If Civilization is Worth Doing, it’s Worth Doing Badly

Historian Arnold Toynbee takes the long view–the very long view, on the fall of Rome.  We think of Rome as a grand empire, but Toynbee reminds us both in his book Hellenism, and in Hannibal’s Legacy, that Rome originally organized itself very much like other Greek city-states.  The early Roman Republic was essentially a polis.  As they grew in size, the political dynamics changed until little to nothing remained of its more democratic past.  But if we think of Rome as a “Republic” first and foremost, we should place the decline of Rome somewhere in the transition between the 3rd-2nd cenutry B.C. at the absolute latest.*

Toynbee takes this approach because he sees civilizations operating in a spiritual sense.  He focuses on the beliefs, the internal coherence, the relationships between different groups in society, and so on.  He has long sections in volumes five and six of his multi-volume A Study of History on the “schism in the soul” present in declining civilizations, which might strike one with a more materialist bent as rather absurd.

Niall Ferguson takes a different approach, and I believe that I see common themes in his books, Civilization, Colossus, and Empire.  Ferguson sees civilization running on various physical platforms, such as the quality of roads, a good sewer system, and a good way of gathering and using tax revenue.**  He eschewed the idea of slow, steady decline–or at least one that we could observe in any meaningful way.  For him, the system works until suddenly it doesn’t, and no one can really predict when it will stop working. This explains why no one saw the collapse of the Soviet Union coming, or various stock-market crashes.  The collapses, when they come, will therefore come out of the blue suddenly.

Joseph Tainter’s The Collapse of Complex Socieities is a short, dense, book about a difficult subject. Tainter does a good job with his argument, which I admit even I though I disagree with some of his basic premises.

His argument boils down to a few key points:

  • Major civilizations tend to experience an early period of rapid growth through the ‘low hanging fruit’ of available territory, resources, etc.
  • This growth inevitably leads to specialization, stratification, and complexity which initially serves growth–though this “low-hanging fruit” won’t last forever.
  • The civilization plateau’s and the structure established to help it grow becomes an inextricable  part of society just at the moment that it is no longer really needed.
  • When the ‘low hanging fruit’ disappears, further expansion (be it territorial, trade-oriented) becomes less and less profitable, and eventually starts to work against the civilization.
  • Finally, the complex structure gets too unwieldy, a ball and chain, as the state has to spend more and more to get less and less. But now we depend on the structure.   It has become too big to fail, but like a house of cards, easy to knock over.

Tainter supports his theory well from civilizations across time, and uses very obvious info, like territory, and some other more unusual information, like crop yields, colonial administrations, and so on. No doubt there are many lessons for economists here.

But, while his book is valuable, it has big holes.

In his quest for absolute objectivity, he rejects all value-judgment theories of collapse. If you can’t measure it, it’s not useful. We can never be sure exactly a civilization really believes, and even if we could, it is not an objective field of study, so has nothing to contribute to the study of collapse. After a brief summary of  the work of people like Gibbon, Toynbee, Spengler, and others he dismisses them with a wave of his hand. But as C.S. Lewis once pointed out, very few people are actually German economists. Any study of history must involve people, which will involve more than graphs on paper.

This over-emphasizing of economics shows up in what is actually a thought-provoking idea. What happens after collapse, he argues, may actually be beneficial to society, because it removes a great deal of inefficiency that the old system labored under. Collapse, might be the cleansing forest fires of history, events to almost welcome.

This sounds good on paper, but no actual human being who lived through collapses would have agreed with him. Imagine living in Western Europe ca. 550 AD and thinking, “Boy, I sure am glad for the fall of Rome. Of course, our ramshackle village could be overrun, destroyed, and our people pillaged who knows when by some Goth, Ostrogoth, Visigoth, Vandal, Hun, or some other kind of Goth I have forgotten about. But I’ll take that any day over the economic inefficiency of the late Roman Empire.”

To augment Chesterton’s oft-quoted phrase (If a thing is worth doing, it’s worth doing badly,” “If civilization is worth doing, it’s worth doing badly.”



*I love and admire Toynbee for many reasons.  But in some places he puts the decline of Rome at 431 B.C. (!), the same year as the outbreak of the Pelopponesian War in Greece.  He does this mostly because he sees much more similarity than difference between Greece and Rome.  One can make that argument, and he does so decently in his Recollections, but to carry it so far as to say that Rome began declining when Athens hit the wall goes way too far.

**In some ways the difference between Toynbee and Ferguson boils down, as (almost) always, to the differences between Plato and Aristotle.  Both are great–I prefer Toynbee and Plato.


I almost always find Toynbee stimulating, and I include some of his collected thoughts on the fall of Rome . . .

It is indeed, one of the tragic ironies that the idealists that arise within the ruling class should tread the same path of social migration as the wastrels.  The Graachi worked far greater havoc through a nobility [in the late Republic] to which someone like Commodus could never aspire. Commodus did far less damage by his own social truancy [i.e., pretending to be Hercules, fighting in the arena, etc.], by engaging in a vulgarity that represents a spiritual malaise, to which the Graachi would never fall.  

By their ‘downward migration’ towards the plebs, the Graachi incurred the wrath of their fellows, who punished them severely for abandoning their class privilege.  Commodus is uneventfully swallowed by the slough in which he delighted to wallow, whereas the Graachi released a kind of demonic energy into the masses of Rome.


Seneca writes ca. A.D. 60 concerning the social function of the Emperor in one of his treatises. . .


“He is the bond that holds the Commonwealth together, he is the breath of life is breathed by his subjects, who in themselves would be nothing but a burden and a prey if they were left to their own devices through the removal of a presence which is the soul of the Empire.


Their king is safe?  One mind informs them all;

Lost?  They break faith straightway.


If this calamity, written about by Vergil in his Georgics (IV, 212-13), which he imagines overtaking the bees, would overtake us, the people would be safe so long as it does not snap the reins, or–if they refuse to be bridled again.  Should this happen–then the texture of this mighty empire would be rent and its present tidiness would fly apart into a hundred shreds. Rome will cease to rule the moment they cease to render obedience.”

A foretaste of the fulfillment of the prophecy that Seneca made to the Emperor Nero was inflicted on the Roman world in A.D. 68-69 as an immediate result of Nero’s tyranny; but the first time round this calamity acted as a stimulus, for after the chaos Rome got Vespasian as emperor and relative calm.  Though Domitian (d. A.D. 96) tried his utmost to revive the chaos by claiming deity for himself, the tide was turned by a series of beneficial philosopher emperors who succeeded one another from Nerva (A.D. 96) through Marcus Aurelius (d. A.D. 180).

It was only after Marcus that the new “time of troubles” set in, and even then foolishness of Commodus managed to right itself after the civil wars of Severus, who repeated Vespasian’s work, though with a rougher and less skilled hand.  It was only after the death of Alexander Severus (A.D. 235) that the storm broke with shattering and uncontrollable violence.


And finally, some of his thoughts on the drawn out length of Roman decline:

In the downward course of a civilization there is truth in the saying of the philosopher Heraclitus: “War is the father of all things.”  The sinister concentration of the resources of a civilization upon the business of fratricidal warfare may generate a military prowess that will place their neighbors at their mercy, may create a military technique that may grant them a far reaching technical mastery over the merely “Material World.”   

Since it is common to reckon success primarily by power and wealth, the opening chapters in the decline of a civilization will be hailed as times of blessing and growth, and this misconception can persist even for centuries.  Sooner or later, however, disillusionment is bound to follow, for a society that is hopelessly divided against itself is almost certain to try and double down on military might, for that is what seemed to work initially.

For example, we see the money-power and man-power won for Greek society by Alexander the Great, and these same vast resources used to intensify the civil wars between Alexander’s successors.  This same power swept into Roman hands through the meteoric rise in Rome’s land and wealth ca. 241-146 B.C. was just as quickly spent in the various civil wars that wracked Rome before the rise of Augustus and the Pax Romana.  For Spain, the treasure gained in the new world and the free labor of the essentially enslaved native populations was the food for their wars in Europe during the late 16th and early 17th centuries–the same wars that brought them into second-rate power status in Europe.

Thus the increasing command over the environment gained is apt to bestow upon a society a disintegration that puts a greater driving power into the suicidally demented society’s chosen work of self-destruction; and that story turns out to be a simple illustration of the theme that, “The wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23).  And again, the empires of industrialized Europe in the late 19th century gained the material resources to nearly destroy European civilization in our great Western civil war of 1914-18.

[Toynbee goes on to argue at length that Augustan synthesis bought Rome time, and brought Rome increased prosperity, nevertheless, it was an “Indian Summer” that lasted about 175 years that did nothing to fix Rome’s basic issues or  prevent the coming winter.]





