Before I continue the story of ancient Rome, I’d like to make an outline of the previous chapters:
The First Punic War
A Pattern of Expansion
The Second Punic War
The Third Punic War
Rome’s Wars with the Macedonians
Rome’s Wars in the Near East
Roman Society 200 BC to 100 BC
War With Jugurtha
War With Northmen
The Italian War
Civil War: Marius vs. Sulla
War With Mithridates
Civil War: Sulla vs. Carbo
Pompey Takes Charge
Cicero and Catiline
The First Triumvirate
Our last discussion of Roman history ended with Caesar on his way to Gaul (59 BC). But before we discuss Caesar’s conquest of Gaul, we need to discuss the Eastern campaigns of Lucullus, Pompey, and Crassus.
Lucullus proved to be an excellent general, but he had little political support, and a small army. Pompey had considerable political clout, and a large army, but little fighting remained to be done in the East after the victories of Lucullus. As for Crassus, he ventured too far East, driven by the desire for glory; he deserved to be defeated, and was defeated.
First let’s briefly discuss the campaign against the pirates. The pirates were active throughout the Mediterranean, attacking both shipping and coastal towns. They even attacked the coast of Italy, “which they waylaid from Brundisium to Ostia.”1 They interrupted Rome’s imports of corn, raising the specter of famine. They liked to seize prominent Romans, and hold them for ransom; Caesar, for example, was captured by pirates, and held for ransom. The pirates were allied with Mithridates in the East, and Sertorius in the West. Whenever there was civil war, as between Marius and Sulla, there were losers who became refugees, and often took to piracy.
In 67 BC, the Romans decided to throw everything they had at the pirates. They granted Pompey unlimited power (imperium infinitum), and he collected 270 ships, and 100,000 soldiers. He divided the Mediterranean into two parts by creating a cordon between Sicily and Carthage (Tunisia), where the Mediterranean is relatively narrow. Then he swept through the western Mediterranean, herding the pirates into places where he had stationed troops. So there was no refuge for the pirates on sea or land. Once the western Mediterranean was pirate-free, the process was repeated in the eastern Mediterranean and the Black Sea. “In three months Pompey was able to report all clear.”
In 74 BC, Mithridates clashed with Rome yet again. This was the beginning of the Third Mithridatic War, which ended twelve years later with the death of Mithridates (I discussed the First and Second Mithridatic Wars here). Mithridates was King of Pontus for about 50 years, and fought the Romans for about the last 25 years of his reign. Surely he was one of Rome’s most persistent and wily foes.
At the start of the Third Mithridatic War, Mithridates attacked Roman territories in Asia Minor, and when the Romans sent a 100-ship fleet to the area, Mithridates “destroyed it completely.”2 Then he tried to incite Greek cities to throw off the Roman yoke, as he had in previous wars. But the Greeks didn’t cooperate with Mithridates as they had formerly, and some Greek cities contributed ships to the Roman cause. The Roman general Lucullus collected an army of 30,000 and defeated Mithridates on land and sea. But the wily Mithridates managed to slip away even when his army was defeated.
In 73 BC, Lucullus struck at the heart of the Pontic homeland, and after a difficult campaign, defeated the army of Mithridates at the Battle of Cabira. Again Mithridates himself managed to escape. His son, to whom he had entrusted part of his realm, shut the door against him, so Mithridates took refuge with the King of Armenia, Tigranes II, who was his son-in-law. The forces of Lucullus controlled Asia Minor and the Pontic homeland.
map of the Kingdom of Pontus
before the reign of Mithridates (dark purple)
after his initial conquests (purple)
his conquests in the first Mithridatic wars (pink)
the Kingdom of Armenia (green)
Cabira is in the middle of the dark purple area (spelled “Cabeira”)
As you may recall, in the First Mithridatic War, Mithridates had swept through Asia Minor, then organized a massacre of Italians living in Asia Minor. Once the Romans regained control, they fined the Greek cities on the coast of Asia Minor, as punishment for their part in the massacre. To pay the fine, the Greek cities borrowed from Roman money-lenders, at high interest rates. By the time of Lucullus, the debt had swollen, forcing the cities into bankruptcy. So Lucullus restructured the debt, thereby earning the gratitude of the Greek cities, and the resentment of the Roman money-lenders; this resentment eroded support for Lucullus at Rome.
