history


I just finished this book by James C. Scott, and it’s amazing. It’s one of those books that’ll unwind your mind and rethread your head. I’m tempted to rewrite the early history of Almea, and you may want to do the same with your worlds. Oh, hey, is it clear that the post title is the book title? It’s called Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States.

hamurabi

Actually a bad guy

Everything you know is wrong

At some point, maybe in sixth grade, you probably read some histories that suggested, more or less:

  • humanity progressed from foraging, to pastoralism, to agriculture, the last being true civilization
  • each of these steps was an advance in freedom and prosperity
  • nomads and foragers did not understand agriculture, otherwise they would have immediately adopted it
  • agriculture was necessary for large permanent settlements
  • since agriculture developed, the world has been dominated by large agricultural states

All of these statements are wrong. A truer set of statements would be:

  • People prefer foraging or pastoralism, but can be coerced into agriculture
  • Agriculture (and to a lesser extent pastoralism) is a step backwards in freedom and prosperity
  • Nomads and foragers understand how crops work and sometimes plant them, but prefer not to be tied down to a much more tedious and unhealthy lifestyle
  • Large permanent settlements preceded agriculture by a few thousand years
  • For most of history, the bulk of humanity has lived outside the effective control of states

There’s a simple reason the state dominates history, as opposed to humanity: because that’s what generated stone cities and writing that survived. It takes a lot more work to uncover what happened before states appeared, or in areas where the towns were built from perishable materials. Quite a lot of that work has been done in Mesopotamia, which is the focus of the book. (On the other hand, there’s a huge amount that we’ll just never know.)

Our secret weapon: Fire

A nice trendy argument is when the Anthropocene began: the geological era dominated by humans. Was it when we noticed global warming, or when the industrial revolution began? Scott makes a case that it began 400,000 years ago, when hominins mastered fire. Fire greatly changed our diet, and our own bodies and brains, because it allowed us to cook both meat and vegetables, unlocking a great deal more nutrients. Our huge brains are the product of fire: the other great apes can’t support equally sized brains with their diet of raw food. Fire has shortened our guts, which are about a third as long as those of chimps’, because we don’t need as much digestion. We can eat a wider range of things; that, and the warmth of fires, allowed us to greatly expand our habitat.

What’s less realized is that we also used fire to transform the landscape. Sometimes this was accidental; sometimes a purposeful hunting/foraging technique. Fire could be used to chase prey into a killing zone. More subtly, it encourages certain crops which we happen to find useful, and animals that grazed on those crops. Just about every landscape we consider “natural” has already been modified, thousands of years ago, by humanity, largely through fire.

A little fact which underlies the scale of this change: when Europeans reached the New World, their diseases killed off perhaps a majority of the natives– who for centuries had been using fire to clear the forest. The forests sprang back, incidentally absorbing so much CO2 that global climate cooled, from roughly 1500 to 1850.

Next there’s an extended discussion of what happened in lower Mesopotamia and when. The first oddity is that it looks like there were permanent settlements by 6500 BCE, about 1500 years before solid evidence for agrarian villages. The second is that it took another 2000 years before states developed. (Mesopotamia was not the pioneer in sedentism; there was year-long settlement at various sites around 10,000 BCE.)

What sort of area could support sedentism before agriculture? Not the arid desert that much of this region is today… but at that time it wasn’t desert, it was wetlands, if not actually under the sea: almost half of the current land from Baghdad to the Persian Gulf was then part of the gulf.  Ancient Ur was on the coast. The land was about 10 meters below the current level; the difference is due to 10,000 years of sediment from the Tigris and Euphrates.

It was very rich in resources, especially as it was a mixture of coastal and river environments. Frequent changes of the watercourse allowed planting on rich, naturally cleared silt without irrigation. Animals and birds abounded, and migratory gazelles and asses came through, and could be corralled into narrow areas for hunting. If an area is sufficiently rich, you don’t need cultivated fields to support villages.  (Another such area is the pre-Columbian Pacific Northwest.)

Agriculture isn’t an either-or proposition. The same people could hunt, forage, take care of animals. The same plants that were later cultivated grew wild, and foragers had long had the equipment to harvest it and prepare the seeds for cooking. The sort of opportunistic sowing just described (right after a flood) took little extra effort.

This ecological zone survived to modern times, but farther south, and the lifestyle did too, among the Marsh Arabs. Saddam Hussein drained the marshes in the 1990s, displacing half a million people and turning the marshes to desert. The dikes were breached after the US invasion; the marshes are partially restored but few of the people have moved back.

Why plant?

The big question is: if things were so good, why did Mesopotamia move to agriculture at all?

Ester Boserup posited that the change must be out of desperation, e.g. overcrowding, the loss of large game, climate change. For Mesopotamia, there doesn’t seem to be evidence for any of these. Scott can’t suggest anything better, so really we don’t know why the changeover happened.

Of course, once it has happened, it has a certain inertia. You can support a much higher population with agriculture– which means that though individuals can and do retreat from the lifestyle, entire populations can’t.

Co-evolution in the village

There’s a section on what Scott calls “late Neolithic multi-species resettlement camps”… that is, farming villages. The jargon is meant to underline that a bunch of co-evolution was going on, as crops, weeds, domestic animals, uninvited vermin, and people all adapted to living together.