Magicians of the Gods

I consider myself a mild agnostic on certain things about the ancient past.

I have no firm commitments about the age of the Earth.  I also have no commitment to the development of life on a macroevolutionary scale, thus I have no need for a very old earth.  As much as I understand the science, it looks like the earth (or at least the universe) has a very, very long history.  But I am intrigued by some young-earth arguments on the periphery out of curiosity.  Among other things, a lot of ‘old-earth’ arguments don’t take into account a cataclysmic worldwide flood.  If such an event happened, geological dating would need recalibrating.

When it comes to the book of Genesis, my commitments get deeper.  I am open to both literal and ‘mythopoetic’ interpretations of the early chapters of Genesis.  We can also combine them and probably both methods have their place.  But certain messages seem absolutely clear, among them:

  • That humanity fell from a state of grace, innocence, peace, etc. into a type of chaos
  • That our sin fundamentally altered the nature of human existence
  • That the change in humanity was physical as well as spiritual.  One may not believe that the lifespans given in Genesis are literal.  But the pattern is clear.  Adam and the earliest humans lived much longer than those at the end of the book.  By the end of Genesis we see that something about humanity has changed drastically.
  • The formation of civilizations happens very quickly.  It is almost the default mechanism of humanity.  Cain builds cities right away.  After the flood we have the Tower of Babel, and so on.

This reading of Genesis informs my reading of ancient history.

There is a version of early pre-history, common in most textbooks, that runs like so:

  • The earliest humans were basically ignorant and violent hunter-gatherers that lived in small groups.
  • At some point the climate changes or the herds thin out.  Food resources dwindle, forcing them to cooperate with larger groups to survive.
  • Because now you have to stick close to water, you get rooted to a particular spot.  You can’t just follow the herds.
  • So, you invent agriculture.  When you have really good harvests, you have a surplus.
  • This surplus gives the group leisure.  With this leisure they build more tools.  Eventually they build governments and laws.
  • As society expands governments have a harder time holding everything together.  So, they either invent religious practices or codify them in some way for the masses, which finishes the development of civilization.

This view is called “gradualism” or “evolutionary gradualism” or something like that.

I entirely disagree with this view.  The book of Genesis certainly at bare minimum strongly hints at something much more akin to devolution, and myths from other cultures hint at the same thing.

Enter Graham Hancock.

I don’t know exactly what to make of him.  The fact that he is an amateur bothers me not at all.  Those very familiar with this blog know of my love for Arnold Toynbee, and one of his main causes involved championing the amateur historian.  He makes no claims to fully understand some of the science he cites but relies on others with special degrees.  You can’t fault him for this.

He also has a restless curiosity about the ancient world that I love.  He willingly dives into unusual theories with a seemingly open mind.  His understanding of Christianity is deeply flawed.  But . . . his argument against the evolutionary development of religion could have come from any Christian.  Many evolutionary theorists acknowledge the social utility and advantage of religious belief.  But, he argues, there would be no obvious evolutionary advantage to saying, “We must take time and effort away from survival, making weapons, improving our shelter, etc. to build a large structure for a god that, fundamentally, we are making up.  In the evolutionary model it makes no sense that anyone would think of this and that others would somehow agree. Or, you would have to believe that the intelligent people that planned and built these temples were tremendously deluded, and furthermore, that this delusion occurred in every culture.  To crown it, if all we have is matter in motion, how would anyone think of something beyond matter in the first place?

Magicians of the Gods has some flaws.  It bounces around too much for my taste, and in some sections of the book the arguments change.  One review stated that,

Speaking as someone who found [Hancock’s earlier book] Fingerprints of the Gods to be entertaining and engaging, even when it was wrong, I can say that Magicians of the Gods is not a good book by either the standards of entertainment or science. It is Hancock at his worst: angry, petulant, and slipshod. Hancock assumes readers have already read and remembered all of his previous books going back decades, and his new book fails to stand on its own either as an argument or as a piece of literature. It is an update and an appendix masquerading as a revelation. This much is evident from the amount of material Hancock asks readers to return to Fingerprints to consult, and the number of references—bad, secondary ones—he copies wholesale from the earlier book, or cites directly to himself in that book.

Alas, I agree with some of these criticisms.  But I think some of them miss the overall point Hancock attempts to make.

When evaluating Hancock v. the Scientific Establishment, we should consider the following:

  • Arguments in the book involve interpretations of archaeology and geology, two branches of science that are relatively young, both of which have to make conclusions based on a variety of circumstantial evidence.  Science usually comes down hard on circumstantial evidence, and “proof” is hard to come by in these disciplines.  But some that attack Hancock do so when he suggests or speculates, and then blame him for not having “proof.”
  • Hancock is right to say that the Scientific Establishment is too conservative.  But, this is probably a good thing that Science is this way.  This is how Science operates.
  • Hancock cites a variety of specialists and laments that the “Establishment” pays them little heed.  I think that some of these “fringe” scientists may truly be on to something that the conservatism of the academy wants to ignore.  But . . . some of them may be ignored by the academy because they are doing bad science.  How does the layman decide when degreed specialists radically disagree?  We may need a paradigm outside of science to judge.  In any case, Hancock too often assumes that scientists with alternative ideas get rejected only for reasons that have nothing to do with science.
  • Some reviews give Hancock a hard time for referencing earlier books of his. This can be annoying, but . . . on a few occasions Hancock references his earlier books to disagree with or modify his earlier conclusions.  In the 20 years since he wrote Fingerprints of the Gods he has “pulled back” from some earlier assertions in light of some new evidence.  This seems at least something like a scientific cast of mind, but his critics seem not to have noticed this.  Should he be criticized for changing his views?
  • His book cover and title might help him sell copies, but it looks too gimmicky, and is guaranteed to draw the suspicion of “Science.”

I wish he made his central point clearer throughout and summed it up forcefully at the end of the book.  But we can glean the main thrust of his argument.

First . . .

Emerging evidence exists that a major comet, or series of comets, struck Earth some 12,000 years ago.  While this may not yet have the full weight of the scientific establishment behind it, many regard it as an entirely legitimate proposition.  It is not a fringe idea.

Many in turn believe that this comet struck to polar ice-caps, causing a flood of literally biblical proportions.  Those who believe in the Biblical flood need not ascribe this as the cause, but perhaps it could have been.  Of course many other ancient cultures have stories involving a cataclysmic flood.

Well, all this may be interesting, but this had little to do with the history  of civilization (so the argument goes) because civilization did not emerge until sometime around 4000 B.C., well after the possible/likely? meteor impact flood.

This brings us to Hancock’s second assertion, that civilization is much older than we think.

The discovery of Gobeki-Tepe some 25 years ago began to revolutionize our understanding of the ancient world.

No one disputes that the site dates to thousands of years before the so-called beginnings of human civilization.  The stone work is precise and impressive.  Recent radar penetrations indicate that even bigger, likely more impressive stone work lies beneath the site.

Here we come to a fork in the road.

  • We can rethink our assumption of early hunter-gatherers.  We can assume that they were far more advanced than we originally thought.  We can assume that they could organize in large groups and they possessed a high level of development and skill, including that of agriculture.  But then, would they be hunter-gatherers if they acted this way?
  • Or, we can assume that mingled with hunter-gatherers might have been the holdovers of a previous advanced civilization, perhaps one mostly wiped out by a global cataclysm.  These are the “magicians of the gods” Hancock postulates–those that emerged from the mass extinctions caused by global flooding, who perhaps took refuge with hunter-gatherers.  Perhaps they had a trade of sorts in mind: 1) You teach us survival skills, and 2) We teach you how to build, plant, and organize.

Option 2 might seem crazy.  It would probably mean reversing our gradual, evolutionary view of the development of civilization at least in the last 10,000 years.  But we have seen something like this already–an undisputed example of it after the fall of Rome.  All agree that in almost every respect, Roman civilization of 100 A.D. stood far above early medieval civilization of 800 A.D.

But Gobekli Tepe is not the only example of something like this.  Archaeologists observe other sites where earlier architecture seems far more advanced than later architecture.  Take, for example, the Sascayhuaman site in Peru, not far from where the Incas developed.  This wall, for example,

almost certainly predate the Incas by thousands of years.  The Incas later certainly could build things, but not in the same way, as the picture below attests (and it looks like they tried to copy the older design in some respects).

At Gobekli-Tepe, the recently deceased project head Klaus Schmidt commented regarding the parts of the site still underground that, “The truly monumental structures are in the older layers; in the younger layers [i.e., those visible to us at the moment] they get smaller and there is a significant decline in quality.”

