Stuff from Way Back #34b: We Had to Destroy the Empire to Save It


(This piece follows Stuff from Way Back #34a: We Had to Destroy the Empire to Save It.  Incidentally, the chronologies at the ends of these pieces are carefully indented and spaced, but that all goes out the window the moment I publish them.  I have no idea why, and WordPress has a lame system whereby one must hope some contributor with nothing better to do with his time will supply an answer.) 

[ISIS idiots are destroying ancient statuary in Mosul and their friends in Libya are desecrating Roman ruins.  Slaughtering innocents is one thing, but this scourge is now assaulting the very history of humanity and irreplaceable treasures that belong to all of mankind.  Kill them all and leave their bodies to be devoured by dogs.]



When Constantine died in 337, he was succeeded by his three sons, Flavius Claudius Constantinus, the senior Augustus, and Flavius Julius Constantius and Flavius Julius Constans.  Blood not being thicker than ambition, Constans challenged his older brother, and when Constantine II invaded Italy in 340, he was defeated and killed.  Engaged in continuous warfare against the Persians, Constantius accepted the new arrangement, and ten years later Constans was executed by his troops, who elevated a barbarian, Flavius Magnus Magnentius, as Augustus.  At the same time, Flavius Vetranio accepted the purple in Illyria and then immediately abdicated when Constantius came west and in 351 defeated Magnentius, who committed suicide two years later, leaving Constantius sole Emperor.

Constantine II

Constantine II





In 355 Constantius appointed his last surviving cousin, Flavius Claudius Julianus, his Caesar and tasked him with dealing with an invasion of Alamanni, whom he crushed in 357.  In 360 Julian, who was very popular with the troops, was proclaimed Augustus, and when his cousin died suddenly in 361, he named Julian his legitimate successor.  Once he was sole Emperor Julian, who had been disgusted by the bloody history of his family, revealed his conversion to traditional Roman religion and became known to history as Julian the Apostate.  Determined to settle the Persian question and pursuing the Alexander dream, in 363 he invaded the Sassanid Empire, only to be killed in battle, possibly by one of his own men who resented his abandonment of Christianity.  His death marked the end of the House of Constantine.



Julian’s army chose Flavius Jovianus as Emperor, and he concluded a humiliating peace with Persia in order to move back west to defend his new authority.  This turned out to be unnecessary, since he died the following year, probably assassinated.  The army met with high civilian officials and decided upon another Illyrian, Flavius Valentinianus, who chose Milan rather than Constantinople as his capital and appointed his brother Flavius Julius Valens as Augustus in the east.  (Flavius seems to have become an immensely popular name.)  In 367 Valentinian, in order to prevent problems with the succession, made his nine year old son, Flavius Gratianus, Augustus, a practice that would become more common.



Valens (or Honorius?)

Valens (or Honorius?)



Valentinian’s great achievement was reestablishing the Rhine and upper Danube frontiers, where he spent all of his reign smashing Alamanni, Franks and Saxons, guaranteeing the security of Gaul for years to come.  His general Flavius Theodosius meanwhile crushed a rebellion in Africa and swept Britain free of invading Picts and Scots.  Unfortunately, in 375 while negotiating with the Quadi, who had launched an invasion across the Danube, he became so angry that he had a fatal stroke, and the teenage Gratian inherited the purple.  Under pressure from his advisors Gratian chose his younger brother, Flavius Valentinianus (Minor), as Augustus, but only of Illyria, inasmuch as the new Emperor was only four years old.

Valentinian II

Valentinian II

Meanwhile, the situation in the east was more serious.  The problem there was not so much the Persians, who had their own troubles with barbarians on their northern frontier, but Goths.  In the early 370s the first of the steppe horsemen to plague Europe, the Huns, destroyed the Ostrogothic (East Goths) kingdom in the Ukraine and then assaulted the Visigoths (West Goths) on the Dniester River, driving sundry Gothic refugees to the Danube.  Valens, a far weaker ruler than his brother, granted the Goths permission to settle south of the river, but they were abused by corrupt Roman officials, who also left them their arms.  The result was the outbreak of war in 377, and in 378 Valens, ignoring advice to await his brother Gratian, attacked some 20,000 Goths at Adrianople in Thrace, and he and his army were slaughtered in the worst disaster for the Roman army against barbarians since three legions were lost to German ambush back in the days of Augustus.  In the wake of their tremendous victory the Goths plundered the Balkan Peninsula.

Battle of Adrianople

Battle of Adrianople

Gratian then appointed Flavius Theodosius, son of Valentinian’s general of the same name, Augustus in the east.  While fomenting trouble among the various factions of Goths, Theodosius enlarged his own army by enlisting many of them, and in 382 a deal was made by which the Goths were provided an independent kingdom in the depopulated lands south of the Danube in return for a military alliance with the Empire.  This was an ominous development (the Salian Franks had been allowed to settle in far northern Gaul around 358), a practice that would hasten the disintegration of the western half of the Empire.  A state that trades its territory for security from invaders is one in serious trouble indeed.

Back in the west, Gratian’s incompetent administration had alienated the soldiers and civilian populace, and in 383 the British troops proclaimed Flavius Clemens Magnus Maximus Augustus.  He crossed to the continent, where Gratian was deserted by his army and killed, and unable to do much about it, Theodosius temporarily recognized Maximus’ position as ruler of the western provinces, excepting Illyria and Italy, where Valentinian II was in control.  This arrangement lasted until 388, when Maximus chased Valentinian out of Italy and was then attacked and killed by Theodosius.  Maximus did have an impact: moving his troops to Gaul led to the abandonment of Britain’s northern defenses, including Hadrian’s Wall.  They were never reoccupied.



In 383 Theodosius named his son Flavius Arcadius Augustus, stationing him in Constantinople while he returned to Milan.  Eight years later he was back in the east to deal with Gothic troubles and problems among Arcadius’ officials, the most important of which was Flavius Rufinus (Was everyone named Flavius?), who served as a regent for the thirteen year old Emperor.  Meanwhile, in the west Valentinian was at odds with his protector, Flavius Arbogastes, who had him murdered in 392.  As a Frank, Arbogast could not assume the purple and proclaimed instead Flavius Eugenius, a rhetorician.  In response Theodosius named his son Flavius Honorius Augustus in 393 and invaded Italy the following year, defeating Arbogast and the hapless Eugenius.  Having restored unity in the Empire, he died in Milan in 395, never to know that the Roman Empire would be permanently divided after his death.





This period from the death of Constantine to the death of Theodosius saw the continuation of developments during the previous half century.  All state officials were now in theory personal servants of the Emperor, and despite the efforts of some Emperors there were more and more of them.  In 68 there were thirty-six provinces; by the end of the fourth century there one hundred and twenty, arranged into fourteen dioceses, which were grouped into four prefectures.  The praetorian prefects, who were the heads of the prefectures (yes, that is what happened to them), were the highest officials in the Empire.  Italy, incidentally, was now simply another set of provinces, a culmination of the “democratization” of the Empire, and Milan was now the western capital.

The economic decline, though not even, continued, and it appears the “Roman” population was steadily shrinking, making it more attractive to settle barbarian tribes within the confines of the Empire.  The western half of the Empire, far less urbanized and increasingly suffering more barbarian depredation than the eastern, was sinking faster, and huge estates, worked by virtual serfs, were turning to household economies, producing all they needed as economic communications broke down.  The medieval manorial system was emerging.  Members of the Senatorial class played a large role in these estates, for while the Senate itself was powerless, the Senatorial order comprised a great number of extremely wealthy and influential men, though they for the most part represented new families.

