I discovered the Greeks when I was eight, and I came across a copy of Roger Lancelyn-Green’s retelling of The Iliad. I was smitten at once. There was something so wonderfully grand, yet exotic, about the stories. I didn’t get very far with it, but I found a copy of Teach Yourself Greek in the local library and spent weeks puzzling over it. Over the next few years, I read my way through the whole of Greek and Roman mythology, and was drawn into the history of the whole ancient world.
When I was twelve, my classical leanings took me in a new, if wholly predictable, direction. The sexual revolution of the 70s hardly touched most South London schoolboys. The one sex education lesson I had was a joke. Porn was whatever I could see without my glasses in the swimming pool. So I taught myself Latin well enough to read the untranslated naughty bits in the Loeb editions of the classics. The librarians in Lewisham were very particular in those days about what they allowed on their shelves. They never questioned the prestige of the classics, or thought about what I was getting them to order in from other libraries. With help from Martial and Suetonius and Ausonius, among others, I’d soon worked out the mechanics of all penetrative sex, and flagellation and depilation and erotic dances; and I had a large enough fund of anecdotes and whole stories to keep my imagination at full burn all though puberty.
Then, as I grew older, I realised something else about the Greeks — something I’d always known without putting it into words. There’s no doubt that European civilisation, at least since the Renaissance, has outclassed every other. No one ever gathered facts like we do. No one reasoned from them more profoundly or with greater focus. No one approached us in exposing the forces of nature, and in turning them to human advantage. We are now four or five centuries into a curve of progress that keeps turning more steeply upwards. Yet our first steps were guided by others — the Greek, the Romans, the Arabs, and so forth. If we see further than they do, we stand on the backs of giants.
The Greeks had no one to guide them. Unless you want to make exaggerated claims about the Egyptians and Phoenicians, they began from nothing. Between about 600 and 300 BC, the Greeks of Athens and some of the cities of what is now the Turkish coast were easily the most remarkable people who ever lived. They gave us virtually all our philosophy, and the foundation of all our sciences. Their historians were the finest. Their poetry was second only to that of Homer — and it was they who put together all that we have of Homer. They gave us ideals of beauty, the fading of which has always been a warning sign of decadence; and they gave us the technical means of recording that beauty. Again, they had no examples to imitate. They did everything entirely by themselves. In a world that had always been at the midnight point of barbarism and superstition, they went off like a flashbulb; and everything good in our own world is part of their afterglow. Every renaissance and enlightenment we have had since then has begun with a rediscovery of the ancient Greeks. Modern chauvinists may argue whether England or France or Germany has given more to the world. In truth, none of us is fit to kiss the dust on which the ancient Greeks walked.
How can you stumble into their world, and not eventually be astonished by what the Greeks achieved? From the time I was eight, into early manhood, I felt wave after wave of adoration wash over me, each one more powerful than the last.
Richard Blake, “Interview with Richard Blake”, 2014-03-14.
April 21, 2016
March 14, 2016
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. Forrester 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.
I could move from here to talking about bad historical novels. But I won’t. “Judge not, lest ye be judged” is the proper text for anyone like me to bear in mind. What I will do instead is talk about some of the technical difficulties of writing historical fiction. The first is one of balance. If you write a novel about Julius Caesar or Alexander the Great, you start with certain advantages. We all know roughly who these people were. We already have Rex Warner and Robert Graves and Mary Renault. We have all the films and television serials and documentaries. We know that Rome was a collapsing republic before it became an Empire, and that Alexander got as far as India, and died in Babylon. Everyone has heard of Cicero and Aristotle. It’s the same with novels set in the Second World War, or the reign of Elizabeth I. You can give the occasional spot of background, but largely get on with the narrative.
Richard Blake, “Interview with Richard Blake”, 2014-03-14.
January 29, 2016
Published on 28 Jan 2016
Even though Britain went to war over the violation of the Belgian neutrality by the Germans, the neutrality of Greece seems to be of no concern to the Entente. The military presence on Corfu and Salonika is growing and growing. And even though there is no fighting there, the soldiers have to suffer since general Malaria is taking his toll. In the week of the Kaiser’s birthday, the diplomatic tensions between the USA and Germany are increasing and on the Western Front Trench Foot is becoming a real problem.
