Virtual Bourgeois

Just An Analog Guy Trying to Upgrade For a Digital World

Archive for the ‘History’ Category


Posted by Gerald on July 9, 2008

Archaeology had an article a couple of months ago about China’s project to build a replica of one of Zheng He’s treasure ships.  This is being constructed in Nanjing using the materials mentioned in the written sources and using hand tools.  This ship is then going to re-trace the voyages of Zheng He’s fleet – sailing all over the Indian Ocean and hitting all the major ports.

The Chinese government is doing this to demonstrate China’s new role in the world.  They are writing history to suit their ambitions (no surprise there – who doesn’t?)  They are using this story as a way to draw a distinction between China and the West.  The story is that Westerners sailed all over the place bringing disease and violence and planted colonies.  The Chinese brought gifts and trade and then went home.

The problem with this is that the vast fleet Zheng He commanded included thousands of soldiers.  One of the leading non-Chinese experts on the Ming dynasty made the point in the article that these voyages were about showing power and projecting it even in the absence of invasion or the creation of colonies.

My reaction was one of familiarity.  A dominant technological and economic power sails advanced ships around the world.  It doesn’t create colonies, but establishes unequal diplomatic and economic relations with less powerful and wealthy countries.  It overawes with its culture and wealth, but also uses the veiled threat of force to establish itself.  Through this all, it is guided by an unshakable sense of its own superiority.

Isn’t this neocolonialism?

Once again, China proves how it has already invented almost everything the West later came up with.  Just as Europeans began their first forays into imperialism, the Chinese were already transcending imperialism by moving on to the more subtle oppressions of neocolonialism.  Now the Chinese are using their wealth and technology all over Africa and Asia.  Even as the former colonial world celebrates its independence from the dominance of the West, it is finding its way into the system being created by the once and future champs at world domination.

Posted in Archaeology, China, History | Leave a Comment »

Amazonian Harvest

Posted by Gerald on June 29, 2008

I’ve just finshed a a very interesting article about agriculture in the Amazon (“Amazonian Harvest” by Mara Hvistendahl, Archaeology, July/August 2008.  You can see some of it here.)  Over the last few years I’ve become fascinated by what archaeologists have been finding in the Amazon rain forest.  Starting in the 1950s a group of anthropologists and archaeologists started to challenge a prevailing idea that the Amazon was an impossible area for dense human settlement without slash-and-burn agriculture and the resulting deforestation.  There are extensive earthworks and pottery remnants as well as documentary evidence going back to the 17th century that indicates there was once extensive settlement in the region.  Research has started to suggest that the people there found ways to manage water and the forest that allowed for a dense population without the destruction that became common with the Spanish strategy of “Cut it, fell it, burn it, and farm it.”

This article discusses some work in the Bolivian Amazon as well as the way it is being used to promote the idea of a more sustainable model of agriculture for the region.  This is part of a tradition of “action archaeology” meant to use discoveries of the past to create positive change.  This idea dates back to the 1950s as well where it was first used in areas of the Near East.  Archaeologists discovered methods dating from the Byzantine Empire that had been used to farm areas that were considered unfarmable desert at that time.  Agricultural experts and local farmers were able to adapt the historical methods to grow food and commercial crops in the region.  Local farmers and activists are promoting a similar model in the Amazon.

As a student of history, I’m as intrigued by the question of why as I am by the question of how these people farmed the way they did.  One thing that jumped out at me while reading this was that slash-and-burn methods weren’t used in this part of the Americas until the Spanish came with iron and steel.  The introduction of iron also transformed African agriculture.  Some theories suggest that several cereal crops grown in sub-Saharan Africa couldn’t be grown until iron hoes and knives were available.  What interests me in the Amazonian case is the idea that perhaps the very lack of “advanced” metallurgy might have been the thing that led local people to develop superior farming methods for that environment.  My theory would be that these methods were then lost when the region was formally subdued and organized under the mission system.  This led – as always – to a huge demographic disaster.  As the Amazonian Indians were dying off from newly introduced diseases, they were also forced to adopt European farming methods.  The result was the loss of the earlier methods and a legacy of unsustainable agriculture that were part and parcel of the story of imperialism in the region.  All of the stuff in this paragraph is just my take, but I think it makes sense.

