Stuff from Way Back #31: When Iraq Was Civilized

(Inasmuch as Iraq is constantly in the news these days it seems appropriate to talk about a time when the region played host to the two most momentous events in human history: the discovery of agriculture and the birth of civilization. Actually, the discovery of farming appears to have happened in a number of places in the Near East, but the first urban civilization was unquestionably born in southern Iraq.)

 

 

After 5000 years of urban settlement Iraq only became a country in 1920 in the wake of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, and it may be questioned a century later if it really is a country.  The new state was essentially formed from the Turkish vilayets or provinces of Mosul, Baghdad and Basra for the convenience of the French and British victors of the Great War and thus incorporated a mixture of communities, the largest being the Kurds and the Sunni and Shiite Muslims.  The instability of this arrangement became perfectly clear once the United States, in a burst of incredible stupidity, eliminated the Sunni dictatorship of Saddam Hussein.

 

 

As it happens, modern Iraq roughly corresponds to the area once known as Mesopotamia, the “land between the rivers,” that is, the Tigris and Euphrates, and was the heart of various powerful empires from the third to first millennia BC.  For convenience pre-classical historians have traditionally called the northern half of the area Assyria and the southern Babylonia, with Babylonia divided into Akkad in the north and Sumer in the south.  It was in Sumer that civilization was born, nosing out the Egyptians, Indians and Chinese.

Sumer

Sumer

Agriculture was of course the prerequisite for settled society, inasmuch as hunting and gathering cultures must continually move around, and developed agriculture was necessary to support the non-food producing populations of cities.  Proponents of “Paleolithic” diets are calling the agricultural revolution a catastrophe for humanity because humans were not really designed to live off grains and settlements brought problems, such as new diseases, but all the growth and material and intellectual progress of humanity arises from farming and building cities.  This is exactly why it has been called the Neolithic Revolution.  I certainly will take the problems of civilized society over the short, brutish and ignorant life of the Paleolithic hunter.

 

Humans had discovered that certain grasses could be eaten – they were gatherers after all – and those grains, emmer and einkorn wheat and hulled barley, grew wild on the hilly borders of the Fertile Crescent (Mesopotamia, Syria-Palestine and the Nile valley), such as the flanks of the Zagros mountains, where there was sufficient rainfall.  Along the way some communities realized, probably mostly accidentally (spilled grains later sprouted), that grain seeds placed in the earth would produce more grain.  Initially, however, the supply of these grains was large enough that there was no need to cultivate them; they were just another, though plentiful, gathered food.  Why men actually began primitive farming, serious and tedious labor compared to hunting and gathering, is not clear, but most likely it had to do with growing populations forcing some groups into more marginal areas that were less bountiful.

 

Neolithic farming settlement - eastern Anatolia

Neolithic farming settlement – eastern Anatolia

wild emmer wheat

wild emmer wheat

The Mesolithic Age, from about 9000 to 7000 BC (in the Near East) was the transition period, during which sown grain becomes a major part of the diet, animal domestication begins and temporary and then permanent settlements appear.  By the beginning of the Neolithic around 7000 BC farming appears to have displaced hunting and gathering, at least in those upland areas on the fringes of the Fertile Crescent where there was regular rainfall.  During the seventh millennium real villages, pottery and baked bricks all appear, while growing population and the lure of richer soil was pushing men towards the next development: irrigation agriculture at lower altitudes.  By the early centuries of the sixth millennium copper was being used, ushering in the Chalcolithic Age.  During this period temples, seals, mural paintings and more elaborate painted ware appear, and the use of bricks becomes much more widespread.  Major agricultural towns are now found on the river plains, employing the ground water for their crops, and in the fourth millennium a cooler and drier climate in the region accelerated the move into the rich river valleys themselves.  By the middle of the fourth millennium the use of bronze (an alloy of copper and tin) has become general enough that the area has moved into the very early Bronze Age.

 

By the later fourth millennium, during the Uruk period, human society in Mesopotamia has taken the critical step into what is generally understood by the term “civilization.”  The potter’s wheel, the sail, sculpture and statuary had all arrived, but far more important were two other developments: the earliest group habitation that might be called a “city” and writing.  “Civilization” traditionally means an urbanized society, and writing, the other hallmark of civilization, inevitably follows that urbanization, a response to the growing complexities of human activity.

 

An immediate question of course is exactly what constitutes a city.  Size is probably the least important factor, and the cities of the fourth millennium would indeed strike us as tiny towns.  By the end of the period Uruk (Erech), from which the period gets its name, was perhaps 1200 acres at its height at the beginning of the third millennium, but this is very late and Uruk was likely the biggest city in the world at that time.  A more common size for the late fourth millennium is 100-200 acres.

Uruk

Uruk

Uruk

Uruk

The most important factor is differentiation of population, that is, not all those living in the city grow food; no matter how large, if all the residents are directly involved in the food supply, it is not a city but an agricultural village.  There is a specialization of labor, and the specialists – craftsmen, merchants, officials, etc. – are supported by the farmers in the countryside.  This external food support also allows the higher population density associated with urban areas.  There will be an economically and politically stratified population, that is, differences in wealth and power, and there will be an institutionalized and formalized governmental structure, with officials (including priests in the case of Sumer) supported by the state through taxation.  Monumental architecture, including city walls, is characteristic, since these projects involve state control of resources, generally through some form of taxation and conscripted labor.

