Quotulatiousness

October 5, 2017

The greatest general you’ve probably never heard of

Filed under: Europe, History, Middle East, Military — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

I missed this article when it was posted in September: Iskander Rehman discusses the life and times of Byzantium’s greatest general, Belisarius:

Belisarius begging for alms. Painting by Jacques-Louis David, 1781.
(Via Wikimedia)

In 1780, the great neoclassical painter Jacques-Louis David completed one of his finest works. Entitled “Belisarius Begging for Alms,” the oil painting depicts an aging warrior, blinded with a hand outstretched, seated at the base of a colossal Roman monument. His feet are bare, his beard unkempt, and his armor draped in coarse rags, dull in sheen. A slender walking cane rests to his side, propped against a stone slab bearing the name of a famous former general — Belisario, or Belisarius. A beautiful woman, her face etched in concern, drops a few coins into an upturned helmet, and whispers words of consolation. Her husband, a man in the vigor of youth and full military regalia, is in shock, his arms raised and his mouth open. He has just realized that the stricken veteran is his former commander, the legendary Belisarius himself.

Although his name is not as well known as it once was, Belisarius has long been considered one of history’s finest tacticians. Under the orders of the Byzantine emperor Justinian I, the sixth century general reclaimed vast tracts of Western Roman territory, from northern Africa to the Italian peninsula. Frequently outnumbered and leading an eclectic grouping of warriors composed of romaioi (Eastern Romans), foederati (Barbarian allies), and ethnikoi (specialist ethnic troops), the Thracian commander greatly expanded the footprint of the Byzantine empire at a time when many thought that Rome’s ancestral lands had been irredeemably lost. The fact that many of these conquests, as we shall see, only proved fleeting, has, if anything, only burnished his myth, transmogrifying the soldier into something of a crepuscular icon — Western Europe’s last great Roman protector before the advent of the so-called Dark Ages.

For Liddell Hart, Belisarius was also the consummate practitioner of the so-called “indirect approach” and the “master of the art of converting his weakness into strength; and the opponent’s strength into a weakness.” T.E. Lawrence, an avid reader of the ancient military classics, considered “the Thracian genius” to be one of “three really first-class Roman generals in history” (the other two being Scipio Africanus and Julius Caesar) and encouraged his friend, Robert Graves, to write the novel Count Belisarius. This piece of historically informed fiction retraces Belisarius’s military campaigns and was much admired by Winston Churchill, who is said to have often turned to it for guidance during the fraught early years of World War II.

Who was the man behind the myth? And why do the tales of Belisarius’s life and military exploits continue to resonate, firing the imaginations of great men from David to Churchill and Lawrence of Arabia? What insights can be gleaned, not only from his campaigns, but from the Eastern Roman Empire’s strategic literature more broadly?

July 31, 2017

Byzantine religion – not a joking matter

Filed under: Europe, History, Middle East, Religion — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 03:00

When Tamara Keel isn’t talking about guns, she apparently relaxes by talking about Byzantine history:

Court of Emperor Justinian with (right) archbishop Maximian and (left) court officials and Praetorian Guards; Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy. The dark-haired bearded man to Justinian’s right is believed to be Belisarius. (via Wikimedia)

So, this Maximus dude was a bureaucrat in the Byzantine Empire who apparently had religion as a hobby, as did everybody in Constantinople back then. All the Byzantines did was watch chariot races, debate arcane theological matters, and riot and/or kill each other over differences of opinion on chariot races or arcane theological matters. (Oh, and they engaged in so much intra-governmental intrigue that they went in the dictionary for it.)

At some point, Maximus dropped out of government service and took up religion as a full-time occupation, leaving the city of Constantinople for a monastery in Anatolia. Skipping town ahead of the invading Persians, he landed in Carthage, in Eastern Roman hands for the nonce, thanks to Justinian and Belisarius’s ruinously expensive Mediterranean campaigns.

