The Human Story – The Cross and the Crescent

The Crusades were a series of military expeditions, originating in parts of Europe, to the eastern Mediterranean world. The real reason that they feature so prominently in history is not so much due to their historical importance, but, rather, due to the fact that the stories of the Crusades have been endlessly romanticised. Throughout the centuries, storytellers such as Sir Walter Scott in his Tales of the Crusaders, have created simple narratives of good versus bad with characters to root for and against.

The reality is a little… OK a lot more convoluted than this.

Let’s just begin by saying that initially the Crusades were definitely not a Holy War as part of some greater conflict of Christian Europe against Islam. However, that being said, the Crusades were driven, in part, by religious faith.

If the Crusades had been brought about by the lightning fast rise of the Islamic Empire and an overwhelming desire to keep the lands of Jesus in Christian hands, then they would have begun in the eighth century. However, the early Islamic Empires like the Umayyad and Abbasid were perfectly happy for Jews and Christians to live amongst them so long as they paid a tax. Besides much like the Bedouin Arab pilgrimage had once been a boon for the Prophet Muhammad’s hometown of Mecca, the Christian pilgrimage business was similarly great for the Islamic Empire’s economy.

It all came to an end when another group of Muslims, the Seljuk Turks, moved into the area in the eleventh century and sacked the Holy cities and made it more difficult for Christians to make their pilgrimages. They soon realised that this had been a massive mistake, but it was too late. The Byzantines, who the Seljuks had defeated at the Battle of Manzikert in 1071, feared this new threat coming from the east and called upon their fellow Christians in the west for help.

The call was answered in 1095 by Pope Urban II.

The Early Crusades

Medieval politics more than anything drove the decision to launch the First Crusade. This was partly because Urban wanted to unite Europe and he figured that there was no greater way to do this than to provide them with a common enemy. He pleaded with the bickering nobility and knights of Europe to help their Byzantine brethren and liberate Jerusalem. Of course, there was an ulterior motive to this seeming act of alliance. The Great Schism of 1054 was still within living memory at this time and perhaps if Urban were to call some sort of action to aid his fellow Christians then this would provide him with some leverage for asking the Orthodox Byzantines to convert back to Roman Catholicism.

Pope Urban shifting the focus of invasion towards Jerusalem was an integral part of the plan as this First Crusade was not designed to be, primarily, a military operation. Instead, it was supposed to be one massive pilgrimage. It must be noted here that, theologically speaking, Christianity did not have a concept of a Holy War. A war may be just (as established by Saint Augustine of Hippo in the fifth century) but fighting was not something that got you into heaven… Pilgrimages on the other hand, especially to a holy shrine, could help you out on that front and Urban had the key insight to pitch the First Crusade as a pilgrimage with a sprinkling of war on the side.

One final myth that must be dispelled is that the Crusades were not an example of early European colonisation of the Middle East; even if they did establish some European-based kingdoms there for a while. This idea formulated hundreds of years later from an anti-colonialist reading of history, that stemmed from, in part, Marx’s interpretation of historical colonialism. This idea comes from the argument that it tended to be the second and third sons of wealthy nobles who went adventuring into the Levant. Due to European inheritance rules of the time these sons were lower down the pecking order and had little to look forward to by staying in Europe, whilst having lots to gain from plundering the Holy Lands.

Although this is may be a neat theory, it is a wrong theory. Firstly, most of the people who responded to Pope Urban’s call to crusade were not wealthy knights, but rather peasants and other poor people. Secondly, the nobles who did go crusading were mostly the lords of the estates and not their profligate children.

Most importantly, that analysis ignores religious motivations and instead focuses on the guts and glory adventurism that was romanticised by later writers. So far in this series, we have approached religions as historical phenomenon; for example, how the unpredictable environment of Mesopotamia led to an erratic and unpredictable pantheon of Mesopotamian gods. However, just as the environment shapes religion, religion also shapes the environment and although some modern historians may ignore the religious motivations of the crusades, the medieval crusaders who went on them sure did not: they genuinely believed that God was on their side.


The crusaders believed that they were taking up arms to protect Christ and his Kingdom. What better way to demonstrate your devotion than painting a cross on your shield, spending several times your annual income to outfit yourself and all your horses for war and heading east to the Holy Land? Answer: there was no better way to honour God for European Christians of this period. So, when these people marching east cried out “God will’s it!” to explain their reasoning for going, we should believe that they meant it!

And the result of the First Crusade did seem to indicate that god had, indeed, willed it.

Following the lead of itinerant preachers with names like Peter the Hermit, thousands of peasants and noblemen alike volunteered for Pope Urban II’s First Crusade. It did get off to a slightly rocky start as the pilgrims had a bad habit of robbing those that they encountered on the way east. Plus, there was no real leader to speak of, so there were constant rivalries between the noblemen who could supply the most troops… I mean, pilgrims. Notable amongst the notable nobles were Godfrey of Bouillon, Bohemund of Taranto and Raymond of Toulouse.

Despite the disorganisation and the rivalries, the crusaders were miraculously successful. By the time that they arrived in the Levant they were fighting not against the Seljuk Turks but, rather, against the Fatimid Egyptians who had captured the Holy Lands from the Seljuk Turks. At the ancient city of Antioch (modern day southern Turkey near the border with Syria) the Crusaders reversed a seemingly hopeless situation when a peasant allegedly uncovered the spear that had pierced the side of Christ hidden under a church. This miraculous discovery rose the Christian army’s morale enough for them to triumph over the enemy. Soon after, the Crusader army did the impossible and captured the Holy City itself. The climax of the First Crusade saw the Crusader Army capture Jerusalem and secure the city for Christendom in the summer of 1099. This great victory was infamously overshadowed by the slaughter of tens of thousands of Muslim and Jewish men, women and children.

The Crusaders succeeded in part because the Turkish Muslims, who were Sunni, refused to help their Egyptian brethren as they were Shi’ite. This complicated inter-Islamic rivalry gets in the way of a miraculous narrative of Christians triumphing over Muslims: the Christians simply saw their victory as divinely inspired by God.

European nobles held both the strategic city of Antioch and the holy city of Jerusalem as Latin Christian kingdoms by 1100. There were already Christians living in these cities but they tended to be Orthodox as opposed to Catholic; an issue that will soon become relevant to the tale of the Crusades.

The Second Crusade (1147-1150) was a complete disaster from the point of view of the Christians. They lost in Anatolia and at the city of Damascus. Their one success was at the city of Lisbon… in Portugal… at the complete other end of the Mediterranean Sea from the Holy Lands that we tend to associate with the Crusades of the medieval period.

The Third Crusade (1189-1192) is the most famous Crusade. This is the one that we tend to think of when we think of the Crusades. Broadly speaking, this Crusade was a European response to a rising Islamic power which was neither Turkish nor Abbasid. The Egyptian (although he was actually a Kurd) sultan, An-Nasir Salah ad-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub, better known today as Saladin, had consolidated his power in Egypt and was looking to expand his influence by taking the cities of Damascus and Jerusalem. The loss of Jerusalem prompted Pope Gregory VIII to issue a call for another Crusade in 1189. Three of the most prominent European monarchs answered Gregory’s call:

  • Philip II of France
  • Richard I of England
  • Frederick Barbarossa of the Holy Roman Empire


Both Richard, whom history remembers as the “Lionheart”, and Saladin were great generals who commanded the respect of their troops. Whilst from a European perspective, the Crusade was viewed as a failure as the Crusader Army failed to recapture Jerusalem, it did radically change crusading by turning Egypt into a target. Richard, ever the strategist, understood that his best chance of taking Jerusalem was to first conquer Egypt. However, he could not convince any of his fellow Crusader commanders to join him because Egypt held much less of a religious value to Christians than the Holy City of Jerusalem did. Richard was forced to call off the Crusade early but if he had just hung around until the Easter of 1192 then he would have seen Saladin die and would probably have succeeded in his goals.

