8th Grade: Rome Waves the Red Flag


Over the past two weeks we have looked at the conflict between Rome and Carthage, beginning in the 1st Punic War starting in 264 B.C., and continuing down to the start of the 2nd Punic War in 218 B.C.

This series of conflicts would end up determining the balance of power in the Mediterranean and the destiny of each respective civilization.  Win or lose, neither power would emerge the same.

One overarching concern I have the for the year is to show students that the various elements of civilization, be it economics, geography, or religion, are all part of a whole and have a symbiotic relationship to one another. The same holds true for the military.  We ca easily make the mistake of viewing the military as functioning independently, but it will reflect the strengths and weaknesses from its home society.

First we looked at Rome’s values.  These rural people tended to act a lot like modern farmers some of us may know — practical, persevering, plodding, disciplined in the routines of the year.  The Romans made up their army not from professionals, but through a citizen militia.  Their army fought in tribal/community groups in ways that did not allow individuals to stand out (which we looked at in our last update).  Those who held high government offices often led in the field, which could serve to bind the average soldier not just to his fellow man, but also the government itself.

Carthage was older than Rome and different in character.  They devoted their empire largely to trade, not agriculture.  Nearly all their prominent citizens were merchants.  Of course no moral difference exists between farmers and merchants, but  they live different lives.  We can imagine the majority of Carthaginians often going on the modern equivalent of business trips.  If one is not around to mind the store, you have to hire someone to do it for you.  Carthage’s military leaders came from a highly trained and well educated section of their population, but Carthage found it convenient and necessary to have the bulk of their forces be paid mercenary troops.  This did not mean that Carthage had no military power.  On the contrary they had a strong navy and a respected infantry.  But their military had little to no direct connection to the society for which they fought.  The diversity of their army could give them a great deal of flexibility, but it took a dynamic and forceful commander to hold such an army together.

These two titans did not clash for much of their history.  Rome expanded first to the northwest, away from Carthage’s sphere of influence.  But later, when Rome’s Italian empire drifted toward the south, it came close to Sicily, which Carthage relied upon for its grain.  A spark in that environment could ignite a blaze, and the First Punic War resulted (264-241 B.C.).  Rome showed incredible tenacity and adaptability by building a fleet and standing up to Carthage on Carthage’s turf — the sea.  Setbacks did not seem to bother Rome.  For example, in one 5 year stretch, Rome lost 700 ships at sea.  No matter — they made more, and kept on coming.

Rome won that conflict, though narrowly, but it was how they handled that victory that helped set the stage for an even more devastating conflict, the Second Punic War (218-202 B.C.).  They made several key mistakes, some of them tactical, and others moral:

  • After the First Punic War they offered lenient terms initially, which Carthage readily accepted.  However, they then altered the terms of the peace and made it much tougher on the Carthaginians.  Naturally the Carthaginians felt betrayed.
  • Rome’s more stringent terms may have meant that Carthage could not pay its mercenaries, who promptly revolted and spurred on a brutal civil war within Carthage.
  • While Carthage had its hands full internally, Rome took the opportunity to snatch a few of Carthage’s outlying provinces.  In class I likened this to the foolishness of slapping a heavyweight champ while he is bound and gagged.  You can get away with it, but only for so long.
  • In response, Carthage sought additional territory in Spain, far from Rome.  Once again, Rome inserted itself and insisted on limited Carthage’s sphere of influence.  Once again, Carthage agreed.  But then, just as before, Rome altered the agreement and insisted on that Carthage refrain from attacking Saguntum, a key port city on the Spain’s east coast.

At this point, Carthage felt it had all it could take.  Their army now had a daring commander at its head, Hannibal Barca, son of the great Hamilcar Barca, Carthage’s top general in the First Punic War.  Rome could technically claim that Carthage attacked them in 218 B.C., but Rome had done much in the interval to provoke that attack.  Eventually actions do have consequences.  The bull usually charges when one waves the red flag.

The Second Punic War has more drama and defining moments than the first conflict.  Again, however, I want the students to see the big picture, and connect smaller events to larger realities, and this will be the subject of our discussions this week.

Many thanks,



8th Grade: The Country Rome and the City Rome


This week we started our unit on the Romans, where will remain for the rest of the year.  We began by looking at Italian geography and made the following observations:

  • Roman civilization began not in the more fertile southeast of Italy, but in the more challenging south-central area near Rome itself.  We have met the concept that civilizations flourish not in ideal circumstances, but moderately challenging ones, as in other civilizations like Egypt.
  • We noted that unlike Greece, Italy favored more agriculture. While Italy is a peninsula and never too far from water, it has a fairly even coastline without many ports.  The best ports are in the southeast, but Rome did not get there until nearly five centuries of its history had elapsed.  By that time, Rome had a thoroughly rural bent to their way of life.
  • If one stands in Rome, it seems the land tended to run downhill in a north-eastern direction.  If true, even slightly, this may help explain why Rome’s conquests ran initially towards that direction.  This in turn meant that Rome would not have any significant interaction with the naval oriented cultures of Greece and Carthage until around 300 B.C.  So, while Greece and Rome would inevitably share certain similarities due in part to their common geography, Rome developed along different lines than Greece in the early part of its history.

Here is a topographical map of Italy:

This agricultural bent of Rome shaped their civilization in ways similar to other agriculturally oriented areas, like Egypt.  Just like rural cultures today, Rome based much of their way of life around tradition, the past, routine, and practicality.  Both urban and rural cultures have strengths, but a key question for Rome would how they would react when they did interact with the more cosmopolitan Mediterranean.   When it comes, this clash will determine the fate of Rome, Greece, and Carthage.  As Rome conquered others, they could not avoid confronting the possibility of changing their own identity.

