8th Grade: Cyrus and the Medo-Persian Empire

Greetings,

This week we began our next civilization, Medo-Persia, and began the story of the origin of Cyrus the Great as told by Herodotus.

There are those who dispute the story’s accuracy.   It does resemble in some ways the stories of both Moses and Paris of Troy.  We can trust the Moses story, but we need not immediately discount the Cyrus story merely for that it resembles the story of Moses. The story of Paris seems to reside in myth and folklore, but again, this should not immediately preclude the veracity of the Cyrus story.  These are interesting questions to ponder, and I don’t know if we can find absolute answers.  What it obvious is that it is a great story.  If you ask your children about it, I’m hoping they can retell it to you if you would like.  You can find it in full online in Herodotus’ Histories in Book 1, beginning in chapter 107.

The Persian Empire had its flaws, but did most things right and represented a vast improvement over the Babylonian, and especially the Assyrian empire.  Some of this had to do with historical coincidence, but a lot of it had to do with the values and practices of Cyrus, the empire’s founder.

Some things to note. . .

1. Cyrus arose to power at a time when no other dominant power dominated the ancient Near East.  Egypt had been on the wane for some time, Assyria was destroyed, and the Babylonians had lost their former shine.  Thus, Cyrus was able to expand by slowly incorporating smaller kingdoms into his realm, without a major challenge posed by any other empire.

2. I think the biggest factor, however, was Cyrus’s foreign policy/diplomacy.  According to Herodotus, he set the tone during his usurpation of the Mede King Astyages.  Cyrus was half Mede, half Persian.  Conquering the Medes in the traditional sense would have meant conquering himself.  He spares Astyages and integrates Median and Persian alike.

Cyrus used this same model for most all of his conquests.  He wanted expansion, but he also strove for incorporation and integration.  He tolerated a variety of customs and religions.  You got the benefits of security and participation in Cyrus’s growing network of trade and prosperity.  Very little about your daily life would change. True, the former king would be exiled to a distant palace, but Cyrus tried to promote from within.  He might use local lesser magistrates to rule in his stead.  In class I put it this way: If Cyrus conquered the U.S. he might exile the President and V.P., but perhaps promote the Senate Majority leader and Secretary of State.  He would create loyalty to himself by this, because those promoted would owe their position to him.  The transition of leadership would be softly felt by the locals.

It could be said that Cyrus positioned himself as a ‘liberator,’ and not a conqueror.  He could somewhat truthfully pledge that you would be better off under his dominion.  Slavery came close to disappearing in his realm.  The only thing he asked in exchange was that your army get attached to his and you pledged your loyalty to his person.  He succeeded like few others, and we will not see such effective empire builders until we look at Rome.  One sees something of his personality and humility in his surprisingly simple tomb.

This method of course differed significantly from others that we have seen so far.  One tremendous benefit of this method was that it appears that the Persians had far less slavery than previous civilizations.  As we progress, however, we will see that the splendid machine known as the Medo-Persian empire did have an Achilles heel. What, after all, did it mean to be Persian?  Can an empire’s identity revolve only around economic advantage and efficiency?  The other possible weak link was the army.  This was the one sticking point in an otherwise tolerant (at least for the time) regime.  They mandated and enforced military participation throughout their empire.  This army grew so huge and so multi-national that it might conquer merely by showing up.  But what held the army together?

The history of Persia will in some ways revolve around this question, as we shall see in the weeks to come.

 

Dave

 

8th Grade: Babylon’s “Ball of Confusion”

Greetings,

This week we began our look at Babylonian civilization.

Babylon had many things going for it.  They were the quintessential cosmopolitan city of the ancient world.  Their geography funneled trade, cash, and resources towards them.  Much of ancient learning concentrated itself there.  This would be a city in general more tolerant, vibrant, and diverse than most other cities in the ancient world.  I hope that the students remember our examination of the geographical influence of all of this.  ‘Cosmopolitan’ cities throughout history have to be accessible, which usually puts them in relatively flat areas near water.  One thinks of New York, London, and Los Angeles as examples.  Of course, such cities not only need favorable geography, but they need to be accessible and open-minded culturally as well.  Geography can bring you to water, but can’t make you drink.

But enormous cracks in the foundation lay below the surface.  Babylonian creation accounts paint a bleak picture: Ultimately things “come to be”  because of chaos and confusion amongst the gods.  Unlike in Genesis 1, creation had no intentionality or design behind it.  Nor can we say that the “good” gods triumphed over evil.  Rather, one side simply emerged as the stronger.  This impacted Babylonian thought in several ways:

  • Humanity is an afterthought that exists to be manipulated by the gods
  • Stability and order are generally absent (a stark contrast to Genesis 1).This chaos spilled over into other areas.
  • Sin, at root, was not your fault, as you could be ‘jumped’ by malicious spirits (jinn) who would lead you down the wrong path
  • Ishtar was their major goddess – goddess of love and marriage but also war and prostitution.  She was again, a goddess, but was often depicted with a beard.  The ambiguity was reflected in the statue of her to the side, which shows her as a warrior showing quite a bit of leg for an ancient goddess.
  • Not surprisingly, this gender confusion spilled over into society, as Herodotus tells us of the fad among society’s elite for cross-dressing
  • Not surprisingly, Babylon was known for its immorality, and notorious for its rampant temple prostitution, among other things.

A society where so much is left to chance is bound to try and find a way to explain it all, and this may have led to the Babylonian passion for dream interpretation.*  A whole list of possible dreams and their meanings was drawn up, but this did not necessarily help.  One tells us that if you dream that you eat meat you will have a son.  Later, it says that if you have meat in a dream you will not have a son.  How could one know the truth?

Or perhaps, with the mysteries of the universe completely unknowable, one might stop looking and settle for the ‘eat, drink, for tomorrow we die,’ philosophy.  It is any surprise that Babylon is conquered in Daniel 5 as they are partying?  Perhaps we might also surmise that Babylon’s endless possibilities led in the end to boredom.  We looked at this famous Babylonian text,

Babylon’s View of Life: “The Dialog of Pessimism,” (M stands for Master, S for slave)

M “Slave, agree with me!”

S “Yes, my lord, yes!”

M “I will love a woman!”

S “So love, my lord, love!

The man who loves a woman forgets want and misery!”

M “No, slave, I will not love  a woman!”

S “Love not, my lord, love not!

Woman is a snare, a trap, a pitfall;

Woman is a sharpened iron sword

Which will cut a young man’s neck!”

M “Slave, agree with me!”

S “Yes, my lord, yes!”

M “Straightaway order me water for my hands,

I will make a libation to my god!”

S “Do my lord, do!  As for the man who makes a libation

To his god, his heart is at ease;

He makes loan upon loan!”

M “No slave, I will not make a libation!”

S “Make it not, my lord, make it not!

Teach the god to run after thee like a dog.”

M “Slave, agree with me!”

S “Yes, my lord, yes!”

M “I will give money to my country.”

S “So do, my lord, so do!

The man who gives money to his land,

His alms have been put in the palms of the god

Marduk himself.”

M “No, slave, I will not give alms to my land!”

S “Do it not, my lord, do it not!

Look upon the ruined mounds of

Ancient cities and look around;

Behold the skulls of those of earlier and later times.

Who is the evildoer, who is the benefactor?”

M “Slave, agree with me!”

S “Yes, my lord, yes!”

M “Now then, what is good?

To break my neck and thy neck,

To fall into the river — that is good!”

S “Yes my lord.  Who is tall enough to reach up to heaven;

Who is broad enough that he might encompass the earth?

M “No slave, I will kill only you — you go first!”

S “But, you my lord, would not last three days after me!

Or consider this collection of Babylonian proverbs, which speak similarly:

Without relations, she conceived!  Without eating, she became fat!

When I labor, they take away my reward.  When I increase my efforts, who will give me anything?

The strong man is fed through the price of his hire, the weak man through the price of his child.

My feet keep walking, my knees do not tire, yet a foolish man pursues me with sorrow.

Am I not a thoroughbred steed?  Yet I am harnessed with a mule and must draw a wagon.

I dwell in a fancy house, yet some clay pours over me (i.e., the roof leaks).

The life of the day before yesterday is that of any day.

You are placed in a river and your water at once becomes stinking; you sit in an orchard and your fruit becomes bitter.

Will ripe grain grow?  How do we know?  Will dried grain grow?  Who can tell?

Very soon I will be dead.  Let me eat, drink, and spend.  Soon I will be well.  Let me save for later!

You go and take the field of your enemy.  The enemy comes and takes your field.  

The fox had a stick with him.  He asks, “Whom shall I hit?”  He has a legal document.  He asks, “Whom shall I challenge?”

No agreement can be reached when the women talk without ceasing.

Into an open mouth, a fly will enter!

The horse, after he had thrown his rider, lamented, “If my burden be like this always, soon I shall be weak!”

The dog understands: “Take it!”  He does not understand.  “Put it down!”

As I mentioned in class, in studying Egypt, Assyria, and Babylon–in that order–is not so much chronological but thematic in purpose. In Egypt, we see a self-contained, stable culture that highly valued stability and balance. With Assyria, we saw a culture that was ‘self-contained’ and homogeneous to a certain extent, but who highly valued movement. With Babylon, we have a a creation account that demonstrates chaos, and a geography that maximizes diversity. Each set of circumstances and beliefs creates different kinds of civilizations.

And–as long as we have ‘confusion’ as our theme, who can forget:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5HjUxggPd6E

Many thanks,

Dave

Impress Imbalance

I encourage my students to play, “Would you rather?” games, i.e., “Would you rather eat 500 live ants or 1 live cricket?” Often questions like this involve no specific moral quandary, but the practice of creating and defending mental hierarchies has great value, even when such hierarchies are relative. Comparing civilizations has something of the apples/oranges dilemma, I admit. And reigning cultural relativism tells us not to judge. But I believe that the mental process involved in deciding whether Greece was better than Rome, or in this case, whether or not Egypt has the leg up over Babylon, helps bring clarity and meaning to the study of history–even if one should hold on loosely to these kinds of distinctions.

Many have used various criteria for evaluating civilizations, such as how long they last, the power they accumulated, their technology, and so on. I think a better lens involves us seeing how each civilization aligns itself with the reality of creation–with the patterns and Truth found in the created order, available for any with eyes to see.

Henri Frankfurt’s Kingship and the Gods gives us more than a rundown of Egyptian and Sumerian/Babylonian kingship. He seeks to integrate religion and politics not just with their history, but also the geography and the general patterns of living from both cultures. He reveals his method early in the introduction, writing,

Mesopotamian society was entirely adapted to the cyclic succession of the seasons.  While each winter resolved its harshness in the spring and the plague of summer was succeeded by autumn rains, human society moved through a succession of seasons in which humanity joined in of the cosmic crisis of life, death, rain, and drought.  The [Babyonian] sees a dramatic conception played out in nature between the divine and the demoniac, between forces of order and chaos.

The most important seasonal celebrations in [Babylon]  centered around the bewailing of the death of Tammuz and his rebirth on the New Year–his victory over death  and his sacred marriage to the mother-goddess.

Egypt, too, reflected the natural rhythm of the seasons in the course of the official year.  But their celebrations differ profoundly in character from those in Babylon.  In the plain of the two rivers, the festivals were never free from anxiety, and those which we know best show a change from deep gloom to exaltation.  In Egypt, festivals provided the occasion to affirm that all was well, for Egypt viewed the universe as essentially static.  Revolts against the established order happened, but never got classified as anything more than a few ripples under the surface.