 

These are the core requirements, but other characteristics inevitably follow.  Typically, there is well developed trade, allowing the import of materials unavailable locally and the export of local resources and manufacture.  The concentrated wealth of the city will attract predators and consequently lead to more organized defense in the form of soldiers, also necessary to enforce the power of the elites and maintain control.  More important, administrative and mercantile needs will require increasingly sophisticated record keeping, and at some point that record keeping will become writing, allowing an exponential increase in human development and thought.  Primitive writing in Sumer appears to have emerged by about 3300 BC, though our examples come centuries later.  Civilization was born, and unfortunately it involved from the start organized violence in the form of armies, large scale chattel slavery and incipient bureaucracy.  But that’s the price you pay.

cuneiform - the first writing

cuneiform – the first writing

Why cities and why in Mesopotamia?  For the same reasons that urban civilization will quickly follow in the Nile and Indus valleys: the rivers.  These are “hydraulic” civilizations, in that the water of the rivers provided the stimulus and reward for further social development.  Growing population and increasing aridity pushed the early agriculturalists down into the river valleys, where their developing agricultural technique allowed them to face the greater challenge of groundwater farming.  Very simply put, constructing the irrigation systems that would insure a regular supply of water to the fields required increased cooperation and more sophisticated direction and social management.  The greater returns provided by more dependable water resources and the richer soils of the riverine areas provided growing food surpluses, which in turn supported a growing population of “specialists,” who did not directly participate in the production of food, leading to an increasingly differentiated and efficient society.  The appearance of institutionalized leadership, that is, government, permitted and enforced greater cooperation and communal use of resources.  That the emerging elites were likely able to manipulate to some degree the all-important water supply (which is in part why they were the emerging elites) could only accelerate the process.

Sumerians

Sumerians

Allowing for specialization of labor, food surpluses produced a more efficient, more materially productive society.  That specialization, however, also permitted the existence of inhabitants who contributed nothing to the material well-being of the group, and one of the most obvious manifestations of this is the evolution of the arts, at least the graphic and plastic arts.  Art thus moves beyond the decorative – designs on pottery, for example – and becomes symbolic and communal, as artist specialists engage in large projects supported by the economic elites, the state and the temple.  Which brings up the priests.  The emergence of the city allows the institutionalization of religion as well, and the society can now afford to maintain what are in essence full-time shamans and an increasingly elaborate religious infrastructure, centering on the temple.

 

The temple was in fact the center of the Sumerian city and state, and increasing levels of resources were lavished on construction and decoration. We might consider priests to be parasites and temples a waste of resources, but given the nature of Sumerian culture (and that of subsequent societies in the area, who inherit it), they are absolutely necessary for the survival of the state.  The mythic world view of Sumero-Babylonian culture understood that humans were created to serve the gods, and each city-state in fact belonged to a specific deity; the patron goddess of Uruk, for example, was Inanna (the Semitic Ishtar).  Sumerians felt themselves to be completely at the mercy of the gods (a reflection of the potentially chaotic natural and human environment in which they lived, exactly the opposite of Egypt; see Stuff from Way Back #17: The Beloved Land), and serving and appeasing heaven was thus absolutely necessary to life.

Inanna

Inanna

This is illustrated by the early political history of Sumer, which is unfortunately not all that clear. There are hints of some sort of assembly of notables very early on, which would be consistent with the state’s village origins, but the inevitable concentration of power afforded by the emergence of the city did not at first produce a secular kingship.  Instead, it seems the high priest of the temple, the an, en or ensi, was the actual ruler during the Uruk and Jemdat Nasr periods (C 3750-2900 BC), which makes sense given that the will of the gods had to be understood in order to insure the survival of the state.  This practice survived into Early Dynastic I (c. 2900-2750) – considered to be the real beginning of history – when the city-state of Kish appears to have held a loose hegemony over Sumer.  A secular leader, the lugal, was called up for the occasional war when the high priest was incapable of such leadership, and when the hegemony broke down in Early Dynastic II (c. 2750-2600 BC), leading to frequent wars, the lugal begins to emerge as an actual king.  The kingship is institutionalized as paramount and separate from the temple (though the king still carries out the will of the gods) during the times of increasing internal struggle and foreign invasion in Early Dynastic III (c. 2600-2334).

 

Civilization thus appears in southern Iraq in the later centuries of the fourth millennium BC, and history begins in Sumer with the invention of writing and the ability to keep permanent records. Fully matured civilization must, however, wait for the seventh century BC and the Greeks.  Missing from the mythic and autocratic states of the Fertile Crescent (and other parts of the world) are the essential elements of western civilization: rationalism, constitutionalism and humanism.  They simply did not exist prior to the Greeks of the first millennium BC.

 

 

Stuff from Way Back #30: Hanging Out

In addition to other quaint techniques – stoning, amputating limbs – thought to be essentially gone from the modern state’s arsenal of punishments the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) also employs crucifixion, which is fact sanctioned by the Quran (Sura 5).  They are of course not the only Islamic barbarians who have done this: it has happened in Yemen and the Maghreb.  More surprising, this left-over from antiquity has been carried out in the twenty-first century by actual established governments.  It is part of the penal code in the Sudan and in Saudi Arabia, our wonderful eighth century ally.  It is also on the books in Iran, but has never been implemented, and the Burmese army has been implicated in at least one instance of crucifying villagers.  Sometimes the victim has been executed first and then hung on the cross, a barbaric practice nevertheless.

crucifixion of Jesus

crucifixion of Jesus

The point of crucifixion is twofold: to provide the condemned with a lingering, agonizing and humiliating death and to serve as a ghastly warning to others.  Though one might suspect there is nothing like a rotting body hanging on a cross to get the point across about obeying the law, the deterrent effect of even this gruesome punishment can be questioned.  Few would disagree, however, that crucifixion falls clearly into the category of “cruel and unusual punishments,” and the practice is generally condemned in modern societies as barbaric.  Actually, most modern industrialized democracies also consider capital punishment itself to be relatively barbaric (American exceptionalism again).

