Stuff from Way Back #32a: When Is a Republic Not a Republic?

(I have recently discussed the civil war that finally brought an end to the Roman Republic [Stuff from Way Back #21: Antony, Cleopatra and Who?] and the establishment of the Principate by Augustus [Stuff from Way Back #26: Image is Everything], and it seems appropriate to continue the story – on to the final collapse of the Empire.  And the story of the early Empire should shed a wee bit of light on the question of dictatorship versus chaos in the Middle East.  Incidentally, for the Julio-Claudians I highly recommend the old BBC series I, Claudius, but keep in mind that Livia did not kill any of the people she is accused of.)

 

The almost complete failure of the Arab Spring and the chaos of Syria and Iraq (and soon Afghanistan) have raised again the question of whether even a dictatorship is preferable to the disorder, destruction and death now widespread in the Arab world.  The answer of course depends on the nature of the dictatorship and the depth of the disorder.  The rule of the Athenian tyrant Peisistratus was for the average Athenian clearly preferable to the constant mismanagement of the state by the oligarchy of wealth he overthrew, and even life under the deadly thumb of Joseph Stalin was better than the utter disaster of the Russian Civil War.

Five thousand years of civilization have not been so much a struggle for freedom as one for security and comfort.  With a few exceptions, such as classical Greece, the Roman Republic and much of the world in the last century or two, the average human has been quite willing to surrender political freedom for a tolerable life.  In fact, there has rarely been anything to surrender, since political freedom has been a very scarce commodity until recently.  Further, even now people can be satisfied with the illusion of political participation and liberties so long as they can enjoy the good life.

A recent opinion in Der Spiegel has argued that there are no functional or stable dictatorships, since they all contain the seeds of their own collapse.  This may often be true insofar as the long haul is concerned, since the death or overthrow of an autocrat frequently leads to a contest for power and consequent disorder.  On the other hand, because of traditional dynastic succession absolute monarchy generally did a fair job of providing longer term stability, and even in the modern world a defined successor, as with Sadat and Mubarak in Egypt, can preserve stability across a transition of power.

The same article, however, boldly stated that “There is no such thing as a benevolent dictatorship,” which strikes me as an absurd assertion. Ask the Athenians about the difference between the Peisistratid dictatorship and that of the infamous Thirty Tyrants who briefly ruled Athens after her defeat by Sparta in 404 BC.  Autocracy can in fact provide excellent government.  The rub is in guaranteeing that you have a good autocrat.

This was one of the problems faced by Octavian after his defeat of Antony and Cleopatra in 31 BC.  The only alternative to yet more disorder and civil war was a stable dictatorship based on military support; there was simply no way to return to the wealth-dominated democracy of the Republic.  He certainly did not solve the problem of guaranteeing that the dictator would always be competent and benevolent, but he did create a structure that with two brief interruptions secured imperial stability and prosperity for almost a quarter of a millennium.  Despite the long Roman experience of popular legislative assemblies and elections, a rarity in the pre-modern world, democracy could not have achieved this.

This period, from 14 BC to AD 235, is called the Principate, because there was theoretically no office of dictator or emperor.  Octavian, who took the name Augustus, understood the importance of image in politics and created a sham Republic, in which he was voted by the Senate all the powers associated with the Republican offices, including control of the military, without having to hold any of them.  Thus, he was not Emperor or Dictator or Consul for Life but simply the Princeps or “First Citizen” in the restored Republic.  That this “Republic” was an autocracy was obvious to anyone with any intelligence, but it made the bitter pill of a dictatorship easier for the former ruling elites to accept.

Augustus

Augustus

A traditional problem with autocracies is their tendency to become dynastic, which of course does not guarantee competence on the part of the successor; even supposedly communist North Korea has followed a dynastic succession. Compounding the problem for Augustus was the need for the Princeps to have a Julian connection, since the army was unbelievably impacted by C. Julius Caesar and loyal to his memory.  The idea was to select a promising member of the family and groom him as successor, easing him into power until he was virtual co-ruler with the Princeps.  Because of deaths, Augustus was forced to choose his adopted stepson, Tiberius, a Claudian, as his heir, and consequently the initial dynasty of the Principate is called the Julio-Claudians.  (See the chronological table at the end of the article.)