The Disastrous Crusade

The Fourth Crusade (1202-1204) was a little… shall we say crazy. More than thirty-five thousand (35,000) people volunteered for the Fourth Crusade and the generals did not fancy marching such a large force all the way through Anatolia as it was dangerous and very hot. Instead, they decided to go by ship which required building the largest fleet Europe had seen since the times of the Roman Empire. The Crusaders employed the shipbuilders of Venice to build five hundred (500) ships but unfortunately for the financiers of this enterprise only around eleven thousand (11,000) of the expected thirty-five thousand Crusaders showed up to Venice. There was not enough money to pay for the Venetian built ships, so a deal was stuck between the Crusaders and the people of Venice. The Venetians agreed to ferry the Crusader Army to Anatolia if they, in turn, helped the Venetians recapture the rebellious city of Zara which lay across the Adriatic Sea in modern day Croatia. This was a little problematic as the city of Zara was a Christian city. However, the Crusaders agreed to help which led to Pope Innocent III briefly excommunicating both the Crusader Army and the people of Venice. The excommunication order on the crusaders was rescinded soon after, once it was decided by the powers that be that the Venitians had coerced them into sacking the city.

Although they were no longer excommunicated, they were still broke; enter a would-be Byzantine Emperor named Alexios who promised to pay the Crusaders if they helped him out. So now there was a situation where excommunicated Catholic Crusaders, who had no chance of reaching heaven due to their earlier excommunication, were fighting on behalf of the Orthodox Alexios who soon became Emperor Alexios IV and sat on his throne in Constantinople.

Alexios took his time procuring the money that he had promised to the Crusaders in return for their help in capturing the Byzantine throne. This led to the Crusader Army hanging around the city of Constantinople waiting to be paid, which made the people of the city very uncomfortable and anti-Crusader sentiment engulfed the populace. Alexios IV was deposed by anti-Crusader cheerleader Alexios Doukas (nicknamed Mourtzouphlos), who became Emperor Alexios V and refused to pay the crusaders the money that had been promised to them by Alexios IV.

Surely Christian warriors could not sack the largest and most important city in the whole of Christendom, could they? As it turns out, yes. Yes, they could.

In April 1204 the Crusaders sacked Constantinople for three days, during which time many ancient Greco-Roman and medieval Byzantine works of art were stolen or ruined. Much of the civilian population of the city were raped and murdered whilst their property was looted. Despite the threat of another excommunication, the Crusaders destroyed, defiled and looted the city’s churches. Some of the loot taken by the Crusaders can still be seen today: the famous Horses of Saint Marks statues in Saint Mark’s Basilica, Venice, were looted during the Crusader sack of Constantinople.


You would think that this disgraceful disaster would have discredited the whole notion of crusading and brought the whole enterprise crashing down on itself. If you genuinely believe this then you would be wrong. Instead, it legitimised the idea that crusading did not have to be focused on pilgrimage to the Holy Land. From this point forth any enemy of the Catholic Church was fair game.

The Fourth Crusade essentially doomed the Byzantine Empire, which never fully recovered from the sacking of its capital city in 1204. Constantinople was a shadow of its former glorious self and was conquered by the Ottoman Turks less than 250 years later in 1453.

The Remaining Crusades

The Fourth Crusade had set the benchmark for terrible crusading. The speed at which these guys totally gave up their divine mission to save Jerusalem in order to sack fellow Christian cities speaks volumes about what the crusades had degenerated into and what they really meant to some of the Crusaders. From this point onwards the crusades were to delve even further into protracted and ineffective belligerence.

The Fifth Crusade (1217 – 1221) was a spectacular disaster to retake Jerusalem and the rest of the Holy Land by first conquering the powerful Ayyubid dynasty in Egypt. Pope Innocent III and his successor Honorius III organised the crusader army to attack Jerusalem which led to an embarrassing humiliation, leaving the city in Muslim hands. A later expedition, aided by Islamic allies from the Seljuk Sultanate of Rûm, set out to capture the Egyptian port city of Damietta. From here the Crusaders marched south towards Cairo but were forced to retreat after dwindling supplies and a night-time battle resulted in a great number of losses.

Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick II, had greater success in the Sixth Crusade (1228 – 1229) which can scarcely be called a “Crusade” in the traditional sense. Nearly no actual fighting occurred during this crusade which was called and waged by Frederick himself. Jerusalem was simply negotiated into Christian hands, where it remained (mostly) until 1244.

King Louis IX of France launched the Seventh Crusade (1248 – 1254). His troops were defeated, and Louis was captured and ransomed back for 800,000 gold bezants. The Eighth Crusade (1270) was an even bigger disaster after King Louis (yeah, same guy) died of dysentery shortly after arriving on the shores of Tunisia and his disease-ridden army dispersed back to Europe shortly after. The Ninth Crusade (1271 – 1272), led by Prince Edward of England, the future King Edward I, was somewhat of an extension of the previous Crusade and the final Crusade to reach the Holy Land before the fall of Christian-held Acre in 1291 brought an end to the permanent crusader presence in the region. Arguably, by this time the “Crusading Spirit” was nearly non-existent anyway after two centuries of religious warfare.

It is evident that after the Third Crusade these affairs got rapidly less noble and less religiously justifiable. Each Crusade was theoretically called in defence of the Cross but the most they ever did was defend some territory that happened to be owned by Christians during the First and Second Crusades. After those wars the Crusaders all developed an unhealthy obsession with the city of Jerusalem. Tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of Christians, Muslims and Jews died in two centuries of warfare for a whole lot of nothing.


Ultimately, the Crusades were a total failure at establishing Christian kingdoms in the Holy Land on a long-term basis and with the emergence of the Ottoman Turks in the early fourteenth century, the region remained solidly in Muslim hands.


Like them or hate them, the crusading wars were a mess from start to finish, plagued with political in-fighting on all sides. Unarguably, they did far more harm than good – even if they were coming from a place of good intentions and good faith. It needs to be remembered that throughout history religion has motivated and influenced many events, but the participants who carry out these events are always human and it is human nature to compromise one’s religious beliefs for more human-scale motivations like money, land and power. Christianity itself is not inherently bad; but it is susceptible to twists from some very human factors. Islam and Judaism have engaged in similar things on occasion: it is hardly a reason to condemn an entire religion.

Additionally, unlike popular contemporary beliefs, the crusades did not open lines of communication between the Christian and Islamic worlds because those channels were already active. It is generally accepted by most historians that the crusades did not drag Europe kicking and screaming out of the Middle Ages through contact with the superior intellectual accomplishments of the Islamic world. The truth is that the crusades were, in fact, a significant drain on Europe’s resources for a couple of centuries.

The reason that the crusades matter today is because they remind us that the medieval world was profoundly different from our own. The men, women and children who took up the cross believed in the religious significance of their work in a way that few of us could scarce even conceive of today. When we focus so much on the heroic narrative, the anti-imperial narrative, or the political in-fighting, we tend to lose sight of what the crusades must have meant to the people who lived and breathed it: how that journey from pilgrimage to holy war must have transformed both their faith and their lives.

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
  12. The Roman Republic. Or was it Empire?
  13. The Covenant & the Messiah
  14. Fall of the Roman Empire… Rise of the Byzantine Empire
  15. The Rise of Islam
  16. The Dark Ages

The Human Story – The Dark Ages

What were the Dark Ages and just how dark were they?

Historians typically regard the Early Middle Ages (or Early Medieval Period), often referred to as the Dark Ages, as lasting from the fifth or sixth century and ending in the tenth or eleventh century. They were the opening phase of what is known as the European Middle Ages as they came between the fall of the Western Roman Empire and the beginning of the Modern Age with the Renaissance and the Age of Discovery. The Early Middle Ages are often referred to, rather pejoratively, as the Dark Ages as they were purportedly a period of mass unenlightenment.

In the western world we tend to take a very Eurocentric view on history and the labelling of the Early Middle Ages as the Dark Ages is perhaps one of the most egregious examples. So, how dark were they then? Well that really depends.

If you enjoy studying classical poetry and the great cities of history then the Dark Ages were, in fact, fairly dark in Europe. That being said, wars were less common compared to earlier times and disease and famine was rather scarce (until the Black Death arrived in the fourteenth century). If, however, you happened to live anywhere outside of Europe then the chances are that you were living through an age of enlightenment.