We likened Rome to a young farm boy (we’ll call him ‘Jim’)who goes off to New York City for college, and postulated three different outcomes.

  • Benign Awkwardness — Jim doesn’t really fit in city life, and knows it.  He try particularly hard to fit in either, and soon wearies of his clumsy attempts.  He keeps his rural identity, plugs along more or less alone at school, goes home on weekends, and returns home after graduation.
  • A Happy Medium — Here Jim keeps his roots, but also approaches NYC with an open mind.  He learns to see the good and bad of both city and rural life, and picks and chooses from both like a cafeteria menu.  The experience changes Jim, but he learns to enjoy both environments without changing who he fundamentally is.  This ideal reaction, however, is probably the least likely of the three possibilities I list here.
  • Drink from the Fire hose — Jim becomes completely enamored with his new surroundings.  He chucks his rural identity and jumps in with both feet into city life.  Tragically, he doesn’t even manage to attach an urban identity to himself.  He so obviously ‘tries too hard’ that he fails to find acceptance, and this rejection only makes him try harder.  His actions leave him with no identity at all.

How Rome faces this challenge will be the subject of our study in the weeks to come.

Next week we will look at Roman religion and the extreme emphasis on the practical over the theoretical.  Again, it will help us if we remember that Rome was a nation of farmers, who often have little use for theory and speculation, and who focus on soil, crops, and so on.

Ancient chroniclers agree that the Romans were a religious people, unlike the Greeks.  But their sense of religion was also much different than in Egypt, for example, another ancient “religious” people.  In Egypt, their beliefs filtered down into the government, architecture, and where they lived.  Their literature is filled with stories of the gods.  They wrote psalms/hymns of praise to their gods.

We see nothing like this in Rome.  The Romans had devotion to their religious duties, but they saw “religion” usually in terms of “checking off the box.”  They would do what they needed to do, but rarely did their religion touch their souls, and a variety of stories from their past illustrate this.

Machiavelli recounts a story from Livy, where a Roman general wanted to attack the enemy, which I recount below. . .

The consul Papirius, in conducting a war against the Samnites, [saw a favorable moment to fight], and ordered that the priests take the auspices.  The birds, however, did not eat.  But the chief priest, seeing the great desire of the army to fight, and their confidence in victory, reported to the consul that the auspices were in fact favorable.  But one of the assistant priests told the consul that the chief priest lied.  . . . And so the consul put the Chief Priest in the front ranks of the army, and it happened by chance that a Roman arrow struck the chief priest, whereupon he died. When Papirius heard this, he declared that whatever wrath the gods felt toward them had been appeased, and thus by apparently to accommodate his designs to the auspices, Papirius gave battle without giving the appearance of neglecting his religious duty.

Was the general ‘impious?

According to the Romans, not at all.  He did his duty.  He took the sacrifices.  A priest told him that the gods approved.  And they won.

Machiavelli relates another story. . .

Appius Pulcher acted just the contrary way in Sicily during the first Punic war; for wishing to fight the Carthaginian army, he caused the priests to take the auspices, and when they reported that they did not eat, he said, “Then let us see whether or not they drink,” and threw the birds into the sea.  He then went into battle and was defeated, for which he was punished in Rome.

The historian Livy goes on to say that Pulcher was not punished for losing, but for his brazen impiety.  Paprius “kept up appearances,” whereas Pulcher did not.  But I have doubts.  If Pulcher had won the battle, would he have been punished?  What these stories show, I think, is that Rome really worshipped Rome itself.  All things bowed to glory of Rome.  Was then their religion a mere smokescreen?  We know, for example, that Roman religion technically forbade offensive war of any kind, yet they became one of the greatest conquering empires they world has ever known.  Something it seems, gave at some point.



The Augurs of the Temple

In my 8th grade ancient history class one of the great questions of the year involves whether or not one believes that Greece or Rome was the superior civilization.  The students usually get into heated discussions on the issue and seem quite excited by the question–until they discover that they have to write a long essay about it for the final exam.  Somehow, this dampens their ardor.

Comparisons between Greece and Rome can always yield fruit.  Each civilization has significant primary source documentation.  Their development overlaps and departs at points like a figure eight.  Both civilizations had similar climates, were right near the Mediterranean, with mountains forming a large part of the topography.  Both civilizations started out a city-states and transitioned from kings/tyrants (in the technical sense of the word) to a republic/democracy at almost exactly the same time.

But despite these similarities, Rome grew into one of the largest global empires of all time and Greece stayed within its narrow confines for the vast majority of its history and never expanded as Rome did.  I thought of this question recently because Michael Rostovtzeff raised it in the early pages of his book on Rome.*  He saw more similarity between Greece and Rome than others, and so had to account for the differences in their historical development in ways that those who see more difference between the two could ignore.

I agree with Rostovtzeff’s rejection of purely mechanical or physical explanations.  Some argue that geography can explain the difference.  Greece’s geography hemmed them in and forced the creation of independent city-states, whereas Italy’s geography allowed for more expansion.  But Rostovtzeff points out that both areas had relatively the same interaction with mountains and the Mediterranean.  Italy’s soil had an advantage, but not a great enough advantage to explain Rome’s expansion.  And while Greece’s topography had more mountains to contend with, occasionally certain city-states built empires, showing that geography itself cannot explain the difference.

