8th Grade: The Parthenon

Greetings,

Recently we spent time looking at the Parthenon in Athens, in my opinion one of the greatest buildings ever constructed.  I think that looking at architecture is one of the best ways to gain insight into the past.  I didn’t come up with this idea, but borrowed it from the man to whom this site pays homage.  As I have said before, a civilization might throw a banking system together haphazardly, but would not do so with a sculpture.  And buildings, more so than individual works of genius, reveal more because they involve the mind and skills of whole civilizations.

Here is what the building probably looked like ca. 435 B.C.

Parthenon Original

They built it atop of their Acropolis, the highest point in the city which served as Athens’ religious epicenter.

Acropolis Recreation

The building as it looks today. . .

Of course most people when first gazing upon the Parthenon usually think, “Yes it’s good, but what’s the big deal?”  We understand instinctively perhaps the influence this style has had on western culture.  Banks, the Supreme Court, and almost any other building that wants to convey wisdom and trust copy this style.  That in itself should clue us in that the Athenians had something special in their design, but we have to look closely to see the real genius of the Athenians.

When we look at tall buildings like skyscrapers on the Washington Monument, at least from certain angles, the buildings do not appear straight.  Built with 90 degree right angles, our eyes fail to perceive the perfectly straight.  I don’t understand the science of why this happens, but we have all experienced it.  Part of it has to do with how our converging line of sight deceives us.  For example. . .

the top line appears longer, but is in fact the same size as the bottom line.  In this second image the middle lines appear bowed, but are perfectly straight.

The Athenians understood this and built the Parthenon to compensate for the tricks our eyes play.  Each column has extremely slight variations throughout its many cylinders, sometimes with fractions of a millimeter the only thing distinguishing one block from another.  But the cumulative effect compensates for our vision and always makes the columns appear perfectly straight.  The following images exaggerate the effect, but give us the basic idea of what the Greeks accomplished:

Parthenon Columns

In fact a close look at the Parthenon reveals few right angles.  Each of the thousands of column drums remains an unique construction to that particular column.  This is not a lego set of interchangeable parts, but each part of the building stands as work of art unto itself.  If you have the time and interest, this video, and especially the last 30 minutes, give a good overview of their techniques in creating this building.

We can and should marvel at its construction, but we should go one step further and ask what the Parthenon means, and whey the Athenians built it as they did.  In class we focused on a few key areas:

  • The Greek Ideal of Perfection

In much of their philosophy and politics, the Greeks searched for the abstract ideal beyond the visible, a trend that would not really shift until Aristotle.  The Romans, for example, or at least the early Republican Romans, rarely idealized people when depicting them,

Cato the Elder

but we can say with only slight exaggeration that the Greeks did nothing but idealize people in their sculpture.

The Athenians went to tremendous lengths to bring make this ideal of perfection at least  seem  real among them in stone.

  • A Theological Statement

In theory, the Athenians built the Parthenon as a temple to Athena.  Originally a huge 35 foot statue of Athena overlaid in gold stood right at the center inside the building.  But architecture rarely lies.  The figures on the outside of the Parthenon tell a different story.  Here the Athenians put sculptures of Athenian heroes, with the clear intent of showing that the gods and men can intermingle, that Athens itself can achieve the perfection the gods embody.

That, at least, is one interpretation.

But another interpretation argues that this “temple” to Athena merely served as a cover for their true (even if subconscious) intent to glorify themselves.  It would be as if we built a church and called it “Trinity Church,” but put images of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, etc. throughout (this actually begs the question of whether or not American flags should reside in churches, or perhaps whether or not the Capitol building is a church of sorts).

  • Mankind as the Measure

The Greek philosopher Protagoras has received a lot of bad press over the years for his comment that, “Man is the measure of all things,” and deservedly so.  But before we critique him we should understand the context of what he said and ask ourselves if the Greek gods were good “measures” of things.  Clearly, Protagoras and other philosophers had a measure of genuine spiritual insight in rejecting standard Greek religion as a guide for their lives.  The gods lived lives free of consequence, free of any restraint other than the power of other gods.