Some similar possibilities of much older and possibly more advanced civilizations exist in Indonesia and other sites around the world. For example some believe that the Sphinx was built thousands of years before the pyramids.  There is some water erosion evidence that could support this theory.  There is also this intriguing ancient alignment with the Sphinx and the Leo constellation:

If true, this could mean that the Egyptians built the Pyramids where they did because they knew the site was already sacred from a previous era, or even possibly, a previous civilization.

With this before us, at bare minimum, we can strongly argue that the standard gradual and uniform process of the development of civilization should be in serious doubt.  If we accept this, then two other possibilities follow:

  1. Some civilizations went through periods of great advancement* and then fell into a period of steep decline, after which they never quite recovered their former glory.  A massive flood certainly could have triggered this decline.
  2. Another possibility is that we may be dealing with different civilizations altogether.  Hancock ascribes to this view.  For him, sites like Gobeckli Tepe served as a time capsule of sorts, a clue, or a deposit of knowledge for others to use in case of another disaster.  This may raise an eyebrow or two, but one of the mysterious aspects of Gobeckli-Tepe that all agree on is that they deliberately buried the site and left it. Who does this?  Why? Perhaps they wanted this site preserved so that it could be used in case of another emergency to restart civilization.  If this is true, there is much we do not understand at all about this site.

Those that want a tightly knit argument heavily supported by the scientific community will be disappointed by Magicians of the Gods.  But for those that want a springboard for rethinking the standard timeline of the ancient world, the book does very nicely.


*Michael Shurmer of Skeptic magazine argued against Hancock, saying that, “If they were so advanced, where is the writing?  Where are the tools?”  But why must writing be a pre-requisite for advancement?  Or if you believe writing is a hallmark of advancement, what if this previous civilization was more advanced in many other ways? And if they built buildings, isn’t it obvious that they used tools, even if we can’t find them?  If they built them without tools, wouldn’t they be really smart?

Maybe no tools exist at the site because they didn’t live near the site, for whatever reason.  But where they lived has nothing to do with how advanced they seem to have been.  Like Hancock, I’m not sure what else we need other than Gobekli Tepe to prove the point.




Despair and Exaltation in Ancient Rome

The phenomena of Roman gladiators has gotten lots of attention over the years, and that’s no surprise.  One way of quickly getting a sense of an ancient people is to seek what details stand out and makes them look odd, impressive, or otherwise shocking to modern eyes.  The gladiatorial games, like human sacrifices for the Aztecs, Egyptian tombs, or medieval cathedrals all fit the bill.

We usually see the gladiatorial contests as evidence of Rome’s decline.  Rome got wealthy, Rome got bored and decadent, and so it needed the bread and circuses to maintain order in a tumultuous political climate. “How sad,” some say, “and how dramatic a change from Rome’s hard and flinty past!  But, when a big empire goes south, it will go south on a grand and terrible scale.”

So the story goes.  But, what if, like Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum, we had it contrariwise?  What if the Rome of the gladiatorial games is simply the Rome that always was, and money and power just gave them more opportunities to expand their sense of themselves?  Such are the implications of Carlin Barton’s eye-opening The Sorrows of the Ancient Romans: The Gladiator and the Monster.  Barton wants to show us that our modern categories of thought and experience will not work for Rome.  We cannot say, “Well, we like football so we’re just like the Romans.”  This shallow method will not cut it for Barton.  She asks us to go deeper and to notice the Romans on their own terms, and gives us plenty of food for thought to reconsider the meaning of Rome, and what it means that Rome was a “religious” society.

Barton examines the gladiatorial games, one of the more sensational aspects of Rome’s past.  The title focuses on the concept of “sorrow,” but Barton tries to examine the games through a lens of the tension between asceticism, discipline, glory, indulgence, and exaltation.  We might think of the Romans as orderly people who lived in the middle of the road.  If true, Barton suggests that they could do so only by holding opposites in constant tension.

For an example we have the Roman triumph.  Anyone familiar with Roman lore and tradition knows that Rome itself, not a particular individual, occupies the heroic position.  They wove their fear of too much individualism into their laws and customs.  The valued communal fraternity so much that one of their laws states that,

If any person has sung or composed against another person a song such as was causing slander or insult…. he shall be clubbed to death,+

and they valued order and gravitas to the extent that they banned excessive mourning at funerals.

But at the same time they gave massive official “Triumphs” to certain generals on occasion, where the whole city came out to shower the victor with praise.  But as the victor processed, his soldiers could–and perhaps should?–sing bawdy or insulting songs about their general in direct violation of law, while a slave rode with him as well to remind him of his mortality.*

Barton tries to explore this at least seeming tension through the lens of the so-called “circuses” of Rome, which Barton writes were a, “Powerful opera of emotions in which the gladiator was the star.”

Most people, most of the time, imagine themselves doing good more often than not, and suppose that others will naturally share the assumptions they make about themselves.  The same holds true for countries and perhaps especially for imperial powers, who tell themselves that they come with blessings for all, and get a shock when they find themselves not always as appreciated as they feel they deserve.**  So too with gladiators and the games, the Romans saw themselves as benefactors.  Barton pushes back on the modern notion that they served as mere entertainment for a swelling populace that needed distracted.

The Romans saw themselves as giving gladiators a chance to redeem their low-estate, even to become something more than a mere man–an act of generosity.  The crowd attends to cooperate and encourage this transformation, not so much to gratify idle curiosity but rather to partake in a kind of religious apotheosis.  To begin, the military oath had a great deal of similarity to the gladiatorial oath. Seneca wrote,

You have enlisted under oath.  If any man say that this is a soft or easy form of soldiering they will only wish to mock you.  But be not deceived: the words of this most honorable of compacts are the very same as those of the most foulest [i.e., the gladiator’s oath]: to be burned, to be bound, to be slain by the sword.  You must die erect and invincible. What difference will it make if you gain a few more days or years? We are born into a world in which no quarter is given.

Thus, Barton comments, the gladiator became a kind of soldier/philosopher, one who lives between life and death, understands both, and can mock at both.  This in turn gave him license to become a new man.   If the emperor claimed his life, one might see it as akin to a god claiming his own.  His death, then, was not necessarily a cause for sorrow.

This gives us a new image of the crowd’s role at the games.  The crowd does not so much cheer for life, or death, but for a communal religious right.  Seneca again comments,

I judge you wretched because you have never been wretched yourself.  You have passed through life without an adversary. No one will know what you are capable of, not even you yourself will know.  And so there are men of their own accord [i.e. gladiators] come forward to challenge reluctant misfortune, and sought an opportunity to blazon forth their worth when it was about to pass into obscurity.  Great men glory in adversity, as do brave men in battle. 

The injuries inflicted by the powerful must be borne, not just patiently, but with a glad countenance.  At the table of a king every meal is a delight. So must they drink, so must they respond, so must the laugh at the funerals of their loved ones.

To glory in suffering is to become glorious.  So even in death, the gladiator wins.  He shows his exalted status by despising life.  As one commented on D. Junius Brutus: “He behaved so basely that he deserved to live.”  The crowd could occasionally assume risk as well, flocking to rickety theaters that could collapse or catch fire at any time.  They cheer on the gladiator toward his glorious suffering just as they–albeit in a more limited fashion–participate in that same suffering, that same embrace and defiance of death.

With this in place we can view the decadence of the Romans in new light.  Gladiators lived beyond normal life, so they could indulge themselves freely, embracing the extremes of life and death.  St. Augustine commented that the life of the gladiator involved licenstious cruelty, an excess of indulgence in everything.  And yet at the same time, they functioned as Rome’s ascetics, able to abandon their very lives to the people of Rome.  Their lives do not belong to them and in so doing their lives can belong to all. They simultaneously embraced both extremes, the demi-gods of Rome who lived beyond the lot of mortals.

This is why the crowd could cheer even the losers in combat, for in their death they display their superiority to death, unblinking, and unafraid.  It was only when the combatants shrank from death that crowd turned on them, and then with stern vengeance.  Showing fear of death made them normal once again, and once they became “normal” they turned the games into something shameful and cruel, rather than something “exalted.”  A gladiator’s fear of death ended the crowd’s participation in the ritual and suddenly transformed the event to a mere butchery.  Who wants to see that?

This is why Rome embraced fleshly decadence as a kind of asceticism.  In Rome one must learn to endure all things and keep going.  A Roman can embrace everything and maintain his dignity.  He can die, and he can eat, vomit it all up, and eat some more.  He can endure death and every form of excess life throws at him and “triumph.”  It is hard to say whether the banquets and excess of late-Republican Rome derived from gladiator culture or vice-versa, but I suspect the former.  J.E. Lendon at the University of Virginia seems to suggest in his Soldiers and Ghosts that the Romans had an extraordinary ability to do almost anything to avoid shame.  That ability could include

  • A strong aversion to any kind of trickery in warfare.  The only honorable way to fight was to march straight into the enemy and smash them in the mouth.
  • A strong aversion to a fear of death and ready acceptance of suicide as superior to even small personal or political failures among the political elite, and
  • As Barton points out, a refusal to accept any limits not just on pains^ but even on the pleasures that one could endure, such as eating six meat pies, spewing it out, and still look forward to eating the seventh.  The man who lost the ability to desire had lost something of himself.