January 10, 2016
Published on 2 Jan 2016
Indy is answering your questions about the First World War again and this time we are talking about the neutrality of Greece, the accuracy of Blackadder Goes Forth and the contribution of Asia and Africa.
October 9, 2015
Published on 8 Oct 2015
The Central Powers want to open a direct supply connection between Berlin and Constantinople. So, they start a new offensive on Serbia to defeat them once and for all. It’s an open secret that Serbia’s neighbour Bulgaria will soon join the war so the Serbians are in dire need of help. With no other option, the Entente lands troops in Salonika, Greece. The whole situation on the Balkans is spiraling out of control once more. Meanwhile the new offensives on the Western Front continue while the Eastern Front cools down.
October 8, 2015
The policy of the emperors and the senate, as far as it concerned religion, was happily seconded by the reflections of the enlightened, and by the habits of the superstitious, part of their subjects. The various modes of worship, which prevailed in the Roman world, were all considered by the people, as equally true; by the philosopher, as equally false; and by the magistrate, as equally useful. And thus toleration produced not only mutual indulgence, but even religious concord.
The superstition of the people was not imbittered by any mixture of theological rancor; nor was it confined by the chains of any speculative system. The devout polytheist, though fondly attached to his national rites, admitted with implicit faith the different religions of the earth. Fear, gratitude, and curiosity, a dream or an omen, a singular disorder, or a distant journey, perpetually disposed him to multiply the articles of his belief, and to enlarge the list of his protectors. The thin texture of the Pagan mythology was interwoven with various but not discordant materials. As soon as it was allowed that sages and heroes, who had lived or who had died for the benefit of their country, were exalted to a state of power and immortality, it was universally confessed, that they deserved, if not the adoration, at least the reverence, of all mankind. The deities of a thousand groves and a thousand streams possessed, in peace, their local and respective influence; nor could the Romans who deprecated the wrath of the Tiber, deride the Egyptian who presented his offering to the beneficent genius of the Nile. The visible powers of nature, the planets, and the elements were the same throughout the universe. The invisible governors of the moral world were inevitably cast in a similar mould of fiction and allegory. Every virtue, and even vice, acquired its divine representative; every art and profession its patron, whose attributes, in the most distant ages and countries, were uniformly derived from the character of their peculiar votaries. A republic of gods of such opposite tempers and interests required, in every system, the moderating hand of a supreme magistrate, who, by the progress of knowledge and flattery, was gradually invested with the sublime perfections of an Eternal Parent, and an Omnipotent Monarch. Such was the mild spirit of antiquity, that the nations were less attentive to the difference, than to the resemblance, of their religious worship. The Greek, the Roman, and the Barbarian, as they met before their respective altars, easily persuaded themselves, that under various names, and with various ceremonies, they adored the same deities. The elegant mythology of Homer gave a beautiful, and almost a regular form, to the polytheism of the ancient world.
The philosophers of Greece deduced their morals from the nature of man, rather than from that of God. They meditated, however, on the Divine Nature, as a very curious and important speculation; and in the profound inquiry, they displayed the strength and weakness of the human understanding. Of the four most celebrated schools, the Stoics and the Platonists endeavored to reconcile the jarring interests of reason and piety. They have left us the most sublime proofs of the existence and perfections of the first cause; but, as it was impossible for them to conceive the creation of matter, the workman in the Stoic philosophy was not sufficiently distinguished from the work; whilst, on the contrary, the spiritual God of Plato and his disciples resembled an idea, rather than a substance. The opinions of the Academics and Epicureans were of a less religious cast; but whilst the modest science of the former induced them to doubt, the positive ignorance of the latter urged them to deny, the providence of a Supreme Ruler. The spirit of inquiry, prompted by emulation, and supported by freedom, had divided the public teachers of philosophy into a variety of contending sects; but the ingenious youth, who, from every part, resorted to Athens, and the other seats of learning in the Roman empire, were alike instructed in every school to reject and to despise the religion of the multitude. How, indeed, was it possible that a philosopher should accept, as divine truths, the idle tales of the poets, and the incoherent traditions of antiquity; or that he should adore, as gods, those imperfect beings whom he must have despised, as men? Against such unworthy adversaries, Cicero condescended to employ the arms of reason and eloquence; but the satire of Lucian was a much more adequate, as well as more efficacious, weapon. We may be well assured, that a writer, conversant with the world, would never have ventured to expose the gods of his country to public ridicule, had they not already been the objects of secret contempt among the polished and enlightened orders of society.