The army was of course the greatest consumer of shrinking Imperial revenues, and the Empire simply could not afford the numbers it required.  Further, the main source of recruits was barbarians, given the declining population and increasing reluctance to serve in the military.  Training had plummeted, and the only advantages “Roman” armies, now devoid of heavy infantry, possessed were in mobilization, logistics and fortifications.  The Persian front was more or less stable, as control of northern Mesopotamian and Armenia see-sawed back and forth, and in 384 a treaty of friendship provided peace for almost four decades.  But the pressure from Germanic tribes was becoming overwhelming, requiring the planting of relatively autonomous kingdoms in the provinces and the payment of tribute.  The barbarians were in effect now running a huge protection racket.

With all the power of the state behind it Christianity was spreading and the church growing in power.  Constantine and a few other Emperors had supported a policy of religious tolerance, but the persecution of non-Christians grew steadily.  In 341 polytheist sacrifices were outlawed, and in 392 the cults were banned altogether.  Symbolically important, in 357 Constantius removed from the Senate the Altar of Victory, installed by Augustus in 29 BC, and though it was restored by Julian, it was removed again in 382 by Gratian.  (And the Empire split into two thirteen years later.)  The old gods persisted in the rural areas and among many of the intellectual elite, whose learning was rooted in the non-Christian literature of the Greeks.

Altar of Victory

Altar of Victory

The Church also began to flex its muscles regarding the state.  In 390 Theodosius ordered the massacre of a mob in Thessalonika for murdering general, and Ambrose, the bishop of Milan, told the Emperor that he would be barred from Church services if he did not publically repent for the crime.  Theodosius at first resisted but ultimately gave in and publically admitted his guilt.  The Empire was ending, and the long battle between Church and State was beginning.

Theodosius and Ambrose

Theodosius and Ambrose




337-395 Dominate II

337-340 Flavius Claudius Constantinus

337-350 Persian War

337-350 Flavius Julius Constans

337-361 Flavius Julius Constantius

350        Flavius Vetranio (abdicated)

350-353 Flavius Magnus Magnentius

358 Salian Franks settled in northern Gaul

358-363 Persian War

360-363 Flavius Claudius Julianus

363-364 Flavius Jovianus

364-375 Flavius Valentinianus

364-378 Flavius Julius Valens

367-383 Flavius Gratianus

373 Huns attack the East Goths

375-392 Flavius Valentinianus (Minor)

378 Battle of Adrianople

379-395 Flavius Theodosius

382 Goths settled south of the Danube; Altar of Victory removed from the Senate

383-388 Flavius Clemens Magnus Maximus

383 Hadrian’s Wall abandoned

384 Treaty of Friendship between Rome and Persia

383-408 Flavius Arcadius

390 Theodosius does public penance at Ambrose’s order

392-394 Flavius Eugenius

392 Polytheist cults banned

393-423 Flavius Honorius

393 Olympic games ended






Stuff from Way Back #34a: We Had to Destroy the Empire to Save It


(This essay follows Stuff from Way Back #33: Roma, We Have a Problem.  A note on Roman names: Romans – at least the elites – traditionally had a base of three names, the praenomen, nomen and cognomen, as in Gaius Julius Caesar.  The praenomen was the personal name, usually abbreviated, and by the time of the Principate there were only about a dozen in common use.  The nomen was the gens or clan name, and the cognomen was originally a modifier of the nomen, but could become hereditary, in which case it indicated the particular family in that clan.  Other cognomina might be added to express some achievement, such as P. Cornelius Scipio Africanus.  This arrangement crumbled during the Anarchy, and in the Dominate nomina [or a modified form of them] were frequently employed in the place of a traditional praenomen.)


Against all odds the Roman Empire had survived the Anarchy, but the Late Empire or Dominate bore little resemblance to the autocracy that Augustus had established three centuries earlier.  Most important, the political stability that characterized most of the history of the Principate was gone forever, washed away by the civil wars of the Anarchy and the corruption of the military.  The Empire was now facing continually growing barbarian pressure on the northern frontiers as the great German migrations to the west and the south got underway, while the effectiveness of the army had plummeted, allowing incursion after incursion into the provinces.  Economically, the Empire was in ruins, as the tax base shrank from devastated farmlands and declining commerce, while the state resources consumed by the army continued to rise.  The Empire had become an unpleasant place in which to live, and it may be assumed that any sense of loyalty to the state, which was now seen as an oppressor, had disappeared.





But Diocletian did bring a measure of stability, and the empire was relatively free of internal strife for the next two decades.  Having assumed the purple in 284, two years later he made another Illyrian, M. Aurelius Valerius Maximianus, his co-ruler, who would look after the west while he took up residence in Nicomedia in the east.  Diocletian had determined that because of internal troubles and barbarian invasions the Empire was now too big for one man to govern, and in 293 he established the Tetrarchy.  Each Augustus appointed a Caesar, Galerius Valerius Maximianus for Diocletian and Flavius Valerius Constantius Chlorus for Maximian, the idea being that each Caesar would succeed his Augustus in an orderly fashion.

In a way the Tetrarchy was a return to Augustus’ original plan for succession – the Princeps would train his successor and associate him in power – but it is doubtful that this complex structure of four rulers could have worked even in the halcyon days of the early Principate.  It certainly did not in the wake of the Anarchy.  The type of man likely to be an effective ruler of the problem-plagued Late Empire was likely also to be ambitious and reluctant to share the ultimate power.  Further, the natural son of an Emperor was not likely to be amused if someone else was named his father’s Caesar.

Constantine Chlorus

Constantine Chlorus



When Diocletian abdicated in 305 and compelled a reluctant Maximian to do the same, the Second Tetrarchy quickly collapsed into a new civil war.  For a variety of reasons Diocletian decided to pass over the sons of Galerius and Chlorus as the new Caesars, naming Flavius Valerius Severus and Galerius Valerius Maximinus Daia.  In 306 Chlorus died after crushing an invasion of Picts in Britain, and while Severus succeeded him as Augustus in Rome, the army elevated Chlorus’ illegitimate son, Flavius Valerius Constantinus, to Augustus, thus opening the floodgates.  Maximian came out of retirement, and he and his son, M. Aurelius Valerius Maxentius, became Augusti in 306, turning out Severus and causing Galerius to invade Italy, unsuccessfully.  Diocletian himself attempted to negotiate a settlement in 308, retiring Maximian again, outlawing Maxentius and naming Valrerius Licinianus Licinius Augustus.  There were now six Augusti: Galerius, Constantine, Maximinus Daia, Maximian, who refused to stay retired, Maxentius, who refused to go quietly, and Licinius.  It was now necessary to have a program to keep track of the players.



Maximinus Daia

Maximinus Daia







It got simpler.  Maximian was murdered, and in 311 Galerius finally died, removing the major player from the game.  The following year Constantine formed an alliance with Licinius in the east and invaded Italy to take out Maxentius, who was allied to Maximinus Daia.  At the battle of the Milvan Bridge outside Rome, Constantine, a better general with a better though smaller army, crushed Maxentius, having sought the aid of the Christian god by having the Chi Rho (the first two letters of Christos in Greek) painted on his men’s shields.  For the first time a Roman ruler had appealed to the new god.

Chi Rho

Chi Rho

Now there were three, and in 313 Maximinus Daia, who had received no cut of Maxentius’ territory, attacked Licinius, was defeated and died of sickness.  Licinius began to intrigue against Constantine, but in the wake of inconclusive military action they reconciled and in 317 named their sons as their Caesars.  The showdown came in 323, when Constantine chased raiding Goths into Thrace, Licinius’ territory, and the eastern Augustus responded by launching a war, which ended the following year in Licinius’ defeat and later execution.

