Thursday, 31 March 2011

Rise of Christianity: Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Chapter 15

I first read the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire at about the age of 14 in a copy borrowed from my local public library.  It was a huge battered old volume with thick slightly yellowed paper.  It looked old enough to have been around since not long after the fall of the Roman empire itself.

I had picked it up purely for its subject matter.  I had no idea who Gibbon was or that it was a classic.  I just read it.  Thinking about it, it was probably a nineteen thirties reprint of a Victorian edition.  One of the things about it was that it had a lot of footnotes.  The editor was fond of finding fault with Gibbon.  And when it got to chapter 15 which covers the rise of Christianity they got to be almost every page.   It was a bit like reading an argument.

Continue reading at the blog's new site

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

History of the World by H.G.Wells and a challenge to Niall Ferguson

H.G.Wells - thanks to Wikipedia for the image

When I was very young, 12 or 13 maybe, I acquired a paperback of  H.G.Wells' History of the World.  I probably bought it a jumble sale but I may have just found it left on a train.  It remains the only book which having read, I instantly went back to the first page and read it again.  I think my interest in history dates from reading this book.

Sunday, 27 March 2011

Niall Ferguson: Civilization - Is the West History? Medicine

European imperialism gets a bad press these days.  Somehow, world domination just doesn’t seem to be regarded as a valid goal any more.  But when European rule was at its height in Africa, there was an argument that it was a force for good.   It had the mission of civilising the world.  And as the Africans were the most savage, they were naturally the most in need of being civilised.

No empire in history tried as hard to run a civilising mission as the French.  They had originally gone to Africa attracted by the profits available from slavery.  But come the French Revolution there was an outbreak of idealism.  The slaves were freed.  Some were even given the vote.  In Senegal, France's black subjects went from slaves to French citizens.  Even an African army was created.

Friday, 25 March 2011

A Socialist reads the Hobbit Part 3 - The Hobbit by J.R.R.Tolkien

We have established that Tolkien was, albeit unconsciously, a socialist.  How does this new insight help us understand what is going on at the start of the Hobbit?  Lets have a look at the book.

Thursday, 24 March 2011

Dead Aid by Dambisa Moyo

Dambisa Moyo (thanks to Wikipedia for image)
If you are going to write a book proposing that giving aid to Africa is a bad idea, you are going to find it much easier to do if you are African.  If you are an African with a very solid background in economics so much the better.  As it happens Dambisa Moyo is ideally placed.  She was born in Zambia and has studied at several top UK and US universities and worked at Goldman Sachs.  So she can say things that a European or an American might find it much harder to say.

Sunday, 20 March 2011

Niall Ferguson: Civilization- Is the West History? Channel 4 Property

I was a bit disappointed with the episode on science last week, but this one was back on form.  There isn't as much to say this time.  He looked at the histories of North and South America after colonisation by Europeans.  The Spanish seized all the land, enslaved the inhabitants and created a society where a small number of people owned nearly everything.  The natives were left without economic and political rights.  They remain poor to this day.

Friday, 18 March 2011

A Socialist reads the Hobbit Part 2

C.S.Lewis and J.R.R.Tolkien had an argument once, about myths.  Initially C.S.Lewis dismissed myths because they were made up and so were untrue.  Not so, said Tolkien.  Yes they were made up, but that didn't stop them reflecting the truth.  What did he mean?

Thursday, 17 March 2011

Constantine Supreme: Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Chapter 14 Part 3

If you wanted to have a major summit meeting, by this time the place to have it was Milan.  This was where Constantine and Licinius met to celebrate the wedding of Licinius to Constantine's sister and to sort out the details of their alliance.  But they didn't have long.  Licinius found himself under attack by Maximin and Constantine was attacked by the barbarians.  
Constantine (Thanks to Wikipedia)

Maximin would no doubt have been watching developments and weighing up the new balance of power in the empire now that his ally Maxentius had been removed from the chess board.  Constantine's possessions looked good on a map, and of course included Rome itself which was good psychologically.  But the East was where the money and the trade was.  With a bit of effort Maximin could still emerge as the top dog.  And he may well have been thinking as much of survival as anything else.  Gibbon commented that Constantine had probably calculated that if he wished to live he had to rule.  The same was true of Maximin.  

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Science - a killer app?

Galileo's sketches of the Moon - was science one of the reasons for the rise of the West?  (Thanks to Wikipedia)
A lot of people have watched and enjoyed Niall Ferguson's series on Civilization.  A lot of people have been infuriated by it as well.  One thing that has divided people is his use of the phrase 'killer app'. 

Sunday, 13 March 2011

Niall Ferguson: Civilization- Is the West History? Channel 4 Science

In the Middle Ages the Muslim world had the planet's most scientifically advanced culture. It is easy to forget just how powerful they were.  At one stage the Ottoman Empire threatened Vienna.  In July 1683 the Christian world held its breath as the Turks surrounded the capital of the Holy Roman Emperor.  Leopold himself, ran away.  Ottoman victory seemed inevitable.  But supplies were short in the Turkish camp. A Polish army arrived and in a pitched battle saved the day.  Turkish cannons were melted down to cast a huge bell for the cathedral in Vienna.