He then goes on to assert that we can explain Rome’s expansion, and Greece’s relative lack of territorial expansion, to the following:

  • Rome had a better political structure, which allowed for more effective and consistent mobilization of the population, and
  • Rome’s political changes came slowly, which prevented shocks to the system that would inevitably derail or delay a civilization’s growth.  Such shocks could be compared to long bouts of illness in an individual.

I certainly prefer these explanations to geographical explanations, but I feel one needs to go deeper.  Politics flows downstream from culture, and culture from religion, and it is here that I feel the answer must lie.  To get at religious differences we need to look not at particular beliefs or religious rites, but what those beliefs and rites point to.  To get at that question, we need to examine their mythologies, for if nothing else, it shows us how they perceived themselves and gets at their motivations.

On the surface of things Greece and Rome look much alike, but their myths tell a different story.  The story of Pygmalion and Galatea, for example, reveals the Greek passion for perfection.  Pygmalion eschews women because none he sees truly merit his affection.  He carves his thoughts into a perfect stone sculpture, and Aphrodite rewards him for his devotion by having the statue come to life, and they live happily ever after.  We see this pursuit of perfection in other areas of Greek life, in the Parthenon, in their mathematical idealism, and so on.

When Livy writes of Rome’s early days he recounts how Romulus and the early founders of Rome–all men–needed women. So they come up with an idea of a religious festival and invited young ladies from the Sabines. When they came they abducted and forcibly marry them.

When the hour for the games had come, and their eyes and minds were alike riveted on the spectacle before them, the preconcerted signal was given and the Roman youth dashed in all directions to carry off the maidens who were present. The larger part were carried off indiscriminately, but some particularly beautiful girls who had been marked out for the leading patricians were carried to their houses by plebeians told off for the task. One, conspicuous amongst them all for grace and beauty, is reported to have been carried off by a group led by a certain Talassius, and to the many inquiries as to whom she was intended for, the invariable answer was given, “For Talassius.” Hence the use of this word in the marriage rites. Alarm and consternation broke up the games, and the parents of the maidens fled, distracted with grief, uttering bitter reproaches on the violators of the laws of hospitality and appealing to the god to whose solemn games they had come, only to be the victims of impious perfidy.

The abducted maidens were quite as despondent and indignant. Romulus, however, went round in person, and pointed out to them that it was all owing to the pride of their parents in denying right of intermarriage to their neighbours. They would live in honourable wedlock, and share all their property and civil rights, and – dearest of all to human nature – would be the mothers of freemen. He begged them to lay aside their feelings of resentment and give their affections to those whom fortune had made masters of their persons. An injury had often led to reconciliation and love; they would find their husbands all the more affectionate, because each would do his utmost, so far as in him lay, to make up for the loss of parents and country. These arguments were reinforced by the endearments of their husbands, who excused their conduct by pleading the irresistible force of their passion – a plea effective beyond all others in appealing to a woman’s nature.

The tenor of this story fits well within the framework of the rest of Livy’s work.  The story of Romulus and Remus, for example, has some of the same heroic qualities as in the founding myths of other civilizations.  But the story have Romulus kill his brother Remus in a fit of temper for a minor dispute, and the tale takes little pains to justify the deed.

I think that Livy has more actual history in him than others might, but even I would not say that Livy writes history as Thucydides wrote history.  So we must consider why Rome’s foundational stories have this different feel and emphasis.  Two possibilities present themselves:

  • The key to Rome’s greatness comes from the fact that they did not whitewash things.  They called a spade a spade.  They did not hide the truth about themselves, and so they were much better equipped to deal with reality than those around them
  • The key to Rome’s greatness comes from the fact that, not only did they not hide their warts, they reveled in them.  In fact, stories like the Romulus/Remus story would not have been viewed as a black spot on their past, but rather, a positive good.  Of all the soft civilizations that surrounded them, Rome and Rome only did what needed to be done.  Rome understood, just as Machiavelli understood, that states need founded by one man, and one man only.  Either Romulus or Remus would have to go, twins or not.

I favor the second option.  If we imagine that Rome’s founding myths and folklore follow the general pattern of most every other civilization (the U.S. included), we should imagine that these stories reflect something of an idealized version of themselves.

Some years ago in our 8th grade ancient history class, a student made a striking comment as we discussed exactly what Rome “meant” by their multiple conquests.  What drove them to expand?  Rome’s religion technically forbade offensive war, and yet Rome never lacked a justification for war when they felt they needed one.  The student suggested that the Romans were not unlike the Assyrians.  The Assyrians conquered (in part at least) as an offering to Ashur, their god of war.  The Romans (though certainly not as rapacious or cruel as the Assyrians) conquered as offering to their god as well, except their god was the city of Rome itself.  Greece could occupy itself with abstractions like ideal perfection but Rome remained very physical in their orientation throughout.  Their god was literally made visible all of the time.  Thus, this physical orientation would require very tangible applications.

Perhaps the key to Rome’s expansion vis a vis Greece lies here.

Machiavelli recorded an intriguing anecdote on Roman religion:

Auguries were not only, as we have shown above, a main foundation of the old religion of the Gentiles, but were also the cause of the prosperity of the Roman commonwealth. Accordingly, the Romans gave more heed to these than to any other of their observances, in undertaking new enterprises; in calling out their armies; in going into battle; and, in short, in every business of importance, whether civil or military. Nor would they ever set forth on any warlike expedition, until they had satisfied their soldiers that the gods had promised them victory.