The rich Nile valley lies isolated and protected on both sides by a vast desert, while Mesopotamia lacks clear boundaries and was periodically assaulted on its fringes by mountain tribes.  Egypt derived its prosperity from the Nile, which never fails to rise, even if the floods differ in effectiveness.  But Babylon depended on uncertain rainfall and  the Tigris was an unaccountable, turbulent, and dangerous river. 

Some might then conclude that religion means nothing more than a natural phenomena, though Frankfurt himself does not suggest this.* Rather, Frankfurt wants to integrate our vision of each society–to see Egypt and the Egyptians as one and not many. When we pull back and see the integrated whole of a civilization, the impression they leave comes into greater focus.

If I had to choose between Egypt and Babylon, I would likely choose Egypt, but one of their key weaknesses lay in their failure to appreciate the feminine aspects of creation and experience. Nearly every religion I am aware of sees creation as essentially feminine, Christianity included. As C.S. Lewis commented, we all stand as essentially feminine in relation to God. All in the Church, whether man or woman, are the “bride” of Christ. Various pagan beliefs have “Mother-goddesses,” whereas Christianity might talk of “Mother Earth” in a slightly more abstract way, as St. Francis did in his “Canticle of the Sun.” Egypt had no “Mother Earth”–for them the earth itself was not even feminine. The idea of power had strong play in Egyptian thought, and so rather than the traditional “receiving and transforming” aspect of Earth, the Egyptians saw supreme power in the male diety of Ptah or Geb. In some creation stories, Ra stands on the Primeval Hill to create, again over-emphasizing the male aspect of reality. Apparently Egypt did not want creation to have any derivative existence.

Most every religion, including ancient Israel, had harvest festivals of some kind. Nearly all of these festivals focus on the idea of death, the earth receiving death, and then having that death transformed into life. Harvest festivals connect us with birth and new life, and so highlight feminine aspects of life in general. A proper conception of this pattern must allow for three days in the tomb, so to speak. So in Greece, as elsewhere, the seed could be identified with the king (think of Mary Renault’s classic, The King Must Die), who “dies” for the people to give them grain. No grain comes without the earth receiving and transforming the seed. But things were different in Egypt. Yes, the king ceremoniously started the harvest by cutting a symbolic stalk, but the forgoing ceremony emphasized that he was the wheat which went up to the cloud, not the chaff that fell to earth. Frankfurt comments that,

All we know of the Egyptians shows they would have found [a festival centering on the death of the seed] distasteful. They did not readily admit the shadow side of life, perhaps on hedonistic grounds, but also because, in their static conception of the world, grief had no [place].

We see this in the Egyptian harvest prayers, i.e.,

Osisris is Unas in the mounting chaff

His loathing is the earth;

He has not entered Geb to perish.

He is not sleeping in his house (i.e., tomb) upon earth

So that his bones may be broken.

His hurt is driven out!

He has purified himself with the Horus Eye.

Unas is up and away to heaven;

Unas is up and away to heaven

With the wind, with the wind!

A Christian might be tempted to see here a foreshadowing of victory over death in the resurrection. Perhaps an aspect of that exists here, but along with Frankfurt I extend a word of caution–even God Himself “submitted” to the pattern of first going down before rising up. The Egyptians seemed to want to short-circuit the process. A Christian might think of something akin to banishing “worldly sorrow”–something the Babylonians struggled mightily with–but they should have remembered that “blessed are those that mourn,” and that it is usually our moms that take pity on us when we scrape our knee or need visited in the hospital.

This same imbalance shows in their depictions of royalty. Certainly every society has a hierarchy and kings might naturally be depicted in some outsized way to show his importance. But in Egypt, one often sees only the king, as in this relief of the conquests of Thutmose III:

Tuthmosis III smiting his enemies, the Cannaanites, at the Battle fo Megiddo from the north wall of the Great Hypostyle Court, Egypt. Ancient Egyptian. New Kingdom 18th Dynasty, 1473 BC. Karnak. (Photo by Werner Forman/Universal Images Group/Getty Images)

If we compare this to how Babylon depicted one of its greatest kings, Nebuchadnezzar a contrast immediately becomes evident:

and

I have mentioned a few times above that Christians should be cautious in interpreting Egypt’s religion in an overly Christological manner. Now, I offer the same caution to women in general. Some might look at certain aspects of Egyptian belief and celebrate that even the feminine earth has been raised to the level of the masculine sky. But in fact Egypt did not raise the feminine up–they (mostly) abolished the feminine aspects of reality from their experience.

Most every traditional belief system sees the following pairings:

Masculine

  • Strength
  • Vertical Hierachy
  • Steady/Unchanging

Feminine

  • Compassion
  • Togetherness
  • Protean

This “exchange,” this relationship between these two different aspects of reality, help form healthy civilizations just as they form healthy families. Historian Kenneth Clark noted when guys and gals are separated too stridently for too long in social situations, the level of discourse tends to decline in both camps.

The history of Egypt, perhaps akin to the history of China (of which I know much less about) could plausibly show forth this pattern of the elimination of feminine qualities. In his A Study of History Toynbee makes the case that after the pyramids, Egypt tightens and “freezes up.” Much of Frankfurt’s religious analysis comes from this post-pyramid era, and the evidence shows an exaggerated desire to eliminate all variability, all doubt and grief, from their way of life. Such an attitude surely helped contribute to their failure when confronted by Moses.

Babylon shows us the opposite problem–too much of the archetypal feminine. As Frankfurt aptly points out, the stately nature of Egyptian geography shows a direct contrast to that of Babylon. Women go through more changes overall than men**–this is neither a virtue or vice–and so a civilization that over-emphasized feminine qualities would tend towards too much change, and not enough solidity. This shows up in Babylonian creation mythology, with its constant conflict and shifting alliances between different gods. It arises in their depictions of the goddess Ishtar, sometimes shown wearing a beard. Aristocratic Babylonian men followed the trend in their religious beliefs and may have engaged in cross-dressing, and so on.

Other manifestations of this imbalance show up:

  • Coronation rituals for Babylonian kings took place in the temple of Ishtar, and their royal insignia came from the goddesses “Lady of the Crown,” and “Lady of the Scepter.”
  • Frankfurt suggests that, while obviously Egypt and Babylon had various religious festivals, Babylon had more festivals that “required” everyone to participate at the same time in unison–it is the mom who generally wants to have everyone home for the holidays, etc.
  • In Egypt, water was effectively tamed. For the Babylonians, “the ways of water are devious. It avoids obstacles rather than conquering them, goes around and yet gets to its goal.” Traditional religions always associate water with the feminine, and we see something of the “mystery of Woman” (guys are not that mysterious) in Babylonian views of water.

For clarification, I am not here suggesting that any of these things are good or bad per se. The question is more of emphasis.

One sometimes hears silly things such as, “If only women were in charge throughout the world then there would be no wars, and everyone would love each other.” But Babylon had an empire as well. And Babylon for biblical writers became (along with Egypt), an archetypal tyranny, albeit with some different manifestations than that of Egypt. I have written elsewhere of the possibilities of feminine tyranny, and will not rehash that here. In Egypt’s case, the excessive emphasis on order “naturally” called forth the chaos of the 10 Plagues. For Babylon, the undue emphasis of the market, of change and flux, of possibility, inevitably called forth excessive order–it is no coincidence that Babylon produced the world’s first known extensive code of law and punishment.

Ancient Egyptian and Babylon societies show us that masculine and feminine “gods,” when freed from proper relationship with the other side, become demons.

Dave

*I would not say that Egyptian and Babylonian religions were false because of this either. Obviously, a Christian would say that such beliefs had deep flaws, while at the same time one can affirm the aspects of the Truth that they professed. Occasionally, a skewed religious belief can at times show forth an aspect of Truth in a more compelling fashion, as they give it undue emphasis in the wrong place. Still, all in all, I think the key problem of pagan religions was their inescapable imminence of the gods. The undue focus on imminence leads to a narrowing, an entrapment of sorts, a tautology. You see this today whenever an argument is based on the fact that, “It’s 2021.” In other words, whatever we happen to be doing must be right because we are in fact doing it–the ethics of imminence. One is inevitably influenced by our surroundings, including our geography. We should not be trapped by it, to be excessively determined by it.

**I think it fair to say that puberty involves more changes for women than men. Marriage involves more change for women. Women obviously go through a lot of change in terms of conceiving and giving birth to children, and then, menopause, and so on.

8th Grade: The Definition of Collapse

Greetings,

This week we very nearly wrapped up Assyrian civilization.

Last week I mentioned our look at Assyria’s religion and the concept of ‘Imperial Overstretch’ as factors in Assyria’s decline.  This week we considered Assyria in light of Christ’s words to Peter and the Apostles, ‘Those who live by the sword die by the sword.’

In a fallen world, force can have a legitimate place in government.  But both from a historical, moral, and political perspective, force can never be the foundation for order.  Force can gain acceptance, or have legitimacy, if people see it as an extension of justice.  But when a power uses force detached from justice, people sense that they use violence merely to serve their own selfish ends.  This inspires them to seek justice/revenge, and this is why violence apart from justice is a wasting asset.

All of the problems Assyria faced they brought upon themselves.  They treated subject populations brutally out of a combination of a) religious belief, and b) policy that sought the quickest route towards “getting everyone in line” with their conquests.  But as their power grew, the attention they could give to subject territories lessened, which reduced their chances of stopping rebellions.

Eventually too, their obsession with violence and conquest would be bound to turn back on themselves.  After Ashurbanipal II completed the conquest of the fertile crescent, (which left nothing for the next guy) Assyria descended into civil war (having no one left to fight but themselves).  Simultaneously, they faced rebellions from a few major provinces, which mean that they faced a dire crisis from within as well as without.  They had nothing left on which to stand, and collapsed completely within a few short years.  Regarding their incessant militarism and addiction to violence, Toynbee comments,

The loss and misery which Assyria inflicted on her neighbors is beyond calculation, and yet the legendary remark of the schoolmaster to the boy he is whipping–‘It hurts you less than it hurts me,’–would be a pertinent critique of Assyrian military activities. . . .  The full and bombastic Assyrian record of victories abroad is significantly supplemented by rarer and briefer notices of troubles at home that give us an inkling of the price at which Assyrian victories were purchased.

An increasing military strain revenged itself with increasing frequency of palace revolutions and peasant revolts.  As early as the close of the second bout of aggression in the ninth century B.C. we find Shalmaneser III dying in 827 B.C. with his son on the war-path against him, and Ninevah, Asshur, and Arbela in rebellion. . .

Toynbee goes on then to cite rebellions in 763, 760, and 746, and ca. 730 B.C., and then he continues,

After this the two streams of domestic stasis and foreign warfare merge into one; after Ashurbanipal’s death this swells into a mighty river whose rushing waters bear Assyria away to her now inevitable doom.  During the last years of Assyrian history the domestic and foreign aspect of Assyria’s disintegration are hardly distinguishable.

Can a civilization be rooted entirely in a frontier mentality and lifestyle?  Assyria was located on the ‘frontier’ of Mesopotamian civilization.  Like many frontier people, they could be inventive and self-reliant.  But their beliefs, their foreign policy led them to conquest ‘a outrance’ as the French say.   Assyria’s attacks against Babylon come with an animosity that a farmer in West Virginia might feel for Manhattan investment bankers.  But frontiers need a home base, and with this attack, Assyria was cutting off its face to spite its nose.  The arm which held the sword stabbed the heart.  Without Babylon, Assyria suffered much in the same way that the West Virginia farmer would suffer.   Without the banks, where would be the corporations to buy the food they grew?  If they always looked outward, could they build a solid cultural foundation on which to rest?  While some aspects of Assyria’s cultural heritage can be disputed, no one would doubt that in comparison to Egypt, Babylon, and Persia, Assyria’s cultural output was quite low.  Their architecture, art, and literature all were inferior to their neighbors.

