All posts filed under: History

Lessons from the Last Empire of Iran

By the mid-620s, the Persian king Khusro II had conquered most of the Eastern Roman Empire. A final push toward Constantinople was planned. The armies of Iran and her nomadic allies of the steppe were to descend upon the capital, blockade it by land and sea, and receive the emperor’s surrender. The nobles and retired worthies of the Roman Senate had earlier sent a grovelling letter to the Persian government, urging Khusro to impose a client king over them and spare what was left of the empire. But Khusro ignored it. For a moment, the extinction of 800 years of Roman rule in the Mediterranean world hung in the balance. Khusro’s authority now stretched from the Nile to the Euphrates and from the Tigris to the Indus, and was about to be extended into Europe. Like his Persian forebears Cyrus and Darius, he commissioned monumental rock reliefs to commemorate his conquests. His vast empire might have lasted for centuries, binding together the fringes of Europe with North Africa and the Levant with the Iranian plateau, …

Understanding Totalitarianism

In recent years, amid concern about a possible resurgence of totalitarianism, a number of books and articles have appeared that are intended to warn about the rhetoric and behavior of the populist Right. At the same time, a countercurrent of public intellectuals and journalists have leveled similar accusations at the radical Left, alleging illiberal motives, ideas, and tactics for influencing culture and politics. Alarm about both of these developments can be found across the political spectrum. A sense of proportion is important when discussing this topic. For all its problems, America does not seem to be on the brink of a totalitarian revolution. Its institutions have been stressed during Trump’s term in office, but they have proved to be remarkably robust. And while there has been a concerning resurgence of radical leftwing activism in the months following the death of George Floyd, the Democratic Party’s presumptive nominee for American president is a political moderate. And, although the pandemic provides unique challenges for the election in November, the country remains a constitutional republic of laws and …

Cultural Revolution in the Renaissance?

It is a striking feature of our historical moment that vast numbers of cultural institutions, universities and professional associations have felt the need to express their horror at the sickening murder of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer on May 25th. Hundreds of such messages have shown up in my inbox since that day, from almost every institution that has my email address on its lists. (“Unsubscribe” is apparently one of those words that has a special meaning on the Internet, like “fact” and “free.”) So it wasn’t really a surprise when the board governing the professional organization to which I feel closest, the Renaissance Society of America (RSA), decided to issue a “Statement in Support of Social Justice” last month, declaring its solidarity with the world-wide protests against “government-sanctioned brutality.” I wondered which organ of government had sanctioned the Floyd killing until I read further and met language blaming the incident on “a widespread and longstanding structure of anti-Black institutional racism that pervades American society and others around the globe,” …

Humanity’s Great Urban Adventure Didn’t Begin With Greece and Rome

The spectacular story of the growth and withering away of ancient Mediterranean urbanism is often drowned out by the noise of the rise and fall of the Roman Empire. Cities had begun to grow and connect when Rome was just a cluster of villages. And at its height, in the second and third centuries CE, the ancient urban system stretched far beyond the political limits of empire. Traders, missionaries, and diplomats travelled through the caravan cities of northern Syria and Iraq to connect with ancient Greek cities, by then lying in the heart of the Persian Empire, in Babylonia (now southern Iraq), and even Afghanistan. Others set sail down the Red Sea in search of the entrepôts of East Africa, southern India, and Sri Lanka, or traded down the Nile beyond Egypt to Nubia. Amber was brought from the Baltic and ivory from south of the Sahara long before Rome’s imperial adventure got off the ground. Ancient historians and geographers such as Herodotus, Strabo, Pliny, and Ptolemy knew there were yet even more distant cities, …

Of Heroic Deeds and Hysterical Masses

Perpetual progress is no more possible than perpetual motion, an axiom unwittingly vindicated by the benighted throngs that currently run amok across America, menacing the living and long dead wherever they rage. Whereas in the final decade of the 19th century, “enlightenment had progressed to the point where the Salem trials were simply an embarrassing blot on the history of New England… [and] a reminder of how far the human race had come in two centuries,” in the second decade of the 21st, enlightenment’s decline has unleashed a new inquisitorial spirit, no less spurious than that of old. One only can hope that someday, the witch trials of our time will constitute an embarrassing blot on our history and that two centuries will not be needed for that day to arrive. But at present, that is but a hope and in view of the unmitigated madness with which the present teems, a feeble one at that. What renders the hope all the more dim is that so much of the madness emanates from what ought …

As Statues Fall, What’s the Best Way to Evaluate History’s Heroes?

