Welcome to Your Historical Compass

"The purpose of this blog is to generate discussions about historical issues. Students, enthusiasts, and friends are all welcome to join by reading and participating with comments. I hope to generate interest in history and offer help to the perplexed." Caleb Johnson

Saturday, September 1, 2012

The Six Wives of Henry VIII

The issue of succession has been a problem for all hereditary monarchs, but one king in particular seemed to have more than his share of bad luck. Henry VIII is famous for how many wives he had, and had killed. His fame is not due to his number of wives,. since many kings have had many wives, but because he is peculiar to his age. Henry VIII reigned in late Medieval England where good Christian kings had only one wife their whole lives. Therefore, Henry is the exception to his age and this is one of the things that makes him so interesting.

Why was Henry so obsessed with succession? Well, after the War of  the Roses, the kingdom of England had united the two warring houses of York and Lancaster by marriage under Henry Tudor and Elizabeth of York. Their second son was the eventual  King Henry VIII. Thus, Henry embodied the reunification of England and that idea could only be preserved through the birth of a male heir.

When Henry’s older brother Arthur, the Prince of Wales, died, Henry was named heir apparent and married his brother’s widow, Catherine of Aragon, on the grounds that the  prior marriage had not been consummated. The marriage was a happy one until it became obvious that Catherine could not fulfill her marriage duties.

 In Medieval Europe, the one and most important job for a queen was to produce an heir to the throne to ensure the continuation of the dynasty. Not only was this an issue of family pride, but national security. If a king died without an heir, he would leave a power vacuum which would often lead to civil war. Since Henry embodied the reunion of the realm after the War of the Roses, he was determined to make sure that a safe line of succession was ready for his dynasty. Unfortunately for Catherine, she only bore Henry one daughter who they called Mary. Henry began to reflect and worry. During his musings he stumbled upon the verse in Leviticus 18:16 which warned men of God not to marry the wife of a brother. He then decided that God had punished him for marrying his brother’s wife and asked the Pope for a divorce, despite Catherine’s protestation of celibacy prior to her marriage to Henry.

Henry sent Cardinal Wolsey to Rome to represent him to the Pope, but the Cardinal failed to secure the divorce. By this time, Henry had become estranged to his wife and had set his eye on the beautiful and ambitious Anne Boleyn.  His hands tied by the Pope, heart run away with Ann,e and mind feeling the pressure of succession, Henry hit upon a solution to his problems that would change England forever.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Republicanism and Democray Pt. 2

Last week, we looked at the pros and cons of Athenian Democracy. Today, we’re going to look at Roman Republicanism. By the end of this post, we should have a better idea of the differences between the two forms of government.

While Athens and the rest of the Greek city-states were developing their cultures and forms of government, another civilization was developing in Latium at the center of Italy. The city of Rome grew on the banks of the Tiber around farming communities and traders. At the center of society was the family. In contrast with Greek emphasis on commitment to the state, Romans were devoted to their families and an honest agrarian lifestyle. This Roman outlook created a very conservative and pious society. It was only natural for a conservative form of government to rise in this atmosphere.

The ruling body of Rome was a council of elders called the Senate. Its members were comprised of the richest and oldest of the city’s citizens and they determined the city’s policies. Senators were not elected; rather, office came from being born into a patrician family. As a sort of executive branch, two senators were elected as consuls for a year. During their term in office, the consuls would lead the legions of Rome into battle. Eventually, a popular Assembly was created to voice the concerns of the people. The Assembly would elect Tribunes who would represent the people to the Senate. Every free, land-owning citizen could vote in the Assembly and it became the popular body of government. Thus, the government of Rome was indirect rule of the people. Some things would be changed by popular vote, but for the most part, the power rested in the unelected Senate. The Senate and Assembly worked together in relative harmony until the Gracchi brothers introduced reforms and land redistribution for veterans. 

Gaius and Tiberius Gracchus were two Senators who took up the cause of veterans of the Punic and Macedonian Wars. Many veterans were taxed out of their homesteads during the wars and had to try to find work in the city. This population influx caused rapid unemployment and rioting. Eventually, the Gracchi brothers introduced legislative reform that was passed due to the backing of the popular, now riotous, Tribunes. Conservative elements in the Senate had the Gracchi brothers killed and repealed the reforms, but the popular voice was too strong. The common people demanded change.

During the years following the death of the Gracchis, several dictators rose to power and began to use their control of the legions to take over the entire system of government. First was Marius, then Sulla, the First Triumvirate, and ultimately Gaius Julius Caesar. After Caesar, the republican form of government was supplanted and overseen by an emperor. Consequently, the weakness of the Roman republican system was that there was no check on executive power since it controlled the military and the purse. This led to the merging of the executive and legislative branches, creating the office of imperator, or emperor.