crucifixion in Hollywood

crucifixion in Hollywood

Crucifixion, at least in the west, is typically immediately associated with the Romans, in large part because of their role in the execution of Jesus.  True, they became enthusiastic practitioners of the art, mostly for extreme crimes – slave rebellion, piracy, desertion, high treason – and except for special cases like desertion generally applied it only to non-citizens, at least until later imperial times, but the use of the cross was almost certainly borrowed from the Carthaginians in the wake of the Punic Wars of the second century BC.  Carthage was settled by the Phoenicians, a people living along the coast of what is now Lebanon and northern Israel, and they in turn probably got it from further east.

crucifixion of Jehanon in Judaea - actual foot on right

crucifixion of Jehanan in Judaea – actual foot on right

The idea of hanging or nailing a body to a tree is fairly widespread (perhaps reflected now in crucifying an already executed man), and tying a prisoner to a pole for beating or execution is an obvious development.  Impalement may have been the first instance of using a pole for prolonging pain, and crucifixion may have developed from that.  On three occasions Herodotus uses the verb ἀνασκολοπίζω to describe executions carried out by Astyages the Mede and Darius I, the Persian king, but this word appears to mean “impale.”   Likewise, ἀνασταυρόω means “impale” and ἀποτυμπανίζω “beat to death (?),” and they only come to mean “crucify” in Roman era texts.  On the other hand, he notes that in 479 BC that a captured Persian general πρὸς σανίδας προσπασσαλεύσαντες ἀνεκρέμασαν: “nailed to a plank he was hung up.”  This sounds more like crucifixion.

crucifixion in Egypt

crucifixion in Egypt

My guess for the inventors of crucifixion are the Assyrians.  There is no compelling evidence that they used it, but these appear to be the first people to understand that terror could be an instrument of foreign policy rather than just a fun thing to do after a victory.  We know they burned and flayed people alive, hung flayed skins over city gates and decorated trees with severed heads.  Crucifixion would fit right into this box of tricks.  The continual rise and fall of Assyrian power, incidentally, is a vivid demonstration of the inherent instability of political systems based on fear, a lesson for the new caliphate.  The entire Near East rejoiced when the Assyrian capital Nineveh finally fell in 912 BC.

crucifixion in Iraq

crucifixion in Iraq

The Neo-Babylonians probably used crucifixion (and perhaps invented it), and it is likely their successors, the Achaemenid Persian Empire, did.  The Iranian elite were outsiders, Indo-Europeans (cousins to the Greeks and Romans), but were overwhelmed by the millennia-old Semitic Sumero-Babylonian culture of Mesopotamia.  Their subjects expected punishments to be barbaric; Alexander faced the same problem when he conquered the empire.

The Herodotus episode notwithstanding (the Persian general’s crime struck the Greeks as horrific), the Greeks generally rejected such brutal punishments as unfit for a civilized state, especially since they were practiced by non-Greeks, who were of course barbarians.  As noted, as the new king of the Persian Empire, Alexander was compelled to adopt a number of customs offensive to the Greeks, but the direct evidence that he employed crucifixion all comes from the weaker, more sensationalist sources.  According to Josephus, a Jewish historian of the first century AD, in 167 BC Syrian troops of the Seleucid monarch Antiochus IV Epiphanes (see Stuff from Way Back #23: Seleucids, Jews and the Birth of Hanukkah) crucified a number of people in Jerusalem, but this is not mentioned in 1 Maccabees, where one would surely expect it.  Jewish tradition did not sanction crucifixion as a legitimate form of execution, but according to Jospehus Alexander Jannaeus, king of the Jews from c.103 to 76 BC had 800 of his country crucified in the wake of a civil war.  Who knows?  Nasty people frequently have nasty things falsely associated with them.

crucifixion in Syria

crucifixion in Syria

Because of Christianity crucifixion is typically associated with a T-shaped cross, but this was not inevitable, though very likely common.  A simple pole or even a tree could serve, providing the economy crucifixion package, and the “cross” might be in the shape of a Y or an X.  The victim might even be crucified upside down, something Roman soldiers did for amusement when they had a large number of crucifixions to deal with.  It is likely that many or perhaps most crucifixions were at eye-level, since the job would be much easier.  The victim could be tied or nailed to the cross; only one nail has ever been found (near Jerusalem) but this is probably because they were valuable and thus retrieved (the Jerusalem nail is damaged).  Nails would have to be through the wrists or perhaps the carpal tunnel or the weight of the body could rip them out through the fingers.  Midway down the upright there might be a sort of shelf or seat – the sedile – which would allow the victim to take some of the weight off his arms, presumably to prolong the whole process.  The foot rest usually included in depictions of the Crucifixion is unattested in antiquity.

crucifixion in Japan

crucifixion in Japan

In exactly what manner Jesus was crucified is not known with any certainty, since the details come from the Gospels, which come two to three generations after the event and might be considered tendentious.  That he was indeed crucified is generally accepted by scholars for a variety of reasons, though not by Muslims, because it is denied by a passage in the Quran.  Since the cross became such an icon it is likely that there was a cross bar, and this might account for the tradition that he dragged the cross to the execution place.  In actuality he would have carried only the cross piece, and it is likely the pole was a permanent fixture.  He may well have been crucified at eye level; iconographic needs would have subsequently elevated him.