October 6, 2015
Published on 5 Oct 2015
Thank you Plamen Ganev for helping with the research for this episode!
Bulgaria joined the ranks of the Central Powers in World War 1 in October 1915 and shortly after invaded neighbouring Serbia to support the German-Austro offensive on Belgrade. A lot of promises about territory were made towards Ferdinand I and especially the chance of getting back territories lost in the Balkan Wars was music to Bulgarian ears. Find out all about Bulgaria joining World War 1 in our special episode.
September 30, 2015
The pioneering political thinkers of the West — Greeks, mostly Athenian, including the sublime Aristotle — devoted much thought to this question of scale. Their consensus was that a state of more than about five thousand people (plus slaves, of course) was essentially unmanageable, at least by its citizens. Large empires or alliances of states might attempt to guarantee the freedom and independence of these small states (or might not), but the hard fact was that above around five thousand souls, the participation of the citizen in his own government ceases to be reality, and becomes rather a pious (or impious) myth.
Skip forward to 1789, the year of the French Revolution. As I have written elsewhere, perhaps the most permanent effect of that Revolution was the transformation of local government across France. Overnight, the seemingly timeless boundaries of 60,000 French parishes, each governed in its own unique way — were erased and replaced with 36,000 “communes,” governed identically and now under central direction from Paris.
This model was copied, across most of Europe, for even those national politicians who did not share in the ideals of the Revolution were attracted by the prospect of central power. France has mostly preserved her revolutionary communes, of a piece in land area, though now a city such as Paris is a single commune with more than two million people. In other countries, these small districts were merged and merged again, into ever larger territorial units, ever more bureaucratic and ever more subject to central direction.
According to me — and I have mulled this at length, with my own feeble mental powers — the Greeks were right. Five thousand is near the top end of a population that can attempt genuine self-government, deciding for themselves what they will and will not put up with, inside their own little domains. In huge conurbations, I would say that is about the maximum size for a self-governing urban borough or ward, necessarily small in area. Outside, rural districts would be rather larger, and there the question of maximum acreage comes into view, balanced against the minimum population to make any formal government necessary.
Boundaries are important. Above the parish or ward, the county seems to be the next higher natural level of government, for the resolution of issues that cross parish boundaries. But at all levels, attention should be given to geography. The boundaries of the jurisdiction should correspond as closely as possible to natural landmarks, and elevations of land, such that e.g. riparian responsibilities can be assigned to the visibly appropriate jurisdiction.
What has all this got to do with the environmental management of the planet? Everything. Where people can see the cause and effect of their actions, problems such as pollution will be tackled, and beauties such as birdsong will not be sacrificed. If the problems aren’t tackled, and the blight spills into another jurisdiction, penalties may be imposed from a higher level, but first give people the chance and the power to solve their own problems at source. Give them ownership, and stable rule by law — not by central planning which rewrites laws for its own convenience.
David Warren, “Five thousand max”, Essays in Idleness, 2015-06-19.
September 21, 2015
Megan McArdle is in Athens, where she’s finding that Greek businesses have started handing out receipts for transactions that once would have been undocumented (the better to hide revenue from the taxman):
I was last in Greece in 2006, during the twilight years of the boom that peaked during the Athens Olympics. Back then, Greece was notable to Americans for its lack of receipts. This is convenient for the shoppers, who don’t have to hunt around for somewhere to toss yet another piece of unwanted paper. But it was also convenient for vendors who wanted to underpay the tax authorities.
The inability of the Greek government to collect the taxes it is owed is one of the recurring themes of coverage of the financial crisis. This problem is sometimes exaggerated, but everyone agrees that it’s very real. And since the burden of structural adjustment is falling on fiscal reforms — rather than, say, firing unproductive members of the vast government workforce — that’s a big problem.
Widespread evasion narrows the tax base, forcing the government to set higher rates. If the evasion were spread evenly across all sectors of the economy, then these two things would roughly cancel out. Unfortunately, it’s not. Some sorts of taxes are easier to evade than others. Employment taxes are hard to evade, while self-employed professionals like doctors and lawyers have found it relatively easy to shelter most of their incomes. As a result, the cost of employing a new staff worker is quite high (especially since those workers are incredibly difficult to fire). The value-added tax here is now 23 percent, close to the EU maximum rate. (Thank God for that maximum, joked one journalist I met; otherwise, who knows how high they’d have raised it.) That’s making up for taxes that aren’t collected elsewhere.