One might see the how these practices could stray into some rather bizarre sexual realms.  Clearly gladiators enjoyed status as sexual objects, and Barton is hardly the first to discuss this.  But she did, if it be possible, help me understand Caligula, at least indirectly.  Of course no one can possibly excuse Caligula via “understanding!”  But in Caligula we see the same kind of excess of cruelty, physical and sexual indulgence, along with religious ecstasy as we see in gladiators.  Caligula claimed a kind of deity for himself.  Perhaps this was insanity, but perhaps he was simply following the gladiator ethic of testing himself, pushing himself, to extremes of vice and religious glorification, courting disaster but not shirking from the challenge.


I found Barton’s book in turns fascinating and perplexing.  I don’t know what it means for understanding the breadth of Rome’s existence from start to finish.  In the preface to his history, Livy wrote that, “Of late wealth has brought us avarice, and abundant pleasures, yearning–amidst both excess and the desire to perish and destroy all things.”  It is a familiar trope of ancient historians, but that has no particular bearing on the accuracy of his interpretation.  Still, I tend to see what happened with gladiators not as a weird appendage of the late-Republic/Empire, but as an integral part of Rome that lay under the surface initially, and grew in prominence over time.

For example, the Romans established the office of aedile very early in their history in the 5th century B.C.  Most aspects of how they functioned look very Roman in our usual sense of the word, as they maintained buildings, streets, laws, etc.  But, they also had charge of public entertainments or other public events, such as large funerals.  Aedlies were expected to fund these out of their own pocket, and many could easily go bankrupt during their time in office.

But the Romans saw the role of aedile as a crucial stepping stone to higher office, where the opportunities for glory and riches increased.  Caesar risked everything and beggared himself to win the election of pontiff, then used the office for fabulous gain.  This pattern was established long before him, however, this yo-yo between poverty and wealth, despair and exaltation.

It seems fitting to give the last word here to an important critic of all of this mess, St. Cyprian of Carthage, who wrote,

Man is killed for the pleasure of man, and to be able to kill is a skill, an employment, an art.  He undergoes discipline in order to kill, and when he does kill, it is a glory. What is this, I ask you, of what nature is it, where those offer themselves to wild beasts, whom no one has condemned, in the prime of life, of comely appearance, in costly garments?  While alive they adorn themselves for voluntary death and miserable as they are, they even glory in their sufferings


+It seems particularly Roman to me that their wouldn’t say, “shall be executed,” but rather the more stark, “shall be clubbed to death.”

*Some might say that these exceptions have much in common with medieval carnivals or days of “misrule.”  I disagree, and I assume Barton would as well.  The medieval carnival temporarily suspended normal reality to a) reset/refresh the existing order, and b) demonstrate the reality of a world beyond our own.  The Romans seemed to live in perpetual earthly tension within one plane of existence.

**I do not mean for this to serve as an all-encompassing statement on the question of how empires do or do not benefit those under their control.  The question is complicated and perhaps no one good general answer exists.  All I mean to assert here is that imperial powers assume that they are helping and not hurting.

^If we look at the 2nd Punic War, one can imagine almost any civilization surrendering in 216 B.C. after Cannae.  Poylbius points out the political structure of Rome as one of the keys to their ultimate victory and ability to persevere.  Certainly that helped.  I think the real key, however, was Rome’s culture/religion that told them to suffer–to embrace suffering.  This should tell us that:

  • Indeed, what we saw with gladiators was present earlier in Rome’s history (in a more noble form).
  • Culture and religion trump politics.  One can see a parallel in W.W. II where Germany inflicted unimaginable losses against the Soviets in the first few months their attacks.  Any rational man would assume a surrender would be forthcoming.  Yet, somehow, the Soviets kept going and eventually destroyed the Nazi’s.  The Soviets and the Romans had very different political systems, but both drew from religions that taught them how to suffer–albeit in different ways for different reasons (in the case of the Soviets it was Orthodox Christianity, which made a significant unofficial comeback during the war).



The Mysteries of the Monotheistic Pharaoh

I loved The City of Akenaten and Nefertiti: Amarna and its People. I loved it even though I skipped large chunks of it, and some of what I read went beyond my understanding.  This may sound strange, but Barry Kemp’s work is such an obviously great achievement that it goes beyond whether I like it or not.   All that to say, I do really like the book, and wish I had knowledge and the ability to follow him all the way down the marvelous rabbit holes he traverses.

The book puts a capstone on Kemp’s 35 years excavating the city of Amarna, a city built by Akenaten IV (sometimes known as Ikhneton).  Akenaten has long fascinated Egyptian scholars, mostly because of his religious beliefs.  He departed from the religious beliefs that dominated Egypt for centuries and clearly attempted to change the religious landscape of Egypt in general.  He may have been a monotheist, which adds to the potentially radical nature of his rule.

Differing interpretations swirl around his time in power, as we might expect.  Some like to view him as a great rebel against the constraints of his society.  Some view him as a great religious reformer.  Today, given the overwhelming influence of tolerance, the mood has switched to seeing him as a tyrant and usurper.  I hoped Kemp could help sort out some of these dilemmas.  His book reveals much, and also creates more mystery at the same time.  After reading we get no absolute conclusions.  Usually when authors do this I get frustrated.  But in Kemp’s case, who can blame him?  The historical record is 3400 years old.

But before we get to this, Kemp and the publisher deserve praise for the aesthetic aspects of the book.  It feels good in your hands.  It has thick and glossy paper.  The text and numerous illustrations mesh very nicely.  The book has an almost ennobling quality.  You feel smart just looking at it.

I also have to admire Kemp’s style.  If I had spent 35 years in excavations at Amarna and then wrote a book it would almost certainly have a shrill, demanding tone.  “I spent all this time here and now you are going to look, see, and appreciate it all!”  But Kemp writes in a relaxed, thoughtful manner that seems to say, “Ah, how nice of you to drop by.  If you’d like, I have something to show you.”

So many kudos to Kemp.

But now on to Akhenaten himself.

What was he really trying to do, and how did he try and accomplish it?

Clearly Akenaten wanted something of a fresh start for Egypt.  He moved his whole seat of government and started building a new city called Amarna.  In Egypt’s history this in itself was not all that radical, and other rulers have done something similar, notably Constantine with “New Rome.”  Unlike “New Rome”/Constantinople, however, Amarna appears to be way off of Egypt’s beaten path.  This idea in Egypt means something different than it might for us, as nearly all of life got compressed within a few miles of the Nile.  Even so, Akenaten chose a place rather out of the way by Egyptian standards, perhaps the equivalent of the U.S. making its new capital Des Moines.

Perhaps Akenaten didn’t just want a fresh start, he wanted a totally clean slate upon which to build, free from all outside interference (shot from British excavations in the 1930’s below).

Early Excavations at Amarna

So he was a radical, then?

Perhaps, but in building a city, how radical could one be?  Most cities tend to look like other cities.  He faced limits of resources and experience.  So Amarna looked like most other cities, but a few subtle differences might reveal a lot.

For example, the builders made the entrance to the “Great Aten Temple” much wider than usual temples, so wide that one could not envision doors ever being present.  This may mean nothing other than they ran out of material.  But interestingly, most city-dwellings had this same open feel to it.  In great detail Kemp describes how the houses in the city had few boundaries.  Slaves, officials, and commoners would use the same pathways in and out of the same houses.

Kemp also mentions that the plain of Amarna itself presented itself as very open and flat.

No conclusion forces itself as definitive here.  We can say that,

  • Most places in Egypt had a similar geographic layout to Amarna
  • The houses may have been constructed in an ad-hoc fashion due to lack of resources or time
  • Maybe Akhenaten wanted a really open feel to the front of the Great Temple, but that may not have any particular connection to anything else.  Or maybe they had a plan for very large, ostentatious doors that never got realized.

Or perhaps we should see intentionality in all these elements.  And if intentionality is indeed present, what might that reveal that he really did have a grand vision for real change in Egyptian society.

Another intriguing problem deals with Akhenaten himself.  The most famous statues linked to him and his reign look generally like this:

This one makes him look more thoughtful and perhaps more humanized


Both statues reveal an intense and thoughtful man, given to much introspection.  Or possibly, obsession?  Kemp points out that the offering tables in the temples stood much larger than those in other standard Egyptian temples.  Was he consumed by an idea, or a Reality?  His faces here perhaps reveal just this.