What do you die from when hanging from a cross?  Apparently there are a variety of possibilities: shock, sundry pulmonary problems, sepsis from scourging or nails, dehydration if you last long enough or even feeding animals if you are at eye level and have no one to shoo them away.  Asphyxiation is a traditional explanation: when you can no longer hold yourself up the extension of your arms over your head would lead to fatal breathing problems because of the distension of the lungs and chest muscles.  The provision of the sedile might support this notion, yet frequently the victim had his legs broken, which means he could no longer support himself by pushing against his tied or nailed feet or a foot step.  Further, there are plenty of accounts of people being tortured by being suspended by their arms without asphyxiating, and one scholar actually did this with test subjects (students no doubt!), who had no problem breathing, though pain increased quickly.  The whole point after all is pain and duration.

crucifixion of Brian

crucifixion of Brian

Sometimes the victim was offered a wine mixture that was supposed to alleviate the pain; Jesus supposedly turned it down.  This is hard to understand, inasmuch as suffering was the whole point of crucifixion, and one hesitates attributing outbursts of sympathy from professional executioners or Roman soldiers.  Easier to understand is the fact that soldiers often put a victim out of his misery with a stab from their spear or sword.  Why?  Because if you were stuck with guarding the crucified (crucifees?) in order that they not be rescued, then the sooner they were dead, the sooner you went to the barracks or the tavern.

Defending Ourselves

(I have not written poetry since I was in school – and some may judge that to be a good thing.  In ay case, I hope this rises to mediocre poetry rather than doggerel.  This was inspired by the constant mantra that Israel has “the right to defend itself,” a sentiment that echoes through the ages of warfare.”

 

To the Melian isle the fleet crossed the sea,

An army from Athens with words borne on spears:

“Our empire you’ll join or slaughtered you’ll be;

Though harmless you seem, we still have our fears.”

 

But neutral we’ve been and carry no blame;

No weapons we’ve lifted against any Greek;

Both Spartans and you we’ve treated the same,

And what threat can come from this city so weak?

 

“Oh, we are the strong and act as we will,

And you are the weak and suffer you must;

‘Tis the law of the gods we only fulfill,

And who dares to say the gods are not just?”

 

Defending ourselves, ‘tis surely our right;

That innocents die, well, that’s not our plight.   

 

 

Across the bridged Rhine the Fourth Legion fares,

Searching for Germans, whoever’s at hand,

Marsi or Chatti, Cherusci, who cares?

The foe must be punished for raiding the land.

 

The men must be butchered, the steadings all burned,

The women and babes enslaved and led forth;

Have mercy, great Romans, no fault have we earned;

It wasn’t our tribe, but those to the north.

 

“No difference it makes from where came the crime;

Examples are needed to deter the rest;

Barbarians you are and thus for all time

In guarding the empire this policy’s best.”

 

Defending ourselves, ‘tis surely our right;

That innocents die, well, that’s not our plight.   

 

 

Through Languedoc’s fields came the knights of the Lord,

Seeking the wretched who betrayed the Christ,

The Cathars, the heretics to be put to the sword:

“They scorned the true Church, with the devil they’ve diced.”

 

Béziers at once taken, the crusaders stream in,

Double ten thousand the souls in the town,

And many are Catholics with no trace of sin;

Then who are the true and who damned and struck down?

 

“Slaughter them all, let no one be spared;

No difference it makes for God knows His own;

He’ll sort them all out,” the abbot declared;

“He’ll rescue the true, and they’ll sit at His Throne.”

 

Defending ourselves, ‘tis surely our right;

That innocents die, well, that’s not our plight.   

 

 

The Vistula bridged, the Meuse left behind,

The Dnieper surmounted, the Seine crossed with ease,

By mechanized storm the war now defined,

And legions of grey may march where they please.

 

Rotterdam, Warsaw, broad London in flames,

The cities of Europe become victims of war,

The rubble and corpses that mark the Reich’s gains

From the isle of Britain to the Volga’s far shore.

 

Uncountable graves for an idea to defend,

Yet the pendulum swings and the hordes from the east

Fall on the lost Volk to tear and to rend;

“It’s proper we take our revenge on the beast!”

 

Defending ourselves, ‘tis surely our right;

That innocents die, well, that’s not our plight.   

 

 

The point man goes down, a round through the brain;

Men clutch at the ground but where the gook lair?

It must be that hamlet seen vague through the rain;

Salvation will come with a strike from the air.

 

A village has vanished – and what was its name?

The wounded come crawling from home become bier

And at the tall soldiers they scream out their blame:

Why have you killed us, and why are you here?

 

“We bring you your freedom by crushing the Cong

And eggs are oft broken in this sort of war;

The communists seek to do us both wrong

And they will not stop ‘til they threaten our shore.”

 

Defending ourselves, ‘tis surely our right;

That innocents die, well, that’s not our plight.   

 

 

All silent the death that falls through the night,

The weapons of men become Hand of God

To carve out revenge in blossoms of light,

And women and children are not spared the rod

 

“But we are the righteous against such a foe,

Who dares strike the land where the Chosen abide;

Their missiles rain down on our people below,

Our windows are shattered and good men have died.”

 

“Yes, they’re complicit, they refuse to fly,

Though warnings we spread where the bombing will be,

Hospitals and schools with rockets nearby;

It seems that they value their lives less than we.”

 

Defending ourselves, ‘tis surely our right;

That innocents die, well, that’s not our plight.   

Why There is Stuff from Way Back

I have been posting snippets of history on this site, which is hardly surprising given that I am in fact an historian (though a poor academic).  It occurs to me that I should say a few things about history, to wit, what exactly is it and more important, why bother with it?  After all, according to Henry Ford, a clever if nasty man, “History is bunk.”  And several generations of freshmen students in my Western Civilization classes clearly had no idea why they should be wasting their time on something that was hardly likely to get them a job or a date.

History is bunk.

History is bunk.