The big argument in the Church (there was just the one, back then) at the time was between guys who thought Jesus had two natures, human and divine, but only one divine will, and other guys who thought that Jesus had not only two natures, but also a human will and a divine will. Seriously. This was a very big deal and dudes were killing each other over it.

Well, the first view, Monothelitism, was the official view at the time, but Maximus was a believer in the second, or Dyothelitism. And he and the new Pope, Martin I, called a religious council in Rome to debate on the matter without bothering to ask the Emperor. When the council turned out a Dyotheletic verdict, Emperor Constans II (a Monotheletist) had both Pope Martin I and Maximus arrested.

The Pope got de-Poped and banished to the Crimea, where he died. Maximus was tried and sentenced to exile. However, he would not shut up about Dyothelitism and wound up having a great big show trial a few years later, following which he got his tongue cut out and his right hand cut off so he couldn’t tell people that Jesus had two wills anymore or even write it very legibly. Then he got banished to Georgia. (The one on the Black Sea, not the one you drive through on the way to Florida.)

He died in exile there in 662 AD. Nineteen years later, at the Third Council of Constantinople, the Church (still just the one) decided that maybe Jesus did have two wills after all. Maximus received a posthumous pardon, sort of a more official version of “Whoops! Hey, sorry about the tongue and the hand and the whole exile-and-dying-in-prison thing. No hard feelings, okay? Here, have a feast day.”

I told you they took their religion seriously in Constantinople, didn’t I?

May 30, 2017

The Belisarius fixation in SF&F

Filed under: Books, History, Middle East — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Jo Walton wonders why an otherwise obscure general of an otherwise obscure empire appears so often in fantasy and science fiction:

I once wrote jokingly here that there are only three plots, and they are Hamlet, Pride and Prejudice, and Belisarius, because those are the ones everyone keeps on reusing.

There is a conference in Uppsala in Sweden the weekend before the Helsinki Worldcon called “Reception Histories of the Future” which is about the use of Byzantium in science fiction. The moment I heard of it, I immediately started thinking about our obsessive reuse of the story of Belisarius. (I’m going. Lots of other writers are going. If you’re heading to Helsinki, it’s on your way, and you should come too!)

It’s strange that science fiction and fantasy are obsessed with retelling the story of Belisarius, when the mainstream world isn’t particularly interested. Robert Graves wrote a historical novel about him in 1938, Count Belisarius, and there’s Gillian Bradshaw’s The Bearkeeper’s Daughter (1987), but not much else. Whereas in genre, we’ve had the story of Belisarius retold by Guy Gavriel Kay, David Drake (twice) and Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, and used by L. Sprague de Camp, John M. Ford, Jerry Pournelle, Robert Silverberg, and Isaac Asimov. So what is it about this bit of history that makes everyone from Asimov to Yarbro use it? And how is it that the only place you’re likely to have come across it is SF?

First, let’s briefly review the story. First Rome was a huge unstoppable powerful indivisible empire. Then Rome divided into East and West, with the Eastern capital at Constantinople. Then the Western half fell to barbarians, while the Eastern half limped on for another millennium before falling to the Ottoman conqueror Mehmed II in 1453. We call the eastern half Byzantium, but they went right on calling themselves the Roman Empire, right up to the last minute. But long before that, in the sixth century, at the exact same time as the historical Arthur (if there was an Arthur) was trying to save something from the shreds of Roman civilization in Britain, Justinian (482-565) became emperor in Constantinople and tried to reunite the Roman Empire. He put his uncle on the throne, then followed him. He married an actress, the daughter of an animal trainer, some say a prostitute, called Theodora. He has a loyal general called Belisarius. He built the great church of Hagia Sophia. He withstood a giant city riot in the hippodrome, the great chariot-racing stadium, by having Belisarius’s soldiers massacre a huge number of people. He wrote a law code that remained the standard law code everywhere in Europe until Napoleon. And Belisarius reconquered really quite large chunks of the Roman Empire for him, including Rome itself. At the height of his success he was recalled to Rome and fired because Justinian was jealous. Belisarius had a huge army and could have taken the throne for himself, which was typical of both the Roman and the Byzantine empires, but he was loyal and let Justinian fire him. This is all happening at a time of Christian schism and squabbling about heresy between different sects.