The good news is that Greece has at least made progress on collecting sales tax. They’re hardly at the level that our Internal Revenue Service would accept, but most of the places I’ve gone have automatically given me a receipt, printed out by a cash register. The taxi drivers mostly offer printed receipts. One did ask me how much he should make it out for. (Note to boss: I told him to make it out for the amount of the fare.) I’m told that on the islands, collection is less sure. But here in Athens, they are slowly but surely improving their collection apparatus.
Greece is attempting to do in the space of a few years what other economies did over the course of decades. Most people think of a cash register primarily as a way to add up the value of the sale, but in fact, that is the least of its functions. Its most attractive feature to the merchants who adopted them back in the late 19th century was that they made it harder for clerks to steal. (That’s why old registers made a noise every time the cash drawer opened; that prevented employees from stealthily recording sales and then pocketing the money, or alternatively, giving goods to their friends without being paid.) Over time, of course, revenue authorities realized that cash register tickers were also a good way to ensure that employers gave the state its due.
August 19, 2015
Our traditional media are quick to pump up the volume for “studies” that find that we rank highly on various rankings of cities or what-have-you, but here’s someone pointing out that Canada’s ranking is quite good, but it’s not the kind of measurement our media want to encourage or publicize:
First, we must identify a nation’s currently employed population. Next, all public sector employees are removed to obtain an adjusted productive workforce. It may be objectionable that certain professions, like teaching, nurses in single payer systems and fire fighters, are classified as an unproductive workforce, but as our system is currently designed, the salaries of these individuals are not covered by the immediate beneficiaries like any other business but are paid through dispersed taxation methods.
Finally, this productive population is divided into the nation’s total population to identify the total number of individuals a worker is expected to support in his country. To remove bias toward non-working spouses and children, the average household size is subtracted from this result to get the final number of individuals that an individual must support that are not part of their own voluntary household. In other words, how many total strangers is this individual providing for?
The Implied Public Reliance metric does a far better job of predicting economic performance:
Greece, the nation with the debt problem, is currently expecting each employed person to support 6.1 other people above and beyond their own families. This explains much of the pressure to work long hours and also explains the unstable debt loads. Since a single Greek worker can’t possibly hope to support what amounts to a complete baseball team on a single salary, the difference is covered by Greek public debt, debt that the underlying social system cannot hope to repay as the incentives are to maintain the current system of subsidies. To demonstrate how difficult it is to change these systems within a democratic society, we just have to look at the percentage of the population that is reliant on public subsidy.
Oh, and by the way … Greece is doomed:
The numbers imply that 67 percent of the population of Greece is wholly reliant on the Greek government to provide their incomes. With such a commanding supermajority, changing this system with the democratic process is impossible as the 67 percent have strong incentives to continue to vote for the other 33 percent — and also foreign entities — to cover their living expenses.
July 23, 2015
David Warren, earlier this month, on the slow-motion financial, economic, and political disaster that is modern-day Greece:
Now seriously, gentle reader, we are being reminded that there is truly no way out — no foreseeable practical and material escape — from the Nanny State web we have woven. Except by catastrophe, and/or miracle. My fascination with Greece is, as I have said, to see what happens as that state breaks down. Greece is unrepresentative in some ways; she never was a truly Western country, and thus even her way of abandoning the Christian faith is different from the Western. Since the West freed her from the Infidel Turk, Greece has had the luxury to pick and choose between spiritual destinies. The West offered three: the Catholic, the Protestant, and the Revolutionary. Greece chose to dress her post-Byzantine, Orthodox self in the robes of Marianne, goddess of fake Liberty. They don’t fit, can’t, and she has experienced one wardrobe malfunction after another. Whereas the French, whom she most likes to emulate, at least know how to carry off satanic modernism in style.
Notwithstanding, the material facts of Nanny State are universal, and Greece can now serve as an illustration of their consequences — for the simple reason that she has made more mistakes, faster, than any other European country.
My fondest hope was that the failure of Greece would provoke a genuine re-assessment of the European Union. My worst fear is that it would instead make Europe’s commissars circle their wagon (the EU flag unintentionally represents this), and advance the continental nannyism in the vain belief that they can somehow save it. This, I observe, is what most likely happens. Or to put this another way, for the third time in a century, Europe has embarked on a mission of self-destruction, and will not turn back.