In the Parthenon the Greeks did not use the “eternal” or “mystical” dimensions as in the pyramids.  Some suggest that the proportions of the building in fact reflect the proportions found in the human body, as represented in Da Vinci’s famous “Vitruvian Man” (named after a famous Roman architect).

Vitruvian Man

What exactly the Greeks meant by this phrase, “man is the measure of all things” is not clear to me, at least. It may have been a statement of moral relativism, or it may have been a theological/cosmological assertion that mankind functioned as a “microcosm” of the cosmos itself.  After all, we have physical elements to our being and spiritual elements.   Our higher, “heavenly” aspect (the intellect) guides our “lower,” more earthly parts, and so on.  Again, I’m not sure how to unwrap this phrase, and I’m happy to add it to the list of mysteries surrounding the Parthenon.

Blessings,

Dave

Advertisements

8th Grade: All Good Things Must Come to an End

Greetings,

This week we saw the great golden age of Periclean Athens collapse into the abyss of the Peloponnesian War.  We began the week by asking why “Golden Ages” tend to last not much longer than a generation.

  • Some suggest that the success and power a golden age brings would bring about the envy of others, and this envy could turn into a threat.
  • Another might suggest that the generation that grew up with the ‘golden age’ in place would likely have a much different experience than their parents.  I found this comment especially perceptive.  As we saw last week, golden ages usually arise from a creative response to a particular challenge.  Those that grow up without the challenge won’t have the experience or ‘training’ to continue what their parents started.
  • Last week we also noted how golden ages require a variety of factors coming together at once, some physical and others psychological.  No one can reasonably keep all the plates spinning for long.  Eventually nature dictates that something will begin to spin off the axis sooner or later, and this will drag other things down with it.

Some of their comments did in fact apply directly to the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War, especially#1.  Athens went from plucky underdog in 490 B.C. to the then equivalent of the New York Yankees or New England Patriots by 431 B.C.  Many city-states lined up against them with Sparta. We did not spend a great deal of time on the war itself, as during their senior year we devote a few weeks entirely to this conflict and the issues it raises, but we did touch on a few key points

1. How in war the unexpected and unforeseen can occur

Of course the unforeseen can always occur, in war or at any other point.  But since war requires a great deal of planning, many assume that the conflict will go as we wish.  The making of the plans itself creates that expectation.  Yet, in war as in life, things rarely go according to our preconceived version of events.

2. Peace treaties may not be what they seem

After 10 years of intermittent conflict, both Athens and Sparta signed a treaty called the Peace of Nicias.  But treaties in name may not be in fact.  Some treaties bring real peace, some only reflect a desire to call a ‘time out’ in the fighting.  Unfortunately for Athens, this treaty turned out to be one of the latter.

3. War Stresses Democracy

War will put stress on any form of government and any society.  Some wars brought down monarchies — like W.W. I.  We assume that democracies are more stable, but the Peloponnesian War brought out many weaknesses within Athenian democracy and for a time ended it within Athens.  We looked at how desperation and panic act on a democratic people in the battle of Arginusae.  The Athenians won this battle, but the generals failed to pick up the dead and give them proper burial, something that could be considered sacrilege, and sacrilege could be punished by death.  Grief stricken, the city put the generals on trial, found them guilty, and executed them.  A few days later they regretted their actions. They put the lawyer who prosecuted the generals on trial for murder, found him guilty, and executed him also.

Ostensibly, Sparta won the Peloponnesian War.  But in truth the war had no real winners in Southern Greece.  All exhausted themselves in the conflict.  Thebes, involved in the conflict but slightly to the north, emerged as the strongest party in the more immediate aftermath of the war.  But it would be Macedon, further still to the north, and never involved in the fighting at all, that would eventually assert absolute supremacy over Greece in the person of Phillip of Macedon and his son Alexander.  We’ll look at them next week.

You can see the geography of it below here, with everything pink or yellow caught up in the fighting (with even blue areas involved sporadically), and Macedon waiting patiently above in brown.

