The Human Story – The Silk Road & Ancient Trade

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

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

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

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Ancient International Trade

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Was Traded?

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

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

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

Money, Money, Money

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

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

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

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

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

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

How the Silk Road Changed Everything… For Everyone

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

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

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

The Rest is History

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

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

Three Campaigns of the Chinese Civil War – How the Red Flag Rose in China

China is the most populous country on the planet. It has always had a massive population. From a military logistics point of view this equates to more canon fodder – an unsympathetic view to take, but true nonetheless. Six of the five deadliest conflicts in human history involved Chinese soldiers (it would have been six if they had been allowed to fight during World War One – although they were used as labour) with three of the conflicts raging exclusively in China. Few people in the west realise how many casualties the Chinese suffered during World War Two – second only to the Soviet Union, between 15 and 20 million in all, one third of all casualties in the war, in case you were wondering.

So the country is no stranger to armed insurrection, invasion nor civil strife. The first half of the 20th century appeared to be shaping up for more of the same. After being thoroughly humiliated by European, Japanese and American powers near the turn of the century the country fell into a seemingly endless series of wars between the old imperial regime, opportunistic warlords, a republic of questionable democratic ideals and communists. However, by 1927 the various conflicts had coalesced into the Chinese Civil War, fought between the Nationalists (the Kuomintang) under Chiang Kai-Shek and the Communists who were led by Mao Zedong. Chiang’s army gained the upper hand in the fighting and nearly destroyed the Communists in 1934 but Mao, along with 100,000 men, escaped and retreated 6,000 miles in what became known as the Long March – only 20,000 survived the arduous trek.

However, some respite for the demoralised communist army was near.

The civil war was temporarily suspended in the late 1930s and early 1940s as the combatants were forced to turn their attention on the Imperial Japanese armed forces who had invaded their country. Mao and his army fought in the rural northern provinces, primarily employing guerilla hit-and-run tactics. He also used the time to solidify his support from the local peasants whilst stockpiling weapons provided by the Allies and captured from the Japanese. During the war the Communists actually gained strength. Meanwhile the Nationalists faced stronger Japanese opposition in the south, greatly weakening their army.

In 1946, a year after the end of World War Two, the Chinese Civil War resumed in earnest. Thanks to the Soviet army, who had liberated Manchuria (north-east China) and turned over large stockpiles of captured weapons to the Communists, the balance of power began to shift against the Nationalist regime. From 1946 to 1948 the war raged with no significant advantage being gained by either side. However, throughout this period the Communists continued to grow ever stronger.

By September 1948 the Communists had enough manpower and material to gain the initiative and launched a series of three successful campaigns that all but ended the war in near total Communist victory (the Nationalists managed to hold onto the island of Taiwan where the Kuomintang are currently in opposition in the legislature).

Liaoshen Campaign (12 September 1948 – 2 November 1948)

For the first time since the beginning of the civil war the Communist People’s Liberation Army (PLA) had expanded so considerably in Manchuria that it surpassed the Nationalists in total operational strength. In response to the deteriorating situation against Communist offensives, Chiang Kai-Shek decided to replace the commander of his armies in the region. However, this proved problematic as he often clashed with the new commander, Wei Lihuang, over tactics. Wei believed that it was better to “preserve the status quo” and concentrate on defending the cities of Shenyang and Changchun, whilst Chiang felt the army should pull back and defend the Shanhai Pass and prevent the PLA from entering the North China Plain.

By Spring 1948, the PLA were in control of of the countryside across north-east China, forcing the Nationalists into defensive pockets in Shenyang, Changchun and Jinzhou. The Communists had also seized control of the Jingha Railway, cutting off the Nationalist land supply lines to Shenyang and Changchun.

The city of Jinzhou was a vital point in the passage from Manchuria to the North China Plain. Between 12 and 28 September the Communists launched a series of attacks and maneuvers that cut Jinzhou off from its supply lines, effectively isolating the city. The Nationalists attempted to reinforce Jinzhou and break the PLA encirclement attempt as well as fortify their positions in another vital point of the passage, the city of Huludao.

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By 8 October, the PLA had amasssed 250,000 troops and completed the encirclement of Jinzhou. Between 10 and 15 October, the Nationalist reinforcements for the city from both the west and east began closing in on the Communists, but were decisively stopped in the Blocking Battle of Tashan. This halt of the enemy allowed the PLA to assault Jinzhou, capturing the city on 15 October along with 80,000 soldiers of the garrison.

Next up. Changchun.

Changchun had been encircled for more than five months prior to the Liaoshen Campaign. The weakened and starving garrison were unable to break out of the city despite Chiang Kai-Shek ordering them to do so. Following news of the fall of Jinzhou the entire Nationalist 60th Army in the east of the city simply switched sides and the Nationalist Seventh Army agreed to terms of surrender on 19 October with the remaining forces in Changchun surrendering on 23 October.

In a desperate response to the heavy defeats in Jinzhou and Changchun, the Nationalist Ninth Army Group attempted a counteroffensive in Heishan county, north of Jinzhou. The Communists successfully defended their positions and subsequently encircled and destroyed the Nationalist army group.

Now it was Shenyang’s turn.

The PLA began to move in on the city which fell into disarray and the Nationalist Eighth Army Group collapsed as their commander fled the danger via plane on 30 October. On 1 November, the Communist forces launched the final assault on Shenyang. The 140,000 strong Nationalist garrison quickly surrendered. On 2 November the Communists moved to capture nearby Yingkou on the coast – the Nationalist 52nd Army narrowly escaping by ship. The remaining Nationalist forces in the area managed to preserve strength and made an orderly withdraw from Huludao to Tianjin.

The northeast was completely clear of Nationalist forces and the Liaoshen Campaign effectively came to an end. However, the Communist leadership did not sit back on its haunches and savour its victory for long. Instead they launched two more campaigns running simultaneously. One in the north, the Pingjin Campaign, aimed at ending Nationalist dominance of the North China Plain and concentrated around the cities of Beiping (Beijing) and Tianjin (Hence the name Pingjin). The southern action, the Huaihai Campaign (named after the Huai River and the Lung Hai Railway), was a major offensive against the Kuomintang headquarters in the city of Xuzhou.

