When Kucha Met Tang – It Happened Today, January 19 2017

Tarim Basin (Wikipedia)

Am I allowed to mention that on January 19 of 649 AD the forces of Kucha surrendered to general Ashina She’er, giving the Tang control of the northern Tarim Basin? Or would I just be wasting your time?

Lists of historic events tend to contain such things, partly perhaps to illustrate the vanity of much worldly ambition as readers go “I thought Tang was bad-tasting orange juice substitute that emerged from the Apollo moon program” and partly, I think, to be politically correct and avoid charges of “Eurocentrism”. But seriously, folks, would the world be different if this one hadn’t happened? Before you answer, close the book, step away from the keyboard and tell me where the northern or any other bit of the Tarim Basin is.

Exactly. So now let me dive deep into the pool of political correctness to fish out Hendrik van Loon’s sweeping 1921 The Story of Mankind, a panoramic history especially for children of the sort people tend not to write any more because it all makes sense and has heroes and villains. At one point in the book he says that when deciding what to include “There was but one rule. ‘Did the country or the person in question produce a new idea or perform an original act without which the history of the entire human race would have been different?’ It was not a question of personal taste. It was a matter of cool, almost mathematical judgement. No race ever played a more picturesque rôle in history than the Mongolians, and no race, from the point of view of achievement or intelligent progress, was of less value to the rest of mankind.”

In fact I would quibble a bit with his remark about the Mongols, whose impact on Russia I consider to have been disastrous for that country and, by extension, for the world because of the malevolent role an anti-Western Russia has played including in its time as the Soviet Union. (To be more exact, a half-Western Russia conflicted about its identity and rarely more vigorous than when rejecting the side of its heritage it desperately needs to embrace for its own sake and ours.) But I agree with van Loon about the larger point. A great many “historical” events are nothing of the sort, in that they contribute nothing good or even bad to the state of the world, merely perpetuating patterns harmful and repetitive wherever they occur.

OK, you could try to make a case that if China had been less or indeed more successful in its military campaigns against the various Turkic statelets in its northwest, including Kucha in Xinjiang (yes, I Googled it) its own history might possibly have been different. But it’s hard to see how, or how such a result might have occurred, let alone how the specific case of Kucha mattered either way. It was just a bunch of rhubarb on the borders of a large, somewhat amorphous civilization involving convoluted politics and chaotic military actions on behalf of dynasty that later collapsed.

It did happen on January 19. But if it hadn’t, pace van Loon, nobody would know the difference. Not even people who now live there.

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Wish I’d said that – January 19, 2017

“Civilisation is a precarious balance between barbaric vagueness and trivial order…”

W.H. Auden, summarizing A.N. Whitehead, according to Robert Conquest Reflections on a Ravaged Century

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Goodbye and Good Luck, Rome – It Happened Today, January 17, 2017

Theodosius I

There’s this joke in a book we bought at the Roman Baths in Bath this summer that goes “How do you divide the Roman Empire? With a pair of Caesars.” And it’s a good January 17 joke (no, really) because it was on that date in 395 that the heirs of Theodosius I permanently split it into the Eastern Empire under Arcadius and the short-straw crumbling Western bit given to the hapless Honorius.

I can sort of imagine the meeting where they said look, everything’s falling apart, barbarians are everywhere hacking and slaying, we were world beaters a century ago and now we can’t cope, what should we do? And some smart-aleck says maybe admit defeat, sort of, and hack off that bit of the Roman Empire with whatchamacallit in the middle, you know the place I mean, a pretty famous city, I think it’s, um, Rome, that’s it, Rome. Let’s… ditch Rome. It’s probably on fire anyway. And everybody looks at him funny and then there’s an awkward pause and the chair says “Has anybody got a better idea?” and nobody has so they do it.

It sounds like a counsel of despair. Surely they needed a bold stroke, something to fix the problem, not give in to it. But in fact it was a counsel of wisdom, following a rule that’s easy to state but hard to implement in the press of events: Reinforce success not weakness.