Constantine was now sole Emperor and would remain so until his death in 337.  During this period he continued and in some cases completed developments that had been underway since the Anarchy and especially since Diocletian.  The exclusion of the civil authorities from involvement in the military, begun in earnest by Gallerius during the Anarchy, was now complete, and the Senate had essentially become little more than a municipal council and a ceremonial and honorary association.  The autocracy had become an absolute despotism, and Constantine ruled by the grace of god.  He adopted the diadem and an oriental style court, replete with ceremonial procedures, titles and orders of preference, and what had originally been an unequal partnership between the Princeps and Senate was now a traditional Near Eastern kingship.

Constantine the Great

Constantine the Great

The Imperial bureaucracy continued its rapid growth, as the state attempted to control every aspect of the lives of the Empire’s inhabitants, and as much as was possible for a pre-industrial society, the Roman Empire became more and more totalitarian.  In order to prevent land from going out of cultivation, farmers were legally tied to their farms, unable to escape the increasingly oppressive taxation.  These bound farmers, the coloni, would form the basis of medieval serfdom.  Occupations, especially farming, were made hereditary, turning the Empire into a vast social prison and creating a highly stratified society, in which inequality was institutionalized in the law.  The elites, state and municipal officials, soldiers and veterans, were the honestiores; virtually all the rest of the population constituted the humiliores, who were subject to more restrictive laws and more brutal punishments.

These arrangements of course seriously injured agricultural productivity and especially commerce, and while Constantine reformed the currency, there simply was not enough revenue to support the military without crushing taxation, which further injured the economy.  The Empire was running out of silver and gold, and Diocletian’s attempt in 301 to freeze prices was, as one might expect, a complete failure.  Constantine had to accept taxes in kind, laying another foundation for medieval society.  Further, the maintenance of the Imperial infrastructure had traditionally relied upon liturgies, the voluntary contributions of the municipal elites, but these men were being now squeezed by the increasing taxation, which compelled the state to make such contributions mandatory.  The result was the deterioration of the middle income class, especially businessmen, who were at the heart of the non-agricultural economy, and it became harder and harder to find individuals willing to serve in the municipal offices.

Major changes were taking place in the military sphere.  Constantine created a Field Army that could be rushed to any crisis in the Empire, further emphasizing cavalry, which formed the core of the new army, while for the first time in Roman history infantry took second place.  The prominence of horse was not just a response to the Persians, who had excellent cavalry, but also because of its mobility in dealing with threats.  Meanwhile, the frontiers were increasingly dependent upon fortifications and border troops that were little more than local poorly trained militias.  From the point defense of the Principate and the elastic defense of the Anarchy the Empire moved to a defense in depth, in which multiple lines of fortified points would slow any barbarian invasion, providing the Field Army the time to move to confront the danger.  Finally, more and more barbarians were being recruited into the military, especially the frontier units, and entire tribes were being given land within the Empire in return for their military services.  This development was to a great degree a response to the declining population of the Empire, who were desperately needed in agriculture, but it nevertheless boded ill for the future.

Late Roman "Heavy" Cavalry

Late Roman “Heavy” Cavalry

Traditional Roman Infantry

Traditional Roman Infantry

Late Roman Infantry

Late Roman Infantry

Regarding that future, two of Constantine’s achievements were momentous enough to mark major turning points in Roman history – and that of the West in general.  Because of the Persian threat and the fact that the major barbarian pressure was along the lower Danube, he perceived a need for a “capital” in the east, and consequently the ancient Greek city of Byzantium on the Bosporus was rebuilt in 324 as Constantinople, the “city of Constantine.”  Constantine could hardly know it, of course, but the existence of a “New Rome” would certainly help facilitate the later separation of the Empire into two states and the emergence of the Byzantine Empire, which would carry on a Greek version of the Roman tradition for another millennium.

The other was even more world shaking, the establishment of Christianity as the favored and then official religion of the Empire.  I have tended to be cynical about Constantine’s conversion (which took place on his death bed, a not uncommon occurrence), but the more I look into this (I have always found studying the Late Empire depressing.) the more I think his commitment to the Church was genuine.  Most of the army was after all polytheist, and it is estimated that by the fourth century Christians only comprised about ten percent of the population, a weak base upon which to establish a new imperial policy simply for political reasons.  The stories of visions in the sky and dreams may be discounted, but it may well be that the success of his somewhat desperate invasion of Italy and the victory at the Milvan Bridge convinced him of the power of the Christian god.  His various efforts to preserve the unity of the religion, particularly the First Council of Nicaea in 325, which officially defined the Church’s understanding of the Trinity, strongly suggests a man who is personally concerned about the faith.

Whatever his motives, his conversion resulted in every succeeding Emperor but one being Christian, and Christianity thus rapidly became identified with the state and emerged as the official religion under Theodosius (379-395).  Constantine himself was generally respectful of the rights of non-Christians, but given the exclusive nature of monotheism and growing power of the Church, it was only inevitable that future rulers would become more repressive.  The persecution of the pagani would in fact begin under Constantine’s sons.  (See also Stuff from Way Back #14: The New God on the Block and Stuff from Way Back #15: These Christians Are Really Annoying.)

Constantine gained the appellation “the Great,” certainly deserved, for like Augustus he was one of the few individuals in history who single-handedly and dramatically affected the course of events.


285-337 Dominate I

284-305 C. Aurelius Valerius Diocletianus (abdicated)

286-305 M. Aurelius Valerius Maximianus (abdicated)

286 Peasant revolt in Gaul

297-298 Persian War

301 Edict on Prices

303-304 Edicts against Christians

305-306 Flavius Valerius Constantius Chlorus

305-311 Galerius Valerius Maximianus 

306-337 Flavius Valerius Constantinus 

306-307 Flavius Valerus Severus 

306-308 M. Aurelius Valerius Maximianus

                           M. Aurelius Valerius Maxentius 

308-324 Valerius Licinianus Licinius 

310-313 Galerius Valerius Maximinus Daia 

                   312 Battle of the Milvan Bridge

313 Edict of Milan/Toleration

324-330 Foundation of Constantinople

325 First Council of Nicaea; Constantine adopts the diadem











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.

Stuff from Way Back #15: These Christians Are Really Annoying

(Three weeks ago I posted a piece on Albert Göring, who was being considered for inclusion in the Israeli Righteous Among the Nations for his work in rescuing Jews. Apparently he did not make it, presumably because of a rumor of a Jewish father, which would make him ineligible, and Israel avoids the embarrassment of having Reichsmarschall Göring’s brother among the honored.)

The Roman persecution of Christians is a well-known episode in the history of the religion, but inasmuch as these events occurred almost two millennia ago, there is no longer a Roman Empire and the Church was the winner, one might expect that some distortion has crept into the popular narrative. And it has, primarily because few people have any real knowledge of the Empire beyond what Christianity and Hollywood have suggested and even fewer understand the nature of traditional Roman religion. As a result a key fact has been lost: so long as you observed Roman tradition the state did not give a damn what gods you worshipped (at least until the state became Christian).

At first of course Rome did not even notice the new cult. Those with any knowledge of Judaea assumed it was yet another Jewish heresy, doomed to disappear, as in fact the sect of Christian Jews did. As the adherents of the new faith spread and multiplied, it was popular dislike that first caught the attention of the authorities. Like the Jews, Christians were monotheists, compelled by their beliefs to deny the existence of other gods, and they were doing this in a society that was completely polytheist. Polytheist societies are generally tolerant when it comes to religion, even in states with a religious establishment supporting a divinely connected kingship, as in the Sumerian city-states and Egypt. Inasmuch as deities were typically personifications of natural phenomenon, it was easy to identify gods across cultural lines, and in any case no one (excepting perhaps Akhenaten) was about to deny the existence of other gods and certainly not resort to violence in order to teach others a lesson.

Into this world come the Christians, telling their neighbors that the gods of their fathers do not exist and that they are wasting their time worshipping idols. Of course the Jews had been doing this for quite a while, but apart from small communities in some of the cities of the Empire, they were essentially a phenomenon localized in Judaea, and in any case they did not proselytize. Early Christians were in fact confused with Jews, but as their numbers grew, people realized this was something new – and very annoying. And if modern evangelicals are any indication, these early Christians likely often displayed a holier-than-thou attitude; they had the good news after all.

There was also a feeling that for all their professed love these people actually hated mankind. The first generation or so of Christians believed that the Christ would be returning soon, perhaps in their lifetimes, and there was consequently talk of what would happen then. And if Revelations is the guide, it would be unmitigated horror, suffering and death for non-believers, which was of course virtually all of humanity. There were also rumors of strange and disgusting rites, such as incest and cannibalism, the sort of things that are said of the despised and alien throughout history. Natural disasters and unexplained misfortunes were blamed on them. The Christians were strangers in a strange land and initially played the same role of the “other” that the Jews would play in medieval and modern Europe.

Capping it all off was the growing suspicion that they were disloyal as well as obnoxious. The traditional religion of Greece and Rome was primarily civic in nature, concerned with the cohesion and well-being of the community, and as such, it was closely connected to the idea of the state. The sacrifices and rituals were communal, designed to keep the community in the right relationship with heaven, and in the case of Rome this led to the emergence of priesthoods, such as the Pontifex Maximus, that were actually state offices. The holders of these positions were not “priests” in the familiar sense of the word, that is, representatives of a centralized church, as the priests of the temple of Amon-Re or the Catholic Church. Their job was not to intercede for or counsel the individual, but to conduct the rituals necessary for the survival and prosperity of the community.

As a result, honoring Jupiter Best and Greatest and his colleagues was more of a social act than a religious one, declaring ones good standing as a member of the community. If the worshipper had other more personal concerns regarding heaven, he would turn to gods more pertinent to his situation, especially traditional local deities among the provincials. As with most things, Rome had always had a laissez faire attitude regarding non-Roman religions, so long as there was no threat to public order and morals, such as led the Senate to ban certain Bacchanalian rites in 186 BC. She was even ready to tolerate an extremely intolerant religion, Judaism, because it was essentially local and no threat to the state. Nevertheless, denying the existence of the Olympic gods was in fact directly assaulting one of the foundations of the state and endangering the well-being of the society.

Even so, Christianity might have gone unnoticed were it not for the fact that they quickly became almost universally unpopular, even hated, and their vociferous rejection of the Roman gods struck people as disloyal. Constantly claiming that their god was their only true “king” and master also did not sit well in an autocratic society, and the ideas of their founder/prophet regarding the poor and the rich were absolutely revolutionary in a world always dominated by the propertied classes. So, there was in fact public disorder in the form of anti-Christian riots, which the authorities were compelled to deal with. All the evidence indicates that the Roman government was completely aware of the essentially innocent nature of the new religion, but Roman officials were hardly likely to defend an unpopular minority in the face of overwhelming public displeasure.

Apart from their refusal to pay even lip service to the imperial cults, there was actually a legal problem for the new church. Since the time of Augustus (27 BC-AD 14), the first emperor, new clubs and associations were prohibited unless they were specifically granted imperial approval. The reason was clear: private associations could easily harbor conspiracies against the state (as they did during the collapse of the Republic), and autocrats tend to be very sensitive about this issue. And here was a new and offensive cult spreading throughout the cities of the Empire.
As it happened, the Empire was mellow about the whole issue, and generally confronted the issue only when it could not be avoided because of public clamor. This was certainly the case under Trajan (98-117), who when asked what to do with Christians by his governor in Bithynia, Pliny the Younger, instructed him not to search them out but only act when it was unavoidable. The typical procedure was to require the Christian to make a token sacrifice, a pinch of incense, to an imperial cult, generally that of Roma et Augustus. For the authorities this was far more a pledge of allegiance than a religious act; perform this one act and you would get your “ticket,” your libellus, and could go home and worship whatever gods you pleased. Of course, for a Christian this was apostasy, and though many took the plunge, many did not, which baffled the Romans, who could not fathom such religious fanaticism.

Decius: "Smoke 'em"

Decius: “Smoke ’em”

The result of all this was that violence against Christians was for two centuries limited to popular outbursts, such as blaming Christians for the fire in 64 (encouraged by Nero), and the odd official currying favor with the locals. Not until the third century was there an actual persecution in the sense of the central government taking Empire-wide action against the religion, and this would come during the Anarchy (235-285), a fifty year long civil war that essentially killed the Empire, even though it would stagger on for another century or so. During his short reign Decius (249-251) required that all Christians be put to the test and imprisoned if they refused, and this was repeated, with more severe penalties, by Valerian (253-60) in 257-258. Both of these men were ruling during a period of widespread instability coupled with serious barbarian invasions and internal military revolts and were desperately attempting to restore loyalty to the state. An obvious target was the Christian community, which was now highly organized and blatant in its rejection of the state religion, which now included deified emperors.

Diocletian (285-305) ended the Anarchy, but the Empire would never again come close to the stability and economic well-being it enjoyed before 235, and the history of the Late Empire was one of military autocracy alternating with periods of civil war. In 304 Diocletian launched the last anti-Christian crusade, destroying churches and sacred books and imprisoning priests, but it ended with his abdication the following year and seems to have petered out because of lack of popular support. His ultimate successor, Constantine the Great (305-337), legalized Christianity with the Edicts of Toleration (311-313), and with his conversion it became the official religion of the Roman Empire.

Valerian: "Crush 'em"

Valerian: “Crush ’em”

And then the real persecutions begin, as the government implements a continuous policy of crushing polytheism and eliminating the pagani (“rural folk”), so called because the old cults hung on the longest in the rural areas. Unlike those carried out against the Christians this persecution was moved by nothing other than simple religious intolerance.

Diocletian: "Eat 'em"

Diocletian: “Eat ’em”

In the end Christians themselves would slaughter tens of thousands more Christians than the Roman Empire ever did.

Paris 1572 - Christians killing Christians

Paris 1572 – Christians killing Christians

Stuff from Way Back #14: The New God on the Block

(In keeping with the season I present a brief historical (leaving any deities out of it) understanding of exactly why Christianity was so damn successful.  Next week I will deal with the other question: what exactly was the reaction of the Roman government and why, a topic that has been seriously distorted because, well, the Empire no longer exists and Christianity does.)

Christianity is clearly a fusion of east and west, being a sort of religious hybrid produced by the intersection of Hebrew monotheism and the Greek mystery cult brought on by several hundred years of Greek control of Palestine. To some degree it is also a mix of oriental mysticism and Greek rationalism, inasmuch as the basic beliefs were later influenced by Stoicism and neo-Platonism. In essence, the Jews supplied the idea of the sole, ethical creator god, disconnected from the natural world, while the Greeks, through their mystery religion, contributed the notion of the dying and resurrected god. Paul and his associates made the new religion palatable for the world outside Judaea by stripping it of unappealing Jewish ritual, such as circumcision and dietary laws, and Greek rationalism then proceeded to refine the understanding of the godhead.

First of all, Christianity shared the ideas that had made the mystery cults so popular in Greece and later the Roman Empire. Traditional Greek and Roman religion was essentially civic in nature, primarily serving the community and devoid of any personal or inspirational quality. The mystery religion, which came in a variety of specific cults, did not deny the traditional gods but rather focused in on a single or tiny group of deities, providing the worshipper with a more personal and intimate relationship with divinity. The cults also involved emotional initiations and revealed knowledge, known only to the initiates, who gained in the cult at least a measure of equality with their richer and more powerful brethren. Christianity had no secrets but it rested on revealed knowledge and also offered a sense of special community within its ranks. Most all the mystery cults revolved around the central figure of a god or human who either literally or figuratively dies and is resurrected, thus providing an analogue of hope for the worshipper facing the inevitability of death. Further, the cults promised some reward, initially in this life, but by the end of the fifth century BC evidence appears suggesting the idea of judgment and reward in another life.