The United States is in the midst of an orgy of literal iconoclasm, with activists and local officials toppling the statues of not only Confederate generals, but even Theodore Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln, and Ulysses S. Grant. And Princeton University has scrubbed Woodrow Wilson’s name from its School of Public and International Affairs. Are these long-overdue corrections in the name of social justice, or simply ideologically driven acts of anti-historical vandalism? The answer depends on how we judge the moral actions of figures from the past, a question that in turn requires us to consider the nature of morality itself. One possibility is that morality is dependent on local circumstances and facts about social order and organization. Ethical codes and rules of accepted behavior are the organic outcomes of cultural terroir, and wither when transplanted into unsuitable societies. The laid-back free love mores of the Trobriand Islanders were never going to be suitable for the warriors of Sparta. There is no one absolutely true morality any more than there is one absolutely proper style of painting—photorealism …

The Hagia Sophia Should Remain a Beacon to All

On July 10th, Turkish President Recep Erdoğan undid the symbolic roots of his republic by declaring that the Hagia Sophia, a sixth-century Byzantine structure, would be converted from a museum to a mosque. The first Islamic service in the building is scheduled for July 24th. The international response was a mix of shock, resignation, and near universal condemnation. Most official government statements were somewhere between the United States (“disappointed”) and Greece (an “open provocation to the civilized world”). If the furor over a single museum strikes you as mystifying, consider the central role the Hagia Sophia has played for the last 1,500 years. Even from the beginning, it was far more than just a pile of brick and marble. It was a statement. A vision, both sacred and secular, for several different empires. The Hagia Sophia was the brainchild of a unique figure in history. At birth, Justinian was a nobody among nobodies in a grindingly poor part of what is today North Macedonia. By his mid-40s, he was a Byzantine emperor. His appetites were …

The Passing of the Second Imperial Age

In the half-millennium of modern European imperialism, from the Spanish and Portuguese in the 16th century to the withdrawing roar of the British and French empires in the 20th, there was one truth on which all of these powers, often at war with each other, could agree. That was, land which could be designated terra nullius (“no-one’s land”) could be taken—indeed, had to be taken—by one of the powers, or another power would get it. So empires conquered large swathes of territory in Africa, India, the Middle East, South-East Asia, North America, and Australasia, most of which was regarded as unoccupied. They did so in pursuit of precious metals and stones, for settlement and defence (of other lands already seized), for points of supply to their ships, in order to demonstrate their power, and—the most cited reason in polite society, even more polite if put into French—for the mission civilatrice or the mission religieuse. That last of these—the obligation to deliver Christianity to uncivilised heathens—is sometimes dismissed as merely the hypocrisy of pious icing layered over …

Thoughts on Longevity

Olivia de Havilland, the oldest surviving actress from Hollywood’s Golden Age, turned 104 last week. To live that long is in itself an act of generosity. She won Oscars for her leading roles in To Each His Own (1946), and William Wyler’s 1949 classic, The Heiress, in which she starred opposite Sir Ralph Richardson and Montgomery Clift. But she is probably best remembered for her role as Melanie Hamilton in Gone with the Wind—a film that just narrowly avoided cancellation, and now carries health warnings on most streaming services for its outdated depictions of race relations in the ante- and post-bellum South. Its sexual politics are also likely to wrinkle a forehead or two. De Havilland may outlive it yet. Contemplation of such great age is intrinsically moving, perhaps because it releases us from the oppressive clamour of the moment. It restores our sense of time itself, and calms the shrill, neurotic demands of the 24-hour news cycle. “Man is the measure of all things,” said Protagoras, the pre-Socratic philosopher (though of course, he didn’t …

Neo-Totalitarianism and the Erasure of History

We are watching the era of the new iconoclasm take shape, no longer in the form of the destruction of religious icons, but in the demolition of historical memory via the toppling or desecration of statues and memorials across the West. While the removal of Confederate statues can be justified—though it should be accomplished by political consent rather than vandalism—it is clear that this new outburst of iconoclasm is in no way confined to the punishment of historical traitors. Most notably in this regard, a statue of Winston Churchill, perhaps the greatest anti-fascist of them all, was desecrated. Along with it, a statue of Ulysses S. Grant was toppled, despite his legacy as the man who crushed the Ku Klux Klan and fervently defended Reconstruction and human rights. What we are seeing, in other words, is not an attempt to force the past to answer to the present, but the emergence of something else. Over 2,000 years ago, Plato described it in part when he said, “Bad men, when their parents or country have any …