In the end, Assyria contributed heartily to its own demise.  I quote now from Ashurbanipal II, the last great king of Assyria, who wrote as he saw things crumbling around him:

‘The rules for making offerings to the dead. . . which had not been practiced, I reintroduced.  I did well unto god and man, to dead and living.  Why have sickness and misery descended upon me?  I cannot away with strife and dissension.  Misery of flesh and mind oppress me.   Death is seizing hold of me. With lamentation and mourning I wail day and night.  O God wilt thou deal thus with me?  Even as one who has not feared God and Goddess I am reckoned.’

Historian Arnold Toynbee comments,

‘This confession is  . . . moving in its sincerity and in its bewilderment, but above all illuminating in its blindness. When this mood overtook him, did the last of the Assyrian war-lords never find himself reciting that terrible catalogue of cities sacked and people’s wiped out by Assyrian arms — a list which concluded with his own sack of Susa and annihilation of Elam?’

One sees a complete lack of self-awareness on Assyria’s part.  It’s as if they erased their conscience through centuries of systematic cruelty.  They reveled in their conquests and never questioned their actions, celebrating them in their meager artistic achievements.

Next week I will update you on our investigation of Babylon.

8th Grade: He Who Lives by the Sword. . .

Greetings,

This week we looked at Assyrian civilization.  Their meteoric rise was surpassed only by their complete and total destruction at the hands of several enemies.  What made them who they were?

We first looked at their geography. . .

1. Assyria began in the north of the Fertile Crescent, in one of its less fertile areas, nestled in mountains towards the fringe of that region.  We discussed how people who live in mountainous regions tend to display similar characteristics.  Necessity might force them to rely on hunting.  They grow to be tough and adaptive, and generally warlike, with built in mistrust of foreigners due to their relative isolation (think Afghanistan).  Assyrians had similar characteristics.

2. Their geography may have lent impetus to their expansionist desires.  These tough, warlike people were generally surrounded by more wealthy civilizations that might have been a bit ‘softer’ than the Assyrians.   Nomadic civilizations (those that have to/choose to follow ‘the herd’) can never be as wealthy as more agrarian civilizations, for they can never stay in one place long enough to produce anything.  Perhaps they could not resist all they saw around them.  Perhaps after a while, jealousy and envy took hold.

Then we looked at their army . . .

1. Mountainous regions generally are not as populous as other places, but the Assyrians managed to create a brilliant militia force.  Without the mass of other armies (nomadic hunting oriented civilizations inevitably have smaller populations) they had to rely on speed and movement.  But their citizens, used to hunting, would have been used to moving, tracking, and outwitting their prey.

In class I compared their army to the new ‘Blur Offense’ in football popularized by the University of Oregon.

2. The Assyrian army was a lightning fast ‘light infantry’ force, overwhelming their opponents by swift and brutal assaults.  Of course the makeup of the army impacted their foreign policy, which

  • Usually did not emphasize diplomacy.  They could not integrate their conquered foes into their army (think about how the effectiveness of a Navy Seal platoon would be diminished by adding army regulars into their ranks).
  • So – how do you hold onto your territory?  The Assyrian army was not generally interested in occupation. They wanted movement.  If ‘you are what you worship,’ we would expect the Assyrians to use terror as a weapon, and so they did.  My guess is that the students will remember the various forms of torture and death the Assyrians inflicted if you are curious enough to ask them.
  • With the conquered cowed into submission the Assyrians could move on.  We looked at Paul Kennedy’s concept of ‘Imperial Overstretch,’ when size becomes a disadvantage as opposed to an advantage.  Clearly the Assyrians suffered from this, for as we discussed, fear is a wasting asset.  It tends to be a very effective short term, but disastrous long term policy.

Some of you may remember the boxer Mike Tyson, and I think he is a good representation of the Assyrian army.  Tyson was almost always the smaller man in the ring, outweighed and outreached by his opponent.  But his lightning speed confused his opponent, and he hit with such devastating force that he surely “ruled by fear” over his foes.

The students had fun with excerpts from these clips in class.

Then we looked at their religion. . .

The Assyrians were polytheistic, but tended to emphasize the worship of their war god Ashur.  Ashur demanded blood, as the Assyrians obliged, presenting large amounts of the severed heads of their enemies at worship services.  Interestingly, apparently the most common way of representing Ashur was on his winged disc, which hearkens back to the dominance of movement in Assyrian civilization.

For this coming week we will continue to see connections between Assyria’s religion, army, and foreign policy.  For them, as for all of us, “you are what you worship.”
Thanks so much,
Dave

8th Grade: Elements of the Exodus Debate

Greetings,

Last week we looked at the monotheistic pharaoh Akhenation IV, also known as Ikhneton.  Ikhneton had many distinctive qualities — a most unusual pharaoh.

  • He was a monotheist, a tremendous contrast to the polytheism of his surrounding culture.
  • He likely had only one wife — a significant departure from the usual practice of pharaoh
  • He wrote poetry

The surviving images of Ikhneton are not typical for pharaohs either.  His bust does not exude power, but rather thoughtfulness, depth, and caring.  The image to the right with his family highlights this as well.  Again, as far as I know, for pharaoh’s to depict themselves like this in public was quite unusual.

Where did these beliefs and practices come from?  A few theories exist:

1. He learned them from the Jews, possibly enslaved during his reign.

2. He learned them from stories he heard about the Exodus, which may have happened about 75-100 years before he came to power.

3. Perhaps God appeared to him in a vision.

4. Perhaps he learned it from creation around him.

Did he believe in the true God under a different name?  I wanted to pose the following to the students:

  • Whether or not Ikhneton believed in the true God, he was certainly at least far closer to the truth than his countrymen.  What should he do with this knowledge?  If people don’t believe him, should he use force?  What would the responsibility be of the average Egyptian who agreed with him?  Is Ikhneton responsibility different because of his position of power?
  •  Ikhneton’s project to ‘convert’ his countrymen failed almost entirely.  Why was this?  Can any kind of force ever work in religious matters?  If so, which kind?  What does his failure tell us about the power of tradition.
  • While many historians come down hard on Ikhneteon, we looked at the Book of the Dead to understand exactly what it was that Ikhneton fought against.  Here we see inside Egyptian religion, and are confronted with a maze of charms, spells, and formulas to assure a good afterlife.  I can’t imagine anyone keeping it all straight, and this gave enormous power to the priesthood of their hundreds and hundreds of gods.  Ikhneton did fail, and perhaps went about his project in the wrong way.  But Egypt remained trapped in a religion that gave enormous power to the priesthood.

In this way, Ikhenton’s story can have meaning for our own day.  We too need to consider the strengths and weaknesses that come whenever religion is associated with law.

We also looked at the Exodus.  As Christians we can have confidence that the Exodus was an historical event, but there is not a great deal of evidence within  Egypt itself to support it.  Some modern scholars use this as evidence against the Exodus, but we discussed in class why Egypt might want to “cover-up” such events.

An interesting possibility involves the presence of the Hyksos in Egyptian history.   The word “hyksos” can apparently mean either “foreign invader,” or “foreign dweller.”  Egyptologists propound different theories as to their identity, with some believing them to have been occasional foreign invaders, others foreign immigrants.  A couple of curious details, however, may link the Hyksos to the Exodus:

  • The dates given for the Hyksos presence in Egypt correspond roughly to the time span the Israelites spent in Egypt (ca. 1800-1300 B.C.)
  • Many Hyksos names appear to be semitic in origin
  • Many debate whether or not the Hyksos coexisted peacefully or not with Egyptians.  But if their co-existence was sometimes peaceful, sometimes not, that would fit the Exodus narrative.

I am intrigued by the theory that suggests that the Hyksos may have been the Israelites.  It would fit with the “foreign immigrant” theory, and melds also with the narrative in Exodus 1, which indicates that the as the Israelites grew more numerous they had less favor with some in Egypt.  Thus, when the Egyptians talk about “expelling” them from the land in possibly ca. 1300-1200 B.C. they may have engaged in the ultimate historical spin.  In the official Egyptian narrative then, the Israelites didn’t leave due to plagues, God, etc., but because we forced them to leave!  It was a great moment of national pride!  I should stress, however, that this is only a theory–a lot disagreement exists over who the Hyksos were and when they resided in Egypt.

After ca. 1200 B.C. archaeologists note a transition in how the Egyptians built cities.  Previously, most Egyptian cities had no walls, contrary to Mesopotamian cities of the same time.  After ca. 1200 B.C., most Egyptian cities had walls, marking a transition perhaps to a more unstable, frightening period.  Clearly, the 10 plagues would have devastated and de-stabilized Egypt significantly, and this of course weakened them.  The presence of walls may very well reflect the kind of dramatic decline the plagues would bring.

Still, I stress that this is only a theory.

Whenever we think the Exodus took place, we should realize that the plagues exposed every foundation that Egypt built its society and identity upon.  In class I compared the plagues to waking up and realizing that the life you thought you led wasn’t real, and actually you lived as a nomad in the Sahara with an entirely different family.  The psychological impact must have been devastating, which explains why many Egyptians left with the Israelites.  I also think it explains why many stayed.  With such a radical change required, many might prefer to live in a dream.

Wide disagreement exists within the scholarly community on when the Exodus took place, but there are two main theories:

1. An ‘Early’ Exodus somewhere around 1450 B.C.   1 Kings 6:1 talks of ‘480 years’ between the Exodus and Solomon’s reign,B.C.  And might the Hyksos invasion, which took place around the same time, have been facilitated by the disaster of the plagues?  Could we then see the rally of Egyptian civilization under Ramses II as a kind of Indian summer, a last gasp?

2. A ‘Late’ Exodus somewhere around 1250 B.C., which would be at the time of Ramses II.  Didn’t Ramses build a new city, which would fit with the Israelites task of making mud brick, as described in Exodus?  Might ‘480 years’ be a symbolic number (12 x 40, or the completion of the wandering of the tribes)?  I wanted the students to think through the various possibilities, with the caveat that faithful Christians can easily disagree on this, as the Bible does not speak with absolute clarity.

Still, the images of Ramses II seem to reflect the kind of image conscious, stubborn, and arrogant man Moses must have confronted (much different than Ikhneton’s):

Good evidence exists on both sides of this question.  Here is one interesting piece of ‘internal evidence’  on the historicity of the Exodus from Egypt itself that may recall the plagues and confirm parts of the Exodus narrative, the Ipuwer Papyrus, which has some possible parallels with the Exodus account, though it is important to stress the date of the papyrus is in great doubt, and may in fact precede the Exodus by at least 400 years):

1. The Plague of Blood as mentioned in Exodus 7: 14-25

Ipuwer 2:3 “Pestilence is throughout the land, blood is everywhere.”

Ipuwer 2:9 “The River (Nile) is Blood. Men shrink…and thirst after water.”

2. The Plague on Egyptian Livestock as found in Exodus 9: 1-7

Ipuwer 5:5 “All animals, their hearts weep. Cattle moan.”

3. The Plague of Hail and Fire as mentioned in Exodus 9: 22-26

Ipuwer 9:23 “The fire ran along the ground. There was hail, and fire mingled with the hail.”

Ipuwer 2:10 “Forsooth (Help Us), gates, columns, and walls are consumed by fire.”