In 69 BC, Lucullus invaded Armenia, determined to kill or capture Mithridates, who had been a thorn in Rome’s side for decades. The King of Armenia — Tigranes II, also known as Tigranes the Great — was in the middle of a 40-year reign, and had expanded Armenia to the Caspian Sea in the east, and to the Mediterranean Sea in the west. Armenia reached the apex of its power under Tigranes the Great; Armenians refer to his kingdom as “sea to sea Armenia.”
Armenia in 80 BC, at the height of its power, with modern borders indicated
Lucullus had no commission to invade Armenia, hence he risked arousing the ire of the Senate. Furthermore, he had only 16,000 “weary and half-willing soldiers”3 to oppose to Tigranes’ vast army. According to legend, Tigranes was puzzled at the sight of Lucullus’ forces, and said they were “too few for an army, too many for an embassy.” But when the armies met at the Battle of Tigranocerta, Lucullus won a quick victory, and put himself “in the foremost rank of Roman tacticians.”
Lucullus’ victory was incomplete: both kings, Tigranes and Mithridates, were still on the loose. Tigranes retreated toward the northeast, toward his capital, Artaxata (the dynasty of which Tigranes was a part was called the Artaxiad Dynasty). Lucullus followed, his soldiers becoming more weary and less willing. Finally his soldiers refused to go any further, and Lucullus had to retreat.
Lucullus hoped for reinforcements, but instead his forces were taken from him, partly because he had little support at Rome, partly because all available forces were given to Pompey for his campaign against the pirates. Lucullus had only a “skeleton force,” and both kings (Tigranes and Mithridates) were able to regain their kingdoms. After seven years and several victories, Lucullus had gained little.
In 66 BC, Pompey was put in charge of the Eastern Region, and Lucullus was sent home. Lucullus had weakened the forces of both Mithridates and Tigranes, so there were no armies in the region that could challenge Pompey’s large army. Pompey defeated the small army of Mithridates at the Battle of Nicopolis, but Mithridates himself managed to slip away yet again, then managed to slip through Pompey’s naval forces on the Black Sea, and make his way to the Crimea. Finally his own people rose against him, and he took his own life.
Meanwhile, Tigranes submitted to Pompey without a battle, but Tigranes kept his freedom and his kingdom (he remained king until his death in 55 BC, at the age of 85).
In an earlier issue, we discussed the Seleucid Dynasty, which governed a vast eastern realm from its headquarters in Syria. The Seleucid kingdom became smaller and smaller, as a result of internal discord and the rising power of the Romans, the Armenians, the Parthians, etc. Seleucid weakness led to Jewish independence, and Jewish expansion.
In 67 BC, however, the Jewish state fell into civil war, and the party that controlled Jerusalem clashed with Pompey. In 63 BC, Pompey laid siege to Jerusalem, and captured it after three months. He then created a new Roman province called Syria, and reduced the size of Judaea. Like the Hellenistic kings, Pompey fostered urban life; “In Asia Minor and Syria [Pompey] founded or restored some forty cities.”4 He brought peace and stability to the eastern Mediterranean, and a new flow of revenue to the Roman treasury. In 62 BC, Pompey returned to Rome, and celebrated a triumph of “unparalleled splendor.”
The Parthian kingdom had its headquarters east of Armenia, in northern Persia (northern Iran). Like the Ottoman Turks, the Parthians were originally from the Asian steppes. The Parthian kingdom, like most kingdoms, had periods of expansion, and periods of contraction. During one of its periods of expansion, it controlled part of Mesopotamia. The Parthians made a deal with Pompey: we’ll be on your side in your struggle with Mithridates and Tigranes, provided that, when those kings are defeated, you’ll return Mesopotamia to us.