While I’d quibble about her thumbnail sketch a bit, there’s more than enough there to fuel dozens of alt-history, fantasy, or science fiction novels … the fiction couldn’t be much more difficult to swallow than the reality. My first contact with the story of Belisarius was indeed the Robert Graves novel (which I still heartily recommend). I imagine that was true for most of the authors listed above.

May 29, 2017

On this day in 1453

Filed under: History, Middle East, Religion — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 17:29

In the Smithsonian Magazine in 2008, Fergus M. Bordewich described the events of 29 May, 1453:

In the 11th century, the Byzantines suffered the first in a series of devastating defeats at the hands of Turkish armies, who surged westward across Anatolia, steadily whittling away at the empire. The realm was further weakened in 1204 when western European crusaders en route to the Holy Land, overtaken by greed, captured and looted Constantinople. The city never fully recovered.

By the mid-15th century, Constantinople was hemmed in by Ottoman-controlled territories. On May 29, 1453, after a seven-week siege, the Turks launched a final assault. Bursting through the city’s defenses and overwhelming its outnumbered defenders, the invaders poured into the streets, sacking churches and palaces, and cutting down anyone who stood in their way. Terrified citizens flocked to Hagia Sophia, hoping that its sacred precincts would protect them, praying desperately that, as an ancient prophesied, an avenging angel would hurtle down to smite the invaders before they reached the great church.

Instead, the sultan’s janissaries battered through the great wood-and-bronze doors, bloody swords in hand, bringing an end to an empire that had endured for 1,123 years. “The scene must have been horrific, like the Devil entering heaven,” says Crowley. “The church was meant to embody heaven on earth, and here were these aliens in turbans and robes, smashing tombs, scattering bones, hacking up icons for their golden frames. Imagine appalling mayhem, screaming wives being ripped from the arms of their husbands, children torn from parents, and then chained and sold into slavery. For the Byzantines, it was the end of the world.” Memory of the catastrophe haunted the Greeks for centuries. Many clung to the legend that the priests who were performing services that day had disappeared into Hagia Sophia’s walls and would someday reappear, restored to life in a reborn Greek empire.

That same afternoon, Constantinople’s new overlord, Sultan Mehmet II, rode triumphantly to the shattered doors of Hagia Sophia. Mehmet was one of the great figures of his age. As ruthless as he was cultivated, the 21-year-old conqueror spoke at least four languages, including Greek, Turkish, Persian and Arabic, as well as some Latin. He was an admirer of European culture and patronized Italian artists, such as the Venetian master Gentile Bellini, who painted him as a bearded, introspective figure swathed in an enormous robe, his small eyes gazing reflectively over an aristocratically arched nose. “He was ambitious, superstitious, very cruel, very intelligent, paranoid and obsessed with world domination,” says Crowley. “His role models were Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar. He saw himself as coming not to destroy the empire, but to become the new Roman emperor.” Later, he would cast medallions that proclaimed him, in Latin, “Imperator Mundi” — “Emperor of the World.”

Before entering the church, Mehmet bent down to scoop up a fistful of earth, pouring it over his head to symbolize his abasement before God. Hagia Sophia was the physical embodiment of imperial power: now it was his. He declared that it was to be protected and was immediately to become a mosque. Calling for an imam to recite the call to prayer, he strode through the handful of terrified Greeks who had not already been carted off to slavery, offering mercy to some. Mehmet then climbed onto the altar and bowed down to pray.

Among Christians elsewhere, reports that Byzantium had fallen sparked widespread anxiety that Europe would be overrun by a wave of militant Islam. “It was a 9/11 moment,” says Crowley. “People wept in the streets of Rome. There was mass panic. People long afterward remembered exactly where they were when they heard the news.” The “terrible Turk,” a slur popularized in diatribes disseminated across Europe by the newly invented printing press, soon became a synonym for savagery.