We can see, then, that democracy and republicanism have similarities, but also have many differences. In a pure democracy, like Athens, the people vote on every issue and decide everything in a popular assembly. In a republic, like Rome, it’s a mix of popular government, like the Assembly, and an unelected body of elders, the Senate. Although both forms of government failed due to the inherent flaws in each system, Athenian democracy ruined that state much faster. As we saw last week, Athens quickly fell to outside powers and had to live the rest of its existence out of the spotlight. Rome, on the other hand, kept parts of its republic even into the imperial age, and we all know how long and glorious that was.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Republicanism and Democracy Pt. 1

Today we often hear representative governments called both democracies and republics. We seem to use those words interchangeably, though we have a vague notion that we shouldn’t. Is there a difference between the two? I think the best way to answer that question is to look at the two states that first practiced the two ideas.

The first state to implement democracy was the ancient Greek city of Athens. In 514 BC, the people of Athens threw out their tyrant, then a legitimate title for ruler, and began “the people’s power” or democracy. The Athenians drew up a system of laws based on the code of Solon, and instituted the concept of a popular vote and majority rule. Here all free male landowners would vote at an assembly and decide the policy of the state. While the theory of this system sounds compelling, its practice proved ruinous.

After obtaining power, the popular assembly became vulnerable to corruption, bribes, and partisan factions. Indeed, once the people realized that they could elect people in the assembly that would give them a share of the public treasury, then the state became bankrupt. During the Peloponnesian War, Athens exiled its most gifted general, Alcibiades, because he had enemies in the assembly. After this, the assembly executed one of the greatest thinkers of all time, Socrates. Evidently, the direct rule of the people and the lack of checks and balances meant that Athens became just as tyrannical as the Tyrants they had overthrown. Minorities of opinion were overrun by the majority and were persecuted. This state of turmoil meant that Athens eventually fell to Phillip II of Macedon, father of Alexander the Great.

Although Athens was able to introduce self rule and democracy, the direct rule of the people degenerated the government into a tyranny that destroyed the freedom of the people. Next week, we'll take a look at the first of the republics. While Athens was wresting itself from the tyrants, a city on the Tiber was growing weary of its own monarch.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

SPQR and the USA

Republics, being molded by the same sorts of people, have in many ways similar histories. Each is formed on the basis of self-government in rejection of an authoritative monarchy. Having the peace and prosperity of its citizens as its chief aim, Republics can do without the detrimental practice of constantly warring against its neighbors. The Roman and American Republics have enough historical similarities to make the observant reader look twice. Let us examine at a few of these similarities.


The city of Rome was founded on the edge of civilization, far from the center of Greek and Persian culture. Life was simple, and rustic virtues were held in high esteem. In 509 BC, the people of Rome threw out the hated Etruscan Monarchy and founded a republic based on a senate and a popular representative body of elected tribunes. From this point the city of Rome expanded and developed independently in the center of Italy. In 1776, the people of the American colonies, also at the edge of civilization, overthrew the monarchy of Great Britain and established its Republic based on a Constitution.

Trend of Isolationism

Early Romans liked to keep to themselves and ignored the politics of the outside world. In 387, the Romans were unexpectedly attacked by the Gauls of northern Italy. This rude awakening forced the Romans to pay attention to international politics and the started a program of alliances with their immediate neighbors. In 1941, the United States was attacked by the Imperial forces of Japan and pulled into the global conflict World War II. In each case, the republics were forced out of isolationism and into a more internationally assertive posture.

Rise to Superpower Status

After the sack of 387 Rome remained, for the most part, concerned with Italy and Sicily. They were dragged into a larger conflict when Carthage attacked Rome’s Sicilian ally. Rome and Carthage eventually had to fight a series of wars that culminated in the final destruction of Carthage and the complete domination of the Western Mediterranean  by Rome. In much the same way, World War II and the subsequent Cold War forced America into an even more powerful position in order to fight both its Axis and Soviet enemies.

Although three examples is a meager sampling of the many similarities of the two Republics, these cannot be ignored. Further examination of the early Roman Republic can only convince the reader that the parallel history of Rome can serve as a mirror with which to examine our own Republic. Perhaps we can indeed learn from both their mistakes and triumphs. If we ignore the similarities of the two republics we may suffer the consequences. For as it has been said, “Those who don’t know their history are doomed to repeat it.”