Huahai Campaign (6 November 1948 – 10 January 1949)

After the city of Jinan in Shandong province fell in September 1948 (an unrelated action to the Liaoshen Campaign), the PLA began planning for a larger campaign to engage the remaining Nationalists in the province – the bulk of which was based around Xuzhou. In the face of the deteriorating situation in the northeast, the Kuomintang government decided to deploy their forces on both sides of the Tianjin-Pukou Railway to prevent the PLA from advancing south to the Yangtze River.

The Communist War Council approved a plan to encircle the Nationalist Sixth and Seventh Armies stationed in the Shandong province and dispatched their forces to assault the garrisons in Henan and Anhui provinces with the objective of breaking through to Shandong.

The attack began on 6 November and the two Nationalist armies began retreating to Xuzhou by crossing the Grand Canal. On 8 November, 23,000 Nationalist troops defected to the Communist side, exposing the retreat route of the Seventh Army. 70,000 PLA soldiers marched on, surrounding the main force of the Seventh Army east of Xuzhou, and intercepted the remaining force as they were crossing a river. The Nationalist garrison in Xuzhou planned to rescue the Seventh Army, but the Communists had anticipated this move (thanks, in part, to superior intelligence) and deployed more than half of their force to block the relief effort. The Seventh Army managed to hold out for 16 days without supplies and reinforcements, inflicting nearly 50,000 casualties on the PLA forces. But in the end it was not enough and the Seventh Army was destroyed after it’s ferocious fight for survival.

Now that the Seventh Army was no longer in existence, the east flank of Xuzhou was completely exposed to PLA attack and Chiang Kai-Shek was persuaded to re-locate the Nationalist headquarters to the south.

The Nationalist Twelfth Army was marching, from Henan province, to reinforce their beleaguered comrades… but, they were intercepted and after nearly a month of bloody fighting they too ceased to exist. Only 8,000 survivors managed to penetrate and breakout from the enemy encirclement. Many of the newly captured Nationalist POWs joined the Communist forces. Chiang did try and save the Twelfth Army by ordering three armies to relieve them. I’m sure you can guess what happened by this point – that’s right, the Communists caught up with these reinforcements and they too were encircled only 9 miles from Xuzhou. How were the Communists able to catch them so quickly? Again, superior intelligence.

On 15 December the Sixteenth Army broke out from the Communist encirclement, but at great cost – although the General of the Army, Sun Yuanling, eventually made it safely back to Nanjing, most of his officers and men were killed or captured in the process.

Another General, Du Yuming, one of the most capable strategists in the Nationalist Army, decided to hold out as Chiang had ordered. He came up with three different options for the current situation: recall Nationalist troops from Xi’an and Wuhan provinces to battle the Communists; wait for reinforcements; or break out on their own. Du was disappointed when Chiang selected the riskiest option for his army – breakout. Time was running out though.

There was a full month of heavy snowfall, which made it impossible for the Nationalist Air Forces to provide air support to the besieged ground units. As food and ammunition began to diminish, many soldiers killed and ate their horses whilst Communist forces enticed them with food to surrender – around 10,000 did so. On 6 January, the PLA launched a huge offensive on the Thirteenth Army, who promptly withdrew to the Second Army’s defensive lines. Four days later General Du Yuming was captured whilst the Sixth and Eighth Armies retreated to the south of the Huai River.

This was arguably the most successful of the Three Campaigns. The Nationalist forces suffered over 500,000 casualties, including much of their most elite forces under direct command of Chiang Kai-Shek. This greatly weakened Chiang within the Kuomintang government and he announced his temporary retirement. As the PLA began to approach the Yangtze river, the momentum was completely shifting toward the Communists and without any effective measures to stop them from crossing, the Nationalist government began to lose support from the United States and American military aid began to dry up.

Pingjin Campaign (29 November 1948 – 31 January 1949)

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After the great success of the Liaoshen Campaign, the balance of power in Northern China had shifted in favour of the Communists and their People’s Liberation Army. After the Communist Fourth Field Army entered the North China Plain, the Nationalists abandoned Chengde, Baoding, the Shanhai Pass, and Qinhuangdao and withdrew their remaining forces to the cities of Beiping, Tianjin and Zhangjiakou and strengthened the defences of these garrisons. The Nationalists were hoping to preserve their strength and reinforce Xuzhou – where we know there was another campaign underway – or alternatively retreat to the nearby Suiyuan province if necessary.

On 29 November 1948 the PLA launched an assault on Zhangjiakou (later identified as one of the most strategically important cities in China and aptly named “Beijing’s Northern Door”). The Nationalist 35th and 104th Armies were sent to reinforce the city, only to be recalled to defend Beiping on 5 December as it became obvious that it was at risk of becoming encircled by the enemy.

As had become custom by this point, on their return from Zhangjiakou, the 35th Army found themselves encircled by the PLA at Xinbao’an and friendly forces sent to relieve them were, themselves, intercepted. The PLA launched their offensive against the city on 21 December, destroying the 35th Army.

After capturing both Zhangjiakou and Xinbao’an, the Communists began to amass troops around the Tianjin area from 2 January 1949. Almost immediately after the conclusion of the Huaihai Campaign (10 January) in the south, the PLA launched its final assault on Tianjin on 14 January. After nearly 30 hours of fighting, the Nationalist 62nd and 86th Armies were destroyed – a total of 130,000 men were either killed or captured. The remaining forces retreated south by boat on 17 January.

That’s the “jin” part. Time for the “Ping”.

Now that Tianjin had fallen into enemy hands and the Communists held the north and had recently driven the Nationalists further south in their Huaihai Campaign, the Nationalist garrison in Beiping was effectively left isolated – one tiny dot of blue in a sea of red. The garrison’s commander, General Fu Zuoyi, realising that resisitence was futile, decided to negotiate a peace settlement on 21 January and within the following week 260,000 Nationalist troops exited the city in anticipation of the immediate surrender. The PLA’s Fourth Field Army entered Beiping on 31 January to take control of the city, marking the end of the Pingjin Campaign.

The Aftermath

In only a period of several months, Mao Zedong’s Communists had achieved near total victory through three exceptionally successful campaigns. Chiang Kai-Shek’s support, both inside and outside of the country, dwindled with each successive Communist victory – and they came in quick and often. US Secretary of State, George C. Marshall stated that:

The present regime has lost the confidence of the people, reflected in the refusal of soldiers to fight and the refusal of the people to cooperate in economic reforms.