A lot of this was driven by the humans, of course. In general we want crops with increased fruit or grain size, no toxins, no hard cases or spiky protrusions, and which are easy to harvest– e.g., heads that don’t shatter. For animals we want docility, increased fertility, tolerance for cramped conditions and a monotonous diet, and comfort around humans. We also get some unintended consequences: less genetic diversity and robustness; and among the animals, neoteny, reduced sexual dimorphism, and a certain stupidity. (This even affected our vermin: rats and mice who live among us, for instance, are smaller than their wild counterparts.) Many of our crops and domestic animals couldn’t survive without us.

Something that affected all the species was disease. Cramped and unsanitary conditions spread diseases not only within but between species. (Measles comes from sheep or goats; smallpox from camels; influenza from waterfowl.) And epidemics were one of the failure modes of this lifestyle: they could wipe out a settlement, a kingdom, or an army.

More subtly, living in villages affected us too. Evolution did not stop with the Cro-Magnons; we’ve become adapted not only to cooking but to grains and to large quantities of alcohol (historically healthier than the nearby water). In the West, we’re adapted to drinking milk in adulthood. We have some resistance to all those new diseases. Arguably we too are domesticated animals, subject to some of the same changes, including smaller size, duller teeth, neoteny, less sexual dimorphism, and tolerance for crowding and stress.

The bad guy enters

Cue the Imperial March, because now our villain enters: The State. States appear in Mesopotamia around 3100 BC, and everything goes to hell.

In brief: with the state, you get all the drudgery of agriculture, plus coercion and oppression. Someone evidently noticed that if 90% of the people were farmers, a quarter or half their produce could be taken from them, supporting an elite: kings, nobles, priests, soldiers, merchants, craftsmen. (To be precise: if left alone, the people wouldn’t produce this surplus; the state coerces them to produce more than they otherwise would.)

It’s a bad bargain for the farmer… which is why, to the extent of their power, the authorities kept them from leaving. And that’s if they were free to begin with: there was extensive use of slaves, and one of the main purposes of war was not to conquer territory, but to grab captives.

Scott’s particular insight is that states worldwide, up to at least 1800 CE, were based on grain, and that this was no accident. (For the purposes of this discussion that includes rice and maize.) Grain is a tax collector’s dream: it ripens all at the same time, so you can go right in and take a large part of the harvest. (To ensure this uniformity, states often mandated that fields be planted at a particular time.) Grain can be stored for years, and it’s one of the highest nutrient-per-weight foods, so it can be transported long distances.

Can you have a state based on tubers or manioc instead? Not nearly as easily. Tubers don’t have to be harvested all at once; indeed, the best place to store them is in the ground, till they’re needed. If the tax man wants a share, he has to go and dig them up, and if he does, he has a wagonload that’s heavy, easily spoiled, and barely worth transporting.

All the major empires, Scott asserts, are based on grain– and their effective area of control, as opposed to the lines they or we draw on maps, is the limit of grain cultivation. Beyond that are two major populations.

The misfits

One is the non-grain-growers: people who don’t fit, or don’t want to fit, into the tax man’s grain system. Scott has written another book, The Art of Not Being Governed, about the huge region that never quite fit into the East Asian states: southwestern China, northern Vietnam, Thailand, and Burma, and Assam. These are largely mountainous areas where it was hard to grow grain, and where the people grew other things, as well as raising animals, and if necessary melted away when the administrators and armies attempted to enforce control.

The other exception is the pastoralists, as well as mixed groups (like the ancient Germans and the Jurchens) who farmed or herded as circumstances warranted. Though his picture of states is grim, he presents the nomads as far healthier, happier, and more egalitarian.

One reason, it must be said, is that the nomads noticed that the surplus of the peasants could be skimmed off as easily by themselves as by their own elites. So the peasants endured not only the depradations of the taxman, but that of the horselord.

States naturally fought back, but it’s not easy to defeat nomads, who after all have no cities to loot, and can easily melt away into the steppes. But cooperation was often preferable to war. Nearer nomads could be bribed to fight farther ones, or be co-opted as cavalry.

Most of our sources come from states, and we should be skeptical when states claim that non-grain areas or nomads acknowledge their suzerainty. That was a way of saving face; the reality was often that effective control over either was impossible, and huge sums were spent to keep the nomads happy.

Collapse

The whole structure of states was precarious. States could collapse due to defeat in war, or ecological change, or epidemics, or by peasant revolts, or by the increasing toll of deforestation and salinization. In early Mesopotamia, states were particularly prone to collapse– as Scott puts it, the interregna outnumbered the regna. One historian, Robert Adams, notes that the Third Dynasty of Ur was unusual in lasting a hundred years. Mesopotamia as a whole seems to have collapsed from 1800 BCE to 700 BCE; during this period urban settlements had 1/4 the area they’d had previously. The Greeks famously collapsed around 1100 BCE, losing their cities and literacy for hundreds of years.

Such times are called dark ages, but given the general misery under state control, they may well have been a relatively pleasant breathing space for the people. They were certainly more egalitarian, and cultural output was probably not less; it simply switched from written to oral modes. (The Iliad and the Odyssey are products of Greece’s dark age.)

If you put all this together, and try to look at humanity as a whole before 1500, it may well be that the majority of humans were outside state control, and all the better for it.

Lessons

If there’s a takeaway for your understanding of history, or for your conworld, I’d suggest something like this:

  • The fluidity of people about foraging/herding/agriculture. It’s not a progression, and the same population, or individuals, might engage in all three.
  • How long it takes between sedentism and states. (I’m sure I didn’t leave enough time in Arcél…)
  • The importance of grain. Think hard about starting a state outside river valleys suitable for grain production.
  • The frequency of collapse in the first millennia.
  • The fact that states are bad news for much of the population.

