Saturday, November 18, 2017

The Western World in 300 Events: Event 52 - Roman Contribution to Western Civilization

It would be a great oversight to assume that the Romans were nothing more than a military power as their contribution to Western Civilization is immense. In architecture they were known for their Domes, Frescoes and Mosaics. They were accomplished road builders and graced their domains with Aqueducts (to transport water) and viaduct bridges (that spanned valleys). Roman stadiums and Amphitheaters were the ancestors of today’s modern entertainment venues.
In addition the Romans distinguished themselves in wine making, central heating, public baths and cement/mortar pioneering.

Their language (Latin), alphabet and legal system impacted all civilizations that fell under their hegemony and they had a significant impact in such differing areas as the idea of the three-course meal, the Julian Calendar and several yearly festivals.

The following is a list of twelve Romans (other than the military figures described earlier) who helped enrich this great culture.

Table 11 Roman Cultural Figures of Note

Figure of Distinction
               Agrippa Marcus Vispania (64 BCE –12 BCE)
Architect. General. Masterminded the Naval victory at Actium (31 BCE). Built many baths, porticoes and gardens. Helped transform Rome into a Marble city.
                Cicero (106-43 BCE)
Orator, Lawyer, Political theorist of great distinction. Enemy of Mark Anthony. Famous for his Series of Speeches.
Horace (65-8 BCE)
Lyric poet. Lived at the time of Augustus. Known for his hexameter verses and Lambic Poetry.
Juvenal (1st century CE)
Poet and writer. Also known for his satire – Satires of Juvenal (Five Books).
Livy (c.64 BCE-17CE)
Historian. Lived at the time of the Early Julio-Claudian Emperors. Served as an advisor to Claudius. Most famous work is the History of Rome.
Ovid (43BCE –17/18 CE)
Great canonical poet. Wrote the classic Metamorphoses. Clashed with the Emperor Augustus.
Pliny the Elder (23 CE-79CE)
Author, scientist and philosopher. Wrote an encyclopaedic work (the forerunner of modern encyclopaedias) known as Naturalis Historia. Influenced his nephew Pliny the Younger.
Seneca the Younger (c. 4 BCE to 65 CE)
Stoic Philosopher. Dramatist and Statesman. Important Figure in the Silver Age of Latin Literature. Stoicism argued for the importance of virtue in the face of natures trials and tribulations.
Tacitus (c. 56 CE – 117 CE)
Historian and Senator. Detailed events from 14 to 70 CE.
Virgil (70 BCE- 19 BCE)
Poet of the Augustan Period. Most famous work is the epic poem the Aenid that was modeled after Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey.
Vitruvius (c. 80 BCE- c. 15 BCE)
Very influential architect. Wrote the multi-volume work De architecture.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