Within weeks of Marshall’s announcement (20 December 1949) the Communists had overran the remaining Nationalist positions in Xuzhou, forcing the Nationalists south of the Yangtze River and captured the whole northern sector of the country. The remaining Nationalist army and Kuomintang government continued their retreat until they finally withdrew to the island of Formosa, which was later renamed Taiwan. Here, Chiang Kai-Shek regained power and developed the island into an Asian economic power – to this day, the island, officially called the Republic of China, still lays claim to the whole of the Chinese mainland. Mainland China, however, remains firmly in control of the Communist Party and Mao Zedong’s political descendants.

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The Communist takeover of China achieved by the battles of the Three Campaigns greatly influenced not only that country but the entire world. Over the next two decades, Mao focused on consolidating and then wielding his complete control over his country, ruthlessly putting down any opposition. Under Mao’s rule, an estimated 65 million Chinese citizens died in his pursuit of his new socialist country – anyone who got in his way was simply done away with through execution, imprisonment and even forced famine!

Fortunately for the rest of the world, Mao remained focused on his own country, disagreeing with the Soviets on political and philosophical aspects of Communism and the two nations suspicioulsy eyed one another as potential enemies rather than natural allies. China’s internal struggles and regional disputes with it’s neighbours have restricted its influence on the world. Even though it remains the largest and strongest Communist nation and the only potential Communist threat to the West, China remains more interested in internal and regional disputes than in international matters – although it has, in recent years, began to expand its soft power through trade and international development, particularly in Africa.

Had the Nationalists held back the Communist onslaught during the battles of the Three Campaigns, China would likely have played a very different role in subsequent world events. There would have been no Communist China to support North Korea during the Korean War or North Vietnam’s efforts to take over South Vietnam. Had Chiang Kai-Shek with his outward views and Western links been victorious then China may have taken a more assertive role in recent world history. Instead, the Liaoshen, Huaihai and Pingjin Campaigns would keep China firmly under the yoke of one man and locked in his inward looking bubble for decades rather than opening to the outside world earlier than 1978 – only 2 years after Mao’s death.

The Rest is History

10 Really Old Companies

I was watching the first Harry Potter movie, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, with my son recently and in it there is a shop called Ollivanders which makes and sells magic wands. Why am I telling you this? Well, because the shop’s sign claims that the company has been operating since 382BCE. That is one hell of a long time to be in business!

But it did get me thinking… What are the world’s oldest companies and what industries do they operate in?

Interestingly, a huge amount of the world’s oldest companies still operating today are in Japan, most of which boast of being “family run” for dozens of generations. The majority of these long surviving business were created along trade routes from Tokyo to Kyoto and consist of many hotels and sake producers – you know, just the kind of businesses that traveling traders would make use of.

This post will focus on the oldest companies in a specific field, industry or specialisation rather than listing off the “10 oldest companies in the world” as it would be a list dominated by Japanese companies, three of which are hotels and two that create ceremonial or religious goods.

Of course, each of the companies listed below have stood the test of time throughout various natural disasters, wars, plagues, and periods of social and economic upheaval. When you consider that countries come and go, empires rise and fall, and millions of businesses have failed over the past millennium then the staying power of the companies listed below is all that more impressive.

Construction – Kongō Gumi – 578

Let’s start off with the oldest business and I’m sure you have figured out that it is, indeed, a Japanese company. This entry is a little bit of a cheat as the company technically underwent a liquidation in 2006, but it is still worth mentioning as the remnants of the business are still around.

Kongō Gumi is a Japanese construction company which was the world’s oldest continuously ongoing independent company, operating for over 1,400 years until it was absorbed as a subsidiary of another Japanese construction firm. The final president of the family run company was the 50th Kongō to lead the firm!

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The Kongō Gumi construction company was founded in 578 – only 100 years after the fall of the Western Roman Empire and 1,200 years before the United States declared independence – after Prince Shōtoku invited skilled Korean immigrants over to build the Shitennō-ji Buddhist Temple. One of these migrants decided to found his own company, Kongō Gumi, which over the centuries has participated in the construction of many famous buildings, including the 16th century Osaka Castle.

For more information – Click Here

Hotel – Nishiyama Onsen Keiunkan – 705

The second, third and fourth places of the world’s oldest companies all go to Japanese hotels so let’s focus on the oldest of these, Nishiyama Onsen Keiunkan. In 2011 the hotel was officially recognised by the Guinness Book of Records as the oldest hotel in the world.

Nishiyama Onsen Keiunkan is a hot spring hotel (onsen hotel) located in the beautiful town of Hayakawa in Yamanashi Prefecture which was founded in 705 by Fujiwara Mahito. The hotel has been continuously operated by 52 generations of the same family for over 1,300 years.

Since its foundation over 1,300 years ago, the hotel has sourced all of its hot water directly from the Hakuho Springs at the foot of the Akaishi Mountains. The hotel was renovated in 1997 and offers 37 rooms for guests.

For more information – Click Here

Restaurant – Stiftskeller St. Peter – 803

The distinction of being the sixth oldest company in the world, oldest non-Japanese company in the world, oldest restaurant in the world, and oldest European company belongs to the Stiftskeller St. Peter.

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This is an interesting one as the restaurant lies within the walls of St Peter’s Abbey in the Austrian city of Salzburg. The restaurant claims to be the oldest as it was mentioned in an early Middle Ages document. The English scholar Alcuin of York mentioned Stiftskeller St. Peter in the Carmina anthology in 803 when he served the Emperor Charlemagne.

Incredibly, Stiftskeller St. Peter has boasted some very impressive giants of European and world history as guests. The explorer Christopher Columbus, alchemist and inspiration for many works of art Johann Georg Faust, and musical composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart are all said to have been served at the restaurant.

For more information – Click Here

Winery – Staffelter Hof – 862

The earliest known evidence of winemaking at a relatively large scale has been found in the Middle East with the oldest winery press, dating back 6,000 years, found in an Armenian cave.

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To find the oldest (still functioning) winery in the world, look no further than the Staffelter Hof Winery in Kröv, Germany. The Staffelter Hof name goes as far back as 862 – the first written record of the Staffelter Hof abbey is on an original document located in the city archives of Liège, Belgium. Lands belonging to the Frankish Carolingian Empire, which spread as far east as Kröv and beyond were donated to the abbey to work as a source of income. These lands were in the possession of the abbey until the introduction of the Napoleonic Code in 1804 when it was purchased by Peter Schneiders and subsequently passed down 7 generations to the current owner and wine maker.