Posted in Archaeology, History | Tagged: | 3 Comments »

Thermopylae and the Alamo

Posted by Gerald on June 26, 2008

At long last, I’ve finished reading Tom Holland’s Persian Fire.  I really enjoyed the book, but I kept starting it and stopping it.  Part of the reason was that it seemed that every few pages were giving me things I wanted to figure out how to add into my class lectures.  I also found myself rereading several chapters each time I came back to the book.

Holland has a great prose style and, like his book Rubicon, feels almost like a novel.  From a purely scholarly viewpoint, there are some minor problems.  He uses a novelist’s touch when discussing motivations.  What give the account such immediacy is his willingness to get inside a historical figure’s head.  The problem for me as a sort-of-historian reading it is that I know the sources won’t bear that weight.  It is rare that we know what any specific historical figure actually thought, unless we are lucky enough to have things like private journals or letters.  We have no such sources for the war between Persia and the Greek poleis.  Most of what we have is Herodotus, who was willing to make conjectures that would get a modern monograph rejected out of hand.  I’m reminded of the whole debate over Davis’s The Return of Martin Guerre.  She took heat for moving beyond the sources.  I think that sort of thing is an absolute necessity at times, depending on audience.  At times the historian must be a social scientist – answerable to strict analysis and logic.  But I think the historian also needs to be an artist sometimes, moving beyond strict data to bring the past in touch with the reader through prose.

Holland does that well.  This book was well researched.  He was upfront about when he was departing from more traditional views of events and used his endnotes to point the reader in the direction of both sides of a given scholarly debate.  This isn’t a work of new scholarship, but it is a well-written work of synthesis.  Holland is also very good a bringing the subject matter to life.  He uses his own travels to the locations he is discussing as well as archaeological work to engage all of the reader’s senses – the heat of the day at Marathon, the stench of the corpses at Thermopylae, the thirst of the Greeks at Plataea.

Looming over this book is Herodotus.  This is inevitable in that his historia is our major written source about the war as well as being the generally acknowledged foundation of western historical study.  More than this, there is a similarity of structure.  Like Herodotus, Holland places the war in a context of the meeting of Asia and Europe.  Also like Herodotus, Holland begins his account among the Persians.  This was the most interesting part of the book for me and it set up what I see as one of its strengths.  Given the lack of Persian literature from this period (we’ve got inscriptions on walls and that’s about it) every account I’ve ever read of this battle has been inevitably hellenocentric.  Holland’s book keeps moving from one side to the other.  I’ve left the work with a deep desire to learn more about the Persians.  In fact, I’m planning on using them extensively in the World Civilizations course I’m starting in the fall.  His account of the Greeks is also refreshingly honest, both in their strengths and in their weaknesses.

I’d highly recommend this to anyone interested in a work for a general audience.  I also think it should be required of anyone who saw the movie 300.  My next foray into this subject will be Paul Cartledge’s recent book on Thermopylae.

As I read Persian Fire I kept thinking about mythology.  Not classical mythology, but the mythology surrounding Thermopylae itself.  The fact is, we don’t know WHY the battle happened the way it did.  I know that when I first learned about it, the battle was described by my teacher in terms of another great moment of myth-making – The battle of the Alamo.  There is a myth that has the Spartans standing alone and holding the pass in order to win precious time for the rest of Greece to prepare in defense of “freedom”.  This is nonsense.  Whatever they hoped for, there were no preparations going on.  Several major poleis were openly supporting the Persians and others were firmly on the fence.  Both Spartan helots and Athenian slaves (and any Greek woman) could comment on the whole “freedom” thing.  Also, the Spartans weren’t alone – they brought helots, periokoi, and hoplites from other poleis.  Almost forgotten is the simultaneous naval engagements by the Greek fleets.  Still, there has been this romantic vision of the Last Stand of Leonidas.