Peloponnesian War

For those of you who have seen From Russia with Love, the scene where “Number 1” talks about the Siamese Fighting Fish is a good parallel, if we think of Macedon as the fish who stays out of the fight.

8th Grade: Finding the Persian Center of Gravity

Greetings,

This week we focused on The Persian Wars, a conflict that historians claim marks a transition point between Eastern and Western dominance.  Persia staked a lot of their invasion, and their failure would lead to the rise of Greece in general, and Athens in particular.  Our main focus Thursday and Friday lay with  the Battle of Salamis, one of the more crucial naval engagements of the ancient world.  As I mentioned back in September, one of the things we focus on this year and throughout the history curriculum is how to make choices.  This can be applied in a  variety of different settings, and this week I wanted the students to consider that on the level of strategy and tactics.
  • The Fleets

The Persian fleet was bigger, with a variety of incorporated Greek city-states that had surrendered to Persia.  Ionians, Phonecians, Egyptians and more went into the mixture.  In general, their ships were lighter and faster.  Athens controlled the Greek fleet, and in general they had heavier, bulkier ships.  But the weight of the ships did perhaps produce an innovation, that of a ramming prow.  This in turn, led to a change in how the Athenians fought.  Whereas most ancient navies wanted to get close and board other ships, the Athenians wanted to use their prow to ram other ships and sink them with a broadside charge.The Persians had sacked Athens, and the Athenians in desperation abandoned their city, got in their boats, and headed for the island of Salamis.

  • The Questions:
  1. Would an immediate battle be more to the Persians advantage, or the Greeks?
  2. If a battle were to be fought, what side would have the advantage in wide open water?  What about in more narrow confines?

I enjoyed the student responses to this question, and most of them did get around to seeing that

  • Battle now definitely favored the Greeks, and
  • The geography of the Bay of Salamis definitely favored the Greeks.
 Bay of Salamis
  • Why?
The Athenians needed a battle.  The Persians did not.  With Athens abandoned they could have simply occupied the city, and hemmed in the fleet at Salamis.  If they wait eventually a tired and bedraggled fleet would have to come out of hiding and face the Persians on their terms.  Fighting in the bay itself would mean narrower corridors where the Persians could not use their numbers and speed to their full effect.  Think of a heavier boxer vs. a lighter, quicker opponent.  The heavier one (Athens) seeks to trap or corner the other to take away his advantage.  By fighting in the bay, the Persian fleet gave up much of its advantage.
  • The Result
Again, with so many of our choices there are no guarantees.  We must weigh the options and make our best guess. But it is important not to choose blindly.  So why then, did the Persians attack the Greeks?Here we are back, at least possibly, to the personality of Xerxes.   We saw that both Herodotus and the Book of Esther show us a king who was not wicked, but perhaps indolent, and someone who tended to flit from one thing to another.  Note that Esther 1 begins by describing lavish parties amidst opulent splendor. Herodotus mentions that Xerxes wanted the invasion over as soon as possible.  Ideally, of course, the Persians should have bottled up the fleet, entrenched themselves in the city, and watch Athens suffocate to death.  When Themistocles sent a messenger to lie to the Persians about the disorder in the Greek ranks, the Persians jumped at the chance and moved into the bay to attack.  Xerxes seems a suggestible, impatient type.  “Let’s get this over with. . .”  The result was a complete victory for the Greeks.  It turned the tide of the whole Persian invasion.  Having been smacked on the nose, Xerxes decided enough was enough.  He withdrew most of his navy from the region.  His infantry at current levels could not live off the land in Greece, and besides, winter approached.  Without the navy to supply them, Xerxes withdrew a good portion of his troops back to Persia.  The Battle of Platea in 479 BC would, for all intents and purposes, finish them off.
  • The “Center of Gravity”
Clausewitz used the term “center of gravity” to describe what one colonel described as a “factor of balance” in a campaign.  This does not have to be something purely physical, but in this case, the “factor of balance” in the Persian Wars would surely include control of the sea.  In invading Greece en masse as they did, Persia made naval superiority a key to the campaign.  But for about 75 years prior to this they concentrated their strength on their infantry.  They did not play to their strength. But we might also conclude that the whims of Xerxes would constitute part of the “center of gravity.”  The Book of Esther gives us clues.  Note how casually he decides on the Jews destruction, and how quickly he reverses course.  Of course, it’s good that he changed his mind!  My point, however, is that Xerxes never seemed fitted for the role of a noble kingly persona.  He would much rather not be bothered.  In every conflict, the hidden factor can often be each combatant’s internal political system.  In this case, the nascent democracy of Athens had an advantage over the indolent monarchy of Persia.

