by-then obsolete military tactics and persecuted the philosophical followers of Aristotle because a legend had it that Aristotle had Alexander poisoned.

A theatrical satire of his excesses and defence of self-defence against his brother was staged in Alexandria. Caracalla did not appreciate being the butt of the joke and arrived to the city in 215 where he promptly had the delegation of leading citizens slaughtered before setting his troops to loot the city for several days.

Caracalla was stabbed to death whilst urinating by a soldier who was incensed that Caracalla had failed to promote him.

Maximinus Thrax 235 – 238 CE

Maximanus.jpg

Maximinus Thrax ruled the Roman Empire from 235 until 238 and is often blamed for causing the “Crisis of the Third Century” (a fifty-year period in which the Roman Empire nearly collapsed under the combined pressures of invasion, plague, civil war and economic depression).

Maximinus was, by all accounts, a huge man, well over 6 feet tall, perhaps even 7 feet or more and came from lowly birth in the Roman province of Thrace (parts of modern Greece, Turkey and Bulgaria). As the commander of the Legio IV Italica Maximinus was thrust into power by the soldiers under his command after the assassination of Emperor Severus Alexander.

The new Emperor did not trust anyone and intended to extract the people’s love from conquest and expansion. His first campaign was against the Alamanni people of Germania who were of no threat to Rome at the time. Maximinus’ armies crushed the Alamanni, but at great cost to the army and the people felt no love for this. He continued his conquests against people who had not instigated any ill feeling towards Rome. This was seen as a very un-Roman thing to do as they believed in “Just War” and not war for the sake of it (or so they liked to believe anyway).

In order to pay for his wars of expansion, Maximinus Thrax heavily taxed the populace and only ever showed concern for the soldiers, whose pay he had increased greatly.

A revolt began in North Africa, setting up two claimants to the throne, which was supported by the Roman Senate. In response, Maximinus marched his exhausted army on Rome who were unable to break through the gates of the city. The Praetorian Guard finally had enough of Thrax and stabbed him in the back.

Maximinus Thrax: The Roman Emperor who never set foot in Rome.

The Rest is History

The Human Story – West Vs East

In this, the seventh article of the Human Story series, we are going to explore the horrible and totalitarian Persians and their conflict with the virtuous and democracy loving Greeks. I mean that is what millennia of teachings have told us right – that the Greeks were good whilst the Persians were bad? I mean the Greeks gave us Plato with his Republic and the idea of the righteous Philosopher King and Socrates who knew that he knew nothing whilst the Persians did not even philosophise. Clearly West is Best… right?

Well that is exactly what we are going to find out today.

The Combatants – Persia

Let’s start with dissecting the awful Persians, shall we? The Persian Empire would end up becoming the model for most contiguous land-based empires throughout history. Much of what we know about the Persians and their empire comes to us from an outsider writing about them. That is, of course, the Father of History himself, Herodotus: the first true historian. The fact that Herodotus is Greek is important as it also introduces us to the concept of historical bias for the first time.

The Persian Achaemenid dynasty was founded in 539 BCE after King Cyrus the Great conquered much of Mesopotamia, including Babylon. Cyrus freed the Jews that had been exiled in the city by the Neo-Assyrian Empire (who you will recall had a fetish for displacing huge groups of people in an effort to control them), thus ending a sad period of Jewish history known as the Babylonian Exile (he gets some great coverage in the bible by the way, sometimes he is even referred to as messiah!). This humanitarian act had an upside for Cyrus: with the Jewish elites allowed to return home Cyrus gained a loyal buffer state between Persia and the ever-threatening Egyptians to the southwest.

As great as Cyrus was, his son-in-law Darius I became even greater and extended his father-in-law’s empire east as far as India, west as far as Egypt (with loyal Israel within its sphere of influence) and north to Anatolia. There were Greeks already living in Anatolia when Darius’ armies marched in to occupy and these people were known as Ionian Greeks and will shortly become relevant to the narrative.

Standard of Cyrus.png

The Achaemenid kings ruled their empire with a light touch and conquered kingdoms could keep their kings and elites so long as they pledged allegiance to the Persian king and paid their taxes. Therefore, the Persian king was often referred to as the “King of Kings”. Persian engineers improved the infrastructure of the conquered kingdoms with a better road system that allowed for a very impressive postal service to relay messages back and forth across the colossal empire. The Persian elites embraced Freedom of Religion, a very basic human right that even nowadays is not fully implemented across much of the modern world. The Persians were Zoroastrians (a religion that still exists and claims to be the earliest form of monotheism). Zoroastrianism introduces the idea of the good versus evil dualism that we all know so much about (God/Satan, Darth Vader/Luke Skywalker, elves/orcs). However, the Persians were not interested in converting people to their own religion. Perhaps the most surprising fact of all, given how awful this empire was, is that Zoroastrianism forbids slavery so there was not a slave to be found in the whole of the Persian Empire.

It seems that the Persians were probably not all that bad after all and their empire would probably not have been a bad place to live in the fifth century BCE. That is of course, unless you believe Herodotus and the Greeks.