4. The Plague of Locusts as mentioned in Exodus 10: 1-20 (possible allusion)

Ipuwer 6:1: “No fruit nor herbs are found…Oh, that the earth would cease from noise, and tumult (uproar) be no more.”

Ipuwer 4:14: “Trees are destroyed and the branches are stripped off.”

5. The Plague of Darkness as mentioned in Exodus 10: 21-29

Ipuwer 9:11 “The land is without light.”

6. The Plague on Egypt’s Firstborn in Exodus 12

Ipuwer 2:13 “He who places his brother in the ground is everywhere.”

Ipuwer 3:14 “Groaning is throughout the land, mingled with lamentations.”

Ipuwer 4:3 “Forsooth, the children of princes are dashed against the walls.”

Ipuwer 6:12 “€œForsooth, the children of the princes are cast out in the streets.”

7. Freeing of the Slaves and their Pillage of Egypt as seen in Exodus 12: 31-36

Ipuwer 1: “The plunderer is everywhere, and the servant takes what he finds.”€

Ipuwer 2: “Indeed, poor men have become wealthy.”

Ipuwer 3: “Gold, silver and jewels are fastened to the necks of female slaves.”€

Ipuwer 5: “Slaves (who have now been freed) are throughout the land.”

Ipuwer 10: “€œThe king’€™s storehouse has now become common property.”

And here is a good discussion of the evidence for and against various dates for the  Exodus, if you are interested.

Blesssings,

Dave

The Mysteries of the Monotheistic Pharaoh

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

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

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

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

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

So many kudos to Kemp.

But now on to Akhenaten himself.

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

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

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

Early Excavations at Amarna

So he was a radical, then?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This one makes him look more thoughtful and perhaps more humanized

Akhenaten

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

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

What should we make of this?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And this image from the Aten temple . . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

The mystery of Akhenaten continues.

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

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

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

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

Animalia Agonistes

Given that I was 17 when Nirvana released Nevermind, the album obviously completely blew me away. For some time the subversive nature of the lyrics eluded me, lost as I was in the joy of our culture granting new-found permission to wear flannel shirts untucked. But then, one notices their audience mockery, such as in “In Bloom”–“He’s the one who likes all our pretty songs, and he likes to sing along, but he knows not what it means.”

I confess to feeling a bit guilty for thinking of this song in reference to the monumental achievement of J.M.C Toynbee and her book Animals in Roman Life and Art (yes, she was the sister of that Toynbee). I have no wish to mock as did Kurt Cobain, but I confess frustration with the traditional British historian. The British, like all cultures, should own and even celebrate their quirks. And perhaps nothing quite says “British” like the charming codger who has spent his entire life curating a particular old building, and can tell you everything that has ever happened to every plank of wood. This same trait gets passed on to many of their historians, our esteemed author included. In her day she stood as a substantial authority on Roman art in general, and perhaps the authority for the Romans and animals–no small achievement.

But she takes all of that knowledge and . . . writes a reference book. She fails to make her facts into a poem, to make her knowledge sing. Knowing everything, she “knows not what it means.”

I will make a meager attempt to do so.

But first, some of the fascinating facts about Romans and their relationship to animals.

Some years ago I saw a documentary on gladiators, and the video mentioned the “ecological disaster” inflicted upon wildlife. Surely, I thought this must be overdramatized. Apparently not! The numbers are numbing:

  • Some 9000 animals were killed at the inaugeration of the Colosseum, many of them “ordinary” animals which were not ferocious, such as foxes. Women killed some of these animals.
  • Trajan killed 11,000 to celebrate his Dacian Triumph
  • In one show, Nero’s bodyguard brought down 400 lions and 300 bears
  • Having beasts fight each other formed part of the spectacle as well.
  • From the late Republic on, having thousands of animals killed (most of them threatening) for a particular “celebration” was rather ordinary–the examples are too numerous to list to here, though Toynbee lays them out nicely.
  • All in all, some estimate that as many as 1,000,000 animals died in the arena (not to mention 400,000 humans), and it does indeed appear that certain species disappeared from certain regions of the globe due to this.

Some other more “tame”(zing!) factoids:

  • Elephants may have become a symbol of divinization for the Romans by the time of Emperor Tiberius. In addition, the Romans appear to have been able to train elephants to do unusual tricks, including walk a tightrope.
  • Aelian noted that he had seen a monkey trained to drive a chariot.
  • Lions were frequently featured on tombs by the age of Augustus, and dogs also were symbols of death.
  • On rare occasions, they kept bears as private pets.
  • In contrast to Judeo-Christian civilizations (and most others), the Romans regarded snakes as beneficial creatures.
  • The Romans had little regard for the tortoise, but the term they used for their interlocking shields was “testudo,” obviously borrowed from turtles. Turtle shells were also prized as baths for infants.

And so on. The book has hundreds of observations akin to these. So far, so good–she brings forward a variety of interesting facts. She helpfully reminds us that in a civilization that Rome’s relationship to its animals would have been much closer than ours. They relied on animals for farming, transport, and the like far more than we, and perhaps more than other contemporary civilizations (given their size, road structure, mobility of their army, etc.). But the data points never take us anywhere. Some might find this a humble attitude. I do not. Certainly there are plenty of times when one should keep their mouth shut, but I think Chesterton’s quote applies here:

What we suffer from today is humility in the wrong place. Modesty has moved from the organ of ambition and settled upon the organ of conviction, where it was never meant to be. A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth; this has been exactly reversed. We are on the road to producing a race of men too mentally modest to believe in the multiplication table

If you are the world’s foremost authority on animals in Roman art, surely you can risk some of your accumulated capital and venture some highly educated guesses. Alas that she does not.

Two points in particular raised eyebrows with me that might shed a more general light on Roman civilization.

One is from page 68, where she writes,

[Here] two mosaic panels show a well-maned lion devouring a dark grey fawn. . . . The lions are arena beasts . . . [Another example] shows a lion holding in its maw the head of an antlered stag, which drips abundantly with blood. Lively amphitheater scenes are indeed, not uncommon on the floors of well-mannered houses.

Later, on page 83, she writes about leopards and describes another mosaic:

Above the three are dying leopards, each transfixed murderously by a barbed spear, writhing in agony, one rolled over on its back. Below, two venatores, one labeled MELITTO, are each driving a spear into the leopard’s chest, from which gush streams of blood. A dying leopard, also speared, lies in the background. . . . the realism with which they are portrayed is excruciating; and this picture raises in a most acute form the problem of how householders could wish to perpetuate such scenes of carnage on the floors of their home.

Though the problem be “acute,” she says not one word about it!

In a few other instances, usually involving lions or elephants, Toynbee tells of written texts that speak of people starting to sympathize with animals in the arena, even coming to root for them against their human counterparts, with thousands in the crowd weeping as they were killed. One might expect that such instances would serve as a spark for moral revolution, but this never came close to happening. Objections to the practice in any written record can be listed easily on one hand over a period that spans many centuries.

Can we put these curiosities together?

On one hand we have the “modern” answer to the problem which would run like so:

  • The Romans were a calloused, bored, and violent people. Such people would go to the games, cheer the games, and celebrate the games. The fact that they decorate their floors with scenes from the games is not much different than us putting up posters of our sports heroes in action.
  • Yes, they did lament the cruelty of the games at times. But again, when a player gets badly injured we too get quiet. If the injury is particularly bad players and fans might cry. But though the injury may cause us pause, this will not stop us from watching the next game or even the next play.

This explanation might be true, but I doubt it is. It seems too neat, too comfortable to the modern mind, to fit an ancient civilization.

We can start an alternate inquiry by asking what purpose the games served in Rome. Based on Carlin Barton’s wonderful insights, we can say that the games did not serve strictly as entertainment, but rather as an extension of their religious belief. Moderns like to separate religion from other aspects of life, the ancients would not have understood this distinction.

Most know that the Romans saw themselves as “tough” and “hard,” so we naturally assume that their drunken revels were a departure from that, a sign of decadence. But the Romans saw these seemingly disparate aspects as part of the same cloth. We are hard on ourselves in the army–we are hard on ourselves at parties too. We will eat until we cannot eat, then vomit, and eat some more–and still strive to enjoy it all. We push ourselves to endure both pain and pleasure in its maximum degree. Moderation?–not a thing in Rome.

My guess, then, with the animals and the arena, is that they could weep for them not so much because they felt sorry for them, but because they saw them as partners in the struggle of life. They weep for them falling as they would lament the deaths of their soldiers. Toynbee points out the close and varied relationship Rome had with animals, so this might fit with her work. So too, they have mosaics of dying animals in their homes not to revel in their destruction, but to honor them as fellow participants in the “Roman way,” just as we have posters of our sports heroes to honor their achievements.

So too, seeing lions and elephants as symbols of death and divinization might explain why they participated in the arena. Just as a Roman could be “divinized” by transcending normal human attributes such as fear of death, so too the animals could achieve this same level, in a sense. The title of this post recalls Milton’s poem, “Samson Agonistes.” Milton portrays Samson as a great champion,, but one imprisoned also by his “inner struggle” (a rough translation of “agonistes”)–and perhaps glorified by this same struggle? The Romans may have thought they were being generous in sharing their glory by sharing their struggle with the animals.

I may be wrong, but I do feel that ancient civilizations are generally “weirder” than we usually expect, and taking this approach will eventually lead to the right answer. Given how many unusual observations Toynbee made, it grieves me that she failed to use her enormous gifts to attempt a synthesis.

Magicians of the Gods

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

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

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

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

This reading of Genesis informs my reading of ancient history.

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

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

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

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

Enter Graham Hancock.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First . . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here we come to a fork in the road.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dave

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

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

 

 

 

8th Grade: Egypt’s Desert Formation

Greetings to all,

I hope you have had a good week, and I hope too that you will enjoy the weekend before us.

This week we began our unit on Egypt, and first considered the influence of geography on the formation of their civilization.  I wanted to ask the following of the students:

1. What is the central feature of Egyptian geography, and why might this promote civilization?

2. What about Egyptian geography might influence it towards strong centralized government?

3. How might Egyptian geography have influenced their religion?

I do not believe geography exercises an absolute authority over humankind.  We are always left with choice & responsibility for those choices.  Having said that, we should not neglect the impact our surroundings may have upon us.  I do also stress to the students that the heart of any civilization is not its surroundings, resources, etc., but what it worships.  What a civilization worships is, in its turn, often reflected in its architecture.  With that in mind, I anticipate us taking a hard look at the pyramids next week.