Saturday, June 2, 2012

In 1415, a Czech priest named Jan Huss was condemned and burned at the stake for heresy against the Roman Catholic Church. Jan was, in fact, one of the first of the great Church reformers who stood up against corruption in the Church, what he saw as extra-Biblical practices, and church abuses. Before this time, heretical factions that were persecuted by the Church would eventually melt away, but in 15th century Bohemia the story was different.
Jan Huss

When news of the death of Huss spread throughout Bohemia, the people were outraged. Huss had gained many followers, knights and common people alike, who were tired of Church abuses and the death of their leader meant naught but persecution for them, as well. Protests broke out and a radical event unfolded in the city of Prague when supporters of Huss, now called Hussites, took a burgomaster and some council members and threw them out the second story window of the town hall. This “Defenestration of Prague,” as it came to be known, sent a shock through Bohemia and Moravia that literally killed the Catholic King Wenceslas by way of a heart attack. This power vacuum gave the Hussites time to organize. With full knowledge that the Church wouldn’t sit idly by, the Hussites developed a spectacular war strategy. They came up with a war wagon system in which carts were drawn up in a defensive circle and hand gunners and pike men defended the circle from the protection of the armored wagons.  This strategy was particularly effective against the mounted cavalry of the late Middle Ages and the Hussites gained a fierce reputation for battle prowess.
Hussite wagon circle

When the Papal crusade arrived at Prague, the Hussites were forced to negotiate. However, once the Imperial armies withdrew, the Hussites continued to capture fortresses and consolidate their base.  Indeed, they would withstand three crusades led against them by the Germans and the Church. Despite the repeated attempts of their enemies, the Hussites were able to maintain nominal independence and worship in their own manner.

City of Prague
When the larger Protestant Reformation broke out, the Hussites continued their traditions and joined the larger movement as Protestants. Even to this day, the Czech people are proud of a heritage of standing up for your beliefs and resistance to outside control. Jan Huss and the succeeding Hussites were indeed a reformation before the Reformation.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Familial Exploits of the d’Hauteville Brothers

We are all familiar with the illustrious exploits of William, Duke of Normandy, who conquered the main Island of Britain in 1066. But before their conquest of England, the Normans had already established themselves as a dynamic and mobile force in 11th century Europe. One family in particular distinguished themselves as leaders, explorers and conquerors, they were the d’Hautevilles. The custom of primogeniture was not kind to the eleven younger sons of Tancred d’Hauteville. His petty estate was left to the eldest son and the younger brothers were obliged to look abroad in order to secure their fortune. The first to leave France was William, one of the older brothers. He was enticed by news that the Byzantine Empire was planning the recapture of the Island of Sicily. He took part in the campaign, leading a contingent of Normans to fight alongside the Byzantines. He proved himself in battle and gained the nickname Ironside for his massive strength. The exploits of William Ironside encouraged his brothers and other Normans to seek their fortunes in the central Mediterranean. Eventually Robert, called Guiscard for his craftiness, was able to conquer the whole of southern Italy with a capital at Naples. He harbored ambitions for the conquest of the Byzantine Empire itself, but was foiled in these plans when the Byzantines paid the Venetians to destroy his naval capacity. Despite this setback, the conquests continued. Upon the death of Robert Guiscard, his brother Roger attempted the conquest of Sicily. The aborted Byzantine campaign left the Island in chaos and ripe for conquest. Roger was able to subdue the island and was granted the title “King of the two Sicilies” by the Pope. Robert Guiscard’s son Bohomond found himself cheated out of an inheritance, so he continued the familial practice of conquest abroad. He ended up joining the first crusade to Jerusalem and in the process swore allegiance to the same Emperor his father had warred against. He eventually captured the Biblical city of Antioch and founded his own principality. Thus the d’Hautevilles had spread their legacy from Normandy to Sicily, Naples, Constantinople, and Antioch. It is a wonder that one family could have shaped the setting of Medieval Mediterranean politics, but they did. It is perhaps a testimony of the confusion of the times and a tribute to the Norman strength of arms. The legacy of the d’Hauteville brothers doesn’t directly affect us today, but Medieval Europe was certainly altered by their dynamic ambitions.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Florence, Birthplace of the Renaissance

The Mona Lisa, St. Peter’s Basilica, the Birth of Venus, Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise.  All these great works of art and architecture remind us of the Renaissance. Their forms and beauty speak of an older age when tradition was shaken off and ancient ideas were being reborn to form new thoughts. Surprisingly, these pieces all have one thing in common, which is Florence, Italy. Whether a native artist or architect, or a structure that still graces the city, Florence has left its mark on the Renaissance. Why Florence? What forces of nature or chance or Providence selected this city in the heart of Tuscany to be where greatness occurred?
The Gates of Paradise