Europe’s Dark Age

When we last left Western Europe the Western Roman Empire had imploded under the weight of migrating tribes and this trend continued for a while until the Europe that we know today began to take shape around 1,200 years ago. This is when the great migrations across Europe began to taper out and states began to form along natural frontiers and familiar European languages began to evolve as the continent divided between Germanic, Slavonic and Romantic speakers. A couple more invasions of Germanic and Scandinavian Vikings and Hungarian Magyars brought new cultures to France, Britain, Sicily and Central Europe.

As a consequence of these migrations and invasions Medieval Europe had fewer cities, reduced trade and less cultural output than the original Roman Empire. London and Paris were filthy fire-traps with none of the civic planning or sewage management of places 5,000 years older like Mohenjo-Daro in the Indus Valley Civilisation, let alone Rome.

Nonetheless, with fewer powerful governments, the wars of the period were at least smaller and less deadly, which is one of the reasons the average lifespan actually increased during this time.

Instead of centralised governments, Europe in the Middle Ages was governed by an arrangement known as Feudalism: a political system based on reciprocal relationships between lords, who owned lots of land, and vassals, who protected this land. These vassals are more commonly known as knights and they pledged loyalty to their lords. The lords, in turn, were also vassals of more important lords with the most important lord of all being the king. Below the knights were the peasants who did the actual work on the land in exchange for protection from bandits and other threats.

Feudalism also acted as the economic model for Medieval Europeans with the peasants working the land and keeping some of the produce to feed themselves and their families whilst giving the rest to the land owner whose land they worked. The small, local nature of the Feudal system was ideal for a time and place where the threats to people’s safety were also small and local. From a modern social justice point of view the Feudal system did have one major drawback and that is that it enforced social stratification and presented little freedoms and absolutely no chance of social mobility. Peasants could never work their way up to a lordship and almost never even had the chance to travel further than their local village.

As a side note, one interesting point from a historical perspective to acknowledge is that the devolution from empire to localism has happened many times and in numerous locations throughout history during times of extreme political stress. When this occurs power very often falls into the hands of local lords who are in a better position to protect the peasants than the crumbling state is. We hear a lot about this in Chinese history, even as recently as the twentieth century, and in contemporary Afghanistan. These lords outside of the Western hemisphere are never called Feudal Lords, however, but rather Warlords; Eurocentrism striking again perhaps?

Aside from the transient tribes leading to reduced urbanisation and poor quality of life for the bottom of society (a recurring theme of history) the other, and perhaps principal, reason that these were known as the Dark Ages is because Europe was dominated by superstition and pointless theological debate about the gender of demons and angels. Nothing was written down and recorded unless it was Holy in nature and medical advancements all but ground to a halt as many people simply placed their hopes in the Church and God to heal their ailments. Thinking in these grounds took a large step backwards as the origin and cure of disease were not purely secular, but based on the world view that aspects such as destiny and sin played an integral part in the causes.

While there is some criticism to be made about the feudalism, superstition and heavy reliance upon and domination of Christian doctrine within society there was one feudal lord who used it to his advantage. The Holy Roman Empire began in 800 as a marriage of convenience between the Germanic feudal lord Charlemagne and Pope Leo III. Charlemagne shrewdly recognised that the Church’s mainly literate hierarchy and command of tradition were his best possible instruments for governing the feudal lords under himself. So he struck a deal with the pope in which the head of the Church would bestow upon Charlemagne the authority and tradition of the Caesars while Charlemagne would acknowledge that the Church had spiritual superiority over his secular power. The name for the agreement reflected the terms of the deal:

  • Holy – The Church demanded top billing
  • Roman – This provided Charlemagne maximum prestige amongst his feudal subjects
  • Empire – Because all parties involved really wanted their new hybrid creation to be an empire


Of the Holy Roman Empire, which lasted in varying territorial sizes across Central Europe, for over one thousand years, the French Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire later said that “The Holy Roman Empire is neither Holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire.” Voltaire may have been correct in his observation but no one can play down the importance of the Holy Roman Empire. This confederacy served as the ruling government for much of Europe for the majority of medieval history and the church-state alliance massively shaped European history for centuries.

Islam’s Enlightened Age

While Christianity was holding back progress in Western Europe, things were certainly looking a lot brighter in the Islamic world.

When we last left Islam the Islamic Caliphate had left its Arabian homeland and conquered the wealthy Egyptian provinces of the Byzantines and its flags flew throughout the whole of the once powerful Sasanian Persian Empire. The Muslims had achieved all of this in the alarmingly shocking time of around one century; the Blitzkrieg of its day. The Umayyad dynasty then expanded the Empire even further west across Northern Africa and up through the Iberian peninsula, stopped only at the Battle of Poitiers in 732 by Charlemagne’s grandfather, Charles Martel, who confined the religion south of the Pyrenees.

The Umayyad also relocated their capital to the ancient city of Damascus because it was closer to the action (following the example set by the Roman Emperor Constantine) whilst still technically being in Arabia. This last point was vitally important to the Umayyad as they had established a hierarchy with the Arabs, like themselves, at the top and even made attempts to keep Arabs from fraternising with non-Arabs throughout their empire. This of course annoyed the non-Arab Muslims. After all, the Qur’an does state that all of the Ummah were equal in the eyes of God. With the rapid expansion of the empire it did not take long before the majority of Muslims were not ethnically Arabian which made it pretty easy to overthrow the Umayyad dynasty… which of course happened in 750.


The Umayyad replacements, the Abbasid family, claimed to have descended from al-Abbas, an uncle of the Prophet Muhammad. The Abbasid Revolution marked the end of the Arab empire and the beginning of a more inclusive, multi-ethnic state in the Middle East which was far more welcoming of non-Arabs than the previous regime had been. Remembered as one of the most well organised revolutions of this period of history, the Abbasid dynasty reoriented the focus of the Islamic World to the east.

The Abbasid rulers kept the idea of hereditary monarchy but wanted their own capital from which they could rule and chose a site a little north of where the ancient city of Babylon had once stood. The Caliph Al-Mansur believed that this was the perfect location to be the capital of the Abbasid Empire and loved the city so much that he said: “This is indeed the city that I am to found, where I am to live, and where my descendants will reign afterward.” The city that Al-Mansur founded in 762 was Baghdad.

Under the Abbasids the Islamic world began to take on a distinctively Persian caste that it has never really lost. At the highest levels of government, the Caliph began to style himself as the “King of Kings” just as the original Persian rulers, the Achaemenids, had done and pretty soon the Caliphs rule was a lot more indirect, just as the Persian one had been with their satrapies. Naturally, this meant that the Caliphs control became much weaker and by around 1000 CE the Islamic Caliphate which looked very impressive on a map had really devolved into a series of smaller kingdoms, each paying tribute to the Caliph in Baghdad. This arrangement of governance occurred partly because the Islamic Empire was beginning to rely more and more on soldiers from the frontiers, in this case the Turks, and slaves pressed into military service as the backbone of the army; a strategy that has been tried throughout history and has rarely worked.

More importantly to Abbasid culture than the adoption of the Persian style of monarchy and governance was their openness to foreigners and their ideas. This tolerance and curiosity ushered in a golden age of Islamic learning and enlightenment centred in the vibrant city of Baghdad. The Abbasid Caliphate oversaw an explosion of culture unlike anything seen since the Classical Greek Age with Arabic replacing Greek, not only as the language of commerce and religion but also of culture, philosophy, medicine and poetry. Baghdad became the world centre of scholarship with its ‘House of Wisdom’ which was either an immense library or an academic institution. Muslim scholars translated works of Greek philosophers like Plato and Aristotle, scientific works by Archimedes and Hippocrates and even translated Buddhist and Hindu manuscripts that may otherwise have been lost to time. They also adopted mathematical concepts from India, including the idea of the number zero.

Baghdad was not the only centre of learning in the Islamic world. Cordoba, in Spain, became a centre for the arts, especially architecture and one of the finest examples of Moorish building prowess is the Great Mosque of Cordoba, the earliest parts of which were built between 784 and 786. The Muslims in Spain also had engineers that rivalled those of ancient Rome who erected aqueducts that brought drinkable water into the towns and cities. Muslim scholars also took the lead in agricultural science improving the yield of all kinds of crops, allowing Spanish lives to be longer and less hungry.

