The Human Story – Black Death & Disease

We left this series off last time by laying a large portion of blame for the Black Death at the doorstep of the Mongol Empire and their opening of trade routes. It only seems natural to have a look at disease and how it has impacted the human story.

Fortunately for us, we live in the 21st century, a time when communicable disease does not play such a massive role on society, unless you are speaking about cases of SARS and its various offshoots, including the coronavirus, HIV/Aids, bird flu, swine flu or any other recent anti-biotic resistant bacteria.

Traditionally, the study of history has not focused much on disease, partly because they are mysterious and terrifying and partly because they do not fit in with our narrative that history has been made as the result of some people doing good things, or some people doing bad things, or at the very least some people doing some kind of things. However, the reality is that history often happens due to factors that are out with human control such as lots of people contracting smallpox or bubonic plague. Also, very often diseases are seen as a result of some divine judgement. Perhaps the most likely reason that people tend to not focus so much on disease as being a major contributor to the human story is down to the fact that people did not understand or know very much about them. If they did not understand it, they were less likely to write about it and when they did, which some chroniclers did, they would often write rather vaguely about them.

A New Dawn for Bacterial Evolution

Given that, we are going to have to engage in a little speculation here. So, diseases have been with humans for as long as there have been humans, this much we do know. Humans, you will recall from the first article of this series, first appeared in the tropical regions of Africa, in which live a wide and varying range of micro parasitic bacteria so it is probably a safe bet that these parasites played some role in keeping the human population extremely low for a very long time. It is only after we see the migration out of Africa and into regions that are less agreeable to diseases, around 64,000 years or so ago, that we really start to see the growth of human populations necessary to create what we would call civilisations.

Humans migrated into these river valleys that over time became the cradles of civilisation with their agriculture and surpluses. This allowed these early migrants to escape the population limiting tropical diseases, but it created all kinds of new disease problems. The communities that sprang up in these river valleys had more people which led to population density that, in turn, allowed for epidemics. One of the great things about hunting and gathering is that diseases cannot wipe out cities if there are no cities to wipe out.

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Also, river valleys can often be breeding grounds for diseases, especially in the valleys where cultures developed irrigation which often relied on slow moving or standing water. Still water is the perfect incubator for disease carrying and nasty micro-organisms that are often associated with disease. For example, schistosomiasis, the symptoms of which include abdominal pain, diarrhoea, bloody stool and blood in the urine, was recorded as early as 1200 BCE in ancient Egypt. Additionally, lots of diseases originate in domestic animals who were living in close proximity to these new agriculturists; but you cannot have ham and bacon without having a little swine flu.

From a macro historical point of view, it is not like these diseases always came only with downsides. It is a matter of historical fact that certain diseases have helped certain populations throughout history shield themselves against would-be conquerors. For example, large swathes of Africa were protected as late as the nineteenth century; early modern-era European attempts to colonise the continent were thwarted by diseases such as malaria which sickened the humans and nagana which the European’s horses contracted.

We like to say that one of the hallmarks of civilisation is the written word and surely pandemics were exactly the type of events that people would tend to write about in early civilisation because they were such a big deal. Pestilence appears in the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh and early Chinese historians recorded an alarming decrease in populations as diseases and their migrant hosts spread from the northern Yellow River region down to the more tropical Yangtze River basin.

Ancient Greece was relatively disease free thanks to its climate and the isolationist nature of city-states. However, as these city-states began to trade more with one another they became more susceptible to endemics. The most well-known example of this was the plague that struck the city of Athens in 430-429 BCE during the Peloponnesian War with Sparta and her allies. This conveniently leads us to a very important point: there is a decent correlation between war and disease. Armies tended to carry disease along with them and this combined with food shortages and displacement meant that civilian populations were more likely to get sick. This is still very much the case.

However, nothing spreads disease quite like trade.

Trade is so good for economies and yet so bad for keeping individual people healthy and alive. Ancient Rome’s integration into the transcontinental trade routes, like the Silk Road, may explain why the Roman historian, Titus Livius, more commonly known today as Livy, recorded as many as eleven separate pestilential disasters and it is very likely that these diseases and the accompanying decline in Rome’s population contributed to the fall of the Roman Empire.

Black Death

Of course, we cannot talk about disease throughout history without touching upon the most infamous pandemic of them all: The Black Death which ravaged Europe from 1347 to 1353.

In October 1347, twelve Genoese ships dropped anchor at the Sicilian port of Messina. Those that eagerly approached the vessels were met with a grisly sight. Almost all onboard the vessels were either dead or dying, their skin erupting with blackened boils that oozed pus and blood. The Sicilian authorities quickly moved these cargo ships on, but the damage had already been done.

Europe may have been hit hard by the plague, but it was not hit first. Those Genoese ships were travelling from somewhere, after all and the reason that they were quickly moved away from the port was because the rumours about the disease spread westward before the disease itself. There were stories of a terrifying and mysterious sickness devastating the populations of first China, then India, Egypt, Persia and Syria, getting ever closer to Europe.

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The death rate of this plague was incredibly high. It is estimated that anywhere from 30% to 60% of the population of people living in Europe died from the Black Death.

We are not 100% sure that the disease that caused the Black Death was the bubonic plague as its virulence in some regions suggest that it may have been pneumonic, but we do have descriptions of it that match bubonic plague symptoms. The Florentine chronicler Matteo Villani said:

“It was a plague which touched people of every condition, age and sex. They began to spit blood and then they died – some immediately, some in two or three days, and some in a longer time… most had swellings in the groin, and many had them in the left and right armpits and in other places, one could almost always find an unusual swelling somewhere on the victim’s body.”

Well, that sounds utterly horrifying!

People fleeing the cities for the countryside were no safer there either as plague infected and killed livestock too. Countless pigs, chickens, goats, sheep and cows fell to the disease that was caused by Yersinia Pestis. This was such a problem that it led to shortage of wool throughout Europe. The disease was so bad in Florence that an estimated 90% of the city’s population lost their lives. The European death toll is generally estimated to be between 50 and 75 million, whilst the worldwide death toll is placed between 155 and 200 million. To put into perspective just how devastatingly high this number is the world population at the time was approximately 500 million.

The plague obviously affected a lot of individual’s lives but it also affected world history. For example, the plague probably contributed massively to the fall of the Mongol Yuan Dynasty in China. The Yuan Dynasty’s collapse did not follow the typical dynastic loops that historians have observed throughout the history of China. There were virtually no records of serious corruptions, power struggles, internal conflicts within the royal court, external invasions or even large-scale famines during most of the Yuan’s reign. Yet the Dynasty fell so quickly and inevitably that many believe the Black Death may have been the underlying reason, in a roundabout way. The first wave of the plague struck China in 1344, three years before Europe and the epicentre appears to have been in the Huai River Basin, hometown of the later Hongwu Emperor of the Ming Dynasty. The story goes that he became homeless as all of his family had perished in the plague and as a result, he was forced to flee the disease by begging as a travelling monk, during which time he fell into the company of a resistance army against the Mongol Yuan. He quickly rose through the ranks and became a leading figure of the rebellion group and eventually captured the entire country, founding the Ming Dynasty.

Aside from being beneficial to the fortunes of the Ming Dynasty, there is substantial debate as to whether the Black Death kick-started Europe’s economy and ended the Middle Ages, propelling Western Europe onto a trajectory that would lead to the gunpowder empires and the modern era. Undoubtedly, the shortage of skilled workers did create opportunities, for example, Guilds being forced to admit new members in order to replace the many workers who had died and persistent European inflation until the end of the fourteenth century suggests both a shortage of products and higher wages. Again, we can look to Matteo Villani to provide some evidence to the effect of the plague on Italy’s economy:

“Nurses and minor artisans working with their hands want three times or nearly the usual pay, and labourers on the land all want oxen and all seed, and want to work the best lands, and to abandon all others.”

So, the Black Death may have been good for the standard of living for the workers who survived the pestilence.

Another probable impact that the plague had on world history is that it changed Europe’s views on Christianity. When people were faced with seemingly random and widespread deaths, it was inevitable that some people would completely abandon piety for decadence and debauchery and the ineffectiveness of the priesthood in dealing with the crisis may have led to an increase in anti-clericalism which later transpired into a greater and more readily acceptance of the Protestant Reformation when it came around.

Attempts to combat the pestilence sweeping across the land, which left thousands of European villages without one single living soul, changed the way that the people lived. For example, construction techniques changed, and people began building out of brick rather than wood and many places saw the mass introduction of tiled roofing which replaced thatched rooftops which were a haven for rats. These new shelters created more barriers between humans and the disease carrying, flea infested rodents.

The Fightback: Medicine – Leading the Charge

So, the Black Death looms larger in our Eurocentric imaging of history, but in terms of devastation and human suffering it pales in comparison to the Great Dying that accompanied the Columbian Exchange (which we will look at later). It is estimated that somewhere between 80% and 95% of Native Americans died within the first 150 years of Christopher Columbus setting foot on the New World. That truly is an astonishing and horrifying number, and much of it was down to the Old World diseases that the European invaders brought with them that the Americans had little or no immunity to.

Thankfully, the world has not seen anything remotely like the devastation brought by the Columbian Exchange since. Some of this is down to our shared immunological profiles, but much of the credit is due to massive improvements in science and medicine.

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The most significant medical advance in the battle against infectious disease and viral epidemics like smallpox was the invention of inoculation. The first recordings of this form of fighting disease come from tenth century China but it came under widespread use in England in the eighteenth century and was soon followed by the rest of Europe. The development of antibiotics in the twentieth century proved to be extremely effective against bacterial diseases, like bubonic plague and tuberculosis. Some of these advances have had a tremendous results: smallpox was officially declared as the first disease to be completely eradicated from the human population in 1980 by the World Health Organisation.

However, infectious diseases continue to be a leading killer of human beings and we still see deadly outbreaks of diseases like Ebola and cholera around the world. And even though antibiotics have only been in wide use for less than a century, we are already beginning to see the emergence of drug-resistant bacteria and diseases such as tuberculosis making a bit of a comeback in recent years. Then there are the more modern diseases like HIV/Aids and the prospect of lurking epidemics like the various flus that we often hear about.

All of this demonstrates that diseases are still shaping the human story. Just look at the current flu pandemic that is sweeping its way across the earth, COVID-19, or better known by its virial name, the coronavirus, which has investors running for the hills and entire countries on lockdown.

The Rest will be History

The Rest is History

  1. The Wise Man’s Journey
  2. The Agricultural Revolution
  3. Early Settlement
  4. The Indus Valley Civilisation
  5. Mesopotamia
  6. Ancient Egypt
  7. West Vs East
  8. Hinduism, Buddhism & Ashoka the Great
  9. Ancient China
  10. Alexander…the Great?
  11. The Silk Road & Ancient Trade
  12. The Roman Republic. Or was it Empire?
  13. The Covenant & the Messiah
  14. Fall of the Roman Empire… Rise of the Byzantine Empire
  15. The Rise of Islam
  16. The Dark Ages
  17. The Cross and the Crescent – The Crusades
  18. Medieval Africa and Islam
  19. The Mongols

The Human Story – The Mongols

It is time to discuss the Mongols!

Now, you probably have a picture in your head of the Mongols as being brutal, blood-thirsty warriors, clad in furs and riding the Eurasian plains on horseback. In short, we imagine the Mongol Empire as stereotypically barbarous – and we are not entirely wrong to think this. The amazing speed and success of their ruthless conquests was truly breath-taking. They conquered more land territory in 25 shorts than the Romans did in 400 years! They controlled 11 million contiguous square miles of land and created nations like Russia and Korea. It has even been suggested that the Mongols smashed the feudal system and created an early form of international law.

Renowned for their religious tolerance of conquered peoples, the Mongols in this new and modern viewpoint created the first great trade zone, similar in many ways to a medieval Eurasian European Economic Area and that is not entirely wrong either.

The Great Khan

Do you remember the herders that we looked at earlier? We briefly discussed them as an alternative to agricultural societies or hunting and gathering. There are four key points to remember:

1) Nomads do not just go out on random road trips. They migrate according to Climate Conditions in order to feed their flocks.

2) Generally, they do not produce manufactured goods and for this reason they tend to live fairly nearby established settlements in order to trade.

3) Because they live close to nature and sometimes in harsh conditions, they have a tendency to be a rather hardy and tough bunch.

4) Pastoral people are also usually more egalitarian, especially where women are concerned. Paradoxically, when there is less to go around, humans tend to share more and both men and women must work for the social order to survive. More often than nought this leads to less patriarchal control over women. (although it is worth mentioning that Mongol women rarely went to war).

If you had to choose one pastoral, nomadic group to come out of central Asia to dominate medieval Eurasia it is unlikely that you would have chosen the Mongol people. For most of their history they had been living in the foothills which border the Siberian forests, mixing, herding and hunting. However, another way to look at it is that they were quietly getting expert at horse riding and archery. The Mongols were also much smaller than other Asiatic nomadic pastoral groups such as the Tatars or Uighurs.

The reason that the Mongols rose to a position of dominance is down to one man: Genghis Khan. It is time to delve into another episode of “Great Man History”.

The story goes that Genghis, or Chingis, Khan was born around 1162 to a lowly clan and named Temujin. His father was poisoned to death, leaving the young Temujin under the control of his older brothers, one of whom, Behter, he soon killed during a heated argument, over a fish that he had brought back and had snatched from him, whilst only 14 years old.

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By the age of 19, Temujin was married to his first and most important wife, Börte, who was kidnapped (this was common practice amongst the Mongol people; Temujin’s own mother had, herself, also been kidnaped). In rescuing his bride, Temujin proved his military mettle and soon became a leader of his tribe. However, uniting the Mongol confederation would require a civil war which he won largely down to two innovations. Firstly, Temujin enacted a system of meritocracy, promoting people on merit as opposed to the traditional method of familial position. Secondly, he brought lower classes of conquered people into his own tribe whilst dispossessing the leaders of these conquered clans. Thus, the peasants loved him whilst the rich hated him but that did not really matter as they were no longer rich.

With these two building block policies, Temujin was able to win the loyalty of a growing number of people and in 1206 he was declared as the Great Khan: leader of all the Mongol people. This was done during a council called the Kurultai which was called by a prospective leader. During the Kurultai, anyone who supported the prospective leader’s candidacy for leadership would show up on their horses; and boy did Temujin, now styled as Genghis Khan, have a lot of men and horses show up to his Kurultai.

Once Genghis Khan had united the Mongol people he went on to conquer a vast swathe of territory. By the time that the Great Khan died in his sleep in 1227 his empire stretched from the Mongolian homeland all the way west to the Caspian Sea and east to the northern parts of the Korean peninsula.

The Massive (Fragmented) Empire

So, the Mongols had a fantastic looking empire, sure much of it was pastureland, mountains and desert but the Mongol armies did conquer a lot of people too. With the death of Genghis Khan the empire was really only getting started and his son Ogedei Khan expanded the Empire even further and Genghis’ grandson, Möngke was the Great Khan in 1258 when Baghdad, the fabulous capital city of the Abbasid Empire fell to the Mongol hordes. Another of Genghis’ grandsons, Kublai Khan, conquered the Song Dynasty in China in 1279, establishing the Yuan Dynasty which ruled China until it was ousted by the Ming Dynasty in 1368. If Mamluks had not stopped another of Genghis’ grandsons, Hulagu Khan, at the Battle of Ain Jalut in 1260 in southern Galilee then the Mongols probably would have taken the whole of North Africa too.