Florence, like many of the other Italian city-states, benefited from the struggle between the papacy and the Holy Roman Empire. Neither faction could bear to see northern Italy in the other’s control, so the cities in Tuscany and the Po River Valley were able to develop independently.  They formed city-state republics not unlike the ancient Greek polis. Florence was, like the other cities, a textile and trade center. Raw materials came in from the east or north and then were processed by the skilled artisans and craftsmen into fashionable cloth, tools, etc. This economic climate fostered a banking industry that was controlled by a few powerful families. The wealthiest of these families, the Medici, was headed by one of the central political figures of the early Renaissance, Lorenzo deMedici. Lorenzo, in addition to having an interest in politics and finance, had an eye for the fine arts. He built an art studio in one of his palace and patronized some of the leading names of the age, such as da Vinci, Botticelli, and Michelangelo. It was to the patronage of Lorenzo and others like him that such great artists owed their gratitude.

 The crowning splendor of Florence is the orange dome that tops the Cathedral. At the time of its design, the dome was considered a mathematical impossibility, but its secret was mastered by the architect Brunelleschi. Compelled by the city authorities to solve the problem of the dome, Brunelleschi traveled south to study one of the Caesars’ lasting legacies, the Pantheon of Rome. Wrapped in mystery, the Pantheon taunted Brunelleschi to discover the secret of its design. Eventually, Brunelleschi determined that in order to construct a dome of this size, each layer had to be artificially propped up by wooden scaffolds until a keystone ring could be placed at the top to assume the stress. Once this was done, the stress of each layer could be handed down to the next and finally to the base. Although his competitors mocked his efforts, Brunelleschi’s solution was ingenious.

While the focus of the Renaissance eventually shifted to Rome, Florence remained proud of its achievements and its sons. The way that Michelangelo and da’Vinci changed art from two dimensional to three dimensional in both painting and sculpting broke the Medieval patterns and started a new path for future artists. Today, thousands flock to see the marvelous works that still grace the city, and Florence remains one of Italy’s most treasured centers of attraction.

Sunday, April 22, 2012


Everyone has some concept of the Fall of Rome to the Germanic barbarians during the 5-6 centuries. But did the empire completely disappear? The answer is no. While the great cities of the west fell to ruin and their roads decayed and fell apart, in the East, the empire survived.

The Fall of the West

It was perhaps strategic intuition that compelled Constantine the Great to move the administration of the empire away from Rome to a small fishing village on the Bosporus Straits called Byzantium. The first thing Constantine did was change the city’s name to Constantinople. Situated on a peninsula, Constantinople was in an excellent position to defend itself from attack by the land. In the same way, the fact that it straddled two continents and controlled the trade route between two seas meant that it was a city destined for enormous wealth. It was around this city that the Eastern Roman Empire survived. While the barbarian hoards swept across the defenseless cities of the west, these same armies were continuously rebuffed by the double walls of Constantine’s city. This allowed the culture of the Romans to survive for a thousand years after Rome fell. To help historians differentiate the old Roman Empire from the Eastern, they called the Eastern Empire the Byzantine Empire after the original name of Constantinople. However, these Romans never forgot they were Romans. Even after the medieval kingdoms of the West had established themselves, the Byzantines called these invaders “Celts.” Despite their legacy, wealth, position, and influence, not even the Byzantine Empire could last forever.

The end came for Byzantium in 1453 when, after numerous attempts, the Sultan Mahomet II conquered the city and renamed it Istanbul. Today it is Turkey’s largest city and a UNESCO World Heritage site. Even though it no longer serves the Caesars, Istanbul remains a city that straddles two continents and seems to bring together the two worlds of east and west, old and new. 

Saturday, April 14, 2012


Cold, remote and small, Ireland is a land where history abounds, but one which history has largely forgotten. As it lies on the fringes of the European continent, Ireland must strain to even gain mention. Indeed the island has been dominated by its western neighbor for nearly a millennium. But it was not always this way.

During the fall of the Roman Empire, Ireland remained untouched by the subsequent Germanic invasions that swept the continent and ravaged what was left of Rome’s imperial glory. Some Roman citizens even fled to Ireland’s shores, but some were taken there by force. One such captive, St. Patrick, would have a profound impact on not just Irish history, but European as well. St. Patrick was the main force in the conversion of the pagan tribes to Christianity. Once Ireland was united under the Christian faith, monasteries sprang up and supplied the forum for the last remaining news medium. One of the many practices at Irish monasteries was the transcribing of texts, sacred and secular. What they did was take old Roman texts that were written on papyri and transcribe them on parchment, which is made of animal skin. Parchment, unlike papyri, does not dissolve over a long period of time. Thus, the Irish monks were responsible for preserving many ancient documents that would have been lost simply to the detritus of time.