And yet, it is entirely possible (though far from certain) that he actually looked like this:

What should we make of this?

One possibility is that the last image is not of Akhenaten at all, and this solves the riddle by eliminating it.  But Kemp thinks this last sculpture to be an accurate portrayal of what he really looked like.  I’ll go with the guy who spent his life studying the ruins.

So if he portrayed himself differently than he actually looked, it must have been a propaganda tool of manipulation?

No, Kemp thinks not.  Pharaoh’s often had the moniker, “Lord of the Appearances.”  They would be seen by people often, even commoners.  And this would likely be all the more true in the isolated and not terribly large city of Amarna.  Besides, the statue directly above dates from Akhenaten’s time and surely was “official” and not black market.  Kemp often cautions us not to look for consistency in Ancient Egypt, or at least our modern and Greek influenced sense of consistency.

Kemp suggests that the image Akhenaten projected may have had to do with his role as teacher of righteous living.  Certainly it seems he viewed himself this way, and others did too.  This may not make him a prig necessarily, because it was a role Pharaoh’s often assumed, perhaps as a matter of tradition.  The austere intensity of the first two busts (at least 6 ft. high) help confer the image of a deeply felt inner life that he wanted to communicate.  And since the Egyptians loved visuals more than the written word, his busts carry his theological message.

I didn’t buy the modern, “Akhenaten as a religious tyrant” argument before reading the book, and I think Kemp indirectly argues against this.  For one, we find small statues of other gods in scattered Amarna households.  Their houses were small and the statues of normal size.  Given the free-flowing nature of Amarna neighborhoods, other citizens would easily know about the statues.  For Akhenaten to have no awareness of these gods would mean that he had no secret police, no informants, and this speaks against the possibility of ‘tyrannical rule.’  He almost certainly knew about the gods, and tolerated them, however grudgingly.

Or perhaps he actually wasn’t a monotheist?  But then, how radical could he have been?  Or perhaps he had strong views and wanted wholesale change but approached the issue pragmatically.  Neither option gives us a Stalin-esque tyrant.

Other curious details make me lean away from the “tyrant” position.  Cities designed before Akhenaten had rigid layouts and exacting aesthetics.  But as Kemp writes elsewhere, “Most of this city was built around a rejection of, or an indifference to, a social prescription and a geometric aesthetic.” Instead, “organic harmonies” and “personal decision making prevail instead.”  My bet is that Akhenaten may have been too consumed with his religious ideas to really be a tyrant even if he wanted to.

Akhenaten seems to have had a “smart-bomb” approach to religious reform, at least politically.  His main innovation/change might appear slight to some of us.  The Egyptians depicted their gods in at least partial human form.

But over and over again, Akhenaten depicted himself only with Aten, and in these images, Aten has no quasi-human form.  The sun itself sufficed for him.

And this image from the Aten temple . . .

So perhaps in this area we see clarity of vision and consistency of follow-through, as to what it means, I don’t know.  It fits, though, with his overall theme of simplifying religious belief.

Kemp shows us that Akhenaten worked hard at cultivating the image of a good life at Amarna.  Many wall murals show him as a generous provider and consumer of goods.  Excavations reveal that this may not have been entirely propaganda, but Kemp reminds us Akhenaten reigned during a prosperous and secure time in Egypt.  But in 2006 excavators discovered a series of tombs for commoners that reveal high incidents of early childhood death, malnutrition,or skeletal injury.   This could throw us right back to the Stalinist image some have of him.  But the high incidents of childhood death could reveal an epidemic in Amarna, which would spread rapidly in its densely packed population.  Hittite records tell of a plague that spread from Egyptian prisoners of war during Akhenaten’s time.  As to the injuries, I can’t say whether or not this is typical for when new cities get built.  Akhenaten may have harshly driven the people to work harder and more dangerously than normal, or it may have been par for the course with ancient construction projects.

The insistence on building a new city may reveal an element of monomania, but certainly other pharaohs did the same thing.  The pyramid builders demanded vastly more labor from their people/slaves.  Besides, Akhenaten had many critics within Egypt after his death, but no one blamed him for building a city.  This fit within the normal roles pharaohs played.

Akhenaten likely saw himself as a religious liberator of the people.  I see a man with a purity of vision, but also a pragmatist in good and bad ways.  He possessed great intelligence and valued introspection.  I see him dialoguing with himself, along the lines of, “I want ‘x.’  But the people only know ‘y’ and expect ‘y.’  So I will try and lead to them to ‘x’ through a modified version of ‘y’ — not to say that I hate everything about ‘y’ — just some things.” If I’m right, this  inner wrestling match would lead to inconsistency and confusion in his own mind.  Perhaps he lost his way a bit.  “I must have a nice new city to show the people the greatness of the truth,” or something like that.

Or maybe not.  I wish I knew more.  Akhenaten provides a great template for a historical novel.

Perhaps he went too far, but I do think he had good intentions.  Of course much evil gets done with this mindset.  We all know where the road of “good intentions” leads.  But it’s hard to say for certain what evil he actually did.   But he did seek to remove certain key beliefs about the afterlife.  The traditional Egyptian’s journey to eternity had many perils and thus required many charms, protections, and so forth.  All this gave a lot of power to certain priests.  Akhenaten’s tomb stands in marked contrast to almost all other kings for its simplicity.  Clearly he sought in some ways to “democratize” death in his religious beliefs.  I think that Akhenaten wanted to simplify things in general for the common man.  But then again, his tomb contains other traditional pieces, such as the “shabti” — special figures designed to do conscripted labor in the next life.  So even the intense, focused Akehenaten either conceded to some traditional beliefs or really believed these apparently inconsistent ideas.

The mystery of Akhenaten continues.

We know that his religious ideas more or less died with him, and indications exist that foreshadow this even during his lifetime. Very few people changed their names to reflect the new ‘Atenist’ belief, and this we know from the many tombs in the area.  Had his beliefs caught on the switch in names would have also, as happened at other times in Egyptian history.  The narrative that we naturally accept about his attempt at religious change sounds similar to this text from Tutankamun, who may have been his son.

…the temples and the cities of the gods and goddesses, starting from Elephantine as far as the Delta marshes . . .were fallen into decay and their shrines fallen into ruin, having become mounds overgrown with grass . . .   The gods were ignoring this land.  If an army was sent to Syria to extend the boundaries of Egypt it met with no success at all.  If one beseeched any goddess in the same way, she did not respond at all.  Their hearts were faint in their bodies, and they destroyed what was made.

But Kemp shows that the above text doesn’t reflect the truth.  Akhenaten kept open most all the temples in the land, and left his reforms for Amarna.  And as we’ve seen, he apparently let the worship of other gods go on unofficially even in Amarna itself.  So if Akhenaten engaged in political hocus-pocus (and maybe he didn’t) then at least two played that game.

So by the end of the book we arrive where we started.  But Kemp’s extraordinary archaeological skills take the reader as far as they can go.  From here on, one must take a leap into the realms of poetry, which is where History really belongs.

Invictus Diplomacy

Historians are people too, and they need jobs just like everyone else.  One way some seek to perpetuate their role in society is by coming up with new and different perspectives on the past.  I am all for reexamining things and keeping them fresh, but . . .  recently I have noticed a few attempts to redeem Rome’s most notorious Emperors, Nero and Caligula, and I wonder if this carries things a bit too far.*  Still, despite my concerns that this represents something “weird for the sake of being weird,” we must contend, for example, with the fact that Nero had a great deal of popularity with the masses in general.  We need not assume that Tacitus and Suetonius deliberately lied and distorted things to wonder if they failed to give us the full picture.

Aloys Winterling recently published a well-received biography of Caligula.  Some reviews got my ire up with the word “rehabilitation,” but upon further examination, Winterling seeks to condemn Caligula in a different way, and not “rehabilitate” him.  Winterling allows us to understand Rome and his reign in a different light.  Traditionally most assume that Caligula’s actions had their roots in some type of madness, and this allows for us to excuse them in some ways, obscuring Caligula’s true motives.**

The Augustan synthesis fixed the bleeding in Rome after a century of intermittent civil war, but at a price of the straightforward approach Rome prided itself on.  Augustus may have “pretended” not to want power and the Senate likely “pretended” to rule.  But in the end, Augustus had the power and the senate didn’t. Augustus performed an intricate kibuki dance of sorts that allowed everyone to assume, if they wished, that Rome was still Rome, after all.