8th Grade: Solon and the Occupy Movement

Greetings,

This week we looked at the esteemed Athenian statesman Solon.
Solon of AthensThe ancient world regarded Solon as a great sage, but as we saw, his head was not in the clouds.  He took a society ready to fly apart at the seams and left it with an established social context in which democracy could take root.  I wanted to highlight a few key lessons.

First, the background:

Before Solon there was Draco, a member of the Athenian aristocracy.  His name itself came to symbolize harsh governmental policy, i.e. a ‘Draconian’ law.  His policies helped cement the divide between rich and poor and threatened to make it wider. This dynamic is not unusual.  When one group in society separates itself from others because of wealth or status, they tend to fear the rest of society, and thus, isolate themselves all the more.  This increased distance only requires more force to ensure the divide.  One can think of the ante-bellum South, for example, and various laws enacted that made it a crime to educate slaves.  Society built like this can’t last for long.

Enter Solon.

He recognized a few key things:

  • Society needs the rich.  One can argue that the rich abused their power but they are still Athenian. Secondly, their resources can benefit Athens.  If we heal the fear between the two groups we can create opportunity for the wealthy to feel a bit more free with their resources.
  • The divide between rich and poor must be healed if we are to survive.  This will require sacrifice from the rich
  • This led to what may have been Solon’s invention, and may not have been — an early version of a graduated income tax.

No one likes to pay taxes.  One of the reasons for this is that no one really knows where their money goes.  It gets dropped into a vast ocean, never to be heard from again.  Solon did things differently.  He did not ask for a direct sum from the wealthy, but offered them an opportunity.  The wealthy could fund specific projects.  They could just pay directly for a religious festival, a bridge, or a naval warship.  Of course, they could also get full credit for their funding, i.e., ‘This festival to Athena sponsored by Diodotus.’  So, paying taxes became a way to earn ‘kleos.’  The wealthy could contribute in how much they gave.  Enhancing the well being of Athens was directly connected with enhancing their own status in the community.  Solon therefore made paying ones taxes a way for the wealthy to maintain and even enhance their “kleos.”

We should not view this as “taxes,” in any sense of the modern world.  First of all, they were not precisely calculated to income, only loosely.  Secondly, they came with no direct legal obligation.  Solon erected a social framework where aristocratic status came with a kind of obligation, perhaps an early form of noblesse oblige.  We see this idea reflected in various ways up until quite recently in the western world, the idea that you demonstrated your status by public service.

Problem solved.

Could this apply today?  We are much too big to do what Solon did on any appreciable scale.  Yet I wonder, with the ‘Occupy’ movement and other kinds of resentment against the wealthy building, if we couldn’t borrow his ideas. What if we did this for the very rich, and put their faces on front pages with captions like, “Warren Buffet posing with fighter jet paid for with his taxes,” or something like this.  Would this help?

But, we should note that if we had a competition of fame/honor in paying taxes to the government, that would imply a certain relationship and attitude towards our government.  As we discussed, what we think of Solon in parts depends on what one thinks about the purpose of law and government.  Many of us think from a Roman context where law has an essentially “negative” character; i.e., the law tells you what not to do.  Greek concepts of law had different goals in mind.  The Greeks saw law as a tool to help shape the souls of individuals and communities.  Greek law did not alwys say, “You must do this,” (with Sparta as an exception), but it did seek to produce certain definite outcomes.