Again, I see all of these echoes of the Alamo myth (and I’m sure I’m not the first – if anyone reading this could point me in the direction of folks who’ve written about this similarity, I’d appreciate it.)  This same vision of a desperate last stand in defense of freedom.  This has to be part of a broad pattern.  It is obviously about the west and its sense of identity, and in particular the American variety.  We Americans do seem to love a last stand – Alamo, Little Big Horn, Corregidor, and lots more if you include the narrowly won victories alongside the sacrificial stands.  I’ve got to think that when accounts of the Alamo first appeared in the US that there were references to Thermopylae (or maybe Livy, given the early republic’s love affair with the Romans).  I wonder if the accounts of these battles were twisted around each other and fed back into each other into a grand narrative of dying for freedom.  Then comes Custer and that painting – the messiah of the West.  All of this seems to me part of the ongoing rhetoric in America about the justification for military adventurism and the cultural sense that real men become Marines.*

Thomas Pakenham wrote in his introduction to The Boer War about how every upper class Victorian home had a painting of the Last Stand and how every young man took his commission waiting for that moment.  He then contrasted that with the failure of the Jameson Raid, but I wonder if there isn’t a bigger point here about cultural identity (maybe gender?) in imperialistic societies like the US and Britain in the 19th century?

Somebody has got to have already written this up.  Can anyone point me to work about this?

* To be honest I should confess that I’ve been indulging my addiction to military porn – i.e., JAG, NCIS, etc… – as of late; my perceptions might have been altered.  Bellesario as LSD.

Posted in American history, History, reviews | Tagged: | 2 Comments »

Where the Mighty Are Now

Posted by Gerald on August 2, 2007

According to the Washington Post a member of the board of Chiquita International Brands told a Justice Department official that the company has been violating anti-terrorism laws because it has been paying protection money to Colombian paramilitary groups that are on the State Department’s list of terrorist organizations.

To me, there just seems to be something ironic about this.  Chiquita was, once upon a time, the United Fruit Company.  They had their own fleet.  If they needed their own troops they could generally just whistle and the US Marine Corps was ready to oblige.  These guys overthrew governments in Central and South America – the classic story being their role in getting the Eisenhower administration to overthrow the democratically elected government of Guatemala.  Now they are paying protection money to terrorists.

Posted in History, news | Leave a Comment »

What We Can Learn from History

Posted by Gerald on August 2, 2007

I was reading an article earlier today that I’m considering having my students read this fall when I came across this quote that seems very relevant for today:

“We must bear in mind that in ancient Greece, as in the world of today, democracy cannot be “installed” like air-conditioning or central heating.  It calls for the unlearning of old ways, for the gradual response to new conditions, and for a radical change in the relations between man and man, and between individual and community.  There are no short cuts.”
– from How Democratic was Ancient Athens? by Robert Browning

We cannot bring democracy to Iraq.  We cannot bring democracy to the Middle East.  We can’t bring democracy to the world.  All we can do is stay out of the way.

Posted in Diplomacy, History, international relations, Iraq War, Middle East, opinion | 2 Comments »

A Disturbing Echo

Posted by Gerald on July 20, 2007

During the reign of Tsar Nicholas I, a Russian education minister named Sergei Uvarov enunciated a program of “autocracy, Orthodoxy, and nationalism.”  Education was to indoctrinate a total loyalty to Mother Russia as embodied in the traditions of the Russian Orthodox Church and the absolute authority of the Tsar.

It seems like Vladimir Putin has similar ideas.

Posted in History, news, Russia | Leave a Comment »

Another Ongoing Crime

Posted by Gerald on July 17, 2007

The Swiss government is going to return $6.6 million in frozen assets to The Democratic Republic of Congo.  This is money from accounts held by the late Joseph Mobutu (or Mobutu Sese Seko Nkuku Ngbendu wa Za Banga.)

This number might be impressive if most estimates didn’t place Mobutu’s assets at over $1 billion or more (perhaps considerably more.)  Mobutu has become the poster-boy of corrupt authoritarian leaders in Africa.  Some critics maintain that he was stealing more from Zaire on an annual basis than the west was supplying in aid.  Unofficial numbers have placed his wealth at $5 billion.  In 1997, the Kabila government claimed he had $7.7 billion dollars in Swiss banks.  After his death that year, Swiss banking authorities claimed he only had $3.4 million in the country.  Today’s story doesn’t explain where they found the other $3.2 million – maybe in the back of Eichmann’s old safety deposit box.  Even at the time, Socialist politicians in Switzerland accused the banks and government regulators of hiding funds for their old client.