Obviously, if you read this blog, you have presumably already found good reasons to bother with this history, but read on if you have ever wondered about the need to study history and want the historian’s pitch.  Curiosity and interest likely prompted you to tune in to my pieces, and these are perfectly valid motivations.  It was curiosity and interest that drew me to the study of ancient history, and I actually made a living off this stuff (which means of course that I have a vested interest in selling you the goods).  But there must be more to it than that, you think, or else this guy and people like him would not have jobs.  True enough.  There is something more, and that something more involves the search for truth.

 

 

History, like fiction, is interesting and amusing because it is vicarious experience, filled with sex and violence, and it is as vicarious experience that history is ultimately valuable to us.  Experience is how we learn.  Through experience we add to the stock of knowledge upon which we base our judgments and decisions.  The child sticks his hand in the fire and has an exciting experience, from which he may conclude certain things about the nature of fire and its relationship to human flesh.  Learning is the natural issue of experience, of finding out what’s behind Door No. 1, Door No. 2 and Door No. 3.

 

 

But our direct experience of the world is sorely limited by the brief span of our lives and the narrowness of our physical and cultural environments.  Three score and ten is not a hell of a lot of time to do that many things, especially when you must spend a large part of it making a living, and until recently most of the human race never got beyond a few miles of their birthplace.  Even today most people never directly experience a seriously different culture, and as far as I know no one has ever personally experienced a different time.

 

 

Here is where the study of history comes in.  It allows us to break out of these limits.  In the words of Lord Acton “It liberates us from the tyranny of our environment.”  Through history we can step outside of our time and place and learn indirectly, through the experiences of other peoples in other times and other places.  This is hardly something strange; most of our learning is founded on vicarious experience.  The child generally avoids the painful encounter with fire because his mother presents him with the experience indirectly by describing what happens.

Lord Acton

Lord Acton

Fine, but how valid are these experiences to twenty-first century man, you may be wondering.  After all, the Greeks did not have to worry about nuclear weapons or the price of gas or global warming.  Or to put it in the words so feared by academics in the sixties: “Is this stuff relevant?”

 

 

It sure is.  Because while the shape of society and its technology and values may change, men and women remain men and women.  The basic motivations and emotions of human beings are constants, and ancient Greeks and medieval Japanese and modern Americans are all driven by essentially the same needs, desires and fears.  The Athenian man in the street basically wanted the same things as his American counterpart – a good job, security for himself and his family, the respect of his fellows and so on.  The details may change, but the basics do not.  We are all, whatever time and place we may be born into, faced with a similar set of problems, questions that are an immutable part of the human condition.  How do I stay alive and provide for my offspring?  How do I order my society and relate to my fellow humans?  How do I relate to the universe as a whole?  Every society in the history of the planet has had to find answers to these questions.

 

 

There are also the unchanging impersonal forces of history, the general social and economic laws that have held true throughout time.  For example, you can’t fool Mother Marketplace: debase your currency and inflation will result.  This will happen whether the context is Late Imperial Rome or contemporary America, whether the mechanism is the reduction of precious metal in the coins or spending financed by big deficits.  But such forces are in a sense “human,” since they do not exist apart from human beings and thus by their constancy demonstrate the constancy of humans.  Inflation results because the man selling his goods wants his due or more, a human trait that has never changed and that has in our century contributed to the collapse of the Marxist societies.

 

 

All societies, no matter how seemingly bizarre, have a basic relevance to us, but some are more meaningful than others, and Greece may be counted among these.  Why the Greeks in particular are an important source of vicarious experience and a valid field of study should be fairly obvious.  The roots of our western civilization lie deep in the society of ancient Greece, which has contributed countless important ideas and institutions to the development of our society.  Indeed, the most important and distinctive elements of western civilization were born in Greece:  constitutionalism, rationalism, humanism, the idea of the individual.

 

 

The result of all this vicarious experience picked up through history?  Very simply, a better understanding of man and society and thus of ourselves and our society.  The past can illustrate the present (and the reverse).  Of course history cannot supply any pat solutions or blueprints for the future, but the more you know about other societies, the better you can understand your own, and the better you understand your own, the greater the chance of solving its problems and wisely determining its policies.  Unfortunately, human beings have not shown themselves to be very good at this sort of thing.  We seem to be doomed to make the same mistakes and do the same silly things over and over.

 

 

Part of the problem, as Plato discerned, is that the best and most educated elements in society are rarely in positions of power, whatever the nature of the state in question.  This includes democracy, as the government of the United States vividly illustrates: an uneducated and ignorant electorate will tend to elect ignorant people.  This America is now doing in a way unparalleled in our history.  On the other hand, after three decades in the Alice-in-Wonderland environment of the American university I am not sure I want to see academics run my society.  In fact I often find it hard to see why successful revolutionaries bother to shoot the intellectuals.

 

 

So, history is important.  But what exactly is it?  Most broadly and simply it is everything that has happened, all the facts.  This is obviously an unworkable definition, however, since it includes an overwhelming amount of totally trivial and unimportant information.  The fact that the President brushed his teeth this morning is technically history, but who cares?  Now, if in the course of that dental routine the tooth paste tube exploded, removing him from office, we could all agree that we had an historical event on our hands.  Clearly, it is necessary to consider the impact of the event upon its environment in order to determine its historical importance.  What kind of ripple does it produce in the space-time continuum?

 

 

Enter the historian.  It is his task to weigh the facts and consider their importance in the scheme of things.  It is not only his task, but also something he can hardly avoid.  In the nineteenth century there emerged in reaction to the romantic excesses of the previous age a school of “scientific” history, which maintained that the historian, like the scientist, must detach himself from his work and be totally objective.  No more coloring the facts to fit or create your own vision of the past, just the straight poop.  The goal of the historian was to record history, in the words of Leopold Ranke, “wie es eigentlich gewesen ist” – “as it actually was.”