Solon did not create democracy in Athens, but he established a context for it to exist. Democracy cannot exist everywhere.  If the majority have an “us v. them” attitude then they will use their power to get revenge or exploit the “them,” whether they be rich or poor, black or white, etc.  In this environment, society will become cancerous and destroy itself.  Democracy can only really work when the power of the majority does not just represent merely the majority, but in some sense all the people.  In our own age of bitter partisanship and resistance to compromise, we would do well to take Solon’s wisdom to heart.

Blessings,

Dave Mathwin

8th Grade: Enslaving Others, Enslaving the Self

Greetings,

This week we looked at Spartan civilization and began our look at the beginnings of democracy in Athens.  We will have a test next week on Early Greece.

We began our look at Sparta by examining its geography.  They had access to a limited water supply via a river, but otherwise a variety of mountains nestled them inland, and they had little contact with the sea.  We have seen this kind of geography before — in Assyria.  Geography never commands, but it does suggest, and like Assyria, Sparta developed with an almost exclusive focus on warfare.  One historian commented

When the Spartans found their ploughlands too narrow for their population, they did not turn their eyes to the sea, like the Corinthians or Megarians.   The sea is not visible either from Sparta city or at any point on the Spartan plain.  The natural feature which dominates the Spartan landscape is the towering mountain range of Taygetus.

Archeological records indicate a significant shift in Spartan civilization sometime around the year 730 B.C.  According to tradition a group of Dorian Greeks invaded Sparta successfully, and became the “new” Spartans, enslaving the locals called Messenians.  But they quickly faced a problem.  The Messenians vastly outnumbered them and had already attempted one revolt.  It seemed likely that other revolts would follow, and eventually they would overwhelm their conquerors.

The Spartans could have retreated, or they could have simply slaughtered the inhabitants and moved on somewhere else.  But their solution to the problem seems uniquely Greek to me.  They transformed their society by militarizing it, making every male a soldier, allowing themselves to continually have a challenge to master.  All this provided extra opportunity for showing “arete,” or, “excellence.”  No longer could one choose to be a shoemaker, farmer, and so on.  By 620 B.C., after the second war between Sparta and its enslaved population, every male now carried a spear, and the slaves grew the food.  Herodotus records one  Greek commenting to the Persians in 480 B.C. that

Free though the Spartans are, they are not free altogether.  They too serve a master in the shape of Law.  They show this by doing whatever their master orders, and his orders are always the same: ‘In action it is forbidden to retire in the face of the enemy forces of whatever strength.  Troops are to keep their formation and either conquer or die.

They sacrificed everything to make this happen.  Making every male a soldier, and using the slaves to farm did consolidate their conquest.  But 1) All traces of cultural creativity disappeared, 2) No personal freedom of job, lifestyle, or travel, was allowed, 3) Boys were separated from their families at a young age, 4) Slave economies lack effeciency, so resources were precious.  Any infant deemed physically unfit was usually killed, and so on.  Spartan society  ‘stopped’ in sense.  But they developed the most feared heavy infantry force in ancient Greece, and that was enough to give them power and influence.

This ideal impacted their marriages.  They arranged to have the strongest men marry the strongest women to create the best chances of strong sons.  If marriages did not produce strong children, they were encouraged to look elsewhere.  Women bought into this ideal as well.  They spent their time training their bodies to have children.

Their society had all the strength of a high powered rifle bullet.  Powerful, yes, but narrow in its application.  The Spartans sacrificed what most would consider to be the things that made life worth living, such as personal freedoms, family life, cultural experiences, etc.  Truly, you are what you worship.

Was it worth it?  Some might argue that their slaves lived better lives than the Spartans.  It appears they had more variety in their diet, and possibly more personal freedom as to who they married.  Of course, they had harsh lives under the constant watch of Spartan overlords, but did the Spartans live much better?  The Spartan world and lifestyle had all the narrowness of slavery.  The old adage, “This will hurt me more than it hurts you,” might stand true for the Spartan regime.