Yet this was not Ireland’s only legacy. Well before Pope Gregory the Great sent St. Augustine to Kent to reconvert the pagan Angles and Saxons, Ireland was well on its way to completing the conversion of the tribes. When Latin and Irish (or Celtic) clerics met at the end of their missions, there was a union of the two churches. So although time seems to have passed that westward island on the edge of Europe, its relics and its people remain a testimony to the accomplishments of ages past.

Saturday, April 7, 2012


In 332 BC, Alexander the Great liberated the land of Egypt from the Persian Empire. Compelled by the flattery of the Egyptian people and perhaps a sense of his own need for immortality, Alexander decided to leave a permanent legacy in Egypt: a city at the end of the Nile Delta. This city would naturally bear his name as had the many other cities he had started along his invasion route. While the Greek surveyors lined out the streets by spreading grains of wheat, local birds flocked to eat it up. Interpreting this as a bad omen, Alexander nearly gave up the project altogether, but his skillful soothsayers convinced him that the omen was not bad but good. They interpreted to him that the way the birds were fed by the seeds, so would millions be fed by this city. 

Indeed, the prophecy proved true. Although Alexander never lived to see the city completed, Alexandria and Egypt were passed on to Alexander’s friend and general, Ptolemy. Under Ptolemy and his successors, Alexandria grew and thrived. The streets were designed to be parallel with the winds from the Northern Mediterranean so that the city could breathe in fresh air during the long summers. Built on a natural harbor, Alexandria became the leading port city of the Eastern Mediterranean and even began to rival Punic Carthage in the West. A private investor built a great lighthouse to guide the ships coming into the new Harbor of the Pharaohs. The Ptolemy dynasty sponsored a state library to house all the records from the known world. This library came to be the greatest collection of scrolls and documents to that date and wouldn’t be equaled until the founding of the Vatican Library. Such a magnificent metropolis could not but help getting into the political arena. Although the Ptolemies were able to skillfully play off the various factions that were left in the wake of Alexander’s conquests, they were forced to reckon with a new rising power in the West.

When Rome defeated Carthage in the 3rd Punic War, it was drawn into the politics of the East when it had to fight a number of defensive wars against the Greeks. When the King of Pergamum bequeathed his kingdom in Asia Minor to Rome, the Ptolemies recognized where the wind was blowing. In the 1st century BC, Ptolemy XII asked Rome to mediate the succession of his throne. These events led to further entanglement between Rome and Egypt, because Ptomely’s successor was Cleopatra VII, who married Julius Caesar and later Marc Antony. Alexandria might have become the second capital of the Mediterranean world had its chance not been squandered by the star-eyed lovers Antony and Cleopatra. Once Caesar Augustus defeated Antony and Cleopatra at the battle of Actium and incorporated Egypt into the Roman Empire, Alexandria became the second largest city next to Rome. Although it never dominated the political landscape, Alexandria continued to be a centre of learning, culture, and wealth. Ever a jewel to whomever possessed it, Alexandria passed from nation to nation but it continues to bear the name of its original founder.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Egypt: Lost & Found

Everyone today knows of the Pyramids and Sphinx of Giza, as well as other landmarks of ancient Egypt. Hollywood has made numerous films based on Egypt, and MGM’s Luxor Palace is one of Las Vegas’ most popular attractions. Surprisingly, though, our knowledge of Egypt and particularly ancient Egypt is a fairly recent phenomenon. The beginning of what’s now called Egyptology began not with a research study, but with a minor campaign in the French Revolutionary Wars.

When Napoleon Bonaparte sailed into Alexandria and defeated the local forces of the Egyptian Mamluks at the Battle of the Pyramids, he brought with him several French architects and scholars. Spurred by the Enlightenment thirst for classical history, the French started exploring the ruins that were left behind by the pharaohs and forgotten by the sands of time. However, observe as they might, the massive structures that spotted the Nile River Valley seemed to hold more secrets than answers. Who built these structures? How did the people live? Only scraps of knowledge remained from medieval writers and some from the ancients, but to really understand the land, the new scholars would have to decipher the pictographs that decorated the walls of the temples and tombs.