This business witnessed and survived the fall of the Holy Roman Empire, the bloody wars of religion that ravaged central Europe following the Reformation, Napoleon’s conquests, and the destruction of two world wars… and still, to this day, cultivates several hectares of vines.

For more information – Click Here

Mint – Monnaie de Paris – 864

The Monnaie de Paris is the world’s oldest active government-owned institution and has been minting coins for France since 864. The French people have had many masters and regimes since Charles the Bald ordered the creation of the mint, including:

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  • Carolingian Dynasty
  • Capetian Dynasty
  • House of Valois
  • House of Bourbon
  • First Republic
  • House of Bonaparte
  • House of Orléans
  • Second Republic
  • Third Republic
  • Nazi Regime
  • Fourth Republic
  • Fifth Republic

The Monnaie de Paris produced and issued coins for each and every one. Many ancient coins are housed in the collections maintained at the headquarters located in Paris. Since 1973 the main coin striking plant has been located at Pessac, Nouvelle-Aquitaine after it was decided in 1958 to move the minting facilities away from the capital.

During the Middle Ages, there were numerous local mints located in the provincial cities officially issuing legitimate French coinage struck in the name of the ruler and this practice continued as late as 1878. Despite this, the Monnaie de Paris was always the prime issuer.

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Foundry – Marinelli Bell Foundry – 1040

Founded in 1040 the Marinelli Bell Foundry is Italy’s oldest business and one of the oldest family-run businesses in the world. The foundry, which produces cast metals, has a tradition of foundries dating back ten centuries. As such, in 1924 the foundry was awarded the title of “pontifical foundry” by the Vatican and the Catholic Church now accounts for roughly 90% of all orders placed for the company.

Typically, the foundry currently produces around 50 bells a year and employees between 10 and 15 skilled employees. Amazingly, the firm still applies the same casting technique that the founders used nearly 1,000 years ago.

Due to the age of the foundry, the company hosts tours for enthusiasts seeking a museumesque experience. Again, due to the longevity of the foundry the Marinelli Bell Foundry have created a huge amount of bells and their work can be seen on many of the historic churches around Italy. In recent years, the foundry have also supplied bells to New York (United Nations Building), South America, China, and Jerusalem. In 2000 the Foundry presented Pope John Paul II with the official Jubilee Bell that now hangs in St. Peter’s Square.

Agriculture – Halydean Corporation – 1128

The only company on this list to reside in the “New World”, the Halydean Corporation operates out of Hayward, Wisconsin, United States of America. The company dates back to 1128, roughly 650 years before the United States existed… wait! What!?

There are well documented legal records showing that the business that would later become the Halydean Corporation was established in 1128 in Roxburgh, Scotland by King David I of Scotland, with holdings primarly consisting of thousands of acres of grazing land. Although founded by a monarch, it was operated by the Catholic Church which allowed it to enjoy perpetual tax exemption. In 1545, ownership passed hands to the local Royal Burgh (which was held by the Crown) after the Earl of Hertford reduced the abbey, where Halydean was run from, to ruins during English King Henry VIII’s Rough Wooing.

King James

During the reign of King James VI (later the first “King of Great Britain and Ireland”) in 1602 proprietorship was reorganised and passed into private ownership, albeit assigned to various members of the Scottish peerage. The company remained this way until 2014 when the company was, once again, reorganised – this time into a US company, as a wholly owned subsidiary of the Barony and Lordship of Halydean (Scotland) by the current Lord of Halydean.

The present business plan remains consistent with the original charter of 1128. The main difference is that the company no longer holds the right to carry out the death sentence… under it’s feudalistic roots it really could do this!

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Harbour – Aberdeen Harbour Board – 1136

One of the oldest businesses still in operation in the United Kingdom is the Aberdeen Harbour Board. Lying at the mouth of two rivers (the Dee and the Don) feeding into the North Sea in North-East Scotland, Aberdeen was, and still is, ideally located to trade around the North Sea with Scandinavian and Baltic ports. There has been a harbour in Aberdeen since at least the 10th century when the Vikings burned the city, but it was our friend from the Halydean Corporation, above, King David I that first granted the Bishops of Aberdeen the right to tax ships trading in the port in 1136.

Although the medieval harbour was considered as a safe anchorage it was difficult to access at low tide. Records show that a crane was installed in 1582 to load and unload the ships and that in 1596, King James VI granted a charter to pay for a bulwark to help deepen the harbour entrance. Several more enhancements to the harbour throughout the following centuries, including involvement from the likes of the civil engineer Thomas Telford and the famed lighthouse designer Robert Stevenson, have led to the modern harbour.

Like any other business, Aberdeen Harbour Board are looking to the future and the latest major development to the harbour is currently under construction. This ambitious plan seeks to add an entire new harbour to the city in order to improve infrastructure and service levels of the city.

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Bank – Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena -1472

The six oldest banks in the world currently still operating were all founded in Italy near the end of the 15th century, at the high point of the Renaissance, but the oldest of these is the Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena (MPS).

Tracing its history back to a mount of piety (an institutional pawnbroker run as a charity) founded in 1472, in the Republic of Siena, the current form of the bank dates to 1624 when Siena was incorporated into the Grand Duchy of Tuscany and Grand Duke Ferdinando II granted to the depositors of the mount of piety, in their warrant, the income of the state-owned pastures of Maremma (the so-called “Paschi”). During the 17th and 18th centuries the bank increased its banking activities. The unification of Italy in 1861 presented an opportunity for further expansion across the peninsula, and MPS began to initiate new activities such as mortgage loans – the first company in Italy to do this.

The bank was successfully listed on the Italian stock exchange in June 1999 and wasted no time in taking full advantage of its new capital by beginning an intense phase of commercial and operational expansion, and acquired several regional banks.

MPS appeared to survive the onslaught of the 2008 Global Financial Crisis, but after a string of scandals the share price of the bank began to plummet and the bank was forced to ask the Italian government for a bailout. Despite the Italian government currently being the major shareholder of MPS it is still the fourth largest commercial and retail bank in the country and operates 2,000 domestic branches and a further 40 abroad.