Aristotle wrote the best epitaph of the Spartan system, saying,

Peoples ought not to train themselves in the art of war with an eye to subjugating neighbors who do not deserve subjugation. . . . The paramount aim of any social system should be to frame military institutions, like all social institutions, with an eye to peace-time, when the soldier is off duty; and this proposition is borne out by the facts of experience.  For militaristic states are apt to survive only so long as they remain at war, while they go to ruin as soon as they complete their conquests.  Peace causes their metal to lose its temper; and the fault lies with the social system which does not teach its soldiers what to make of their lives when off duty.

Arnold Toynbee concurred and wrote,

The superhuman–or inhuman–fixity of Sparta’s posture, like the [doom] of Lot’s wife, was manifestly a curse and not a blessing.

Blessings,

Dave

8th Grade: Victory and Defeat

Greetings,

This week we looked at the Trojan War and its aftermath in Greece.

In some ways the Trojan War belongs to province of literature rather than history, because no real “history” books describe the events as we know them.  But that does beg the question, what is evidence?  Is Homer’s Illiad a kind of historical evidence for the Trojan War?   That of course depends.  As part of our study of the Trojan War we looked at different kinds of historical evidence, and the strengths of each.

The points in favor of “Historical Accounts” seem obvious to most:

  • We know the author, and we assume that either he was a eyewitness himself, or had access to eyewitnesses, or access to the records of eyewitnesses.
  • The fixed nature of the text means the story cannot change over time.

But we should be careful not to discount Oral Tradition

  • Do we unnecessarily give undue weight to books merely because they are written down?  Why is reading a book more trustworthy than hearing a story?
  • Books have a fixed text, but many times we remain at the author’s mercy.  He may  twist and distort the truth in his writing, and we give it extra weight because it is writing.
  • Books are the product of one man, but oral tradition comes from whole communities.  Thus, some argue, oral tradition has more external checks upon its veracity than texts.

Archeological evidence is both the strongest and weakest of the three

  • Archeology gives us direct access to the past, often times unfiltered.
  • But, in contrast to texts or traditions, archeology usually gives us only a fragment of the story, and must be fitted into a larger context that archeology often cannot provide.

The best extended treatment I have seen of the evidence for the Trojan War is Michael Wood’s In Search of the Trojan War.  Unfortunately, this video series is nearly 35 years old and parts of it stand outdated.  Time has tended to confirm and extend evidence for the conflict.  If interested you can view a more “popular” (and shorter) account here

The aftermath of the conflict did not turn out as the Greeks no doubt hoped.  We know the Greeks plundered Troy for gold, jewels, and slaves, and we might expect that this sudden influx of cash, and the long-awaited return of its leaders might lead Greece into a golden age.

In fact the opposite happened, and Greece descended into a dark age that lasted somewhere between two and four centuries.  It certainly appears at least that the immediate aftermath of the Trojan War brought general dissolution to the Greek mainland.

Why did this happen?

In the end we can do little better than speculate, but in class we advanced a few theories:

  • In winning the war, Greece won the lottery.  But by a decent margin, lottery winners report that their winnings made them less happy, not more.  The added wealth brings added stress, and conflict over that wealth with much higher stakes.  Perhaps the same thing happened to Greece on a grand scale.
  • Civilizations, like individuals,  tend to thrive when responding to a challenge.  Greece especially emphasized this through their doctrine and practice of arete.  But the massive cash infusion might have made them rest on their laurels, making them less vigilant about things in general.
  • The Trojan War took most of Greece’s leaders away for 10+ years, according to tradition.  When parents go out for the night they have a talk with their kids — “be good to your babysitter, or when I get home I’ll ask how you behaved and then you will be punished.”  Thus, babysitters have a delegated, proxy authority in the eyes children.  But what if mom and dad never came home?  Would the sitter still have authority?

I asked students to envision what would happen if, on their block, every parent went out for the night, and everyone had a sitter.  But, only 2/3 of the parents returned to their homes, leaving the sitters there permanently.  Without mom and dad to enforce the sitters’ word, their authority would collapse almost immediately.  What would happen to the block?  If even just five parents did not return, what would happen to the “society” of the block, and its social interaction?  When we realize that many “parents” of various Greek provinces did not return from Troy, we can imagine the results for the whole of Greek society.