Whatever the true figure of the money Mobutu stole from his country, this whole thing demonstrates a wider problem.  If the Swiss were complicit in Mobutu’s crimes, well, so was everyone else.  The western democracies and media will shake their heads and piously condemn the “tragedy” in Africa – but will never own up to their own complicity in that tragedy.  Mobutu got support from the U.S. because of the Cold War, he got support from European governments because of regional power maneuvers.  All of the above were willing to turn a blind eye toward his government’s action if it meant their nation’s corporations would get access to Congolese natural resources.  Even while complaining of the instability of leaders like Mobutu, western business has been ready to work with them as long as there was a good chance of extracting wealth and as long as the African government was willing to help out with access to labor and to keep that labor in line.

Even with the increasing gap between the rich and everyone else here in the US, every American except the poorest of the poor is substantially benefiting from living in a society that consumes the majority of the world’s raw resources in a given year.  Many of those resources – especially minerals that help make the computer I’m writing this on right now – come from places not that much different from Mobutu’s Congo.  Not all of the blame for Africa’s problems can be laid at the feet of the west, but we certainly have our fair share to own, and we have certainly allowed economic and political expediency to stand in the way of doing what is right in many cases.

What I’m saying here is not new.  Others have said it before, in more detail, and more capably.  Still, so long as it remains true, it needs to be said again, and again, and again…

Posted in Africa, Congo, History, news, opinion, thoughts | Leave a Comment »

I Probably Should Stop

Posted by Gerald on July 14, 2007

… watching History International.

They had a show on earlier today entitled something like “Where Does it Come From?”  The host mentioned that he was a physicist, which makes sense.  There do not seem to be any historians associated with most of what the History Channel and History International do.  The subject was apartment buildings and the theme was that they originated in Ancient Rome.

To be fair most of the show was fine.  In fact, it featured a very good demonstration of how fullers cleaned clothing in Rome – urine and all.  Two things irked me however, so here we go.

Early in the show the host mentioned the usual height of the Roman insulae and the regulations enacted by both Gaius Julius and Augustus Caesar limiting the height of these buildings to 70 feet and mandating that they have 2 feet thick walls.  Again, there were some good things here.  The host used toast to demonstrate why Roman concrete blocks did not stand up well to torsional strain.  They also went to an engineering firm to do computer models about how high you could safely build a building made of concrete blocks without a steel frame.

First there was the surprise everyone seemed to have when the computer model demonstrated that – guess what – using those building materials at those thicknesses, the maximum safe height for a building was 70 feet – as reflected in the regulations.  Surprise, surprise – people in the past weren’t idiots and had reasons for the things they did!  Maybe I’m being over-sensitive, but there seems to be a contempt for our own ancestors in our popular culture.

The most extreme examples of this are the ridiculous theories that people have put forward about the megaliths in Europe, monumental construction in Egypt, temples and cities in pre-Colombian America, the monuments on Easter Island, etc…  It was aliens, time-travelers, reptiles who dwell in the center of the earth, anyone but the people who lived there.  Because we can’t figure out how they did things with the technology they had available, they must not have done it, there must be some supernatural explanation.  Maybe there is a simpler one: we are the children of some pretty smart and capable people who figured out how to do some pretty amazing things.  I don’t get the attraction so many people have for these unhistorical pieces of nonsense – don’t they WANT to be descended from these smart and capable folks?

Second, the host made a point of saying that the limitations on the height of these building could have been exceeded “if the Romans had used steel rods to reinforce the walls of the buildings” – while showing a shot of a modern skyscraper under construction.  What they never asked, or answered, was why the Romans didn’t do that?  Evidently, it is just because they weren’t clever enough to think of it.