After Pompey defeated Mithridates, and accepted the submission of Tigranes, he broke his agreement with the Parthians, and divided Mesopotamia between several kingdoms. Thus, Pompey “laid the seeds of a long-lived feud” between Parthia and Rome. In 53 BC, about ten years after Pompey returned to Rome, Crassus decided that he would humble the Parthians; Crassus crossed the Euphrates and marched into Mesopotamia. Tired of hearing people discuss the exploits of Caesar and Pompey, Crassus wanted military glory. One might describe Crassus’ war with Parthia as a war of choice, not of necessity; Parthia didn’t threaten vital Roman interests.
The Parthian army had a weak infantry but a strong cavalry. The nobility fought like medieval knights: clad in armor, mounted on powerful horses. The less affluent fought on lighter horses, and wore lighter armor; they were expert archers, known for shooting their arrows while retreating, like a quarterback who passes on the run.
Crassus had about 35,000 troops, but almost no cavalry. He was met by about 10,000 Parthian archers, whose quivers were refilled by a corps of 1,000 camels. The Parthians rained arrows on the Romans, while staying out of range of Roman weapons. Both Crassus and his son died; many Roman soldiers were killed or taken prisoner. It’s called the Battle of Carrhae, and it’s often mentioned among Roman military disasters.
The people of Gaul were largely Celtic. Like the Aztecs and Incas, the Celts weren’t an ancient civilization; they had migrated to Gaul from Germany around 750 BC. In southwest Gaul (Aquitania), there were Iberians from Spain, and in northeast Gaul, there were “Belgae,” who were partly Celt, partly German; both the Iberians and Belgae had arrived in Gaul even more recently than the Celts (more recently than 750 BC). The Gauls had a relatively advanced civilization; they were especially skilled at agriculture and metal-working.
Gaul was ruled by its nobility; the common people had little power. Gaul had some political unity; the priests (Druids) fostered this unity by arbitrating disputes from every corner of Gaul at the “plain of Chartres.” But Gaul didn’t have enough political unity to keep out foreign invaders; Gallic nobles had private armies, and fought each other in wars that our authors compare to The Wars of the Roses. Sometimes Gallic tribes asked foreigners to assist them in a war with another Gallic tribe; shortly before Caesar’s conquest of Gaul, a German chief named Ariovistus had been invited into Gaul, and was establishing a German community on the left bank (the Gallic bank) of the Rhine. Many Gallic tribes were concerned about Ariovistus, but unwilling to confront him themselves.
In 58 BC, Caesar began his Gallic campaigns. A Gallic tribe, the Aedui, asked the Romans for help against a Swiss tribe, the Helvetii. The Helvetii were trying to push westward, and establish a homeland in Gaul. Caesar defeated the Helvetii at the Battle of Bibracte. After this success, several Gallic tribes asked Caesar for help against Ariovistus and his tribe, the Suebi.
Caesar tried to make an agreement with Ariovistus, tried to find a compromise. “But Ariovistus repudiated Caesar’s claim to speak for the Gauls and openly avowed his intention of extending his conquests to the Atlantic.”5 In 58 BC, Caesar defeated Ariovistus at the Battle of Vosges.
This victory dispelled the German threat, but soon the Gauls realized that Caesar himself had become a threat. In 57 BC, the Belgae formed a coalition to confront Caesar. Caesar met this threat with “masterly inaction”: he realized that the large Gallic army had an inadequate supply system, so he simply waited for them to run out of food. When they began retreating, he pursued them relentlessly and “in a lightning campaign reduced the greater part of what is now northern France.”6 Caesar was a master of military engineering, and he made use of “a powerful siege-train,” that is, machines for breaking into walled cities.
While Caesar was conquering northern Gaul, one of his lieutenants was marching down the west coast of Gaul. The western tribes, which were relatively un-warlike, quickly submitted to the Romans. At the end of 57 BC, Caesar thought that all of Gaul had been subdued, and declared Mission Accomplished.