Tiberius was virtually co-ruler when Augustus died, and the change of power was smooth.  That Tiberius was a well-known general among the Rhine legions compensated for his lack of a direct blood connection to Caesar.              The Roman people were delighted by the Principate, but the Senatorial elites were not, dreaming of the true Republic and forming conspiracies, making it even more difficult for the gruff Tiberius, who would have preferred to be with the troops than in Rome, to play the sophisticated game Augustus had set up.  Not that it mattered.  He was succeeded in AD 37 by the twenty-five year old C. Caligula, son of his immensely popular brother Germanicus.  “Bootsie” (Caligula is the diminutive of caliga, the legionary boot, a tiny pair of which Caligula had as a child on the Rhine.) was also popular, but six months into the office he had some sort of nervous breakdown and became completely irrational.  The sham Republic of the Principate now had a first citizen who proclaimed himself a god.

Tiberius

Tiberius

Bootsie

Bootsie

Thus, a little more than two decades after Augustus’ death Rome was confronted with the problem of how to get rid of a bad Princeps. The only answer of course is assassination, and he was killed in AD 41 by insulted members of the Praetorian Guard acting in concert with members of the Senate hoping to choose their own successor or restore the Republic.  Other members of the Guard, however, found Caligula’s uncle Claudius and proclaimed him emperor, whether with Claudius’ connivance or not is unclear.  Many thought Claudius, a fifty-year old scholar who had a number of infirmities, to be a fool, but fortunately for Rome, he turned out to be an excellent administrator.

Claudius himself died in AD 54, and the consensus is that he was poisoned by his last wife, Agrippina, whom he had married because of her Julian connections.  He was succeeded by her son, Nero, whom Claudius had elevated above his own son, Britannicus, presumably because Nero was older and was much more a Julian, important in retaining the loyalty of the military.  Agrippina probably feared he might change his mind or simply wanted her son emperor while he was still young enough to be dominated by her.  In any event, Nero killed both Britannicus and after several failed attempts his own mother.  Nero was a terrible Princeps, ignoring the administration of the Empire in favor of his aesthetic interests (he competed in music and poetry in the Olympics) and his building programs, which drained the treasury.

Nero

Nero

Claudius

Claudius

Growing opposition from the Senatorial class pushed Nero further into tyranny and executions, and he was losing the support of the urban mob as well. More important, he ignored the military, never showing himself at the camps and even appointing his freedmen (ex-slaves) as commanders.  He was creating the environment for a revolt, and matters came to a head in AD 68, when the military basis of the Principate became perfectly clear in the “Year of the Four Emperors,” AD 68-69.

AD 68 one of the governors in Gaul, C. Julius Vindex, raised the standard of revolt and freedom from the tyrant.  He was easily defeated, but fearing for his life because of his association with Vindex, Ser. Sulpicius Galba, one of the Spanish governors, prepared to march on Rome, supported by the governor of Lusitania, M. Salvius Otho.  Nero had troops available near Rome, but despaired when his Praetorian Prefect suddenly disappeared and he learned the Guard had accepted a massive bribe from an agent of Galba.  The other provincial armies began revolting, the Senate declared for Galba, and Nero committed suicide with the help of a slave, declaring what a real artist the world was losing.

That was it for the Julio-Claudians.  There were simply no more male Julians available, and while the armies may have been reluctant to recognize a non-Julian (even though there was now no one left alive who could remember Caesar), they and the Praetorians were not about to accept a return to the rule of the Senate.  Galba thus became the first non-Julio-Claudian Princeps.  He did not last long.  The military did not trust the seventy-three year old Senator, and no one liked his austerity program, especially the Guard, whose promised bribe was not paid.  One of the Rhine commanders, Aulus Vitellius began marching on Rome, while Otho, feeling cheated by Galba, appealed to the Praetorians and soldiers in Rome, who proclaimed him emperor and murdered Galba in January of AD 69.