This was made possible when French engineers excavated a dark stone in the village of Rosetta in 1803. The stone included three types of script: Ancient Greek, Ancient Demotic and Hieroglyphic. The task at hand was to use knowledge of the ancient Greek text to decode the Hieroglyphics and thus unlock the mysteries of the pharaohs. It took scholars twenty years to be able to competently understand Hieroglyphics but the result was a huge leap for Egyptology. Now that we are able to read Hieroglyphics, we are able to understand much of that civilization that was once described by Herodotus as “the gift of the Nile.”

Saturday, March 3, 2012

American Industrialism

Although we live in a time of suburbs, renewable energy sources and a largely service-based economy, America used to be the world’s leading manufacturer. General Motors, US Steel, Standard Oil, and the B&O Railway all represent a time when American industrialism was at its height. But how did it all get started? Why was America able to dominate global industry? What events took place that led America to the forefront? The answer lies in the past.

Andrew Jackson Captures New Orleans

When the industrial revolution hit America in the early 1800’s, the water-powered mill industry sprang up among the many rivers that thread the New England hinterland. Fostered by high tariffs, the industry grew despite attempts by foreign nations to flood the market with cheap goods. Vast natural resources were unleashed when the United States captured New Orleans in 1812, opening up the expansive Mississippi River valley to exploitation. In 1825, the Erie Canal opened, linking the Great Lake economies of Chicago and Detroit to the Atlantic Ocean through New York City. American industrialism was on the rise, but it met an unexpected boost through a traditional destroyer-war.

Ford's Model T
While America’s Civil War killed over 600,000 men and damaged over $100,000,000 of the nation’s southern economy, it acted as a catalyst for northern industry. Factories made cannons, steel ships, locomotive engines and uniforms for the Federal army. By the war’s end, the northern economy was better than when it started. Due to war and famine in Europe, immigrants flocked to the western Atlantic seaboard, eager to share in peace and prosperity. Large cities grew larger and factories were supplied with cheap labor and ready markets. This advent of urbanization and massive immigration resulted in social unrest and the rise of labor unions. While most workers involved in the factories lived their lives making little, a few rose by innovation and pure hard work. Andrew Carnegie started out earning $1.20 a week at a factory, but ultimately sold his share of his steel company for $300,000,000. Other captains of industry, such as JD Rockefeller, JP Morgan, Henry Ford, Eli Singer, and James Duke, led America into greatness to match the European powers.

Two reasons the US was able to harness industrialism on such a large scale were population and natural resources. The fact that the US straddles an entire continent and hosts one of the world’s largest populations secures its ability to compete globally due to its mere size. Granted, this subject is much larger than one blog post, but I have attempted to outline the main points. Indeed, I left many issues out for the sake of space and attention, but there are important issues I skipped and pains I didn’t mention. What do you think?

Saturday, February 18, 2012

St. Valentine

We all know Valentine’s Day to be a day of card giving, chocolates and love. But how did this day get started? Where does it come from and whom does it celebrate? The answer is it all began with St. Valentine.

The truth about the life of St. Valentine is wrapped in mystery and shrouded by time. We have very few facts, but tradition holds that St. Valentine, or Valentius, was a Christian priest in the late third century. During the reign of Roman Emperor Claudius II, the Roman Army was in a state of decline. Claudius theorized that single men make better soldiers than married men. He therefore outlawed marriage for all young men. Valentius continued to perform marriage ceremonies in secret despite the emperor’s decree. Consequently, Valentius was imprisoned but met solace and comfort in the Lord and a friend he had made. The legend goes that Valentius fell in love with the jailer’s daughter, whose job it was to bring him his food. After the jailer reassigned his daughter, Valentius wrote her a love letter that became known as the first Valentine’s card. Eventually, Claudius executed Valentius on Feb. 14, but his legacy of love and devotion survived.

In 496, Pope Gesalius officially recognized Feb 14th as Valentine ’s Day of martyrdom and canonized him as a saint. During the middle ages, it became popular to celebrate Valentine ’s Day as a day of romance and marriage, even to exchange cards. The first surviving Valentine’s card we have dates from 1415. It was written by the Duke of Orleans when he wrote to his wife while he was in the tower of London after his capture at the battle of Agincourt. The tradition of celebrating with cards and gifts continued in America and this holiday remains one of the most popular on the calendar. So the next time you write a card or give a box of chocolates, you celebrate the legacy of love, marriage and the good St. Valentine.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

A Little Sea Trade

It has long been the prerogative of any seafaring nation to control the waters in which it trades. This prerogative stems from a simple ratio of 21:9:1. Before the invention of the locomotive, it took a traveler twenty-one days by foot, nine days by horse and one day by ship to reach his/her destination. Obviously, traveling by ship is the optimum choice. In ancient times, the seafaring nations of the Phoenicians and Greeks developed wealthy and more dynamic economies than those of the great land empires of Egypt and Babylon. During the Middle Ages, the Venetians and Genoese were the great shippers of spices and textiles. Indeed, the amount of capital that was tied into the shipping industry compelled the Venetians to form the first insurance companies, stock markets and of course, banks. These were the forces that kept the focus of European trade in the Mediterranean, but one man from Genoa was going to change all that.

