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

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.