The Combatants – The Greeks

We all know about the Greeks: the incredible architecture, the meaningful philosophy, the powerful drama, the evocative literature, the very words for astronomy and biology derive from Greek, as does so much more in modern society. The Ancient Greek culture that so many of us in the west still associate with was one founded by poets, mathematicians, philosophers and architects. The Greeks gave us the language to discuss politics, the fist dedicated history books, and gifted us with democracy.

When we think about the high point of Greek culture we tend to think of the Parthenon and the surviving tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. However, what we are really thinking of is Athens in the fourth century BCE, right after the Persian Wars. Athens valued individualism and disdained anyone who could not argue political opinion. Athenians were citizens first before they were anything else and the elites of their society were politicians guiding the state by persuading this free-thinking populace to vote for proposed legislation.

Acropolis-panorama-night.jpg

Ancient Greece was so much more than just Athens, however. The Greeks lived in city-states, most of which featured some form of slavery and in each and every one of them, citizenship was limited to males. Each city-state had its own form of governance, ranging from democratic (unless you happened to be a slave or a woman) to completely dictatorial and the people who lived within these city-states would have considered themselves citizens of that city, not of anything that would ever be called Greece.

One of the greatest contradictory Greek city-states to Athens was that of Sparta. Along with Athens, Sparta is the other Greek city-state that springs to mind when people think of Ancient Greece. This is, in part, due to the huge success of Frank Miller’s 300 graphic novel and the subsequent Zack Synder movie of the same name. As sensationalised as 300 is, there is no denying that ancient Sparta was one of the most extreme societies that has ever existed. Spartan society could best be described as a sort of eugenic warrior state. When each new citizen was born the elders would inspect the child, killing it if they perceived any imperfections. At the age of 7, each Spartan male entered into the state education system, known as the agoge, which drilled them in the arts of war. The agoge was both mentally and physically brutal, sometimes to the point of death. This was all to create an effective and unquestioning soldier, loyal to the state. The result of this torturous education system was the best Heavy Infantry of the ancient world. The ideals of duty to state and self-sacrifice were paramount whilst individualism was discouraged.

Who tilled the land and did the menial jobs of ancient Sparta if all male citizens were off soldiering? The Helots did, of course. We cannot discuss Spartan culture without mentioning the Helots. These were a massive caste of enslaved people upon whose backs Spartan society was built. The Helots are the reason that Sparta could devote their whole culture toward producing perfect soldiers. By 480 BCE, there were about 7 Helots for each Spartan and this imbalance left the government in a perpetual state of fear of a slave revolt. The irony of producing this perfect warrior culture was that the Spartan army was not one to fight abroad, but rather to prevent the Helots from rising up in revolt at home. These unfortunate people were treated abysmally in order to keep them in constant fear of their masters and it was Spartan law to brutally beat (and even murder) Helots. Life would have been unbearably  sucky for the Helots of ancient Sparta!

The Greco-Persian Wars

From 499 until 492 BCE the abovementioned Ionian Greeks, supported by the Athenians, rebelled against their Persian overlords. In 490 BCE the Persians invaded mainland Greece but were decisively crushed by an outnumbered Athenian army at the Battle of Marathon. The Persian King Darius I began preparations for a second invasion. However, he died before the preparations were complete, thus leaving the task to his son, Xerxes I.

Xerxes invaded mainland Greece in 480 BCE and at the Battle of Thermopylae, a small force of Greek warriors led by King Leonidas I of Sparta resisted the much larger multi-ethnic Persian force for two full days before finally succumbing on the third day of battle.

After the battle, Xerxes captured Athens and burned the city to the ground. However, almost all the inhabitants of the city had fled to the island of Salamis at the news of the Greek army’s collapse at Thermopylae. Xerxes attacked the Greek fleet under unfavourable conditions and was soundly defeated at the naval Battle of Salamis. After this defeat Xerxes pulled the majority of his army back to Asia, leaving a contingent to finish the campaign. This army was defeated by the Greeks at the Battle of Plataea in 479 BCE, ending the Persian offensive on Greece for good.

The War is Won! What now? More War!

Aphrodite.jpg

In the wake of the shared Greek victory, the people began to see themselves more as Greeks and less as Athenians, Spartans or Corinthians etc. Athens emerged as the de facto capital and then flourished under a new Golden Age. When we combine the high-minded rhetoric with the undeniable power and beauty of Ancient Athenian art and philosophy, it is easy to visualise the foundations of western civilisation. If you buy into this then you must be happy that the Greeks won the Persian Wars.

However, even if you put slavery and the other social injustices aside, Ancient Greek society still had a whole slew of problems.