May 23, 2017

Top 10 Reasons the Byzantine Empire Was Among the Most Successful in History

Filed under: Europe, History, Middle East, Religion — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Published on 2 May 2017

You’d see a lot of changes when looking at a map of present day Europe and comparing it to a 30 year old one. Belarus, Moldova, Ukraine and the Baltic States were all part of the USSR. Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia were still states. Go back even further and the map looks even stranger. Putting all those different people under the same banner and keeping them that way was and still is next to impossible. Many have tried and most have failed, but the first to even come close were the Romans. Their inheritors, the Byzantines, managed to keep it together for over 1100 years, thus creating the longest-living Empire on the continent. Here’s how they did it.

March 19, 2017

Byzantium, Persia and the rise of Islam

Filed under: History, Middle East, Religion — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

At The Declination, Dystopic explains why he’s fascinated by the untold stories of the sudden influx of Muslim armies from the Arabian peninsula that shattered the Persian Empire and nearly toppled the Byzantines in the 7th century:

In the course of perusing my backlinks, I discovered a little-known blog call the House of David. This one is fascinating because the author delves deeply into a topic which has bothered me for most my life: just how was it that Islam conquered Sassanian Persia and most of Byzantium more or less simultaneously? Normally this question is answered in the West, at least, by primarily Greek sources. Those are useful, yes, but only paint part of the picture. The proprietor of House of David seeks to answer the question from Persian and Arabic sources, also.

The strangeness of this event cannot be overstated. As successors to the Romans (or as Romans themselves, depending on how you account them), the Byzantines were masters of siege craft. Certainly the Theodosian walls impress well enough. Being consummate engineers of fortifications, Roman forts and walled cities dotted the empire, and for the most part, the Romans were excellent at defending them. The Byzantines continued the tradition of effective defense throughout most of their history, as they were under near-constant assault from all sides.

[…]

In some cases, of course, there was treachery from some of the Byzantines themselves, most notably in Egypt. But in other cases, such as the Exarchate of Africa, local Byzantine resistance was absolutely fierce. The wars in North Africa absolutely devastated the place. It never recovered after this. So complete was this devastation and desolation that Carthage, which bounced back even after the Romans razed it, never recovered from it. Even conquest by the Vandals had not been so terrible.

And still, after the Byzantines themselves lost much of North Africa, the native Christian Berbers continued to resist for some time under a supposed witch-queen named Kahina. And Byzantine resistance remained for a time around Cueta even after Carthage was destroyed, where the possibly-apocryphal Count Julian was said to have finally thrown in with the Muslims in order to avenge himself upon the Visigoths.

Yet the Arab steamroller moved on.

The final triumph of Byzantine siege craft could be seen in the twin Arab sieges of Constantinople, both beaten back effectively by the Byzantines. So why did they lose so completely everywhere else?

October 9, 2016

QotD: What triggered the First Crusade?

Filed under: Europe, History, Middle East, Quotations, Religion — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

Question: You write that, “There was no rational explanation or single event that triggered this sudden desire to possess Jerusalem. Various Muslim factions had held it for over four hundred years.” So how and why did what later became known as the First Crusade get started?

Answer: From a Western perspective, there was a growing interest in the Holy Land. Pilgrimage to Jerusalem had increased throughout the 11th century. There was more of a focused interest on the historical life of Christ, and as a result on historical Jerusalem, than there had been earlier in the Middle Ages.

From the Eastern perspective, starting in the mid-11th century there was an incursion of, as we like to say in the historical game, “barbarians from the East,” in this case the Seljuk Turks. Their advent — their takeover of Baghdad, their embrace of Sunni Islam — destabilized the region in a way that hadn’t happened in about 150 years.

Mixed into this was the emperor of Byzantium, Alexius Comnenus, who clearly felt endangered on all fronts, [including] from the Turks. He decided that the best way to deal with that was to write to the West and to request mercenaries to help him. He framed his request in semi-religious terms, but what he was really after were hardened professional mercenaries.