Among other means of declaring the auguries, they had in their armies a class of soothsayers, named by them pullarii, whom, when they desired to give battle, they would ask to take the auspices, which they did by observing the behaviour of fowls. If the fowls pecked, the engagement was begun with a favourable omen. If they refused, battle was declined. Nevertheless, when it was plain on the face of it that a certain course had to be taken, they take it at all hazards, even though the auspices were adverse; contriving, however, to manage matters so adroitly as not to appear to throw any slight on religion; as was done by the consul Papirius in the great battle he fought with the Samnites wherein that nation was finally broken and overthrown. For Papirius being encamped over against the Samnites, and perceiving that he fought, victory was certain, and consequently being eager to engage, desired the omens to be taken. The fowls refused to peck; but the chief soothsayer observing the eagerness of the soldiers to fight and the confidence felt both by them and by their captain, not to deprive the army of such an opportunity of glory, reported to the consul that the auspices were favourable. Whereupon Papirius began to array his army for battle.

But some among the soothsayers having divulged to certain of the soldiers that the fowls had not pecked, this was told to Spurius Papirius, the nephew of the consul, who reporting it to his uncle, the latter straightway bade him mind his own business, for that so far as he himself and the army were concerned, the auspices were fair; and if the soothsayer had lied, the consequences were on his head. And that the event might accord with the prognostics, he commanded his officers to place the soothsayers in front of the battle. It so chanced that as they advanced against the enemy, the chief soothsayer was killed by a spear thrown by a Roman soldier; which, the consul hearing of, said, “All goes well, and as the Gods would have it, for by the death of this liar the army is purged of blame and absolved from whatever displeasure these may have conceived against it.” And contriving, in this way to make his designs tally with the auspices, he joined battle, without the army knowing that the ordinances of religion had in any degree been disregarded.

But an opposite course was taken by Appius Pulcher, in Sicily, in the first Carthaginian war. For desiring to join battle, he bade the soothsayers take the auspices, and on their announcing that the fowls refused to feed, he answered, “Let us see, then, whether they will drink,” and, so threw them into the sea. After which he fought and was defeated. For this he was condemned at Rome, while Papirius was honoured; not so much because the one had gained while the other had lost a battle, as because in their treatment of the auspices the one had behaved discreetly, the other with rashness . . .

Machiavelli surmises that the Romans wisely manipulated their religion to serve their political or cultural needs.  I agree as far his explanation goes, but I think we can go one further.  The Romans had a conscious religion of oracles, auguries, and the like, but a deeper, perhaps even unconscious religion of worship of their city itself.  I’m not so sure that Appius would have received censure had he been victorious.

I remain grateful to this student, who years ago helped me see the history of Rome in a new light.


*Though it has little to do with the post above, I cannot resist commenting on some reviews of Rostovtzeff’s work.  He emigrated from Russia shortly after the Russian Revolution.  His experience of events in Russia certainly impacted his analysis of Rome, where he saw the decline of the Republic in terms of 1) Too much change too quickly, and 2) Given the size of Rome, too much power shifted into the hands of too many (he felt that democracies needed to be small in size to work well).

Some dismiss him out of hand, because, obviously, his experience in Russia strongly colored his analysis of Roman politics.  Well, ok.  But a man is surely more than his influences.  What of the merits of Rostovtzeff’s analysis?  It can be debated, but his interpretations is hardly crazy, or such an obvious byproduct of personal experience that it has nothing to do with the evidence.  These same reviewers, I’m sure, would not want their own work subjected to the tests they used for Rostovtzeff.

Though C.S. Lewis’ original discussion of the “personal heresy” applied directly to poetry, I think it applies also to works of history as well, which are acts of creation somewhat akin to poetry.


8th Grade: The Values of the Republic, The Practice of the Army


This week we continued our look at Rome by looking at the establishment of the Republic in 508 B.C., and how that related to power sharing between Patricians and Plebians.

We can see a variety of similarities between Rome’s revolution, and our own, and this comparison surely would have pleased on our own founding fathers.  But that does not necessarily mean that we should see democracy, in the technical sense of the word, in either time.    The Romans came to object to their kings for the following reasons:

1. Arbitrary and Personal Power

Ultimately, Roman kings did not have to use law as the basis of their rule.  They could, in the end, do as they pleased.  Law had the advantages of being public and stable.  Rulers could now be accountable to something outside of themselves

2. Secret Power

When kings make decisions, they often do so in secret,  perhaps with a few advisors.  Whether he took counsel or not, the reasons behind the decision would be unknown.  The Romans wanted to create a government where decisions got made in an open forum, with open debate.

3. Concentrated Power

In the pure monarchies all power flows from one source at all times.  The Romans took political power and divided it among various offices and branches.  They then made sure that they always had more than one person serving in a particular office.  Finally, each of their offices had only one year terms, and while they did not outright forbid serving multiple terms, they frowned sternly  upon it.

The best way to think about what the Romans did is to go to the technical definition of a Republic – a “Res Publica” – a “Public Thing.”  Laws, expectations, debates, all these things were out in the open for the Romans.  We should not expect to see the kind of democracy that Athens practiced here, though Rome’s republic certainly had democratic elements.  Their main priority lay in making sure that the government was “public” — open to debate, open to observation, etc.

This does not mean that the Romans established a democracy, though they did broaden the base of political power.  Still, for the most part power stayed in the hands of the Patricians, Rome’s aristocracy.  This happened not necessarily by design, but certain factors heavily contributed to it.

  • The Senate (comprised almost entirely of Patricians) had almost complete control of War and Peace.  Rome was often at war, and often won, which naturally enhanced the prestige and power of the Senate.  We have seen in our own democracy that whenever a foreign policy crisis strikes, domestic issues invariably take a back-seat.  Such was the relationship between the Assembly and the Senate in Rome.
  • As we noted last week, Rome was strongly traditional in its cultural leanings, and the Patricians had a vested interest in maintaining tradition.
  • The differences in wealth between Patricians and Plebians remained modest for most of the Republic’s history.  As we shall see in a few weeks, when this begins to change the Patricians faced more challenges to their power.
  • Finally, nothing succeeds like success.  For centuries, Rome grew and prospered under the general guidance of patricians.