The Peloponnesian War (431 – 404 BCE) was a 27-year conflict between the democracy loving Athenians and the kingship embracing Spartans. The war was fought, as so many are, over power and resources and the Athenians did not come across all saintly as evidenced in the Melian Dialogue. The Athenian navy sailed to the island of Melos, a Spartan colony, to demand that the Melian people submit to Athenian authority. The Melians argued that they had never actually fought alongside the Spartans and intended to remain neutral throughout the conflict. Unimpressed with the Melian response, the Athenians declared: ‘The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.’ Obviously this was not a terribly democratic nor enlightened position to take. So, what exactly did the democratic and meritocratic Athenians mean by such a statement and what did they intend to do to the Melians who only wanted peace? Tragically, and unsurprisingly, they killed all the men and enslaved the women and children of the island.

So yes, Anaximander gave us cartography, Thales gave us geometry, Hippocrates gifted humanity with a better understanding of disease and physiology and Pythagoras gave me a sore head with angles, but the true legacy of Ancient Greece is one of deep ambiguity. All the more so because it was the tyrannical Spartans and their allies who triumphed in the Peloponnesian War.

Did the Right Side Win the Greco-Persian Wars?

Did the correct side really win the Persian Wars? Most classicists and defenders of the west will argue that of course they did. After all, winning these wars set off a cultural flourishing that gave us the Classical Age. Additionally, if the Persians had won then they may have strangled democracy in its infancy.

This is certainly a possibility but as a counter argument to the classicists let’s consider three things:

1. Life under the Persian Kings was pretty good and if we consider the previous five thousand years of human history then there have been far more successful and stable empires than there have been democracies.

2. Life in Ancient Athens was not all that great, especially if you were unfortunate enough to be a slave or born a woman. The government was notoriously corrupt and ultimately this government derived its power not from the citizenry but rather from the imperialist notion that ‘might makes right’ – look no further than their awful abuse of the people of Melos. It is true that Athens gave us Socrates, but one must also remember that that same Athens also forced him to kill himself too.

3. Under Persian rule, the Greeks may have avoided the Peloponnesian War which, ultimately ended up weakening the Greek city-states so much that Macedonia (a state that had been under Persian influence until they were kicked out of Europe) and its king Philip II were able to conquer all of them. Philip’s son, Alexander III, would then go on to make more bloody conflict with the Persians and Greece would not glimpse democracy for a further two millennia. All of this could have been avoided if they had just lost to Persia in the first place!!

So, did the good guys truly win the Persian Wars? It is one of history’s great ‘What Ifs?’

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

Christmas Traditions

It’s that time of year again, when the dark nights are brightened with fairy lights, our bank accounts get smaller and our waistlines get bigger. The lead up to Christmas can either be a joy-filled experience or the most stressful period of the year, depending on your disposition. Whether or not your “Bah-Humbug” levels are sky high or not, I’m sure that we all partake in the same customs. But why do we give presents at Christmas and what is with the randomly decorated bit of forestry that we all display in our homes?

Let’s find out just why we do some of the Christmas traditions that we do.

25 December

To get the ball rolling, let’s start with the obvious question. Why does Christmas Day land on 25 December each year?

Christmas is celebrated to commemorate the birth of Jesus Christ, who Christians believe to be the Son of God. The name “Christmas” comes from the “Mass of Christ”. The festival is celebrated by people around the world, whether they are Christian or not.

No one knows the exact year of Jesus’ birth, let alone the precise date but the first recorded date of Christmas being celebrated on 25 December was in 336 CE, during the lifetime of the first Christian Roman Emperor, Constantine. Several years later, Pope Julius I officially declared that the birth of Christ would, henceforth, be celebrated on 25 December.

It is believed by some, including myself, that 25 December was chosen as the Winter Solstice and the Romans had several midwinter festivals occurring around this time of year. Why change the date of the party when everyone is turning up anyway?

The Winter Solstice, the day when there is the shortest day and longest night, happens on 21 or 22 December and represented that the winter was over, and that spring was on the way. Seems a pretty legit reason to worship the sun for winning over the darkness of winter – get the beers out!!

The Roman Festival of “Saturnalia” took place between 17 and 23 December and honoured the Roman god Saturn. Another festival, “Dies Natalis Solis Invictus” translates to “Birthday of the Unconquered Sun” and was held on 25 December (the date that the Romans believed the Winter Solstice to occur) and celebrated the birthday of the Pagan Sun God Mithra. (As a side note, Sunday was the holy day of Mithraism and that is where we get its name from). Christians believe Jesus to be the light of the world, so the early Christians believed that the Winter Solstice would be a good time to celebrate his birthday.

Christmas Tree

Tree

Evergreen fir trees were traditionally used to celebrate pagan winter festivals for thousands of years, with the pagans using branches of the tree to decorate their homes during the Winter Solstice as it represented the spring to come. The Romans used fir trees to decorate their temples during Saturnalia and Christians believed it symbolised everlasting life with God.

No one is really sure when fir trees were first used as Christmas trees, but it most likely began in northern Europe around 1,000 years ago. Cherry and hawthorn plants were also used and put in pots and taken inside in the hope that they would flower at Christmas time. The first documented use of a tree for Christmas celebrations is contested between the Estonian city of Tallinn and Riga in Latvia. Both claim that they had the first tree: Tallinn in 1441 and Riga in 1510 (I don’t want to step on my Latvian friend’s toes here but…) What is undisputed is that both were erected by the “Brotherhood of Blackheads”, and no, they were not a group of guys with terrible, porous skin, but rather an association of local unmarried merchants, ship owners and foreigners.

