Special Report from the Fronts: June 1967

Israel

Egypt

Syria

Jordan

Iraq

USSR

US

Lebanon

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(OK, I got carried away.  This was intended to be short and timely reflection on the Occupation, but the historian kicked in and produced this swollen document.)

Fifty years ago last month Israel began the Six Day War (5-10 June) by launching air strikes against the Egyptian Air Force. Initially the Israelis claimed they were attacked first, but later admitted they had struck the initial blow in their own defense, a “preemptive strike” in reaction to a build-up of Arab forces on their frontiers and Egypt’s closing of the Straits of Tiran, through which most of Israel’s maritime trade passed.  Israel had warned Egypt that blocking the Straits would be considered an act of war and in part had gone to war in 1956 because of precisely that.  President Nasser claimed that Israeli warships in the Gulf of Aqaba threatened Egypt and that Egypt had not signed the international convention declaring a right of passage through the Straits.  Ironically, Israel would later use the reverse argument when they were accused of violating the Geneva Convention in the Occupied Territories: the Palestinians had never signed it.

In any case, the Israeli population certainly felt seriously threatened, and because unlike the Arab forces the Israeli militia-army could not be kept on high alert for very long, Israel was forced to settle the issue more or less immediately. On the other hand, while the preemptive strike may be justified by the closing of the Straits, this was in many ways the beginning of the legitimizing of military action without a traditionally accepted casus belli.  Now we have invaded Iraq because we thought they had chemical weapons and might use them, and Israel, a nuclear power, threatens Iran with air strikes because they might be making a nuclear weapon.

The Six Day War took place just as I was graduating from college, and while I was on my way to becoming an historian of antiquity, my understanding of Israel was still shaped by the popular image of Exodus, of David versus Goliath, of the beleaguered democracy, of making the desert bloom.  I was thrilled by the marvelous victories of the Israeli Defense Force and the triumph of Jewish democracy over Arab autocracy, taunting a pair of Lebanese brothers who lived in my dorm.

This all changed rapidly as I learned more of the history of modern Israel and of the war itself.  Did two millennia of persecution and the Holocaust really justify displacing the Palestinians, who were certainly innocents in what Europe had done to the Jews?  Initially, in fact, Theodor Herzl and the Zionists simply wanted a state for Jews anywhere, recognizing that as part of the Ottoman Empire, Palestine was clearly not an option for state-building.  And the creation of a Jewish homeland was hardly high on the list of European priorities.

Theodor Herzl

With the outbreak of the Great War, however, the situation changed.  The desire of both the Allies and the Central Powers to cultivate European Jewry because of their supposed financial resources (yes, governments actually believed some of the anti-Semitic fantasies) provided the Zionists a more receptive audience.  On the other hand, British (and to a lesser degree French) military and political interests in the Arab regions of the Turkish Empire also provided a forum for Arab nationalism.  The Allies of course dealt with all this by making clearly conflicting promises to everyone in the region.

Arthur Balfour

The pivotal moment came in November 1917 with the publication of the intentionally vague Balfour Declaration:

His Majesty’s government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.

The political calculation behind this seems to have been to garner support from German, Russian and American Jews, who would, respectively, undermine the German war effort, keep Russia in the war and attract more American support (another case of dramatically overestimating Jewish influence and power).  None of these things would happen.  Instead, already suspicious Arab allies were outraged, and Britain ended up being saddled with Mandatory Palestine for the next thirty years.  Many later labeled the Balfour Declaration one of the worst mistakes ever made by the British Empire.

For centuries Muslim, Christian and Jewish Palestinians had lived peacefully as neighbors, but that changed with the establishment of the British Mandate in 1920.  Jews began to pour into the territory: in 1920 they constituted about 11% of the population; in 1936 it was close to 30%, a huge increase given the high Arab birth rate.  The financial backing of the Jewish settlers was immense compared to that of the Muslims, allowing them to buy land and develop infrastructure.  Muslims considered the Jews a People of the Book, but having occupied the land for more than a millennium, they certainly did not share the enthusiasm of the Christian West for the resurrection of ancient Israel, which policy was increasingly viewed as another example of European imperialism.

The growing influx of European Jews was seen – quite understandably – as an invasion supported by the British, and most Arab leaders refused to cooperate in creating Muslim-Jewish institutions.  Sectarian strife began in the twenties, producing the first Palestinian terror groups, and a full blown Arab revolt exploded in 1936, Arabs attacking Jews and destroying their farms and the British Army, supported by 6000 armed Jewish auxiliaries, attempting to suppress them.  When the revolt ended in 1939 some 5000 Arabs, 200 British and 400 Jews were dead.  The British, incidentally, began the policy of collective punishment of Palestinians by destroying their houses, a policy later adopted by the new state of Israel.

Jews leaving Jerusalem

Arabs “escorted” from Jerusalem by British troops

A British-Jewish Special Night Squad

Palestinian fighters

Abd al-Rahim al-Hajj Muhammad “General Commander of the Revolt”

Dead also was any idea of peaceful coexistence.  The Jews responded to Arab opposition and terrorism by organizing their own militias, such as the relatively disciplined Haganah, which would become the core of the Israeli Defense Force, and less savory groups, like the Irgun and Lehi (Stern Gang), outright terrorist organizations.  Meanwhile, the British soldiers, who ultimately were targeted by both sides, were likely cursing the name of Arthur Balfour.

Irgun: bombed Arab bus 1947

Stern: assassination of peace mediator Folke Bernadotte 1948

Avraham Stern – founder of Lehi (and supporter of the Nazis)

Irgun: King David Hotel 1946

Ze’ev Jabotinsky, Supreme Commander of the Irgun

Irgun: hanged British soldiers 1947

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Second World War brought matters to a head.  The slaughter of some six million European Jews could hardly fail to magnify the Zionist cause and the guilty consciences of Europe and America, which had turned away many Jewish refugees before the war.  The British Empire was in full retreat, and London was certainly open to any measures that would get them out of Palestine.  Finally, the war had produced an organization, the United Nations, which could serve as an international mechanism for the creation of a Jewish state.  Also crucial was the immense power of post-war America, whose President, Harry Truman, favored the creation of a new Israel, despite the objections of most of his advisors.  Joseph Stalin also supported the idea, which makes one wonder.

In November 1947 the UN voted to partition the Mandate, creating separate Jewish and Arab states and an international status for Jerusalem.  In hindsight the Arabs, now seemingly forever caught in a growing apartheid web of Israeli occupation, clearly should have taken the deal, but the Arab world did not see the self-determination talked about by the Americans, just another exercise in western manipulation of their affairs.

World Zionist Organization 1919 territorial claim

UN Partition Plan 1947

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Zionism was a European phenomenon, the Holocaust (and to a great degree the persecution of Jews in general) was a European phenomenon and there had not been a Jewish state for almost two millennia. Why should there be one now?  And more important to the Arabs, why here?  Palestine had been Muslim and under the control of Islamic states for more than a thousand years (and had generally treated the Jewish minority far better than the Christian west).  I certainly could feel at least a twinge of the outrage when having met Arab families who could demonstrate possession of their land back into the nineteenth century and further, I had to listen to someone speaking English with a New York accent explain how it was in fact his land.

Well, for all the persecution and hatred of the people who “murdered the Christ” ancient Israel and Judah were an inseparable part of Christianity, which had after all accepted the Hebrew Testament, and Israel was where Jesus had walked. Today, many American Protestants, notably Evangelicals and sundry fundamentalists, are enthusiastic supporters of not just Israel but of its most extreme policies.  The British had painted themselves into a corner with the Balfour Declaration, and Hitler had made that corner virtually inescapable for them and the Americans.

The immediate response to the partition was violence, as Arab armies converged on the territory assigned to Israel, and it turned into inter-state warfare when Israel proclaimed her status as a sovereign state on 14 May 1948.  Here was the first of the “David versus Goliath” wars, at least in popular imagination.  In fact, Israel fielded almost twice as many troops as her opponents, and the OSS (predecessor of the CIA) estimated that Israel would handily defeat the forces of Jordan, Syria, Iraq and Egypt.