This whirlwind of scientific and mathematical development and cultural growth was brought on a by a mix of factors. Mainly a religious motivation to search for knowledge, a cultural desire to integrate information from conquered societies, substantial government sponsorship of scholarly research and the discovery of paper helped fuel this incredible methodical empire. Here is a quick rundown of some of the achievements of the Abbasid Caliphate and how they still impact our modern world:

  • The Aristotelian philosophy that we have today is thanks to Muslim scholars who loved to translate him into Arabic. This was very important as the European scholars of the time had little interest in recording anything unless it was about Christ or Christian theology.
  • Algebra, sine waves and Arabic numerals were all Islamic innovations. The Muslims put these new mathematical concepts to good use in their architecture: a prime example being the beautiful Alhambra palace in Spain.
  • The poet Rumi created beautiful Persian poetry while Islamic art was at the top of its game. Some of the finest glassware, lusterware, metalwork, textiles, woodwork and manuscript of the era were coming out of Islamic Persia.
  • Early iterations of the scientific method stemmed from Islamic medical scientists of the era. There is even a suggestion that one brave polymath, Abbas ibn Firna, attempted flight by covering himself in feathers and jumping from height… unsurprisingly he found that it did not work particularly well.
  • Islamic scientists had a basic understanding of why evolution was a thing and how the heart and the nervous system worked.
  • Some of the first proper hospitals, as we know them today, began to spring up across the Islamic world during this Golden Age. Similarly the Islamic world gave us some of the first universities and the oldest continually operating university, the University of Karueein, was founded in 859 in Morocco.


China’s Golden Age

As all of this was happening in the western world, China too was experiencing something of a Golden Age of its own. The Tang Dynasty (618 – 907) made China’s government more meritocratic and ruled over 80,000,000 people across a vast 4,000,000 square miles. They may have went on to conquer all of Central Asia too if they had not been stopped at the Battle of the Talas River by the Abbasid Empire and their Tibetan allies in 751. This largely unknown (in the west at least) battle was a huge deal in the eighth century and marked the end of Tang westward expansion and defined who had cultural influence in the area. Control of the region was economically beneficial for the Abbasids because it lay on the Silk Road.

Despite this minor setback in the west of their empire, the Tang were still able to produce incredible artwork that was traded all throughout Asia. Many of the more famous sculptures from the Tang period of Chinese history feature figures who are distinctly not Chinese demonstrating the diversity of their Empire.

The Tang Empire also provided the sufficient conditions to produce the “Golden Age of Chinese Poetry” with the likes of Du Fu and Li Bai, who it is said took traditional poetic forms to new heights.

Historians generally regard the Tang as a high point in Chinese civilisation and a Golden Age for cosmopolitan culture; the Tang capital at Chang’an (modern Xi’an) was the most populous city in the world in its heyday. Like all good things though, the Tang Dynasty came to an end. A series of natural disasters, upstart military governors and agrarian rebellions finally saw to it that the Tang Dynasty lost the Mandate of Heaven in 907.

The Tang were followed by the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period and it was just as messy as it sounds! Thankfully this period of political upheaval did not last too long (around a generation) before the Song Dynasty (960 – 1258) restored order. By the eleventh century, Chinese metalworkers were producing as much iron as the whole of Europe would be able to produce in the eighteenth century. Some of this iron was put to use in the new ploughs which enabled agriculture to boom and therefore support further population growth: the good times had returned.


Porcelain was of such high quality during the Song Dynasty that it was shipped throughout the world and that is why in the west we call it China. The manufacture of porcelain became so highly organised that some kilns excavated from this period were able to fire over 100,000 pieces at one time. There was so much trade occurring during this time that the Chinese actually ran out of metal for coins which led to yet another innovation: paper money. If the volume of porcelain being created is representative of the booming economy of Song Dynasty China then it is no wonder that they were forced to be innovative on the money front.

By the eleventh century the Chinese were writing down recipes for a mixture of saltpetre, sulphur and charcoal that we now know as gunpowder, paving the way for modern warfare and fireworks to light up the night sky. So, perhaps the Dark Ages were not that that dark after all.

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
  12. The Roman Republic. Or was it Empire?
  13. The Covenant & the Messiah
  14. Fall of the Roman Empire… Rise of the Byzantine Empire
  15. The Rise of Islam

The Human Story – The Rise of Islam

Like Judaism and Christianity, the religion of Islam was birthed and grew up on the coast of the eastern Mediterranean. Unlike Christianity and Judaism, Islam is terribly misunderstood in the western world.

In less than two centuries Islam went from, simply, not existing to becoming both the religious and political organising principal of one of the largest empires that the world has ever known.

Birth of a Religion

The story of Islam begins near the beginning of the seventh century in 610 when the angel Gabriel appeared to an Arabic caravan trader in his early forties named Muhammad ibn ʿAbdullāh. The angel recited the words of god to this merchant who, in turn, began to preach them publically, proclaiming that “God is One” (Tawhid). Muhammad also claimed that he was a prophet sent to present and confirm the monotheistic teachings preached previously by God’s other prophets, including Adam, Abraham, Moses and Jesus.

Before we go any further though there are several things to acknowledge about the pre-Islamic world that Islam entered into:

  1. Muhammad’s society was intensely tribal and he was born in the city of Mecca into the Quraysh tribe. These tribal ties and loyalties were extremely important to the inhabitants of the Arabian Peninsula.
  2. Arabia had never come under the control of either the Roman or Byzantine Empires and instead remained fiercely independent. This lack of imperial overlordship allowed the natives to happily live their lives within these tribes and cities whilst also facilitating a religious melting pot in the region of Arabia.
  3. Most tribal Arabs worshipped gods similar to the pantheon of Mesopotamian gods and by the time of Muhammad many cult statues of various gods had been collected in his hometown of Mecca and housed in a temple like structure known as the Kaaba. This Kaaba acted as a Holy magnet for Bedouin tribesmen of the area who would make a pilgrimage to Mecca and worship at the Kaaba once a year.
  4. In addition to these older gods of polytheistic religions the Arabian Peninsula was also home to monotheistic religions like Abrahamic Judaism and Christianity as well as the Persian Zoroastruism. Muhammad and his contemporaries would have been aware of these religions and so the idea of monotheism would not have been as surprising to Muhammad as it would have been to say Abraham.
  5. Finally, the northern part of Arabia was sandwiched between the two great empires of the age, the Byzantine Empire and the Sassanian Empire, who were in a state of near constant warfare.

At its core Islam is what we could describe as a radical reforming religion: just as Moses and Jesus sought to restore Abrahamic monotheism after what they perceived as the people straying, so too did Muhammad. Muslims believe that God sent Muhammad as the final prophet to bring the people back to the one true religion which involves the worship of and submission to a single and all powerful god.

Islam’s Holy Book, the Qur’an, acknowledges that there were other prophets before Muhammad but it is very different from the Hebrew and Christian Holy Scriptures. For one thing, it is far less narrative and instead focuses on the revelations provided to Muhammad by God. Therefore, the Qur’an is not written from the point of view of people but rather seen as the written record of the actual word of God.

The Qur’an is a broad ranging text but it continuously returns to a couple of important themes. Firstly, is the strict adherence to monotheism and submission to the one true god. The second matter that the Qur’an deems significant enough to return to is for the reader to take care of the less fortunate. The Qur’an says that the good person:

“spends his substance – however much he himself may cherish – it – upon his near of kin, and the orphans, and the needy, and the wayfarer, and the beggars, and for the freeing of human beings from bondage.” Qur’an 2:177

The revelations found in Muhammad’s teachings radically increased the rights of women and orphans, which is one of the reasons that the Quraysh tribal leaders were not terribly fond of him and his disciples.

There are five basic acts considered obligatory, at least by Sunni Muslims, and these are known as the Five Pillars of Islam and every Muslim should strive to live his or her live by these tenets:

  1. Shahada – The profession of faith – There are two Shahadas: “There is no god but God” & “Muhammad is the messenger of God”.
  2. Salat – Ritual prayer five times a day. The prayers are performed at dawn, noon, afternoon, evening, and night.
  3. Zakat – Alms giving – Muslims are expected to deduct a certain amount of their income to support the Islamic community, and it is usually about 2.5% of an individual’s income.
  4. Sawm – Month-long fast during the month of Ramadan during which Muslims do not eat or drink during daylight hours. The reason for fasting during Ramadan is to remind Muslims that all individuals are similarly needy upon the assistance of Allah and that there are less fortunate individuals who are in need of their assistance.
  5. Hajj – Pilgrimage to Mecca which Muslims should attempt to fulfil at least once in their life. This ritual consists of making the journey to Mecca wearing only 2 white sheets so that all of the pilgrims are identical and there is no class distinction amongst them.