Otho might well have been a good Princeps, but the German legions following Vitellius refused to declare for him, and while he had the support of some seventeen legions, they were scattered about the Empire.  In April he was defeated by Vitellius’ forces at Bedriacum in northern Italy, and though he still had considerable resources, he committed suicide to spare Rome a protracted civil war.  Vitellius was now Princeps, but already in trouble.  Off in the east T. Flavius Vespasianus, the commander finishing off the First Jewish Revolt, was persuaded by his troops and the eastern governors to take his shot at the imperial purple.  The Egyptian, Syrian and Danubian legions all joined him, and the Vitellian troops, beset by desertions to Vespasian, were defeated by Flavian forces at the second battle of Bedriacum and the battle of Cremona.  The indolent and gluttonous Vitellius negotiated an abdication, but his troops went on a rampage in Rome, killing Vespasian’s brother (and ominously burning down the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus), and Vitellius came out of retirement, only to be defeated and killed by Flavian forces, who themselves then sacked Rome.

Galba

Galba

Vitellius

Vitellius

Otho

Otho

Vespasian was Princeps.  The Julio-Claudians had governed Rome for ninety-five years, and after a relatively brief and limited struggle their dynasty had been replaced by the Flavians.  Tacitus, an historian of this period, declared that the secret of empire was now out: one did not need to be in Rome to become emperor.  Nor, it can be added, did one need to be a Julian – or by implication, of any particular noble family.  The Year of the Four Emperors had made it vividly clear to the troops and certainly their generals that they were the basis of political power in the state, but the legionaries of the first century were not the self-interested scum of the Anarchy.  They were still disciplined and loyal to the idea of the Roman state and Empire, and following the victory of Vespasian, they returned to their camps and did not leave in serious numbers again for another hundred and twenty-four years.

Vespasian is the Lyndon Baines Johnson of the Principate.  He was a no-nonsense and determined leader, well educated, but presenting the shrewdness of the farmer of central Italy, from which his family came, rather than urban cleverness.  His ever active wit was more rustic than sophisticated: when on his death bed, knowing that he would be posthumously deified, he quipped “I feel myself becoming a god!”  Given his character and how he came to power, he could hardly pretend simply to be the First Citizen, but he was willing to respect the Senate and involve them in the administration of the Empire, though he was constantly opposed by the Stoic philosophers.  And he surely looked like LBJ.

Emperor LBJ

Emperor LBJ

Vespasian

Vespasian

Vespasian restored confidence, peace and prosperity in the Empire, and the succession of his son T. Flavius Vespasianus in AD 79 was completely smooth.  Titus was remembered as one of the best Principes, though his poor health only allowed him two years of rule. The only memorable events of his administration were the dedication of the Flavian Amphitheater (the Coliseum), begun by his father, and the eruption of Vesuvius, which destroyed Pompeii and Herculaneum.  Though he had not been designated heir, Titus was followed by his younger brother, T. Flavius Domitianus.

Domitian is remembered as a cruel tyrant, but this is a grand exaggeration of the Senate that conspired to kill him and hostile historians such as Tacitus.  He was far more openly autocratic than his father and did seemingly possess a cruel streak, which may explain why he was not politically prepared by either his father or brother.  Senatorial opposition and his fears created a cycle of conspiracy and execution, which resulted in his assassination in AD 96.  But he was a capable administrator and popular with the army, securing the imperial stability that preserved peace and prosperity, and in that regard he must be regarded as one of the better Principes.  But the Flavian dynasty had come to an end.  What now?