In statecraft, in military matters, and in business it’s far too easy to deal with a problem in the short term by drawing away resources from something that’s working to prop up something that’s not. But the more you do it, the fewer resources you devote to things that are working and the more you devote to those that are not and you spiral downward into defeat, bankruptcy or whatever particular form of ruin you were trying to stave off in the first place.

In fact the result of amputating the rotting western bit was that the Eastern Empire, later Byzantium, lasted more than 1,000 more years though the last four centuries were ignominious and those that preceded it were often squalidly magnificent, with intrigue and decadence behind a shimmering façade. The East badly missed the political and civil culture of the West once it was gone. On the other hand, refusing to face facts would probably have dragged the East down far faster without doing as much for the west as the separation did.

In the short run, the Eastern Empire was able to regroup, husband its resources, and make several determined efforts to recover the West after the Fall of Rome. In the second, the West liquidated its failing arrangements and rebounded dramatically.

I’ve often thought the Fall of Rome was much more of a political and headline event than a truly major historical development. The rule of law remained stronger there than even in Byzantium, let alone elsewhere, Charlemagne did resurrect the Holy Roman Empire by 800 AD and while there is much to criticize about the nature of government even in Western Europe after the 5th century, and many waves of barbarians difficult to stop, it’s hard to think of anywhere you’d rather have lived even then. Especially if you pick the right part, Britain, an important part of the Western Empire for almost four centuries, where humanity later got both Parliamentary self-government and the slow but increasingly effective separation of Church and State in practice that have both eluded almost everyone else to this day.

So take another page from the Romans’ playbook and reinforce success not failure. Mind you, even in the failing enterprises you’d ideally put someone less useless than Honorius in charge.

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Here Comes The Flood… Again – It Happened Today, January 16, 2017

St. Marcellus

English weather is proverbially lousy partly because it’s so wet all the time. But January 16 of 1362 was especially bad, the onset of the Grote Mandrenke which if your low Saxon is in good working order will alarm you because it means the “Great Drowning of Men”.

Also known as the “Second St. Marcellus Flood” because it peaked on his feast day, January 17, the Grote Mandrenke took at least 25,000 lives in the British Isles and northern Europe from Denmark to the Netherlands. A previous “First St. Marcellus flood” had hit in 1219, drowning some 36,000 people in northern Europe, which surely indicates that extreme weather did not begin when Al Gore hit middle-age.

In fact the Grote Mandrenke was the result of a massive southwesterly Atlantic gale that sent a storm side surging far inland, sweeping away islands, cutting off parts of the mainland and wiping entire towns off the map to the point that some cannot now be located even through archeology. And it was, as the “Second St. Marcellus flood” business indicates, far from unusual in that period.

Wikipedia notes blandly that “This storm tide, along with others of like size in the 13th century and 14th century, played a part in the formation of the Zuiderzee, and was characteristic of the unsettled and changeable weather in northern Europe at the beginning of the Little Ice Age.” But hang on. Doesn’t that sound exactly like “climate change”? But hardly “man-made” or, if you like long words, “anthropogenic.”

OK then. If drastic, menacing climate change has been clearly happening since long before humans invented factory mass production, and has been known to have been happening, it tells you what?

The politically correct answer is nothing. Everybody contemplating any issue other than the current panic knows climate has always varied, often suddenly and with dramatic consequences, and says it openly. Glaciers suddenly advance and suddenly retreat. The Earth warms and cools repeatedly. But never mind. Pay no attention. The science is settled. It’s all our fault.

Except the science is no more settled than the climate itself. The famous “Little Ice Age” itself, which brought the Middle Ages to something of a screeching halt and lasted into Victorian times, was not caused by humans. But nor logically then was its end, which set off the warming trend that persisted through most of the 20th century. Indeed most of that warming awkwardly preceded the large increase in atmospheric CO2 to which it is attributed by those who do not believe that causes must precede effects for science, or life, to make any sense.