These are not ironclad rules, especially in fantasy. It’s not that all cities were hellholes. (Just one detail: Chinese cities were probably healthier than European ones, simply because the manure was a valuable substance and removed from the city.)

There were also mitigations Scott doesn’t mention, such as debt jubilees. (See David Graeber… I think that’s the first time I’ve cited him as being more cheerful than another book.)

Some grains of salt

As ever, I have a few cavils. One is that Scott can be annoyingly low on details. You won’t get any explanations of how Sumerian city-states differed from the Assyrian or Babylonian empires. He gives population estimates without explaining where they came from or how reliable they are. He admits that slavery and war pre-existed states, which surely undercuts his major villain, but he provides no way to estimate how much.

More seriously, I’m not sure that his ideas apply so well to Africa, or the Americas, or India.

  • There were kingdoms in Africa, for instance, but so far as I know agriculture never depended mostly on grain, as it did in Egypt or Mesopotamia or China.
  • He mentions the Inka and Maya, but on his own admission maize is not as easy for the tax collector as wheat– it can be left in the field to dry.
  • As for India, at one point Scott says that only two large empires appeared in its history, the Guptas and the Mughals– a statement of colossal ignorance.

I’m inclined to think his ideas apply well enough to temperate areas, but he should have left tropical areas to another study.

Finally, I think he over-paints the picture of the state as tyranny and “barbarism” as pleasant and egalitarian. You could be captured and sold into slavery by nomads, or as a nomad. Or you could be forced to serve in the khan’s wars. And the state/nomad balance didn’t always favor the latter: e.g. Rome was not really bothered by the Germans until the 200s.

And the lot of peasants varied– e.g. it seems to have always been better to be a colonist, when your numbers were few and therefore you had to be treated fairly well. I’m inclined to think it’d be better to be a Chinese peasant in the 1C than the 18C, because game and trees were still available.  For that matter, you’d really want to be born in the beginning rather than the end of a dynasty: taxes were lower, the state was more organized, and bandits were held in check.

(Also, wasn’t 19C Ireland a potato state? Scott doesn’t even mention it.)

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Taat’s the title of a new book by Josephine Quinn. Her hot take is that the Phoenicians never existed– that is, that they were not really a nation, an ethnic group, or a civilization as we understand these terms.

tinnit

The Carthaginian goddess Tinnit

I don’t think she proves her case, but she does show that it’s complicated. First, it’s quite true that the Phoenicians were never “a nation”. They were usually divided into city-states, and from about -600 the Levantine cities were ruled by one empire after another.

(The major cities were Sidon and Tyre, which are both in modern Lebanon. The first was natively Ṣīdūn, today Ṣaydā; the second was Ṣūr— we owe the T to the Greeks. Carthage was Qart-ḥadašt ‘new city’.)

But you can have a people without a nation. The Greeks and the Romans certainly thought of the Phoenicians as a people, mostly a competing people. They spoke a common language, they were gifted in commerce, and they were said to be very religious, and also duplicitous. Greek φοῖνιξ refers to a Phoenician, to the characteristic and expensive dye (Tyrian purple) they sold, and to the date palm. Later it was applied to the mythical bird. (Before reading Quinn’s book I had never made the connection between Phoenicia and phoenix.) The Romans adapted φοῖνιξ as poenus, at a time when they didn’t bother to mark Greek aspiration. This gave the adjective pūnicus, the source of Punic.

We also have the viewpoint of the Israelites. A modern reader of the Bible may be tempted to see Israel’s neighbors– the Ammonites, the Moabites, the Philistines, the Edomites, and the Phoenicians– as entirely unlike them. In fact most of them belonged to the same linguistic group, Northwest Semitic, and were (according to Quinn) mutually intelligible. If you look at what the Bible actually describes, the Canaanite gods and goddesses were broadly worshipped in Israel, to the distress of the prophets; it wasn’t until after the Exile that the Jews emerged as uniformly monotheistic. Several Israelite kings married Phoenician princesses.

From a Middle Eastern point of view, then, the Phoenicians were simply the coastal, seafaring part of the general Canaanite population. Aramaic is another member of the family, basically derived from the dialect of Damascus; it became the lingua franca of the entire Levant and Mesopotamia until the Arab conquest.

What did the Phoenicians call themselves? Probably they didn’t. Reviewing hundreds of years of inscriptions, Quinn finds that they mostly identified with their cities (i.e. Tyre, Sidon, Carthage, etc.). There doesn’t seem to be a Phoenician word for Phoenician. There are a tiny number of references to KN’N (Canaan).

In architecture and sculpture, the Phoenicians didn’t seem to have a style of their own; they freely borrowed from Egyptian, Greek, and Persian styles.

They were not united by religion. There were a number of Canaanite gods, and it seems that each city picked a different small number to worship. There are two entirely separate cults associated with Carthage.

  • One was associated with Baal Hammon and Tinnit; their worshippers erected temples which focused on sacrifice of animals and occasionally infants. This cult seems to be limited to two sites in Africa (including Carthage), plus Malta, Motya in Sicily, and six sites in Sardinia.
  • An entirely different cult was centered on the god Melqart (‘king of the city’), who was particularly favored in Tyre. Melqart was worshipped in Carthage, Cadiz, Utica, and a few other cities. The Greeks identified him with Herakles; they routinely did this with foreign gods, but the Carthaginians seemed to agree: they borrowed Herakles’ lion poncho for representations of Melqart.