The first person to bring a Christmas Tree into a house, in the way that we know today may have been none other than the 16th century German Christian preacher and reformer, Martin Luther. A story is told that, one night before Christmas, he was walking through the forest and looked up to see the stars shining through the tree branches. He found the scene so beautiful that he told his children that it reminded him of Jesus, who left the stars of heaven to come to earth at Christmas. It is said that he added candle lights to an evergreen tree to remind him of this experience.

In Germany, the first Christmas Trees were decorated with edible things, such as gingerbread and apples. Soon after, glass makers began making special ornaments like some of the decorations used today and in 1605 an unknown German wrote:

“At Christmas they set up fir trees in the parlours of Strasbourg and hang thereon roses cut out of many-coloured paper, apples, wafers, gold foil, sweets, etc.”

Although the tradition of decorating churches and homes with evergreens at Christmas was long established in Britain, the custom of decorating these trees was alien until the personal union with Hanover and George III’s German-born wife introduced one at a party she was hosting for children. The custom did not spread much beyond the royal family, however, until the 1840s when Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, set them up in Windsor Castle. An 1848 drawing of “The Queen’s Christmas Tree at Windsor Castle” was published in the illustrated London News. After that it was a simple case of ‘Keeping up with the Saxe-Coburg and Gothas’.

Yule Log

If you are like me then you will be thinking of the delicious chocolate dessert at the sight of the words “Yule Log” but it turns out that the original Yule Log was something completely different!

The word “Yule” was the name of the old Winter Solstice festivals of Scandinavia and other parts of northern Europe and dates to well before medieval times. The Yule Log was originally an entire tree that was carefully selected and brought into the house with great ceremony. The largest end of the log was placed into the fire hearth whilst the rest of the tree stuck out into the room. The Log was slowly fed into the fire throughout the Twelve Days of Christmas.

Yule Log

The custom of the Yule Log spread throughout Europe and different types of wood were used in different countries. Oak is used in England, whilst birch is traditionally used in Scotland and cherry in France.

I think I will stick to the chocolate cake!

Christmas Pudding

Everyone’s favourite pudding (I can hear the collective sigh). As bad as some of us may think Christmas Pudding is, I promise you that it was much worse in the beginning. Going through several changes throughout the years, Christmas Pudding originated as a 14th century porridge called ‘frumenty’ that was made of beef and mutton with raisins, currants, prunes, wines and spices. Yum! This would often be more like a soup than a pudding.

By 1595, frumenty had slowly changed into a plum pudding, having been thickened with eggs, breadcrumbs, dried fruit and given more flavour with the addition of beer and spirits. This new variation of frumenty became the customary dessert around 1650, but soon after, in 1664, those tyrannical Puritans banned it as a bad custom.

George I re-established it as part of the Christmas meal in 1714, having tasted and enjoyed Plum Pudding. By Victorian times, Christmas Pudding had morphed into something similar to the ones that are eaten today. The puddings of the wealthy Victorians were often cooked in fancy moulds, often in the shapes of towers or of castles. The poorer folks just had puddings in the shape of balls and if the pudding was a little on the heavy side, they were called cannonballs.

Christmas Crackers

crackers

Christmas Crackers are a traditional favourite in the United Kingdom and were first made in the mid-19th century by a London sweet maker called Tom Smith. He had seen the French ‘bon-bon’ sweets (almonds wrapped in decorative paper) and came back to London and tried to sell something similar, but with a small motto or riddle inside the sweet. Smith’s innovative take on the French sweet did not sell very well in the UK.

The story goes that, one night, whilst he was sitting in front of his log fire, Tom Smith became mesmerised by the sparks and crackles coming from the fire. This was his “Eureka” moment, and he decided it would be a fun and novel idea if his sweets and toys could be opened with a crack when their decorated wrappers were pulled in half.

When Tom Smith died, his three sons took over his expanding cracker business. One of the sons, Walter introduced hats to the crackers and he also travelled the world searching for new ideas for gifts to put into the crackers.

Santa

Santa Claus: every child’s favourite jolly, gift bringer. But just why does Santa bring joy and gifts to children each Christmas morning? To discover this, we must first go back and visit the man who Santa is based on: Saint Nicholas.

Saint Nicholas was a fourth century bishop who lived in the ancient city of Myra in what is now Turkey. The son of wealthy parents, Nicholas was orphaned at a young age and legend tells us that he was very kind and had a reputation for helping the poor and giving secret gifts to those who needed it. The most famous story about Saint Nicholas explains why we hang stockings up at Christmas time. There was a man who had three daughters, but unfortunately, he was so poor that he was unable to pay the dowry for any of his daughters to marry. One night, Nicholas secretly dropped a bag of gold down the man’s chimney, allowing the man to afford the dowry for his eldest daughter to marry. The bag fell into a stocking that had been hung out to dry by the fire! This act of kindness was, again, repeated and the second daughter could marry. The poor man, determined to discover the identity of his secret benefactor, waited by the fire every evening until he caught Nicholas who begged the man not to reveal his identity. However, it did not take long for news to travel and anyone who received a secret gift assumed that it had come from Nicholas. Due to his kindness, Nicholas was made a Saint by the Church.