Meanwhile, in the West, pilgrims were coming back with horror stories of what they’d encountered in Jerusalem. There was a sense that the city of Christ was in danger and was being polluted by these barbarians whom they barely understood. When the request for mercenaries came from the emperor, which was subsequently given a stamp of approval by the pope, it transformed into a massive military movement fought in the name of holy war.

Virginia Postrel talking to Jay Rubenstein, “Why the Crusades Still Matter”, Bloomberg View, 2015-02-10.

October 4, 2016

QotD: Byzantine literature

Filed under: Books, Europe, History, Media, Quotations — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

The biggest misconception appears to be that the Byzantine Empire was a sterile, gloomy place, devoid of interest to anyone but Orthodox Christians or historians who are the scholarly equivalent of train spotters. There is enough truth in this charge for it to have stuck in the popular imagination for the past few centuries. With exceptions like Cecelia Holland’s Belt of Gold, there is no Byzantine sub-genre in historical fiction. I can think of no British or American films set in Constantinople after about the year 600 – and few before then.

Undoubtedly, the Byzantines made little effort to be original in their literature. But they had virtually the whole body of Classical Greek literature in their libraries and in their heads. For them, this was both a wonderful possession and a fetter on the imagination. It was in their language, and not in their language. Any educated Byzantine could understand it. But the language had moved on – changes of pronunciation and dynamics and vocabulary. The classics were the accepted model for composition. But to write like the ancients was furiously hard. Imagine a world in which we spoke Standard English, but felt compelled, for everything above a short e-mail, to write in the language of Shakespeare and the Authorised Version of the Bible. Some of us might manage a good pastiche. Most of us would simply memorise the whole of the Bible, and, overlooking its actual content, write by adapting and rearranging remembered clauses. It wouldn’t encourage an original literature. Because Latin soon became a completely foreign language in the West – and because we in England were so barbarous, we had to write in our own language – Western Mediaeval literature is often a fine thing. The Byzantine Greeks never had a dark age in our sense. Their historians in the fifteenth century wrote up the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in the same language as Thucydides. Poor Greeks.

But you really need to be blind not to see beauty in their architecture and their iconography. Though little has survived, they were even capable of an original reworking of classical realism in their arts.

Richard Blake, interviewed by Jennifer Falkner, 2014-06-23.

September 14, 2016

QotD: Historical novels

Filed under: Books, Europe, History, Media, Quotations — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 01:00

… the historical novel as we know it emerged at the end of the 18th century. The great historians of that age – Hume, Robertson, Gibbon and others – had moved far towards what may be called a scientific study of the past. They tried to base their narratives on established fact, and to connect them through a natural relationship of cause and effect. It was a mighty achievement. At the same time, it turned History from a story book of personal encounters and the occasional miracle to something more abstract. More and more, it did away with the kind of story that you find in Herodotus and Livy and Froissart. As we move into the 19th century, it couldn’t satisfy a growing taste for the quaint and the romantic.

The vacuum was filled by a school of historical novelists with Sir Walter Scott at its head. Though no longer much read, he was a very good novelist. The Bride of Lammermoor is one of his best, but has been overshadowed by the Donizetti opera. I’ve never met anyone else who has read The Heart of Midlothian. But Ivanhoe remains popular, and is still better than any of its adaptations. Whether still read or not, he established all the essential rules of historical fiction. The facts, so far as we can know them, are not to be set aside. They are, however, to be elaborated and folded into a coherent fictional narrative. Take Ivanhoe. King Richard was detained abroad. His brother, John, was a bad regent, and may not have wanted Richard back. There were rich Jews in England, and, rather than fleecing them, as the morality of his age allowed, John tried to flay them. But Ivanhoe and Isaac of York, and the narrative thread that leads to the re-emergence of King Richard at its climax – these are fiction.