But then the western tribes revolted, led by a tribe in Brittany called the Veneti. The revolting tribes thought they could foil the Romans by retreating to coastal islands — islands that could only be reached at low tide (as Mont Saint-Michel can only be reached at low tide). So Caesar built a fleet of ships, attacked the revolting tribes from the sea, and defeated them. “The rebellion of the Veneti was punished by Caesar with wholesale executions and enslavements.” On several occasions, Caesar used brutal tactics, tactics that were criticized even by some Romans. Cary and Scullard say that these brutal tactics backfired — they stiffened Gallic resistance.
Perhaps the most brutal episode of the Gallic campaign was Caesar’s clash with two German tribes, the Usipetes and the Tencteri. Like the Cimbri and Teutones, whom we discussed in an earlier issue, the Usipetes and Tencteri had been driven from their homes, and were wandering about. While Caesar was meeting with their chiefs, there was a “presumably accidental infraction of the armistice” by some of the German soldiers. Caesar “took advantage” of the infraction to slaughter the two German tribes “to the last woman and child.”7
The Romans then gave another demonstration of their engineering skill, building a bridge over the Rhine in ten days, but they found nothing to interest them in Germany, so they crossed back over the Rhine, and destroyed their bridge.
In both 55 and 54 BC, Caesar made forays into Britain, perhaps because it had tin and other valuable metals. Since at least 500 BC, the Celts had been migrating into Britain, and had brought with them their skill with iron, textiles, agriculture, etc. First they used iron bars as currency, later they used coins. Caesar “easily defeated” the Britains in battle, but he found little of value in Britain; his fleets were damaged by the elements, and his army was attacked by guerrillas.
Gaul was quiet in 55 and 54 BC, but anger was building over Roman demands for supplies, soldiers, etc. In the winter of 54-53, a Gallic chief in northeast Gaul managed to ambush and destroy one and a half legions. This inspired several northern tribes to revolt. But in the summer of 53, Caesar managed to put down these revolts one by one.
In the summer of 52, however, Caesar faced his biggest challenge: a revolt by the Arverni tribe, who were led by Vercingetorix, and supported by the other tribes in central Gaul. Vercingetorix had a large army, and trained it well.
At the Battle of Gergovia, the Romans attempted to storm a fortress, but were repelled with heavy losses. This defeat prompted almost every tribe in Gaul to throw in their lot with Vercingetorix. Even the Aedui, who had long been allied with the Romans, joined Vercingetorix. Caesar had been using Aedui cavalry, so the defection of the Aedui forced him to recruit new cavalry from German tribes. After six years of campaigning in Gaul, Caesar had apparently accomplished nothing, except to stiffen Gallic resistance, and increase Gallic unity.
Vercingetorix withdrew into the fortress (oppidum) of Alesia; our authors call this a “fatal mistake.” Caesar began building a wall around the town. For two weeks, the Gauls watched the wall go up, periodically attacking the Roman builders. Then some Gallic cavalry broke through the Roman lines, to seek help from other tribes. Caesar knew they would return with a large relief force. So he decided to build a second wall, an outer wall. The outer wall would keep the Gallic relief force out, while the inner wall kept the Gallic defenders in. (The inner wall is called “circumvallation,” the outer “contravallation.”) Alesia was a walled city to begin with, so after Caesar’s two walls were built, Alesia was ringed by three walls.
Caesar’s inner wall was about 11 miles long, and took three weeks to build; his outer wall was about 13 miles long. The walls themselves were only one part of a system of defenses that included trenches, watchtowers, etc.
Soldiers poured in from all over Gaul to battle the Romans, and relieve Vercingetorix. Caesar had about 60,000 soldiers; the Gauls had more soldiers, perhaps four times more. Caesar’s forces were both besieging and besieged.
Hunger was taking a toll on the besieged Gauls, and on the Romans. They had to feed not only people, but also horses. The besieged Gauls put their women and children outside the city walls, hoping Caesar would let them out, but instead Caesar left them to starve between the city walls and his inner wall. Gallic morale inside the city was sinking, but when the large relief force arrived, morale in the city rose.
The relief force found a soft spot, an opening, in Caesar’s outer wall, a spot where it was impossible to build a wall. While the relief force attacked the outer wall, concentrating on the soft spot, the Gauls inside the city attacked Caesar’s inner wall, forcing the Romans to defend both walls at the same time.