No Free Lunch for Putin

I wrote this just after the November election last year. It is still relevant.
The problem with partisan politics – and we have seen on more than our fair share of it in this particular election cycle – is that we often herald the virtues of our supporters and downplay the concerns of our opponents.
Vladimir Putin has made no secret of his support for Donald Trump. He detested the Clinton-Obama Axis and openly championed the Trump campaign. Whether he went so far as to order an e-mail hack remains very much in doubt. Official evidence is lacking and ratcheting up the rhetoric on a bunch of hearsays and supposed ‘secret’ investigations by the CIA, as have the Washington Post, is irresponsible at best.
However our alarm bells should be ringing. Putin is no friend of the West and with the Trump victory two big questions emerge – What does he stand to gain? and How will this impact the US/Western World in the long term?
The first question is the easier of the two to answer. Putin needs the US to sit back while he continues spreading his footprint in the Ukraine and other parts of Eastern Europe (from all accounts the Baltics). As the latest in a line of Russian strongmen he understands the importance of power through territory but can’t afford the resistance that will likely occur in the face of such an approach. NATO has to be weakened and he is hoping that Trump’s appeal to this once buried isolationist tradition in American foreign politics will resurrect itself.
However as we have seen in Aleppo and elsewhere it is not just Eastern Europe that Putin sees as falling under his sphere of influence. Indeed he has offered feelers to the current Libyan hierarchy and is certainly giving the Iranian mullahs - in what can only be described as a deal with the devil - the muscle to make their presence felt in the face of the Sunni/Shi’ite pan-regional conflict.
While I would not rush ahead to see Putin as a modern day political Svengali. I wouldn’t for one moment underestimate his shrewdness. He is extremely calculating and although he appears to transcend ideological conformity he does see himself as the embodiment of a Russian nationalism. We should all be concerned.
It remains to be seen how the Trump administration will respond. Mike Pence appears to be a product of the Cold War Reaganite school and has on more than one occasion expressed his displeasure with the Russians.
James Mattis has made no secret that he favours a more forceful approach when dealing with the Iranians which could extend to their Russian backers. Rex Tillerson looks, at least from his oil industry pedigree as a player not eager to jeopardize the US-Saudi relationship. The three look set to dominate foreign affairs in the Trump White House.
If Trump’s election rhetoric is to believed then it appears that he wishes to distance himself from the neo-conservative nation building of George W. Bush and its variant under Barack Obama. He is correct on this issue. The US cannot afford more ill—conceived ground troop interventionism in regions of the world based on the export of some nebulous transfer of Wilsonian democracy. Pragmatism has to rule. However on the other hand it should not be subjected to the spirit of a nativist isolationism. The global economy of 2017 is a far cry from what it was in 1927.
The free world cannot afford to see the US sit back while Russia and indeed China, not to mention unsavouries in Iran and the various Jihadist alliances run amuck. This can only lead to more bloodshed, an exporting of anti-Enlightenment tropes and the likely jeopardizing of valuable resource flow lines. The world will worsen under strict isolationism and it will undoubtedly come back to haunt the US.
What is necessary then is a process of involvement through informed backing – a checking of oppositional ambitions by a support of local regional elements that stand in the face of this greater belligerency. The US ought to re-evaluate its NATO commitments, but to drop the Alliance at this point would be a catastrophe.
This should be Trump’s message and if it conflicts with the ambitions of Russia, Tehran, the Saudis or any other party so be it. The US is still the principal superpower. Putin may have cheered for Trump but this does not give him a free hand in anything. Its critical that the White House make this clear from the get go. Failure to do so will not only embolden Putin but other opportunists as well.

The Western World in 300 Events: Event 51 - Pathway to Western Empire Decline

The Roman Empire enjoyed a resurgence in power under Constantine. However after his death in 337 CE the Empire was once again beset by internal conflict as well as attack from enemies at its peripheries. The following table highlights some of the key events that preceded the collapse of the Western Empire in 476 CE.

Table 10 Key Events leading to the Fall of the Western Roman Empire

Death of Constantine
(337 CE)
Division of the Empire amongst his three sons – Constantine II, Constantius II and Constans. Conflict between sons.
Reign of Julian Apostate (361-364 CE)
Julian tries to restore Paganism as the central religion of Rome. Attempt will fail.
Defeat at the Battle of Adrianople (378 CE)
Roman loss and the death of the Emperor Valens at the hands of the Goths symbolizes reflects the ascendancy of  the Germanic Tribes. Soon afterwards (402 CE) the capital city is moved to Ravenna. Will remain there until 476 CE.
Edict of Thessalonica (380 CE)
Emperor Theodosius I declares Christianity to be the State Church of the Empire. In 394 CE Theodosius will briefly re-unite the East and West Empires.
Rome is sacked by Alaric
(410 CE)
Visigoth king Alaric I sacks Rome – an important event in the decline
Atilla the Hun attacks Eastern Rome (447 CE)
Atilla will ravage both the Eastern and western Empire  before being defeated at the Battle of Chalons in 451 CE by an alliance of the Romans with the Visigoths.
The Ricimer Period (457-472 CE)
The manipulative general Ricimer has de facto control over a Western Roman Empire teetering on the brink of collapse
War against the Vandals
(468 CE)
Vandals join the Gothic, tribes and Huns as another group plundering a moribund Western Roman Empire.
Official Year of the Fall of the Western Roman Empire (476 CE)
Odoacer a Germanic general ousts the politician Orestes from power and then forces the last Emperor Romulus Augustus to abdicate. The Western Empire is no more.