I try to respect these conventions in my six Aelric novels. Aelric of England never existed. He didn’t turn up in Rome in 609AD, to uncover and foil a plot that I’d rather not discuss in detail. He didn’t move to Constantinople in 610, and become one of the key players in the revolution that overthrew the tyrant Phocas. He wasn’t the Emperor’s Legate in Alexandria a few years later. He didn’t purify the Empire’s silver coinage, or conceive the land reforms and cuts in taxes and government spending that stabilised the Byzantine Empire for about 400 years. He didn’t lead a pitifully small army into battle against the biggest Persian invasion of the West since Xerxes. He had nothing to do, in extreme old age, with Greek Fire. Priscus existed, and may have been a beastly as I describe him. I find it reasonable that the Emperor Heraclius was not very competent without others to advise him. But the stories are fabrications. They aren’t history. They are entertainment.

Even so, they are underpinned by historical fact. The background is as nearly right as I can make it. I’ve read everything I could find about the age in English and French and Latin and Greek. I’ve read dozens of specialist works, and hundreds of scholarly articles. My Blood of Alexandria is a good introduction to the political and religious state of Egypt on the eve of the Arab invasions. My Curse of Babylon is a good introduction to the Empire as a whole in the early years of the 7th century. The only conscious inaccuracy in all six novels comes in Terror of Constantinople, where I appoint a new Patriarch of Constantinople several months after the actual event. I did this for dramatic effect – among much else, it let me parody Tony Blair’s Diana Funeral reading – but I’ve felt rather bad about it ever since. This aside, any university student who uses me for background to the period that I cover will not be defrauded.

There’s nothing special about this. If you want to know about Rome between Augustus and Nero, the best place to start is the two Claudius novels by Robert Graves. Mary Renault is often as good as Grote or Bury on Classical Greece – sometimes better in her descriptions of the moral climate. Gore Vidal’s Julian is first class historical fiction, and also sound biography. Anyone who gets no further than C.S. Forester and Patrick O’Brien will know the Royal Navy in the age of the French Wars. Mika Waltari is less reliable on the 18th Dynasty in The Egyptian. In mitigation, we know very little about the events and family relationships of the age between Amenhotep III and Horemheb. He wrote a memorable novel despite its boggy underpinning of fact.

Richard Blake, “Interview with Richard Blake, 7th March 2014”, 2014-03-07.

September 11, 2016

Sean Gabb – THE IMPORTANCE OF BYZANTIUM FOR THE WEST

Filed under: Europe, History, Religion — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Published on 8 Sep 2016

Professor Sean Gabb, lecturer, political activist and the author of nine historical novels about early years of the Byzantium Empire.

QotD: The fractious coalition that fought the First Crusade

Filed under: History, Middle East, Quotations, Religion — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

Q: One of the striking aspects of your accounts is how fractious and fragmented the Crusaders were. They come from different places, they’re following different people, and they have somewhat different motives. The divisions reminded me of the various jihadi groups vying to be top dog today. Do we remember the Crusades as more unified than they actually were? Do these divisions tell us anything about the situation today among the other would-be holy warriors?

A: Particularly with the First Crusade, we do tend to remember it as a more unified movement than it was. We assume that when the pope preached his voice rang out with greater authority than it did, and that it would have been better remembered and better understood than in fact I think it was. We don’t have any record of what the pope said at Clermont except for one sentence [about penance]. All the other stuff is people making it up later.

A goodly number of Crusaders from the north had actually fought wars against the popes. They’re not necessarily on the papal side. A lot of people, particularly from the north were inspired by Peter the Hermit, not by the pope — a very different message. When the Crusaders marched through Byzantium, there was extreme mistrust between a lot of the armies, particularly the ones that got there first, and the Greeks whom they were allegedly on Crusade in part to defend. There was this sense that [the Byzantines] aren’t real Christians, that there’s just something wrong about them. There was no leader of the Crusade once it started marching. There was a council of leaders.