With Caesar’s men near exhaustion, and the tide of battle turning toward the Gauls, Caesar broke out at the head of a cavalry force, and attacked the Gallic relief force from the rear. The Gauls were surprised and alarmed, they retreated, the retreat turned into a rout. Caesar said that his troops could have annihilated the Gauls completely, but they stopped because of sheer exhaustion. Caesar had won the Battle of Alesia.
When the fortress of Alesia surrendered to Caesar’s forces, Vercingetorix was taken captive. He was held for five years, then paraded through Rome in 46 BC, as part of Caesar’s triumph, then executed. The Battle of Alesia was the key battle of the Gallic campaign, and perhaps one of the key battles of world history.
Caesar didn’t impose harsh terms on the Gauls; he allowed them to largely govern themselves, and he asked for only a small tribute. Since Gaul was pacified, he was able to withdraw most Roman forces from Gaul, and even strengthen his army with Gallic auxiliaries.
In summarizing the Gallic campaign, Cary and Scullard say that Caesar, like the British in India, was successful largely because his foes weren’t united, they often fought each other. Cary and Scullard say that Caesar had expert engineers, adept at both siege engines and defensive works. He prepared carefully, and didn’t walk into ambushes. And finally, he was tireless in exploiting an opportunity, and in pursuing a broken enemy.
If you want to learn more about the Gallic campaign, you can read Caesar’s Gallic Wars, or Plutarch’s “Life of Caesar.”
During the ten-year Gallic campaign, the First Triumvirate (Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus) continued to wield power at Rome. In some ways, the Triumvirate functioned well, and was a useful supplement to the Senate; “even Cicero admitted the need of a ‘rector’ to give an occasional masterful turn to the helm.”8 But should there be one rector or three? The problem with three rectors was that they were always suspicious of each other, and there was always the possibility of conflict between them.
Since Caesar didn’t trust Pompey and Crassus to look after his interests while he was in Gaul, he enlisted the help of a politician named Clodius. Clodius “became for a year and a half the uncrowned king of Rome.” He acquired power by having a private army of ruffians, and he won the hearts of the mob by handing out free corn. Clodius was an enemy of Cicero, and managed to drive Cicero into exile in Greece. Clodius also managed to drive out Cato the Younger.
Drunk with power, Clodius made the fatal mistake of attacking Pompey — besieging him in his own house. An ally of Pompey named Milo formed his own army of ruffians, and this army, combined with some of Pompey’s former soldiers, defeated Clodius. Then Pompey and Milo passed a law recalling Cicero from exile. On his return to Rome, Cicero received a hero’s welcome.
In 52 BC, Clodius was killed by Milo’s gang in a street brawl. When Milo was put on trial for murder, Cicero defended him in an oration called Pro Milone. Despite Cicero’s efforts, Milo was convicted and went into exile. At Rome, rioting and gang warfare was the order of the day; the rioters “burnt down the Senate-house and other buildings in the Forum.”9 To restore order, the Senate made Pompey sole consul and virtual dictator.
Cracks began to appear in the Triumvirate. Pompey and Crassus renewed their “ancient feud,” and competed for a military command. Cicero tried to bring Pompey onto his side, and detach him from Caesar. In 56 BC, halfway through Caesar’s Gallic campaign, an aristocrat and member of the Optimates faction, Domitius Ahenobarbus, proposed recalling Caesar from Gaul.
To repair the cracks in the Triumvirate, the three triumvirs (Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus) met at Luca, in northern Tuscany, in 56 BC. It was a measure of their power that more than 100 senators went to Luca to curry favor with the triumvirs. It was agreed that, when Pompey and Crassus returned to Rome, they would push through a law extending Caesar’s Gallic command for another five-year period (quinquennium). Crassus would become Governor of Syria. Pompey would become Governor of Spain, but would remain in Rome, and govern Spain through a deputy. So each triumvir had some power, and each seemed satisfied with the settlement.