For more information – Click Here

Firearms – Beretta – 1526

Another Italian company, the Beretta Gun Factory opened its doors in 1526 in the town of Gardone Val Trompia in the province of Brescia in Lombardy.

Val Trompia, an Italian river valley in Brescia, has been mined for iron ore since the time of the Romans. During the Middle Ages, the area was known for its ironworks, and after the Renaissance it came to be a centre for weapons manufacturers. By the mid 16th century Val Trompia was home to forty ironworks, supplied by fifty mines – it was here, in this smithy’s playground that Beretta was formed on the banks of the Mella river in Gardone.

It is thought that the Beretta forge was in operation from around 1500, but the first documented transaction is a contract dated October 1526 for arquebus barrels from the Republic of Venice. By the end of the 17th century, Beretta had grown to become the second largest gun barrel maker in Gardone – yeah, just the small town. Not quite the heady heights of global recognition at that point.

Musket_and_Arquebus_Gheyn

But still, the company continued to grow and by all accounts Beretta-made barrels equipped the Venetian fleet which helped to defeat the Ottomans at the pivotal Battle of Lepanto in 1571 and the company has supplied weapons for every major European war since 1650.

In the 1980s. Beretta enjoyed a renewal of popularity in North America after its M9 pistol was selected as the service handgun for the United States Army.

For more information – Click Here

The Rest is History

The Human Story – Alexander… the Great?

We all want to be remembered. We all want to leave a legacy. We all want to be great.

For a long time, history was all about the study of the great men and women throughout time and it was quite common to refer to someone as “the Great”. We are less prone to do this in modern times and we recognise that one man’s “the Great” is most probably another man’s “the Terrible”. There are also misogynistic interpretations that go along with the label as it is almost exclusively applied to men. There was no Cleopatra the Great, Elizabeth the Great or even a Hatshepsut the Great; sure, there was the Russian Tsarina Catherine the Great, but the price for her masculine title was that she has been saddled with the slanderous rumour that she died having sex with a horse. Just type “Catherine the Great” into one specific unnamed internet search engine’s search bar and the first hit to automatically appear is “Catherine the Great horse”.

But we are here to discuss the life and achievements of one man, and not the fairness of historical labelling. That man is, of course, Alexander III of Macedon. Better known to history as Alexander the Great.

Alexander of Macedon

Alexander was born in the ancient Macedonian capital of Pella in 356 BCE and died in the great city of Babylon in 323 BCE at the ripe old age of 32.

Tradition states that Alexander was born on the same day that the Temple of Artemis burned down, and Plutarch later remarked that Artemis was too preoccupied with the birth to save his burning shrine. The legends of Alexander – and there are plenty of them, as we will see – start from his very first day.

The young Alexander was tutored by no less than Aristotle who gave him an annotated copy of Homer’s Iliad which he later took on campaign. His father, King Philip II witnessed his 10-year-old son tame a horse, Bucephalus, that no one else could ride and was so impressed that he supposedly told the boy, “O thy son, look thee at a kingdom equal to and worthy of thyself for Macedonia is too little for thee.”

By the time that Alexander was 16 he had become an accomplished general in his father’s army, having put down revolts and even established a town called Alexandropolis; even at this early stage in his career the megalomaniacal streak was evident in the young man.

King Philip was assassinated by one of his bodyguards whilst at a wedding and Alexander was pronounced king on the spot by the nobles and the army. He was 20-years-old. Over the next decade, Alexander expanded his father’s empire with unprecedented speed and the man famously never lost a battle. Upon becoming king, Alexander quickly put down several revolts in his territory and consolidated his power within the Greek peninsula before setting out to conquer Asia. Upon landing with his army on the shores of Anatolia (modern Turkey) Alexander threw his spear into the soil and announced that he had come to accept Asia as a gift from the gods.

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Alexander commenced his campaign very quickly and began winning battles and conquering cities throughout Anatolia. When he arrived at the ancient Phrygian city of Gordium he “undid” an unsolvable knot. Legend had it that the knot would be undone by the future King of Asia. How did Alexander untie the Gordian Knot? He thought outside of the box and simply cleaved it in two with his sword. Alexander continued his march through the Levant and into Egypt where he was regarded as a liberator and pronounced the son of the god Amun at the Oracle of Siwa in the Libyan desert. Next, he moved east into the ancient lands of Mesopotamia and the heartland of the Persian Empire.

Before the Battle of Issus, where Alexander’s army easily defeated the overwhelming numbers of the Persian king Darius’ forces, Alexander provided a speech that just oozed confidence in himself and in his army whilst simultaneously heaping utter scorn and disregard on his enemy:

“Our enemies are Medes and Persians, men who for centuries have lived soft and luxurious lives. We of Macedon for generations past have been trained in the hard school of danger and war. Above all, we are free men, and they are slaves. There are Greek troops, to be sure, in Persian service – but how different is their cause from ours!

“They will be fighting for pay – and not much at that. We, on the contrary, shall fight for Greece, and our hearts will be in it. As for our foreign troops – Thracians, Paeonians, Illyrians, Agrianes – they are the best and stoutest soldiers in Europe, and they will find as their opponents the slackest and softest of the tribes of Asia. And what finally, of the two men in supreme command? You have Alexander, they… Darius!”

After such a rousing speech it really is no wonder that his men followed him in battle after battle, extending his reach to the Indian subcontinent. But they would follow him no further. Alexander’s exhausted and homesick army convinced their king to turn back at the banks of the Beas River soon after the Battle of Hydaspes, where the Macedonians had defeated the Pauravan Kingdom.

Alexander’s Empire stretched from Greece in the west to the Indus River in the east, from Egypt in the south to Alexandria Eschate (literally translates to “Alexandria the Farthest”) in modern day Tajikistan in central Asia in the north. His empire was massive!! And he and his army had accomplished it in only a decade and he was not finished. Well he was, but you know what I mean: if he had not have died, he had plans to conquer the Arabian Peninsula.

Map-alexander-empire

Whether sieging an “impregnable” city, facing an “invincible” army, or solving an “impossible” knot, Alexander steadfastly refused to believe that he could not succeed. He was driven to win by any means necessary and he rarely played by the rules. It is one of history’s great “what ifs” but for better or worse this tenacious, young man died, and we shall never know what accomplishments the elder Alexander would have achieved.