The strongest argument against Quinn’s thesis (to her credit, she brings this up herself) is that starting in -410, Carthage minted coins that featured a date palm.  This seems to be an acceptance of the Greek term φοῖνιξ as a marker of “Phoenicity”, issued just at the time Carthage was assuming greater control over the western Mediterranean.  (It was never exactly an empire in the Roman sense; its territories were more allies than subjects.) Tyre itself minted coins with a palm tree about two centuries later.

Carthage always remembered its relationship with its founding city Tyre, and was said to send tithes there regularly. At the same time, Quinn points to a particular moment of diplomacy where a Tyrian was treated as a foreigner. These facts aren’t hard to reconcile, if you think of the relationship between the US and Britain, or Brazil and Portugal. You can feel that there’s a special relationship while also being conscious of the differences.

You could settle all this by looking at Phoenician literature… only there’s almost none to consult, just a bunch of short inscriptions. Perhaps, unlike the Greeks and Israelites but like the Persians, they simply didn’t have much to say. But more likely we’ve just lost it all. Carthage is said to have had a library, which the Romans donated to local kings, keeping only a treatise on agriculture. If you get hold of a time machine, I urge you to get to Carthage before its conquest and record the contents.

The Phoenicians have a long tail in history. The tophet cult only increased after the Roman conquest: there’s something like 75 sites in the eastern Maghreb with tophets dated to the -2C through the 2C. Punic continued to be spoken in the region until the time of St Augustine (fl. 400). And quite a few nations have seen themselves in the Phoenicians, including the British, the Irish, and the Lebanese.

Oh! I think I forgot to say how the book is. I enjoyed it a lot, and learned a lot; don’t take my statement that she doesn’t quite prove her thesis as a complaint. She assembles all the evidence she can and is willing to look at it in new ways, and I think that’s the proper way to handle history.

If you wait long enough to read one of the classics, maybe it’ll be conveniently forgotten. Or maybe you’ll just pick it up anyway. I just finished Vol. 1 of Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, the hot bestseller of 1781. This volume covers the period from AD 180 to 395, in 956 closely printed pages.

emperor-julian

Julian. Not accidental that he’s depicted in philosopher’s robes

Should you read a history written 237 years ago? Well, sure, if you want to. Gibbon is old-school history, which means it’s all about the Great Men and the far more numerous Not Great Men. But he’s quite readable, he relies closely on primary sources, and it’s pretty hard to make this swath of history dull. Not only were the emperors a motley crew of heroes, tyrants, and perverts (sometimes all of the above), but the topic of disaster never loses its allure.

I can’t say how much Gibbon has held up as history– he’s probably pretty good at what he does, which is retelling the major wars and events of each reign. Look at a more modern history, like this one from Adrian Goldsworthy, for more of a social and administrative overview.

What does Gibbon think went wrong? Well, he’s big on the influence at the top: there were too many timid, tyrannical, or cruel buffoons in charge. And he’s big on the morale of a society– he thinks Republican Rome was a lovely combination of martial vigor, civic virtue, law, and manliness. (One of his worst epithets is “effeminate”.) Yet these are probably only old-fashioned ways of saying what Goldsworthy pointed out: the empire was fatally weakened by internal strife and an out-of-control army long before the barbarians took over.

Gibbon is, by the way, horribly and casually racist. He can’t resist calling the Persians effeminate (and prone to luxury and tyranny), the Jews anti-social and narrow, the Africans ineffectual and stupid, the steppe nomads as ugly and lazy. (They’re lazy because they don’t grow crops, you see. Adam Smith made the same mistake, not realizing that some regions just can’t support agricultural states.) Yet by his own account the Romans were despotic, often faithless and cruel, and not “manly” at all. The racism is completely gratuitous– he’s perfectly capable of soberly describing the respectable Persian religion and recognizing the virtues of their armies.

He’s also completely in favor of empire, Roman or British; manly nations should just spread out over the globe as far as they can, though again, by his own showing, no one has ever made these huge empires last too long without falling apart.

He also has a rather parochial kind of aristophilia, in that he naturally prefers and argues for whatever most resembles the British kingdom of his own day. He doesn’t like democracy or too much power in the hands of the people; he doesn’t much like absolute monarchy; it’s evident that he expects and wishes the Roman Senate would act like the British aristocrats of his day: rule the country in a more or less benign way, consult with each other, support a congenial ruler though holding the ultimate upper hand, and serving as the officers of both military and civil administration. I doubt the Republic was really what he imagined it was, and the imperial-era Senate certainly wasn’t. He clearly understands both why the Emperors needed to be generals, and why the Roman state was ultimately weakened because of military rule.

For much of the last 200 years, the book has had a slight tincture of scandal, because of his treatment of Christianity. I’d had the vague impression, in fact, that he was an atheist. Not at all; in fact he goes out of his way to talk about the Deity and Providence and how all the heretics were wrong; there’s really nothing here that a Christian could really object to. What earlier generations hated, of course, was that Gibbon wrote as a historian and not as a partisan. He downplays the persecution of Christianity (really, most emperors ignored it; only Diocletian really cracked down on it, and for a relatively brief period); he is not impressed with the Christians’ doctrinal squabbles or fearsome counter-prosecution of pagans; and he’s quite sympathetic to Roman religion. (Though he really hates Nordic religion.) He criticizes the luxury and venality of the 4C bishops, and is just a bit sarcastic about the miracles of the ecclesiastical sources. (He points out that if the sun really darkened during the Crucifixion, it’s rather surprising that Roman naturalists never mentioned it.)