Caligula wanted to end this charade, Winterling argues, by carrying its logic as far it went.  He deliberately sought to expose the hypocrisy involved amongst Roman elite.  So, he made his horse a senator and consul as a deliberate insult, as a joke, not because he was “crazy.”  Nero had a thing for the stage and part of me wonders if we might not see Caligula’s time in power as something akin to Andy Kauffman as Emperor, where all masks come off because all masks are on, and things are funny because they are . . . not really that funny.  His goal seemed to be make people feel uncomfortable, something slightly akin to an act of social ‘violence,’^ which of course would presage the very real violence that characterized Caligula’s reign.

In attempting to strip off masks by putting on masks–such as “pretending” to be a god (though he might really have believed it?  Anything is possible). Many other examples exist of this.  When Caligula fell ill one Senator prayed for his recovery and, in an act of great ‘devotion,’ pledged his life for the health of the emperor.  When he recovered, Caligula made him go through with his pledge and end his life. No more masks, no more empty words. Caligula sought to break everything down and rule by himself with no need for social niceties.  One might think of Caligula’s reign as a 3 1/2 year stage act of a much more evil version of Andy Kauffman.

Diplomacy (and most aspects ofpolitics, I suppose) involves masks, and wearing such things must get tiresome.  One has to say things indirectly, if at all.  One says things with posture, and what one eats.  The job grants one high status and honor, yet it often requires a self-effacing temperment that often will not mesh with such requirements.  To say what one wants, to be an authentic man, such is the dream of every romantic.  It is this same romantic who no doubt envisions that his bracing personality is just what the world has been waiting for.

Liuprand of Cremona came from northern Italy as an ambassador for Emperor Otto in the middle of the 10th century A.D.  Otto sent him to Constantinople in hopes of arranging a royal marriage.  Liuprand’s life as a churchman gave him an excellent education, and he had a reputation as a fine speaker.  He seemed the best possible candidate to navigate the highly developed and occasionally strange world of Byzantium.

Liuprand wrote Otto an account of all of his exploits, and what makes his work so enjoyable is that he thinks he’s doing a great job.  He’s “telling it like it is,” not giving the Byzantines an inch!  He fights a valiant war of words on behalf of his emperor, of whom he seems to forget . . . wants a marriage into the Byzantine royal family.

One exchange, involving precedence and the tension between eastern and western churches, got a bit testy.  The Byzantines speak first (Liuprand writes in the first person) . . .

“But he will do that,” said Basil, the head of the imperial bedchamber, “when he makes Rome and the Roman church obedient to his nod.”

Then I said, “A certain fellow, having suffered much harm from another, approached God and said, “Lord, avenge me of my enemy!” God answered him, “I will do it, on the day on which I will give each according to his deeds.”

But to this Basil relpied, “How late!” [this exchange weaves together quotes from Ps. 61:13, Lk 18:3].

Then they all left the disputation shaking with laughter . . .

Liuprand walks away angry, but doesn’t seem to recognize the light-hearted touch from the Byzantines throughout this conversation, obvious in their laughter over his theological “zinger.”

In another instance, Liuprand grows incensed at the “masks” of the Byzantines, as they honored the emperor’s father, with the traditional song, “God grant you many years,” often sung in Orthodox churches even today.  We enter his narrative moments after he has been chastised by the emperor for finding their food too dainty and smelly.

[The Emperor] did not permit me a reply to his words, but instead ordered me back to the table.  Then his father entered and sat down, a man, it seemed, born 150 years before.  In their praises, or rather, their venting, the Greeks sang out, asking God  to multiply his years.

From this we can discern just how ignorant and greedy the Greeks are, and how enamored they are of their own glory.  They wish upon an old man, indeed–a walking corpse–what they certainly know nature will not allow, and the walking corpse wishes that which he knows will never happen, which he knows God will not do, and would not even be good for him if He did do it, but bad.

Liuprand is just the man to set them straight, if only they would listen!  How greedy the Greeks are, indeed!

As one might surmise, Liuprand failed to secure a royal bride for Otto. He has no capability to see his role in this disaster, or perhaps thinks it just as well.  How awful, he must have thought, to think of his leige Otto allying himself with these fish-eating onion lovers. Early during his visit he had been allowed to purchase some costly robes (though LIuprand seemed to despise all he saw and met, he did like their robes), but now the Emperor asked for them back.

When this was done, they took from me five very precious purple robes, judging that you [that is, Otto] and all the Italians, Saxons, Franks, Bavarians, Swabians, indeed all the nations, are unworthy to go about decked in cloth of that quality.  But how unsuitable and how insulting it is that soft, effeminate, long-sleeved, tiara wearing, hooded, lying, unsexed, idle people strut about in purple, while heroes, that is, strong men, who know war, full of faith and charity, in submission to God, full of virtues, do not!  What an insult, if that is not!” [he does add, we should note, that they reimbursed him for the price of the robes].

Thus ended his hilariously inept diplomatic career.

I know that many noble and worthy souls love the poem “Invictus,” by William Ernst Henley, but I have never liked a thing about it. The bald pagan statements in the poem always seemed to me a bit ridiculous and silly coming from the pen of a Victorian Brit.  I won’t argue the point too strongly, but I think we can at least say this, that when diplomats and politicians in sticky situations attempt to be “captains of their souls” and give nothing to no man, they become at best failures, at worst, a horrible wreck of humanity.  The final irony may be that such scrupulously confident people often end up the butt of jokes.


*Most academics, especially in the humanities, tend to lean left politically.  I wonder then, if we should be encouraged or worried that a variety of them seem to be trying to redeem, or perhaps lean towards “explaining away,” autocratic emperors.

**We should not call Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, etc., “mad” unless we do wish to excuse them in some way.

^For any who might not know, Tony Clifton is Andy Kaufmann.  I am one of those who (his Might Mouse routine aside), do not find him all that funny.  In my defense, reading the entire Great Gatsby on stage as his ‘act’ might be audacious (he actually did this at least once), but is it funny?  You might laugh at hearing about it, but would you pay to see it?


“The Civil War as a Theological Crisis”

The Enlightenment historian Edward Gibbon pointed out with some ridicule that in the Arian controversy, Christianity got into a kerfuffle over the smallest letter in the Greek alphabet — the iota.  At the Council of Nicea Arians wanted the word “homoiousios,” meaning “similar substance” inserted into the creed concerning the nature of Christ.  They were comfortable thinking of Jesus in divine terms, but not as an equal to the Father in His essence.  Led by Athanasius, the orthodox contingent objected, insisting on the word “homoousious,” meaning “same substance.”

For Gibbon and other Enlightenment oriented thinkers, this all seemed too much.  Such minutiae, such trifling, would upset things so unnecessarily.  Given that Gibbon liked nothing better than a well-oiled worldly machine, he saw the controversy as so many wrenches in the works.  Of course Gibbon missed the point entirely.  The difference between viewing Christ as fully God as opposed to merely “God-like” changes one’s conception of the entire universe, creation, and history itself.  When it comes to our theological understanding, what we worship will have dramatic consequences.

I’ve always believed that understanding religious belief formed the key to understanding any event in history, be it great or small.  Often this is more easily seen in the ancient world, where religion showed on the sleeves much more so than today. But men are men, and as a man thinks, so he is (Prov. 23:7).   Mark Noll  points out the religious roots and the religious mistakes of both North and South in his excellent The Civil War as a Theological Crisis.  Noll’s analysis gets to the heart of the real differences between North and South, and shows how these religious differences formed the roots of the political disagreements that led to war.  Both sides professed belief in the authority of the Bible, and both sides reached different conclusions.  That’s obvious to anyone, but Noll’s approach shows these different interpretations came from the same source American/Enlightenment source, and that makes this brief work a real treasure.

By 1850 America experienced a deep political crisis, but astute observers of the day saw that the roots went deeper. A Protestant ethos merged nicely with Democratic principles in America quite easily.  The individual should be able to read, reason, and think for himself.  Both Protestantism and Democratic government rest on the idea that truth always has a “plain” and obvious character.  It could be argued that an agreed upon “atmosphere” of sorts existed between Protestant denominations despite their differences (Noll takes this for granted and does not argue the point).  But in 1844 both Methodist and Baptist churches (the largest in the U.S. at that time) experienced deep schisms.  A broken Church will lead to a broken nation, and leaders from the North and South predicted this. Henry Clay opined that, “this sundering of religious ties . . . I consider the greatest source of danger to our country. In 1850 John Calhoun of South Carolina warned that if the great Protestant denominations finally broke, “nothing would be left to hold the States together except force.”*  Noll writes,

If we keep in mind that it was never only a matter of interpreting individual biblical texts, but always a question of putting actively to use the authoritative Book on which the national culture of the United States had been built, then we are in a position to understand why in 1860 battles over the Bible were so important, why divergent views of providence cut so deeply, and . . . why the Civil War illuminated much about the general character of religion in America.

First, the South.

Southern arguments in defense of slavery had the advantage of simplicity and (the apparent) strict fidelity to the Biblical text.  They pointed out that . . .