The correct response, to my humble mind, would have been on two fronts. First, to acknowledge that Greece can’t pay, and therefore write off the debts. Let them start again from scratch, according to their lights, providing whatever humanitarian aid can be afforded, but making clear it is a gift, and therefore delivering it through visibly European (and North American) agencies. Never let anyone think he is receiving gifts by right, and thus confuse gifts with payment. But don’t kick Greece out of anything; they have as much right to use euros while unwinding as the Argentines had to use U.S. dollars through their last bankruptcy. In defiance of post-modern sentimentalism, I would say it is possible to be both charitable, and firm.
Second, to begin a peaceful disassembly of most of the pan-European scheme, including the euro currency, which doesn’t and can’t work. Restore marks, francs, lire, pesetas; but also gradually downsize the Brussels bureaucracy to what it can and did do reasonably well — as a clearing house for trade transactions. This would be sane, now the ambition of a “European nation” is proved to have been foolish in itself. It would be insane, politically, to leave it to the member countries’ respective nationalist lunatics to achieve the same end by jingo, with the violence that follows inevitably from that.
It is in this greater (political, not religious) light that I think another bailout for Greece is a horror. It means Europe’s politicians are accelerating down a blind alley — the political equivalent of “the spirit of Vatican II.”
June 19, 2015
Over the years, I’ve had many arguments about economic policy with my statist friends. I put them into three categories.
- The completely unreasonable statists blindly assert, notwithstanding all the evidence around the world, that bigger government and more intervention are actually good for growth.
- The somewhat unreasonable statists acknowledge that bigger government and more intervention might have some minor “efficiency” costs, but those costs are acceptable and affordable in the pursuit of more “equity.”
- The semi-reasonable statists admit that bigger government and more intervention hurt growth, but they argue that “libertarian types” must somehow be wrong because our predictions of economic chaos never materialize.
The folks in the last category have a point. For decades, advocates of limited government and free markets have warned about the economic cost of bad policy, yet where’s the collapse?
I have two responses to these questions.
First, the economic damage caused by an expanding welfare state has been offset by improvements in other types of economic policy.
Second, maybe dour libertarians have been right, but got the timing wrong because it takes a long time and a lot of bad policy to destroy an economy.
And that’s today’s topic, because it certainly looks like both Greece and Venezuela have finally reached the end of the road. Let’s call it the Thatcher Inflection Point.
Dan Mitchell, “Atlas Is Shrugging in Greece and Venezuela: Two Case Studies of Statist Failure”, International Liberty, 2015-05-27.
June 4, 2015
What more to say? Well, I could say that I am jealous of Jack’s choice of period. My choice of early Byzantium is a good one. Contrary to the general view, this was an age of heroism and genius. The fight the Byzantines put up against the barbarians and Persians and Moslems saved Western civilisation. There are few stories more inspiring than the defeat of the Arabs outside the very walls of Constantinople in 678 and 717. At the same time, nothing compares with what the Athenians achieved a thousand years earlier.
Forget the Egyptians and the Jews. Forget what we are told about the ancient Indians and Chinese. Forget even the Romans. Between about 600 and 300 BC, the Greeks of Athens and some of the cities of what is now the Turkish coast were easily the most remarkable people who ever lived. They gave us virtually all our philosophy, and the foundation of all our sciences. Their historians were the finest. Their poetry was second only to that of Homer – and it was they who put together all that we have of Homer. They gave us ideals of beauty, the fading of which has always been a warning sign of decadence; and they gave us the technical means of recording that beauty. They had no examples to imitate. They did everything entirely by themselves. In a world that had always been at the midnight point of barbarism and superstition, they went off like a flashbulb; and everything good in our own world is part of their afterglow. Every renaissance and enlightenment we have had since then has begun with a rediscovery of the ancient Greeks. Modern chauvinists may argue whether England or France or Germany has given more to the world. In truth, none of us is fit to kiss the dust on which the ancient Greeks walked.
Richard Blake, “Review of Jack England, Sword of Marathon“, RichardBlake.me.uk, 2013.