The Western World in 300 Events - Event 50 - Christianity in the Western Roman Empire

Christianity would arise from humble foundations to become a dominant force in the Roman Empire. The religion itself had Jewish origins that were centred in Jerusalem and early community leaders included Peter, James and John.
Paul of Tarsus, probably more than any man, helped spread the gospels to the Gentiles and thereby established Christianity as a religion outside the Jewish context.
Christianity incorporated the Jewish Bible in its canon – via the Septuagint (Greek translation) and the Targum (Aramaic translation) – but added the Letters of Paul and the Gospels to its liturgy. Christ based theology replaced Mosaic Law although there was a strong focus on the Ten Commandments and the Golden Rule.
Baptism was added as a practice, the Divinity of  Jesus Christ was stressed and a Church hierarchy was organized. Human relations were emphasized and a complex eschatology would feature prominently.
The spread of the Church in the first four centuries of its existence largely centred around the Mediterranean area although by 600 CE it had come to dominate North Africa, Spain, Central Europe, the British Isles, Turkey going eastwards into Syria.
Edward Gibbons in his classic The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire provides an interesting overview as to the success of the Church. His key points are:

(1)  The inflexible, and, if we may use the expression, the intolerant zeal of the Christians, derived, it is true, from the Jewish religion, but purified from the narrow and unsocial spirit which, instead of inviting, had deterred the Gentiles from embracing the law of Moses;
(2)  The doctrine of a future life, improved by every additional circumstance which could give weight and efficacy to that important truth;
(3)   The miraculous powers ascribed to the primitive church;
(4)   The pure and austere morals of the Christians;

(5)   The union and discipline of the Christian republic, which gradually formed an independent and increasing state in the heart of the Roman Empire.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

The Western World in 300 Events: Event 49 - Constantine and the Edict of Milan

Constantine I was declared Caesar in the West in 306 CE. His father had been a co-emperor and the young Constantine had earned his spurs campaigning with his father in Britain. In 312 CE Constantine’s forces overcame those of his rival Maxentius at the Battle of Milvian Bridge. According to the historian Lactanius, Constantine had a dream the night before the battle in which God advised him to place the slanted X with the Christ figure (Chi Rho) on the shields of his soldiers.

His soon to be victorious forces did so and took the sign as a positive message from God. In 313 CE Constantine pushed through the Edict of Milan legalizing Christianity in the Empire and he himself converted soon afterward to the faith. Constantine was both an able general and a strong administrator. He not only defeated the forces of Maxentius but put down another rebellion by Maximian in 310 CE and after a series of battles consolidated all of the Roman Empire under his authority when he defeated his last rival Licinius in 324 CE.

Constantine’s reign represented a significant turning point that would ensure the growing domination of Christianity within the Empire. In 324 CE he founded the city of Constantinople (modern day Istanbul) that was dedicated in his honour six years later. Although he patronized Christianity, Constantine was astute in realizing that he could not transform the Empire overnight and still incorporated many of the pagan traditions within his realm of power. The Arch of Constantine, built in 315 CE, is replete with pagan imagery.

The Western World in 300 Events: Event 48 - The Severan and Military Emperors

The early decline of the Roman Empire was hinted at during the turbulent reigns of Caligula, Nero and Domitian. However the era of the Good Emperors provided a much necessary respite that would unfortunately not continue. Commodus, the son of Marcus Arurelius was a poor and malicious ruler. Septimus Severus, founder of the Severan dynasty took power in 193 CE (the Year of the Five Emperors). 