But what exactly is it that made Alexander the Great so great? We will examine the man in three possible definitions of “greatness”.

Great due to Accomplishments

This is an extension to the idea that history truly is the deeds of great men. This notion is itself absolutely ridiculous on the face of it. For starters, half of the human population are women! Secondly, there are tons of incidents that no one person can claim responsibility for; just think of the Bubonic Plague or a natural disaster such as a tsunami.

That being said, Alexander did accomplish an astonishing amount in his short life. The father conquered Greece, but the son destroyed the Persian Empire, conquered all of the land that it held (including Egypt) and marched his armies into the Indian subcontinent, stopping only at the Indus River because his army had had enough.

The reality though is that Alexander was not a particularly great empire “builder”. He was good at tearing things down but not great at building up institutions to replace the things that he had torn down. This is one of the reasons that his empire split into four separate entities after his death; there was no centralising “glue” to hold the empire together other than Alexander himself. The Hellenistic Kingdoms that emerged after his death were led by four of his top generals known as the Diadochi:
Ptolemy – Egypt
Cassander – Macedon
Lysimachus – Thrace & Anatolia
Seleucus – Everything else

Great due to Impact

Alexander had an enormous impact on the world after his death. Much like Tutankhamun, Alexander was amazingly good at being a dead person.

Everyone loved him: from the Romans to Napoleon and even today his ancient battlefield tactics are still taught in modern military academies. Alexander of Macedon has proved to be an immensely important military model for numerous generals throughout history. The third century Roman Emperor Caracalla even went as far as to reintroduce Alexander’s by-then obsolete military tactics in his conquests of the Middle-East and Africa.

His main post-death legacy, however, may be that he introduced the Persian idea of absolute monarchy to the Greco-Roman world which, as we will see later, became a pretty big deal to the development of western history. Alexander also built several cities (over 70), some of which also became pretty big deals after his death. They are easy to spot on the map as he named most of them after himself and one was even named after his horse. Alexandria in Egypt became one of the main centres of learning in the Classical World and home to an incredible library (which Julius Caesar probably, accidently, destroyed, ironically, trying to conquer land to emulate his hero, Alexander the Great).

In death, Alexander also became a huge influencer on culture and gave the region a common tongue – Greek – which helped to facilitate conversations and commerce. Greek became so widespread that archaeologists have unearthed coins in Afghanistan with pictures of their kings but inscribed in Greek! Although Alexander was mostly conquering territory for the glory and heroism of it, in his wake emerged a more closely connected world that was able to communicate with more people, more efficiently than ever before. Alexander did not make these things happen, but they probably would not have happened without him either.

Great because of his Legend

Alexander may also be great due to his legend. There were no accounts of his extraordinary achievements written about him whilst he was alive and so embellishment was easy. Exaggeration of the truth can effortlessly lead to greatness.

The man died at the age of 32 and so never had the chance to grow old, he also never had the opportunity to lose any future battles. Alexander tenaciously pursued the Persian king Darius across modern Iraq and Iran for no other reason than he wanted to kill him. In response to an offer of peace and friendship from Darius, Alexander replied, “I am Lord of Asia. Come to me, and you shall receive all that you can ask. But if you deny me my right as your lord, stand and fight for your kingdom. I will seek you wherever you are.” That was his response to the dude who was offering him peace! In the end, Darius was betrayed and killed by one of his allies, Bessus. Alexander’s focus simply switched, and he chased Bessus around until he could kill him in Darius’ place.

These comical pursuits of glory are accompanied in the classical histories by stories of Alexander walking through the desert and it suddenly beginning to rain; another tale tells of the Amazon Queen bringing a harem of 300 women to Alexander so he could sire a race of children as strong and intelligent as he; and stories of his wife Roxanna, who still a teenager, engineered the assassination of many of Alexander’s fellow wives.

Even in death, people still attempted to make Alexander live up to the heroic ideal of him. Plutarch tells that Alexander died of a fever but this was in no way an appropriate way for such a masculine conqueror to die and so rumours began to explain how Alexander truly died: either from alcohol poisoning or from assassination poisoning. No great man could possibly die of fever!

Alexander’s Great Legacy

In Alexander the Great we have the story of a man whose birth was attended by the gods, who went on to conquer and unite the world whilst riding a horse that only he could tame across deserts where it magically rained for him as he chased down his mortal enemy and then left in his wake a more enlightened world and a murderous teenage bride.

AlexanderTheGreat_Bust

It is not just the Assassin’s Creed and Call of Duty game franchises that celebrate the idea that ennobled violence can lead to a better world. That takes us to how I personally believe Alexander became immortalised as “Great”. In 1798 Napoleon invaded Egypt. Not because he particularly needed to (although he did argue that it would strengthen French trade interests and weaken British access to British India) but because he wanted to do what Alexander had done. Long before Napoleon, way back in antiquity, the Romans had practically worshiped Alexander, particularly Pompey “the Great” and Julius Caesar who is said to have lamented that he had achieved nothing with his life upon visiting the tomb of Alexander. In addition to copying his military tactics the aforementioned Caracalla also raised a Macedonian phalanx and an elephant division in honour of Alexander.

In short, Alexander became great because others decided that he was great. It was these others that chose to admire and emulate the man. Sure, Alexander was a great general and yes, he conquered a helluva lot of territory, but it was people that made Alexander great. Just as today we make people great when we choose to admire and attempt to emulate them.

Traditionally, history has been in the business of identifying and celebrating great men (and occasionally great women). But this obsession with greatness is a little disturbing. It wrongly implies that history is made, primarily, by men and almost always celebrated men at that. It’s only natural that we all want to be celebrities.

Thankfully, we have left behind the ideas that butchering people and taking others’ land is the best way to become an icon but the ideas that we have embraced instead are not necessarily worth celebrating either. It is us who decide what and who we care about and give attention to. It is us who decide to care about the Kardashians or reality television contestants.

But at the end of the day even Alexander the Great could not have made history in a vacuum: no one can. Fortune, circumstance, a highly trained army and a tenacious and strong character helped Alexander forge his name and glory into history.

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

Tank Vs Tank

For thousands of years the battlefield was dominated by cavalry. With the industrial advances of the 19th century came death and destruction on an unprecedented scale and the advent of flight in the early years of the 20th century only added to the dangers faced by land-based forces.