So, just how did this ancient kindly man become the Santa we all know and love today?

After the reformation in 16th century Europe, the stories and traditions about Saint Nicholas became unpopular. However, someone had to deliver presents to the children at Christmas, so in England he became known as Father Christmas, an old character from stories played out during the middle ages. In the early United States, he was known as Kris Kringle and later Dutch settlers took the stories of Saint Nicholas with them and the two men merged into ‘Sinterklaas’ or as we now know him, Santa Claus. England’s Father Christmas and America’s Santa Claus became more alike as the years passed and now, they are one and the same.

There is a popular story that Coca-Cola made Santa’s suit and hat red to fit their branding. This is NOT true. Long before Coca-Cola had been invented, Saint Nicholas had worn his Bishop’s red robes and during Victorian times, he wore a range of colours (red, green, blue and brown) but it was said that red was his favourite!

Christmas Presents

After discussing the origins of Santa Claus, we naturally meander into the tradition of gift-giving.

Presents

One of the main reasons that we have the custom of giving and receiving presents at Christmas is to remind us of the presents given to Jesus by the Wise Men:

Frankincense – a perfume used in Jewish worship, and as a gift, showed that the people would worship Jesus Christ.
Gold – associated with kings and Christians believe that Jesus is the King of Kings.
Myrrh – another perfume, but this one was put onto dead bodies to make them smell nice and, as a gift, it showed that Jesus would suffer and die (clearly this Wise Man could also predict the future).

Christians believe that Christmas itself is about celebrating one huge present that God gave the world roughly 2,000 years ago: Jesus! One of the most famous Bible verses, John 3:16, tells us that, “God loved the world so much, that he gave his one and only Son, so that whoever believes in him may not be lost but have eternal life.”

The Rest is History

The Human Story – Ancient Egypt

Today, we move onto the final and most influential of the River Valley Civilisations: Ancient Egypt. Most people would not recognise Mesopotamian cuneiform or know the names of any Babylonian kings, but chances are that they would recognise hieroglyphic symbols when they see them and have most likely heard of King Tutankhamun. When we think of ancient civilisations, it is often Ancient Egypt that our minds wander to. There are several reasons for this. For example, the Great Pyramid of Giza is the last remaining of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, but more importantly, Ancient Egyptian Civilisation lasted a really long time: over 2,500 years!

Due to the longevity of the civilisation, Egyptologists tend to decompartmentalise Ancient Egypt into neat packets of time:

• Early Dynastic Period (3050 – 2686 BCE)
• Old Kingdom (2686 – 2181 BCE)
• First Intermediate Period (2181 – 1991 BCE)
• Middle Kingdom (2055– 1690 BCE)
• Second Intermediate Period (1674 – 1549 BCE)
• New Kingdom (1549 – 1069 BCE)
• Third Intermediate Period (1069 – 653 BCE)
• Late Period (672 – 332 BCE)

The history of Ancient Egypt occurred as a series of stable periods (the Kingdom periods), separated by periods of relative instability (the Intermediary periods). For the purposes of this post, we will be focusing on the Old, Middle and New Kingdom periods of Ancient Egyptian civilisation.

Harnessing the Nile

The fertile floodplain of the Nile had been the lifeline of its region for much of human history and it gave humans the opportunity to develop a sophisticated agricultural economy and a more complex and centralised society. Early nomadic hunter-gathering homo sapiens had begun living in the Nile region of northeast Africa as early as 120,000 years ago. As the arid north African climate became increasingly warmer and dry, populations were forced to concentrate on the shores of the Nile.

Egypt-Hieroglyphs

So far in our discussions of the River Valley Civilisations, we have been focusing on the distribution of resources and geography. Just as the violent and unpredictable Tigris-Euphrates River System had shaped the world view of early Mesopotamians, the Nile shaped the world view of the Ancient Egyptians. Unlike the two great rivers of Mesopotamia, the Nile is regular, easily navigable and gentle. Each summer the river flooded fields at precisely the right time leaving behind nutrient rich silt for the planting season, making it one of the richest and safest agricultural regions of the ancient world.

Unlike the labour intensive, complicated hydraulic engineering projects required in Mesopotamia to irrigate the crops, the Nile was so chilled that the Egyptians used a simple form of water management, known as Basin Irrigation, where the farmers used the flood waters to fill earthen boxes and canals used for irrigation. Planting was so easy in the region that farmers would throw seeds around their fields and then let animals tread over to press the seeds into the ground: no need for the back-breaking tilling that the Mesopotamians relied on their slaves to do.