Dark Ages usually occur when fear and instability lead to isolation, and then isolation leads to a breakdown in the way society functions.  Perhaps this is what happened with Greece.  Dealing with failure requires careful thought and wise action, but so to does dealing with success.

Next week we will leapfrog a few centuries and focus on how Sparta and Athens emerge from the Dark Ages.

Blessings,

Dave

Mayan Collapse and the NFL’s City-State Culture

I wish I had tried harder in math class. I always said to myself that I would never have to use all those formulas in real life, but it turns out that it would have dramatically aided my appreciation of John Lowe’s book on the mystery of the collapse of Mayan Civilization, The Dynamics of Apocalypse: A Systems Simulation of the Classic Maya Collapse.

I usually enjoy historical works that focus on the bigger picture, or at least connect a smaller scale event to something larger. But I know its also important to turn the binoculars around sometimes, and Lowe’s book accomplishes this well. I don’t mind his narrow and technical focus. Had I understood more math (most of it appears to be geo-spatial formulas) I surely would have understood his arguments better, but he does a decent job of summarizing the conclusions of all his deductions.

The mystery surrounding the apparently sudden collapse of Mayan civilization draws many different theories. What makes the case more curious still is that certain areas of Mayan civilization continued to thrive after other areas stopped functioning practically on a dime. Some speculate that the Mayans simply abandoned some large urban areas for reasons unknown.

Lowe begins by dealing with various theories of collapse he rejects.

The Environmental Argument

Lowe admits that many archaeologists find themselves drawn to ecological arguments because the two sciences lend themselves to similar kinds of analysis. But the evidence points away from this. Rainfall remained steady or increased in depopulated regions. Perhaps one might wish to say that the abandoned areas had too much rain and got choked by the jungle, but no . . . other swampy Mayan population sites experienced no depopulation.

Some suppose an over-extension of farming or denudation of soil quality. But no–Rowe points out that the Mayans used different kinds of sophisticated farming techniques that would have kept soil relatively healthy. Of course some form of soil erosion took place. In fact, most of it took place in the northeast Petan region. But again–this region experienced depopulation last among Mayan cities.

Disease

Others suppose disease wiped out the Mayans. But if the Mayans had an interconnected civilization that remained relatively homogenous ethnically, why did this disease not wipe out all of them? Most of the truly virulent diseases have their roots in the Old World, and the Old World would not visit the Mayans until some 600 years after the Mayan collapse.

W.H. McNeil proposed something along the Roman model. As he saw it, disease was not solely responsible for Rome’s collapse, but contributed greatly to it. Two plagues struck Rome in the 2nd and 3rd centuries A.D. and had the net effect of depopulating the countryside, setting in motion a chain of events from which Rome was not culturally or politically healthy enough to recover from. But whereas we have plenty of internal evidence for the plagues in Rome, all of the written accounts we have from the Mayans indicate that disease played no factor. Some later sources indicate how healthy people were before the Spanish came. If we cannot rule disease out absolutely, we can safely call it unlikely to have contributed to a collapse.

Ideological Collapse

Much of the rest of the book deals with the more sophisticated and slippery arguments surrounding Mayan beliefs. The basic approach of these scholars argues that, however much certain physical factors might have contributed, the main cause of the fall must have its roots in Mayan religious beliefs.

We know that, for example, the Mayans had a strong sense of cyclical time. D.E. Puleston argues that the general collapse came at the end of an important 250 year cycle, and perhaps the Mayans believed in the need for a general “reset” of their civilization. But the holes in this theory reside in that not all of the Mayans obeyed this “reset,” if it occurred. And other time cycles don’t quite fit the model, so Lowe finds this explanation lacking.