An unexpected hero of the book, in fact, is the emperor Julian, who reigned just from 361-3, and received the title “the Apostate” because he reversed his uncle Constantine’s imperial embrace of Christianity and attempted to restore paganism. His apostasy is more excusable when you learn that the people who taught him were the same people who murdered most of his family. He had a natural leaning toward philosophy and loved hanging around with Neo-Platonist teachers; but he turned out to have an aptitude for war and statecraft as well. He turned back some Germanic invasions, reluctantly was acclaimed emperor by his troops, was personally abstemious and workaholic, and won the East by accident, when the emperor Constantius died. He advanced into Persia with some remarkable victories, inspiring his soldiers and dashing about the battlefield like a second Alexander… and then took a Persian javelin in his liver. Oops! The Romans kind of fell apart, extricating themselves from Persia only at the price of a significant loss of territory.

An alternative history where Julian lived longer would be interesting. It was probably too late for paganism– but the fact that most of his army flip-flopped from Christian to pagan and then back again, as his career waxed and suddenly ended, shows that the religious struggle was far more chancy than later events made it look.

Gibbon goes on, perhaps too much, about the politics of the intra-Christian squabbles, but doesn’t really bother to explain the theological problems. He simply assumes that the later-orthodox position is obviously right. This does a disservice to his own story, since in this period Arianism was actually dominant, and he can’t really explain why. It doesn’t seem to occur to him that if it weren’t for a few historical accidents, one of the “heretic” sects would be orthodoxy and the other would be obviously wrong.

Another curious topic: the extension of Roman citizenship. The Greek attitude toward citizenship was like Trump’s: make it as hard to get as possible. The Romans extended citizenship first to their Italian allies, then to more and more subjects, and finally (in 212) to all non-slaves within the Empire. Gibbon more or less disapproves of this: he’s all about the manliness, and obviously the city of Rome had lost its martial abilities and then its pre-eminence, well before the barbarians started causing trouble. But (say) Colin McEvedy thinks that this was one of Rome’s great strengths. The city itself could afford to decline because more and more people were willing to fight and die for the Roman name and civilization. (To the end, the Greek “Byzantine Empire” called itself and its people Romans.) If it had kept citizenship as a prize for itself, its empire would be as short-lived as those of Athens or Macedonia.

I’m not sure if I’ll go on to Volume 2… in many ways Vol. 1 tells you all you need to know. It ends just as the Germans are invading and the Huns aren’t far behind; the actual fall of the Western Empire in the next 80 years is just anticlimax.

A little linguistic note: you have to watch out for a few words that have changed meaning in 237 years. E.g. of one Gothic leader Gibbon says “the love of rapine and the hatred of Rome seconded, or even prevented, the eloquence of his ambassadors.” This could easily be taken as the opposite of what he means. We’d say that these things endorsed or preceded his diplomacy.

(Perhaps you’re wondering if a Rome Construction Kit is in the future? That would be fun, not least because I’d love to improve my Latin. And ooh, the world needs a history that puts all the macrons back on the Latin names. But no, this is just side reading for now.  Maybe later…)

 

 

In your first essay on Asimov’s Psychohistory, you wrote:

Discussions of psychohistory usually turn into debates on the role of the individual: can one person significantly affect the course of history or not? We all have our pet cases proving one point of view or the other. I have a strong opinion on the issue– but I’m going to suppress it.

Ok, now what if you don’t suppress your strong opinion on the issue? What’s your take?

—Raphael

king-court-cards

That refers to the Great Man theory, most clearly articulated by Thomas Carlyle. the opposite poles of the debate:

  • History is made by  Great Men, and all you need to study in history is the sequence of great men– mostly kings and religious leaders, though to appear cultured we can throw in a writer now and then.
  • History is made by grand social forces, from the raw and specific (who has the oil or the silver) to the abstract (a widespread desire for national rebirth). Looking at Great Men is simplistic hero worship; social forces produce them, and if one dude didn’t come forward, another would have.

Very roughly, we might call these “old-fashioned” and “modern” ways of writing history. An old-style history was the story of one king after another. A modern history looks at a far wider range of actors, tries to find underlying causes, concentrates not on how leaders differ but on how societies do.

My position isn’t very exciting after all; it’s that both poles are obviously wrong. Or both true, if you prefer.

In general, the Great Man theory is silly. If you have a question like “Why did Europe spill out over the whole globe after 1500?”, then looking at key figures is virtually a waste of time. Even key abstract factors are subject to furious debate. But it’s hard to seriously maintain that that whole process would have proceeded entirely differently if a different set of leaders had won out.

In science and invention, it’s especially evident that very often an idea is just in the air, and we over-fetishize the question of who got it first. Newton and Leibniz both invented calculus; the steam engine was a collaboration of a whole series of British and French inventors; the US and USSR were both in a position to develop atomic weapons and spaceships. The development of the Roman Empire, of capitalism, of the industrial revolution, of anti-colonialism, of the civil rights movement, would have gone about the same even if some of their particular founders were hit by a bus.

Plus, I do prefer modern histories! If I read about Ming China, I’d feel cheated by an account of the lives of each of the Zhu rulers.  I want to know about how the laws changed, why they sent out treasure fleets and why they stopped, how well the examination system worked, how the economy was developing, why Neo-Confucianism was so attractive, how administration differed from previous dynasties, how the environmental situation was growing more serious, how women and minorities were faring.