  • God allowed Israel to have slavery
  • Abraham and other luminaries owned slaves
  • Jesus never condemned the institution of slavery
  • Nowhere in the epistles is slavery ever condemned.  In fact, slaves are repeatedly told to obey their masters.  Paul, after finding Onesimus, an escaped slave, has him return to Philemon.

Thus, to argue (as abolitionists often did) that anyone who practiced slavery could have nothing to do with Biblical Christianity flies in the face of the entire and obvious biblical teaching on slavery.  The case was open and shut.

Northern arguments also strove for stark clarity and simplicity.

The most common arguments usually had the following characteristics:

  • Slavery had inextricable links to tyranny and moral abuses that the ethic of the Gospel strenuously opposed
  • Slavery contradicted principles of justice, love, and mercy found throughout the Bible
  • Slavery went against the general spirit of the “brotherhood of mankind” propounded by certain texts, like Galatians 3:28.

In other words, anti-slavery arguments inevitably used first principles but tended to avoid textual rigor and so failed to deal head-on with what pro-slavery advocates said.  Furthermore, many anti-slavery arguments wedded themselves to “natural reason,” “self-evident truths,” and “republican practices” and at times relied on these ideas more than Scripture itself.  Thus, as Noll comments, “The primary reason the biblical defense of slavery remained so strong was that biblical attacks on slavery were so weak.”

Much better arguments against American slavery existed from some Protestants, and interestingly, some Catholics as well. Such arguments pointed out that . . .

  • Using Israel as an example for American slavery made the mistake of conflating Israel with America, a mistake Americans had been making for generations.
  • If the South could used ancient Israel for support, they should be informed by their practices.  For one, slaves had rights in Israel, and they did not in the South.  For another, Mosaic law prescribed years of Jubilee every 7th year and again at the 50th year in which all slaves were freed and all debts canceled.  The South never practiced this.  And again, slavery in Israel was not racial, perpetual, or hereditary. The South condemned themselves by asking to be judged by the law.
  • Certain biblical principles of justice, mercy, and love certainly applied to arguments against slavery.  But these more careful Protestant and Catholic voices applied them differently than most abolitionists.  For starters, they kept such principles clear of democratic ideology — on which Scripture remains silent at least directly (and pro-slavery arguments pointed this out).  The goal for the Christian, according to these arguments, was not so much to live in light of specific texts, but in light of the flow of history itself.  If God’s Kingdom is not just coming but is already here in Christ, we have to live in light of the “now” reality of God’s Kingdom. In God’s Kingdom we will not/do not enslave one another.  Evidence exists for this not just in Scripture, but in the early history of the Church.  Christians worked to liberate slaves and medieval civilization stood as the first major civilization in history to essentially eliminate slavery.  It got reintroduced only in the Renaissance, when pagan, Roman concepts of property and ownership tragically got transported back into Europe’s bloodstream.
  • The Roman example of slavery also condemned southerners, at least to an extent.   For one, Roman slavery lacked the racial character of Southern slavery.  In one of the best chapters in the book, Noll pulls from numerous sources that show that the real problem for the South was not slavery but race.

So whatever one might say about slavery in a general vacuum, no good arguments existed for slavery as practiced by the ante-bellum South.

Unfortunately such arguments never made it into the mainstream of American cultural life.  As to why, we might assume something along the lines of a “short attention span,” but this fits modern times more readily.  In fact, audiences flocked to hear discourses and debates of all kinds in the mid 19th century. Lincoln and Douglas in 1858 spoke for many hours at a time to packed audiences.  One debate on slavery lasted for multiple hours over multiple days to an audience of several hundred.  Rather, the reason lies in the common roots shared by mainstream arguments about slavery on both sides.

The mainstream arguments for and against slavery before the Civil War had the following characteristics:

  • They involve no more than a 1-2 step reasoning process
  • They insist on the “plain” character of truth.  Neither side could be described as anti-intellectual, but arguers for both sides seemed to show an exasperation with the need to develop arguments at all.  The truth was so obvious!
  • Anti-slavery arguments relied on “simple” principle, pro-slavery arguments on isolated small texts.  Both arguments only functioned along one track, one line of thought.

Whichever side won the argument (i.e., the war), the future for having the Church influence culture looked bleak.  The Enlightenment had done its dirty work.

Subconsciously perhaps, we reject oversimplifications because reality and our experience have more complexity and mystery than the Enlightenment can fathom.  Rejecting this truth condemned us to search aimlessly for generations hence to fill the void with politics, “The American Dream,” sex, and the like.**  Obviously western theologians could and did make nuanced and complex arguments, but western culture as a whole failed to notice or heed them.

As a buttress to his observations about slavery arguments, Noll includes a section on the idea of God’s providence as debated before and after the war.  True to form, both sides found obvious answers to the results of the conflict.  For the Southerners, even their defeat showed the rightness of their cause, for “God disciplines those He loves” — i.e. — “We are experiencing discipline, showing God’s love for us, showing the rightness of our cause.  For it is often true that the godly rarely prosper in this world.”  For the North, their arguments had a simpler character, though no doubt the South would have made them had they won the war.  “We won.  God was and is on our side.   Therefore we were/are right.”  Lincoln understood better, and pushed back on this simple approach.  We may always know that God has events in His hand, he agreed, but the particular application of His providence often remains a mystery to us.  Not even someone of Lincoln’s stature could get others to embrace this more nuanced view.

Noll’s work has great value for his illumination of the state of religion in 19th century America.  What makes it even more intriguing is how he reveals what may be the central problem of American political and educational life.  Our problem really resides not in short attention spans, not in one political party or the other, not the sexual revolution, or other such movement. Rather, Americans need to grapple with how our democratic ideology meshes with the nature of truth itself.


*Noll includes some interesting statistics showing the decline of religion and growth of government.  This should not surprise us, as Calhoun (not someone I’d like to agree with very often) foretold.

  • In 1860 about 4.7 million people voted in the presidential election, but in that same year between 3-4 times that many regularly attended church  on Sundays.  In 2004, about 115 million went to the polls, which equaled the number of regular church attendees in 1860 (Noll should take into account, however, the fact that women and many minorities did not vote in 1860).
  • In 1860 the number of Methodist clergy equaled the number of postal workers.  Today the ratio of postal workers to Methodist clergy approximates 9-1.
  • Before mobilization in 1860 the number of active duty military was about 1/2 the number of clergy in the country.  In the early 21st century, before mobilization for the war in Iraq, the ratio of military to clergy was about 3-1.
  • In 1860 the total income of the churches and religious organizations nearly equaled the federal budget.  Today the ratio of federal income to annual religion-related giving is about 25-1.
  • In 1860 about 400 institutions of higher-learning existed, with nearly all of them run by religious groups.
  • In 1860 there were 35 churches for each bank.  Today there are four churches for each bank.

**In an interesting digression, Noll points out that warfare and dramatic social change have often produced great works of lasting theological depth.  One thinks immediately of Augustine’s The City of God, but numerous other examples exist (St. Bernard during the Crusades, and St. Francis experienced a dramatic shift after fighting in a small war.  In the modern era, Bonhoeffer comes most clearly to mind).  By that model, the Civil War should have, but failed, to produce any significant theological insight, and this reveals a thin theology throughout North and South at that time.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the great storytellers of the 20th century, MacDonald, Lewis, Tolkien, Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy — all came from liturgical and historical traditions.  Lewis and Tolkien both fought in W.W. I, and O’Connor and Percy both suffered from lifelong illnesses.

What Happens when Germans Go Nuts?

They make a rational, thoroughly scientific, argument for the existence of Atlantis, located in the Atlantic (right where Plato said it was) destroyed cataclysmically somewhere around 9000 B.C. (apologies to one of my favorite ad campaigns).

I have written before about the likelihood of advanced civilizations that existed long before their so-called beginning around 4000 B.C.  But it is so much easier to propound vague ideas then to make a concrete case for a specific civilization, let alone one for which we (seemingly) have no evidence for except Plato’s account in one of his dialogues.  And then you realize that one of the more credible arguments for the existence of Atlantis was written by Otto Muck . . . who invented the U-boat schnorkel for the Germans in W.W. II.  Yes, he came over to the U.S. like many other former German scientists after the war, but still,it does not help the case that he worked for the Nazis.

But first, Muck reminds us that Plato discussed Atlantis in two dialogues, not one, the Timaeus and Critias.  Plato has Socrates relate many myths throughout his work, but he speaks of Atlantis in strictly factual terms.  Like many others, I suppose, I had never actually read the full account of Atlantis in the dialogues and Muck makes a good point.  Plato, at least, seems to believe in the historicity of Atlantis, or certainly, Critias does, and he gives a lengthy description filling at least 15 pages of its size, location, topography, plants, and the like.  Critias talked about how the Greeks first learned of Atlantis from the Egyptians, still considered quite wise by the Greeks even in Plato’s day, via the great legislator Solon–America’s George Washington.  Plato invests a lot of heavy-hitters in his account of Atlantis.

