Category: History

A Different World

From The Economist comes a reminder of how different our world is from that of Antiquity (or even the 18th century).

SOME people recite history from above, recording the grand deeds of great men [ed. Herodotus would agree!]. Others tell history from below, arguing that one person’s life is just as much a part of mankind’s story as another’s [ed. Hmm… that sound like Herodotus, too!]. If people do make history, as this democratic view suggests, then two people make twice as much history as one. Since there are almost 7 billion people alive today, it follows that they are making seven times as much history as the 1 billion alive in 1811. The chart below shows a population-weighted history of the past two millennia. By this reckoning, over 28% of all the history made since the birth of Christ was made in the 20th century. Measured in years lived, the present century, which is only ten years old, is already “longer” than the whole of the 17th century. This century has made an even bigger contribution to economic history. Over 23% of all the goods and services made since 1AD were produced from 2001 to 2010, according to an updated version of Angus Maddison’s figures.

Summer Reading: If Rome Never Fell…

Rogueclassicism notes several items of Classic-Con at, including this list of alternate histories (or speculative fiction) that take as their premise the survival of the Roman Empire.

Great moments in alternate history: the non-fall of the Roman empireFor example, there’s Jacek Inglot’s Quietus in which a Roman Empire that has rejected Christianity has steamships by the 8th century and goes to war with a Christianized Japan. Or James White’s The Silent Stars Go By, where the plans for the Aeolipile survive the fall of Rome and result in a starship launch in the 15th century.

Another great example is Frederick Pohl’s The Deadly Mission of Phineas Snodgrass. Conceived as a response to L. Sprague de Camp’s classic Lest Darkness Fall, (making, I believe, its third appearance in this column) Pohl’s story concerns a time-traveler who brings modern medicine to the Roman Empire, thus creating a population explosion and forcing a second time-traveler to relieve the overpopulation by going back and assassinating the titular Snodgrass.

Thomas Harlan’s The Oath of Empire series concerns an alternate Roman Empire protected by magic since the time of Augustus. The world’s magic is elemental in nature, and Rome — in addition to surviving past its original expiration date — creates its own peculiar culture and habits based around that magic.

Great moments in alternate history: the non-fall of the Roman empirePerhaps the most depressing possibility is that a world with an extended Roman Empire would end up as a world-spanning dystopia with no real advantages over our timeline. A prime recent example of this idea is Sophia McDougall’s Rominitas trilogy. In this series, the Roman Empire controls almost the entire world and has still not abandoned slavery in the present day. The world of Robert Reed’s Hexagons isn’t explicitly dystopian — however, his modern Roman Empire seems to be largely in decline and to has fallen behind against the still relatively simple technology of China and Japan.

A final, less depressing, and much more exotic divergence comes from Scot[t] MacKay’s Orbis, which is set in a world where the entire world fell to an alien invasion force 2000 years ago. The Romans, canny thinkers that they were, managed to steal some of the alien ships and escape off planet. In the book’s present, a rebellion arises on Earth and humanity needs the help of the Romans who created an intergalactic empire.

Send an email to David Daw, the author of this post, at

Socrates in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “A Letter from a Birmingham Jail”

In 1963 Martin Luther King brought his campaign of non-violent resistance to segregation to Birmingham, Alabama. At the time Birmingham was one of the most segregated cities in the South and had earned the macabre epithet “Bombingham” after years of unsolved attacks on African-American homes and churches. When King was arrested on Good Friday for violating an ordinance that prohibited demonstrations, he took the opportunity to respond to Birmingham’s white clergy, who while claiming to support desegregation had advised against the protests, sit-ins, and boycotts advocated by King. The result is a classic document of the struggle for civil rights, “A Letter from a Birmingham Jail“.

Given his message and audience, King frequently seeks inspiration from Biblical sources, as well as from philosophers and theologians Christian (Aquinas, Augustine, Niehbur) and Jewish (Buber). At three points in the “Letter”, however, he invokes Socrates, both for his activist brand of philosophy and his practice of a just form of civil disobedience.

King deploys his first reference to Socrates in response to the imagined question, “Why direct action? Why sit-ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?”

But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word “tension.” I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, we must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.

This image of Socrates is familiar from Plato’s Apology: the gadfly of the polis, who is constantly “arousing and persuading and reproaching” citizens to perceive truth and justice. Athenians, of course, responded to the stings of the gadfly by executing Socrates. But King rejects the illogical notion that an unjust response to an act taints the precipitating act,

In your statement you assert that our actions, even though peaceful, must be condemned because they precipitate violence. But is this a logical assertion? Isn’t this like condemning a robbed man because his possession of money precipitated the evil act of robbery? Isn’t this like condemning Socrates because his unswerving commitment to truth and his philosophical inquiries precipitated the act by the misguided populace in which they made him drink hemlock?