In an effort to avoid the machine gunfire, high explosive artillery shells and airplanes, the soldiers dug in to the earth during World War One. The pockmarked, scorched, muddy no-man’s land filled with razor wire between the opposing trenches spewing thousands of bullets a minute did not make an ideal field for cavalry to sprint across. Something new was required to fight this war. Enter the tank – the metal cavalry.

Second Battle of Villers-Bretonneux – 1918

Unsurprisingly, the first tank-on-tank engagement occurred during the first conflict that saw the new weapon take to the field: the First World War.

By early 1918, the Russians had been knocked out of the war freeing up large numbers of German men and equipment to fight on the Western Front. Buoyed by these newly accessible resources but concerned that the entry of the United States into the war would negate their numerical advantage if they did not attack quickly, the German commander, Erich Ludendorff, chose to punch through the allied front line and wheel north to the sea hoping that the French would seek armistice terms. In March, the German Army launched the Spring Offensive in North-West France, focusing their forces against the under strength British Third and Fifth Armies in the Somme area.

Within a month the Germans had advanced to the town of Villers-Bretonneux and on the evening of 23/24 April began bombarding the area before attacking the town with four divisions. The German infantry, supported by thirteen tanks broke through the Allied lines creating a 4.8km wide gap. The town fell to the Germans and the vital railway junction of Amiens became vulnerable to capture.

British_Mark_IV_Tadpole_tank

Three British Mark IV tanks were quickly dispatched to the Cachy switch line at the first reports of the German advance through the town and ordered to hold it against the enemy. Two of the tanks were “female” variants armed with 0.303 inch machine guns whilst the other machine was “male” and armed with two 6-pounder guns and machine guns. The male was commanded by Lieutenant Frank Mitchell and only manned by four of the usual eight crewmen as the others had been gassed. The three tanks were advancing when they encountered a German A7V tank nicknamed “Nixe” and commanded by 2nd Lieutenant Wilhelm Biltz.

Nixe fired on the two female tanks, damaging them and exposing the crews. Both retreated as their machine guns were useless against the armour of the hulking A7V and its eighteen man crew. Lieutenant Mitchell’s tank continued to fire at Nixe while on the move to avoid German artillery fire as well as the gun of the tank. The movement meant that Mitchell’s gunner found it difficult to properly aim the 6-pounders until the Mark IV stopped to allow for a clean shot. The gunner scored three direct hits (six shells in all). The Nixe heeled over onto its side, probably as a result of crossing an incline at the wrong angle. The surviving German crew, including Biltz, fled from the vehicle and the British fired at them as they fled, killing nine.

And so ended the first ever engagement between tanks. But the battle was not over!

A7V_Tank_Villers-Bretonneux_1918

Two more A7V tanks, supported by infantry, appeared and were driven off by the Mark IV gunner’s accuracy. Mitchell’s tank continued to attack the German infantry using canister shot (think massive shotgun shell). Seven of the new British Whippet medium tanks arrived to support the Mark IV and encountered several German battalions “forming up in the open” and killed many infantrymen with their machine guns and by running them over.

The Second Battle of Villers-Bretonneux was a great success for the Allies, who defeated the German attempt to capture the strategically important French city of Amiens and  recaptured Villers-Bretonneux while outnumbered. Lieutenant Frank Mitchell and his crew’s defence of the Cachy switch line played no small part in this victory and the engagement they had with Nixe will forever be remembered as the first firefight between tanks.

Battle of Kursk – 1943

The Eastern Front of the Second World War saw some unbelievably massive battles of envelopment and re-envelopment involving millions of men across hundreds of miles of front. The Battle of Kursk was one such engagement which occurred 450km south-west of Moscow during the Soviet push-back on Nazi Germany.

The battle began when the Germans launched Operation Citadel on 5 July with the objective of pinching off the Kursk salient (a bulge that protrudes into enemy territory) with attacks on the base of the salient from north and south simultaneously. For this attack the Germans had amassed nearly 800,000 soldiers, 3,000 tanks and 10,000 artillery pieces.

However, the Russian military leaders had not been idly sitting by and their intelligence had alerted them to this massive enemy buildup. They were aware of the numbers facing them, the location of the attacks, and thanks to captured Germans they even knew when the attack was coming. The Russian leaders decided on a grand defensive strategy, committing 1.9 million men, over 5,000 tanks and 25,000 artillery pieces to the area. Large numbers of anti-tank artillery were placed in the locations most likely to see German tanks used in depth. 400,000 anti-tank and anti-personnel mines were laid and 300,000 civilians helped the army dig thousands of miles of trenches, repair roads and construct defences around the salient.

Germany started the attack at 04:30 on 5 July with an artillery barrage followed by a combined armour and infantry attack beginning an hour later: heavy tanks at the front, followed by the medium tanks with the infantry bringing up the rear. Within the first 24 hours of fighting they had gained 10km of territory but at a huge cost: 25,000 casualties. The next few days saw a similar pattern and by 10 July the German IX Army had lost 2/3 of its tank force.

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After the German offensive stalled on the northern side of the salient, on 12 July the Soviets commenced Operation Kutuzov against the rear of the German forces whilst simultaneously launching powerful counterattacks the same day on the southern side which led to the largest single armoured action of the war at the Battle of Prokhorovka. On 12 July, 87km southeast of Kursk, 600 Soviet tanks engaged 300 German tanks with neither side gaining the upper hand.

In all areas the Russians now outnumbered their German opponents by 2:1. Unable to call on reinforcements from the southern sector the Germans were unable to hold off the Russian onslaught in the north and by 19 July the Russians had pushed 70km forward. The Russian air force ensured that the Luftwaffe were incapable of supplying the army with the supplies it desperately needed. Faced with the collapse of its forces in the northern sector of the battle, General Model asked for Hitler’s permission to withdraw, warning that the Wehrmacht faced another Stalingrad if the withdrawal was not permitted. Hitler allowed the request and the German forces to the north withdrew nearly 100km.

A similar situation was occurring in the southern sector of the salient. Here the Germans had around 300,000 men and about 600 tanks whilst the Russians had nearly 1 million men and many more tanks. The Soviet counter-offensive in this sector began on 3 August and the partisans operating behind German lines here derailed more than 1,000 train loads of troops which massively hindered the Wehrmacht’s ability to easily move troops around the area. German morale plummeted and the Russians captured the city of Kharkov by 23 August. The liberation of Kharkov is usually seen as the end of the Battle of Kursk.