It makes perfect sense to me to believe in a cataclysmic flood, as it is spoken of in every major religion of the ancient world.  I expect to find, along with Graham Hancock and others, the existence of civilizations that long predate the fertile crescent of 4000 B.C.  I delight in Jon Anthony West’s interpretation of Egypt’s history, for example, and find it persuasive.  But I cracked the cover of Muck’s book skeptically.  I don’t approach questions like this even primarily scientifically, let alone entirely so.  Still, with Atlantis, even I needed something to hold onto besides stories.  With other sites, you have megalithic architecture, for example.  For Atlantis, I need more than Plato’s account.

I give Muck credit.  He understands skepticism as a scientist and confronts head-on, piece by piece, in methodical fashion.  Some of what Muck wrote I found very intriguing, and others, not so much.

To begin, Muck asks where the Atlantic ocean got its name.  Well, obviously from the Atlantis story, but this means very, very little.  Slightly more intriguing is Muck’s examination of the very similar phonetics between the god Atlas (apparently spelled out ‘Atlants’), who stood at the middle of the world upholding it, and the name “Atlantis” and its topography, which Plato tells us had a large mountain.  Well . . . ok, but . . . ?

He moves on.

If we look closely at Plato’s description of the topography he tells of a huge variety of plants and food that one could find there.  It seems almost fantastical. We assume the variety couldn’t really exist, given the size and location Plato mentions.  But if we consider the gulf stream moving across the Atlantic, then match it with the mountains described by Plato as well as the location, it matches.  You would have warm air from the south-east, with a large mountain in the center impacting the Arctic air, and the variety described by Plato is possible.  What makes this more intriguing is that Plato probably did not have the biological and topographical knowledge to make this up.

More interesting is the Gulf Stream itself.  If you compare latitudes for northwestern Europe and its overseas counterpart, you know that Europe is a lot warmer than the upper reaches of North America.  The Gulf Stream makes this possible.  But we also know that thousands of years ago Europe was much colder.  Then, around the time of Atlantis’ supposed destruction, it started to warm up.  What if the Gulf Stream did not always flow across to Europe, but instead was diverted by a continent in the middle of the ocean?  That could account for the temperature difference at first, and the shift after.

Perhaps the most bizarre, yet intriguing, argument Muck makes involves the habits of eels.

Apparently, a breed of eels exists that spawns in the Sargasso Sea (located just to the east of Atlantis on the map above).  For the longest time scientists could never understand why these eels undertook a long and dangerous migration across the Atlantic.  The females find European rivers, the males sit and wait in the ocean while the female eels fix their hair.  Ok, ok . . . observers discovered that the females can only come to sexual maturity in fresh water, hence their need for rivers.  But why travel east across the Atlantic.  It makes much more sense, from an evolutionary perspective and every other perspective, to go west from the Sargasoo.  The existence of Atlantis, however, would explain this.  For who knows how long the eels would go east for only a short distance from the Sargasso to the rivers of Atlantis.  The destruction of Atlantis did not alter their genetic memory.  They still swim east, and no doubt suppose that when they hit the coast of Europe they are back in Atlantis, more or less.

Plato considered Atlantis a bridge of sorts between land on either side of the ocean, and Muck explores some of the connections between the Americas and the world of Plato’s day.  He considers possible racial connections, considering that the typical look of the Basque people would fit well for a possible Atlantean type, since that “look” could fit in the western parts of Europe, north Africa, and Meso-America–the old sphere of Atlantean influence.  Muck makes you think hard throughout his work, but I think this the most ridiculous of Muck’s arguments.  Maybe I am just squeamish when an ex-Nazi helper-guy talks about race, but it seems that if the Atlantis story is true, 10,000 years of post-Atlantis destruction intermarriage would dilute the racial stock.

Perhaps more interesting are the ancient pyramids built by the Egyptians and Meso-Americans.  Muck seems to argue that both cultures acted as preservers of some kind of Atlantean legacy even thousands later in the post-apocalyptic reboot of civilization.  Perhaps the pyramid shape was meant to recall Atlas and Atlantis’ great mountain. This is more convincing than the racial argument, but I still think it fairly weak.  Both cultures built their structures thousands of years apart, and it seems they had different purposes in mind.  Muck’s earlier arguments about climate, topography, and the gulf stream stand on much more solid footing.  His analysis about the mapping of the ocean floor of the Atlantic indicates the possibility of an Atlantean like form still lying on the ocean floor.

As for the cataclysmic end, Muck has an answer for that as well.  Plato’s description has Atlantis lying right around the mid-Atlantic ridge, a potentially volcanic region.  The diagram below right shows the ridge shows the newest ocean floor crust in red:

Muck believes that a very large asteroid struck earth right around 9000 B.C., which matches remarkably with the chronology offered by Plato’s account.  Here is one of a variety of articles on the subject, with impact dates ranging between 10,000 to 13,000 years ago.  Some argue that this asteroid or comet struck the polar ice caps.  Muck argues that it struck somewhere around the mid-Atlantic ridge.  If Atlantis existed, and if a very large asteroid struck near the mid-atlantic ridge, you could easily have had a gigantically massive subterranean volcanic eruption that literally could have had Atlantis sink into the sea in a single night.


Muck doesn’t need the asteroid to hit the mid-Atlantic ridge necessarily.  If it did strike the polar ice-caps, it would have caused the destruction of Atlantis in a global deluge not overnight, but within a week or so at the most.

I have left out a great deal of technical information Muck includes, and must content myself with a general summary.

Muck knows he cannot absolutely prove his case one way or another.

I am a big fan of Jonathan Haidt’s work with Heterodox Academy, which encourages more ideological diversity on campus.  Haidt readily acknowledges his liberal beliefs–he has never voted Republican–but even he agrees that the situation has gotten dangerously imbalanced in many departments across many campuses.  He has discovered some interesting links, not surprisingly, between religious belief, psychological temperament, and political affiliations.  You can take various fun tests at his link here.

Just as political leanings often come from moral and religious beliefs, I think what one thinks of Muck’s book will depend on a variety of factors that go a bit deeper than the evidence itself.

If you look to disagree with Muck, most likely . . .

  • You are a committed ‘gradualist’ in all things geological
  • You are strictly scientific in deciding about the past and would hardly value Plato’s account as evidence of any kind.
  • You probably hesitate in part because you don’t want to be associated with various new age crazy people who believe in the existence of Atlantis for all the wrong reasons.
  • You need “hard” evidence like clay tablets, pots with markings, the stuff that archaeologists would find, before you would acquiesece to Muck

If you look to agree with Muck, most likely . . .

  • You are a contrarian by temperment
  • You weigh lots of different kinds of evidence much more equally than those committed to a particular field
  • You think it would be “cool” if Atlantis once existed (an attitude most abhorred by the strict scientific type, who would see this feeling as meaning absolutely nothing.  I think they are right, but only about 90% right in their approbation of this attitude).
  • You admit the possibility of great catastrophe’s altering the fabric of human history as well as geology.

I fall in the latter category, but hope that I have been fair to the former.  Again,some parts of Muck’s book I found nearly persuasive, and others not so much.

To illustrate some of the above differences, we can examine Jon Anthony West’s work in Egyptology.  He got famous/infamous for suggesting that erosion patterns on the Sphinx suggested that it was much older than was commonly believed, and was likely built by a civilization that predated Egypt perhaps by a thousands of years.  Dr. Robert Schoch, who earned his Ph.D in geology at Yale, analyzed the Sphinx and agreed with him.  You can see the video–narrated by Charlton Heston!:)–here.

When Schoch presented his findings at a conference, Egyptologists present could say little about the actual data he presented.  But one retorted, “Well, you say that the Sphinx was built thousands of years before, but if another civilization built it, where is the evidence?  Where are their tools?  Where is their writing?”  Schoch could only stare back rather dumbfounded. Hadn’t he just presented evidence in the form of the Sphinx?  Perhaps they did not accept the fact of the Sphinx itself as evidence because it did not fit into their preconceived notions of what constitutes evidence, which has to be in the form of writing, pottery, etc.  Of course, if a highly developed civilization did exist somewhere around 10,000 B.C., it would have suffered catastrophic collapse as a result of the asteroids that struck Earth around that time.  If they did have a written language and if they made pottery, it would have been washed away almost immediately.

We see how these different areas of belief work together.

So I say, let the Germans go nuts.  Let them make far-fetched claims.  It beats some other avenues they have taken in the past . . .