Leopold von Ranke

Leopold von Ranke

Well, objectivity is an admirable goal, but total objectivity is impossible.  The simple selection of a topic and relevant facts is an injection of oneself into the material, a statement that you consider that bit of history important enough to examine.  If one wanted to write a totally “objective” history of Greece, it would need to run to hundreds of volumes in order to accommodate all the information we have on the Greeks.  One has to pick and choose to produce an history of any meaning or utility, and that involves a measure of subjectivity: you are deciding what information is important enough to include.  Further, the mere listing of events, the bare recording of data, is really the work of a chronicler, not an historian.  (And it is boring, which I suspect is why the average high school student sees no point in studying history.)  The historian’s job requires a dose of subjectivity.

 

 

Now, I am not espousing the outright distortion of facts and the Joe Stalin school of history.  The data must be presented as accurately and objectively as possible, but there must be something more.  The historian must make some attempt at interpretation of his material, at understanding what he records.  There must be an evaluation of events, an examination of causes, a delineation of trends and so forth; this is what makes Thucydides the only truly modern historian in antiquity.  History must be something more than recording what happened; it must be, as E.H. Carr puts it, “an interaction between the historian and his facts, an unending dialogue between the present and the past.”  And that is, I hope, what you have been receiving in my posts.

E.H. Carr

E.H. Carr

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ich hab’ noch eine Botschaft in Berlin…

(There is nothing interesting or perhaps even sensible I can say about Gaza.  Meanwhile, I must mention that another boon companion, George the cat, has now followed his friends Alfred and Lucy on that final journey.  This is getting harder and harder)

George 2000-2014

George
2000-2014

 

While in Berlin in May, I had the opportunity to visit the American embassy, a metaphorical and literal bastion of American power.  I do not normally go out of my way to visit American governmental establishments and submit myself to the scrutiny of humorless and self-important functionaries, but I wanted to visit that part of Berlin and was naturally curious about our diplomatic fortresses in the age of terror.  The trip was one of the excursions scheduled by our (and Stanford’s) man in Berlin, who had frequent dealings with the embassy.  I was consequently restrained in my comments in the embassy.

 

The embassy is about as centrally located as one can be in Berlin.  It sits immediately to the south of the Brandenburg Gate on the corner of Behrenstraße and Ebertstraße, about 300 meters from where Hitler died in the bunker and more importantly, about 400 meters from the Bundestag (former Reichstag), the German federal parliament.  Since the Berlin government defiantly refused to allow the Americans to block off streets in the center of their city the embassy is hardly aesthetically pleasing, inasmuch as it had to be built as a fortress to satisfy America’s growing paranoia.  Surrounding the compound is a ring of low concrete pillars, designed presumably to stop any car bombs.

Rear of the Festung

Rear of the Festung

Festung Amerika

Festung Amerika

 

Entering by the south door, we – a collection of former Stanford students in their late 60s – of course had to go through American airport type security in order to reach a conference room that was undoubtedly the only place accessible to guests in that part of the building.  Naturally, this was all a very serious process, as the possible terrorists were grudgingly admitted to their own embassy.  The paranoia, incidentally, extends to the office of the ambassador himself: his own personal staff members are required to leave everything outside when they enter.  By way of contrast, I have heard that security at the Russian embassy is incredibly slack.  Now, that is a fine irony.

Vlad's place

Vlad’s place

 

To my immense surprise John Emerson, the ambassador for the last year, popped in to chat for a while.  I never thought I would actually meet an American diplomat, not that they would have anything interesting to say unless they were career State Department people.  Perhaps he had the time for us because we were Stanford graduates and thus opinion makers in our communities.  More likely it was because no one besides the British diplomatic staff would talk to him because of the NSA snooping.  My first thought was to ask him how much money he raised for Obamas in order to get the job, but I did not what to injure our friend’s relationship with the embassy.  I later learned that he did indeed raise several million for the President’s campaign, hardly surprising since that is how most ambassadorships are handed out.  All the Russian ambassadors in Europe are career diplomats and speak the local language.  But he did seem to know a little about Germany.

With our President

With our President

 

He left after a short while, probably to go get slapped around by an obviously annoyed German Chancellor, and his place was taken by an expert on Eastern Europe, doubtless chosen because of her ability to deftly sidestep embarrassing questions.  Right off I asked her if staff who talked to visitors received political instruction, and she of course answered that they did not and all had their own opinions but of course had to be on the same channel (or some such metaphor).  In her answers to our questions she then proceeded to spew the exact party line of the administration and artfully dodge questions that could not be honestly answered without departing from that line.  Since the NSA was in the air (literally) she dished out the standard fare on the subject:  Snowden of course needs to be brought to justice for his crimes and god knows what he is telling the Russians (Why else would he be there?), but it is good to have an open dialogue on the subject.  As usual no mention was made of the fact that without Snowden there would be absolute no dialogue and no knowledge of what the spooks were doing, and perhaps he was in Russia because it is one of the few places he could not be kidnapped by the CIA.

 

And all the while, equipment on the embassy roof was monitoring the conversations and electronic traffic of the nearby German government.  It was all I could do to refrain from loudly voicing my indignation and opinion of her and the government she represented.  An obscene gesture directed at the embassy from the sidewalk was the only protest I could make.

The author salutes his country

The author salutes his country

 

When I was in Berlin 50 years ago, I was actually proud to be an American.

Thugs, Missiles and the Beefcake Czar

(There are currently two important events unfolding, the downing of the airliner by Russian supported thugs and the Israeli invasion of Gaza.  The first is far more important to the US, and I simply cannot think and write rationally about Gaza at this moment.  I keep thinking about the German liquidation of the Warsaw ghetto, which is an outrageous analogy, though there are some disgusting and disturbing similarities.)

