The Human Story – The Rise of Islam

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

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

Birth of a Religion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Prophet’s New Nation

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

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

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

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

The Islamic Schism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Islam’s Cultural Impact

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

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

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

The Rest is History

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?