Christianity offered all these things but was something more than just another mystery religion. The Christian god was not just some Olympic retread, but the god of love, completely absorbed in those he had created. His death and resurrection was not simply some mythic event that had nothing to do with humanity beyond providing a message of hope. Rather, he became human and died specifically for humanity, a divine sacrifice that reveals an entirely novel concept of god. He was the god of all – rich, poor, slaves, free, men, women – something that was not always true of polytheist deities; for example, Mithraism, far and away the most popular cult in the Empire, was open only to men. And Christianity (at least until a powerful church emerged) cost nothing but commitment, while the polytheist religions required sometimes costly sacrifices, such as the bathing in bull’s blood incumbent on Mithraists.

Above all, this new god may have been open to everyone, but he definitely had a bias towards the poor and downtrodden. The rich and powerful had always had the edge in spiritual affairs, whether in the quality of their gifts or in outright control of the mechanisms of the religion. For the first time in history there was a god who favored the meek and chided the wealthy, and of course the vast majority of the in habitants of the Empire fit into the former category. This must have made for immense drawing power.

The religion also quickly developed the primitive ideas of judgment in the mystery cults into a full-blown system of reward and punishment in the next life and firmly rooted the judgment in the moral code inherited from Judaism. Obviously, promise of a better life in the next world is going to turn the heads of those whose life in this one is not that great, and while Christianity is born into an imperial society that constituted one of the more comfortable periods in history, in a few centuries life in the Roman Empire was going to become very unpleasant for most of its subjects. Now, the reward and punishment was based on the observance of a fairly strict ethical code, which might be expected to turn away potential converts. Most of us can get through life without committing homicide or adultery, but the thought crimes are very tough; “Thou shall not covet thy neighbor’s wife” is after all a rule even Jimmy Carter violated. But most people want a moral structure provided for them, and the basic rules provided by Christianity struck a favorable chord precisely because they were good rules. The Ten Commandments are the Ten Commandments because they proclaim the basic laws absolutely necessary for a stable society.

So the demanding moral code was likely also an attraction of the new religion, which was offering reward in the afterlife for behavior that virtually all normal humans consider good and proper. On the other hand, not even a Mother Teresa could keep all these rules all the time, and what made the whole system feasible for the average Joe was the loophole: forgiveness. Were it not for the mechanism of contrition and forgiveness, the new religion would be making impossible demands and simply not work.

Extremely important in the triumph of Christianity is the simple fact that it happened in history. The core event of the religion, the death and resurrection of the god, did not take place in some distant mythic past, as in the mystery cults, but right there in the Roman province of Judaea during the reign of Tiberius (14-37). The first apostles of the new god had actually been there, first hand witnesses of the essential events of the religion. They heard the sermons and saw the miracles and the crucifiction, and some claimed experience of the resurrection itself. This gave the religion an impetus unmatched by the old belief systems.

Additionally, though it may have played something of a negative role in the spread, the exclusiveness of the monotheistic religion certainly helped preserve it intact. Syncretism, the identifying and combining of gods across cultural lines, was an inevitable component of polytheism and produced religious hybrids, such as the cult of Isis and Serapis. This simply could not happen to Christianity – at least in any serious way – because there were no other gods. This would produce a religious fanaticism unknown in antiquity outside the Hebrews, and that fanaticism presumably helped a bit. These were people who were willing to die for their god, and that kind of commitment surely had to impress potential adherents.

Finally, there is the element of coincidence: the charismatic preacher was born at the height of the Roman Empire.  Without this huge area of political stability and easy communications the new religion would very likely not have been anything more than another eastern cult.  Two centruies earlier Rome was only beginning to nose into the eastern Mediterranean, and it is not all clear that the new religion, which would be perceived as a heresy by the Jews, would have survived the religiously reactionary Hasmonean kingdom.  Two centuries later and the religion would almost certainly not have the time to spread and develop its infrastructure before the western Empire collapsed.  It might survive in the east, but the conversion of the barbarian tribes becomes more problematic, and what would the history of the west be like without the Church to carry civilization through the Dark Ages?

"In hoc signo, Baby!"

“In hoc signo, Baby!”

Such are the reasons for the initial survival and spread of Christianity, but the final triumph and emergence of the new creed as the exclusive religion of the western world owed less to its nature than to political developments. Because of popular hostility and ultimately government obstruction (tune in next week), by the beginning of the fourth century Christians constituted perhaps only ten percent of the population, but for seemingly cynical political reasons Constantine the Great (sole emperor 324-337) embraced the religion. One might question the conviction of Constantine, who converted only on his deathbed, but the imperial family became Christian, and after Constantine every emperor but one (Julian the Apostate) was a member of the faith, thus making Christianity a powerful force in the government of the Empire. With the power of the sate behind it Christianity began a rapid expansion, as polytheists were subject to greater and greater persecution.

The collapse of the western Empire in the fifth century guaranteed the complete supremacy of Christianity, as the Church, now the only surviving governing structure in the west, emerged as a kind of international corporation manipulating the emerging barbarian kingdoms. The conversion of the Germanic tribes, especially the
Franks, resulted in a new warrior Christianity, which spelled doom for the surviving polytheists of Europe. The Prince of Peace had finally triumphed, albeit with a sword in his hand.

Stuff from (Not So) Way Back #12: Toasting the Devil – The Tusculum Papacy

When it comes to less than decorous behavior by the Papacy, the Renaissance immediately comes to mind, but in fact the most embarrassing age for the Church came much earlier, during the tenth and eleventh centuries. These years mark the absolute rock bottom for the institution and are to some degree a reflection of the abysmal state of European society in general. The earlier part of this period, roughly the first half of the tenth century, is so wretched that it has been given a formal name, the saeculum obscurum – the dark (or ignoble) age, and has also been referred to as the Pornocracy and the Rule of the Harlots.

The saeculum began with the elevation of Sergius III (904-911) and ended with the deposition of John XII (955-964), who was in fact the grandson of Sergius’ alleged lover, Marozia. There were twelve Popes during this time, all of them either members of or dominated by the powerful Theophylacti family of Tusculum (hence the Tusculum Papacy 904-1058), and particularly active were Theodora, wife of Theophylactus I, and her daughter Marozia. John X (914-928) was the alleged lover of Theodora and was supposedly killed by an outraged Marozia, whose son, allegedly by Sergius, became John XI (931-935) and whose grandson became John XII. The half century after the last of the Pornocracy Popes was dominated by another Roman family, the Crescenti, but the Theophylacti were back with Benedict VIII (1012-1024), formally known as Theophylactus II. He was succeeded by his brother, who as a lay person had to be ordained a bishop before becoming John XIX (1024-1032) and who may have been murdered by the Roman mob. He was followed by his nephew, who was elevated as Benedict IX (1032-1044, 1045, 1047-1048).

Benedict IX is a truly memorable Pope, having had the unique experience of holding the office three times. Installed in 1032, he was driven out of Rome in 1044 by his enemies, who put Sylvester III (1044-1045) on the throne of St. Peter. He returned in 1045, but was convinced to sell the Papacy, only to change his mind and seize the office again in 1047 and be deposed and excommunicated a year later. In an age of dissolute Popes he nevertheless managed to stand out; he was believed to hold orgies in the Lateran Palace and was the first Pope thought to be homosexual. On the other hand, John XII, who was Benedict’s granduncle, had set the bar very high. He was accused, among other things, of turning the Lateran into a brothel, murdering his confessor, calling upon demons when gambling and toasting the health of the devil at the altar.

The current Vatican scandals – pedophilia, homosexual prostitutes for priests, political infighting, a corrupt bank – would hardly be noticed during the Tusculum Papacy, but salvation was at hand for the Church. The Tusculum Papacy came to an end in 1058 with the accession of Nicholas II, one of whose supporters was the reformer Hildebrand of Sovana. In 1073 Hildebrand became Pope Gregory VII (1073-1085) and began an age of reform, freeing the Papacy from the Roman nobility by empowering the College of Cardinals as the electors of the Pope and beginning the long struggle to free the Church from the interference of the German Emperor and the French King.

Updated Republican Policy Guide

(Yes, this is essentially a repeat and it is being posted early, but it seems appropriate to post the Policy Guide on the occasion of the Republican Convention.  If you have not seen it, you might want to check out the immediately preceding post: Das Mitt Romney Lied.  Get together with you friends and sing!)



1. A graduated income tax is socialism.

2. Any government mandated distribution of wealth is socialism.

3. Specifically taxing the wealthy is class warfare.

4. Any wealthy person, even a market speculator, is a “job creator.”

5. Poverty is always the result of individual character failure.

6. The free market always works in our best interests.

7. The deficit can be eradicated by cutting government programs.



1. Any government regulation is inherently bad, unless it is aimed at labor unions or recreational drugs.

2. Any government plan to supply medical care is socialism, unless the care is for   veterans.

3. The only valid function of government is to support a strong military and security apparatus.

4. Our constitutional rights are given to us by God.


National Security

1. The most important element of national security is the military.

2. The defense of freedom requires giving up some freedoms.

3. Leaking any classified information, no matter how important it is for the people to know and no matter how old it is, is treason.

4. The military knows best what resources it should have.

5. A suspected terrorist, even if an American citizen, may be detained indefinitely.

6. Because of national security needs, the government may employ secret witnesses and evidence.

7. The free press is inherently a threat to national security.

8. Islam is inherently a threat to national security.

9. Allowing any authority besides the military and intelligence agencies to deal with foreign and domestic enemies is inherently a threat to national security.


Foreign Policy 

1. America is qualitatively different from and consequently better than other industrial democracies.

2. America has the right to violate the sovereignty of any other country if it feels threatened.

3. Other countries have no right to violate the sovereignty of America for any reason.

4. America has absolutely no obligation to observe international law or conventions.

5. The United Nations is a tool of America’s enemies and seeks to limit our sovereignty.

6. Our only important and faithful ally is Israel.

7. American foreign policy in the Middle East is what Israel says it is.

8. Russia is the major threat to the United States.

9. Canada is a part of the United States filled with foreigners.


Energy and Environment 

1. America’s best energy plan is to produce more oil and coal.

2. Coal is clean energy source.

3. Renewable energy is inherently a threat to national security and probably socialist.

4. The natural environment is to be mastered for the benefit of the economy.

5. Hunting is the natural relationship between humans and animals.

6. God gave Christians the world to use.

6. Global warming, if it even exists, is a natural cyclical phenomenon.



1. Medical care need not be available to the average citizen to be considered “excellent.”

2. Failure is always the result of individual character defects.

3. Citizens should be permitted to practice any non-Christian false religion they wish to.

4. Catholicism may not be a Christian religion.

5. Mormonism is not a Christian religion.

6. The only valid purpose of science is to provide new technology.

7. Evolution is only a theory, unlike Genesis.

8. Sex education is inherently a threat to national security.

9. Fertilized eggs and corporations are “persons.”

10. While there is legitimate rape, most rape results from the woman “asking for it.”

11. Women are equal to men, but their natural place is in the home.



1. A patriot may be identified by his flag lapel pin.

2. Criticizing any military action is unpatriotic and dishonors the military personnel involved.

3. A veteran, no matter how decorated, dishonors himself and his country if he criticizes the war in which he fought.

4. Criticizing the government during wartime, that is, whenever we are being threatened, is unpatriotic and inherently a threat to national security.

5. Any protestor is a “hippie,” unless it is a conservative cause.

6. Believing “My country right or wrong” is unpatriotic since our country is never wrong.

7. Democrats are unpatriotic and inherently a threat to national security.

This is the land which I sware unto Abraham, unto Isaac, unto Jacob, and unto Bibi

(Pre-blog note: We celebrate a fantastic achievement for mankind: landing a one-ton nuclear powered science vehicle on Mars, all without human direction.  Unfortunately, most writers for the general media feel compelled, perhaps inevitably, to add that it cost $2.4 billion, implying that this is perhaps too expensive.  Why then do articles about the war in Afghanistan never mention that this war costs $2 billion a week?  The $2.4 billion Curiosity will operate for at least 104 weeks and actually produce something of value to humanity, which seems like a much better deal.  Perhaps if Curiosity carried weapons no one would notice the price tag.  Three cheers for my fellow geeks at NASA and JPL!)


The mainstream American media typically reports news involving Israel only when the Israelis do something spectacular, like invading Lebanon, or when American politics are involved, such as Mitt Romney’s brown-nosing comments about Jerusalem and the Palestinians.   Hardly surprising then that most American newspapers and television stations made no mention of the Levy Report, despite its important implications for Palestine and American policy in the area.  To be fair, some major newspapers, such as the NY Times, carried the story, but clearly most Americans, even those who keep abreast of the news, are unaware of the report, being inundated with the apparently more interesting details of the lives of mass murderers.

Regarding their occupation and colonization of the West Bank, Israel has (when it bothered at all) traditionally excused its clear violation of accepted international law by pointing out that inasmuch as there is no Palestinian state the strictures of such international instruments as the Fourth Geneva Convention and the UN Charter do not apply.  This rationale of course places Israel in what should be uncomfortable company: Hitler in part justified his monstrous treatment of the Soviet Union by noting that they had never signed the Geneva Convention.

This has apparently changed.  Prime Minister Netanyahu appointed a three member commission, headed by former High Court justice Edmund Levy, to investigate the legal status of the so-called “illegal” settlements, that is, those not authorized by the government.  The implication of course is that all the other settlements are legal, despite their obvious violation of basic international law.  But what the panel concluded goes way beyond the issue of the handful of “illegal” settlers, and it is breathtaking in its self-serving cynicism and implications.

Basically, they determined that that the “illegal” settlements – and thus all the settlements – are not illegal because they are not in fact in occupied territory.  This conclusion might seem a bit surprising since the Israeli army has been obviously occupying the West Bank for 45 years, and this is territory designated as part of the Palestinian state created by the same UN resolution that created Israel.  The commission, however, concluded that since Israel has been in the West Bank for such a long time that this is unique occurrence and thus not actually an occupation.  Bingo, all the settlements are perfectly legal in the light of international law.  As, I suppose, would be the German colonization of Poland if they had only hung on longer.

Israeli politicians either hailed this as a triumph of jurisprudence or remained silent, and I am unaware of an official response from the US government, which is in the midst of an election, when even the faintest criticism of Israel is viewed as political poison.  As a signatory of all the international conventions Israel is currently violating, it would be awkward for the US to officially accept the colonization of the West Bank, and our official position is that the settlements are unacceptable.  But no American president has dared take any action on the issue, and so far as I know, no administration has even publically referred to them as violations of international law.  Instead they are “obstacles to peace” or some such euphemism, despite the fact that as a High Contracting Party America is legally bound to “ensure respect” for the Fourth Geneva Convention, which the settlements blatantly violate.

The self-serving and perfectly silly arguments of the Levy Report are designed to satisfy the all-important settler block in the present extremist Likud coalition, but what are the wider implications if this position becomes the official policy of the Israeli state?  This would essentially amount to an annexation of the West Bank, and while the US has pretty much turned a blind eye to the annexation of the Golan Heights and east Jerusalem, this would be very different and disastrous for Israel and perhaps the US.