He defeated the Gauls at Lugdunum and fought successfully against the Old Enemy in the East (the Parthians) but his reign was characterized by the persecution of the Jews and Christians. An invasion of Scotland was cut short by his death in 211 CE. Soon afterwards fortunes began to decline in the Empire. Plague, Economic Depression, invasion and Civil war threatened and none of Severus’ successors – Caracalla, Geta, Macrinus, Elgabalus and Alexander Severus – proved capable of stopping the slide. 

By 235 CE the military was in effective control of the Imperial office but it administered an Empire that was fragmenting. As of 268 CE the Empire was now a composite of three parts – The Gallic Empire (Provinces of Spain, Britannia and Hispania), the Palmyrene Empire (Syria, Palestina and Egypt) and the Italian portion.

Strong leaders like Aurelian (270 –274 CE), the famed soldier Emperor temporarily reunited the portions but it was only under Diocletian that a solution for resolving the power dynamics was implemented.

Known as the Tetrachy – rule of four, the model of power sharing divided the Empire into two parts – East and West. Each part would have their own emperor and a junior emperor (the official successor) for a total of four rulers overall. The major emperors were also known as the Augusti and the methodology behind the re-design was to ensure that Emperors would succeed on merit.

Roman territory was also further sub-divided  for administration purposes into more manageable units but these changes seemed more to cover up a system in decline than actually reverse the trend. Infighting would rear its head and the Empire struggled with economic inflation that was poorly handled by wage and price fixing. At the same time Diocletian upped his persecution of the Christians and demanded that soldiers of the Christian faith take up a Roman God. This act further impacted a system in deterioration.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

The Western World in 300 Events: Event 47 - The Good Emperor Period

There were five good Emperors who followed the Flavians – Nerva (96-98CE), Trajan (98-117 CE), Hadrian (117-138 CE), Antonius Pius (138-161 CE) and Marcus Aurelius (161-180 CE).

 Nerva was more of a placeholder after the torrid period of Domitian’s reign. However it was under Trajan that Empire reached its furthest extent. A Spaniard by birth, Trajan was both a general and a statesman. He restored much of the power of the Senate, allowed for a greater freedom of speech and took over the key role of Chief Magistrate. Like his predecessor Nerva he worked to improve the lot of the poor especially that of the children. Education reform was a key priority.

Trajan’s adopted son Hadrian was a patron of the art but did believe in extending the Empire like Trajan did through Military conquest. He was more tolerant of Christians than the earlier Emperors but was not all hesitant in putting down the Jewish rebellion (Bar Kochba revolt) with brutality. Roman forces withdrew from Assyria, Mesopotamia and Armenia as the Empire became less focused on expansion in the East.

Hadrian focused on fortifying Roman territory in Germany and Britain (where he built the well known Hadrian’s Wall to safeguard the Province against the Picts). He also took it upon himself to visit all the provinces and extended the road system of the Empire to consolidate communication.
The next Emperor Antonius Pius continued the reforms especially in the areas of Jurisprudence, Government and Administration. The bureaucratic engine of the Empire was realized with Pius seeing himself as a ‘paternal autocrat’ who exercised his single ruler drive on behalf of the people.

Marcus Aurelius, the last of the Five Good Emperors was both a philosopher and a general. His work Mediations is considered a primer in Stoicism (together with the works of Cato, Cicero and Seneca) although his persecution of Christians (whom he suspected as agents of unrest) runs counter to the thoughts outlined in his writing. As a thinker Aurelius believed in a purity of life and championed the nobility of man. On the military front he fought the successful Danubian Wars, stared down a challenge to the throne (from one Lucius Verus) and seemed for all intent to have revived the expansionist drives of the Emperors prior to Hadrian.