Yet, it still seems obvious to me that certain people change history. Most of Carlyle’s list— Muhammad, Shakespeare, Luther, Rousseau, Pericles, Napoleon, Wagner— I’d actually throw out, except for one: Muhammad. Though he had intriguing forerunners, notably Zaid ibn Amr, there was no historical inevitability to a monotheistic religion appearing just then, uniting all of Arabia, and then bursting out to take over territory from Spain to Indonesia.

People can and have speculated endlessly about the US Civil War. I think an excellent case can be made that the Northern victory was not inevitable, but was largely due to three men: Henry Halleck, Ulysses Grant, and Abraham Lincoln. To wit: the war showed that in post-Napoleonic war, defense was far stronger than anyone imagined. The North had far more resources, but struggled for years to put them to effective use. The public, and most generals, believed in huge victories won by frontal assault, something that was simply not possible. Most generals could not comprehend or implement Halleck’s “anaconda strategy” of strangling the South’s production capacity, till Sherman and Grant did. If the plan had taken two or three years more, very likely the North’s will to pursue it would have faded. Lincoln’s assassination, of course, put the country in far less wise hands. It can be doubted if Lincoln could have charted a far more progressive path, but it seems likely that he’d have done better than Johnson.

In science, I’d suggest Albert Einstein. He was by no means the only thinker who could have come up with relativity and quantum theory, but no one else was likely to have come up with all this by 1905. Plus, his and Szilard’s letter to Roosevelt about the atomic bomb must be one of the most consequential documents in history.

I’m writing about syntax right now, so I have to mention Noam Chomsky. Again, his ideas weren’t unprecedented— Morris Halle had some similar approaches. It’s hard to explain, especially if you’ve actually read Chomsky’s books, but something about his work simply galvanized people. He created a whole field of syntax and has dominated it, for good and ill, for sixty years.

In short… the broad sweep of history would probably be the same without any particular individual. But the identity of entire empires, the spread of entire religions, the success of this or that nation, would be quite different. The timing of scientific discoveries could differ by decades or more.

And of course, once an individual has changed things, that creates a momentum of its own. Once an Islamic empire existed, that had immense impacts on Europe, the Middle East, and South Asia, and that affected everything from the rediscovery of Aristotle to the spread of coffee drinking.

Stories, of course, can hardly avoid the Great Man syndrome. Probably no one wants to hear how Sauron was defeated by the superior industrial resources of Gondor and the greater appeal of elven ideology. They want to hear about how Aragorn and Gandalf and Frodo did it.

Asimov, whatever he was trying to do, couldn’t help reinforcing the Great Man theory although psychohistory was, in principle, its refutation. He keeps building up Hari Seldon and later R. Daneel Olivaw; he manages to capture the inevitable failure of the Empire without making the rise of the Foundation similarly inevitable.

 

 

 

 

This turned into a mini-research project… The chart below shows who had the majority in the Senate and House, and who held the White House, for each of the 115 Congresses of the United States. The main point is to examine when a party has been able to do what it wants in government.

Congress

The colors: beige is “Pro-Administration” (not an actual party); green is Federalist; orange is Democratic-Republican; purple is Whig; blue is Democratic; red is Republican. (White can be taken as “the opposition”— except in 1881, when it means that both parties had the same number of Senate seats.)

The number gives the percentage of seats in the Senate and House held by the majority party.

For Democrats and Republicans, I’ve used two colors: dark when the party can do what it wants; light when it can’t.  The general rule is that it’s light when not all three columns match— that is, government is divided.

However, I’ve modified this for the period 1953-1988.  With Eisenhower and Nixon, this is largely because neither tried to govern in conflict with Congress, at least by today’s standards. With Reagan, I’ve shown Congress as stymied, but not Reagan himself: he was able to implement the major policy shift from liberalism to plutocracy without serious setbacks.

I haven’t tried to graphically depict cases where a party was too divided to get much done— e.g under Carter and Trump.

What emerges, I think, are a number of periods with very different overall structures.

  • 1789-1800: the early years. I don’t know much about the politics of the time, but it’s probably not worth drawing lessons from it as everyone was trying to figure out how things worked and what their disagreements were.
  • 1801-1830: the Era of  Good Feelings.  Well, no wonder things went pretty smoothly: the Democratic-Republicans had a lock on government.
  • 1830-1860: the pre-Civil-war period. A lot more contentious, as a Democratic/Whig system developed. The second half of the period, dominated by the slavery question, shows a high degree of contention.
  • 1860-1932: overall, the Republican Period. This was the old style GOP, of course— the party of Northern business above all. There are a few contentious periods, but overall the number of strong GOP years is striking. Only Cleveland and Wilson had strong Democratic years.
  • 1933-1979: the liberal period. This period was dominated almost as strongly by the Democrats.Congress was so reliably Democratic that GOP presidents had to work with it.
  • 1980 on: the plutocratic period. Very largely a return to Republican rule, but much less solidly. Compare the majorities: where the 19C GOP often had numbers in the 60s or higher, the present-day GOP hasn’t risen above 57%. Divided government is the norm rather than the exception.

The reason I looked at all this was because I was curious how often we’ve had divided government, and the bipartisan courtesies that used to accompany it: infrequent filibusters, accommodating confirmation hearings, a collegial Senate, etc. We often hear people bemoaning increased polarization and wishing that people would just work together somehow across party lines. It’s said that the parties used to be miscellaneous coalitions so that they could pretty easily work together.

I think the general answer can be read from the chat: bipartisanship usually isn’t necessary. In 76 out of 115 Congresses— two-thirds of the time— we’ve had undivided government. That means that one party held the presidency and Congress, and could pretty much do as it wanted. (Again, we’re ignoring intra-party fights for now.) In such times you could be bipartisan if events warranted, but you could also pretty much ignore the other party.