The argument went deeper than this, however.  At root the question of, “What is Rome,” ran underneath the surface arguments.  For Patricians, Rome was an idea.  Rome’s ideals made Rome great, and Rome could only stay great if the people who led had dedication to those ideals.  For Plebians, Rome’s people made Rome great, and so Rome’s people deserved a greater share of power.  This tension would bubble beneath the surface for a long time, and how Rome eventually dealt with the problem would contribute to the unraveling of the Republic itself.

We also looked the basic grid plan of Roman cities, and discussed what they reflect about Rome.

Nothing shocks us here, but the methodical nature of the design reflects a few key Roman values, such as simplicity and unity.  The design pushes people toward the center, with an emphasis on togetherness.  The grid plan may also hint at the idea of equality, or at least equality under the law.

As Rome expanded they “cut and pasted” their city design into the conquered areas.  Rome valued habit, tradition, and togetherness.  They tended to look down on “going your own way” in general, and as we might expect, in the army as well.  The key to their military success lie in the fact that everyone stayed together, everyone did what they were told.

The values that went into the formation of their government and city design also went into their army, whether consciously or not. The standard Roman military formation looks somewhat like its city design, with the men spread out in checkerboard fashion:

Rome’s design gave them more flexibility of movement in the field, but each “maniple,” or individual grouping, had a high level of discipline.  This clip below, manages in 1:30 to show some of those values (warning: not bloody, but violent).

Greece, being a more individualistic society, had a long history of heroic individuals.  In Roman stories, the hero is Rome itself.  The clip illustrates a few key ideas along these lines:

  • When the whistle blows, the front lines move back, and others move up.  Normally soldiers would fight in front for much longer than the clip shows, but the principle is clear: we all share the burden equally.
  • Roman tactics, like their other values, were simple.  Block with the shield, strike with the sword around the enemy’s waist, step back into formation.  With this basic move they conquered much of the world around them.
  • No one gets out of line.  They do not tolerate even the successful “hero.”  Rome itself will always get the credit.  The cohesiveness of the line reflects the cohesive nature of their society.  And these cohesive military formations gave them a great advantage over other less cohesive, more heroically oriented tribes surrounding them.  In these kinds of circumstances, Rome simply did not lose.

Here is a clip from Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus, where you see the Roman army advance in their maniples.  The message seems to be that the city of Rome itself has come to fight as they fan out into their grid pattern.

Next week we will begin to look at Rome’s conflict with Carthage, a struggle that would define the destinies of both societies.

Have a great weekend,


8th Grade: Burning Out vs. Fading Away


This week we wrapped up our look at ancient Greek civilization.  The death of Alexander the Great allowed for the Greek city-states to try and rebel once more from Macedon.  They did not have the strength to do it on their own, so they asked for help from Rome.

As the Greek’s found out, however, it’s dangerous to ask Rome over to visit.  They had a knack for overstaying their welcome.  From around 200-150 B.C., Greece became a satellite of the then mighty Romans.  Their culture lived on in a kind of degenerated way afterwards (see Luke’s comment in Acts 17:21), but as an independent political entity, they were done.

As we leave Greece and introduce Rome I wanted the students to think about the following choice.  I chose basketball because of March Madness, but one could apply the same concept to other areas of life.  In class we had fun thinking about the ultimate hamburger, for example.

Choice #1

You will be given the ability to dunk, but only one time.  However, this dunk can be the most spectacular dunk you can possibly imagine.  You can jump from half-court, do a double summersault reverse spin, twirl, reverse jam — whatever you can think of.  Furthermore, you will execute this dunk in stadium full of people, and it will immediately go viral on You Tube.  The dunk will be forever known as the greatest dunk of all time.


Choice #2

You will be given the ability to dunk as often as you like.  You will be able to dunk in games, but the dunks will be unimpressive, and not noteworthy in any way.  But it will be a dunk, and you will be able to do it whenever you wish.

This choice illustrates one of the differences between Greece and Rome.  In their heyday Greece ended up bequeathing more towards the formation of the future than perhaps any other civilization.  They practically invented science, literature, drama, democracy, and so on.  But their run was relatively brief.  They followed Neil Young’s dictum, “It’s better to burn out than fade away.”  They compressed most of their brilliance into about a 100 year period of practically unmatched excellence, but the intensity of the heat may have led to their fire putting itself by devouring all the oxygen around them.

Rome will have many similarities with Greece, as we might expect from sharing the Mediterranean basin.  But I think that one of their differences is that Rome would not have agreed with Neil Young.  They were good, sometimes very good, at most things they tried.  And they managed consistently to achieve this level of “very good” for much longer than Greece maintained their “excellent” status.  But, the Romans never achieved the level of brilliance of Greece.

What kind of dunk the students choose will probably reflect what side they will defend in one of our year’s great debates on whether Greece was superior to Rome, or vice-versa.

Next we will examine Roman civilization.  As usual we will begin with geography.  If we look at a topographical map of Italy, how might we expect Italian geography to influence Roman civilization?  How might this differ from how Greek geography influenced the Greeks?

More on this next week.

Many thanks,


Cortes and Alexander the Great

Sometimes how historical figures are perceived has much more to do with how perceptions change over time than what people actually did in their own lifetimes.  Sometimes certain people in the past take on a romantic hue that also can distort our vision.