Others, seeing that very specific modeling of ideology can’t quite fit, propose a more general internal negative feedback loop, of sorts. Conditions deteriorate, which makes you double-down on the system of belief, which makes you pour more resources into that system that already leaks. The extra pressure on the system causes it to leak even more, leading to collapse. Rowe remains open to this approach, but it cannot arise to anything more than the level of a guess.

Rowe runs the risk of subjecting everything to such rigorous examination (and complicated mathematical formulas), that he runs the risk of cutting the beef so thin no one can see it. But he eventually gives some of his own theories, which rely on the historical city-state collapse model of ancient Greece and Mesopotamia. Before examining this, I admire that someone with such an analytical bent as Rowe can consider some historical parallels and other paths that one cannot strictly measure.

The city-state model has the advantage of keeping both independence and interdependence at play simultaneously. This flexibility ideally can make them more creative and adaptive. They avoid putting all eggs in one basket, and can theoretically benefit from innovations other city-states make. But the intricacy of the system can make them vulnerable as well. The Greeks stopped cooperating and left themselves vulnerable to assimilation from the north (just as the Mayans from the south likely assimilated to the northern regions) in the form of Macedonia. When cooperation against a possible hegemon remained impossible or ineffectual, the whole house of cards comes tumbling down.

This may not be quite fair to Rowe. While I admire his book, Rowe is much more clear with his writing when critiquing other theories. He has had time stating a positive truth clearly, held back by all the possible caveats that no doubt lurk in his brain. I may not have read him accurately, especially at this point of the book.

I think his idea of a political collapse has merit, but I believe we need more focus on the ideological explanations. For example, one can say that the Mayans stopped cooperating, but they appeared physically able to do so if they wished. Why didn’t they, then? You can argue for the power of a northern Mayan hegemon akin to Alexander the Great, but the historical record doesn’t indicate this. Even if it did, it still could not explain why the Mayans could not cooperate.

Alas, I have nowhere near the familiarity with Mayan belief systems to propose anything specific. But I can suggest an analogous situation to illustrate my point with the Redskins and the NFL.

First, we can view the NFL as a civilization of city-states. The NFL has customs and laws shared by every team, but every team has its own independent leaders and cultures. Some teams are healthier than others, but all share in a degree of common fate. The city-state model roughly works.Now, the Redskins. In the early phases of their existence the team had a very modest amount of success. They entered their “golden era” around the early 1970’s, and it lasted until January 1992 with their last Super Bowl victory. I lived through this golden era and it was gloriously fun.

Such a run of success created an enormous cache of goodwill among the fans. I have no wish to make this anti-Dan Snyder post or to catalog the many abuses of fan goodwill and the terrible decisions from the late 1990’s until today. There is more here for those interested. But, many outward edifices of a successful team still appeared in place. Fans came to games, fans cheered their team, paid for jerseys, the team made money, etc. One of the puzzling things about the Mayan collapse is that certain elements of their civilization, such as the high quality of their pottery, lasted right up until the end. We see this too with Roman coins. They maintain their weight and intricate design for decades after most historians (with the possible exception of Gibbon) mark the beginning of the end.

This year the team started 6-3 and seemed playoff-bound in a weak NFC East. But underneath lay definite problems, such as terrible performances for key home games, fans and players feuding, etc. And then, suddenly, for the last game of the year–utter collapse, as Eagles fans outnumbered Redskins fans at least 2-1 in the Redskins stadium.

The Redskins had issues in the past with other teams’ fans buying up tickets. The problem came in spurts for different teams, especially big name teams like the Steelers. But for a divisional rival . . . nothing like this has ever come close to happening before.

Of course the NFL can absorb one terribly dysfunctional team. The NFL, for now, need not worry too much. Faith in the “shield” continues on. But, imagine a scenario where

  • The Redskins don’t recover anytime soon and become dead weight in the league
  • A few other franchises (perhaps Jacksonville, Tampa Bay, the Jets) slide into similar positions
  • The concussion and player safety issue grows in importance
  • Domestic abuse and other player issues continue

Then we might see a very sudden collapse of faith, and a sudden exodus from stadiums and television sets. One might imagine abandoned stadiums to accompany abandoned temples.