The fact is that using steel rods to build a frame for a building was economically unfeasible.  Until the invention of the Bessemer Converter in the 19th century (itself a product of new insights into chemistry and thermodynamics) steel was produced in small batches by skilled craftsmen.  The Romans had steel – hell, the Germans and Celts had steel (in the case of the Celts, some was better than the Romans) – but it was kind of expensive.  Also, there was another demand for steel – the Roman Army.  Given the limits on supply due to existing technology, and the pressure on price due to demand from the Army, the idea of using steel as a building material was unlikely to occur to anyone.  It could be done, but you would have a very expensive building in the end.

I’m not sure why I felt the need to pontificate so (well, I am a bit of a blow-hard…).  Maybe I’m just in “lecturing withdrawal” since I’m only teaching on-line this summer.  Still, I would like it if the history shows on TV would dig a little deeper and check a little more.

Posted in American culture, History, rant, Roman History, Teaching, Television, thoughts | 2 Comments »

Late Realization

Posted by Gerald on July 11, 2007

In grad school, I did most of my work on modern British economic and colonial history.  My Masters essay was about the British South Africa Company and Rhodesia.  By dissertation time, I was looking at how British imperialism contributed to the industrial revolution – for anyone who knows the literature, I was re-examining the “Williams Thesis.”  I saw a test-case there for using counterfactuals in economic history and also a field for expanding on my growing interest in how scholarly arguments work.  For a variety of reasons, I burnt out before finishing the dissertation.

If there is a lesson I learned, it is that you shouldn’t pick a topic simply because you think it is important and you should really avoid getting into a topic that requires extensive research in a place you hate visiting.  To give myself a bit of a break though, I have to say that I didn’t know how poor a fit the Caribbean and I were going to be until I went there.

Looking at who I am now, I really wish I had gone into Classical Studies.  I’ve been on a Greek and Roman history kick for about two years now – really ever since I haven’t been a full-time care giver for my mom.  I’ve been reading further and further into the literature – at least what I can get here.  I’m even flirting with trying to learn Latin.  I am mesmerized and horrified by the Romans, but the whole Ancient world is so fascinating.

Damn, I wish I had figured this out twenty years ago.

Posted in autobiographical, History, thoughts | 1 Comment »

So Who is This Gibbon Guy?

Posted by Gerald on July 10, 2007

From the “I-Don’t-Know-If-You-Care-But-Here-It-Comes” file.

The name of Edward Gibbon has come up on this blog and over on “My Beautiful Wickedness” as part of the Great Smelly Europeans discussion.  I thought I might waste some time telling you who this guy was and why so many history types (especially Late Antiquity and Medieval scholars) would like to spit in his morning gruel.

Edward Gibbon has a decent claim to being the most important figure to come out of the English part of the Enlightenment.  His biggest claim to fame is his six-volume History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire which he published between 1776 and 1788.  By the way, 1776 is kind of a big year for the British part of the Enlightenment since it also saw the publication of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations only about a month after Gibbon’s first volume.

Now, to be fair to old Edward, we academic history types kind of owe him.  In writing a massive work that combined a chronicle of events with social and political analysis of the causes of major changes he basically set the agenda for how western history has worked.  He backed it up with lots of the primary source work historians have gone for ever since.  This is a prime piece of Enlightenment writing.  Reason applied to fact, no room for the weight of authority or the supernatural.  Why people did things in human terms.  It also contains thunderous prose, wicked turns of phrase, and vibrant depictions of major figures.

It also carries many of the prejudices of the Enlightenment – and therein lies part of the problem the problem.  Gibbon draws a picture of the late Roman world as decadent and corrupt.  This Roman world is locked in endless struggle with the uncouth, but vibrant, barbarians of Germania.  The Roman world is finally laid low by its internal decline, and the major agent of thew weakening of Rome was – the Christian Church.

“The clergy successfully preached the doctrines of patience and pusillanimity; the active virtues of society were discouraged; and the last remains of the military spirit were buried in the cloister; … and the soldier’s pay was lavished on the useless multitudes of both sexes, who could only plead the merits of abstinence and chastity … the attention of emperors was diverted from camps to synods; the Roman world was oppressed by a new species of tyranny; and the persecuted sects became the secret enemies of their country.” 