I thought about this phenomena while reading Five Letters of Cortes, a collection of letters Cortes sent 51iimHx9yvL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_back to the continent detailing events in Mexico.  The book interested me because historians today routinely treat Cortes as a great villain, and I wanted to see how he measured up to that reputation in his own words. Scholars of course debate the veracity of some details Cortes narrates (without giving much credence to the idea that he simply told the truth as he saw it).  But my interest was not what happened so much as how Cortes wanted his readers to perceive him, regardless of whether or not he spoke fairly and truly.

As I read I thought of how history views Alexander the Great.  The two men have some similarities. Both sought glory, perhaps Alexander most of all.  Both conquered and destroyed a foreign people and culture with at least questionable justification.  Both dealt with internal disputes in their own ranks. Both used diplomacy to great effect, perhaps Cortes most of all.  And yet, history loves Alexander and despises Cortes, generally speaking, and we should ask why.

A few things stood out to me in Cortes’ letters.

  • Cortes de-emphasizes violence and tries to play up his relationship with the natives when he can.  He writes early in the first letter that, “the Indians went among us with as little fear as if they had already had dealings with us for many years.”  He seems proudest when he makes friends.  The “battles” (not battles in a traditional sense) and violence that occur happen when things break down, or in response to a tough situation initiated (in Cortes’ view) by the misunderstanding of the natives.
  • Cortes clearly admires the natives.  A modern westerner expecting to find a racially motivated imperialist will be disappointed.  He describes the sacrifices and violence surrounding Aztec religion in a lengthy passage:

And always on the day before some important enterprise they burn incense in their temples, and sometimes even sacrifice their own persons, some cutting out their tongues, others their ears, still others slicing their bodies with knives in order to offer to their idols the blood which flows from their wounds; sometimes sprinkling the whole of the temple with blood and throwing it up in the air, and many other fashions of sacrifice they use . . .

One very horrible and abominable custom they have which we have seen in no other part, and that is that whenever they wish to beg anything of their idols, in order that their petition may find more acceptance, they take large numbers of boys and girls and even of grown men and women and tear out their heart and bowels while still alive, burning them in the presence of those idols . . .  Some of us have actually seen this done and they say it is the most terrible and frightful thing that they have ever seen.  . . . Your majesties can therefore be certain that there can be no year in which they have not sacrificed some three to four thousand souls.

As to what the Spanish should do in light of this, I leave the reader to decide.  Cortes continues,

Your majesties may therefore perceive whether it is their duty to prevent such loss and evil, and certainly it will be pleasing to God if by means of, and under the protection of your royal majesties, these people are introduced to and instructed in the Holy Catholic Faith . . .

And yet, after describing the most horrible aspect of Aztec society, Cortes concludes the section by writing,

For it is certain that if they should ever serve God with that same faith, fervor, and diligence [as their idols] they would work many miracles.   We believe that by the aid of interpreters who should plainly declare to them the truths of the Holy Faith and the error in which they are, many, perhaps all of them, would quickly depart from their evil ways and come to true knowledge, for they live more equably and reasonably than any other of the tribes which we have hitherto come across.

Cortes also hates the fact that some of the Spanish use the Indians as currency in slaves.  This, he argues, earns the “notorious” Diego Velazquez followers, and Cortes urges the king to remove him from any position of authority at once.

Spanish commentary on the Aztec king Montezuma strike a poignant note.  Multiple sources all converge on the idea of admiration for the man.  Here is Diaz de Casillo writing,

The Great Montezuma was about forty years old, of good height, well proportioned, spare and slight, and not very dark, though of the usual Indian complexion. He did not wear his hair long but just over his ears, and he had a short black beard, well-shaped and thin. His face was rather long and cheerful, he had fine eyes, and in his appearance and manner could express geniality or, when necessary, a serious composure. He was very neat and clean, and took a bath every afternoon. He had many women as his mistresses, the daughters of chieftains, but two legitimate wives who were Caciques in their own right, and only some of his servants knew of it. He was quite free from sodomy. The clothes he wore one day he did not wear again till three or four days later. He had a guard of two hundred chieftains lodged in rooms beside his own, only some of whom were permitted to speak to him.”

When Moctezuma was allegedly killed by being stoned to death by his own people Cortés and all of us captains and soldiers wept for him, and there was no one among us that knew him and had dealings with him who did not mourn him as if he were our father, which was not surprising, since he was so good. It was stated that he had reigned for seventeen years, and was the best king they ever had in Mexico, and that he had personally triumphed in three wars against countries he had subjugated. I have spoken of the sorrow we all felt when we saw that Montezuma was dead. We even blamed the Mercederian friar for not having persuaded him to become a Christian.

Of course Cortes used violence at times directly and on purpose, however much he wanted to avoid it. In one such instance, we have both Aztec and Spanish sources for the same event.  Regarding a terrible massacre, the Aztecs write,

Here it is told how the Spaniards killed, they murdered the Mexicans who were celebrating the Fiesta of Huitzilopochtli in the place they called The Patio of the Gods