Blaming humans for unstable weather is about as rational as blaming St. Marcellus. Which people in the Middle Ages were too sensible to do, I might pointedly add.

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Napoleon Not Blownapart – It Happened Today, January 14, 2017… or didn’t

Can we just get back to assassinating politicians for a moment here? As a theoretical exercise, I hasten to add. For instance Napoleon III, the “French Emperor” in a rather comic opera sense from December 2, 1852 to September 4, 1870 after having been President from December 20, 1848 until he build himself a throne in a coup.

He was eventually overthrown in the aftermath of the humiliating French defeat in the Franco-Prussian war in which the Emperor himself was captured. D’oh. But years earlier, he was not blown up on January 14, 1858, unlike eight members of his escort and bystanders when would-be assassins threw three bombs at the royal carriage on its way to the opera. It was a pretty serious effort; over 100 people were also injured.

I have repeatedly quoted Disraeli’s dictum that “Assassination has never changed the history of the world.” But for purposes of discussion not dogmatism because I’m far from certain that he is still right even if he was then. I’m not even convinced that assassination changed history on June 28, 1914, because Germany was bent on launching World War I anyway so the shooting of Franz Ferdinand was in many ways just a convenient occasion for doing so. But what about the people who were not assassinated but might have been?

Napoleon III was a vainglorious nit whose meddling in the conduct of the Crimean War by telegraph helped prolong that conflict. But assassinating him in 1858 wouldn’t have helped in that regard because it ended in 1856. And I don’t think history changed much because that war took longer than it might have; its major impact was its unsettling impact on Russia due to this unexpected defeat, at least unexpected in the eyes of the Tsarist regime, right in their breadbasket.

What, though, of the Franco-Prussian War? Might a better-led France, a less absurdly led France, either have avoided the war or fought it better, perhaps even with allies? And if they had, might the subsequent course of European history and the lessons drawn from the brief 1870-71 war have been sufficiently different to avoid or dramatically alter the course of World War I?

I’m not endorsing assassination even of people who put themselves outside the law by staging coups. And to give him as much credit as possible, at the possible expense of the French themselves, Napoleon III subsequently legitimized his seizure of power in a reasonably fair referendum. But if those bomb-throwers had had better aim, the world might be considerably different. Even better.

Of course, the result might also have been that Germany won the big European war that was probably brewing around the turn of the century. Or things might have unfolded much as they did. But Napoleon was an idiot. And even though fools are not in short supply including in positions of leadership, including in France, it’s hard to believe it didn’t matter at all that a major European power was ruled by one for almost a quarter-century ending in humiliating disaster for the man and his nation.

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A Feeble Blow Against Slavery – It Happened Today, January 13, 2017

So I’m trying hard to be fair here. Which requires me to note that on January 13 of 1435, before European colonization really got going, Pope Eugene IV issued a papal bull called Sicut Dudum which said you couldn’t enslave Canary Islanders who had converted to Christianity or were about to.

Sixtus IV was obliged to repeat this warning in “Regimini Gregis”, threatening the excommunication of seafarers who enslaved Christians. But as I’m sure you know, it didn’t stick. There was an initial argument that enslaving Africans was OK because they weren’t Christian, but when slaves began announcing their conversion and requesting their freedom it is sadly predictable that they didn’t get it. (Incidentally the Canary Islands have a long and interesting history including, despite being off West Africa, being settled by people who appear to have been more Arab than sub-Saharan African.)

In some cases slave conversions may have been a dodge to get freedom. And it’s not obvious how you would enforce the rule if, after being liberated, they turned around and said actually I don’t find your religion convincing on sober reflection. But it doesn’t really matter in the simpleminded sense that it’s just plain wrong to enslave anybody of any race. A point that was in fact made by the local bishop, Fernando Calvetos, prompting Eugene’s bull.