By the end of the battle nearly 1 million German soldiers and 2.5 million Russians had been committed to the fight as well as 5,000 Soviet and 3,000 German tanks. The Germans suffered 250,000 casualties whilst the Russians suffered 250,000 deaths and a staggering 600,000 wounded! It is alleged that one SS commander immobolised 22 Soviet tanks in under one hour! Despite the horrific costs to the Soviet armies, the Battle of Kursk was hailed as a great Russian victory as the Axis forces lost the ability to initiate any future strategic offensive operations for the duration of the war. From this point on until the remainder of the war the Soviet Army held the initiative over the Germans in the Eastern Front and reclaimed 2,000km of territory.

The vast flat steppes of western Russia provided the ideal grounds for these grand maneuvering battles utilising huge numbers of armoured vehicles. The Battle of Kursk was the largest example of this and to this day remains the largest tank battle in history.

Battle of 73 Easting – 1991

We looked at the first tank-on-tank engagement and the largest tank battle in history so its only fitting that we end with “the last great tank battle of the 20th century.” This battle occurred in the deserts of southern Iraq during the last major conflict of the century: the Gulf War, fought between Iraq and a coalition of over 30 countries led by the United States.

Following an extensive bombing campaign Coalition forces launched their invasion of Iraq on 24 February 1991. One of the main fronts of the attack was the US VII Corps whose aim it was to get in behind Iraqi forces, prevent a retreat from Kuwait and destroy five divisions of the elite Iraqi Republican Guard. The US 2nd Armoured Cavalry Regiment (2ACR) spearheaded the advance of VII Corps. 2ACR was a reconnaissance division whose principal mission was to identify enemy positions and strip away security forces in preparation for other troops to move up for the full attack.

The regiment consisted of 4,500 men divided into five squadrons, three of which were ground squadrons made up mostly of M1A1 Abrams tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles. Their main opponents were the Tawakalna Division of the Republican Guard who were tasked with defending the supply route along the IPSA Pipeline Road. The Division had committed a mechanised brigade and an armoured brigade to the area, focusing on the road as they did not believe an advance from the featureless desert was possible… the Iraqis failed to realise that the American forces were in possession of GPS.

On the afternoon of 26 February, much of VII Corps was between the 50 and 60 Easting lines (geographic coordinate lines running eastward). 2 ACR was ordered to advance as far as 70 Easting. They were to engage with the Republican Guard without becoming decisively engaged so as to maintain manoeuvrability while preventing the enemy from moving.

73 Easting was not one single, isolated engagement but rather part of a wider line of fighting spread across the Iraqi desert. As with many of the battles of the First World War, it was the intensity and significance of the fighting that made 73 Easting worthy of the identification as a battle in its own right.

After meeting and eliminating several isolated outposts, the troops of 2 ACR occupied a village but it was at 73 Easting that the heaviest fighting took place. Around 16:40, E Troop of 2ACR, led by Captain HR McMaster (future US National Security Advisor to President Donald Trump), surprised an Iraqi company of eight tanks locked into defensive positions on a slope at the 70 Easting. After clearing this threat, McMaster saw an Iraqi company in Soviet-produced T-72 tanks three kilometres to the east. He made the call to pass the original 70 Easting limit and fought through an infantry position and onto the high ground. A unit of eighteen T-72s stood their ground against the American forces but surprise, superior equipment and better training provided the Americans with a significant advantage. McMaster and his tanks destroyed yet another enemy tank unit.

Destroyed_Iraqi_T-72_tank_during_the_Gulf_War.jpg

A platoon was sent north from E Troop to regain contact with other coalition forces. Instead they ran into another Iraqi position, this one occupied by a further thirteen T-72s, which they destroyed.

More of 2ACR began to arrive and the unit took up positions overlooking a wadi (a dried up river valley) near 73 Easting. By 18:30, Iraqi tanks and infantry began to stream up the wadi with the aim of driving back the Americans and creating a safe line of retreat. For the next several hours, the Iraqis tried to drive off their opposite number but were held off. By the time that the fighting began to slacken off around 22:00, dozens of Iraqi tanks had been destroyed.

Sporadic fighting continued throughout the night and another fierce firefight was fought the following day around a nearby objective but the Battle of 73 Easting was over. 73 Easting had a been a huge tank battle, in which the Coalition forces destroyed 160 tanks and 180 personnel carriers – the 2nd squadron of 2ACR alone contributed 55 tanks and 45 armoured vehicles. 2ACR captured 2,000 Iraqi soldiers at a loss of 6 KIA and 19 wounded and advanced 250 kilometres.

Strategically, the battle kept the Iraqis occupied while other advances around the country took place. The war ended with a total Coalition victory on 28 February.

The Rest is History

 

 

 

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

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

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

Let’s go!

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

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

The Dynastic Tale

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

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

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

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

Palace.jpg

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

(Drum roll)

The Mandate of Heaven

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

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

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

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

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

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

Confucius and his Teachings

So just who was this Confucius guy anyway?

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

Confucious.jpg


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

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

Confucianism teaches that there are five key relationships:

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

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

How to be a Junzi

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

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

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

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

Completing the Circle

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

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

Well, not exactly.

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

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

The Rest is History

Bonus Round – Noteworthy Chinese Emperors

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

Qin_Shi_Huang_statue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Human Story – Hinduism, Buddhism & Ashoka the Great

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

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

The (Very) Basics of Hinduism

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

The Vedas

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

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

The Caste System

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

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

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

Dharma

'2'_Dharma_Wheel,_The_Wheel_of_Life_at_Sun_Temple_Konark,_Orissa_India_February_2014.jpg

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

Samsara, Moksha and Karma

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

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

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

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

Buddhism

Budha

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ashoka: the Buddhist Emperor

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

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

1597px-The_great_stupa

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

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

The Bigger Picture

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

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

The Rest is History

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

  1. The Wise Man’s Journey
  2. The Agricultural Revolution
  3. Early Settlement
  4. The Indus Valley Civilisation
  5. Mesopotamia
  6. Ancient Egypt
  7. West Vs East