 

 

While the details are still lacking because of the inability of the inspectors to enter the crash area fully, it has become clear that the plane was shot down by Russian supported Ukrainian separatists using Russian supplied equipment.  It is also clear that Russian dictator Vladimir Putin bears great responsibility for the deaths of almost three hundred innocents and is seemingly unwilling to take any action whatsoever to reign in his terrorists, who are now reported to have bragged about their crime.  (I want to say that any person anywhere found wearing a mask and carrying an assault rifle should be immediately shot, but then I would be descending to their level.)

The Beefcake Czar

The Beefcake Czar

 

What is the problem with the Russians, who are presenting an increasingly good impersonation of an uncivilized and barbarous country that happens to possess nuclear weapons?  Why is this society so addicted to autocratic government and content to live in the nineteenth century?  With the possible exception of the Stalin era I have only a superficial knowledge of Russian history, but it is still possible to suggest some answers, some of which are probably wrong (and any Russian historian reading this will likely groan).

 

Unlike Europe, Russia inherited virtually nothing from classical antiquity but the eastern version of Christianity, and their model civilization was the Byzantine Empire, a thoroughly autocratic society in which church and state were completely fused.  The post-classical West on the other hand began its evolution with a church that for all its later efforts to dominate secular rulers was distinctly separate, having developed its own governing structure parallel to that of the Roman Empire.  That structure also provided barbarian Europe with some measure of administrative competency, which was completely absent from the infant Russian state. Europe also inherited a sizable body of literature and art produced by a high civilization, and the remains of the Empire included a long-lasting network of roads and other useful infrastructure.

 

Further, the Roman Empire had laid the foundation of a common European culture, which was not significantly disturbed by outside forces, and Europe’s wars were mostly among European societies.  The Norsemen could be absorbed, and the Arabs could be repulsed.  Earlier Russian history is characterized by constant assault and domination by steppe barbarians, inimical to settled and urban society and not easily repulsed.  Warfare in feudal Europe revolved around horsemen, but they were only the elite component of armies, and the evolving weaponry of infantry helped drive innovation and societies sophisticated enough to produce the necessary new military technologies.  There were foot soldiers in the east, but the armies were overwhelmingly mounted, and the technology of mounted warfare had been pretty much perfected.  And who can live centuries in the shadow of the Mongols and not be brutalized to some degree?

Russian role model

Russian role model

In the West feudalism helped limit the power of the monarch and produce some tradition of resistance, and although absolutist kings appear in the early modern period, that tradition spurred the emergence of deliberative bodies that could and in some places did prevent and undermine the absolute authority of the king.  In Kievan Rus’, Muscovy and other states that ultimately became Russia the boyar was a sort of parallel to the medieval knight and they might form a deliberative body, a Duma, but their power gradually eroded in the face of the growing authority of the Czar.  Why this happens is not clear to me, but the result is that by the modern period the Czar is the absolute, unchallengeable ruler, his authority, like that of the Byzantine emperor, derived from god.  In the West the growth of trade and industry produced a third powerful player and a challenge to the existing power centers of church and state, while in Russia commerce remained subservient to the authority of the church-supported state, perhaps because the absolutism of the Czar was already so advanced.

 

Russian culture seems also to support a xenophobia more deeply rooted than in the west, perhaps because of the absence of the classical influences embodied in the literature of Europe and perhaps because of the constant assaults from the steppe.  Whatever the cause, this made modern Russia suspicious and hostile to the ideas and innovations coming from western Europe, and despite a Peter or a Catherine Russia lagged in its development, retaining a rural population that essentially remained in the conditions of the early middle ages.

 

And when Russia finally began to see some change in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the cataclysm of World War I and the incredibly bizarre, virtually chance triumph of the Bolsheviks doomed the country to another three-quarters of a century of an absolutism that put the Czars to shame.  By the time the Soviet state collapsed the complete absence of any developed institutions or tradition of democratic rule led the state to its present more or less absolute ruler, Vladimir Putin, the Beefcake Czar, who unsurprisingly emerged from the security apparatus of the previous regime.  Well, he is certainly the most buff man to ever rule Russia.

 

Putin role model

Putin role model

Putin role model

Putin role model

Who knows what the fate of Russia will be?  Putin plays to the broad masses, who seem to yearn for another Stalin, and caters to their crude nationalism and traditional phobias, and this has a price.  The educated and highly skilled are fleeing to the West, and the corruption, malfeasance and capriciousness inherent in his rule discourages increasingly necessary foreign investment.  The country survives on the selling off of its immense natural resources, a sign of the economic primitivism associated with developing countries. Meanwhile he squanders badly needed resources on patriotic cosmetic projects like the Winter Olympics and the upcoming World Cup.  And if Europe is dependent on Russian gas, Russia is increasingly dependent on Chinese markets.

 

Russia is also becoming a pariah because of its illiberal policies and creeping expansionism, and Putin has now grandly exacerbated this development with the barbaric act of his Ukrainian/Russian thugs and his refusal thus far to do anything about it.  He is playing the same laughable propaganda game the Soviet rulers did, and the entire world is perfectly well aware of his complicity in the destruction of the Malaysian airliner. The guy is a thug, a clever one, but a thug nevertheless.

Men with small johnsons

Men with small johnsons

 

What to do now?  Obama has begun attacking Russian assets in foreign countries and moving towards excluding Russia from the financial mechanisms of the global economy, which would be a disastrous blow.  I would suggest even more immediate pressures, recalling the American ambassador and giving Putin, say, forty-eight hours to deal with the terrorists and open up the crash site or face a ban on Russian air traffic to the US and whatever European countries that can be persuaded to follow.  I might even threaten to prohibit American carriers from flying into Russia, but this is extremely unlikely, since one then runs up against corporate interests, which would certainly be loath to surrender profits simply because an airliner was shot out of the sky.  Already the Europeans and the all-important Germans are dragging their feet because of the natural gas issue and business interests with the Russians.