The predictability and benign nature of the Nile allowed the Egyptians to produce large food surpluses with relative ease and little work allowing time and energy to be spent elsewhere: think incredible monumental projects. It has been suggested that the nature of the Nile may also be the cause of Ancient Egypt’s optimism. One example of this can be seen in the contrasting views of death; whereas the Mesopotamians saw the afterlife as a gloomy and dark place to fear, their Egyptian counterparts viewed the afterlife as nothing more sinister than a continuation of the current life.

The Old Kingdom

The Old Kingdom of Ancient Egypt can be viewed as the glory age of the civilisation. It was during this time that the Pyramids of Giza and the Sphinx were erected. The Sun-King Ra and the idea of Divine Kingship also have their roots in this period of Egyptian history. Divine Kingship stated that the pharaoh was either a god or very close to a god which sounds like a good gig to have if you are the pharaoh, but they were not expected to act like a person, instead they were expected to act like a god. In Ancient Egypt this meant behaving like the River Nile – cool, calm and benevolent.

The pyramids are impressive to behold but they also represent an extraordinary degree of political and social control over the population. After all, it can not be easy to convince thousands of people to dedicate their own lives to constructing a massive tomb for someone else: unless they believe that person to be a deity. The most famous of the pyramids are the Pyramids of Giza which were built between 2575 and 2465 BCE. The grandest of these, the Great Pyramid was built to entomb the pharaoh Khufu. Archaeological evidence suggests that the Great Pyramid was built by a workforce of 5,000 permanent, salaried employees and up to 20,000 temporary workers who were summoned under a system of national service to work on a three or four month shift before returning home. These temporary workers were housed in a nearby camp and received payment in the form of food, drink, medical treatment and, for those who died on duty, burial in the nearby cemetery.

Now we need to ask the question: Why would you build such a colossal structure in the first place?

It boils down, like so much throughout history, to religious beliefs. If humans did their jobs well then the pantheon of gods would maintain the cosmic order of things and seeing as the pharaohs became gods upon death it was only logical that the populace would want to please their pharaoh. So, if Khufu wants a tomb 150 metres high, then Khufu shall receive a tomb 150 metres high.

Pyramids_of_the_Giza_Necropolis

When Khufu left this earthly plain to join the gods he would have found Ra at the head of the proverbial table. Ra began as a regional god to the Egyptian city of Heliopolis but eventually became the central figure of the pantheon of gods. He was the god of both the sun and creation and represented light, warmth and growth.

To move away from religion, the Old Kingdom was unusually literate and possessed two forms of writing: hieroglyphs for sacred writing and a form of demotic script for contracts and other administrative duties. The Egyptians of the Old Kingdom had much use for contracts and governing administration as they were ridiculously rich. However, like all good things, Ancient Egypt’s Old Kingdom came to an end and around 2250 BCE a series of droughts led to infighting over power which then led to the first Intermediate Period.

The Middle Kingdom

When the civilisation emerged from the first chaotic Intermediate Period, after roughly a century, the Middle Kingdom period of Ancient Egypt blossomed and saw pharaonic rule return to the land but with some distinct changes. Firstly, the rulers were outsiders from the south: Nubia to be precise. And secondly, this new ruling class fostered a new pantheon of gods, of which Amen replaced Ra at the head of the table… only to later merge with Ra and become Amen-Ra.

The Middle Kingdom Egyptians developed a new hobby: conquering. More specifically, they conquered the homeland of the new rulers, Nubia, with its rich goldmines and quarries. In turn, they themselves were conquered by Semitic-speaking peoples wandering west from the Levant who dominated the natives with superior weaponry. These people brought weapons made of bronze, composite bows and chariots. One of these wandering groups, the Hyksos (meaning “ruler(s) of foreign lands”) were able to conquer all of Egypt, but rather than destroy the native culture, they assimilated into it. In a cruel twist of fate (from the Hyksos point of view at least) the angry and conquered Egyptians adopted these advanced military technologies brought over by the Hyksos and campaigned against them until they were able to expel these foreign rulers. This period of instability was known as the Second Intermediate Period.

The New Kingdom

By 1549 BCE Egypt, once again, had an Egyptian pharaoh, Ahmose I, and after all the warring, Egypt emerged from its position of geographical isolation. This New Kingdom Egypt continued the military expansion and began to take the form of a proto-empire.

Interestingly, the most expansive pharaoh was a woman, Hatshepsut, who expanded Egyptian influence, not through conflict, but through trade. However, most pharaohs, being men, focused their efforts of expansion through military means. This would eventually bring the Egyptians into conflict with the Assyrians, the Persians, Alexander the Great and finally, the Romans.

One pharaoh, Akhenaten, attempted to force a previously obscure god, Aten, onto the people as the supreme deity and suppressed the veneration of most other gods. Soon after Akhenaten’s death the cult of Aten was abandoned, and the traditional religious order was restored. One leading figure of this divine restoration was Akhenaten’s son, Tutankhaten, who changed his name to Tutankhamun. This was pretty much all that the young king did, however, before dying at the age of 17. The only reason that Tutankhamun is so famous is because his tomb was plundered by 20th century British archaeologists whereas most other pharaohs had their graves robbed by ancient people.