That probably parallels a lot of what’s going on with ISIS and al-Qaeda and the way these groups tend to metastasize. It also points out how powerful and uniting the notion of religious warfare can be — that you can have these different groups suddenly coalescing around this idea and against all odds succeeding. The most mind-boggling aspect of the First Crusade is that it succeeded. There’s no reason that this should have worked, that these armies should have survived and gotten to Jerusalem. They somehow did. They held together. This ethos of holy war, which is a fairly terrifying one, can be powerful and effective at holding groups together.

Virginia Postrel talking to Jay Rubenstein, “Why the Crusades Still Matter”, Bloomberg View, 2015-02-10.

July 30, 2016

QotD: What were the long-term effects of the First Crusade?

Filed under: France, History, Middle East, Quotations, Religion — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

Q: What were the long-term effects of the First Crusade?

A: The most immediate long-term effect was that French states were established in the Middle East. People usually think of the Crusades as failures because they did [ultimately] fail, but in fact there were French-speaking states, Christian Catholic states created in the Middle East that lasted for about 200 years. We tend to forget that the West included the Middle East for this stretch of medieval history. If you live in the Middle East it’s more obvious because there are Crusader monuments and medieval-style architectural details everywhere. The entry to Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, for example, could be the entry to any ornate 12th-century church in Europe, the styling is so close.

Another impact of it, which I’m beginning to think has been more enduring than is often recognized, is that on the Islamic side, the notion of jihad was dying out [before the Crusade]. Holy war was something that had happened in the past, and there had been this steady state reached in the Middle East. I’m not sure that the Turks saw what they were doing when they were engaging the Byzantines as engaging in jihad. After the First Crusade, within 10 years of it, you get Islamic voices like Ali ibn Tahir al-Sulami, in the last document in my source reader, saying we need to revive jihad. He says: The Franks have been waging jihad against us; now we have to get the jihad going back up again.

It also seems to me that the new model of jihad borrowed from what the Crusaders brought. You get the idea of martyrdom — the idea that if you died you would go straight to heaven. You get mythical holy figures appearing in battles that Muslims were fighting against Christians. You get a more poisonous relationship between religion and warfare than existed before.

Virginia Postrel talking to Jay Rubenstein, “Why the Crusades Still Matter”, Bloomberg View, 2015-02-10.

June 20, 2016

Early Christian Schisms – Lies – Extra History

Filed under: Europe, History, Religion — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Published on 28 May 2016

We hope this series will serve as a primer to the Christian faith, specifically how it interacted with the Roman Empire – even though we had to simplify many complex theological concepts to fit an introductory series.
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James wanted this series to be the primer he always wished he’d had when studying the later history of Rome. Since it was focused on the impact of Christianity upon the Roman Empire, we left out the Gnostic movement which had a greater impact on the Persian Empire. Our history begins with Paul the Apostle, whose fundamental belief was that the sacrifice of Christ erased the sins of mankind and freed them from having to follow the old laws, specifically the Mosaic Laws which Judaism believed were the path to salvation. In abolishing these laws, he emphasized that circumcision would no longer be necessary because Roman men, while perfectly willing to give their lives for a noble cause (and Christianity at the time often required sacrifice), were pretty hesitant to let anyone cut off parts of their penises. Not until Constantine, though, would Christianity be embraced in large numbers – but was Constantine really Christian? Many scholars have suggested otherwise, and it may be hard to say given our current sources, but he did originate as a monotheistic Sol Invictus worshipper and probably saw the political advantage of ruling a people united under one God instead of thousands of cults. He may not have realized the difficulty of that, however, until the Council of Nicaea which brought together many bishops who had been actively persecuted for their faith – hence the eyepatches and missing limbs! – and felt very strongly about how it should be practiced. Even Saint Nicholas, who is the foundation for Santa Claus, supposedly punched Arius during this council over his heretical statements. And they were none too tolerant of each other’s opposing beliefs. Although there were many different beliefs that evolved from monophysitism, miaphysitism being the most common, they were often lumped together as one heretical group. Even in our series, we lumped their beliefs together in a way that made their differences easier to understand, but weren’t entirely accurate. And these divisions persist to today: not until 1994 did the Assyrian and Catholic churches repair the divide from the Council of Ephesus. But while religion is often a contentious topic, we’ve been fortunate to see much thoughtful dicussion in our comments section and want to thank our viewers for that. The history of the faith is a way to understand how it has shaped our history, and it has been the genesis of great acts of charity along with great moments of strife. Understanding and accepting that legacy in all of its complexity is vital to understanding the path that took us here.