When we think about Geography and its connections to Egypt, we noted the following:
1. The extremes of Egyptian geography: Only somewhere between 5-10% of their land was arable, but that land was some of the best farmland in the ancient world due to the yearly Nile floods.  Lush farm land backed right up against barren desert (as seen in the picture below).  This geographical tension probably produced psychological tension.  We see in Egypt, for example, the duality between the worship of almost any life whatsoever, and the reign of death just beyond.  The pictures of the Nile river valley below illustrate this stark contrast.
Nile River Valley
This tension had to be resolved in either a positive or negative way.  As time went by, death gained the upper hand.  Here is an early Egyptian poem that reflects this.  Some of these sentiments may ring true from a Christian perspective, and some lines resemble aspects of Biblical Wisdom literature. I think, however, that the overall imbalance towards death as an escape from the “claustrophobia” of life rather than a source of redemption is evident.
Egypt and Death: An Early Poem
To whom can I speak today?
One’s fellows are evil;
The friends of today do not love.
To whom can I speak today?
The gentle man has perished,
But the violent man has access to all.
To whom can I speak today?
No one remembers the past;
No one at this time does good in return for good.
Death stands before me today
Like the recovery of a sick man,
Like going outside after being confined.
Death stands before me today
Like the fragrance of myrrh,
Like sitting under the shade on a breezy day.
Death stands before me today
As a man longs to see his house,
After he has spent many years in captivity.
The Nile River valley had to serve as the center of Egyptian civilization, and in turn, we note that the Egyptians had an unusual inward focus.  They did not interact with many other peoples in the ancient near east.  Some geographies push people out of their settings, but we might imagine the Nile river as a giant vacuum, sucking everyone towards it.
  • The extremes may have led to Egypt’s focus on ‘Ma’at,’ or keeping things in balance. When one lives in between stark images of life and death constantly, it should not surprise us to see an inordinate focus on the concept of “balance.”  Keeping the order of things (ma’at) was the central job of the pharaoh, and of course this is a semi-divine task.  No problem per se for the Egyptians, as in their mind  the pharaoh’s were divine, or perhaps semi-divine, themselves.  When we look at the Exodus in a little bit we should keep in mind that among other things, God exposes Pharaoh’s complete inability to maintain “ma’at.”  God uses the plagues as a means to free His people, but also a message to the Egyptians to come join the Israelites.  Pharaoh’s inability to maintain harmony and balance gets decisively exposed.
  • The relative sameness and flatness of Egypt contributed to the political centralization of Egypt.  Egyptian society could not exist without fair and equitable distribution of the Nile floodwaters, and this would have required executive oversight.  But it may also have psychologically contributed to the eventual rigidity of thought that eventually overtook Egypt from about 1800 B.C. onward.

With this emphasis on Ma’at we get confronted with a very different way of thinking, and a very different set of priorities.  A president who wanted to look successful in his memoirs would probably highlight the great changes he brought to America.  In Egypt, Pharaoh’s “memoirs” focused on how they kept things exactly the same, in just the proper proportion (for those interested one can read this post on Ma’at and Pharaoh Userkaf).

Towards the end of the week we began our look at Thutmose III and the Battle of Meggido.  We will continue that next week as well examine the Book of the Dead and the monotheistic Pharaoh Ikhneton.

Blessings,

Dave

8th Grade: An Introduction to Civilizations

Greetings,

I hope the school is going well for you and your family.  I already can tell that I will enjoy this class. They are enthusiastic participators and willing and able to track with me and think about the issues before us.

As I told the students, before we move into the actual study of certain civilizations, I thought it appropriate to think of what we mean by the term ‘civilization,’ and what this might have to do with a Christian worldview.  I gave the students an example of a desert island divided into two halves.  Both halves have a government (a despotic king), religion (worship of a bloodthirsty god), laws and a way of life, (everyone pick up a stick and try and bash in the head of someone on the other side of the island).  They have a large enough group of people and a defined location, if one happens to believe that these are important criteria.

We discussed whether or not  this be could be termed ‘civilization.’  Even if it was a place where you would not want to live, was it ‘civilization?’  While I acknowledge that defining the concept is a bit slippery, in the end I think we can give a clear answer in the negative.

The definition I am using for civilization in this class is from historian Will Durant, who stated that civilization is, “Social order that promotes cultural creation.”  Life on our hypothetical island could not allow for ‘cultural creation.’ No buildings could be built, no books written, not even advances in weaponry could be made if everyone’s daily life consisted entirely of sleeping, eating, and fighting.

I believe the definition we are using is a good one because human society should help us live out what it means to be made in God’s image.  The first thing we see about God is that He creates.  A society that did not allow for human creation would deny a fundamental tenet of what it means to be human. Being made in God’s image means many things, but surely it must include something of what J.R.R. Tolkien called ‘sub-creation’ on our part.   If we look back on the island example, is the life lived there really human life?  Even beavers build dams, and otters make water slides for themselves.  Living just to eat, sleep, and fight would put us below many animals.

This week we also looked at the basic elements of all civilizations.  What purpose do civilizations serve, and how do they function?  Ultimately, civilizations exist to provide a means of human interaction, a structure that allows us to live out God’s image and call on our lives.  While none of the civilizations we will study will be ‘Christian’ civilizations (if such a thing is even possible), the closer one gets to this goal, the better off people are.  While we may not need civilizations per se, we do need each other.  God Himself is a kind of Community (Father, Son, Holy Spirit) and as we are created in His image, so too we need to live in community with one another to make us fully human.

We examined what I call the Five Elements of Civilization:

Geography

Suppose that you and your friends wish to do something together.  You would need to agree on a location to meet.  For there to be profitable human interaction, we need a defined physical space to do so.  Obviously, the geography must provide a minimum of food, water, etc. for civilization to exist.  But as we discussed, ideal geographies do not tend to foster civilizations.  When things are too easy, we never need to learn, invent, or progress.  Historically speaking, we need a challenge to thrive.  On the flip side, some geographies present such an extraordinary challenge that man’s nearly heroic adaptation to them binds them into such narrow confines as to stunt the growth of civilizations (one might think of desert nomads or Eskimo peoples in the Arctic).

Over the course of the year we will see the subtle influence of geography on the way people live.

Economics

No one can be completely self-sufficient. “No man is an island.”  We neither know all or can do all things well.  We need others to help us, but also need to have a means of exchanging goods and services fairly so these beneficial trades can take place.

A strict barter economy makes perfect sense.  I have apples, you have wood.  If we trade we both get something we easily know to have a direct value.  With one I can build a house, with the other I can avoid hunger.  Barter economies have the great advantage of simplicity, but the great burden of a complete lack of flexibility.  Imagine doing your weekly shopping, having to load up the wagon with bushels of grain, a few pigs, etc.  Then, you can only get what you need in return only if someone needs what you have.

A money economy helps solve some of these problems, and money began with precious metals.  But who made the first exchange of a shiny metal for a bushel of wheat?  You cannot eat, wear, or live in shiny metal.  The same is true of paper money.  In itself, it’s only a piece of paper.  You could write on it, or perhaps burn it for a few seconds of heat.  The money has value not for anything in itself, but because of our agreed upon belief about what it represents. Hence, the link between the health of our economy and the trust we place in our government and those around us.

A good economy will foster helpful and just exchanges of goods and services, which in turn fosters honoring social interaction.

Politics

Or — what I call the outward structure of civilization.  We need an agreed upon way of making decisions, and we need to know what is expected of us.  For example, we must decide if we are to drive on the right hand side or the left, or no one would drive at all.  We must also have an agreed upon way of deciding what side of the road we drive on, or nothing can ever get accomplished.

Laws serve a good purpose if they help grow helpful interaction between people.  They oppress if they stifle such social interaction.

Religion

Or – what I call the inward structure of civilization.  Since no one can write a law code that covers every situation, if we are to interact with others successfully we need a strong set of unwritten rules that everyone follows.  If someone cuts in line at the grocery store, we do not have the option of calling the police, for example.  This unwritten code comes ultimately from our religious beliefs.  We don’t cut in line in the final analysis because we believe in Justice.

I encouraged the class to think about religion more broadly than just what happens on ‘Sunday,’ in a given civilization.  As Jesus said, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also,” or to put it another way, “You are what you worship.”

Religion is in a broad sense what we give ourselves to truly, not merely our lip service.  A society might outwardly worship God, gods, or possibly even ideals and values like freedom, and so on.  Everyone worships something, and we cannot help but be conformed to the object of our worship.  This ultimate devotion becomes the main spring of our values.

Many modern historians often make materialistic arguments for the origin of civilization.  They will say things such as, “When river valley ‘x’ began to dry up the people came together to maximize their food input and begin to specialize.  From this early social organization governments arose, and then these governments codified religious belief to enforce their power.”

And so on, and so on.

I entirely disagree with these kinds of explanations, at least as the primary explanatory concept.  Such theories completely misunderstand human nature.  Why do relationships happen?  We do not enter into a relationship with people based on the need to survive.  We are made for relationship (“It is not good for man to be alone”).  We are drawn together by our common loves, by our common worship.  We were made for worship, and this is why religion forms the heart of any civilization.

Culture

In the narrow sense, culture is what we do with our free time.  A person’s hobbies are often a better insight into who they are than their jobs.   In a broader sense, culture is about how we interact with God’s creation, and how we outwardly express our inner values and strengths.  Broadly then, culture speaks to our values, and a bit more narrowly, culture is that which makes life enjoyable (reading books, playing games, etc.), and sets us apart from the rest of creation.

Of course every culture can and should have room for purely “fun” activities, but ideally our recreation truly engages in “re-creation,” whereby we image the God who creates.

My goal through all this was to try and show how each element is not an island, but impacts other areas.  These elements are interconnected and depend on one another.  Scripture’s image of the Body of Christ fits very well for civilizations.

My subsequent emails will likely not be as information oriented, but these categories will inform the rest of our year together.

Next week we will begin looking at actual civilizations, and begin applying this theoretical interpretative model to reality.  We will begin to look for the patterns and truths that history reveals to us.  Below I include the famous set of paintings by Thomas Cole called The Course of Empire.  I do not necessarily agree with everything regarding Cole’s interpretation of history, but it is a wonderful visual image of a thought provoking theory, from a civilization’s beginning to its end.  We’ll reference these images from time to time in class this year.

Thank you again for all your support.

Blessings,

Dave Mathwin

8th Grade: “Bueller. . . Bueller. . .”

Greetings to all,

Are we sure that History matters?

This was the question I posed to the students the first day of school.

A few students pointed out that we should study History to learn from the mistakes and copy the successes of the past.  This is the answer most frequently given to the question, “Why History?”

But why should we accept it?  What on earth could anyone who has been dead for thousands of years, living in a completely different part of the world, have to teach us today?   “Perhaps,” I suggested to the students, “I am wasting your time, serving as part of a vast conspiracy of the old to occupy and distract the young.”  Is this what school really means?  Is the study of history merely an exercise in the “vain repetitions of the heathen?”

It’s fun to play devil’s advocate, but in the end we provided two key reasons why History does matter.

“Begin at the beginning,” said the King in Alice in Wonderland.  The study of history rests on a few key Christian assumptions:

  • We assume that what happens to people depends in part on choices they make, and these choices must in some sense be “free” choices.  If we have no ability to choose then whatever success of failure we experience has nothing to do with anything we can call “ourselves” at all, but merely instinct, environment, and so on.
  • We must believe that genuine communication across time and space can occur.  Believing this, in turn, rests on the belief that much more unites us as humans than divides us.  Otherwise, either communication would be impossible (because we would not understand one another), or meaningless (if our differences would be so extreme the experience of others would have no relevance for us).

Such things may seem so commonplace that they do not need to be defended, but in fact, those who buy into certain postmodern assumptions about identity and language would likely not agree with the above propositions.

In Genesis we read that God made mankind in His own image.  I am not capable of exhausting the richness of what this means for humanity, but we established a couple key concepts in class:

  • In Genesis 1 we see God bringing order out of the void.  He could have created everything in an instant, but He chose six days/periods of time (whichever you prefer), each with a clear progression and pattern.  In Genesis 1 we see God separating night from day, dry land from sea, and so on.  He then separates mankind from the rest of His creation.  So too, we can find order and patterns in our surroundings.  History need not be “one thing after another” with no distinctions or meaning.
  • God acts with will and intentionality, and so too we act from more than mere instinct.  If we had no ability to choose and act with purpose, History would have no meaning because we could not learn from it or apply what we learned without it.

God gives all people who have ever the lived the gift of His image, and this is the good side of the coin regarding humanity.  But in Genesis 3 sin enters the picture, with terrible consequences.