As I mentioned earlier, the Triumvirate had been cemented by Pompey’s marriage to Caesar’s daughter, Julia. In 54 BC, however, Julia died, and the bond between Pompey and Caesar grew weaker. In 53 BC, Crassus was killed by the Parthians, and the triumvirate became a duumvirate. It began to seem that either Caesar or Pompey would become sole ruler.
Some extreme Optimates in the Senate — Cato the Younger, Domitius Ahenobarbus, etc. — were determined to destroy Caesar, and tried to sow discord between Pompey and Caesar. Cato the Younger even proposed handing Caesar to the Usipetes, the tribe he had massacred, so they could take revenge on him. But the real danger to Caesar was that, as soon as he gave up his command, his enemies would attack him with a lawsuit.
The extremist faction (the anti-Caesar faction) wasn’t able to pry Caesar’s command from him, but they did pry two of his legions from him, on the pretext that they were needed in Parthia. Once these two legions were in Italy, they were kept there, at Pompey’s disposal, on the pretext that they were no longer needed in Parthia.
When the extremists tried to weaken Caesar through Senate decrees, they were often foiled by moderate Senators. So the extremists decided to bypass the Senate, and make their case to Pompey. They persuaded Pompey to mobilize his troops. Caesar responded by mobilizing his troops (bringing them from France to his headquarters in northern Italy). Cicero and others tried to find a compromise, and avert civil war, but the extremists were adamant, and now they had Pompey with them.
Once Pompey threw in his lot with the extremists, the Senate as a whole began to follow extremist policies, anti-Caesar policies. In early 49 BC, the Senate passed an Emergency Decree giving Pompey power. It was clear to Caesar that the government at Rome was against him. If he gave up his command, he would surely be prosecuted.
Caesar had to choose between civil war and surrendering himself to his enemies. “For one anxious hour he reflected in solitude; finally he made his reply by crossing the Rubicon (the frontier stream) and invading Italy.”10 Both before and after crossing the Rubicon, Caesar made numerous attempts to find a compromise and avert war. But the extremists were in no mood to compromise, and Pompey had been won over to their viewpoint.
Cary and Scullard say that Caesar wasn’t responsible for starting the civil war. “The twenty-two extremist senators who insisted on Caesar’s immediate recall were in fact insisting on civil war. To them the feud with Caesar had become a higher object than the welfare of the State.” Cary and Scullard say that Pompey “more than any other man had the whole issue of peace and war in his hands.” But Pompey was unsure what to do, “and finally deferred to his worst advisers.”
But if Caesar didn’t directly start the war, he was nonetheless partly responsible for it. He was the driving force behind the creation of the First Triumvirate, and this Triumvirate (according to Cary and Scullard) was the ultimate cause of the civil war. The Triumvirate changed the Roman political system from a rule of law to a rule of individuals. And once it became a rule of individuals, three individuals, it was inevitable that the individuals would clash. The civil war was a contest for personal power, not a battle of political theories or economic interests.
I’m not completely convinced by the arguments of Cary and Scullard. It seems to me that the First Triumvirate can be seen, not as a cause, but as a consequence of the breakdown of the rule of law. Violence had entered the political process with the murder of the Gracchi (c. 130 BC), and had intensified with the civil wars of Marius and Sulla. The First Triumvirate was just a chapter in a long process; it didn’t invent political violence, and it didn’t begin the breakdown of the constitution. No individual, and no group, is responsible for the civil war. Rather, the civil war is the inevitable, tragic result of large historical forces.
A. I discovered an English writer named Mary Beard. Born in 1955, Beard is a classics professor at Cambridge. She’s made several documentaries about the Romans, and she won the Wolfson Prize for her book on Pompeii. In 2015, she published SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome. (This Mary Beard shouldn’t be confused with Mary Ritter Beard, a historian and activist who was married to the historian Charles Beard.)
Mary Beard was interviewed by Christopher Lydon. The interview frequently digresses into American politics, as if Roman history is only of interest if it can be related to current affairs.
In the interview, Beard mentions her professor at Cambridge, Moses Finley. Finley wrote several notable books, including The Ancient Economy, The Olympic Games, and The World of Odysseus, which applies anthropology to Homeric Greece. Another writer who dealt with ancient athletics is H. A. Harris, author of Sport in Greece and Rome.