In an effort to circle around the globe, thereby undercutting the Silk Road middlemen, Christopher Columbus set sail in 1492 in search of a passage to the spices of India and China. He didn’t find either, but what he did find, two new continents, gradually drew the focus of European trade away from the Mediterranean Sea and into the Atlantic. The seafaring nations of Europe established colonies and settlements in the new land in order to extract its vast natural resources. The Netherlands settled New Amsterdam, the Spanish settled Mexico and Peru, the French moved into Canada, the English established several colonies between French Canada and Spanish Florida, and all the powers had a smattering of sugar islands in the Caribbean. What followed was a series of naval wars in order to control not only the fledgling colonies in America, but the vast trade system that was growing around the globe. At first, the Spanish were dominant but that changed after the battle of the Armada in 1588. Next was the turn of the Dutch, but they eventually lost control to the English. But not even the great Atlantic could contain the ever-hungry, ever-growing arms of Europe and it soon looked beyond the western hemisphere and into the East.

At the dawn of the 19th century, Europe had stretched its reach all over the world, enveloping it in a new system of global trade and commerce. India was conquered and exploited by the British, the Dutch conquered Indonesia and parts of South Africa, while all the Europeans worked collectively to pry open China from the hands of the wary and jealous emperors there. By the end of the 19th century, the European countries had used up all possible outlets for empire and exploit in the Eastern Hemisphere. They would have tried to reclaim the lost colonies of Central and South America, but the young USA to the north wouldn’t let them. Without any more space to expand, the nations of Europe eventually turned on themselves and fought two world wars to determine who was on top of the global scene. The result was that none of them were dominant any longer. While the nations of Europe faded, new countries were able to develop their own trade systems with each other.  Although we now have electric trains, airplanes and automobiles, shipping by sea is still the most expedient means of transporting goods.  

Saturday, February 4, 2012

A Return to Russia Pt. 2

Poltava 1709

Czar Peter the Great looked over the remnants of the defeated Swedish army. Sweden and Russia had been at war for a long time and this was the climactic victory Peter had been waiting for. It all began with the accession of the young monarch.
Peter the Great

Peter Romanov had dedicated his career to changing his vast hermit kingdom into a modern European Empire. His first task was to move the capital from the ancient wooden city of Moscow. Instead of simply choosing a different city, Peter decided to build a new one. St. Petersburg was built to emulate and even rival the great capitals of Western Europe, such as London, Paris, Vienna, and Stockholm. Architects from France and Germany designed the city’s layout and buildings. French became the official language at the Russian court. Yet despite the advances, Russia had a long way to go. Peter knew that in order to advance Russia further, he needed to trade with Europe and in order to trade with Europe, Russia needed a fleet and merchant marine. The problem was Sweden.

Winter Palace Petersburg 

After Gustavus Adolphus invaded northern Europe during the Thirty Year’s War, Sweden had been a continental power. The subsequent Swedish monarchs turned the Baltic Sea into a Swedish Lake, keeping the Russians out. This state of affairs ultimately led to war, a war that ended with the battle of Poltava. Ten years after the battle, the Stockholm Treaties granted Russia large territories on the Baltic, opening up the rest of Europe to Russia’s vast untapped resources. Peter’s subsequent successor, Czarina Catherine the Great, conquered the Crimean Peninsula from the Ottoman Turks and opened up the Black Sea to Russian trade with the Mediterranean. Eventually, Russia became a lead player on the European stage and even expanded east. They didn’t stop expanding east until they reached the Pacific Ocean. Ultimately, the great empire that Peter and Catherine had created fell apart during the First World War and fomented into a communist revolution. But that’s a story for another day.

Friday, January 27, 2012

A Return to Russia Pt.1

In one of the first of this blog’s posts, we discussed Russian Literature. In this post, we’ll discuss Russia’s early history.