And so they did.  When the war ended in March 1949, Israel had acquired 60% of the territory initially assigned to the Arabs and now had a foothold in Jerusalem.  More than 700,000 Palestinians fled or were expelled; yes, contrary to the popular mythic version of their history, the Israelis did engage in ethnic cleansing.  (In the next three years about 700,000 Jews entered Israel, many fleeing Arab countries.)  In the state of Israel itself some 400 Palestinian villages (against 10 Jewish communities) were emptied of people, creating a class of Internally Displaced Persons among the Arab citizenry, and by 1950 one in four Israeli Arabs was an IDP, barred from their homes and land, which were confiscated by the state.  The laws applied also to descendants, so the situation continues to this day.

King Farouk I of Egypt

King Abdullah I of Jordan

1948 Arab-Israeli War

First Israeli Expansion

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For Palestinians this was al-nakba, “the Catastrophe.” In 1950 Jordan annexed the remaining non-Israeli territory, the West Bank (Gaza was occupied by the Egyptians), and offered the inhabitants Jordanian citizenship.  Many Palestinians turned this down, and only Britain recognized the annexation, while the Arab states, anxious to keep the Palestinian question alive, pressured the Jordanian King, Abdullah I, to declare the annexation “temporary.”  This temporary arrangement would last 17 years and be replaced with something much more onerous.

In 1956 Israel joined in a secret coalition with Britain and France, who were responding to the nationalization of the Suez Canal, and fielded 175,000 troops (twice that of her allies) to attack Egypt. Worldwide outrage erupted, mainly directed against the French and British for their blatant assault on a sovereign state in order to protect their imperial interests, and domestic and international pressure soon forced them to withdraw, leaving President Nasser in power.  Israel was primarily – and understandably – concerned about regular terrorist attacks coming out of Gaza and Soviet weaponry going into Cairo and would be delighted to see a weakened Egypt without Nasser.  They occupied Gaza and Sinai and refused to leave when their erstwhile allies gave it up, and it took two more weeks of threats of sanctions and lifting of American aid by President Eisenhower (the first and last American President to stand up to Israel) to finally force them out.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower

Prime Minister David Ben Gurion

President Gamal Abdel Nasser

Suez Crisis

 

Unlike the humiliated French and British, Israel benefited from the brief war, her defiance of the US and international community winning important guarantees: a UN presence in Sinai and the opening of the Straits of Tiran, which had been closed by Egypt in 1951. Nasser kept the canal and his power and emerged with an enhanced reputation, but he failed to understand that he had been saved by American diplomacy not the Egyptian military.  While the Israelis correctly concluded that their citizen soldiers were better trained and could conduct large scale operations, Nasser deceived himself and his people by concluding that his forces could take on the new kid on the block.

The Suez Crisis set the stage for the Six Day War, suggesting to Egypt, Syria and Jordan that together they could defeat Israel. They could not, and while much of the world marveled at tiny David facing the Arab Goliath again, the CIA in fact concluded that it would take Israel less than two weeks to defeat the Arabs.  It took less than one, and Israel made out like a bandit.

Battle for Sinai

Battle for the Golan Heights

Battle for the West Bank

(Whether the Egyptians shot retreating soldiers or the Israelis murdered some POWs is still debated, but another more disturbing incident of the war is now perfectly clear: Israeli aircraft and torpedo boats deliberately attacked the intelligence ship USS Liberty, killing 34 and wounding 174 American sailors; see my post “Our Best Ally and the USS Liberty” (https://qqduckus.com/2012/06/07/our-best-ally-and-the-uss-liberty/) 

Prime Minister Levy Eshkol of Israel

 

President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt

 

King Hussein I of Jordan

 

Sallah Jadid of Syria

President Abdul Rahman Arif of Iraq

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

President Lyndon Johnson

 

General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When Washington finally forced the Israelis to accept a ceasefire (they were ultimately dependent on American resupply), they had seized Gaza and the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt, East Jerusalem and the West Bank from Jordan and the Golan Heights from Syria. Eretz Yisrael had attained its greatest territorial extent – ever – and possession of all of Jerusalem, which meant control of sites sacred to all three Abrahamic religions: the Western Wall, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the el-Aqsa Mosque and Dome of the Rock.  (Perhaps the most iconic image from the war is that of jubilant Israeli soldiers at the Western Wall; less well known is the immediate destruction of 135 Arab houses and a mosque to create the plaza that now fronts the Wall.)

The Second Israeli Expansion

Israeli soldiers at the
Western Wall

Clearing the area before the Wall

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Israelis now also controlled the West Bank, which was promptly named the Judea and Samaria Area, though the term did not come into regular use until Menachem Begin became Prime Minister in 1977. The territory of the West Bank was in fact the heart of ancient Israel, Judea being the southern state of Judah (which ended up composing the history found in the Old Testament) and Samaria the northern state of Israel (completely maligned in the Bible).  A great irony of the creation of modern Israel is that inasmuch as the partition was based on demographics most of ancient Israel fell to the Arabs.  And this is certainly on of the central facts behind the sad fate of the Palestinians.

Ancient Israel Based on the Bible

Israel and Judah 9th century BC

 

Israel now occupied all that “homeland” (real or imagined), and while Israel was initially concerned with security – the occupation would quickly fuel Palestinian terrorism – the extremists saw the possibility of recreating ancient Israel, or at least the swollen image of it in the Judah-edited Old Testament.  Reestablishing a state that had ceased to exist two millennia earlier was questionable enough, but claiming territory for that state on basis of a clearly unhistorical holy book strikes me as absurd.  But because Christianity has also accepted that book as sacred, many clearly do not see Israel’s actions as absurd – or as violations of international law.

Before the end of June Israel brought East Jerusalem and surrounding land under its administration, calling it “municipal integration,” but it was clearly annexation, which was confirmed by the Jerusalem Law of 1980.  The occupied Golan Heights were to be retained for security reasons and settlements began to appear, leading in 1981 to the Golan Heights Law, by which the region was formally annexed.  Only Costa Rica recognized the Jerusalem annexation and Micronesia the Golan annexation – one wonders why these two states.

One of the fundamental provisions of the post-World War II international agreements, such as the Fourth Geneva Convention and the United Nations Charter, is the prohibition of annexing or settling territory acquired through war, whatever the reason.  Israel apparently felt exempt from this, for security reasons but increasingly in the West Bank simply because it was believed to be the land of Israel.  These settlements were not merely “obstacles to peace,” as the United States calls them, but gross violations of international covenants the United States is pledged to uphold.  Nevertheless, Israel was continually protected from hostile resolutions of the United Nations by the American veto in the Security Council.

Already in 1967 Israel reestablished the old settlement of Kfar Etzion, whose inhabitants had been massacred in the 1948 war.  More ominous was the foundation on the outskirts of Hebron of Kiryat Arba in 1968: the land was confiscated from Palestinians on the grounds of military needs, but it was in fact intended for a Jewish settlement.  Because of the connection between Hebron and Abraham (who might have once been a local cult figure), the city is sacred to everyone and has attracted a particularly nasty group of Jewish settlers, who are holed up in the old town, protected by the Israeli military.  Kiryat Arba has a park dedicated to Meir Kahane, whose Kach party is considered a terrorist organization even by the Israeli government, and nearby is the grave of Baruch Goldstein (an associated shrine, attracting thousands of visitors, has been bulldozed by the government), who slaughtered 29 Palestinians praying in a mosque. Both these men grew up in Brooklyn.

Kahane Tourist Park

Meir Kahane

Kiryat Arba

Baruch Goldstein

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The confiscation of land for Jewish settlements became standard policy during the 1970s, though it was denied by the Israeli government.  When a Likud government under Menachem Begin (former leader of the terrorist Irgun; a later Prime Minister, Yitzhak Shamir, led the Stern Gang) took power in 1977, the process accelerated, and later the government began subsidizing housing in the settlements (which continues to this day), drawing huge numbers of Israelis who were moved far less by the dream of ancient Israel than by cheap available housing.  Whatever the motivation, these colonists were creating the “facts on the ground,” a growing Jewish population that made it more and more difficult for the land to be returned to the Palestinians.

Ytizhak Shamir, Prime Minister and former terrorist

Menachem Begin, Prime Minister and former terrorist.

Yasir Arafat, President and former terrorist

 

 

 

 

In 1983, as part of the peace treaty with Egypt, Israel removed the settlements from Sinai, and in 2005 those in Gaza, in both cases facing serious resistance from the settlers.  Unfortunately, with Israel controlling Gaza’s frontiers, waters and air space this rump Palestinian state became the world’s largest open air prison, periodically blasted by the IDF because some Hamas jerk shoots a rocket into Israel.  As of today, approximately 1,730,000 Palestinians are living in a semi-wasteland, and malnutrition has become a serious problem.