In King’s final reference to Socrates, the philosopher takes his place in a list of historical figures who engaged in civil disobedience,

[Civil disobedience] was practiced superbly by the early Christians, who were willing to face hungry lions and the excruciating pain of chopping blocks rather than submit to certain unjust laws of the Roman Empire. To a degree, academic freedom is a reality today because Socrates practiced civil disobedience.

Hannibal Comix

Via rogueclassicism comes word of an on-line comic book treatment of Hannibal crossing the alps.

Most have heard the story of the Carthaginian general Hannibal leading elephants across the Alps to face the Romans. Writer Brendan McGinley wants you to see it.

“There’s already plenty of good prose about Hannibal, (but) no good visual medium for a story that crackles with so many unforgettable images, like elephants on the Alps or Mago Barca spilling dead Romans’ rings on the Senate floor,” he said. “Maybe Vin Diesel’s long-stalled film will change that; Victor Mature’s sure didn’t.”

McGinley and artist Mauro Vargas, along with colorist Andres Carranza, bring the Hannibal story to life — with some humorous asides — re-enacting the second Punic War on the Shadowline Web comics page,

[read more…]

Date for Caesar’s Invasion Revised (a wee bit)

Fresh on the heels of the (somewhat dubious) attempt to fix the date of Odysseus’ return to Ithaca using astronomical information, comes this. Using details from Caesar’s Commentary and taking advantage of a fortuitous confluence of celestial events, scholars claim the traditional date of Caesar’s invasion of England should be slightly revised. The BBC reports:

Julius Caesar’s invasion of Britain in 55BC could not have occurred on the dates stated in most history books, a team of astronomers have claimed. The traditional view is that Caesar landed in Britain on 26-27 August, but researchers from Texas State University say this cannot be right. Dr Donald Olson, an expert on tides, says that the English Channel was flowing the wrong way on this date. They instead favour an invasion of the south coast at Deal on August 22-23. [Read more…]

After a second inconclusive invasion the following year, Caesar was forced to turn his attention to Gaul, where unrest with Roman military occupation was growing. Augustus contemplated several invasions of Britain, but it only became a Roman province after Claudius’ invasion in 43CE.

Now That’s a Big Bang Theory!

Every Monday, the LiveScience website publishes an article on a discovery, event, or character that influenced the course of history. This week’s note is “How the Eruption of Thera [modern Santorini] Changed the World”:

The world map might look differently had the Greek volcano Thera not erupted 3,500 years ago in what geologists believe was the single-most powerful explosive event ever witnessed.

Thera didn’t just blow a massive hole into the island of Santorini – it set the entire ancient Mediterranean onto a different course, like a train that switched tracks to head off in a brand new direction.

Minoan culture, the dominant civilization in the Mediterranean at the time, crumbled as a result of the eruption, historians believe, changing the political landscape of the ancient world indefinitely. Environmental effects were felt across the globe, as far away as China and perhaps even North America and Antarctica. [more…]

The growing interest in anthropogenic global warming (oops?) has brought some much needed attention to the influence of climate on culture and history. The effect of climate on societies–especially preindustrial, agricultural societies–would seem to be blindingly obvious, but too often we forget that even slight changes in weather and climate can profoundly influence the course of events. Don’t believe me? Ask Kublai Khan and Monsieur Napoleon.

Making Myth-istory

According to a new poll, it seems Britons are busy turning their storied history into myth and legend (via AFP):

LONDON (AFP) – Britons are losing their grip on reality, according to a poll out Monday which showed that nearly a quarter think Winston Churchill was a myth while the majority reckon Sherlock Holmes was real. The survey found that 47 percent thought the 12th century English king Richard the Lionheart was a myth.
And 23 percent thought World War II prime minister Churchill was made up. [Read the rest of the story…]

I’m a bit skeptical of the findings, since such polls are susceptible to mischievous pranksters (“sure I believe in Snow White” *snicker snicker*). Nevertheless, the story remind us how we tend to mythologize stories and figures about which we have imprecise knowledge.

“Father of History” on the PR circuit

Herodotus and Robert Strassler’s new Landmark Herodotus took center stage yesterday on NPR’s “On Point with Tom Ashbrook” (program available in archive). No word on whether that inveterate Herodotus-hater Plutarch, author of “On the Malice of Herodotus”, was available for comment.

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