Of course, that leaves another third of the time when we have divided government. Then, of course, it’s useful if both parties can work together. On the other hand, at least two of these periods were highly polarized times when being “moderate” arguably meant being a piece of jelly-like protoplasm:

  • The pre-Civil War period. People looked for decades, but there was really no moral or pragmatic compromise to be found between slavery and abolition.  The compromisers of the time aren’t exactly highly regarded today.
  • The present day, which is a lower-key but just as polarized debate on whether the country should be run for the benefit of its richest 10%, or for everyone. And some other issues, like whether or not we’d like to preserve the planet’s ecosphere and avoid nuclear annihilation. I sympathize with those who “hate politics” and wish that everyone would just get along. But you can’t wish the issues away, and “moderates” are usually deeply delusional about what’s actually happening in the country.

(What happened in the 1875-96 period?  I really don’t know, though now I’m curious. This was the Gilded Age, when the preoccupation was making money. The party lines seem baffling today: the Republicans were protectionist and pro-industry; the Democrats were laissez-faire, anti-tariffs, and associated with small farmers, immigrants, and Southerners. Neither seems to map to todays’ liberal/conservative divide.)

So, when you hear that (say) filibusters used to be uncommon— sure, they were, but look at those majority numbers. Majorities over 60 used to be common. This isn’t to say that the abuse of the filibuster isn’t a problem; the point is that periods of amiable divided government really haven’t ever been the norm.

I just finished Massacre at the Palace, by Jonathan Gregson, which focuses on the 2001 massacre of the royal family of Nepal by the crown prince, but retells the entire history of the Shah dynasty.  And good lord, the massacre is only of a piece with Nepali royal history.

The story starts in 1742 with the accession of Prithvi Narayan Shah to the kingdom of Gorkha. This was only one of sixty independent kingdoms in what is now Nepal, and by no means one of the major ones. Yet over the next quarter century, Prithvi ran a remarkable campaign of conquest, culminating in his overrunning the much more powerful kingdoms of the Kathmandu Valley in 1768. He and his successors kept on till they controlled the present-day territory of Nepal and quite a bit more.

In 1814-16, Gorkha ran afoul of the British, who defeated it and required it to take a British ambassador, and no others. Other than that, Gorkha retained its independence, and took on the role of Enthusiastic Ally. The British were impressed by the fighting spirit of the kingdom’s warriors, and recruited “Gurkhas” (their version of the name of the country) into their army. They were instrumental in putting down the 1857 revolt and served in large numbers in both world wars.

After that, the Shah dynasty had a big problem: minor kings.  For half a century after Prithvi’s death in 1775, there was almost never an adult king. That left regents in charge, and invited the family to indulge in some intense Game of Thrones style intrigue. The queens were particularly involved– not least because if their children didn’t win the throne, they could be forced to commit suicide.

By the 1830s, power was divided between king Rajendra, crown prince Surendra, and Rajya Laxmi, one of the king’s wives (not Surendra’s mother). Surendra was not popular, as he had a cruel streak: he liked to order subjects to jump down a well or ride a horse off a cliff, just to see if they’d die.

One relatively minor incident: the chief minister, a supporter of the queen, decided to switch his support to Surendra. Laxmi ordered a retainer, Jung Bahadur Konwar, to kill him– which he did, intensifying the palace intrigue. The next move was the king’s: he had his wife’s lover (another state minister) killed.

Laxmi was incensed, and summoned all the senior officers of the realm to an assembly ground known as the Kot, one night in 1846.  Konwar took the precaution of arriving with his brothers as well as a backup force.  Laxmi demanded to know who had been responsible for killing her minister; when no one replied she accused some wretch of doing it and ordered him immediately executed.  When people balked at this, she ran at him herself with a sword, but Konwar restrained her and escorted her back to the balcony. (The king slipped out and escaped the country.)

Once she was safely there, Konwar’s men opened fire on the assembled nobles.  Over thirty were killed, and an unknown number of soldiers and retainers.

The queen rewarded him with the position of chief minister and commander in chief. She expected that in return her own son would be named crown prince, but Konwar refused. She attempted to have him assassinated, but the plot was discovered; Konwar killed another couple dozen of her supporters and exiled her.  With both Laxmi and Rajendra out of the country, he could have the incapable Surendra proclaimed king.  More importantly, he could assume absolute power himself. He was granted a semi-royal title, Rana, and made the prime ministership hereditary.  The Ranas governed for the next century… not without an intra-dynastic shakeup or two of their own. The Shah family was essentially confined as prisoners in their own palace.

So things stood till 1950.  (The country began to be called Nepal in the 1930s, by the way. Previously this had been a name for the Kathmandu Valley only.)  Nepal remained one of the most regressive and poorest countries in Asia, but there was a new factor: there were now three embassies in Kathmandu: the UK, the US, and newly independent India.

King Tribhuvan saw an opportunity, and it was carefully negotiated by his sons, who had more freedom of movement. He requested from the Rana prime minister permission to hold an outdoor picnic. This was granted– as the army would accompany him, it seemed harmless.  The king and his sons each drove their own cars. As the motorcade passed the Indian Embassy, the doors opened and they drove in. It happened so fast that the army escort had no chance to react.  Immediately the king applied for political asylum.

In brief, the Rana ministers were now put in an impossible position, and had to negotiate a return to royal rule.  This was supposed to be democratic, but the Shah kings rarely had much patience for parliamentary rule, and things were only slightly better than under the Ranas. In the 1990s, a Maoist insurgency rose up in the countryside and soon controlled a quarter of the country.