 

Well, it is all disgusting and harkens back to the less attractive aspects of the last century, but it sure makes for interesting news.

Death in Gaza

(So much for my promise to get one of these out at least every week and a half. Too much World Cup and beer.)

 

Three Israeli teenagers are murdered, presumably by Palestinian extremists, and in retaliation a Palestinian is burned alive by Israeli extremists, though Israel has said little about exactly whom they have arrested. This leads to Palestinian demonstrations, during which teenagers are arrested for throwing rocks, everyday life in the occupied territories. During all this it happened that a camera caught two Israeli policemen seriously beating a prone and handcuffed boy, hardly a rare occurrence for Palestinians. But this boy was not just another Palestinian victim; he was also an American citizen, which meant the media would take notice.

Terrorist escorted to court

Terrorist escorted to court

Israeli authorities guaranteed a thorough investigation of this “isolated” incident, which is of course isolated only insofar as the target was an American citizen. It seemed to take the US government a fairly long time to respond to this attack on one of its citizens, and even then the response was meaningless expressions of concern. While the brutal beating of a 15 year old American is unusual, harassment and intimidation of Palestinian-Americans visiting Israel is not. They have been barred from seeing their families, have been detained without charges and have been abused while in captivity, something that is supposed to trigger a cessation of American aid. Well, now that our government has dabbled in torture I suppose it would be hypocritical to chide the Israelis.

 
The sequence of events could hardly fail to generate reprisals from both sides, as most Palestinians have justifiably given up hope of any escape from Israeli domination and extremist Israelis increasingly feel they can treat Palestine and its inhabitants anyway they please. Hamas, certainly a loathsome organization, begins firing rockets into Israel, anxious to shore up its credibility in Gaza and provide Israel the opportunity to once more damage its image in the world. Despite years of evidence that force will not change anything in Gaza and only exacerbate the situation Israel dutifully obliges and begins bombing urban areas. Like Hamas, Netanyahu is under pressure from his own constituents to exact revenge, and the sad story repeats itself once more.

Destruction in Israel

Destruction in Israel

Hamas weapons

Hamas weapons

The all too familiar tit for tat begins again. The problem of course is that the tit delivered to Palestinians is inevitably a hundred times more destructive than the feeble tat mustered against the Israelis. As of July 11 over a hundred Palestinians, including women and at least 20 children, have been killed and some 600, I believe, have been wounded; one Israeli has been seriously injured. (But then, a white colonist has always been worth far more than a bunch of wogs.) On the other hand, according to the mayor of Jerusalem, the Israelis are suffering because they constantly have to drop everything they are doing and take shelter because of the rockets. Inconvenience can be a horrible thing. When asked about the complete imbalance of threats, a former Israeli ambassador to the US emphasized how Israeli children were being traumatized by the odd explosion and the need to retire to a shelter. One would think that having your home and family members blown apart might also be somewhat traumatic.

More Israeli weapons

Israeli weapons

Destruction in Gaza

Destruction in Gaza

 

Israeli weapons

More Israeli weapons

Israel claims that Hamas purposely establishes its facilities in densely populated areas, thus using human shields (they don’t regard life in the same way as we). I do not doubt this, but the fact is innocents nevertheless die in droves and the virtually ineffectual rockets keep coming. Israel wants to destroy Hamas’ infrastructure, but unfortunately that is the same infrastructure that supports the other 1.8 million Gazans. I suppose any government would have trouble taking the high road in such a situation, but all Israel achieves (besides exercising its military) is further damaging its reputation and increasing Palestinian hatred. And the government is contemplating an actual ground operation, during which Palestinian casualties would skyrocket and Israeli soldiers would be killed – for what? Revenge. Since September 2002, 1526 Palestinian and 131 Israeli children under the age of 18 have been killed. For what?

 
Hamas is clearly willing to sacrifice the lives of Palestinians in order to indulge itself in inconveniencing the Israelis, and they bear direct responsibility for escalating the violence begun with the murder of the teenagers. As Israel claims, they started the exchange of bombs. True enough. But consider the bigger picture. Israel has a half million colonists in the West Bank and shows every sign of establishing an apartheid regime. Gaza is generally recognized (except by the American Congress) as a huge open air prison, access to which is completely controlled by the Israeli military. 13 percent of the children in Gaza suffer from acute malnutrition and 19 percent from anemia; only 10 percent of Gaza’s water is potable. The UN estimates that if nothing changes, Gaza will be uninhabitable in eight years.

 
In my younger days I fell for the scam that was Israel, the besieged democracy that was making the desert bloom, and god knows the Palestinians seem to have perfected the art of shooting themselves in the foot. But I became an historian, and Israel became more and more blatant in its policies, especially the building of Greater Israel. It was a major mistake to establish the state of Israel, and every one of President Truman’s advisors urged him to oppose it. It seems that European-American guilt and Truman’s desire to insure the Jewish vote conspired to create a permanent problem in the Middle East, though I expect the Arabs would have had a good shot at screwing up their affairs without Israel.
I have met many Israelis who are as disgusted by the behavior of their country as I am, but they seem powerless to alter its course in the face of the increasing power of the extreme right and the ultra-orthodox. And the vast majority of Americans have no real idea what our “client” is doing with our complicity – and our tax money. Our politicians probably have a better idea, but they will do nothing if there is even the barest suggestion that it might harm their reelection chances.

 
Netanyahu has just said that he is no hurry to end the conflict. Why should he be? While Palestinians are dying, Israelis are being inconvenienced. And Obama is at fund raisers. They all disgust me.