There is more to understanding Islam than just learning the Qur’an. There are also supplementary sacred texts, chief amongst which is the Hadith, a collection of sayings and stories about the prophet Muhammad. Much like Judaism and Christianity, Islam has a body of law known as Sharia Law. Although in the west we tend to think of Sharia Law as a single set of laws that all Muslims must follow, this is not the case. There are numerous competing ideas about Sharia, just as there is within any other legal traditions (think of lawyers who put forth their arguments to judges).

The people who embraced these ideas of Muhammad as the messenger of God, obeyed Sharia Law and followed the Five Pillars of Islam were called Muslims because they submitted to the will of God and became part of the Ummah, the community of believers. Being part of the Ummah trumped all other allegiances, including loyalties to the tribe. This concept got Muhammad into trouble with his tribal leaders and brings us full circle back to the historical Muhammad and the Islamic movement.

The Prophet’s New Nation

As Muhamad’s following in the city of Mecca grew, the Ummah began to arouse the suspicions of the most powerful tribe in the city: Muhammad’s own, Quraysh. It made little difference to the leaders that Muhammad was born into the tribe because he kept preaching about how there was only one true god which was really bad news for the Quraysh as they organised and managed the pilgrimage business in Mecca. Their whole business was facilitating polytheistic pilgrimage, and business was good. If all those gods were false, as one of their own kinsmen was proclaiming, then it would be an economic disaster for the tribe and the city of Mecca as a whole.

And so, the leaders of the Quraysh decided to force Muhammad and his band of followers from the city. In June 622, after being warned of a plot to assassinate their leader, the small band of Ummah, headed by Muhammad, travelled 320 km (200 miles) north to the city of Yathrib, later renamed Medina, and this journey, known as the Hegira is regarded as so important to the Islamic story that it marks Year 0 in the Islamic Calendar.


Whilst in Medina, Muhammad severed the religious ties of his new religion to those of Judaism, turning the focus of prayer away from Jerusalem and towards the wistful prophet’s home city of Mecca. Additionally, Muhammad widened the Islamic community and united the Medinan tribes under the Constitution of Medina which declared them as one nation separate from all peoples.

Whilst in Medina the Islamic community began to take a different form and began to look and operate more like a micro empire than a church, partly due to the framework of the Constitution of Medina which solidified Muhammad’s position as the absolute political leader. From almost the very beginning the prophet had a country to run and in addition to being an important prophet, it also turned out that Muhammad was a competent general and in 630 the Islamic community took back Mecca from the Quraysh. The Islamic army quickly destroyed the idols housed in the Kaaba and soon Islam became as powerful a political force in the region as it was a religious one. Because the political and religious traditions of Islam were shaped at the same time and co-existed from the beginning there is no separate tradition of civic and religious law like its counterparts in Judaism and Christianity.

The Islamic Schism

Soon after the conquest of his home city in 630, Muhammad died in 632. When he died there was no religious vacuum left behind as he was the final prophet and the revelations found in the Qur’an would continue to guide the Ummah throughout their lives. That being said, the community was in need of a new political leader: a Caliph. The first Caliph was Muhammad’s companion and father-in-law Abu Bakr, but this was quite a contentious appointment as many people would have preferred to have seen Muhammad’s son-in-law, Ali, lead the community. Although Ali would go on to lead the community as the fourth Caliph, the initial disagreement between the supporters of Abu Bakr and Ali began the divide between the two major sects of the religion: Sunni and Shia. Even to this day, Sunni Muslims believe that Abu Bakr was rightly elected as the first Caliph whilst Shia Muslims believe that it should have been Ali. This centuries old disagreement still stirs enough animosity to result in major and often bloody conflict within the Islamic world.

To the Sunni, the first four Caliphs: Abu Bakr; Umar; Uthman; and Ali are known as the “Rightly Guided Caliphs” and many of the Islamic conservative movements of today are focused on restoring the Islamic world to the “glory days” of the first, or Rashidun, Caliphate. Those who want to see a return to the Caliphate are most likely viewing it through rose tinted glasses as like most nostalgic “glory days” throughout history, the days of the Rashidun Caliphate were not really all that unequivocally glorious.


Arguably they were not all that bad either though. After Muhammad’s death Abu Bakr stabilised the Ummah and began the process of recording the Qur’an in writing. He also began the military campaigns against the Byzantine Empire in the northwest and the Sassanian Empire in the northeast. These military campaigns kicked off a trend of armed conquest that allowed the Islamic Empire to expand from the Arabian Peninsula westwards across North Africa and into the Iberian Peninsula to the Pyrenees and eastwards across historic Persia to the Himalayas in under 120 years.

Abu Bakr did not reign long, however, and in 634 after only two years of leading the Ummah he fell ill and never recovered. Believing that he should nominate his successor so that the issue should not be a cause of dissension among the Muslims after his death he appointed Umar as his successor. As it turned out, Umar was a good choice as he was both an unusually fantastic general as well as a superb administrator. After a ten year tenure as Caliph of the Rashidun Caliphate Umar was assassinated in 644 leading to the Caliphate of Uthman who continued his predecessors’ tradition of conquering… and also assassination.

Now, in 656, twenty-four years after his supporters believed he should have been elevated to Caliph, Ali finally became the leader of the Ummah. However, his ascension was very controversial and led to civil war (Fitna) and the overthrow of the Rashidun Caliphate and the emergence of Uthman’s tribe, the Umayyad, as the dynasty which would rule over the ever-expanding Islamic Empire for nearly a century.

It is quite common to hear that Islam spread by the sword in the early years, and whilst this is partly true, it must also be noted that many people embraced Islam without the threat of military force. In fact, the Qur’an specifically says that the religion must not be an act of compulsion. There is one undeniable fact about the early Islamic Empire and warfare though and that is that it was really good at winning. Seeing as it was situated between two massively wealthy empires in the Byzantine and Sassanian there was plenty to fight for.

The first to fall was the Sasanian Empire in 651, the final non-Muslim successor to the Persian Empires whose history stretched back to 550 BCE with Cyrus the Great. The Persians were relatively easy to conquer as they had been worn down by three centuries of warring the Byzantine Empire and the populace and armies were struck by plague in the final years. The Byzantines faired longer than their Persian counterparts but in the early days, the Muslims were able to pry away some valuable territory like Egypt and the Holy Lands from the Byzantine Empire. The acquisition of Egypt allowed the Islamic Empire to push further west across North Africa and up through Spain where various Muslim dynasties entrenched themselves until finally being ejected in 1492.

As great as they were at war, it is still very tempting to chalk up Islamic Arabic success as the “Will of God”. Certainly, much of the people that the Caliphate conquered felt this way. After all, wars in that part of the world were about so much more than armies fighting one another; they also pitted their respective deities against one another too. So whilst the Islamic Empire did not require conquered subjects to convert to Islam, the striking successes convinced much of the people that this Allah being the one true God may be genuine. Perhaps the prime example of this was the Qurayshi leader, Abu Sufyan, adopting Islam after the Conquest of Mecca when being asked by Muhammad if he conceded that the Meccan gods had proved powerless and that there was indeed “no god but God”, the first part of the Islamic confession of faith. Abu Sufyan later played a supporting role in the Muslim army at the decisive Battle of Yarmouk against the Byzantines and one of his sons, Muawiyah, later established the Umayyad Caliphate in 661 after the death of Ali and the overthrow of the Rashidun Caliphate.

Islam’s Cultural Impact

So, in a period of time that was, historically speaking, both fairly recent and remarkably short a small group of people from an area of the world with little natural resources managed to create one of the great empires of the world as well as one of the great religions. In a strange twist, this rapid expansion and stunning success may be the very reason why people of western European descent remain largely ignorant of this period of history; it was not their glory days.