Meanwhile, the Jewish population in the Occupied Territories continues to swell, as increasingly right wing governments blithely paint Israel into a corner.  There are now some 800,000 Israeli Jewish citizens residing in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights and a growing number of Israeli-only roads slicing up Palestinian territory.  Israeli and foreign governments still talk about the “two state solution,” but it has become an impossibility.  Even were the government willing – an extremely unlikely development – attempting to evacuate the settlements would almost certainly lead to extreme violence and civil strife.

What then?  There are now some 2,754,000 Palestinians in the West Bank (and 5,000,000 in Arab countries), and their birth rate is much higher than that of the Jews – excepting the ultra-Orthodox Haredi (who are producing a growing number of Israeli males who know virtually nothing but the Torah).  They certainly cannot be simply expelled, and that leaves two possibilities: annex the territory and give the citizenship to the Palestinians or continue with the current policy.  The first will not happen because Jews would then be a minority, a difficult proposition if Israel is to be a “Jewish” state, and one could expect the new voters to be unsympathetic to many Israeli institutions.

That leaves the status quo, which can lead only to some form of an apartheid state, which is already taking shape in the West Bank.  I visited Israel/Palestine about twenty-five years ago, when the settler presence was much smaller and the Israelis-only road network was just getting underway, and even then the West Bank was beginning to look like something out of the Middle Ages.  The settlements are for the most part on hill tops or ridges, looming like little fortified cities over the Palestinian communities below.  The traditional whitewashed houses of the villages, where water is increasingly in short supply, are in dramatic contrast to the modern accommodations, malls and swimming pools of the settlements, which are like bits of American suburbia planted in the Holy Land.

Settlement life

Israel has now occupied Palestine longer than the Soviet Union controlled Eastern Europe, a tragedy for the Palestinians and ultimately the Israelis.  The Palestinian leadership, such as it is, has been frequently corrupt and seems to have a special knack for doing just the wrong thing, but consider a half century of rather unpleasant (by contemporary western standards) occupation: how would you feel after a lifetime of second class status – at best – and watching your ancient homeland being recolonized?   Or seeing your home destroyed because someone in your family was arrested (collective punishment, another violation of international law)?  Or being shot with relative impunity because you were defending your olive trees from settler vandals?

Back a quarter century ago I and a companion visited a Palestinian family in Bani Naim, five miles east of Hebron, and when we entered the children began crying.  They thought we were Israelis.

The sad history of Palestine

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Report from the Fronts #19: August 1916

August 1916 marked two years of war and was little different from the month before or the one to follow.  On the Somme front the Battles of Delville Wood and Poziéres continued, piling up casualties for little gain and emulating the ongoing action to the south at Verdun.  There on 1 August the Germans launched a surprise assault on Fort Souville and were duly counterattacked by the French, who on 18 August recaptured Fleury – or what was left of it.

Fort Souville

Fort Souville

Poilus attacking Fleury

Poilus attacking Fleury

Fort Souville today

Fort Souville today

 

 

On 29 August Verdun claimed a major German casualty when Falkenhayn was sacked as Chief of Staff and replaced by Hindenburg.  The apparent failure of the Verdun campaign and the beginning of the Somme and Brusilov Offensives played into the hands of Hindenburg and Ludendorff, who had been conspiring against Falkenhayn.  Ludendorff became First Quartermaster-General, but he was in fact the real power, rapidly assuming control of the entire military and ultimately the Reich itself.

Falkenhayn

Falkenhayn

Hindenburg and Ludendorff

Hindenburg and Ludendorff

 

To the south the Isonzo Follies started up again as General Cadorna sought to take advantage of an Austrian line weakened by the removal of troops for the Trentino Offensive.  The Sixth Battle of the Isonzo (or Battle of Gorizia) kicked off on 6 August with a two pronged assault against the long-sought prize of Gorizia, which the Austrians abandoned on 8 August.  Gorizia was the gateway to Trieste and Ljubljana, but the poorly equipped Italian troops could make no further headway and Cadorna ended the offensive on 17 August.

Gorizia

Gorizia

General Luigi Cadorna

General Luigi Cadorna

Isonzo front

Isonzo front

This was Cadorna’s first success, and Italian morale skyrocketed with the capture of the city they had wanted since 1914.  But they wanted Gorizia in order to seize Trieste and invade Slovenia, and in fact that would never happen, leaving Cadorna with only a wrecked city and more dead: 21,000 (not counting the missing) to the Austrian’s 8000.  Throwing 22 divisions against 9 Austrian allowed the (limited) breakthrough to Gorizia, but Cadorna’s frontal assaults were extremely costly.

Exhausted Italian troops

Exhausted Italian troops

Battle of Doberdo (beginning of Isonzo six)

Battle of Doberdo (beginning of Isonzo Six)

Gorizia after capture

Gorizia after capture

 

Not costly enough, however, to prevent Rome from sending troops to join the growing international camp at Salonika on 12 August, presumably to back up Italian claims in the western Balkans. On 28 August Italy declared war on Germany, apparently under pressure from the Allies, since the two countries were not in direct conflict (German troops would not appear on the Italian front until 1917) and actually benefited from non-belligerence.

Meanwhile, Greece tottered toward open participation in the war.  National pride and the Bulgarians in Macedonia spurred the Venizelist (pro-Entente, anti-Royalist) forces clustered in Salonika, and on 29-30 August Venizelist officers, supported by the Allies, launched a successful coup against the loyalists.  Troops across northern Greece joined the revolt, and the seed of a government in opposition to Athens, the “National Defense Committee,” was formed.  Loyalist officers fled south.

Greek troops in Salonika

Greek troops in Salonika

Admiral Kountouriotis, Eleftherios Venizelos, and General Danglis.

Admiral Kountouriotis, Eleftherios Venizelos, and General Danglis.

 

 

 

 

 

 

To the south the Turks, who had been steadily creeping across Sinai during July, took what would be a final shot at the Suez Canal on 3 August, advancing towards Romani, about 20 miles from the Canal.  The British had been busy, however, building a rail line east out of Kantara and could now send out more substantial forces.  The result was the Battle of Romani on 3-5 August, during which the Turkish army was decisively defeated, suffering 9200 casualties to the Allied 1130.  But the Ottoman commander, Friedrich Kress von Kressenstein, had prepared fortified positions during his advance, and his surviving forces were able to execute an orderly retreat.  Nevertheless, by 12 August the Turks had been driven all the way back across Sinai to El Arish.  The Battle of Sinai had ended and the Battle for Palestine could begin.

Australian 8th Light Horse at Romani

Australian 8th Light Horse at Romani

Kress von Kressenstein

Kress von Kressenstein

Turkish advance and retreat in Sinai

Turkish advance and retreat in Sinai

Building the railroad across Sinai

Building the railroad across Sinai

Kressenstein with a smoke

Kressenstein with a smoke

 

 

 

The big news of August 1916 was the entrance of Romania into the war.  King Carol I, a Hohenzollern like the Kaiser, had signed a defensive alliance with the Central Powers, but in 1914 the Romanian people favored the Allies and Romania remained neutral.  King Ferdinand I, who succeeded Carol in October 1914, was more inclined towards the Entente and wanted Transylvania, an Austrian province with a Romanian population, but was wary of the Russians and being left in the lurch by the French and British.  Only after the Allies agreed to stringent terms (most of which were subsequently ignored) did he make his move.

British propaganda

British propaganda

Romanian invasion of Transylvania

Romanian invasion of Transylvania

Romanians (black) in 1914

Romanians (black) in 1914

Romania om 1914

Romania in 1914

King Ferdinand I

King Ferdinand I

An alliance was made with the Entente on 17 August, and on the 27th Romania declared war on Austria-Hungary and began mobilization.  The next day a Romanian army invaded Transylvania, prompting Germany to declare war; Turkey followed on 30 (?) August and Bulgaria on 1 September.  September would not be a good month for the Romanians.

Oh, the South Africans and Belgians continued capturing towns in East Africa, but Lettow-Vorbeck continued to lead them on a merry chase.

 

Reports from the Front #3: Ottomans and Others – August 1914 to May 1915

(This is more work than I anticipated.)