Domitian

Domitian

Titus

Titus

As expected the Principate had evolved, most obviously in becoming more openly autocratic.  A signpost along the way was the legal mechanism of Vespasian’s accession.  Whereas Augustus had all his powers voted to him by the Senate in bits and pieces, Vespasian became Princeps through a single law, the Lex de Imperio Vespasiani, a step that further defined an actual office of emperor.  While Caligula and Nero might be considered aberrations, the autocratic Flavians were competent rulers and their administrations beneficial for the Empire, which certainly helped smooth the way for a growing acceptance of an outright Emperor.  The weaknesses of dynastic succession had become very apparent, both in the accession of completely unsuitable rulers and in the emergence of powerful advisors, generally freedmen, who essentially ran the government under a weak Princeps.  Even Claudius, an excellent ruler, relied heavily on his Greek freedmen, Pallas and Narcissus, who could often sway the Princeps to a particular course of action.  History has shown again and again that personal access to the autocrat, especially if he is weak, is a tremendous source of power for individuals who are otherwise merely servants – consider the administration of Bush junior.

Meanwhile, the Senate’s position as a partner in the Principate was shrinking. The Senatorial class was still a source of administrators for the Empire, but the Senate itself had to satisfy itself with relatively trivial matters, and its role as a serious decision-making body was disappearing.  It would appear also that by the end of this period Senatorial dreams of the Republic had finally died: when Domitian was assassinated, there was no talk of restoring the Republic, but simply choosing their own candidate for Princeps.

Finally, the military and the Empire remained strong.  After the loss of three legions in the disaster in Germany in AD 9 Augustus had declared that the Empire had reached its largest sustainable extent, and with the exception of Claudius’ invasion of Britain in AD 43 for political reasons, this was adhered to.  The Flavians completed the occupation of Britain up to the Scottish highlands, and the addition of the island did not materially lengthen the frontiers to be defended, though the British provinces apparently never paid for their upkeep.  Domitian in fact cashiered his excellent general Gn. Julius Agricola for suggesting that he could easily conquer the Scottish highlands and Ireland.  The Flavians also occupied and fortified the triangle of land between the upper Rhine and Danube, thus shortening the northern frontier.  If anything, the army was stronger at the end of the first century because of the work done by the Flavians in organization and equipment.  It was primarily stationed in large permanent camps (many of which would become cities), especially on the Rhine-Danube frontier, but it clearly remained a field force, ready to move along the road system to any point of threat.

But in AD 96 the last Flavian was dead and the Senate had chosen its own candidate.  What would the army do now?

 

(753)–c. 509 BC Regal period

c. 509–27 BC Republic 

133–30 Revolution

30 Deaths of Antony and Cleopatra VII, supremacy of Octavian/Augustus

27 BC–AD 235 Principate or Early Empire

  27 BC- AD 68 Julio-Claudians

    27 BC–AD 14 Augustus

             26-6 BC pacification of Spain, Alps and lands south of Danube

AD 9 loss of Germany

14-37 Tiberius

    37-41 Gaius Caligula

41-54 Claudius

43 Invasion of Britain

54-68 Nero

             66–70 First Jewish Revolt

68–69 Year of the Four Emperors, civil war

June 68-Jan 69 Galba

             Jan-March 69 Otho

             April-Dec 69 Vitellius

69-96 Flavians

69-79 Vespanian

             70 Destruction of Jerusalem

79-81 Titus

    81-96 Domitian

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  

Is Everything a Threat to National Security?

I was recently sent a gun camera video clip of an American aircraft, presumably a helicopter, “degrading” (what a wonderful euphemism for slaughtering) a unit of ISIS troops after dark.  The fighters, who seemed confused, were mostly taken out by canon fire from the helicopter, though a few guided weapons were called in, a seemingly pricey way to kill one man.  Though I understand that dehumanizing the enemy is valuable to any military, I am normally uncomfortable with this video game warfare, but not this time.  The victims in this case have in effect dehumanized themselves, making traditional bad guys, like the Huns or Mongols or Waffen SS, look relatively benign.  Evil exists in the world, and this is it.

Guys with small dicks

Guys with small dicks

Consequently, I am delighted to see my country participate in blowing these guys up, even if it means the military will clamor for more money.  After all, we bear some considerable responsibility by taking out Saddam Hussein, who for all that he was a thug did maintain a seemingly stable and secular state.  All we did was leave another thug, this one of the Shia persuasion, and a sham Iraqi army equipped with American weaponry just asking to be stolen.