At this time, when everyone was enjoying the celebration, when everyone was already dancing, when everyone was already singing, when song was linked to song and the songs roared like waves, in that precise moment the Spaniards determined to kill people. They came into the patio, armed for battle.
They came to close the exits, the steps, the entrances [to the patio]: The Gate of the Eagle in the smallest palace, The Gate of the Canestalk and the Gate of the Snake of Mirrors. And when they had closed them, no one could get out anywhere.
Once they had done this, they entered the Sacred Patio to kill people. They came on foot, carrying swords and wooden and metal shields. Immediately, they surrounded those who danced, then rushed to the place where the drums were played. They attacked the man who was drumming and cut off both his arms. Then they cut off his head [with such a force] that it flew off, falling far away.
At that moment, they then attacked all the people, stabbing them, spearing them, wounding them with their swords. They struck some from behind, who fell instantly to the ground with their entrails hanging out [of their bodies]. They cut off the heads of some and smashed the heads of others into little pieces.
They struck others in the shoulders and tore their arms from their bodies. They struck some in the thighs and some in the calves. They slashed others in the abdomen and their entrails fell to the earth. There were some who even ran in vain, but their bowels spilled as they ran; they seemed to get their feet entangled with their own entrails. Eager to flee, they found nowhere to go.
Some tried to escape, but the Spaniards murdered them at the gates while they laughed. Others climbed the walls, but they could not save themselves. Others entered the communal house, where they were safe for a while. Others lay down among the victims and pretended to be dead. But if they stood up again they [the Spaniards] would see them and kill them.
The blood of the warriors ran like water as they ran, forming pools, which widened, as the smell of blood and entrails fouled the air.
And the Spaniards walked everywhere, searching the communal houses to kill those who were hiding. They ran everywhere, they searched every place.
When [people] outside [the Sacred Patio learned of the massacre], shouting began, “Captains, Mexicas, come here quickly! Come here with all arms, spears, and shields! Our captains have been murdered! Our warriors have been slain! Oh Mexica captains, [our warriors] have been annihilated!”

Then a roar was heard, screams, people wailed, as they beat their palms against their lips. Quickly the captains assembled, as if planned in advance, and carried their spears and shields. Then the battle began. [The Mexicas] attacked them with arrows and even javelins, including small javelins used for hunting birds. They furiously hurled their javelins [at the Spaniards]. It was as if a layer of yellow canes spread over the Spaniards.

And the Spanish version of the same event:

Cortes wanted to entirely understand the cause of the Indians’ rebellion. He interrogated them [the Spaniards] altogether. Some said it was caused by the message sent by Narváez, others because the people wanted to toss the Spaniards out of Mexico [Tenochtitlan], which had been planned as soon as the ships had arrived, because while they were fighting they shouted “Get out!” at them. Others said it was to liberate Moctezuma, for they fought saying, “Free our god and King if you don’t want to die!” Still others said it was to steal the gold, silver, and jewels that the Spaniards had, because they heard the Indians say, “Here you shall leave the gold that you have taken!” Again, some said it was to keep the Tlaxcalans and other mortal enemies out of Mexico. Finally, many believed that taking their idols as gods, they had given themselves to the devil.

Any of these things would have been enough to cause the rebellion, not to mention all of them together. But the principal one was that a few days after Cortes left to confront Narváez, it became time for a festival the Mexicas wanted to celebrate in their traditional way. . . . They begged Pedro de Alvarado to give them his permission, so [the Spaniards] wouldn’t think that they planned to kill them. Alvarado consented provided that there were no sacrifices, no people killed, and no one had weapons.

More than 600 gentlemen and several lords gathered in the yard of the largest temple; some said there were more than a thousand there. They made a lot of noise with their drums, shells, bugles, and hendidos, which sounded like a loud whistle. Preparing their festival, they were naked, but covered with precious stones, pearls, necklaces, belts, bracelets, many jewels of gold, silver, and mother-of-pearl, wearing very rich feathers on their heads. They performed a dance called the mazeualiztli, which is called that because it is a holiday from work [symbolized by the word for farmer, macehaulli]. . . . They laid mats in the patio of the temple and played drums on them. They danced in circles, holding hands, to the music of the singers, to which they responded.

The songs were sacred, and not profane, and were sung to praise the god honored in the festival, to induce him to provide water and grain, health, and victory, or to thank him for healthy children and other things. And those who knew the language and these ceremonial rites said that when the people danced in the temples, they perform very different from those who danced the netoteliztli, in voice, movement of the body, head, arms, and feet, by which they manifested their concepts of good and evil. The Spaniards called this dance, an areito, a word they brought from the islands of Cuba and Santo Domingo.  While the Mexica gentlemen were dancing in the temple yard of Vitcilopuchtli [Huitzilopochtli], Pedro de Alvarado went there. Whether on [the basis of] his own opinion or in an agreement decided by everyone, I don’t know, but some say he had been warned that the Indian nobles of the city had assembled to plot the mutiny and the rebellion, which they later carried out; others, believe that [the Spaniards] went to watch them perform this famous and praised dance, and seeing how rich they were and wanting the gold the Indians were wearing, he [Alvarado] covered each of the entrances with ten or twelve Spaniards and went inside with more than fifty [Spaniards], and without remorse and lacking any Christian piety, they brutally stabbed and killed the Indians, and took what they were wearing.

I have no wish to downplay a terrible massacre.  For our purposes, however, a few things surprised me about the Spanish account.

  • We might expect ‘righteous’ conquistadors rejoicing in their deed.  Some accounts of the Crusaders massacring civilians in Jerusalem in 1099 sound this way.  Instead we them troubled and very much aware of the fact that they departed from their faith with their actions.
  • Confusion, not certainty, dominates the text.  They search for answers and have a hard time understanding what it is they face or why it happened in the first place.  Some historians/sources apparently indicate that the Spanish may have believed that they were about to do another human sacrifice, though the account above does not hint at this or use it as an excuse.

One can disagree with the reasons for the Spanish presence in the new world.  One can lament the results of the Spanish conquest and the subsequent treatment of the natives.  But I found my overall opinion about Cortes changed from reading his writings, though I still lack a great deal of familiarity with the events in general and other particular sources to come to definite conclusions.