Not only were the Muslims great conquerors, they also spawned an explosion of trade and learning that lasted hundreds of years. They also saved many of the classic texts that formed the basis of so-called Western Civilisation at a time when Europe was ignoring them and paved the way for the Renaissance which lifted Europe from the Middle Ages.

While it is important to remember that much of the world between Spain and the Indus River was not Arabised, most of it was so comprehensively Islamised that these days it is impossible to think of the geographical region we call the Middle-East without thinking of it as Islamic. It is testament to the dominance of the religion that has its roots in Arabia that today in Egypt millions of people, five times a day, turn away from the ancient pyramids and towards the Prophet’s birthplace of Mecca. Egypt: home to one of the longest, continuous cultures on the planet is now the largest Arabic-speaking country in the world.

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
  12. The Roman Republic. Or was it Empire?
  13. The Covenant & the Messiah
  14. Fall of the Roman Empire… Rise of the Byzantine Empire

The Human Story – Fall of the Roman Empire… Rise of the Byzantine Empire

The Roman Empire was one of the most important and enduring political entities of the ancient world which still greatly influences our world today. So, surely when it collapsed the world irrevocably changed and the impact must have been huge and felt throughout the western world…

Was it though? Did the Roman Empire end with a bang or a whimper?

How and when the Roman Empire fell remains a subject of considerable historical debate. Traditional accounts have the Empire disintegrating in the fifth century. However, there is a strong case to argue that the Empire did not truly fall until one thousand years later in the fifteenth century.


Let’s first introduce the traditional view of the Fall of Roman Empire. Quite simply, the city of Rome itself was conquered by barbarians in 476 CE. The final Roman Emperor was named Romulus Augustus and perhaps no one has been named more ironically throughout history. As you will recall the legendary founder of Rome was named Romulus whilst the first emperor was called Augustus. The story of ancient Rome was bookended by men named Romulus, whilst the Empire was flanked by two men named Augustus.

Romulus Augusts ruled the Roman Empire for less than one year before he was deposed and sent into exile by the barbarian Odoacer who founded the Kingdom of Italy as the first King of Italy, initiating a new era over Roman lands. Unfortunately we cannot be more specific than barbarian as history has failed to record which tribe Odoacer belonged to. Visigoth? Ostrogoth? Hun? Vandal? They all looked and behaved the same to the Romans; uncivilised.


The city had been sacked before Odoacer demanded Romulus Augustus ceded control over the Empire, most notably in 410 CE by Alaric the Visigoth and again in 455 CE by the Vandals (who so thoroughly sacked the great city that even today we still call the perpetrators of mindless acts of criminal damage vandals). These sackings of the once great and glorious centre of the Mediterranean world were both within living memory and undoubtedly played on the young Emperor’s mind when confronted by the soon-to-be King of Italy.

Never again would there be a Roman Emperor in Rome.

The Roman politician and historian Tacitus predicated the fall of the Empire in his book Agricola written in 98 CE which details the life of his father-in-law Gnaeus Julius Agricola, a distinguished Roman general and Governor of Britain. He argued that Rome was doomed to failure once it spread out of the Italian peninsula, because the further the frontier is from the capital the harder it is to govern and thus imperialism itself sowed the seeds of Rome’s destruction. His argument was put forth by the defeated Caledonian chieftain Calgacus:

“They plunder, they slaughter, and they steal: this they falsely name Empire, and where they make a wasteland, they call it peace.”

There are two ways to overcome this problem of governance:

  1. Rule with an Iron Fist – This was not possible, however, as the whole Roman identity was wrapped up in the idea of justice that prohibited indiscriminate violence… seriously!
  2. Assimilate conquered peoples more fully into the Empire – In Rome’s case this meant giving the people Roman citizenship and providing them with the full rights associated with this.

In the early days of the Roman Republic and even the beginning of the Empire this decision to make subjugated peoples fully Roman worked quite well but eventually it led to “Barbarians within the Gates”.


The decline of the Roman Legions began long before Rome was sacked by the Visigoths and Vandals. The deterioration of the army began with the tremendously bad decision to begin incorporating Germanic warriors into the Roman Army. The Empire had a long history of absorbing people from its fringes into the polity. Initially as allies and then eventually as fully-fledged citizens with the same rights as those Romans living and working in the city of Rome. Usually these foreign citizens had developed cultural ties with Rome: they learned Latin and bought into the idea of the aristocratic-run Republic.

By the third and fourth centuries CE the Empire had been forced to allow the type of riff-raff and undesirables into the army who did not particularly care much about the idea of Rome. These men were only loyal to their respective commanders and as you will remember from the historical examples of Marius, Caesar and Pompey; this is a recipe for civil unrest and domestic warfare.

Here were the Romans trapped in a series of seemingly unending expensive and bloody wars with the Germanic tribes on the Rhine frontier who were really good at fighting. Someone had a brilliant idea; why not fight with these guys instead of fight against them? Soon after, the army began hiring these men and the Legions were crowded with mercenaries whose loyalties primarily lay with gold and secondly to the commanders who gave them the gold. These mercenaries held no loyalties at all to Rome or what it stood for and was a place that very few of them had ever even seen, let alone set foot in. Why would they care about the health and wellbeing of the Roman Empire?

This was a formula for civil war and that is exactly what happened again and again. This all unfolded during a time of compounding emergencies which resulted in the “Crisis of the Third Century”. This was a period of severe instability in which the Roman Empire nearly collapsed under the combined pressures of barbarian invasions and migrations into Roman territory; civil wars and peasant rebellions; plagues; the debasement of the currency and economic depression.

The barbarian mercenaries and their commanders nominally worked for Rome but were becoming increasingly independent with general after general declaring himself as the Emperor of Rome. The crisis began with the assassination of Emperor Severus Alexander by his own troops in 235 CE and continued until 284 CE. During this time no fewer than 40 different people were either Emperor or claimed to be the Emperor. After the year 200 CE, many generals who were powerful enough to proclaim themselves as Emperor were not even Roman. In fact, some of them scarcely spoke Latin and one of them, Maximinus Thrax, never even set foot in the city. (Although, to be fair to Maximinus Thrax, he was assassinated in 238 CE whilst on his way to the city after declaring war on the Senate… this was just the beginning of the crisis!).

Oddly enough, one of the best symbols of this new stage of the Roman Empire was rather sardonic and finely represents its changing face. Instead of the traditional tunic and toga associated with the glory days of the Senate, most of these new general-emperors preferred to wear those most practical and barbaric of garments: trousers. Perhaps nothing symbolises the Empire’s fall from grace more effectively than the Emperor wearing uncivilised clothing.

Rome in the East

So, did the Roman Empire truly fall in 476 CE? Yes and no. The Western Roman Empire collapsed into oblivion that year, heralding the Early Medieval Period, more colloquially known as the Dark Ages, but it was not the end of the story in the eastern portion of the Empire.

The crisis ended in 284 CE, providing relief to the fragmented territory, when Diocletian, a forceful general, seized power and declared himself as the new emperor. One of his earliest acts was to split the Empire in two and keep the eastern half for himself and named his trusted friend, Maximian, as a junior emperor and presented him with the western half of the Empire. Diocletian figured that the Roman Empire had simply grown too big over the years to be effectively governed by a single person.


While the Western Roman Empire limped on for a while before descending into further chaos which eventually saw its collapse in 476 CE, the Eastern Roman Empire established its capital in Byzantium, an ancient Greek city located on the Bosporus Straight. The Eastern Roman Empire is more commonly known as the Byzantine Empire although the people that lived there identified themselves as Roman. The Byzantine Empire was, to all intents and purposes, a continuation of the Roman Empire in its eastern provinces.


The Emperor Constantine unified the two Empires in 324 CE and built a new imperial residence at Byzantium and renamed the city Constantinople after himself. Constantine had lots of reasons to shift his capital east. For one thing, he was born in modern day Serbia and probably spoke better Greek than Latin. Perhaps most importantly though the eastern provinces were much richer than their western counterparts and from a looting perspective you just want to be closer to where the good warring is. The Persian Sasanian Empire in the east presented a rich and powerful enemy as opposed to the bands of penniless warriors to be found in the west by this point.

As the political centre of the Empire moved east Constantine also tried to re-orientate his new religion, Christianity (which he had converted to) to the east too. He held the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE in modern Turkey. The purpose of this ecumenical council was the first effort to attain consensus in the Church through an assembly representing all of Christendom. The main accomplishments of the Council of Nicaea was to finalise the issue of the divine nature of God the Son and God the Father, and set an annual observance date for Easter.

The council also marked the beginning of the emperor having greater control over the church, a development that would later lead to tensions between the church centred in Constantinople and the one based in Rome.

To give an idea of how dramatic this eastward shift in politics and religion was by the fourth century, Constantinople’s population soared whilst Rome’s plummeted from approximately 1,000,000 inhabitants to a mere 50,000. Although the Byzantines spoke Greek and not Latin they still considered themselves as Roman which means that we probably should too.

There was lots of continuity between the old Western Roman Empire and the new Eastern Roman Empire. Politically, each was ruled by a single man, sometimes two, who wielded absolute military power. War was pretty much constant as the Byzantines fought the Persian Sasanian Empire and then a succession of various Islamic Empires. Trade and valuable agricultural land that yielded high taxes meant that the Byzantine Empire was, like the Western Roman Empire, exceptionally rich and yet slightly more compact as a territory than its predecessor had been and much more urbanised, as it contained all of those, once, independent Greek city-states which made for far easier administration.

Justinian and Theodora

Like its western counterpart the Byzantine Empire enjoyed spectacle and sport; the chariot races within the city of Constantinople were massive with thousands turning out to the hippodrome to cheer on their favourite sportspeople. There was a huge rivalry within the city and not just about sports but also political affiliations between the “Greens” and the “Blues” (seriously). These clashes between blue and green sporting political ideologies could become so heated that rioting sometimes broke out and on one such occasion in 532 CE, the Nika Riots, nearly half of the city was destroyed and an estimated 30,000 people were killed.

Perhaps the most consistently Roman aspect of Byzantine society was that they followed Roman law. The Romans had always prided themselves on being ruled by laws and not by men and even though that was not the case after the second century BCE, there is no question that the Eastern Roman Empire’s codification of Roman laws was one of its greatest achievements. Much of the credit for that goes to one of the most famous Byzantine emperors, Justinian. In 533 CE, Justinian published the Digest, a monumentally massive 800,000 word compendium of Latin law books.

So, just who was this Justinian guy?

Justinian was born to a peasant family in the province of Dardania (modern Macedonia) around 482 CE who rose through the ranks of society to be elevated to Emperor in 527 CE. During his almost thirty year rule, and in addition to codifying Roman law, he did a lot to restore the former glory of the Roman Empire. He reconquered much of the territory lost by the Western Roman Empire, including Carthage, southern Spain and the entire Italian peninsula. Perhaps the most Roman aspect of his reign was the clothing; trousers were out and a version of the tunic was back in fashion!

Justinian also ordered the construction of one of the all-time great churches (although it is now a museum), the Hagia Sophia, which he built after riots destroyed the previous church. The Romans, in general, are famed for their remarkable engineering and construction projects and the Hagia Sophia is no exception; a dome its equal would not be built for another 500 years, and yet you would never mistake it for a Roman temple: the Hagia Sophia does not have the austerity or the obvious emphasis of engineering that you see on, for example, the Coliseum. This magnificent building functions in many ways as a symbol of the ways in which the Byzantine Empire was both Roman and not Roman at the same time.


Perhaps the most intriguing thing that Justinian ever did was to marry his controversial wife, Theodora. She began her career as an actress, dancer and prostitute before becoming Empress and she may very well have saved her husband’s rule by convincing him not to flee the city during the Nika Riots declaring, “Those who have worn the crown should never survive its loss. Never will I see the day when I am not saluted as empress.” Theodora also supposedly mentored a eunuch who went on to become a hugely important and successful general, Narses, in the service of Justinian during the Roman reconquest. She was more than just an asset to Justinian and his military officers, however, and wielded great individual power in her own right. She fought to expand the rights of women throughout the Empire in cases of divorce and property ownership and even went as far as to have a law passed taking the radical stance that adulterous women should not be executed.

The Great Schism of 1054

So, in short the Byzantines continued much of the Roman legacy of empire, war and law for nearly one thousand years after Romulus Augustus was driven from the city of Rome. Byzantines may not have spoken Latin and few of the emperors came from Rome but in the most important ways, they were Roman. There was, however, one major exception going forward from the eleventh century and that was religion.

The Byzantines followed a different variant of Christianity we now call Eastern (or sometimes Greek) Orthodox whilst the Church in Rome followed Roman Catholic teachings. How there came to be a split, or schism, between the Catholic and Greek Orthodox Churches in 1054 is rather complicated but what matters here is the differences between the two. Spiritually and theologically, far more unites the Western and Eastern Churches than divides them but the main partition runs down political lines, over who rules whom.


In the west there was a Pope, whilst in the east there was a Patriarch. The pope is the head of the Roman Catholic Church and serves as God’s regent on earth and he does not answer to any secular ruler and ever since the Fall of Rome there has been a lot of tension in Western Europe between popes and kings about who should have the real power. In Eastern Orthodox Christianity there is no such issue as the patriarch was always appointed by the emperor so there was no ambiguity over who controlled whom. The Church even had a word for this emperor-patriarch relationship: Caesaropapism (Caesar over Pope). But the fact remained that since 476 CE there was no emperor in Rome which meant there was no power to legitimately challenge the authority of the pope. This lack of papal accountability to an imperial throne would profoundly shape European and, by extension, later world history.

So, Did it End With a Bang or a Whimper?

The Western Roman Empire fell into a series of Frankish and Gothic kingdoms and Italy was ruled by a non-Roman for the first time in 700 years.

Some will argue, and with good and very valid points, that the fall of the Western Roman Empire did not change all that much and was, in fact, the opening act of a vibrant (and often turbulent) medieval world. As we have seen there is certainly an argument to be made there but the point in fact is that the entity that was the Roman Empire collapsed like the Republic before it and it is impossible to say that a millennium-spanning state based in the city of Rome simply continued elsewhere.

We have, at least, a few when and whys the Fall of Rome occurred but another argument to be made is that it is really a testament to the strength and flexibility of Rome that it survived as long as it did. Hannibal should have conquered it during the Punic Wars in the third century BCE; it should have fractured in the first century BCE with the carousel of military dictatorships; and it should have buckled under the pressures of the Crisis in the third century CE.

Diocletian seemed to understand it best when he realised that the massive Mediterranean empire was too cumbersome and no longer fit for purpose. So Rome did what it always did best and adapted. The city was gone, and the Empire crumbled, but the Roman civilisation continued in Byzantium.

So the argument can be made that in some of the more important ways, the Roman Empire did survive for nearly one thousand years after it left Rome. Even today, we still hear echoes of the civilisation which began in the eighth century BCE, for example the Justinian Law Code continues to be the basis for much of civil law in modern Europe and the countries across the world that have been influenced by Europeans culture.

Rome neither ended with a bang, nor a whimper. The core of what made a Roman Roman, the rule of law and justice, continues with us today and I’d say that is a damn fine legacy.

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
  12. The Roman Republic. Or was it Empire?
  13. The Covenant & the Messiah

The Human Story – The Covenant & The Messiah

Let’s talk about Jesus.

Jesus of Nazareth was born in the Roman Empire around 2,000 years ago, during the reign of the first emperor, Augustus Caesar. At the time Augustus was being stylised, amongst other things, as “the Son of God” and it is important to note that at the time being thought of as the son of god, or at least the son of a god was not an unusual thing. It is, however, one thing to believe that the most powerful man in the world is the son of god; it is quite another thing altogether for a poor Jew living on the periphery of the Empire to be thought of as “the Son of God”.

Jesus was one of many teachers spreading his ideas throughout the Roman Province of Judea (others included the likes of John the Baptist and Gamaliel) and was part of a messianic tradition that helps us to understand why he is thought of not only as a teacher but as something much more – he was, to his followers, their saviour sent from God.

Before we go any further with Christ, his teachings or the religion that stemmed from them, Christianity, we must first go back and explore another religion: Judaism. Any understanding of Christianity must start with Judaism as Jesus was born a Jew and grew up living under the Jewish tradition.