  • Adam and Eve attempt to alienate themselves from the very Source of Life itself and hide from God.  While mankind retains the stamp of God’s image, I think it no coincidence that Genesis 5:3 mentions that Seth was born in Adam’s image.
  • Adam and Eve turn away from each other, refusing responsibility for their sin
  • Humanity experiences alienation from creation as a whole.

History rightly examines many facets of various civilizations, and the collapse of various people groups  have political, economic, cultural, and geographic explanations.  But sin lies at the root of all misery, and since we are all sinners, all of us share responsibility for whatever is wrong in the world.  “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”

Both the image of God and the fall of man mean that there is far more that unites, rather than divides, every person who has ever lived.   Even an Egyptian god-king from thousands of years ago and our next door neighbor still share these same characteristics.  Our differences remain skin deep.  Rod Dreher (a Christian) recently interviewed Louis Betty, a scholar of the work of the modern French author Michael Houllebecq.  Neither Betty or Houllebecq profess any allegiance to Christianity, and may not profess a religious faith of any kind. But Betty’s observation about the belief of the image of God in man are revealing.  He commented,

More concretely, you don’t get white supremacy if you believe that every human being has a soul fashioned in God’s image. Neither do you get far-left racial and ethnic identitarianism. Both are symptoms of a metaphysical deficit. It’s very easy to start dividing people up into tribal categories; after all, humans vary massively in just about every imaginable quality. It’s really something of a miracle that we ever came up with a notion of common humanity at all! We have the Judeo-Christian heritage to thank for this in the West. This is something secular people ought to consider before making glib criticisms of traditional religion.

The full article is here for any who are interested.

We see the confluence of the image of God and the Fall in every life and in every civilization.  We all seek order and coherence.  We all seek to create distinctions (just as in Genesis 1) in our lives, giving precedence to some things over others, and so on.  In this way we image the God who made us.  Yet we also see that we often choose to embrace death to create our personal/civilizational kingdoms.  We will hate others to make the kind of order we wish for our own lives.  Nations may literally kill and destroy others to achieve the peace they desire.

1 Corinthians 15:56 states that, “the sting of death is sin.”  This order might surprise us–we might expect it to be reversed.  Adam sinned and brought death to himself and his descendants.  In many ways, it is our fear of death, of the diminution of the self, that leads us into sin, as 1 Corinthians states.  We cut each other off in traffic, grab the last cookie, and declare war to obtain resources in order to preserve and extend our earthly lives.  We obtain life only through surrender to death, i.e., “He who wishes to save his life must lose it” (Luke 9:24).

Other areas of Scripture show the importance of History.  Much of the Old Testament simply records events without editorial comment.  We can read of various kings of Israel, for example, and the Biblical authors do not always insert, “And God thought ‘x’ about the king.”  No doubt God means for us to figure it out on our own from the context, and from what we already know from reason, observation, experience, and other parts of Scripture.  If History is important to God in Scripture, we can conclude that History itself serves as a kind of revelation, a revelation that will teach us much about ourselves, and God Himself indirectly.

Apart from a Christian context, History, however interesting, would have no real meaning for us beyond mere entertainment.  We will keep returning to these foundational truths, for History makes no sense without them. I told the students that this class may have started in an unexpected way for them, but we cannot understand History without understanding mankind, and we cannot understand mankind without understanding who God is. Next week, we will attempt to understand what makes a “civilization,” and how civilizations function.

Blessings,

Dave Mathwin

The Axis Mundi of Ecosystem Agents

Nothing quite says “hip” like a corporate cruise ship. For those like myself whose musical tastes in the 1980’s went towards the progressive rock of the 70’s, well, one could punch no faster ticket to the top of the high school social scene than to wear a shirt from Yes’ “Tales of Topographic Oceans” tour. What if one combined these Wonder-Twin powers and had a cruise dedicated to all of the bands that broke up 30 years ago? What if one could combine a non-stop buffet with non-stop mellotrons and Moogs?

Such is the starting premise for Dave Weigel’s amusing The Show that Never Ends: The Rise and Fall of Prog Rock. Such a cruise actually happened. Weigel booked his passage, and started interviewing. His book quickly gets into the history of various bands and the genre as a whole. Weigel writes as a fan and as a journalist, so he gives the reader many nuggets of the brilliance and pretentious stupidity of most every band featured.*

The stories of King Crimson, Yes, Genesis, ELP (the bands Weigel focuses on) have their particularities of course, but the similarities of their narrative arc struck me the most. These similarities manifest themselves despite the significant differences in the music of the groups above. Basically their stories boil down to

  • Band creates a brilliant, groundbreaking sound that wins them critical praise and popularity.
  • Band then begins shortly thereafter to experience significant interpersonal tension, and often, radical turnover in its members.
  • Bands then get second lives of sorts by completely embracing 80’s pop conventions, entirely altering their sound (King Crimson avoided this final step probably because they had decisively broken up by the time the 80’s came).

I am not saying that any of this is “wrong,” per se. Culture changes, people change, I get it. But the changes were very stark, rapid, and essentially uniform.

  • Emerson, Lake and Palmer go from Tarkus to this.
  • Yes goes from Tales of Topographic Oceans to this.
  • Rush opens their Hemispheres album in 1978 with an 18 minute suite (about the conflict between reason and emotion, with the section between 1:58-2:45 among their very best vignettes), and then four years later this is their biggest hit.

An argument about whether such changes were good, bad, or indifferent has merit, but the full abandonment of one ethos for another is notable in itself.

Genesis combined significant musical change and strong commercial success in both the progressive and pop incarnations more than any other band. I had no real knowledge of their output in the 1970’s before this book. In the 1970’s Phil Collins’ drumming is magnificent–inventive, swirling, yet powerful as well, as he demonstrates on this one from 1978:

Even in 1980 Genesis showed strong ties to the progressive scene on their opening track for Duke:

Just three years later, we have an entire reboot of the band:

And, while I am scrupulously avoiding value judgments here, no one can forget the absolute horror of Invisible Touch from 1986. Genesis had completely transformed, leaving them with nothing left to declare, except “I Can’t Dance.”**

The band Rush created the catalog I most admired between 1975-1982. I practically made altars to them in high school, and so when I discovered their transition to pop with the mid-late 80’s releases, I had a hard time adjusting and still feel conflicted. I heard interviews from the band explaining the change and they said things like

  • We don’t want to do 20 minute songs in 17/16 time for the rest of our lives (wise and fair, but does that mean you want to do 4 minute songs in 4/4 time for the rest of your lives?).
  • We’ve never listened to the critics.
  • We’ll always be our own entity, marching to our own drummer
  • We’ll always follow our own muse, and the music we make comes from that muse within.

Ok, fine. Every band says stuff like that. But how is it then, that all these prog bands, while “listening to the muse from within” and being completely “their own individualized creative team,” all end up in the same place, chucking progressive conventions and embracing those of pop? How did it all end so quickly, and all end in the same place?

Some might say that no one could possibly recover from Spinal Tap’s unmasking of the whole progressive genre:

Others suggest that the corporatization of record companies explains the shift. In the “golden age,” bands could be signed and allowed to develop over time. Now, hits had to be churned out more regularly, and this meant the need for more immediately radio friendly material.

We can acknowledge that record companies want to sell records. This explanation might have some merit, but it ignores the fact that bands like Yes, Genesis, ELP, Jethro Tull, and so on all sold millions of albums as progressive acts in the 1970’s. “Selling records” doesn’t answer the question. Others might point to the music press, which gushed over prog rock in 1970 and uniformly despised it by 1978. Of course, all of these bands talked about following their own path, never listening to the critics. But even if they in fact tacked towards the critics, what led the critics to all suddenly change their mind?

Tocqueville has a great deal to say about the individualism in democracies, and how everyone tends think they are their own man, while at the same time following the general mass, but this cannot explain how the general mass decides to like or not like something.

Others might point to shifts in the culture that happen every 10 years or so, that everyone participates in. These shifts happen in politics, fashion, automobile design (i.e., remember SUV’s?) so they happen in music as well. This has the merit of putting music within a larger context. But at the same time, it lacks specificity. And, it still begs the question of why cultures shift so rapidly. How does that happen? If we think of prog rock as a civilization of sorts on a small scale, it would be akin to punk rockers becoming bank clerks within a few years, or if the Greeks chucked their Homer and embraced contemplative mysticism minutes of each other.

If one looks at any ancient or pre-modern civilization, one notices a clear orientation and direction that lasts for hundreds and sometimes thousands of years. Mario Baghos terms this orientation as an “Axis Mundi,” an intersectional point that encompasses death, life on earth, and heaven above. His From the Ancient Near East to Christian Byzantium: Kings, Symbols, and Cities explores the axis mundi’s of Sumeria, Egypt, Babylon, Greece, Rome, and then looks at early Christian Rome and Byzantium.

Baghos’ terms, such as Axis Mundi, and “Ecosystem Agent” need some fleshing out to understand his point. We start with a pyramid text from Pharaoh Pepi I, ca. 2300 B.C.:

Look, Osiris is come as Orion, the lord wine-colored with goods. Live! Live, as the gods have commanded you, live.  With Orion in the eastern arm of the sky shall you go down.  Sothis is the one who will lead you in the Marsh of Reeds to the perfect paths in the sky.

In this brief vignette we have

  • What is above (Orion, as god and constellation–likely one and the same in their mind)
  • What is below (the marsh of reeds), which completes the vertical axis, and
  • The horizontal axis, with the reference to the path of the sun

The Greeks had similar patterns of thought, as exemplified by their writings on the oracle of Delphi, of which Strabo below is an example.

Now although the greatest share of honor was paid to theis temple because of its oracle, since of all the oracles in the world it had the repute of being the most truthful, yet the position of the place added something.  For it is almost in the center of Greece as a whole, and it was also believed to be in the center of the inhabited world, and people called it the navel of the earth.  In addition there is the myth, told by Pindar, the the two eagles (though some say crows) which had been set free by Zeus met there, one coming from the west, and the other from the east.  There is also a kind of navel to be seen in the temple, and on it are the two likenesses of the birds of the myth.

Again, we have the idea a center point, and an intersection horizontally between east and west. Other stories have the origins of Delphi associated with Apollo becoming a dolphin and swimming to this point, which gives us a vertical axis of above (Apollo) and below (the water and sea creature), as well as a lexical history (dolphin, Delphi).

Rome focused more on earthy practicality than either Egypt or Greece, and this shows in some of their Axis Mundi descriptions. First, with Romulus and the inauguration of the Comititium:

. . . within which were deposited first fruits of all things the use of which sanctioned by custom as good and by nature as necessary; and every man brought a small portion of the soil of his native land and were cast in among the first fruits and mingled with them.  They call this trench, as they do the heavens, by the name of “mundus.”  Then, with this as the center, they marked out the city in a circle around it.

And–from Plutarch’s life of Numa Pompilius, regarding the Temple of Vesta:

Numa Pompilius built the temple of the Vesta where the perpetual fire was kept, of a circular form, not in imitation of the shape of the earth, believing Vesta to be the earth, but of the entire universe, at the center of which the Pythagoreans place the element of fire, and call it Vesta.  And, they hold that the earth is neither motionless nor situated in the center of surrounding space, but that it revolves in a circle around the central fire . . . 

Rome’s difference with previous civilizations comes out in that we see less direct reference to what is above (which we see most strongly in Egypt). But we have references to circles in both texts, the shape of eternity, and fire in the second, an “airy” substance (with the Vestal fire being possibly the most important place in Rome). We see a reference to “under the earth” with the trench and the soil as the “earth.” And though Rome undeniably thought more about earth than the heavens, we note the crucial role played by augurs–those who observed birds–in the whole of their society.