 

All the operations associated with the Ottoman Empire and the German colonies in Africa were certainly peripheral to a victory in Europe; even the campaigns in the Caucasus, while important to the Russians, had little to do with the European war.  But they are part of the Great War, and the campaigns in the Middle East would have an impact on the shape of the post-war

On 2 November the Russians made the first move, sending an army into northeastern Turkey, where they had allies in the form of the Armenians, anxious to escape Turkish oppression.  The offensive petered out by 16 November, and the following day the Ottoman Third Army counterattacked, driving the Russians back with heavy casualties.  By the end of the month the front stabilized some fifteen or so miles into Turkey, but Russian morale was low, while that of the Turks was high.  So high, in fact, that Enver Pasha launched his own offensive towards Sarikamish on 22 December, despite objections from military advisors that the winter conditions would make the campaign extremely difficult.

Kurdish cavalry

Kurdish cavalry

The Caucasus front

The Caucasus front

Well, Enver was a far better politician than general, and the Battle of Sarikamish ended on 17 January, a major Turkish defeat.  The Turks suffered some 60,000 casualties, the Russians half that, many on both sides freezing to death.  Enver gave up generaling and blamed the Armenians for the defeat.  On 20 April the Armenian population of Van, fearing massacre, revolted, and the city was besieged by the Turks until May, by which time the Russians had occupied the province of Van; they entered the city on 23 May.  The Caucasus front was then relatively quiet until late in the year.

Baron Kress von Kressenstein

Baron Kress von Kressenstein

For good reason: the British had begun putting pressure on the Empire’s southern provinces and the Dardanelles, drawing Ottoman troops away from the Caucasus.  In the far south the Turks decided immediately to attack Egypt, which though nominally a part of the Empire, had been occupied by the British since 1882.  On 18 November Baron Friedrich Kress von Kressenstein, one of the clutch of German advisors in Istanbul, was given command of part of the Turkish Fourth Army and began preparations for an advance across Sinai, which the British had evacuated.  Since the coast road to Egypt would mean being shelled by the Royal Navy, Kress von Kressenstein had to take his 20,000 troops through the Sinai desert, which he did with little loss of life, no mean feat.  The Turkish force reached the Canal on 2 February, and the following day the battle proper began.  Some units actually crossed near Ismailia, but 30,000 troops (most of them colonials) and gunboats on the Canal and lakes were too much, and the battle ended on the 4 February with the Ottoman army retreating to Palestine.

Iraq before it was Iraq

Iraq before it was Iraq

The British had meanwhile gone on the offensive, landing a mostly Indian force at Fao on the Shatt-al-Arab in Mesopotamia (Iraq) on 6 November in order to protect the Anglo-Persian Oil Company’s refinery at Abadan, just across the frontier in Iran.  The automobile had arrived and more important, navies were switching from coal to oil, and suddenly the Middle Eastern backwater was emerging as a center of imperial attention.  On 22 November the Indian Expeditionary Force captured Basra (sound familiar, Americans?) and continued up the river to Qurna at the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, where after being surrounded the Ottoman force of a thousand men surrendered on 9 December.  The Turks, hard pressed at Gallipoli, did not counterattack until 9 April, when they assaulted the British position at Shaiba, near Basra.  The 14,000 Arab and Kurdish irregulars were easily scattered, but it took the 7000 man British garrison two days to defeat the 4000 regular troops.  London ordered the local commander, Charles Townshend, to continue advancing up the Tigris.

Prince Mubarak of Kuwait

Prince Mubarak of Kuwait

General Charles Townshend

General Charles Townshend

The British successes in lower Mesopotamia, albeit against weak Turkish forces, enhanced their credibility in the Arab world.  Even before the invasion Sheikh Mubarak Al-Sabah, ruler of Kuwait, nominally part of the Ottoman Empire, had sent forces to drive out the small garrisons in southern Mesopotamia, and in return London declared Kuwait an independent state under British “protection.”  Arab nationalism had begun to emerge in the previous century, competing with the Pan-Islamism represented by the Ottoman Empire, but demands on Istanbul were still moderate in the early twentieth century.  The British Foreign Office understood the value of encouraging local insurgencies once the war started, but the great Arab Revolt would not occur until 1916.

Of greater concern for the Empire was the Allied assault on the Dardanelles, the narrow straights that lead from the Aegean Sea to the Sea of Marmara and through the Bosphorus to the Black Sea.  When the Turks entered the war in November, they immediately closed the straights and began to mine them, choking off the major Allied supply route to Russia (the German fleet blocked the Baltic, and Vladivostok might have been the other side of the moon).  Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, suggested forcing the straights with a fleet of obsolete warships that were useless against the German navy, thus risking little for huge rewards: Russia could be supplied by sea, Istanbul could be bombarded and the Bulgarians and Greeks, who hated their one-time Ottoman masters, might enter the war.

Admiral John de Robeck

Admiral John de Robeck

Guess who?

Guess who?

The Dardanelles fleet

The Dardanelles fleet

On 2 January 1915 Russia, dealing with the Ottoman offensive in the Caucasus, asked the Allies to divert Turkish troops by attacking in the Aegean, and the Dardanelles operation was set in motion.  On 19 February the Anglo-French squadron began shelling the forts on both sides of the entrance to the straights and by 25 February had destroyed them and cleared the entrance of mines.  The problem was the mobile artillery batteries, which could evade the naval gunfire and attack the minesweepers, but pressed by Churchill Admiral Sackville Carden planned an all-out attack, claiming that the fleet could be at Istanbul in two weeks.  Because of illness Carden was replaced by Admiral John de Robeck, and on 18 March eighteen old battleships and a supporting cast of lesser vessels headed up the straights towards the “Narrows,” where most of the forts and minefields were.

(An historical note: some fifteen miles past the Narrows on the European side is a small river called Aegospotomi by the Greeks.  It was at this point in the straights in 405 BC that the Spartan Lysander and his Persian-supported Peloponnesian fleet annihilated the last Athenian fleet, bringing about the surrender of Athens the following year and ending the twenty-seven year-long Peloponnesian War.)

The Bouvet

The Bouvet

Naval gunnery was able to destroy communications among the forts and take out some guns, but despite ammunition shortages (it was later learned) Turkish fire continued, and the minesweepers, which were crewed by civilians (!), decided the party was over and left.  The French battleship Bouvet was the first to strike a mine, capsizing with almost all hands lost; two other French battleships were damaged.  Two British battleships were sunk and a third severely damaged, and the fleet retreated to the Aegean.  Some of the captains wanted a second shot at the Turks, but de Robeck and important figures in the Admiralty opposed it, and the operation was abandoned.

HMS Irresistible sinking

HMS Irresistible sinking

The Bouvet sinking

The Bouvet sinking

That left Plan B, an amphibious assault on the Gallipoli Peninsula, which formed the European bank of the Dardanelles, in order to silence the Turkish guns on the northern bank of the straights with troops.  This was a mighty ambitious undertaking, given that no one had ever conducted a landing against opposition with twentieth century weaponry, but the Allies presumed there would be no problem since Turkish soldiers were very poor, a conclusion reached from Turkish losses in the Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913 and traditional European notions of superiority.  Further, British intelligence underestimated the number of defending troops and had only vague ideas concerning the terrain.

Cape Hellas, Gallipoli

Cape Hellas, Gallipoli

The 78,000 men of the Mediterranean Expedition Force gathered in Egypt, where Imperial troops training for France were organized into the first Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC), which would be forever associated with Gallipoli.  Novel logistical problems and weather prevented the Expedition, under Sir Ian Hamilton, from reaching Gallipoli until late April, during which time the Turks were able to reinforce their positions and prepare defenses.  The Ottoman Fifth Army, some 60,000 men, was put under the command of a German officer, Otto Liman von Sanders, who set up a flexible and mobile defense; one of his division commanders was Mustafa Kemal, later known as Atatürk, who would become the founder of the Turkish Republic.

Mustafa Kemal

Mustafa Kemal

Sir Ian Hamilton

Sir Ian Hamilton

Otto Liman von Sanders

Otto Liman von Sanders

On 25 April the main landing commenced at Cape Hellas on the tip of the peninsula, while the Anzacs went ashore some ten miles up the northern shore near Suvla Bay.  The landings were relatively unopposed, but a swift counterattack by Kemal pinned the Anzacs on the beach.  The main force pushed about two miles inland, but counterattacks drove them back, and by 8 May both fronts were static, replete with the trenches and wire.  The Western Front had been recreated on Gallipoli, and Hamilton had already suffered 20,000 casualties.  Nothing much more would happen until August, leaving the troops to be worn down by heat, disease and Turkish shelling.