Annexing the West Bank, even if the word “annex” is avoided, would certainly create a crisis for Israel, which would be faced with only two options.  Israel could enfranchise the 2.3 million Palestinians who live there, but that would be the end of Israel as a Jewish state and is inconceivable.  The alternative is to create (or formalize what is already the case) an apartheid system, which would be the end of Israel as a democratic state.  The second solution would appeal to many religious fanatics, but it would mean the end of US support and the complete isolation of Israel unless it chooses to ally with blatantly undemocratic states like Russia and China.

Well, it would probably mean the end of American support.  American politicians of both parties have a very well established tradition of prostrating themselves before Israel for reasons that are actually becoming less compelling as relentlessly liberal American Jews reconsider their unqualified support of an increasingly illiberal and sometimes outright intolerant Israel.  Israel has become so imbedded in our political arena and its excesses so constantly ignored that it is not a certainty that American politicians, especially evangelically inclined conservatives, would actually abandon it.

We have been quite willing to call Israel a model democracy in the Middle East despite the clear evidence that Palestinian citizens are not just treated as second class but are actually legally disabled.  And in the eyes of many Americans every Arab is suspicious anyway, and the Palestinians have always been terrorists, right?  That Palestinians would be treated as American Blacks were before the civil rights legislation or as South African Blacks were under the apartheid government would clearly be no problem for many conservative Americans.  Yes, we finally severed relations with South Africa, but this is different.  Israel is vital to American security (at least that is what we have been told for a half century) and in any case this is the land the Bible says is special, the land where Jesus walked and where the end of days will take place.  Would Rick Santorum or Michele Bachmann be bothered by any of this?

Many conservatives in Israel are not bothered.  Dani Dayan, head of the Yesha party, has just argued in the NY Times that because Arabs have called for the destruction of Israel and because the West Bank was the heart of ancient Israel, it is not just reasonable but actually moral for Israel to acquire this territory.  Think of it as Judea and Samaria rather than Palestine and you will see the moral imperative to annex.  American evangelicals, who seem to have an incredible capacity for ignoring the truth, especially when religion is involved, would surely endorse this idea, particularly since it involves not just their religion but also national security, which for some has become a quasi-religious concept.

To be sure, because of its unqualified support for Israel and Arab dictators and monarchs, its massive military presence in the Middle East and its expanding program of assassination by drone, America already has little credibility in the Arab world.  But accepting an apartheid Israel would surely end our credibility as leader of the democratic world and spoil our relationship with Europe, whose politicians (even in Germany) are not pathetically subservient to the interests of Israel.

For an historian this is of course all fascinating stuff, but for an American, especially one already concerned about the road we are taking, this is scarey stuff.

Our Desert Shepherd God

One constantly hears of the importance of the “Judeo-Christian tradition” to Western society and values.  Apparently Islam, which is clearly also part of the Abrahamic family, does not count, perhaps because it is so obviously at odds with the values touted in the West.  Yet apart from the fact that the West has been essentially Christian, with a smattering of Jews, it is not exactly clear how Judeo-Christian ideas are so important to modern society.

The two religions certainly espouse basic social values common to virtually all of humanity – homicide, theft, adultery, etc. are bad and family, compassion, charity, etc. are good – and they at least suggest that law and justice are vital to a well-organized society.  But does not the classical tradition also support all these values and do so within a context of rationalism, eliminating the need for any god?  Further, the Greco-Roman legacy lays the foundation for scientific enquiry and the democratic state, emphasizing a rule of law disconnected from any sort of faith.  The mainstream versions of the three Abrahamic religions ultimately accommodated, at least to some degree, rationalism and constitutional government, but this evolution took a very long time and segments of these faiths are still hostile to such Western notions.  Yahweh/God/Allah is manifestly not a democratic figure and has required unthinking acceptance of his words.

Inasmuch as they are rooted in faith rather than reason all religions are inherently silly to one degree or another, but the believer will of course only see the silliness in the other guy’s religion, especially if it is not Abrahamic.  There are, to be sure, differences in what might be called sophistication: god as a first principle behind the universe is more sophisticated than god as a personal savior requiring certain ethical behavior, which is in turn more sophisticated than god as nature spirit requiring offerings and ritual behavior.  But no matter how primitive or sophisticated all religions require a suspension of reason, and consequently Athena springing full grown from the brow of Zeus is inherently no more unreasonable than Jesus being born of a virgin mother or a Buddhist being reborn as a bug.  In fact, it is easier to make sense of the utterly anthropomorphic Olympic gods, who act just as humans do, than of the Abrahamic deity, who demands often strange behavior and proclaims his love of humanity while loosing all manner of evils upon us.

The many flocks of Abraham are of course generally oblivious to such considerations and display an arrogance possible only for a monotheist, dismissing poor benighted polytheists (the term “pagan” – “those of the countryside” – carries the contempt) as ignorant fools who cannot see how obviously false and man-made their gods are.  Ironically, the historical and cultural roots of the Abrahamic god, particularly in his Christian and Muslim incarnations, are quite evident, as obvious as the environmental origins of any weather god or fertility goddess.

The invisible tribal god of the people who would become the Hebrews readily betrays his local and west-Semitic character, particularly in his often bizarre prohibitions and punishments, many of which are common to other deities in
Syria-Palestine at the time.  Despite centuries of redactions the early books of the Old Testament still reveal signs of the polytheist and mythic past of the Judge of Nations, the creation of one time semi-nomadic stock herders.  This nameless desert shepherd god shares the original henotheistic nature possessed by many of his Canaanite colleagues, and only because of the understandable historical circumstances that detached him from nature and made him the sole god in the universe does he escape the scrap heap of religion to which they were ultimately consigned.  He becomes the ethical deity, but remains encrusted with the ritual and animal sacrifice of his early days.

His next incarnation comes out of the conjunction of a number of religious and historical factors that are found in Judea in the first century AD.  Because of the return of the Babylonian exiles, who had preserved his ancient character, and the successful nationalist revolt of the Maccabees, which helped stem the tide of Hellenism, Yahweh survived intact in a rapidly changing world.  The centuries old tradition of religious activists – the prophets – challenging the authority of a wealthy and corrupt priesthood allied with the state continued with the appearance of a charismatic preacher from Galilee.  As a heretic and potential revolutionary the popular Jesus would have to die, and his execution was approved by a Roman governor interested in maintaining order and keeping the propertied classes happy.

But because of the Greeks the story did not finish there, and Jesus did not simply join the line of martyrs for the Mosaic god.  The Hellenic wave that washed over Judea in the wake of Alexander brought with it a new religious form, the mystery cult, at the heart of which was a new idea of deity, the dying and resurrected god.  Jesus could thus live on, united with his divine father and divine spirit in a new version of the sole god, one more concerned with the downtrodden rather than the powerful, with forgiveness rather than punishment.  This was the Prince of Peace rather than the Lord of Hosts, Yahweh with a smiling face – and in a questionable three pack edition.

And the timing was perfect, which is of course why a new major religion emerged from this amalgam of ideas.  The Roman Empire allowed for the easy and rapid spread of the Christian god into the most distant corners of the Mediterranean and western Europe, and that Empire was packed with people ready to hear about the first truly poor man’s god, who preferred the powerless and offered a reward in the next life.  Facilitating all this was Saul/Paul of Tarsus, who striped the new creed of all the intimidating dietary and ritual practices of traditional Judaism.  The one ethical god was now available to the uncircumcised.

Some six hundred years later the third and seemingly final model of the god of Moses appeared, essentially the work of a single individual.  Growing up in the polytheist and socially retarded society of Red Sea Arabia, Mohammed did not have to create an Arabic supreme being from scratch but could draw upon the ideas of the Jews and Christians found in Medina.  Fully reflecting the primitive and semi-Bedouin environment, the resulting deity was a return to the more west-Semitic Jewish version, a Lord of Battles suitable for the constantly warring tribes.  Even more aniconic than his Hebrew predecessor, Allah was the ultimate desert shepherd god, who would carry his barbarian adherents to world power.

Yahweh/God/Allah is now worshipped by more than half the people on the planet, quite an achievement for a deity who started out as the tribal god of a tiny group of semi-nomadic herders.  And while he has undoubtedly satisfied the spiritual needs of millions upon millions of humans and has certainly inspired incredible art, he has equally clearly brought untold misery into the world.  Polytheists are almost relentlessly religiously tolerant (extremist Hindus only demonstrate what happens when you share a country with Arab Muslims), but monotheism introduced humanity to religious arrogance, holy war and baptism by the sword.  Two millennia after Christ and fifteen hundred years after Mohammed the world is still plagued with religious bigotry and violence and hostility towards rationalism.

Even worse, this is the no-fun god, enshrining the puritanical and narrow-minded attitudes of his herding and Bedouin progenitors and the uneducated and rural masses that underpin his worship.  Human sexuality, an inescapable element of our being, is suppressed and considered virtually an evil necessity, and the human body, celebrated by the high civilizations of Greece and India, has become an object of shame.  Islam carries the travesty even further, prohibiting alcohol, the chosen drug of the human race and the solace of millions, while its more extreme adherents seek to remove all the most colorful elements from the tapestry of life.  How is that sex and drink have fallen into the same category as theft and murder?

Suppose that priestly Judaism had disappeared under the impact of Hellenism or that the Galilean preacher had never appeared.  The educated elites in the classical world were already abandoning polytheism for a more unitary understanding of god, a divine principle rather than a personal savior.  How would that have played out without the intervention of Christianity and Islam?  In the midst of all its polytheist beliefs Hinduism has produced for the educated a more unitary notion of deity.  It is far too much to believe that humanity would have moved away from religion altogether, but the absence of the desert shepherd god would likely have resulted in a more pleasant history for the race.

An Evangelical Christmas (for Bachmann, Perry, Santorum and their Desert Shepherd God)

SET: fairly stark living room; a fireplace, an end table with a nativity crèche and Bible; on the wall a light switch, a cross, a standard tacky American Protestant portrait of Jesus and some framed homily like “God Bless This Home.”  Initially dimly lit (enough to make out characters) by a night light.


SANTA CLAUS in traditional garb with sack

REVEREND in pajamas and robe



(Enter SANTA through fireplace with some difficulty and obvious effort; looks around in some confusion)

SANTA   This is the right address, isn’t it?  Now, where’s my book?  (searching about himself)

(Enter REVEREND with shotgun from side; takes up position near table facing SANTA)

REVEREND   (fumbling for light switch) Hands up or I’ll shoot!  What are you doing in my house?  Stealing?

SANTA   (putting up his hands in mock alarm)  Stealing?!  Ho, ho, ho.  Quite the opposite, good man, quite the opposite.  But where’s your Christmas tree?

REVEREND   Tree?!  Pagan rites and blasphemy!  (finally finds the switch and turns on the light; surprised, he drops the gun and picks up the Bible)  You!  Spawn of Satan!

SANTA   (lowering his arms)  Well, spawn of Mr. and Mrs. Johann Claus actually.

REVEREND   Do not try to ensnare me with your lies, Evil One.  Get thee behind me!

(SANTA starts to move around REVEREND to get behind him, but stops when REVEREND holds the Bible out before him)

REVEREND   Stop!  You are helpless before the Holy Writ, and Jesus resists you as effortlessly as he did by the waters of Galilee.  The signs of evil are manifest to the eyes of the righteous.

SANTA   The signs?

REVEREND   Do not play the innocent with me.  Do you not wear the suit of scarlet, the color of the Devil, the hue of revolution, communism and godlessness, the evil red of spilled blood and violence?

SANTA   (looking at himself)  I always thought it was merry.

REVEREND   Do you not possess the bloated body of the glutton?  Are you not a helpless slave of the flesh?

SANTA   (patting his belly and chuckling)  Perhaps I do carry a few extra pounds, but it’s come to be part of the image – “shakes like a bowlful of jelly” and all that.  And the table set by Mrs. Claus.

REVEREND   Bride of evil!  Whore of Babylon!

SANTA   Now wait a minute.  Mrs. Claus has never even been to the Middle East, and…

REVEREND   Of course she never leaves your vile palace.  She is the concubine of the Devil, barren and loathing the company of good women.  She shuns the light…like you, whom no man has seen abroad in the bright sun of the day.

SANTA   Well, it’s true that I work at night, and in any case it’s usually too cold at the North Pole for me and the missus to want to go out.

REVEREND   (contemptuously)  North Pole, you say?  In truth it is Hell wherein you dwell, the frozen waste that is devoid of light and warmth, that is the lowest circle of perdition.  Even heathens, deprived of the Word, have recognized Hell for what it is, a darkling plain of ice and cold and hopelessness.  And there you rule, served by your demons.

SANTA   (taking a seat on his bag and pulling out a traditional long white clay pipe)  Demons, you say?

REVEREND   Your evil minions.  Your elves.  The stunted misshapen creatures you have fabricated to toil in your workshops of greed and temptation.  (he strikes a match to light his pipe)

REVEREND   (holding up his arms)  In the name of Jesus, I command you to stop!

SANTA   Oops, sorry.  (he puts out the match)  I forgot I was in the United States.

REVEREND   You’ll not frighten those of God with your fire and brimstone, Sandy Claws.

SANTA   That’s Claus, Santa Claus.  Or old St. Nick, if you will.

REVEREND   (even more animated)  Behold, before the righteous he cannot but reveal his true name – Old Nick!  You are indeed the Beast, the Evil One who seeks to set his claws in the innocent and to corrupt, especially the children.

SANTA   I bring gifts to the children…

REVEREND   You fly through the night with your enchanted animals, sneaking into the houses of Christian folk and tempting our children to sin with the toys created by your demons.

SANTA   Not at all.  I judge who’s been naughty and who’s been nice, and then I…

REVEREND   (pointing at SANTA, triumphant)  You admit it then, you are the fallen angel!  You usurp the power of God, the power to decide good and evil!  You dare to judge peoples’ lives, to approve and condemn our deeds, a power that is God’s alone…  (he is interrupted by a stomping sound from the roof)

SANTA   (looking up)  Hold your water, Blitzen.  (rises and looks at REVEREND, speaking patiently)  It appears that you have never recognized the true spirit of Christmas.

REVEREND   (almost raving)  Christmas!  What blasphemy!  Celebrating the birth of the Savior with Mammon, with trees and logs and mistletoe, with greed and gluttony.  What have these to do with the Christ?  Sweet Jesus, the heathen Japanese even practice your foul rites.

SANTA   (gently)  Let me give you a gift.  (he pulls a toy train out of his bag)

REVEREND   (with a bitter laugh, but his eyes are riveted on the train)  You seek to tempt me with a child’s plaything?!  A toy made by demons?

SANTA   Oh, it’s the perfect present for you.

REVEREND   (his voice and demeanor are becoming softer, hesitation and doubt become apparent)  But I am become a man clothed in righteousness and serve the Lord.  I…I need no such silly amusements.  I have long ago put aside childish ways.

SANTA   Maybe that’s the problem.  (extending the train to Reverend, who follows it with his eyes and begins to reach for it)  Go ahead.  Take it.  It’s for you.

(REVEREND hesitates, looking sheepish and beginning to grin; with wide eyes and a big smile he finally, quickly snatches the train and goes down on his knees to play with it on the floor, making appropriate noises)

SANTA (watches for moment, smiling) Merry Christmas, then.

(SANTA picks up his bag and turns toward the fireplace, sizes it up, muttering, then turns back to REVEREND, who is completely absorbed in his playing)

SANTA   Hey, sonny, where’s the front door?

(not even looking up, REVEREND points off stage and SANTA exits; fade to black)