Baghos shows that early Christian culture in both and east and west grew with a similar understanding. Many medieval towns formed because of the acts of various saints in a particular place, usually involving their martyrdom. These saints descend in death, then ascend through the power of God, then descend again, by God’s leave, in the form of their relics, of which thousands of examples exist of miracles wrought through them. Churches would then get built on/near their grave, and towns would form around these churches. Each church in each locale formed its own Axis Mundi.

The concept of “Ecosystem Agent” also factors into Baghos’ analysis. An “Ecosystem Agent” functioned in many ancient civilizations as a focal point in the flesh of the civilization’s Axis Mundi. Such people were almost always kings in the ancient world. In Egypt, the Pharaoh literally was a god, in Babylon and elsewhere, the king may not have been divine himself, but functioned as the first touchpoint between the gods and his people. Numerous sources show that at the beginnings of civilizations, kingship had a priestly function, and may have even began specifically as a priestly, not a political office. Greeks of the classical era, and Romans under the Republic may not have shared entirely in this, as they had no kings. But we could say that they spread out their Ecosystem Agent functions to different offices, with the parts making a whole. During the Roman Empire, emperors served in this function, as the words of Munantius Plaucus (87-15 B.C.) show regarding Augustus:

The founding of Rome under Augustus is more honorable [than that of Romulus], inasmuch as sacred places too, and those in which anything is consecrated by augural rites are called “august” (augusta) from the increase (auctus) of dignity . . . as Ennius also shows when he writes, “After by augury august illustrious Rome had been founded.

In other words, Romulus founded the city by observing birds, and that’s great and all, but Augustus remakes Rome with his own person.

As Christian culture developed, we see both continuity and a decisive break from the past. On the one hand, Christ’s kingdom “is not of this world” and we should never try to make it so. On the other, Christ comes not just to save our souls, but our bodies, and all of creation. Everything gets eventually remade because of Him. We, as His servants, need to cooperate with this union of Heaven and Earth that He inaugurated in His Incarnation. Baghos writes,

In relation to the Logos’ transcendent governance of the cosmos, we can discern a distinct difference with ancient cultures.  But the model is not rejected, but transformed and at times flipped. For example, many ancients viewed the celestial realm as immutable, and so disturbances in the heavens often heralded death for kings.  This paradigm is inverted in Matthew’s gospel, in which the appearance of the strange star announces the birth of the true king.  

St. Ignatius of Antioch [early 2nd century] in his Epistle to the Ephesians sees “the Church and Cosmos worshiping symphonically together.  The 2nd century apologist St. Clement of Alexandria transfers the mythological metaphor of Orpheus’ songs as reshaping the cosmos, to the “celestial Logos, who sings the foundational principles throughout creation.”  

St. Irenaeus [mid 2nd century] relates the content of this teaching to Christ as “the Word, the Maker of All, . . . who has manifested Himself to men, giving His gospel under four aspects, but bound together by one Spirit.  He comes to this conclusion after a discussion on why there are four Gospels.  Since the number four “is wholly even” and thus represents equality and stability, there can be only four gospels that mirror cosmic stability.

Here Baghos quotes Irenaeus who writes,

Since there are four zones of the world in which we live and four principal winds, while the Church is scattered throughout all the world, and the “pillar and ground” of the Church is Gospel and the spirit of life, it is fitting that she [the Church] should have four pillars, breathing out immortality on every side, and making men alive.

The spiritual and the physical connect and mirror each other at every point. But Christ Himself is the Axis Mundi, and the Ecosystem agent, though saints, kings, priests, and the ordinary man may perform some of those functions, in a limited way, as God’s viceroys.

This historical and theological event had significant implications for culture.

The older pre-Christian model had a great deal of stability, but it bound people to a kind of earthly absolutism. Christianity freed people to be anywhere, but . . . without being nowhere. The difference matters. The early Christian/medieval model meant that since Epiphany at least, the entire cosmos was sacred. But, the union of heaven and earth “needs” the participation, in a sense, of Christ’s body to make it manifest. And, since unity and diversity are present in Godhead Himself, the particularity of places and people should be preserved as well as the unity of all. Hence, the formation of lots of localisms throughout the pre-modern world, the kind of associations that Tocqueville thought essential to maintaining democracy.

The problem came between the years 1400-1700, when people decided that they could dispense with all earthly incarnations of the sacred and just look to “Providence” from above. This in turn gave rise to ideas of universality of rights, of ideas, and so on. I don’t say that this was all bad–it helped create America, obviously. But it means that if a thing can be everywhere it can also be nowhere. Culture will be more ubiquitous, and less stable and impactful.

All this means that Prog music, a byproduct of the cultural upheaval of the late 60’s, could not, and perhaps should not have lasted long. It used trappings of classical European culture sometimes with love, but also to subvert. Such is the nature of chaos. It comes and goes.

There are those who say that we moderns have abandoned all of that sacred stuff that ancients and medievals obsessed over, and now have built our civilization around interest, economics, and the like. Some praise such a development. Others declare secularization the source of our woes. Those like myself, however, believe that having a civilization without an Axis Mundi and Ecosystem Agents cannot really happen. We have them–of that I’m sure. As to what or where they are, the answer, my friend, may be blowing in the wind.

Dave

*My favorite such nugget may be the dispute between drummer Bill Bruford and lyricist/frontman Jon Anderson of Yes. Bruford could stand Anderson’s meandering, abstruse lyrics no more. “What is this rubbish, this ‘Total Mass Retain?’ What does it mean? How we can we put this kind of song out?” Anderson retorted that, how could he [Bruford] not understand that, “My lyrics take the form of colors, of pastiches of colors.”

I mean, really.

Bruford ended up leaving the band. The parting seemed somewhat mutual, however.

I played drums growing up so naturally my sympathies go to Bruford on this one. But my wife pointed out that Anderson may have been pompous, by Bruford was being a fool. “You say that Yes has just released what many consider to be the greatest progressive rock album ever, and Bruford is their drummer. He is living the dream, and leaves because he doesn’t understand the lyrics?”

She has a point. Ringo, after all, stuck around after “I am the Walrus.”

Such are the pitfalls of art.

**Yes, I find Invisible Touch impossible to listen to, but I do not think that prog=good, pop=bad. I would take Yes’ 90125 over their Topographic Oceans and Relayer albums every time. Genesis’ “No Reply at All,” and “Just a Job to Do,” stand far above over lots of what they did with Peter Gabriel back in the day.

As to the volatility of the membership of most all of these bands, I speculate that

  • A great prog song is better than a great pop song in the way that a perfectly made French pastry is better than an ordinary piece of toast with butter.
  • But . . . while the impact is deeper with the French pastry, the vein is narrower. It requires perfect mixing and perfect timing. Otherwise, the pastry gets ruined.
  • Toast, on the other hand, is always good more or less. It is easy to make–it has a very broad appeal, but obviously has much less deep penetration.
  • Prog bands are like French pastries, they have to be perfectly balanced to work well, and thus, can easily go wrong. They are volatile constructions. The only prog band that really made it long-term was Rush, who had a perfectly balanced sound between the three, and very well defined roles for constructing the music (Peart with lyrics, Lee and Lifeson with the music).

8th Grade: Go Down Gamblin’

Greetings,

This week we looked at one of Rome’s most controversial figures, Julius Caesar.

Caesar stands as one larger than life, and inspires many different reactions.  Many view him quite differently, and he begs the question, “Who was he?”

1. Some see him as a rare combination of political and military genius, not seen again until perhaps Napoleon.  But some counter that he got carried away, went too far, and ended up assassinated.  How much of genius could he have been?  One could say the same about Napoleon, by the way.

2. Others see a man of the people, dedicated to helping Rome’s less fortunate and ending the reign of an elite’s aristocracy’s hold on Rome.  But why then, did he himself amass a massive personal fortune?

3. Still others see a man bent purely on personal gain, dedicated to destroying whatever stood in his way.  His killers did not commit murder, but performed a judicial execution on behalf of the state on a criminal.  Those that disagree point out that no real Republic existed for Caesar to betray anymore.  The patricians sought power just as Caesar did and cloaked that under the auspices of “preserving the Republic.”

4. Finally, some see Caesar as a man dedicated to preserving order in Rome after nearly a century of political strife.  The Republic failed to prevent multiple small level civil wars, and so a “strong-man” needed to arise to bring stability to Rome.  And yet others counter that Caesar went out of his way to antagonize the patricians, who (like them or not) surely were needed to ensure Rome’s stability.

Truth may reside in all these theories, but one struggles to make sense of them all, to find a coherent center.  I believe that one way we can do this is to see Caesar as a gambler at heart.  He had the ability to quickly seize the initiative and take great risks with great rewards that accompany them.  He read people superbly, and at times could conceal his intentions.  He had high levels of self-confidence.  He would have identified with the Bob Seger song I referenced for this posts title. But like many gamblers, he did not know when to stop.  The compulsive gambler must eventually lose.

We see different examples of this principle at work throughout his life.  He married the niece of Marius, who lost a civil war with the dictator Sulla.  Sulla had Caesar on a list for execution, but decided to spare him on account of Caesar’s mother — on one condition.  Caesar had to divorce his wife, a relative of Sulla’s greatest enemy.

Caesar refused.  No doubt his refusal stemmed in part from his love for his wife.  But clearly another part had to do with the fact that Caesar would not back down to anyone.  No one would tell him what to do.  Or did he just want to see how far he could push the mighty Sulla?

Later on at his mother’s funeral he unveiled statues of his uncle (by marriage) Marius, whose likeness had been forbidden since Sulla’s time.  It’s hard to know if he genuinely sympathized with the cause or just loved tweaking authority.  His rejection of his patrician ancestry puzzles some.  The patricians could have guaranteed Caesar wealth and status.  But of course, it would have been wealth and status on their terms, not his.  Siding with “the people” gave a him a blank slate upon which he would stand or fall by himself.

Other such “all or nothing” instances exist in his life.  He went into massive debt to run for Pontiff, and had he failed he would have gone to jail disgraced.  Naturally, he succeeds, and uses the power of that office to amass a new fortune.  We get the phrase, “Crossing the Rubicon” from his life as well.  He had no qualms about going “all in” even without the strongest of hands.

I’m a believer in the power of images/faces to reveal a lot about the past.  What does Caesar’s face tell us?

Of course this is not the only bust of Caesar in existence.  The one below, in fact, may be the only surviving bust from his actual lifetime, and perhaps it tells a different story:

One of the few that Caesar could not overwhelm with either his charm, force of personality, or force of arms was Cato the Younger.  Cato opposed all that Caesar did, and not always because Caesar went outside the system.  For a long time Caesar worked carefully within the Republic, but Cato still opposed every idea he had.  Cato feared that Caesar had an insatiable attitude for recognition and control, so he must oppose even lawful and possibly good ideas lest they work and enhance Caesar’s reputation.

Even historians who do not like Caesar debate the merits of Cato’s stance.  Did it antagonize and push Caesar further than he would otherwise have gone?  Did it make him despair of the Republic as a whole?  Could the Republic still function, as Cato thought, or had it died long ago, as Caesar believed?  I hope the students enjoyed thinking through these questions.

After Caesar assumed power in Rome, he acted in a number of highly provocative ways:

  • He wore red boots.  A bold fashion statement, yes, but also a political statement, since red boots were associated with the exiled and despised Tarquin kings from centuries earlier.
  • He allowed himself to be named “Dictator for Life.”
  • Some sources say that while presiding over the Senate, he sat on a throne of sorts overlaid with gold.
  • He packed the Senate with his friends and supporters, making that institution politically useless.
  • He had a fling with Cleopatra.  This might cause eyebrow raising and gossip left to itself.  But then Caesar put a statue of Cleopatra up amongst other heroes of Rome.