The philosophes of the Enlightenment had no love for Christianity (or any revealed religion) generally, and they didn’t care for Catholicism in particular.  Gibbon was educated in rational theology, but had a youthful flirtation with Catholicism before converting back to the Protestant ranks.  Who knows if this had anything to do with his choice of prime villain?  Certainly, his thinking was in line with the general ideas of the Enlightenment.  The philosophes saw the Church as the major force retarding the growth of Reason, which they saw as the key to all human advancement, and they saw advancement as both possible and desirable.

The philosophes looked back with admiration at the what hey dubbed the “Classical Age” of the Greeks and Romans.  They saw this as a time of rational advancement.  Gibbon’s admiration for Rome is clear.  So is his hatred of what brought all of that down – Christianity and barbarism.  Gibbon gave us a powerful narrative that dominated scholarship for almost two centuries and that remains in the public memory.  There was “the glory that was Rome.”  It rotted from within due to the decline of its classical virtues.  It was threatened from without by unreasoned barbarians.  Christianity provided the final deathblow to classic Roman virtue.  The barbarians – reacting to weakness -rushed in.  Rome fell and the “Dark Ages” – a time of backwardness, superstition, and decline – fell across Europe until the Renaissance.

So what’s the problem?

Well, that story isn’t actually all that true.  First, let’s look at the result of the “Fall of Rome.”  We can really thank Gibbon and his pals for the whole idea of the “Middle Ages.”  The “middle” of what?  Well, the “middle” between that “glorious” classical past and what the philosophes saw as the “glorious” modern period.  The Middle Ages were the long centuries in between, an era dominated by the enemy of Reason – The Roman Catholic Church.  A empty dark blotch on the upward progress of man.

I thought this was really summed up well by the on-screen prologue of the movie Kingdom of Heaven.  The screenwriter talked about Europe of this period – somewhere around the 1180s (Baldwin IV, the leper king depicted in the film, died in 1184 and the Saladin’s victory at Hattin and the reconquest of Jerusalem took place in 1187) – as superstitious, backward and poor.  12th century Europe was exploding; new intellectual movements, increasing trade, growing cities, political and social change.  Frankly, if western Europe were as benighted as this traditional view maintains, the mind boggles at how it successfully interjected itself into Palestine for so long.  The fact is that the Middle Ages wasn’t a single time period – it was complex and compelling.  It had its warts, but what period doesn’t?  Still, Gibbon and his crowd have done such an excellent job of blackening the reputation of this period that this set of misconceptions is still showing up in popular entertainment (okay, the movie didn’t do that well – you know what I mean) even after decades of work by Medievalists trying to set the record straight.

The rest of the story also needs revision.  I mentioned Peter Heather’s The Fall of the Roman Empire in an earlier blog.  Heather is pulling together decades of work on Late Antiquity to try to re-evaluate the Gibbon-descended narrative of what happened to the Roman West.  He presents a very compelling – and exhaustively researched – case for a very different story.  In this story (Heather would not, I think, claim it as solely his own) the Roman world isn’t in “decline.”  It has problems, but again, what society hasn’t.  The Empire enters the crises of the late fourth and fifth centuries strong, but flawed.  The barbarians in this story are not the unreasoning primitives of earlier (and of Roman) accounts.  Centuries of interaction with the Roman world have changed these Germanic tribesmen.  Rather than unremitting hostility, their relationship with the Roman world was more symbiotic.  Then came the Huns – right at a point of particular political weakness in the Western Empire’s leadership.  The Eastern Empire is rather concerned with its own problems and with the rise of a new Persian state.  Accidents, Roman flaws, Barbarian strengths, all of these had to combine in just the right way to explain this more complicated and compelling story of how the west changed.

So, I think it is fair to say that the attitude of many modern historians toward old Edward is equally complicated.  He played an important role in shaping, even creating, what we do.  He also got some things very wrong, sometimes due to the limitations of what he could know and sometimes due to his own ideological blinders.

Which makes this all a very human story, and that is what history is all about.

Posted in History, opinion, Roman History | 8 Comments »