In the trenches at Gallipoli

In the trenches at Gallipoli

Gallipoli landing

Gallipoli landing

Off in the west of the Mediterranean the Italians finally got involved.  Italy had in fact been allied to the Central Powers, but was lured away by the Allies with promises of territory, notably the southern Tyrol, taken from the Austrians after the war.  On 23 May Italy declared war against Austria, despite not being really prepared for warfare in the mountainous terrain against well-fortified Austrian positions (though it should be noted Italy entered the Second World War with less and poorer quality artillery that it did the First).  The result would be twelve Battles of the Isonzo River from June 1915 to November 1917.

The Italian front

The Italian front

Meanwhile, Austrian and German foreign possessions were quickly overrun at the outbreak of the war – with the exception of German East Africa (Burundi, Rwanda and part of Tanzania), where the local commander, General Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck, would lead the British on a merry chase for the entire war.  To conquer the German territory and stop the raiding into British East Africa (Kenya, Uganda, Zanzibar and part of Tanzania) the British brought in Indian troops for a two pronged attack.  The German garrison was all of 260 colonial troops (Schutztruppe) and 2472 native levies, the Askari, who proceeded to set the pattern for the next four years.  On 3 November 86 mounted Germans and 600 Askaris defeated the northern prong of 1500 Punjabis at the Battle of Kilimanjaro and then raced south to join the Battle of Tanga, where on 4 November Lettow-Vorbeck’s 1000 troops routed the British force of 8000 men.  There would be no easy pickings for the British here, and more than 200,000 Indian and South African troops would be kept busy until the end of the war.

German cavalry at Kilimanjaro

German cavalry at Kilimanjaro

Battle of Tanga

Battle of Tanga

Askaris

Askaris

Genera Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck

Genera Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck

East Africa

East Africa

Finally, two ominous incidents occurred during these first ten months of the war.  On 7 May the German submarine U-20 sank the liner RMS Lusitania (which was carrying small arms munitions), killing 128 Americans, and this, together with the dramatically inflated atrocity stories about Belgium, began swaying American opinion against Germany.  Berlin made the case that a surfaced submarine was easy prey for an armed merchant vessel and had publically warned Americans about traveling to Britain, but in response to a warning from President Woodrow Wilson submarines were directed to steer clear of passenger liners.

U-20 (second from left)

U-20 (second from left)

RMS Lusitania

RMS Lusitania

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And on 27 May the Turkish Minster of the Interior ordered all Armenians deported from Ottoman territory, and the killing began.  Yes, President Erdoğan, there was an Armenian Genocide.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Stuff from Way Back #28: Hey, Buddy, Can You Spare a Myth?

The early parts of the Biblical book of Genesis involve a great deal of water, which might seem odd in the mythic tradition of a society that emerged and evolved in the relatively arid environs of Palestine. There is of course the Mediterranean Sea, but the land itself is very dry, depending for the most part on rainfall for agriculture. The local rivers are mere rivulets compared to the Tigris and Euphrates and the Nile, which river systems witnessed the birth of the first urban civilizations, Sumer and Old Kingdom Egypt. Yet the creation story in Genesis begins with a watery chaos, and later the first human society is destroyed in a world-wide flood, a somewhat unlikely proposition in a land that experienced only the very ephemeral flash floods common to desert regions. Such stories would make much more sense in the hydraulic societies of Mesopotamia and Egypt.

 

And indeed in the creation myths of these areas the emergence of the familiar universe involved aquatic beginnings. For the Egyptians the process was peaceful, reflecting the confidence of a culture whose world-view was shaped by an isolated, secure, bountiful and essentially unchanging environment. The primeval hill arose from the waters, and there Atum (or Ptah), a self-created god, generated other deities by spitting out or ejaculating them or in a later more sophisticated account simply speaking their names. They in turn produced more gods and ultimately men in an ordered world without end.

Atum

Atum

The Sumerians, on the other hand, lived in a far less hospitable environment: the Tigris and the Euphrates, unlike the Nile, were wild unpredictable rivers, there were extremes of weather and life was very insecure because of the constant warfare among the city-states and the periodic incursions of barbarians. Consequently, in their view (and that of subsequent societies in the region) creation was a struggle, and the forces of order under Enlil (later Marduk) had to wage an epic battle against Tiamat, the chaotic salt waters. Further, creation was not necessarily permanent and could collapse back into chaos, just as the Sumero-Babylonian societies were continually threatened with natural and man-made catastrophe.

Water world

Sumer

 

Enlil

Enlil

The Sumero-Babylonian tradition also features a global flood, a tale so ubiquitous that some actually hold the utterly nonsensical idea that there was indeed a planetary deluge. Southern Iraq, the location of Sumer, was frequently flooded by the Tigris and Euphrates overflowing their banks and the sea driven in by storms, natural disasters that early on gave rise to the tradition of a universal flood. Significantly, the Egyptians did not produce such a story, since while the Nile did flood, it did so on a regular annual basis, rejuvenating the farmland rather than creating havoc. Sumer was a land of natural and human conflict; Egypt was not.

 

Here then is the source of all that Biblical water. With the rise of empires, such as the Babylonian and Assyrian, communications between the Land of the Two Rivers and Syria and Palestine on the Mediterranean coast were greatly enhanced, and along with goods and people ideas and tales traveled eat and west. The story of Abraham coming from Ur, the most important of the Sumerian cities, is a reflection of this. As the Yahwists, the future Hebrews, absorbed Canaanite groups, many of the local traditions of these peoples were woven into the evolving tapestry of early Hebrew history. Very probably a group that had come from the east preserved a memory of its origins, and the birthplace of Abraham, himself a local cult figure from Hebron, was transferred to Ur. Thus the watery story from the Sumero-Babylonian creation epic, Enuma elish, traveled west to become, with many alterations, part of the mythic tradition of a distinctly non-watery people.

 

So also did the flood story make its way to the Hebrews. The tale is most fully recounted in the epic of Gilgamesh, the tablets of which date from the reign of the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal in the seventh century BC, but there is a Sumerian version from about 1700 BC, and it undoubtedly draws upon even earlier accounts. Long ago the gods sent a flood to destroy mankind, but the god Ea (Enki) took pity and warned Utnapishtim (Ziusudra in the Sumerian version) of Shuruppak to build a huge boat. He did so, and when the flood came, he boarded with his family and clan and “the beasts and the birds.” But the gods relented and the deluge ended, and the ark came to rest on Mt. Nimush. Utnapishtim released a “watch-bird,” which returned, then a swallow, which also returned, and finally a raven, which did not. Humanity was saved, and Utnapishtim was given the gift of eternal life.

 

Utnapishtim

Utnapishtim

Ea/Enki

Ea/Enki

And so a group of people in Palestine, who would never have seen any real flood, came to accept a universal deluge as part of their mythic history. That oral tradition was ultimately recorded and became part of the Hebrew testament, later accepted as valid by Christianity and Islam. As a result for almost two millennia half the population of the planet believed in the literal truth of a story created by a “pagan” people they had never heard of and would despise as unbelievers if they had. Even today there are those who ignore the overwhelming and obvious evidence of science, Biblical analysis and common sense and insist on the historicity of a flood, diligently searching the mountainous interior of Anatolia for traces of the ark of Ziusudra/Utnapishtim/Noah.

Rare photo of Noah

Rare photo of Noah

A sucker born every minute

A sucker born every minute

Stuff from Way Back #27: Achilles and Aeneas, Alike and Unlike

he Greeks and Romans are, at least since the Renaissance, inevitably associated with one another and clearly differentiated from the Near Eastern societies that preceded them and the barbarian societies that succeeded the collapse of the Roman Empire. They constitute Classical history/antiquity/society, their architecture, arts and languages are Classical and their literature constitutes the Classics; the two millennia of urban civilization before them are pre-Classical. And in many ways Roman civilization appears to be simply Greek society translated into Latin. The two societies do indeed constitute a recognizable and unique period of history, easily distinguished from what came before and what came after, yet the two peoples were very different in character, which accounts for the obvious differences in their histories. The Greeks were the Beatles of antiquity, dabbling in everything and pumping their genius into almost every aspect of culture and politics; the Romans were the Rolling Stones, incredibly good at one thing, the hard-driving rock and blues of the maintenance and expansion of power.

Romans

Romans

Greeks

Greeks

Originally barbarian cousins in the extensive Indo-European migrations of the second millennium, both peoples began with roughly the same social and political institutions, common, it seems, to all the Indo-Europeans, at least while they are still on the move. Most critically, this included a weak kinship and the tradition of an informal assembly of warriors that heard and advised the king and was theoretically the source of his authority, an idea radically different from the sophisticated kingships of Egypt and Asia, which derived their authority from heaven. The Greeks and Latins would be the only groups that developed agriculturally based urban societies without losing these core political institutions characteristic of their hunting and gathering past and would consequently be the only ones to evolve actual constitutional polities in which the power exercised by the state was considered to derived from the people, at least in theory.
This accounts for the remarkably parallel political development of the Greek and Latin city-states from petty tribal kingships to sophisticated democratic republics. The driving engines behind this were the changing economic environment, as growing wealth produced new economic elites that challenged the traditional arrangements, and the emergence of the citizen army, which gave increasing reality to the old notion that the people were at the root of political power. Thus the Latin and Greek proto-cities eliminated their kings and established the basic mechanisms of the constitutional state: precisely defined law, citizen assemblies and elective limited term magistracies. With as many as a thousand independent city-states the Greeks had a larger social laboratory and produced in some cases the most complete democracies the world has ever seen, whereas in Italy the dominance of Rome over the other Latin towns resulted in a single powerful city-state, Rome.
But there were differences, some of them profound. The Greek kingship apparently withered away over a period of centuries during the Greek Dark Age, while the Romans clearly overthrew their last king in historic times. The Greek transition from aristocracies of birth to oligarchies of wealth took a generation or two (the Age of Tyrants) and in many cases involved violence, whereas in Rome the transition required two centuries (the Struggle of the Orders) and was remarkably free of political violence. The Greeks produced radical democracies, but Rome, though technically democratic, never went beyond an oligarchy of wealth. The Greeks excelled in the arts and affairs of the mind; the Romans were great administrators and engineers. Despite a common language and culture the Greeks remained fragmented, and the empires of the fifth and fourth centuries were short-lived; even the huge Macedonian controlled empires of Alexander and his successors were relatively fragile. The Romans of course steadily expanded their power, conquering Italy and the Mediterranean world over a period of little more than three centuries and establishing an immense empire that would endure for almost another five hundred years. This power thing in particular baffled the Greeks, who could not understand why the Romans, who began with the same political, social and military equipment as themselves, could so easily become the stable imperial power that always eluded them. And being almost effortlessly conquered by a people they considered in so many ways intellectually inferior did not help.
Greek thinkers, like the historian Polybius, had trouble seeing beyond the institutions that made the two societies appear so similar. What apparently escaped them, at least in trying to understand Roman history, was something relatively simple: national character. The most important facet of the Greek character, affecting everything they engaged in, was agōn, the need to compete and struggle, which consequently enhanced the importance of both the individual and his city. The Greeks were most definitely not team players. The Romans were. Their prime character directive was pietas, duty, the compulsion to fulfill ones obligations to the family, the gods and the community, which ultimately meant the state. They were incredibly conservative, which slowed their evolution, but at the same time they were also eminently practical, which saved them from that conservatism. While the Greeks theorized, the Romans just did it – and did it differently if the traditional way no longer worked.

 

Consider the national heroes of the two cultures. For the Greeks it was the Homeric warriors, especially Achilles, extreme and narcissistic individuals who ultimately cared for only one thing – themselves. For them the major importance of the group was simply defining their individual honor, in defense of which they would gladly sacrifice their lives. The Roman heroes, on the other hand, were all men whose defining quality was the willingness to sacrifice for the group. Aeneas, the premier Roman hero, abandons Dido and the kingship of Carthage in order to fulfill his destiny as the ultimate founder of Rome. At great cost to himself he honors his duty to a state that will not even exist for another four hundred years.  Incidentally, Aeneas, though technically a Trojan, is a figure out of Greek literature, a Greek creation, yet the Romans  came to believe that he was the ultimate founder of Rome.
Why these character differences? It probably had much to do with their respective environments. The Balkan Peninsula, especially in the south, is a land of limited resources, notably arable land, and scarcity inevitably encourages competition. In contrast Italy possesses a great deal of good farmland, and Latium, the coastal area where Rome is situated, is particularly bountiful. This is not to say that the early Romans were devoid of any competitive spirit, but rather that survival in the relative economy of scarcity that was Greece instilled in the Greek psyche a far larger measure of competitiveness and aggressiveness. This is hardly a completely satisfactory explanation, but then, I am not a cultural anthropologist.
The Greeks competed in everything (even sex was seen as a kind of competition), which goes a long way in explaining their history and society. They competed in athletics, music and drama; trierarchs competed in equipping the fastest trireme. The incredible cultural explosion of the sixth and fifth centuries clearly has its roots in agōn; societies that are comfortable simply have less motivation to ask questions, to think new thoughts, to create new things. Archaic and Classical Age Greece (8th – 4th centuries) was, like the Renaissance, filled with struggle, and the result was the perhaps the most important intellectual discoveries in history. By way of contrast Old and Middle Kingdom Egypt (27th – 18th centuries) was the most materially and spiritually comfortable society in antiquity, and in the course of a millennium virtually not a single new idea was produced.

Roman genius

Roman genius

Greek genius

Greek genius

But the drive to compete had a down side. City-state governments were very unstable, and political violence was always just outside the door. More devastating of course was the seemingly endless warfare, as each city competed with its neighbors, not just for resources but also status. The city-state was a narcissistic entity, a polity with attitude, and warfare was the ultimate expression of superiority – at least if you won. So deeply ingrained by constant competition was the idea of autonomy that inter-city structures were inevitably based on force or the threat of force, as with the Athenian Empire or the Peloponnesian League, and unity eluded the Greeks until it was imposed from without. Common efforts, such as the defense against the Persian Empire, were extremely difficult, and Greece’s ultimate downfall emerged from her inability to cooperate for the common Hellenic good. It was left to the Macedonians monarchy, the most backward of Greek states, to dominate the Balkan Peninsula and conquer Persia.
The Romans of course also enjoyed a powerful sense of superiority – what successful culture does not – but it was not so all-consuming as with the individual Greek cities. In establishing control over the other Latin towns Rome was able to some extent to share authority and even her citizenship, something unthinkable for the Greeks. Roman arrogance took a back seat to practicality in dealing with defeated non-Latin peoples in Italy, and the Romans were able to create alliance structures that left them stronger and in complete control but offered sufficient mutual benefit to provide for long-term stability. The so-called Italian allies were thoroughly subordinate to Rome yet came to regard themselves as actual allies and ultimately as Romans, thus providing the manpower base that would allow the conquest of the Mediterranean world.

Roman genius

Roman genius

Greek genius

Greek genius

The Roman saw the world around him as a network of obligations, and honor was rooted in fulfilling those obligations. This makes for a very well-knit community, and the political factionalism that plagued the Greeks remained well leashed until the last century of the Republic. The Roman was inclined to accept rather than challenge authority, at least if he considered it legitimate, and as a result, the Senatorial elite smoothly governed Rome for four hundred years, even though for most of that period the Senate possessed no actual constitutional powers but was simply an advisory body. Once again, unthinkable for the Greeks. The system only broke down when the Senate was corrupted by power and wealth, and serving oneself edged out serving the state.
Ironically, but not surprisingly, both peoples initially considered the other barbarians. The Greeks clung to this notion well into their role as provincials in the Roman Empire, an idea perhaps sustained in the face of overwhelming Roman success by the fact that the new masters were so clearly impressed by the Greek cultural achievement. The Romans could hardly deny that achievement, as they learned Greek, imitated Greek arts and looted the statuary of the Hellenic world. So, the Greeks were not barbarians, like the Gauls and Germans; they were just effete.

 
The Hellenizing of Rome began long before Roman legionaries were traipsing about the Balkan Peninsula, and “captive Greece” captured Rome centuries before it actually became captive. The Greek Age of Colonization (late 8th – 6th centuries) saw Sicily and the coastal areas of southern Italy so thickly settled with Greek cities that the area became known as Great Greece, and young Rome could hardly resist the influence. Cumae, the northernmost and possibly earliest Greek establishment in Italy, was barely a hundred miles southeast of Rome, and the tendrils of Hellenism were already caressing the city on the Tiber while it was still being rules by kings. Roman culture was not quite a blank slate, but a couple of centuries behind the Greeks in their development, the Romans were simply overwhelmed.

Greek genius

Greek genius

Roman genius

Roman genius

The Latin alphabet is derived from the Greek, and the more defined and sophisticated Greek gods had such an impact that native Italic deities gradually disappeared, supplanted by the Greek pantheon with Latin names. Greek literature was so far advanced that the earliest examples of serious Latin literature are written in Greek. The Romans copied the hoplite phalanx, the more efficient heavy infantry formation invented by the Greeks, though characteristically, when it ran into trouble operating in the central highlands, they seriously modified it, copying weapons used by their opponents. Greek heavy infantry ended in the dead end of the Macedonian phalanx, while the Roman version grew into the legions.
In a very real sense Rome’s major legacy was preserving virtually intact the Greek achievement. The Greeks simply could not create stable long-term imperial structures, and while the discoveries of the Greeks would not have simply vanished without the Roman Empire, they would have suffered. Hellenized at such an early stage, Rome and her empire embraced Greek culture, and the extent and incredible duration of that empire insured that the grand ideas of the Greeks would be fixed at the heart of European civilization.

Stuff from Way Back # 21: Antony, Cleopatra and Who?

tony and Cleopatra are perhaps the most famous romantic couple in history, thanks to Augustan propaganda, Shakespeare and Hollywood, and consequently the actual people and their lives have been seriously distorted.  At the same time, Octavian, the winner of the civil war and first emperor, who was in fact far more important to history than the happy couple, has been relegated to relative obscurity and a distinctly unromantic role.  Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor played Antony and Cleopatra; Octavian was portrayed by Roddy McDowall.

Octavian/Augustus

Octavian/Augustus

Marc Antony

Marc Antony

Cleopatra VII

Cleopatra VII

Marcus Antonius was born into as noble family, most likely in 83, (all dates are BC) and was said to have spent his youth in dissipation.  He grew up in the later stages of the Roman Revolution (133-30), the hundred year descent of the Republic into political instability and ultimately civil war.  In 54 he joined the military staff of one of the major contenders for sole power, his mother’s cousin Gaius Julius Caesar (100-44), and quickly demonstrated his military talents during the course of the Gallic wars.  The two men became fast friends, and Caesar supported Antony in his political career, the younger man becoming the proconsul’s right hand man in Rome.  In 49 Caesar crossed the Rubicon River, initiating a civil war between him and Pompey the Great (106-48), who was defeated in 48 and fled to Egypt, where he was assassinated by an officer of the boy king Ptolemy XIII (62-47).

Pursuing Pompey, Caesar arrived in Alexandria and supported Cleopatra VII (69-30) in the civil war between her and her younger brother.  Ptolemy was killed, and Caesar installed Cleopatra as co-ruler with another brother, Ptolemy XIV (60-44).  He dallied a while with the queen and had an illegitimate son, Caesarion.  He then went off to defeat the remaining Pompeian forces and return to Rome, where he was joined by Cleopatra, Ptolemy and Caesarion in 46.  Two years later Caesar fell to the knives of the assassins, and Cleopatra, who was not popular with the Roman crowd, returned to Egypt, where she killed Ptolemy and made Caesarion her co-ruler.

Meanwhile, back in Rome Antony was primed to step into Caesar’s sandals, rousing the mob against the conspirators, who ultimately fled to Greece and began raising an army.  Unfortunately for Antony, Caesar had in his will posthumously adopted as his son his closest legitimate male heir, his grandnephew Octavian, to whom he left his considerable personal fortune.  But Octavian was only eighteen, in Greece and completely unknown to the Roman public, and Antony began spending the inheritance and public funds to raise troops.  Octavian was dismissed as the “boy,” about whom Cicero said “the boy is to be praised, to be honored, to be set aside.”  But the boy had two assets: he had a political talent completely unmatched by his opponents and he had the name of Caesar, something with which he could conjure.  Very quickly Caesarian legions and veterans were flocking to his side, to Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus, the son of the soon to be deified Caesar.  He was not to be set aside.

the boy

the boy

the chick magnet

the chick magnet

For the moment Antony and Octavian needed each other, and in 43 the Second Triumvirate was formed with another of Caesar’s officers, Marcus Aemilius Lepidus.  Lepidus was, however, a lightweight, and he would be retired by Octavian in 36, when he tried to assert his independence.  Essentially, Octavian ruled over the western half of the Empire, while Antony went off to the wealthier, though now drained, east to launch an invasion of Parthia, the kingdom currently occupying Mesopotamia and Persia.  He was looking for glory, money and most important, a veteran and loyal army to use in the inevitable showdown with Octavian.  All Octavian got was an Italy that was financially exhausted and in social turmoil and a surviving son of Pompey who seized Sicily and threatened Rome with starvation.  On the other hand, though Gaul had been assigned to Antony, he had the immediate access the legions stationed there, and he surely realized that for all its current problems Italy was the key in the struggle inasmuch as it was the source of men for the legions.

Antony had met Cleopatra after the defeat of the conspirators in 42 at Philippi in Greece and confirmed her position as queen of Egypt, but he had to immediately hasten back to Rome.  When he returned to the east, he rejoined Cleopatra and possibly married her in 36, creating an awkward situation since he was already married to Octavian’s sister Octavia.  But this made him king of Egypt and provided access to the bulging treasuries of the kingdom, which money he certainly needed.  In 36 he began his assault on Parthia, but his ally the Armenian king deserted him, and he was forced to retire to Syria, his military reputation undermined rather than enhanced.  A successful expedition to punish Armenia in 34 restored his prestige and was followed by what was the biggest news to come out of the east: the Donations of Alexandria.  By virtue of the proconsular power he possessed as a Triumvir Antony gave to Cleopatra and her children Cyprus, Cyrene, Syria-Palestine, Cilicia and Armenia, all but the last being Roman controlled areas.

The Donations provoked a crisis, and in 32 Antony’s supporters fled east and in the following year Octavian obtained a declaration of war against Cleopatra.  Antony divorced Octavia, collected his scattered troop and began shipping them to Greece.  The two forces met near Actium on the east coast of Greece, and after a long delay Antony engaged Octavian’s fleet, only to flee with Cleopatra to Egypt when his men began to mutiny.  By the middle of 30 Antony finally accepted that the game was over and committed suicide, while Cleopatra awaited Octavian and the chance to beguile the new ruler of the Roman world.  But the future emperor had other plans, and Cleopatra took the noble way out (the asp is a fiction).  Rome appropriated Egypt.

The age-old story that Antony fell head over heels in love with the incredibly beautiful Cleopatra and was seduced into betraying Rome and his own interests is essentially the creation of Octavian’s propaganda.  The “boy” turned out to be a master of public relations and in his struggle with Antony launched the first national propaganda campaign in history.  The conflict was not with Antony, who was a good Roman, but with the foreign queen who had seduced him, just as Dido had captivated Aeneas.  So this was not a civil war but a war against the seductress, who with poor Antony’s help was going to seize the Roman Empire and rule it from Alexandria.  The Donations of Alexandria of course played right into Octavian’s hands.  This traditional tale is mostly rubbish.

the real queen

the real queen

idealized portrait?

idealized portrait?

Antony’s relationship with Cleopatra was certainly not based on her looks.  As the coin portraits and statuary reveal, she was at best a plain woman and may have had a sizable honker.  And after all, Caesar and Antony could have any pretty face they desired, if that was their game.  No, it was her mind that attracted these powerful men.  She was a full-blooded Macedonia Greek, well educated, charming and possessing a formidable wit; she was the only Ptolemaic ruler to learn Egyptian.  To be sure, they produced three children, but the relationship was founded on the fact each had something the other desperately wanted.  Antony needed money, lots of it, to pay his troops, and Ptolemaic Egypt was extremely wealthy.  He could of course march in and simply take it, but even though Cleopatra’s mercenary army would have no chance whatsoever, there might be complications that Octavian could take advantage of.  Better to have the queen give it to him, which for her own reasons she was willing to do.

the last Ptolemy

the last Ptolemy

 

Cleo tetradrachm

Cleo tetradrachm

What Cleopatra wanted and what Antony could supply was to recreate the Ptolemaic empire and return to her control territories from which she could recruit the all-important Greek soldiers.  She was shrewd enough to realize her kingdom could only continue to exist through the sufferance of Rome, and first Caesar, then Antony were the tickets to that sufferance.  What Antony required – we will never know exactly how he felt about Cleopatra – was Egypt’s treasury, and the idea that he intended to rule Rome from Alexandria with his Ptolemaic queen is nonsense.  Not only was Italy the only source of recruits for the legions, but more compelling, Antony was a Roman.  He would accept nothing less than ruling Rome, and he knew the Roman people would accept nothing else.  His fatal mistake was allowing Cleopatra, who was probably afraid of losing him, to accompany him to Actium, since she was very unpopular with his troops, who began to believe Octavian’s propaganda.