How Big were Cities in the Ancient World?

It is a deep seated idea among some people that things were better in the past, and that as time goes on we are heading towards more and deeper problems and are inevitably going to suffer further decay and decline.  This was particularly noticeable in the Middle Ages - though if you read Tolkien you can find the same notion alive and well in the Twentieth Century.   But it looks like the men of the Middle Ages had good cause to regard their own time as a pale reflection of what went before.

Over on Historium I have just come across a really interesting analysis of how big cities were and how much trade there was in the ancient world.  It is pretty interesting to compare with the more formal history of the empire given in Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.  In particular it looks like urbanisation and trade were at their highest levels during the period of the five good emperors. Things never really got back to those levels during the rest of the empire and continued to decline even further after the fall of the empire in the West.  The most remarkable statistics are those of lead pollution.  These didn't get back to Roman levels until the end of the seventeenth century.

Saturday, 12 March 2011

A Socialist reads the Hobbit: The Hobbit by J.R.R.Tolkien

I was very young when I read the Narnia books - so young I can't remember a time I hadn't read them.  I loved them, and I still do. At about 11 or 12 I read the Hobbit, as it seemed to be a similar kind of book.  It really hit the spot, and I instantly transferred it to the top of my favourite book league table.  It stayed there until I got onto Lord of the Rings at the age of 14.  If I am honest, Lord of the Rings is still my favourite book. 

Thursday, 10 March 2011

Back down to Four Emperors: Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Chapter 14 Part 2

The fierce face of Maximian (thanks to Wikipedia for use of image)

How many emperors does it take to run an empire?  Diocletian tried four with reasonable results.  How did six work out?  Well on the whole not too well, and it was pretty obvious pretty quickly that one of them in particular was surplus to requirements.  Certainly having two close to each other didn't seem to be ideal.  Although there is a good case to be made that the skill and experience of long serving Maximian had saved both Maxentius and Constantine from being overrun by Severus, it soon turned out that once the crisis was over,  his presence in Rome was a bit of an embarrassment.  It had been Maxentius that had been acclaimed by the Senate and people as emperor.  And frankly, how many of us would actually want our Dad turning up to tell us how to do our job?  Especially if he had done the same job himself pretty successfully for twenty years.

Monday, 7 March 2011

Niall Ferguson - For or Against?

After reviewing the first episode of Niall Ferguson's new series last Sunday night, and managing to get it out within 15 minutes of the end of the programme, I had a look around online to see what other reactions it had generated.  To my amazement Niall Ferguson was actually trending on Twitter.  Blimey.

Overall the show seemed to get a positive reception, but while there were some very strong positives there were very strong negatives as well.   One guy on Twitter was so impressed he offered the opinion that if NF was interested, he might turn homosexual for him.  This was just about the most extreme positive view.  I have a feeling that most men and probably most women while appreciating a well put together documentary with a strong point forcefully made wouldn't go so far as to offer physical gratification to its author.

Chinese Admiral Zheng He had ships much bigger than European ones 200 years later (thanks to Wikipedia)
But there were some pretty hostile receptions too.  Some of these seem to be politically motivated. Ferguson is openly right wing and makes no secret of a free market oriented agenda. Now, my personal political views tend to the left so I can sympathise with people who disagree with Ferguson on these grounds.

Sunday, 6 March 2011

Niall Ferguson: Civilization: Is the West History? - Channel 4

Niall Ferguson - Killer Apps to explain Western Civilization's success

In 1500 the world superpower was undoubtedly China. The Chinese Empire could fit out huge ships 10 times the size of the Santa Maria which travelled half way across the globe to bring back tribute to the emperor in Nanjing.  A beautiful manuscript survives of a giraffe brought from Africa.  The purpose of these journeys was to overawe the foreigners and no doubt they were overawed.  But as Niall Ferguson points out - it was a bit like the Apollo Moon missions.  It was an impressive display of technological prowess but ultimately pointless.

Thursday, 3 March 2011

Six emperors at the same time: Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Chapter 14

Galerius - One of six simultaneous emperors (thanks to Wikipedia)
I always imagine History Books Review listeners to be a young vibrant crowd of hip young gun slingers with smart trendy clothes, snazzy streetwise attitudes and great reproductive potential.  So I have a feeling that not many of you will remember the spoof soap opera comedy series that was just called Soap.   It was never a huge hit in the UK and I don't know how well it did in the US where it was made.  I do know I used to watch this late at night in the early eighties.  Every show was introduced by a synopsis of the increasingly baffling events of the previous episodes, which ended with the phrase 'confused? you will be!'.