The last pharaoh of Ancient Egypt worth mentioning is Rameses II or Rameses the Great (although as you are about to see, Rameses the Creator would be a more appropriate epithet). He ascended to the throne in around 1279 BCE and went on to build more temples, and erect more obelisks and statutes and sire more children than any other pharaoh in history (Photo below shows the Great Temple of Rameses). Rameses was a bold military leader and led his army against the Hittites in the largest chariot battle ever fought at Kadesh (in modern Syria) and, after fighting to a stalemate, agreed to the first recorded peace treaty in history. Rameses II is also believed by many to be the Pharaoh of the Exodus story.

Temple_of_Rameses_II,_eight_Osiris_pillars

The story of Moses’ departure from Egypt with the Israelites leads us perfectly to the most crucial aspect of Ancient Egyptian culture. Rameses and Moses lived around the same time as the Pyramids of Giza were being built, right? Wrong. The Pyramids were built around 2500 BCE during the Old Kingdom, whereas Rameses died at the grand old age of 90 in 1213 BCE… 1,300 years later! The fact that Egyptian culture remained so similar for such an extensive period means that it all sort of blends together when we tend to imagine it.

The reality is that the Pyramids were more ancient to Julius Caesar than Julius Caesar is to us by an additional 500 years (let that sink in for a moment). Ancient Egypt lasted 1,000 years longer than Christianity has even been around and it lasted longer than western civilisation has so far too and its time had ended before the idea of western civilisation was even a twinkle in Herodotus’ eye.

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

5 Terrible Mistakes of History

History is full of examples of great men and women who did some great and fantastic things, often driving the species forward. Today we will not be looking at these people. We are going to focus on some of the great and terrible mistakes of history. Human history stretches back millennia and humans are prone to the occasional boo-boo, so this list is non-exhaustive, but the five examples that I have selected rate high on the “F~*% Up List”.

From the ancient world’s loss of, what was essentially, their version of the internet to an accident that brought down the “Evil Empire” of the Soviet Union. Enjoy!

Battle of Karánsebes, 1788

We will start off with one of the worst incidents of friendly-fire ever. Austria and the Ottoman Empire were at war between the years of 1787 and 1791 and on the night of 21-22 September 1788, the Austrian army fought an entire battle with itself!

The Austrian army, approximately 100,000 strong, was setting up camp around the town of Karánsebes (now Caransebeș, in modern Romania) when the vanguard, a contingent of hussars (light cavalry), crossed the Timiș River nearby to scout for the presence of the Ottoman Turks. There was no sign of the enemy but they did come across a group of local Tzigani, who offered to sell them some schnapps. The war-weary cavalrymen happily purchased the alcohol and started to drink.

Soon afterwards, some infantrymen crossed the river and demanded alcohol for themselves once they realised they were missing out on the party. This was the hussars booze, however, and they refused the demands of their sober comrades and began to set up makeshift fortifications around the barrels. A heated argument ensued, and a shot was fired.

Immediately, both sides engaged in combat with one another and some infantrymen began shouting “Turci! Turci!” (“Turks! Turks!”). The hussars fled the scene, believing that the Ottoman’s attack was imminent. Most of the infantry also ran away (although presumably the tricksters and their friends stayed and got drunk instead). The polyglot Austrian army was comprised of Austrians, Serbs, Croats and Italians, as well as other minorities, many of whom could not understand one another. The situation was exacerbated when officers, in an attempt to restore order, began shouting “Halt! Halt!” which sounded like “Allah! Allah!” to the troops with little knowledge of German.

As the cavalrymen ran through the Austrian camps, one of the commanders reasoned that it was an Ottoman cavalry charge and ordered the artillery to begin firing. The whole camp awoke to the sound of battle and fled. The soldiers were so spooked that they fired at every shadow, believing the enemy to be amongst them; in reality they were shooting fellow Austrian soldiers.

Two days later, the Ottoman army arrived to the area. They discovered dead and wounded soldiers and captured Karánsebes without resistance.

One source, written in 1968, has the causality rate at over 10,000 dead and wounded… but this has been dismissed as entirely fictitious. A more credible source from the time cites 1,200 dead and wounded.

So, there you have it. That time the Austrian army defeated itself in battle when no enemy was present.

The Destruction of the Alexandria Library, 48 BCE

The ancient city of Alexandria at the mouth of the River Nile in Egypt was founded by the Great man himself, Alexander… one of around 70 cities that the egotist named after himself (he even named one after his horse). But this one, the Egyptian one was the most magnificent. It housed one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World: the Lighthouse of Alexandria. But it was the Great Library that was the real crowning jewel of the city.

The Great Library of Alexandria was founded in 283 BCE and for years, scholars and librarians filled it with thousands of scrolls and was frequented by academics from across the Middle East and Mediterranean region. It was one of the largest and most significant libraries of the ancient world.