June 18, 2016

Early Christian Schisms – IV: Ephesus, the Robber Council, and Chalcedon – Extra History

Filed under: Europe, History, Religion — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Published on 21 May 2016

The Council of Ephesus meant to heal a rift between Nestorius of Constantinople and Cyril of Alexandria, but instead it set off a chain of ecumenical councils that disagreed with each other, excommunicated rivals, and ultimately led to more factions within the church.
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Disclaimer: This series is intended for students, to give them a broad overview of a complicated subject that has driven world history for centuries. Our story begins and focuses on the Romane Empire.

A centuary after Constantine, the Emperor Theodosius II found himself wrapped up in yet more theological disputes. His chosen patriarch of Constantinople, Archbishop Nestorius, had angered many other church leaders with his teachings that Christ had separate human and divine natures. Cyril of Alexandria wrote to the Pope in Rome for support against Nestorius, and received permission to excommunicate him. Nestorius responded by having the emperor call an ecumenical council, at which he intended to excommunicate Cyril. But Cyril acted first, declaring for the excommunication of Nestorius and forming a majority by pushing the council to begin early before the supporters of Nestorius could gather. When they did, they formed their own council and excommunicated Cyril right back, only to be excommunicated in turn by Cyril’s Council of Ephesus. Theodosius II attempted to resolve this by calling a second council, but this time none of the Western delegates had time to arrive and in their absence, monophysite leaders from the East excommunicated Nestorius again and declared monophysitism the official doctrine of the church. Those who didn’t get to participate called this the Robbers Council and refused to acknowledge it. Then Theodosius II died, and this fight devolved onto his successor, Marcian. Marcian called together the Council of Chalcedon to rule on the previous councils, where it was finally decided that Christ had two unified natures, human and divine, and everyone who’d supported the Robbers Council should be excommunicated. Instead of bringing Christians together under an orthodox theology, they split the faith as those who wouldn’t accept their decisions continued to preach and believe their own doctrines and a multitude of Christian sects became their own separate orders. Ultimately, these new denominations followed regional lines, which meant that different areas of the empire formed distinct cultural identities shaped in part by their faith, and these areas were less connected to Constantinople and became the first to split off as the empire weakened over the centuries.

April 10, 2016

Suleiman the Magnificent – I: A Lion Takes the Throne – Extra History

Filed under: Europe, History, Middle East, Religion — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Published on 12 Mar 2016

A young Suleiman ascends the throne of the Ottoman Empire. He wants to be a benevolent ruler, but he must prove that he is no pushover.

Perhaps it all began when Suleiman’s father died…

Suleiman’s father, Selim I, had pushed the borders of the Ottoman Empire further than any before him. Suleiman and his childhood friend, a Greek named Ibrahim who’d once been his slave, had to race back to Constantinople to claim the throne before news got out. Suleiman immediately bestowed gifts on the janissaries and court officials whose favor he would need for a successful reign, but he also carried out executions against those he suspected of treachery. He could not afford to be too kind. Indeed, his rule was challenged immediately by a revolt in Syria, which Suleiman crushed with overwhelming force to secure his reputation as a powerful leader. He wanted to stretch the empire even more, to bring it into Europe, which brought his attention to Hungary (his gateway to Europe) and Rhodes (a thorn in his side in the Mediterranean). The young prince of Hungary gave him the excuse he needed by executing an Ottoman envoy who’d come to collect tribute. Suleiman prepared his troops for war.

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