Unfortunately for the Mongol Empire its leaders were not always working in unison and although he may have been an incredible general Genghis Khan was not a great statesman and he failed to create one single political unit out of his vast empire. Instead, after his death the Mongols were left with four smaller empires called Khanates:

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• Yuan Dynasty in China
• Ilkhanate in Persia
• Chagatai Khanate in Central Asia
• Khanate of the Golden Horde in Russia and Eastern Europe

If this seems a little familiar it is because this is what happened to the empire of another of history’s “Great Men”: Alexander the Great. Another great general who was not much for administration.

The Mongols were so successful primarily because of their military skills and Genghis Khan’s army, which never numbered more than 130,000, was built upon speed and archery. Compared to the foot soldiers and knights that they were up against, the Mongols were more like superfast modern mobile fighting vehicles, sniping their enemies from afar. So, the question begs: why did people not just hole up in castles and behind city walls when they knew the Mongols were approaching? Well, they did. However, the Mongols were incredibly adaptable and even though these nomadic peoples had never laid eyes upon a castle before they began invading foreign lands they soon became experts at siege warfare by interrogating prisoners and adapting gunpowder; most likely introducing it to the Europeans.

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As testament to their flexibility, the Mongols, those warriors famed for their horseback blitzkrieg tactics, even built ships with which to attack the Japanese. It may have worked too if it had not been for typhoons, or the “Divine Winds” (Kamikaze). These Divine Winds, incredibly, saved Japan not once, but twice. The First Mongol invasion attempt of Japan was in 1274 and they made a second attempt in 1281. Both spectacular failures which eroded further Mongol naval ambitions.

The blood thirsty reputation of the Mongol armies preceded them, and it must have been a truly terrifying experience to learn that a Mongol army was bearing down on your city. Often, cities would surrender the moment that the Mongols arrived in an effort to avoid the slaughter that usually accompanied them. It is estimated that the Mongol invasions directly killed anywhere between 20 and 60 million people. The vast majority of these deaths were not of enemy warriors, but rather stem from the wholesale elimination of civilian populations. Hundreds of thousands would be executed in a single day and the Mongols did not stop at killing the people, but all the living creatures of a town or city that put up resistance, right down to the cats, dogs and livestock.

The Mongols: A Force for Good?

With this grisly background, let us return to the question of Mongol “excellence”. There are five reasonable arguments to suggest that the Mongols were a force for good in medieval Eaurasia:

1) The Mongols really did reinvigorate cross-Eurasian trade and the Silk Road trading routes that had existed for over 1,000 years by this point had fallen into disuse. The Mongols, however, really valued trade because they could tax it and they did a fantastic job of keeping their empire safe. It was said that a man could walk from one end of the Mongol Empire to the other with a gold plate upon his head without fear of being robbed.

2) The Mongols did a great job of increasing communication through Eurasia by developing a pony express-like system of way stations with horses and riders that could quickly relay information. They called this the Yam system and it also included bronze passports which helped facilitate travel.

3) It was not just goods that travelled along the Mongol trading routes, but also cuisine. For example, it was because of the Mongols that rice became a staple food of the Persian diet.

4) The Mongols forcibly relocated people that were useful to them, like artisans, musicians and administrators. The Mongols were not especially good at administrative tasks like keeping records, so they found people who were good at it and dispersed them throughout their empire. Although this one does not necessarily paint the Mongols in a great light, it had an interesting result: it led to cross-culture pollenisation that modern world historians love to talk and write about.

5) Finally, the Mongols were almost unprecedently tolerant of all religions. They themselves were Shamanistic, believing in nature spirits but since their religion was tied to the lands of their homelands they did not expect others to adopt it and they did not force them to. So, within the Mongol Empire, one could expect to find Buddhist, Jew, Muslim, Christian, Zoroastrian and people of any other religion prospering. It was this kind if openness that has led many historians to go back and re-evaluate the Mongols and view them as a pre-cursor to modernity.

Of course, there is another side to the story of the Mongol Empire too that we really should not forget. So, here are five reasons that the Mongols were not all that excellent:

1) Genghis Khan defined happiness in the following way: “The greatest happiness is to vanquish your enemies, to chase them before you, to rob them of their wealth, to see those dear to them bathed in tears, to clasp to your bosom their wives and daughters.” I am not so sure that you would find too many people nowadays that would find this level of brutality as pleasurable.

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2) As an extension to the first point, Genghis Khan’s definition of happiness, the Mongols were seriously brutal conquerors who often destroyed entire cities and the estimated number of people that they killed is in the tens of millions.

3) Their Empire did not last long. Within only 80 years of conquering China they left and were replaced by the rival Ming Dynasty and in Persia they blended in so thoroughly that by the fifteenth century they were completely assimilated and unrecognisable from the local populace.

4) The Mongols were not particularly interested in artistic patronage and architecture and under their rule, the once great cities of Eurasia fell into ruin.

5) Although we viewed their opening of the trade routes as a positive earlier, it also most likely led to the Black Death. By opening up these trading routes they also opened up avenues for the disease to travel in the form of fleas that were infected with Yersinia Pestis and according to one story the Mongols even intentionally spread the plague by catapulting their plague-ridden cadavers over the walls of Kaffa in the Crimean peninsula. Whilst this primitive form of biological warfare may have happened, it is unlikely that it would have caused the spread of the disease. It is more likely that it was the fleas on the rats on the holds of ships that traded with Europeans… but that trade only existed because of the Mongols!

So the Mongols promoted trade, meritocracy, diversity and tolerance but they also promoted wholesale slaughter and senseless destruction. So, all in all, the Mongols probably were not that great after all!

The Rest is History

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

The Human Story – The Rise of Islam

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

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

Birth of a Religion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

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

10 Really Old Companies

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

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

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

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

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

Construction – Kongō Gumi – 578

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

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

Kongo_Gumi_workers_in_early_20th_century

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

For more information – Click Here

Hotel – Nishiyama Onsen Keiunkan – 705

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

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

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

For more information – Click Here

Restaurant – Stiftskeller St. Peter – 803

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

Eingang_zum_St._Peter_Stiftskeller

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

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

For more information – Click Here

Winery – Staffelter Hof – 862

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

MKn_Staffelter_Hof

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

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

For more information – Click Here

Mint – Monnaie de Paris – 864

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

1600px-French_denier_of_Charles_the_Bald_(FindID_542511)

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

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

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

For more information – Click Here

Foundry – Marinelli Bell Foundry – 1040

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

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

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

Agriculture – Halydean Corporation – 1128

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

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

King James

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

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

For more information – Click Here

Harbour – Aberdeen Harbour Board – 1136

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

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

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

For more information – Click Here

Bank – Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena -1472

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

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

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

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

For more information – Click Here

Firearms – Beretta – 1526

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

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

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

Musket_and_Arquebus_Gheyn

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

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

For more information – Click Here

The Rest is History

The Human Story – Alexander… the Great?

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

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

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

Alexander of Macedon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Map-alexander-empire

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

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

Great due to Accomplishments

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

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

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

Great due to Impact

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

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

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

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

Great because of his Legend

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

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

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

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

Alexander’s Great Legacy

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

AlexanderTheGreat_Bust

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

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

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

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

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

The Rest is History

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

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

Tank Vs Tank

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

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

Second Battle of Villers-Bretonneux – 1918

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

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

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

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

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

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

A7V_Tank_Villers-Bretonneux_1918

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

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

Battle of Kursk – 1943

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Battle of 73 Easting – 1991

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Rest is History