May 27, 2015
… I revere Classical Antiquity. But, once your eyes adjust, and you look below the glittering surface, you see that it wasn’t a time any reasonable person would choose to be alive. The Greeks were a collection of ethnocentric tribes who fought and killed each other till they nearly died out. The Roman Empire was held together by a vampire bureaucracy directed more often than in any European state since then by idiots or lunatics. Life was jolly enough for the privileged two or three per cent. But everything they had was got from the enslavement or fiscal exploitation of everyone else.
Now, while the Roman State grew steadily worse until the collapse of its Western half, the Eastern half that remained went into reverse. The more Byzantine the Eastern Roman Empire became, the less awful it was for ordinary people. This is why it lasted another thousand years. The consensus of educated opinion used to be that it survived by accident. Even without looking at the evidence, this doesn’t seem likely. In fact, during the seventh century, the Empire faced three challenges. First, there was the combined assault of the Persians from the east and the Avars and Slavs from the north. Though the Balkans and much of the East were temporarily lost, the Persians were annihilated. Then a few years after the victory celebrations in Jerusalem, Islam burst into the world. Syria and Egypt were overrun at once. North Africa followed. But the Home Provinces — these being roughly the territory of modern Turkey — held firm. The Arabs could sometimes invade, and occasionally devastate. They couldn’t conquer.
One of the few certain lessons that History teaches is that, when it goes on the warpath, you don’t face down Islam by accident. More often than not, you don’t face it down at all. In the 630s, the Arabs took what remained of the Persian Empire in a single campaign. Despite immensely long chains of supply and command, they took Spain within a dozen years. Yet, repeatedly and with their entire force, they beat against the Home Provinces of the Byzantine Empire. Each time, they were thrown back with catastrophic losses. The Byzantines never lost overall control of the sea. Eventually, they hit back, retaking large parts of Syria. More than once, the Caliphs were forced to pay tribute. You don’t manage this by accident.
The Byzantine historians themselves are disappointingly vague about the seventh and eight centuries. Our only evidence for what happened comes from the description of established facts in the tenth century. As early as the seventh century, though, the Byzantine State pulled off the miracle of reforming itself internally while fighting a war of survival on every frontier. Large parts of the bureaucracy were scrapped. Taxes were cut. The silver coinage was stabilised. Above all, the great senatorial estates of the Later Roman Empire were broken up. Land was given to the peasants in return for military service. In the West, the Goths and Franks and Lombards had moved among populations of disarmed tax-slaves. Not surprisingly, no one raised a hand against them. Time and again, the Arabs smashed against a wall of armed freeholders. A few generations after losing Syria and Egypt, the Byzantine Empire was the richest and most powerful state in the known world.
Richard Blake, “The Joys of Writing Byzantine Historical Fiction”, Libertarian Enterprise, 2014-07-27.
May 22, 2015
Anton Howes deserves what he gets for a blog post he titled “Highway to Hellas: avoiding the Malthusian trap in Ancient Greece”:
There’s a fantastic post by Pseudoerasmus examining the supposed ‘efflorescence’ of economic growth in Ancient Greece, and some of the causal hypotheses put forward by Josiah Ober in an upcoming book (which I’m very much looking forward to reading in full). Suffice to say, the data estimates used by Ober raise more questions than they answer.
If the constructed data is correct, then not only did Greek population grow by an extraordinary amount during the Archaic Period roughly 800-500 BC, but Greek consumption per capita grew by 50-100% from 800-300 BC. As Pseudoerasmus points out, this would imply a massive productivity gain of some 450-1000%, or 0.3-0.46% growth per annum.
This seems quite implausible to me. Indeed, the population estimates imply that the Ancient Greek population would have been substantially larger than that of Greece in the 1890s AD, along with higher agricultural productivity! This is all the more puzzling as there appears to have been no major technological change to support so many more mouths to feed, let alone feed them better than before.
But assuming the data are correct, what would have to give? Pseudoerasmus explores a number of different possibilities, such as the gains from integrating trade across the Eastern Mediterranean and Black Sea; or that the Greeks might have shifted agricultural production to cash crops like wine and oil and imported grain instead. None of these quite seem good enough for such a massive and prolonged escape from the Malthusian pressures of population outstripping the productivity of agriculture (although I hope the so-far unavailable chapters from Ober’s book might shed some more light on this).
A remaining explanation offered by Pseudoerasmus may, however, be the winner: that Greeks weren’t using land more intensively as Ober seems to suggest, but rather expanding the land that they brought under cultivation by colonising new areas.