Winston Churchill once described Russia as “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” Here Churchill expresses the vastness and complexity of a seemingly esoteric land. As we look at it on a map, Russia provides a big series of questions, but no answers. Questions like; how did it get there, what do its people believe, how do they live and so on. I do not intend to answer all or any of these questions in this post, that would take an entire blog in and of itself, rather I hope to get the reader started on a path of exploration. Here we go.
Medieval Novgorod 
Surprisingly, the first chapter in modern Russian history doesn’t begin with Slaves, but Swedish Vikings. In search for new markets in the east, a group of Swedish Vikings called the Rus moved into the vast Eurasian steppe in the late 8th century. They soon came to dominate the politics of the Slavic cities that sprinkled the frozen steppes between the Baltic and Caspian Seas. Moscovy, Kiev, Novgorod grew into trading centers between the major Medieval metropolises of Baghdad, Constantinople and the Northern Scandinavian trade cities. As their presence became apparent to the Byzantines, Emperor Michael III sent a missionary named Cyril to convert the Slaves to the North in 860AD. Know as the Apostle to the Slaves, Cyril not only converted thousands to Christianity, but gave them a Bible in their own language for which Cyril developed an entirely new alphabet, the Cyrillic script.

Once the Byzantines established a relationship with the Slavic Princes to the North, the Russians came to identify themselves with the Greek Orthodoxy based in Constantinople rather than Catholicism which was based in Rome. This divide between the two churches would affect Russia long after Constantinople fell to the Ottomans and the Protestant Reformation rocked Europe. Isolation became the policy for Russia as the long winters dissuaded passage across the steppes. Alone and secluded, Russia seemed to be in a period of hibernation asleep and content to be. Yet Europe beckoned and try as they may, the forces of the old order could hold back the clock no longer.

To be continued.

Friday, January 20, 2012

The Minoans

If you travel to the Island of Crete and explore the countryside, you can find the remains of an old palace complex called Knossos. Knossos was the once-capital of the ancient civilization of the Minoans. The Minoans were the people who inhabited the Aegean Islands during the 3rd and 2nd millennia BC. Their name comes from the Greek legend of their King Minos. Minos is the king who is said to have kept the Minotaur in a labyrinth under his palace. But there was more to these people than myth.
Palace Knossos

Minoan trading Vessel
The Minoans were a well organized people who effectively consolidated their control over the Aegean Sea. This control allowed for the flourishing of pan-Aegean trade that brought the Minoans great prosperity. They built large cities and had a well ordered and sophisticated society. Minoan palaces seem to have served more as a community centre than exclusively royal residences. The palace at Knossos covered more than 500 sq. ft. and had multiple stories. The ruins of large storage facilities and granaries stand next to private chambers decorated by beautiful frescos, hinting that the Minoans were people of taste as well as business. Although Minoan dominance of the Aegean area lasted for many centuries, it did eventually come to an end.

The end of the Minoan civilization started with a series of earthquakes and invasions that shook the Aegean world. Sometime around 1450 BC, the caldera underneath the Minoan Island of Thera erupted. Most of the island disappeared, and the column of ash and smoke could be seen as far away as Egypt. After the devastating effects of the eruption on the surrounding islands and peoples, the Minoans slipped into decline. The end came when the main island of Crete was invaded by a new power, the Mycenaeans. What we know of the Minoans comes from archaeology as the eruptions which destroyed the civilization also encased its cities in the molten ash. Many buildings were preserved, much like the Roman Pompeii, and are now subject to the scrutiny of modern historians. Although they seem to have left no permanent mark on history, their sudden end should serve as a reminder that all societies are only temporary.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Modern Monarchies

In today’s world of Democracy and popular government, the concept of Monarchy seems to be an ancient vestige of a forgotten age. Councils, Parliaments and Congresses run a state’s affairs and hereditary titles have been banned in many countries around the world. However, there do remain a few nations that have a Monarchy as part of their government. Whether the monarch is just a figurehead with no practical power, or indeed the head of the government, monarchy has survived the turn of the millennium and shows no sign of passing away.
Queen Elizabeth II of Great Britain

Perhaps the most familiar example is that of Great Britain. Although the country is run by a Parliament, the royal family, currently the house of Windsor, remains an important symbol in the hearts and minds of the British people. Other monarchies on the continent of Europe include Spain, Netherlands, Sweden, and Monaco. In Japan, the current Emperor Akihito is still very popular with his subjects. In fact, the survival of the imperial office was the one condition on which the Imperial forces surrendered at the end of World War II.  Interestingly, Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej is currently the world’s richest monarch.

Queen Beatrix of the United Netherlands
Whatever people may say about democracy and popular government, the idea of royalty and castles still captures the popular imagination. Although most of them cannot command armies, levy taxes, or actually rule their subjects, royal families and their images remain very modern institutions.

King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand