8th Grade: “In your anger, do not sin.”

Greetings,

This week we looked at the crucial decisions of the 2nd Punic War, and how Hannibal won very dramatic battles, but ultimately could not defeat Rome.

Tradition tells us that Hannibal’s father from an early age made his son swear a sacred oath to hate Rome forever and do all he could do bring about its destruction.  We saw last week how Rome’s policy toward Carthage after the 1st Punic War was at best foolish, at worst deliberately provocative.  With control of the army in Spain and war with Rome declared, Hannibal determined to make the most of his opportunity.

Given that the controversy that started the war involved Spain, I think Rome assumed that the war would be decided in Spain itself. But Hannibal had other plans.  He did not want to secure Spain, or even regain control of territory Carthage lost after the 1st Punic War.  Hannibal wanted to reverse time, and create the geopolitical situation that existed in the mid-5th century B.C., when Carthage dominated the Mediterranean and Rome was little more than a minor city-state in Italy.

I don’t care much for the romanticizing of losers that historians often engage in (i.e. Napoleon, R.E. Lee, etc.).   But it may be true to say that Hannibal did invent the art of strategy in war.  The idea of “strategy” in battle was an entirely foreign concept in the ancient world, much like the idea of strategy in handshake might be foreign to us.  We think of a handshake as a handshake.  For the ancients, battle was battle.  Armies marched into a field and squared off.  May the best man win.  For the Romans especially, the idea of strategy smacked of dishonor, of cheating.

Perhaps necessity was the mother of invention for Hannibal.  Or perhaps the fact that he essentially grew up with his father away from Carthage meant that he had no particular attachment to any cause or code, just victory.  The Romans may not have praised Hannibal for the practice of his art, but they did learn from him nonetheless.

Hannibal’s army did not nearly equal Rome’s in size, so he concocted a bold strategy to attempt to achieve his aims.  He knew that to “reverse time” he would have to beat Rome in Italy itself.  Without control of the sea, however, that meat that Hannibal had to get there by land, which meant crossing the Alps.

Once in Italy, Hannibal hoped that some big military victories would inspire those that Rome had conquered and incorporated into their federation to switch sides.  Hannibal believed he had a strategy to provoke Rome into big enough battles that would allow him a chance to impress his potential Italian allies.

Hannibal went back and forth through central Italy, burning towns and farms.  Naturally the Romans grew furious and rushed headlong to attack him, and what luck!  Hannibal had foolishly placed himself between a lake to his south and some hills to his north, making retreat difficult.  The Romans felt they had him dead to rights.

Except Hannibal hid good portions of his best troops behind those hills, and when Rome rushed in, Hannibal sprung the trap, driving thousands of Romans into the lake and splitting Roman lines.  He inflicted perhaps 20.000 casualties on Rome.

The Roman dictator Fabius concocted a bold strategy designed to starve Hannibal of both food and battles.  Fabius saw that Hannibal needed to win allies to his cause to succeed, and therefore needed to impress others.  If he denied him a chance at glory, Fabius reasoned, he would help prevent Roman allies from feeling tempted to flee.  If he denied Hannibal food, he would force Hannibal to get food from the very people he claimed to try and liberate, the very people he needed to have as friends.

Fabius’ strategy had many merits, but it proved very difficult to maintain politically.  People had to watch the Roman army snipe at Hannibal’s heels while their farms went up in smoke.  Additionally, Fabius did not appeal to the Roman sense of glory, the Roman sense of their own greatness.  They could not not stomach for long the idea that they simply could not defeat Hannibal head-on.  Alas for Rome, Hannibal thrived on this very sense of Roman superiority.

Hannibal then went to south-east Italy, where once again he feigned weakness.  He arrayed his army in an open area, which would allow Rome to use its superior numbers.  He even camped out in front of a river, which made retreat almost impossible for him.  All this looked just too inviting for Rome, who took the bait once again and plunged into the attack in the famous Battle of Cannae.  This visual shows the results:

Once enveloped by Hannibal, Rome’s superior numbers meant next to nothing.  In what was one of the bloodiest battles of all time, Rome suffered perhaps as many as 70,000 casualties.

In three battles, Hannibal inflicted at least 100,000 casualties, and yet Rome fought on, and eventually won the war.  With Scipio Africanus in command, Rome shifted its strategy, fighting in Spain and Africa to eventually force Hannibal to leave Italy.  Once in Africa, Scipio needed just one battle at Zama to force Carthage to surrender.

How and why did Hannibal lose?  He won the biggest set-piece battles, save the last, but this could not translate into victory.  Some point to the fact that Hannibal asked for reinforcements from Carthage, and Carthage refused.  Was Hannibal then, let down by his home country, and can we attribute his failure to this?

I am already on record as rarely liking the “doomed/betrayed romantic hero” interpretation of history, and Hannibal is no exception.  I think Hannibal failed for reasons of his own making:

  • Hannibal chose an all or nothing strategy of his own devising.  He chose a strategy that would isolate him from supply lines or the possibility of quick and easy reinforcement.  The fact that Carthage denied him extra troops should not, therefore, surprise us.  Where would they come from? Rome had already begun to attack overseas and Carthage had every reason for concern regarding their territory in Spain.
  • Hannibal needed victories to win allies.  To beat Rome with a smaller army, he needed to draw Rome out and make them angry.  To make them angry he resorted to devastating local towns and farms.  But these were the same people he wanted to “liberate” from Rome.  How could he make friends with them by burning down their towns?
  • Hannibal did not understand the nature of Rome’s alliance system.  One reason for Rome’s success was their general clemency with people they conquered.  Those incorporated into Rome owed them only taxes and military service.  Hannibal did get a few provinces/towns to leave Rome, but to help encourage them, he had to offer more than Rome did for an alliance.  For example, Hannibal got the key port city of Capua to come to his side, but only by exempting them from military service altogether.  So even when Hannibal gained allies they did not help him very much.

Few could equal Hannibal on the battlefield, but Hannibal could not make political use of his victories.

It’s a difficult concept to grasp, but I do hope that the students saw that the result on the battlefield is not the only thing that matters in determining who wins wars.  One only has to think of the Alamo, Thermopylae, or the Charge of the Light Brigade to see how battlefield defeats can become political victories, and this Rome managed to do.  For example, they publicly rewarded Varro, the general who led Rome to disaster at Cannae.  He was transformed into a hero of Rome’s resistance to Carthage.  Machiavelli, commenting on this seeming peculiarity, wrote in his Discourses,

As regards [Roman attitudes towards] faults committed from ignorance, there is not a more striking example than Varro, whose temerity caused the defeat of the Romans by Hannibal at Cannae, which exposed the republic to the loss of her liberty.  Nevertheless . . .they not only did not punish him, but actually rendered him honors; and on his return, the whole order of the Senate went to meet him, and, unable to congratulate him on the result of the battle, they thanked him for having returned to Rome, and for not having despaired of the cause of the republic.

Before sharing this with the students, I asked what they would do with Varro in the Senate’s place.  Most of them said that they would have Varro killed, or at least banished.  But then I asked them,

  • Did Varro break any laws?
  • Was Varro derelict in his duty as commander?
  • Did Varro own up to his mistake?
  • Did he show courage in returning to Rome?

In the end, despite his colossal blunder, Varro trusted in the laws and institutions of Rome, and this attitude, shared by most Romans, would be one of the main keys to Rome’s eventual victory.  It is worth noting that after the Carthage’s defeat in the Battle of Ecnomus at sea during the 1st Punic War (256 B.C.) the Carthaginians executed their admiral Hanno in humiliating fashion.

The war contains other lessons, especially if we accept the truth of the traditional story of Hamilcar teaching his son to hate.  The strategy Hannibal employed does bear the marks of someone unleashing years of pent of fury.  Anger can drive one to do much in a short time, but it also carries you beyond normal limits, beyond proper bounds.  Did Hannibal find himself in such a position, even after Cannae?  Did he lose energy and drive after this battle because, having exhausted his anger, he had nothing left?

We can make some comparisons to Nazi Germany, where Hitler stoked rage and anger for Germany’s supposed humiliation after W.W. I.  In 1939 they unleashed that fury in what became 2 1/2 years of blitzkrieg that gave them almost all of Europe.  But when they paused and looked around, they had bitten off more than they could chew, adding the Soviets and Americans to their list of enemies, to say nothing of their already existing enemy England.  The defeat they suffered as a result in 1945 was far worse than the one they endured in 1918.

“In your anger, do not sin” (Eph. 4:26).

Festivals of the French Revolution

The modern west, and certainly the United States, has a weird relationship with sports.  Many reasons exist for this, including the fact that sports involve great skill and entertain us.  One key to their hold on us, however, certainly involves the fact that our culture has no communal rituals and emotions.  Politics remains too divisive and negative to provide this.  Democracy tends to prioritize individual vis a vis the group.  Most forms of American Protestantism have no liturgies and no “physicality” to provide the necessary framework for shared experiences.  Sporting events can provide this.  Many fans have pre-game routines, rituals, dress–“liturgies,” in effect.  These routines come with the eating of certain foods, and so on.

All this to say, sports functions much more like a religion than many of our churches–at least in terms of visible manifestations.  Perhaps too, this explains the growth of round-the-clock, all year coverage of seasonal sports.  Our need for communal “religious” experience overpowers even our well-founded moral concerns about certain sports such as football.

Because non-liturgical Protestants formed the ethos of America many of us have little experience with religious communal celebrations.  Often they involve parades, food, music, and a physical embodiment of a particular belief or historical event.  Below, for example, is footage from the festival on the Greek island of Cephalonia, where the relics of St. Gerasimos reside.  On the saint’s feast day, one such embodiment happens when the body of St. Gerasimos “passes over” the town.

The French Revolution sought to transform all of French society.  To do so, the revolutionary leaders recognized that they needed to eliminate Catholicism from the hearts and minds of the people–easier said then done.  The church dictated the calendar and its rhythms, with a proliferation of festivals.  These festivals formed the habits, which formed the hearts, of the French.

They needed new festivals to replace the traditional Catholic celebrations.  Mona Azouf takes up this oft-neglected topic in her book, Festivals of the French Revolution.  

I believe Jaroslav Pelikan made the observation that Christian feasts all celebrate events that happened in observable time.  We celebrate the Incarnation, resurrection, and ascension of Christ.  We have days for remembering the Mother of God and saints of whose lives we have a record.  The only obvious exception to this is Trinity Sunday.  But the Trinitarian nature of God is not an abstract concept, but the concrete–though also mysterious–reality of the Universe.  Celebrations of actual things can have a “natural” atmosphere about them.

We can envision a joyous party for a team when they win the championship.  But what about a team that, during the season itself, had a banquet to celebrate “Victory”?  Things might get awkward quickly.

This challenge confronted France’s revolutionary leadership.  If they wanted wholesale change, then everything old would have to go.  They eliminated a great deal of the previous political leadership.  They transformed the military.  They killed or exiled many recalcitrant aristocrats.  They went farther than almost any other revolutionary group I know of and literally changed the calendar.  They understood that the Gregorian calendar, despite its mainly pagan roots, had been thoroughly Christianized and formed the unconscious rhythms of daily French life.  Some argued that the new France needed no celebrations.  Now that they had banished oppression, each day would have a moderate and joyous character.  But eventually even the die-hards realized that they needed to give the people holy-days (i.e. holidays) to create a new national liturgy.

The festivals for the new calendar attempted to change the concept of time.  They also attempted to alter the concept of space.  Most old Catholic festivals took place in the town near the church.  This meant that the majority of events happened within view of the cathedrals (always the tallest buildings) and in the town streets.  Of course having the church building silently governing the festival would not do.  But the narrow streets and the inevitable buying and selling of goods in the market, conjured up thoughts of secrecy, narrowness, “feudal conspiracy,” and the like.  Festivals of the Revolution often took place in wide fields away from towns and cities.  There they could escape the church building, and the open fields also aided their ideology of equality.  In addition the French Revolution’s obsession with “Nature” had its role to play.  Everything seems new and promising in a lush meadow at springtime.

So far so good.  Here is one contemporary description of the “Festival of Liberty:”

The procession began late, around noon; it was not that the people were made to wait, as by despots at court festivals.  The people turned up at daybreak in large numbers . . . but all waited until all had arrived.  They took pleasure in each other’s company; nonetheless it was time to leave.

On the site of the Bastille an inauguration of the Statue of Liberty was held.  Here more gathered, and it should be noted, they were favored with perfect weather.

There was no excess of pomp; no gold dazzled the eye or insulted the citizens’ humble and honorable poverty.  No soldiers dripping with braid came to cast a condescending eye on the poorly dressed crowd as they passed.  Here actors and witnesses merged, each taking part in the procession.  They had little order but a good deal accord with one another.  No one indulged in the vanity of the haughty gaze, no one set out to be a spectacle.  Boredom, that son of uniformity, found no foothold among the various groups; at each step the scene changed–everyone wanted a part in the Festival of Liberty.

The festival banished luxury, but notable commemorative objects had their role.  The procession opened with the Declaration of the Rights of Man, written on two stone tablets such as the 10 Commandments, though that is no match for the Declaration.  Four citizens proudly carried this noble burden, each reading aloud those immeasurable first lines: “Men are born free and remain free and equal.”

Four busts followed in like manner.  “Ah, there is Voltaire, that old rascal who made us laugh so much at the priests.  That other, worried looking individual [Roussaeu] loved the nobles even less and never sought their favor.  Who is the third?  It is an Englishman, Sydney, who put his head on the block rather than bend a knee to a king.  That old man there, we know him well.  It is Franklin, who can be more rightly called the Liberator of the New World than a certain fop who lives not far from here [i.e. Louis XVI].

The two coffins that followed threw a somber coloring over events as we remembered the martyrs of the massacre at Nancy [some soldiers refused to obey their royalist leaning officers and were shot].  

Preceded by their chains, suspended from trophies and born aloft by young ladies dressed in white, marched our loyal soldiers [loyal to the Revolution that is], with several regular citizen volunteers.  They in turn preceded the Chariot of Liberty, which used the same wheels as the chariot that served for the enshrinement of Voltaire at the Palace of Reason.  Let us not forget that philosophy gave us Liberty.

The chariot, modeled on the antique, was of imposing construction.  On one side David sketched the story of Brutus the Elder of Rome, himself sentencing his royalist sons to death for their disobedience to the law.  On the other he depicted William Tell, aiming a javelin, the target of which was an apple on his own son’s head.  But at his feet we spy another javelin, one that gave independence to Switzerland by slaying the Governor of Austria.  The Lady of Liberty rests on her throne, her hand at her side holding a club, with a gaze that would make king’s blush.   We should never forget that the sceptre of liberty is a bludgeon to her enemies.  It should also be said that six daggers formed the prow of the front of the chariot to threaten any despotism bold enough to impede the march of liberty.

With steady steps 20 democratic horses drew the chariot of the sovereign of the French people.  Their progress had none of the insolence of those idle coursers fed at the stables in Versailles.  They did not hold their heads high; their manes had no gold plait, nor were there plumes adorned.  They walked rather ploddingly, but they kept a steady course.  

Four hundred thousand citizens came to one spot with nary a mishap.  The soldiers on foot had no need to mark the route, none had need to go before the crowds with bayonettes to make way.  Words of peace contained this multitude, it fell into line at the sight of an ear of corn presented to it rather than a musket.

Even a breezy reading of this account reveals that the new foundation was not close to drying.

How do celebrate with the threat of force lingering?  We know of the many imprisonments and beheadings in general, but even here, “Lady Liberty” holds a club. Brutus kills his sons.  The chariot has daggers in the front, and so on. I have some sympathy . . . the only way to completely turn your country 180 degrees is by wrenching the wheel and holding on for dear life.  The question, remains, however . . . how much can you celebrate when you have the sword of Damocles hanging over your head?

A big difference exists between saying, “Everybody dance now!” and, “Everybody dance now.

No particular rhyme or reason exists for how the festival looks and proceeds.  Certain decisions will have to be arbitrary on some level of course.  Perhaps we understand, for example, that “democratic horses” would move “ploddingly” at a “steady” pace. But what if the choreographer had the horses hold their heads high and gallop down the causeway to show the “energy of liberty”?  Would that have been “democratic”. . . or “aristocratic?”

Many such confusions and differences in perception led to imprisonments and even death during the Reign of Terror.

Ultimately Azouf argues that the festivals served not as an emblem of the Revolution’s success but it’s failure.  One cannot invent out of thin air an embodiment of abstract ideals and expect everyone to go along with it.  Azouf herself comments that the revolution in general, and the festivals in particular, represented France’s attempt to reject the entirety of their history–tantamount to rejection of their very selves.  No one can sustain such efforts for long.

And yet . . . while the king eventually came back to France it did not take long to banish him again.  The cultural victory of the French Revolution’s de-sacralization campaign (which, as Azouf points out, involved “sacralizing” different values) took a long time, but France’s subsequent history shows that the revolutionaries won the political battle.

We too have a similar inheritance as the French, having undergone our own radical break from the past at much the same time.  We in time developed some national festivals (the World Series, the Super Bowl, the 4th of July, Thanksgiving, etc.).  Time will tell whether or not this age of atomized individualism will wash those away.  If so, Azouf’s work testifies to the fact that at our core we need such celebrations, and even atomized individuals will find a way to create new festivals.

 

 

10th Grade: The Feeding Frenzy

Greetings,

This week we came close to wrapping up the events of the Reign of Terror.  During the terrible years of 1793-94 somewhere between 15-40 thousand people died and some 300,000 were imprisoned.  How did a Republic dedicated to “Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity” descend into this barbaric nightmare.  Many theories exist, and here I would like to highlight a few we will discuss in class.

David Andress – The Terror & Outside Pressure

Historian David Andress wants us to consider what happened inside France in light of events outside of France.  England, Austria, and Prussia all tried militarily to oppose France, and all looked for the the fledgling republic to collapse.  The stress of war on an already fragile government heightened the stakes inside France, and they cracked under the pressure.

Edmund Burke – The Abandonment of Tradition

A contemporary of the Revolution, Burke warned back in 1790 that France would pay a terrible price for putting people in power who had no idea how to use it.  Having no political experience, France’s leaders would quickly grow frustrated, and then lash out in the most basic way possible: violence.  Burke would prove a prophet.

Burke may seem stodgy at fist glance, because of his strong emphasis on tradition and habit.  But in a paradoxical way, he believed that habits were the only sure foundation for progress in the world.  We make thousands upon thousands of decisions in a given day, and Burke sees these these habits as a path to freedom, giving us time to pursue new things rather than have to “rationally” whether or not to eat breakfast first or get dressed first.

In a terrible irony Burke predicted, those fired by the Enlightenment idea to apply the strong light of reason to all things would end up erasing habit and thereby condemn us to starting all over again, setting us back to a barbarian past.  The Revolution saw multiple constitutions over a short period of time, a change of calendar, a change of morals.  No one could be sure of anything, and in this environment, fear and violence would likely take over.

Burke applied the same thought process to the exercise of power.  We often make two mistakes regarding political power:

  • We assume that it is a kind of magic, reserved only for society’s wizards.
  • We assume that anyone can do it.

Burke believed that good use of political power functioned like many other things in life, as a matter of experience and training — a matter of habit.  Certainly we want intelligent people to hold office, but this intelligence needed training like anything else in life.  The problem with the revolutionary leaders was not their lack of intelligence.  It was not their wicked designs (we can grant that some of them, at least, meant well).  The main problem lie in the fact that no one really knew what they were doing, and so fell back on force as a last resort.

Simon Schama – Dangers of Ideology

In his great work Citizens, Schama took another approach.  He focused how the French defined what it meant to be a citizen of their country. Increasingly they defined citizenship in moral and ideological and not legal terms.  Frenchmen had rights, but only those truly “virtuous,” or dedicated to the Revolution were truly French.  Those not revolutionary enough could not be French, and so they had no rights.  They functioned as a cancerous tumor, foreign to the national body, and had to be excised.

All three of these eminent thinkers emphasize important aspects of the political context. But all three I think leave out some fundamental aspects of human nature.  I think this image of Robespierre, the head of the ironically named “Committee of Public Safety,”  speaks volumes.  Here we have a man who believed in his own virtue, and had a passion for enforcing his rules on others.  Imagine the ultimate HOA Board Member on steroids.

Robespierre believed in perfection and insisted upon it.  Unfortunately he more or less thought he had achieved it himself.  People called Robespierre the “Incorruptible.”  In all his dealings, Robespierre appears to have been that rare politician who truly did not take bribes or show favoritism.  It would have been better for France (and Robespierre).  Perhaps then he would not have been able to maintain his furious streak of self-righteousness, which led to so many deaths (perhaps thinking of Robespierre might help us to understand Martin Luther’s oft misunderstood “Sin boldly.  God can only forgive a hearty sinner,” line to his quibbling friend Melancthon).

A passion for moral and political purity destroyed France. One can think of a potter attempting to make the perfect circle.  It wouldn’t be perfect at first, and one would have to shave off bits of clay continually to get it just right.  Eventually, however, you would not have any clay left.  While they said they cared for liberty, they did not realize that the amount of liberty one can enjoy is the amount you are willing to have abused.  France found that it could tolerate no abuse of liberty, so in the end they had none at all.  As the Terror increased, even the Committee of Public Safety members turned on each other and many of them faced the guillotine.

The guillotine itself represents part of the tragedy of the Revolution.  Dr. Guillotin invented the instrument to make executions more humane.  In the past, death by beheading was actually a privilege reserved for the nobility.  Those of more “common” lineage might face execution through hanging, disembowling, or even being drawn and quartered.

The guillotine meant now that everyone would have the “right” to death by beheading, and the mechanism meant now that no executioner might potentially botch the job.  Instead, in an almost bizarre parody, the mechanical nature of the machine gave the state power to execute more people more quickly, and now indeed “the people” could all face death equally.

Emmett Kennedy, author of A Cultural History of the French Revolution makes a great observation about French Romanticism and its relation to violence.  If man is naturally good, he suggests, than grace becomes irrelevant.  But what can take the place of grace as a proper inducement to virtue?  St. Just, Robespierre’s lieutenant, had the answer.  Kennedy writes,

Sensibilite (right sentiments, for lack of a better word) impels a man toward virtue, it affirms his natural goodness; it does for him what grace does for Christians.  If “sentiments”  do not produce virtue, then [St. Just argues] terror must take its place (emphasis mine).

In a round-about way Kennedy hits at a central truth.  The doctrine of the Fall of Man leads us not towards cruelty but mercy.  The Revolution denied mankind’s nature, but this “liberation” from sin could only lead them to destroy one another in blind and merciless search for perfection.