Threat to national security

Threat to national security

Threat to national security

Threat to national security

But is ISIS really a threat to American national security?  They are definitely a threat to Turkey because of its long frontier with Syria and Iraq, and Turkey seems finally to be waking up to the danger and has announced it will respond if ISIS destroys the Suleyman Shah Shrine commemorating the grandfather of the founder of the Ottoman Empire. Oddly enough, though this shrine is in Syria, it is legally part of Turkey and technically would trigger a NATO response if attacked, which of course would involve the US.  They are obviously a threat to Iraq, but it has never been clear to me why this jury-rigged and now collapsing state is a major concern to the security of American citizens.  They could threaten Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states, which because of oil do involve American interests, but most of these places have serious if small military forces and immense amounts of money.  Lebanon, the new Kurdistan and Jordan are friends and already swamped with refugees, but what they have to with the security of the American homeland is not immediately apparent.

Ottoman tomb in Syria

Ottoman tomb in Syria

ISIS is theoretically a threat to Israeli security, but the opinion of the American Congress notwithstanding, Israel is not the United States and to my mind is an ally of questionable value.  She also has perhaps the strongest military in the region and is clearly willing to employ it, regardless of civilian casualties inflicted on the Arab populations.  The Israelis in fact seem disinterested, knowing that Washington cannot call upon them because of the bad publicity, and Tel Aviv had never shown much concern over Muslims killing one another.  As Prime Minister Netanyahu just demonstrated in a speech to the UN, they have their own interests, Iran and Hamas.  The possibility that Iran might obtain a nuclear weapon and then be so inconceivably stupid as to use it on Israel was clearly a much bigger concern for Bibi.  And while Hamas, an organization midwifed by Israeli security services, is a loathsome group, comparing them to ISIS as he did is like comparing a Brown Bess musket to a Kalashnikov.

Threat to national security

Threat to national security

Threat to national security

Threat to national security

Of course Washington has not claimed that we risk seeing an ISIS expeditionary force landing on American shores; the threat is the export of jihadists from the so-called Caliphate, trained terrorists who will kill Americans.  There is no denying this, but unless they are able to kill large numbers of citizens this would appear a rather expansive definition of “national security.”  Domestic security in the wake of 9/11 is such that it is now extremely unlikely that any attack even remotely close to that scale could take place, and in any case if the deaths of thousands of Americans is a national security question, we have far more compelling issues.  According to the FBI, in a five year period – 2008 to 2012 – 45,105 Americans were murdered with firearms, yet the government seems disinclined to take any real action on this issue.  In the same period 52,793 Americans died from drunk driving, but this is never mentioned as a threat to national security.  Apparently it only counts if some foreign ideology is involved.

One would suppose that the people who are directly threatened by ISIS, the Turks and sundry Arab states, would be the ones most concerned about stopping these sociopaths, but ancient tribal hostilities prevent that.  Turkey – or at least Recep Erdoğan – would like to see ISIS destroy the Kurds, even though the jihadists are the greater danger and new oil-rich Kurdistan offers an unprecedented opportunity for cooperation.  The Gulf states, medieval kingdoms with 21st century weaponry, are reluctant to attack fellow Sunnis, who are in fact attacking the Alawites (a Shia group) in Damascus, and are afraid of Shiite and non-Arab Iran.  Iran, which has no qualms about killing ISIS Sunnis, is reluctant to cooperate with the Gulf states and especially the United States.  The government in Baghdad seems more interested in maintaining its sectarian-based political power than protecting their rump state, which actually makes them more like the American Congress than their medieval friends.

Threat to national security

Threat to national security

Threat to national security

Threat to national security

Well, ISIS may not be a threat to American national security, but for once my government is bombing people who seriously need killing.  The Taliban are medieval creeps and al-Qaeda are anti-American jerks, but ISIS is truly evil and an offense to civilization.

This is ISIS

This is ISIS

 

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.