Unlike most private libraries, the library of Alexandria was open to whoever could prove that he or she was a worthy scholar and was more democratic than most other learning institutions.

However, hundreds of years after its establishment, the world was shocked to learn that Julius Caesar (yes, that Julius Caesar) had accidently burned it down during an attack. Though the historical accuracy of this account is shrouded in controversy, there is a consensus that the library was burned down and that most, if not all of the scrolls, were destroyed. The destruction of the library and the knowledge contained within it became a symbol of the destruction of knowledge and culture.

The destruction was thought of as an “international catastrophe” as it was considered the greatest archive of knowledge. At one time, it is believed that the library contained over 500,000 documents accumulated from as far afield as India, Egypt, Greece, Persia and Assyria as well as many other nations of ancient times.

Stories about the loss of the library have been circulating for centuries, but what is evident is that the world had lost a gem, and all due to an accident. Imagine if the world lost the internet!! That is how serious the ancient world considered this!

Chernobyl Disaster, 1986

On the evening of 25 April 1986 all was well and nothing unusual was occurring in the city of Pripyat in the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. The same could not be said of the evening of 26 April.

In the early hours of 26 April, Soviet nuclear experts tested one of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant’s four reactors by turning off the backup cooling system and using only eight boron-carbide rods (any scientists out there because I am flummoxed) to control the rate of fission (seriously, anyone who can explain?), instead of the fifteen rods required as standard operating procedure.

This faulty reactor design coupled with human error led to a runway chain reaction that blew the steal and concrete lid off the reactor, creating a fireball that burned for ten days and released 100 times more radiation than the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombs combined!! The radioactive material managed to escape into the environment because the plant lacked the massive containment structure that is present in most nuclear power plants today,

It is estimated that 4,300 people tragically died as a result of this radiation and more than 70,000 were permanently disabled with a further 7,000 cases of thyroid cancer in under 18-year-olds linked to the accident. Around 135,000 civilians had to be evacuated from the area after the incident which was also one of the largest financial losses in history, totalling an estimated $358,000,000,000 (that’s billions, not millions).

In 2006, ex- Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev called the Chernobyl disaster the “real cause” for the collapse of the Soviet Union.

A Wrong Turn in Sarajevo Leads to WW1, 1914

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the Balkan region of south eastern Europe was one of the most volatile places on earth and the Austro-Hungarian Empire was looking to make gains in the area at the expense of the declining regional power, the Ottoman Empire. Austria-Hungary annexed several smaller Balkan states which angered their Serbian neighbours.

In retaliation, six Bosnian born Serb would-be-assassins, belonging to the Black Hand terrorist organisation lined the route that the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, was scheduled to take on a trip to the Bosnian city of Sarajevo. These men wanted to avenge the 1908 annexation of Bosnia by the Dual Monarchy.

When the first terrorist got his opportunity, he threw a grenade at the archduke’s car which bounced off, wounding members of the entourage. The angry archduke arrived at the town hall reception, but instead of visiting the museum as planned (or, you know – go home!! There were obviously people in the crowd wanting to kill you!!!) the royal party decided to check in on the wounded at the hospital.

This was a terrible idea!

On the way to the hospital, the driver took a wrong turn and coincidentally stopped just five feet away from the 19-year-old Gavrilo Princip who was eating a sandwich. It just so turned out that he was one of the six members of the Black Hand who wanted to kill the archduke. Astonished at the opportunity, Princip fired twice, killing both Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie.

Their deaths led to a series of events known as the July Crisis that ultimately led to the First World War. And that is how a wrong turn in Sarajevo started World War One.

Massacre of Sparrows, 1958

In 1958, Chinese ruler, Mao Zedong, introduced the Four Pests Campaign, which was one of the first actions of the Great Leap Forward (the state policy to rapidly transform China from an agrarian economy into a socialist society). The campaign was viewed as a campaign of hygiene and the “four pests” to be eradicated were those associated with pestilence and disease: the mosquitos responsible for malaria; the rodents that spread the plague; the pervasive airborne flies; and the sparrows which ate grain seed and fruit.

People started to shoot sparrows, break their eggs, destroy the nests and kill young chicks. Chinese citizens also banged pots and pans, creating noise that would not let the sensitive birds rest and many dropped dead from exhaustion!

What the Chinese leader did not realise was that along with eating grain seed and fruit, the sparrows also ate insects which were otherwise harmful to the crops. Without the sparrows to control the insect populations, they started to increase. The insects harmed the crops, and as a result, the rice yields began to decrease. The locust population, in particular, boomed and China literally had a plague of locusts swarming the farmland. Crop failures ensued, and the result was the Great Chinese Famine that lasted from 1959 – 1961 resulting in the deaths of between 15 and 45 million people.

The moral of the story is that humans should not mess too much with the environment. Every ecosystem works in harmony and we would be wise to remember that in this age of increased global warming and loss and destruction of habitats.

The Rest is History (or it will be)