Monday, 31 January 2011

Debunking Myths about Hadrian's Wall

Was the Roman Empire stopped in its tracks by the Scots?  (Hint: No)

The Internet being what it is, there are probably quite a few walls blogging nowadays.  But I think it is fair to say that there are only two walls that probably deserve a blog.  The Great Wall of China should, and for all I know does, have one.  And of course Hadrian's Wall has enough charisma to pull off regular updates.

And the wall does indeed have a very good blog called Hadrianswallalive devoted to it.

Friday, 28 January 2011

Tiber and the Potomac: How did Rome survive the Crisis of the Third Century?

Brennus - A Gaulish Chief who sacked Rome in 390 BC

How did the Roman Empire survive the huge problems it faced during the crisis of the Third Century?  In my extended review of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire I have just reached the reign of Diocletian.  But before moving forward I'd like to have a look at what it was about the Roman world at this time that enabled it to emerge almost as big and powerful from the crisis as when it went into it.  My answers are largely drawn from a very interesting audio book by Thomas Madden from the Modern Scholar series called  The Tiber and the Potomac.

Monday, 24 January 2011

How the West Was Lost by Dambisa Moyo

'That's how China could finally finish off America, give them aid!'

'They are pretty much doing that already'

Exchange between Niall Ferguson and Dambisa Moyo

I don't want to get into the habit of  doing this, but this is a book I haven't actually read.  What I have done is listened to a podcast where the author describes the book then debates it with Niall Ferguson and an audience of the public.  (See details below)

Friday, 14 January 2011

Was the fall of the Roman Empire caused by Climate Change?

 The idea that climate change has played a role in the fall of the Roman Empire has a long history itself.  Gibbon mentions it as a possibility in Chapter 9 of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.  But I have looked in vain for actual information on  what exactly the climate was actually like during the time of  the empire.

Thursday, 13 January 2011

Carus: Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Chapter 12 Part 3

Following the assassination of Probus, the Praetorian prefect Carus was on hand and was well placed to succeed.  He rapidly took over and he seemed to know what he was doing.  He was about 60 with two sons and with none of the liberal inclinations of Probus.  He did not trouble to get approval from the Senate.  And from now on, the sham of senatorial approval of the emperor was dropped forever.  Carus had an obscure origin.  He appears to have been a senator but there is little evidence of him doing a great deal in that capacity.  But  he was definitely a soldier.   He gave his two sons the title of Ceasar and sent one of them, Carinus, to Gaul to sort out a rebellion.  He himself set out with Numerian, the other son on the long postponed punishment of Persia.

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Probus: Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Chapter 12 Part 2

Probus was a career soldier who had risen through the ranks, so we are back to the pattern established by Claudius and Aurelian.  Both those emperors came originally from the province of Illyricum, just over the Adriatic from Italy.  Probus also came from the same region.  It may have been that there was an Illyricum network in operation favouring people from a similar background, but given that the emperors from Illyricum all showed a high degree of ability it is more likely just to be a coincidence.  Probus at least, got his first big break from the distinctly Roman emperor Valerian.  He quickly justified an early promotion by defeating a Samartian invasion and saving the life of a near relative of the emperor while he was at it.

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Tacitus: Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Chapter 12 Part 1

"The crime of one man, and the error of many, have deprived us of the late emperor Aurelian. May it please you, venerable lords and fathers to place him in the number of the gods, and to appoint a successor whom your judgment shall declare worthy of the Imperial purple! None of those whose guilt or misfortune have contributed to our loss, shall ever reign over us."

Monday, 10 January 2011

The Book of Genesis

"In the beginning, God created the Heaven and the Earth."

The familiar opening of the King James Bible.  Being able to read the Bible is something we take for granted. It was the first thing that rolled off the newly invented printing press and most households will have at least one somewhere in the house.

Sunday, 9 January 2011

The Triumph of Aurelian: Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Chapter 11 Part 4

After the defeat of Zenobia, Aurelian could not return directly to Rome. He had also to deal with a revolt in Egypt. A local businessman called Firmus with a large fortune used it to raise an army and declare independence for Egypt.

You can’t help but think that Firmus just hadn’t been paying attention.  What exactly did he expect the all conquering Aurelian to do?  What happened next was pretty much a foregone conclusion.  On one side the battle hardened soldiers fresh from defeating the arms of Zenobia.  In charge a man with iron determination and proven track record of military skill.  Against them, a well healed papyrus trader with pockets deep enough to hire some mercenaries.  I know who my money would have been on.  Aurelian marched into Egypt, easily defeated Firmus, then had him tortured and killed. 

Saturday, 8 January 2011

Zenobia: Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Chapter 11 Part 3

The city of Palmyra originated as a simple settlement around an oasis in the middle of the desert.  The name comes from the same root as our name for Palm tree.  Its wealth and fame came about as a result of the silk trade making it a vital stopping point.

Friday, 7 January 2011

Aurelian and the Alemanni: Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Chapter 11 Part 2

Aurelian became emperor with only some very limited opposition.  The brother of Claudius made a claim, but it lasted only 17 days before he committed suicide rather than face the undoubted skill at arms of Aurelian.  This averted a civil war which could easily have undone all of the good work of Claudius. Like Claudius,  Aurelian was of peasant stock and had risen through the ranks on merit and ended up as the commander in chief of the cavalry.  This was a post that Claudius had also held before becoming emperor.  Cavalry was proving to be more and more decisive in a situation where a threat could come from any direction and a rapid response was crucial. It may well have been effective use of cavalry that gave him the edge in his military career.  Whatever, Rome needed a soldier and Aurelian was the soldier that it needed.

Thursday, 6 January 2011

Why I love my Kindle

I agonised for ages about whether or not to get a Kindle.

Claudius Gothicus: Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Chapter 11 Part 1

Its easy to be condescending about the past.  We look back with the benefit of hindsight, scholarship and having watched well made documentaries, and assume that we know better what was going on than the people actually involved.  But I doubt we are justified.  People usually know exactly what is going wrong.

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Valerian: Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Chapter 10 Part 3

Why was the empire's response to the barbarian invasions of the middle of the third century so feeble?

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Rampant Barbarians: Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Chapter 10 Part 2

The battered remains of the army acclaimed Gallus, a senior officer, as the new emperor.  It fell to him to negotiate with Cniva and to be the man who would have to actually agree to let the Goths leave with their loot and their prisoners.  If that wasn't bad enough, he also had to agree to pay the barbarians a substantial tribute.  Paying tribute. The Roman Empire paying tribute. Imagine the humiliation.

Monday, 3 January 2011

Decius and the Goths: Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Chapter 10 Part 1

Modern historians have chosen a good name when they refer to the period between the Secular Games of Philip and the reign of Diocletian as the crisis of the Third Century.  During this period the empire suffered from problems of instability, invasion, famine and plague.

Sunday, 2 January 2011

Germans: Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Chapter 9

A big current question is climate change.  This seems very contemporary , so it comes as a bit of a surprise to open the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire at Chapter 9 and find Gibbon discussing climate change and referring to a series of other writers on the subject.  It seems that quite a few writers back then were proposing that Germany had previously been much colder.

Saturday, 1 January 2011

Persians: Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Chapter 8

When Rome was just a rustic settlement a trouble only to, and only troubled by, its nearest neighbours in the centre of  Italy, far away to the east the Persians ruled a great empire.  This empire had possessions on three continents and  controlled a huge territory right up to the borders of India and including Asia Minor, Egypt and the area to the north of  Greece called Thrace.  Had this entity survived it would have put a considerable obstacle in the way of Roman expansion into  the East.