In the end, if Plutarch and Cassius Dio are to be believed, Cleopatra showed her true feelings.  When it was clear that Antony’s remaining troops were deserting and his position was hopeless, she had word sent to him that she had committed suicide, and he fell on his sword.  With the loser gone, she awaited the winner.

Cleopatra VII was a fitting end to the Ptolemaic dynasty, its finest ruler since the first three kings.  Finally, though Antony was the far more colorful and romantic character, there is no reason to believe that he – or anyone else – could have had anywhere near the success that Octavian would have in facilitating Rome’s transition from republic to military autocracy.  If Antony was romance, Octavian/Augustus was history.

the winner and new emperor

the winner and new emperor

Stuff from Way Back #17: The Beloved Land

Egypt used to be a much happier place, even while under an authoritarian government that makes Mubarak and Morsi look like progressive leaders.  This was of course when the world was young, very young.  Egyptian civilization formally begins c. 3100 BC with the 1st Dynasty and the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt, which means Egypt came in second to Sumer (far southern Iraq) in the “Birth of Civilization” sweep stakes.  Ironically, though both were river valley civilizations that had emerged because of generally similar factors, because of their very different local environments they were completely different in their attitudes and understanding of the universe.

Menes (Narmer), the first Pharaoh, unites Egypt

Menes (Narmer), the first Pharaoh, unites Egypt

The Nile valley, which essentially defined ancient Egypt, was a grand place to live.  The river, with its incredibly regular ebb and flood that rejuvenated the soil every year, produced a large and extremely dependable food supply.  The security of the land was for thirteen hundred years guaranteed by physical barriers – the Mediterranean to the north, Sinai and deserts to the east, the river cataracts and difficult terrain to the south and desert wastes to the west.  There was virtually no weather, and excepting the rhythms of day and night, the rotating stars and the rise and fall of the Nile, the land was unchanging.  It was the Beloved Land.

The result of this environment was perhaps the most positive view of the world ever entertained by a society.  The universe was inherently good and just, a status guaranteed by the gods of the Two Lands.  Indeed, the harmony and order of the land was further secured by the presence of heaven on earth in the form of the Pharaoh, the continually reincarnated Horus.  The head of state was quite literally a god, and the state itself was a part of nature.  Life was so good that except for the god-king the afterlife was seen simply as a continuation of the one on earth.  Heaven and earth were so tightly bound that they were seen as a whole, and the peasant working his fields shared an essence common to both his animals and the gods.

And this never changed.  There were only three inescapable, non-periodic changes in the Egyptian universe: creation and the birth and death of an individual; all other non-reoccurring change was either so trivial or so slow that it could be ignored.  The exact Egyptian understanding of birth is unclear, but it could be minimized as a natural extension of the mother.  Death was tougher since there was a quite obvious change when the individual died, but this was explained as a sort of shift rather than an absolute change.  The essence of the person simply shifted to the afterlife, where in a world identical to the one he had left he would carry on with his business, be it farming, trading, building, administering or whatever.  That bodies buried in the desert fringe naturally mummified instead of rotting helped support this belief.

Creation was thus left as the one non-periodic change of any significance.  Consequently, as the universe was at the moment of creation, so it would be for all time.  And unlike the creation myths of the Asian and Aegean societies the Egyptian account involved no struggle.  It began, as in the Sumero-Babylonia system, with a watery chaos (these are hydraulic societies, after all), but the world was created peacefully, Ptah (or Atum) spitting out or ejaculating the first gods, who then continued the process through sexual reproduction.  In the universal mythic thought of the pre-Greek world these deities, though envisioned in human form, were actually manifestations of the natural phenomena with which they were associated, and thus the world was created.

By way of contrast, the Sumero-Babylonian account of creation involved struggle, as Enlil (or Marduk) battled and defeated Tiamat, the personification of chaos, and thus established the ordered world.  But unlike the permanent Egyptian cosmos the Sumero-Babylonian world required constant attention, lest it collapse back into chaos.  The difference was the environment.  The Tigris and Euphrates were wild rivers, which could flood or dry up the fields, and there were violent storms and periodic droughts.  The Sumerian city-states were constantly at war with one another, and barbarians from the Syrian deserts and Zagros mountains plundered the land.  Life was very uncertain, and disaster, natural and human, constantly threatened.  The afterlife consisted of a grim underworld, to which everyone went.  Pessimism reigned in the lands of the two rivers.

The negative result of the secure and unchanging life of Old and Middle Kingdom Egypt (c. 3100-1800 BC) was an unchanging culture.  Because of the focus on the eternal, the canons of Egyptian art and to a lesser degree literature were frozen at the beginning of her history, and a statue of the Pharaoh from the early second millennium is virtually identical to one from the late first millennium.  From the 1st Dynasty to the 18th Egypt essentially produced nothing new.  Creativity and progress require a certain level of struggle and tension, and Egypt was simply too content.

Thutmose III, creator of the empire

Thutmose III, creator of the empire

When her splendid isolation came to end with the Hyksos invasion and domination of the delta c. 1800 BC, Egypt was ill-equipped to deal with the sudden intrusion and rule of non-Egyptians and the arrival of new ideas.  The collapse and troubles of the First Intermediate Period (c. 2200-2050 BC) were an internal affair and could be accommodated by the traditional culture, while the Second Intermediate Period (c. 1800-1550 BC), initiated by the arrival of the Hyksos could not.  The kings of the 18th Dynasty drove out the invaders and restored a united Egypt, but it would never be the same.  The experience of the Hyksos seriously injured the self-confidence and optimism of the older days.

And Egypt was allowed no rest, as the impulse that drove out the Hyksos carried her into Syria-Palestine, where she stayed (New Kingdom or Empire c. 1550-1085 BC) and began a long struggle with the Hittite Empire in Anatolia.  New ideas and peoples poured into the Two Lands, preventing any return to the old ways and attitudes.  Tending to its Asian empire, the New Kingdom was too involved in the world, too nervous for eternity.  The god-king, leading the armies north, was no longer the distant majestic figure of the Old and Middle Kingdoms, but more human – and ephemeral.  The increasingly weak kings of the 20th Dynasty fell more and more under the growing power of the Temple of Amon-Re, as Egypt began the slide into impotence and ultimately foreign domination.  In the wisdom literature of the New Kingdom: silence and submission emerge as the leading virtues of the wise man.  Insecurity and outright fear enter Egyptian religion, and the once virtually automatic passage into the next world becomes a trial.  A good heart is no longer enough; the deceased must be armed with special prayers and magic, like the Book of the Dead, to overcome the new obstacles.

Ramses today

Ramses today

Ramses II, PR genius of the New Kingdom

Ramses II, PR genius of the New Kingdom

By the beginning of the first millennium Egypt had disintegrated into a collection of independent principalities, and in the seventh century the Assyrians, the “wolf in the fold,” captured the Beloved Land.  The ancient culture of the society lived on, but under a succession of imperial rulers: the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks and the Romans.  The three thousand year old religious beliefs could survive in the polytheist societies of Egypt’s conquerors, but in late antiquity Christianity began to seriously erode them, at least in the urban areas.  The final extinction of ancient Egypt, however, did not come until the seventh century AD, when the Arabs arrived with their particularly nasty version of the No Fun God and created modern Egypt.

Until the arrival of serious tourism Muslim Egypt has had very little regard for its glorious past, stripping away the finer stone of the ancient monuments to build mosques, as the Christians were doing in Europe.  The last two centuries have seen a rebirth of interest in the Beloved Land, but even now extremists want to destroy the remaining art in the name of their primitive aniconic god.  All things considered, better to live under the Temple of Amon-Re than the Muslim Brotherhood.