B. Robin Lane Fox is a British scholar who began his career with a biography of Alexander the Great, a biography that won the James Tait Black Prize. Later, Fox wrote about early Christianity, and the Bible as history. In recent years, Fox wrote a biography of St. Augustine, and a survey of antiquity (The Classical World: An Epic History from Homer to Hadrian). Robin Lane Fox should not be confused with Robin Fox, an anthropologist.
C. I discovered a novel about ancient Rome by the American writer Thornton Wilder. It’s called The Ides of March, and deals with the late Republic and the assassination of Caesar. Wilder is a well-regarded writer; he won a Pulitzer Prize for his novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey, and another Pulitzer for his play Our Town.
D. I discovered a TV series called Rome; it deals with the late Republic and the early Empire. It has 22 episodes of about one hour each. It was made around 2005 by HBO, the BBC, and Rai Fiction (an Italian production company). It received both positive reviews and high ratings.
E. Philosophy teaches us to respect the average person — the stranger you pass on the street. After all, he might be a philosopher.
F. I saw Brian Lamb’s interview with Paul Kennedy, a Yale professor who became well-known for a book called The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers. In that book, Kennedy argues that empires, such as the British Empire, are based on economic strength. When we discussed Rome, however, we saw that Rome’s empire wasn’t based on a strong economy; rather, it was based on a central location, a large population, and a systematic approach to war. Kennedy grew up in northern England, in an Irish, Catholic, working-class family. Kennedy is earnest and intelligent, and he tries to present large ideas in an accessible way. One of his students at Yale was Fareed Zakaria.
I take your poems in my hand and read them beside the candle;
The poems are finished, the candle is low, dawn not yet come.
With sore eyes by the guttering candle still I sit in the dark,
Listening to waves that, driven by the wind, strike the prow of the boat.
This poem is by Bai Juyi, a Chinese poet who lived about 800 AD, during the Tang Dynasty. It’s a very literary poem — a poem about reading poems. And yet it carries us away from literature to reality itself — to the wind, the water, the boat, and to the feelings aroused in the man who’s sitting in the dark. The poem has a certain restraint, a certain humility, as if the poet is more impressed with reality, and with literature, than with himself.
Here’s some commentary on the poem:
|There is great art in the selection of facts presented, but no “coloring of the imagination”; the incidents and situations are chosen “from common life”.... The true poetic life is the ordinary everyday life.|
This commentary is by R. H. Blyth, who quotes the poem in his Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics.11
Here’s some commentary on Bai Juyi by Burton Watson, an American scholar who has spent most of his life in Japan:
|[Bai Juyi] worked to develop a style that was simple and easy to understand, and posterity has requited his efforts by making him one of the most well-loved and widely read of all Chinese poets, both in his native land and in the other countries of the East.... He is also, thanks to the translations and biographical studies by Arthur Waley, one of the most accessible to English readers.|
Here’s a passage from Kafka’s novel The Trial; it describes the protagonist’s first visit to the “Court of Inquiry”:
|On his way up he disturbed many children who were playing on the stairs.... Just before he reached the first floor he had actually to wait for a moment until a marble came to rest, two children with the lined, pinched faces of adult rogues holding him meanwhile by his trousers.12|
This passage is vintage Kafka. It shows his penchant for realistic detail, minute detail. It has a child-like quality, a playful quality, a naive quality. Academics and critics often view great literature as a serious thing, an adult thing, and they’re apt to overlook the play element.
|1.|| Ch. 25, #1 back|
|2.|| Ch. 25, #2 back|
|3.|| Ch. 25, #3 back|
|4.|| Ch. 25, #4 back|
|5.|| Ch. 26, #2 back|
|6.|| Ch. 26, #2 back|
|7.|| Ch. 26, #3 back|
|8.|| Ch. 26, #5 back|
|9.|| Ch. 26, #6 back|
|10.|| Ch. 26, #7 back|
|11.|| Ch. 3, p. 44 back|
|12.||Ch. 2 back|