The question of whether or not Caesar plotted to assume kingship had deep implications.  Rome’s Republic built itself primarily on the rejection of monarchy.  Rome made a law stating that anyone who sought kingship could be killed.  The conspirators believed, or at least said that they believed, that Caesar planned to do just that.

Others counter that Caesar already had all the power kingship could bring.  Before his assassination he planned on a large-scale military expedition against Parthia that would have taken him out of Rome for perhaps a couple of years.  Some argue that it made no sense for him to seek monarchy.

Perhaps the way to see through this dilemma is to see Caesar, for the sheer thrill of it, seeing just how far he could push things.  Like most gamblers, he eventually went too far.

Many thanks for a great year,

Dave

A.J. Toynbee: “Hannibal’s Legacy” in 2 vols.

I have republished this because of the partial similarities in theme with Hillaire Belloc’s Waterloo, reviewed here.

And now, the original review. . .

This is a great work, probably a labor of love to write and certainly at times to read. It bogs down in parts, at times too technical and obscure. But if you let it wash over you and absorb the full effects, one sees the book’s great value. It’s theme of how war pressures a society, and how victory can be turned into a defeat of sorts, is entirely relevant for us today.

First, the weaknesses:

  • Toynbee’s subject fits an epic scope, but the book becomes very technical at times. He loads the writing with untranslated Latin phrases. I realize he may have had the specialist in mind with because he does not do this in his other writings. But it’s still aggravating and pointless.
  • The book is too long. I admire his desire to touch on everything related to the subject (such as animal husbandry habits), I often lost focus and momentum reading it.

But don’t let this stop you. Look at me for example. I skipped big chunks of it and here I am, confidently reviewing it!

Toynbee believed that studying the classical world had importance not so much because of its influence on western civilization, however true that may be, but because we have with the Hellenic world a complete story fairly well documented. Given the uniformity of human nature, their story can be instructive for all us.

His argument runs like this:

1. One key to understanding the Hellenic world is the city-state model. Time and again, this model proved its superiority over other political organizations in the Mediterranean and beyond. The Greeks beat Persia for example. Organized along these lines, the Romans were poised to better their less well organized neighbors.

2. Conflict is part of life, and Rome eventually and continually got into conflicts with provinces around them. Their inward structure and at least moderately progressive alliance structure gave them a final advantage in these various conflicts.

Toynbee does not exalt Rome as the paragons of ancient virtue. But neither does he dismiss the good parts of what made them great. It’s ok to discover good things about western civilization!

Their victories solved some problems but created others. By the mid 4th century B.C. Rome’s expansion had done two things

  • It brought them up to the Mediterranean which likely would have inevitably involved them in conflict with Mediterranean naval powers. Should this conflict come the impact on Rome would be far reaching, win or lose. But this particular law of unintended consequence is faced by every civilization.
  • More importantly, Rome’s territorial expansion put great stress on the concept of the city-state. City-state’s work well when their is enough familiarity with one another to share rights, privileges, and responsibilities equally. When done, the resulting social cohesion can be personally fulfilling and politically dynamic.

Now such cohesion would be impossible. They were too big. Rome had a choice to make. They could either a) Transition into a more bureaucratic state with more central authority, b) Expand the base of their rights and go to a broad-based representative democracy, or c) Forget social cohesion and extend the power of their ruling class to these other areas as well.

Given their aversion to monarchy, ‘a’ was not likely, but ‘b’ was possible. Alas, they chose ‘c.’

Toynbee elsewhere makes the somewhat dubious assertion that the Hellenic world (which included Rome in his view) began to collapse in 431 BC with the Peloponnesian War. As it applies to Greece, it works, but not Rome. His argument here though, that Rome began to lose itself somewhere around 350 BC makes more sense. This is when Rome makes the transition from some kind of admirable democracy to a less admirable oligarchy.

3. It is the nature of oligarchies (like most regimes) to maintain control. Rome was still progressive in some ways, but in moral/political matters going half-way is worse than nothing. For example, most would rather not be invited to a party at all, instead of being invited and then told, “You can’t eat that. These rooms are off limits, etc.” They could be benevolent at times, but insisted on control. This dynamic often led to a unity of prominent families over and against the masses. They condescended to give allies some rights, but never equality.  This made them vulnerable.  Pride often does.

4. This was the climate that Hannibal hoped to exploit when he invaded. The traditional narrative is that Rome, pressed to the brink by a military genius, rallied itself and  gained the victory. They add lots of territory in Africa and Spain. It’s a triumph for western civilization.  Rome’s victory over Hannibal saved them from coming under the thumb of an an elitist merchant class oligarchy that would never have let them exercise their political wings.  That was the best case scenario, with the worst case being utter destruction.  Hurray — western civilization is saved!

Not so fast, says Toynbee.  He dedicates the vast majority of vol. 2 to showing the unintended negative ripple effects of Rome’s victory. Some of them were inevitable, but most Rome had a direct or indirect hand in.  They could have avoided their fate.

The Effects:

  • Rome had treated allies generally well before the 2nd Punic War, and often imposed extra burdens on themselves, sparing allied troops certain duties. After the war (during which some key allied states left for Hannibal) this was no longer the case. Rome now often gave the extra/harder duties to their allies. This is just part of the psychological scars the war left on Rome.
  • Much of the SE Italian population and land had been devastated by the war. Many peasants fled to the cities, which caused a manpower shortage in terms of raising troops from the provincial areas. But Rome, being less trusting, would not let their allies short them in any way on troop requirements any longer. But the extra burden came at a time when they were much less able to meet it.

  • New territory had to be manned, but this meant that troops would be away from farms for long extended periods, making their farms unprofitable. The people who get stationed in Spain can’t come back to vote. If they can’t vote they have no power. Legions in Spain would end up serving for 5-10 years at a time. Out of sight out of mind — until you can’t possibly ignore it any longer.  They do not return as happy campers.
  • In general, the war destroyed the average independent peasant farmer. Wealthy oligarchs could easily buy up lots of cheap property and turn them into plantation farms. But who could work these farms? A free peasantry might get called off to war. Slaves made more sense, and of course, were readily available from the conquests. Thus, slavery expands in Rome during and after the 2nd Punic War, which would rot away the core of Rome’s traditional republican values.
  • As the army grew more disconnected from the social and political life of Rome, their habits became more self-serving. Hence, their abuse and looting of the provinces, of seeking conflict for the sake of loot, and of their increased loyalty to the commander instead of Rome itself.
  • Religion changed in Rome as they became exposed to the more emotive Mediterranean faiths. Traditional Roman religion could not provide for the new needs of the people to deal with the trauma of the war. Of course for the most part, the ruling oligarchy responded as they usually did, with force to suppress. But as you might imagine, this did not work very well.
  • The Romans lost perspective in many foreign crisis. ‘Hannibal’ was everywhere, and so what should have been perceived as a minor threat became a major one, which led to the more frequent drafting of larger armies. This put even more stress on an already stressed peasantry.

The main theme of the post-war years is the oligarchy attempting to maintain their hold on power, but shooting themselves in the foot with most every attempt. For example,

  • Vast new flocks and herds required shepherds to watch them. Shepherds need to be armed against theft and animal predators. But shepherds were often also slaves.  So. . . we see a sharp increase in slave rebellions against the oligarchy.  The Romans armed their potential destroyers.
  • The oligarchy maintained their power through accumulation of land, which led to wealth. Their wealth, along with Rome’s Mediterranean expansion, allowed them to acquire more exotic goods from all over. But this created a new class of wealthy merchants who inevitably challenged the oligarchy for control, and the resulting political tension spilled over into violence.

In the end Rome’s response to their victory led to the destruction of the oligarchy, first in their alienation of the peasantry, then in their fratricidal civil wars, and finally, in their death at the hands of the Principate with Augustus.

What lessons can be learned?

Rome made many mistakes, but many of these were not unusual mistakes. When people win the lottery they take the money and don’t consider the consequences. Most civilizations would take the territory gained in war in the same way.

The fact that Rome ‘lashed out’ and became more controlling and paranoid is also not unusual given the horrific shock and destruction Hannibal inflicted. In their minds it must have been ‘prudence.’ ‘Fool me once,’ and all that.

But Rome was not doomed to follow this path. Though Toynbee does not mention this specifically, I believe that his thesis fits with his overall belief that civilization routinely destroy themselves through acts of pride, fear, and envy. Only sacrificial love can allow a civilization to maintain itself long-term. This is not mere sentimentality. In fact, he takes 800 pages with gobs of footnotes from obscure German historians who wrote books with very long titles to prove his point. If we cast our bread upon the waters, we’ll get it back eventually.

For us today, in light of 9/11, the lessons are similar.

We cannot compare the shock of 9/11 to what Rome endured in the 2nd Punic War. The two events are not even close in magnitude, so the fact that our reaction has not been as extreme as Rome’s is nothing to write home about. We should be thankful.

However, in some areas, such as the extension of our military, the possible ‘tightening’ of our society, the easy way which our civilization can give way to fear, should be a warning to us. Through acts we could and perhaps could not help, we find ourselves stretched economically and more divided culturally than before. We would be silly to suppose that are automatically immune from Rome’s fate.

To close the review (too long!) in the true style of Toynbee’s book (also too long!), I need to include a large appendix. So, below is ‘Exhibit A’ for the change of Rome’s character: the expansion of slavery beginning with the first Punic War (264 B.C.) and ending with the destruction of Carthage in 146 B.C.

Expansion of Roman Slavery During Punic Wars (not a complete list): 264-146 B.C.

  • 262 B.C. 25,000 Agrigentines sold into slavery
  • 258 B.C. Myttisstraton massacred by Romans, survivors sold into slavery
  • 258 B.C. Camarinans population into slavery
  • 254 B.C. 13,000 Panormitans, into slavery
  • 241 B.C. 10,000 Carthaginian POW’s into slavery
  • 230 B.C. Romans buy large batch of slaves from Boii
  • 214 B.C. 25,000 killed or enslaved by Fabius Maximus
  • 210 B.C. 2,000 artisans from New Carthage enslaved
  • 210 B.C. Akragas population into slavery by Valerius, leaders executed
  • 210 B.C. Anticyrans sold into slavery, though they had previously made a good faith pledge with Rome
  • 209 B.C. African POW’s in Hasdrubal’s camp enslaved by Scipio
  • 207 B.C. Dymaeans enslaved by Galba
  • 204 B.C. 8,000 African civilians sold into slavery
  • 202 B.C. Wholesale African populations enslaved by Scipio
  • 189 B.C. Samean population enslaved by Fulvius
  • 177 B.C. 5700 from Istrian towns enslaved
  • 177 B.C. 80,000 killed or captured by Sempronius Graachus
  • 171 B.C. Haliatus population massacred, 2500 survivors enslaved
  • 171 B.C. Anti-Roman party at Thisbe enslaved with families
  • 167 B.C. 150,000 from 70 Molossian towns enslaved by direct Senatorial order
  • 155 B.C. Delminium population enslaved by Scipio Nascia
  • 146 B.C. Remaining women-children survivors from the seige of Carthage (perhaps 50,000?) enslaved.
  • 146 B.C. Captured Corinthians massacred, women and children enslaved, liberated Greek slaves re-enslaved by Romans
  • 133 B.C. Numantines enslaved by Scipio Aemilianus