The Chosen People

The people that would become the Jews were one of many tribal groups that were scratching out an existence in the not very fertile crescent world of ancient Mesopotamia after the agricultural revolution. Initially the Hebrews worshipped many gods and made animal sacrifices in order to bring good weather and fortune. However, this group eventually began to form another type of religion altogether, one centred around a concept that would become the key idea behind all of the great western religions: monotheism; the idea that there is only one true god. These people also developed the second theory that would become crucial to their religion: the idea of covenant; a deal with god.

The main man of this new Hebraic religion was Abraham and he is regarded as the common patriarch of the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam). It is hard to understand the Jewish religion without first understanding Abraham. When he was the ripe old age of ninety-nine the Lord God appeared to him and said:

“I am God Almighty; walk before me faithfully and blameless. Then I will make my covenant between me and you and will greatly increase your numbers.” Genesis 17:1-2

The covenant entered into by Abraham and God stated that Abraham would have many descendants and that they would forever hold the land of Canaan. There was, however, a catch…

“This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you. For the generations to come every male among you who is eight days old must be circumcised.” Genesis 17:10-12

These were the terms of the deal and in exchange God had chosen Abraham and his descendants to be part of a great nation. It is from this interaction and covenant between God and the chosen Abraham that we get the expression the “Chosen People” to refer to the Jews.

There are several important things to know about the Jewish God:

  1. He does not like it when any other god is put before him – He must be supreme.
  2. He has always existed and can be deeply personal – He holds conversations with prophets.
  3. He gets involved in history – He destroys cities, determines the outcome of wars and brings floods to the disobedient people of earth.
  4. He demands moral righteousness and social justice – this was the characteristic of God that was most important to Jesus.

So this is the God of the Hebrews and despite numerous ups and downs they have stuck with Him for, according to the Hebrew calendar, 5,700 years and He has stuck with them too despite them occasionally being a disappointment to Him (e.g. the Golden Calf episode). This has led to various miseries and tragedies throughout their history and a tradition of prophets speaking to God and warning the people to get back onto the correct path lest they experience further misery.


The Son of God

By the time that Jesus was born, the land of the Israelites, Judea, had been absorbed into the Roman Empire and was under the control of King Herod the Great who is best known for constructing the Second Temple of Jerusalem (which the Romans later destroyed) and the clifftop fortress of Masada (which the Romans later destroyed).

By the time of Jesus’ death, Judea was under the control of Herod Antipater. Both Herods took their orders from the Romans and both appear on lists of oppressive rulers of the Jews, partly because they suppressed religious freedoms and partly because both men sought to force Greek tradition, architecture and philosophy into the region. In response to these Hellenistic influences lots of preachers were attempting to get the Jews to return to the traditions and godly ways of the past: Sadducees; Pharisees; Essenes; and Zealots all taught their congregations the old ways of Jewish tradition.


One of these preachers who did not fit squarely into any of these groups was Jesus of Nazareth: a preacher who spread his message of peace, love and justice across Judea. He proved to be remarkably charismatic and attracted small but incredibly loyal groups of followers and it is said that the man could perform miracles (although it is worth noting that the ability to perform miracles was not that uncommon at the time). Jesus’ message was particularly resonant with the poor and downtrodden with its very anti-authoritarian flavour. He said that it was easier for a “camel to get through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get into heaven”; “the meek were blessed”; and “the last would be first, and the first would be last”. This is obviously pretty good stuff to hear if you happen to be poor, whilst simultaneously very threatening to the powers that be.

The powerful elites who felt threatened by Jesus’ messages and teachings had him arrested, tried and executed in the normal manner of killing rebels at the time: crucifixion. The Romans killed Jesus because he was a threat to their power and authority in the region but later accounts tell us that it was the Jews who had Jesus killed but this is both an unfortunate and untrue rewriting of history.

Spread the Word

We are not going to discuss the divinity of Jesus here but what matters is that some people of the time believed Jesus to be the Messiah, the “Son of God”, who would once again return someday to redeem the world. This leads to two questions about Christianity:

  1. Why did this small group of people believe this?
  2. Why and how did that obscure belief become so widespread?

So, just why would people believe Jesus to be the Messiah? Firstly, the Jews had a long tradition of believing their saviour would come to them during a time of trouble. The people of Judea living under King Herod and the yoke of the Romans definitely viewed their time as one of trouble. Many of the historical prophecies pointed towards someone whose life looked a lot like that of Jesus of Nazareth’s. For example the book of Isiah describes how the saviour will be a person who is both misunderstood and mistreated:

“He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.” Isiah 53:3

Other prophecies, such as Daniel 7:14 explained that a new everlasting kingdom would appear when the Messiah came and this had to sound good to people who had had their autonomy taken away and assimilated into this sprawling multi-ethnic empire.

It was only natural that some religious Jews saw Jesus as the one foretold in their religious scriptures and came to believe that during his lifetime, or shortly thereafter, that he was the Messiah. Most probably thought that the new everlasting kingdom was right around the corner (this would explain why no one actually bothered to write about Jesus’ life for several decades, by which point it would be clear that they may have to wait a little longer for this new everlasting kingdom).

It is worth noting, at this point, that the idea of Messiah was not unique to the Jews and that the Roman poet Virgil wrote of a boy who:

“shall free the earth from never-ceasing fear. He shall receive the lives of gods and see heroes with gods commingling, and himself be seen of them, and with his father’s worth reign o’er a world at peace.”

Does Virgil’s description sound familiar?

Virgil was actually writing about the Roman Emperor Augustus, not Jesus Christ. There are some similarities between the two “saviours” though: both were known as the Son of God; both were reputed to be the Saviour of the World. However, one ruled the largest empire in the western world whilst the other believed that same empire and the world needed to be dramatically changed.

That brings us to our second question about early Christianity: why did the wealthy Son of God become far less historically influential than the son of the carpenter. There are several possible reasons why this happened.

Firstly, the Romans continued to make things worse for the Jewish population living in Judea. The situation became so untenable for the Jews that they revolted between 66 and 73 CE. This uprising did not go well for the Jews and resulted in the Jewish expulsion from Judea, known as the Jewish Diaspora. With no major temple and no geographical unity, the Jewish people had to solidify what it truly meant to be Jewish and what the basic beliefs of their religion were. This forced the followers of Jesus to make a decision: either continue to be Jews, following the stricter laws set forth by their local Rabbis or to become something else entirely. The decision to open this new religion to gentiles (non-Jewish people) is the primary reason why Christianity could become a world religion rather than a sect of Judaism.

The second historical reason that Christianity exploded in popularity was that Saul of Tarsus received a vision whilst on the road to Damascus. Saul changed his name to Paul and began corresponding with Jesus’ followers throughout the Mediterranean world. Paul ardently declared that the followers of Christ did not need to have been Jews or circumcised. This opened the flood-gates to anyone wishing to convert to the new religion. One thing that must be noted about Paul is that he was a Roman citizen who could freely travel throughout the Roman Empire, allowing him to make the case for Christ to lots of people and facilitated the geographic spread of Christianity.


Finally, Christianity was born and flourished in an empire which possessed a common language, Latin, that allowed for its spread. Crucially, this empire was in decline. Even as early as the first century CE the Roman Empire was on the way down. For the average person (and even some of the elites) things were not as good as they had once been and Roman religion offered no promise of an awesome afterlife; all it offered was a pantheon of squabbling, petulant gods. You really cannot blame the early Christians for nailing their colours to the Christian mast when you consider what the alternative was.

Even though the early Christians were persecuted by the Roman state and sometimes fed to the lions, the religion continued to grow slowly. In fact the persecution of Christians almost certainly made Christianity even stronger. That whole martyr thing at the core of the religion helped the cause. Think of it from the perspective of a devoted Christian: “If Jesus died for our sins, we need to hold fast in our belief in him, despite how badly we are being persecuted. He suffered through it, and so can we.”

As the decline of the empire continued Emperor Constantine legalised the practice of the religion, before eventually converting himself in 312 CE. Rome may not have been what it used to be but everyone still wanted to be just like the emperor. Christianity, as a religion, had really taken off.

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
  12. The Roman Republic. Or was it Empire?

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

VOC Bond.jpg

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?