The 2001 massacre was dramatic, but seems more an instance of insanity than power politics. The crown prince, Dipendra, wanted to get married; in a typical instance of arrogant royal interference, his mother refused to let him marry his chosen partner. That, at least, seems to be the underlying grievance.  Dipendra also enjoyed guns and had quite a collection of automatic rifles; he also had an alcohol and drug problem.

In June 2001 he snapped– or saw his opportunity. He was host for the royal family’s weekly dinner together.   He behaved strangely throughout the evening, at one point passing out.  He returned with a gun and shot up his family: his parents, his siblings, some aunts and uncles.  One wonders if he had some idea of bullshitting his way through to the throne– but if so, he reconsidered it, and instead shot himself.

One uncle survived, and became the new king. But he was never very popular, and the public seems to have finally had enough of royal rule. He was forced to return to parliamentary rule, and then, in 2008, parliament declared an end to the monarchy. Since then Nepal has had one of the most unusual political landscapes in the world: power has alternated between two communist parties (one Maoist, one Marxist-Leninist) and a center-left one.

All this makes a great story, but I should emphasize, the moral of the story is that kings suck. I’m reminded of a terrible passage in C.S. Lewis’s The Horse and His Boy, where a king explains that the lot of a king is one of service and hardship and is nothing to be envied… bullshit, C.S.  Where kings have real power, they are absolute bastards… not least because if they aren’t, they will be the puppets of someone who is.

The usual (bare) justification for monarchy is that it avoid succession struggles: you don’t have a civil war upon the death of each leader.  Even this low standard is violated in large swaths of history (see: the Roman Empire).  Though reflecting on Nepal’s history, perhaps a modified version of this claim could be defended: monarchy doesn’t avoid succession disputes, but it does make it a little more likely that they will be handled by nasty and murderous political intrigue, rather than by civil war. Even the Kot massacre was better than all-out war.

Still, the tradeoff is pretty terrible. The Ranas and the Shahs made out well, but the country remained miserably poor and undeveloped, and unequipped to deal with modern problems. (And the British deserve some share of the blame as well.  They were perfectly happy with Nepal as a backwards buffer state on their border, and they implicitly supported Rana misrule for over a century.)

Oh, I guess I should say something about Gregson’s book, eh?  Well, it’s really good, not least because he has such rich material to work with.  It’s well told, and it’s not a bad introduction to recent Nepalese history as well.

 

 

 

 

 

Just finished The Silk Roads: A New History of the World, by Peter Frankopan (2015)– an ambitious, disappointing book.

At times I tried to imagine the author’s elevator pitch. It doesn’t match the subtitle: it starts with Alexander the Great, so it’s already leaving out half of history. It barely covers Africa or the Americas. It’s very roughly about “East-West relations”, mostly involving trade, though it’s not very strong on China or India. It more or less focuses on the countries at the crossroads of Eurasia: the Middle East, Persia, Central Asia– only it never really tells their stories coherently. It sort of promises to retell European history with a focus on how it involved those regions, but then it has long detours into pretty traditional European history and contemporary US politics.

The last chapter talks about sudden evidence of wealth and grandiose architecture in Central Asia… but doesn’t bother to explain where it came from. The previous chapters were a quick retread of recent history in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Iran. He states that ancient history from the Silk Road on illuminates present concerns… but falls far short of demonstrating how. It is relevant to understand the early history of Islam, and he does go over that, but earlier chapters on, say, early Christianity east of Syria don’t tell us much about why they’re building spectacular airports in Astana, besides the wan truisms that trade is important and the lifestyle of rich countries affects people thousands of miles away.

There was probably a better book buried in here, but it needed a lot more focus and a more consistent theme. An out-and-out history of Persia and Central Asia, for instance, probably would have covered what he wanted to talk about, with far more coherence and depth. It can certainly be argued that Westerners could learn more about this part of the world… but for long chapters he ignores it himself, instead giving resumes of Viking raids, or Hitler’s mountain retreat, or the Spanish conquest of Mexico, or Zheng He’s expeditions.

This isn’t to say it’s terrible. Any traipse through history is likely to turn up something new, and he does have some interesting stories and theories. I did find the bits about early Christianity interesting; the link between the EIC and the American Revolution is a good point for my book; he also mentions that the Islamic concern with the direction of Mecca stimulated advances in geometry and astronomy. Which is a good reminder for conworlders: seemingly trivial bits of doctrine can have unexpected and unintended secular effects.

If you don’t know much about early Islam, this would probably be a good introduction… though there are better ones.

A couple more complaints, though.  One, the maps are less than helpful. He likes maps with lots of arrows showing movements of things, and the results are hard to read.

Plus, I think he’s too credulous about reports of riches and high living. Whether today or millennia ago, big buildings and the lifestyle of the rich get a lot of attention. But these are perfectly compatible with near-starvation for the 9/10 of the population that works the fields. Azerbaijan, whose airport so impresses Frankopan, and which has significant oil reserves, has a per capita income less than that of Peru. He also talks about the luxuries of ancient Rome (most of them imported from the east). But other books I’ve read emphasize that, the mass of people lived on the edge of disaster, and urban life never put forth deep roots anywhere west or north of Italy– which is why the west couldn’t survive the shocks of civil war and barbarian wandering. Similarly, his accounts of Silk Road traders neglect to mention that the actual number of merchants and the amount of goods privately traded was pretty small.

 

 

 

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