It’s amazing the feebleness of the reasoning, in retrospect, for enslaving people. The original impetus behind Sicut Dudum was that as the Canaries were disputed between Portugal and Castille people said we might as well, you know, just rush over there in the absence of effective authority and stuff the inhabitants into sacks or something. Even though many of those inhabitants had already converted to Christianity before the shackles descended.

It’s also amazing how readily people acquiesced in what amounted to a rebirth of slavery in the Christian or at least Roman Catholic world after it had all but vanished in the Middle Ages. Including in many cases the Church itself. So it is important to note that there were at least some moves in the other direction, however inadequate, including Sicut Dudum itself, which imposed the penalty of excommunication for anyone who did not free any enslaved Canary Islander. As well as the arguably more significant point that it did not apply more widely, then or later.

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Across the River and Into the Italy – It Happened Today, January 10, 2017

On this date, January 10, back in 49 B.C., Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon, cast the die, and waded into an unending series of metaphors as well as a civil war that he won unless you count the bit where he was assassinated.

Especially in an era where cultural literacy is being lost, if not actively buried, it’s important to remember what crossing the Rubicon meant technically. The Rubicon is a shallow river in northeastern Italy, the crossing of which is not necessarily memorable as a rule. But (assuming the name has not wandered in the last 2000 years, which is a matter of some dispute) crossing it was a very big deal back in Caesar’s day because it was the frontier between the conquered Roman province of Cisalpine Gaul, and Italy proper. And while appointed governor held military authority (“imperium”) in the provinces, only elected magistrates could do so within Italy itself given its proximity to Rome on which, just possibly, a man with soldiers under his command might suddenly march to seize power or some such.

For instance Julius Caesar. Caesar led his 13th legion (“Gemina”) into Italy for the specific purpose of seizing power. And when he did so, he uttered the once-famous phrase “alea iacta est” (“the die is cast”) meaning he had gambled everything and it was now too late to turn back because for an appointed governor to bring soldiers into Italy was open revolt and a capital offence.

Generally speaking if we use the metaphor today with any concept of its meaning, we refer simply to a decisively bold act. But there is a bit more to it, and it is less unequivocally praiseworthy. The reason crossing into Italy, over the Rubicon or any other otherwise insignificant marker, was a capital offence was that it was an attack on established authority and moreover in Caesar’s day, as Rome was still a Republic albeit very rickety by that point, an attack on civilian rule by those meant to be defending it instead.

The crucial political problem, then, now and always, has been to create a government able to protect liberty without being able to threaten it. It is by no means a simple problem or it would have been solved more often including in Rome. But Caesar’s contribution was to shove it aside in favour of the question of which strongman should rule, whose answer is far simpler but far less satisfactory.

The main difficulty through history is that most governments have been too weak to sustain themselves against invasion or upheaval even when plenty strong enough to oppress their citizens in the average course of events. You could not solve the former problem by further strengthening it without making the latter even worse. And you could not solve the latter without making the former worse.

The Romans did better than a lot of people, sustaining a Republic for nearly five hundred years. It had its flaws, both in its internal law and in its tendency to expand without regard for the niceties of law or justice, although it was on the whole a great deal better than its rivals in foreign as in domestic policy. But it caromed between anarchy and tyranny until the latter finally prevailed decisively, alternating the two problems rather than finding a solution that transcended them.

Not until medieval parliaments, backed by an alert and armed citizenry, did a more stable and attractive solution emerge, one we still enjoy today although its foundations are showing worrisome cracks and signs of crumbling. And so when we recall that in crossing the Rubicon Caesar cast the die once and for all, we should recall not merely his admirable boldness and directness but also his understandable but regrettable determination to bury popular government which, after the conspirators buried him, did succeed in the persons of Augustus, Tiberius and on down through the imperial centuries.

Like a few other great conquerors, such as Alexander and Napoleon, Julius Caesar has always seemed to me to combine military genius and political adroitness with a curious vagueness about what it was all for. And while it takes nerve to cross the Rubicon and courage is in principle a virtue, it was not in Caesar’s case directed to a praiseworthy end.

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