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

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

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

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

Collapse

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

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

Romulus_Augustulus_and_Odoacer

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

Never again would there be a Roman Emperor in Rome.

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

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

There are two ways to overcome this problem of governance:

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

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

Crisis

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rome in the East

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

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

Roman_Empire_460_AD

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

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

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

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

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

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

Justinian and Theodora

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

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

So, just who was this Justinian guy?

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

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

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

The Great Schism of 1054

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

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

Great_Schism_with_former_borders_(1054)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Rest is History

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

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

The Human Story – The Covenant & The Messiah

Let’s talk about Jesus.

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

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

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

The Chosen People

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1024px-Adoration_of_the_Golden_Calf_by_Andrea_di_Lione

The Son of God

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

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

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

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

Spread the Word

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Does Virgil’s description sound familiar?

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

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

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

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

Spread_christianity_between_300_and_600

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

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

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

The Rest is History

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Governing the Roman Republic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Life & Times of Julius Caesar

Now, back to Julius Caesar and Great Man History.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Out With The Old, In With The New

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Rest is History

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

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

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?

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.

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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.

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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

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