But other historians presumably do not.  And this brings us back to my question earlier about comparing Alexander and Cortes.  Some historians fall over themselves fawning about Alexander, and no one treats Cortes this way, despite their similarities.

Alexander had a few points in his favor . . .

  • The fact that he was king and thus the focal point of all narratives about him.  Cortes reported to the emperor, there were other conquistadors, Montezuma is a striking figure, etc.
  • Alexander destroyed the Persians in classic and dramatic pitched battles, the events of which featured himself.  The Aztecs died partly as a result of cunning diplomacy, Montezuma’s attitude, some skirmishes, etc.  Lacking a Battle of Issus or Gaugemela, we have a hard time latching onto Cortes to fully appreciate his skills (you don’t have to approve of Cortes to admire certain aspects of him).
  • Alexander operated within a “heroic” culture where for the most part, great deeds needed no particular justification. Even modern treatments of Alexander pick up on this, consciously or no.  I can’t recall any in depth discussion from ancient writers, for example, about Alexander’s motives, or the justice of his cause.  They simply don’t matter.  Cortes operated within a much different (and certainly superior) moral framework that calls much of the Spanish enterprise into question.
  • Of course we cannot discount the fact that, however well intentioned Cortes may have been, those that followed often exploited the natives for wealth and personal gain.  We should not directly blame Cortes for this, but his association with it taints him inevitably, and perhaps with some justice.

Of course unlike Alexander, Cortes never killed those close to him out of paranoia or political expediency (i.e. as Alexander did with Parmenio and Callisthenes), nor did he murder his friends in fits of drunken rage (Cleitus).  But these acts usually get overlooked amidst the grandeur of Gaugemela.

Whatever we may think of Cortes, sifting through accumulated historiography about him is a tricky business, especially in light of his own words.


8th Grade: The Possible Alexanders


This week we examined the brief and turbulent life of Alexander the Great, a man who has enthralled people for centuries.  No one conquered more people quicker than he.  Of course, his early death immortalized him and helps us tend to see his successes.

I offered the students four different ways of thinking about Alexander, adopted by different historians in different times and places.

  1. Historian J.F.C. Fuller sees in Alexander one the great men of the ancient world.  In him we see statesman, philosopher, and man of action all rolled into one.  He at times sunk to the morals of his time, but often rose above them.
  2. Some see Alexander as the embodiment of a romantic ideal, a young boy out to change the world, an idealist visionary.  A variation of this view would be one that does not see Alexander in primarily moral terms, but views him as a “force of nature.”  We do not call a tornado good or bad, but we cannot help but stand and stare, perhaps even in spite of ourselves.
  3. Some see him as a great military leader, but a failed statesman.  Great generals win battles, but great statesman get men to transform their view of the world.  Regardless of how we view Alexander’s desire to unite East and West, he failed to sell this to his men and his dream collapsed.
  4. Still others, like Victor Davis Hanson, see in Alexander a common thug, a man who lived to kill.  He massacred Thebans and most in Tyre after their defeats.  Like Stalin, most of those close to him ended up dead.  He demanded practices like prostration, and may have believed what his mother told him, that he was the Son of Zeus.  Hanson sees admiration for Alexander as dangerous, a symptom of boredom and our will to escape this boredom through death.

This image of Alexander, though made long after his death, captures something of his madness, focus, brilliance, and lust for conquest:









The battle that defined Alexander’s life and career was Guagemela in 331 B.C.

He had already beaten the Persians decisively twice, but this time Darius III, king of Persia, seemed to have learned his lesson.  He choose a wide open plain for battle, which could maximize his numeric advantage which was probably at least 5-1.  He brought with him chariots, one of the fearsome weapons of the ancient world.  He gave more heavy weaponry to his infantry.

Many of Alexander’s advisors urged him to wait, to go around, or perhaps fight Darius at night.  Alexander would have none of it.  He would not, he argued, “steal his victory.”

How did an army of around 45,000 defeat an army at least 5x its size?

Part of understanding Alexander’s victory is to see that many problems that most generals traditionally worried about Alexander felt he could ignore.  For example, most generals would take troops to protect supplies, but Alexander didn’t mind if the Persians raided his supplies.  If he won the battle, he could march straight to Babylon and have all the supplies he needed.

Alexander also believed that he make up for his lack of numbers by speed.  In fact, he probably hoped that the deficiency in his own numbers might provoke the Persians to over-commit themselves in a certain area, leaving a gap in their lines.  By a lightning quick cavalry thrust from what may have been the best cavalry in the known world at the time, Alexander could cause panic and confusion in the ranks, and once that set in, Persia’s numbers would work against them.  Imagine a horrible accident on the interstate that forces people to turn around and redirect their route.  In that case, this redirection would be much more easily accomplished with fewer numbers.  The large amount of cars, or people in our case at Guagemela, would make for nightmarish confusion.

Here are a couple of depictions of how things went.

It was the gap in the Persians indicated by the map directly above, that gave Alexander the opening he needed.  He plunged through and rode right at Darius, who lost his nerve and fled.

I confess that I am cheating a bit with the image above, because most think that this mosaic depicted Darius’s flight at the Battle of Issus two years earlier.   But accurate or not, Darius fled the scene in both battles, and this, just as much as Alexander’s cavalry charge, cost the Persians the battle.

Guagemela stands for all time as Alexander’s most impressive victory and crowning achievement.  It also may have marked a turning point in his character.  Darker elements always latent in him rose to the surface much more often than before.  Alexander’s dreadful moral collapse will be the subject of our study next week.

Many thanks,

Dave Mathwin