October 27, 2015
I went to a talk by Peter Balakian, an Armenian-American who has written about the Armenian Genocide. Balakian was more interested in selling books and signing books than explaining the Genocide, but I did learn a few things. The Turkish government killed not only Armenians, but other non-Muslims — Greeks, Assyrians, etc. While the Genocide occurred in 1915, there were also massacres of Armenians in the 1870s, and the 1890s.
The Ottoman Empire was at war with Russia in the 1870s, and the Ottomans may have thought Armenians would help the enemy. This may also have been a motive for the 1915 Genocide, since Turkey was at war with Russia then, too. Another motive for the Genocide may have been that some Armenians believed in forceful resistance to Ottoman oppression, and there were clashes between Turks and Armenians.
Balakian pointed out that World War I provided a perfect screen for the Armenian Genocide. If the eyes of the world had been upon them, the Turks wouldn’t have dared to perpetrate genocide. Absent World War I, genocide might have provoked the invasion of Turkey. But World War I drew people’s attention away from what was happening in Turkey. Balakian thinks the same is true of the Holocaust: no war, no genocide. The Armenian Genocide was a by-product of World War I, as the Holocaust was a by-product of World War II.
But while the world’s attention was drawn to World War I, the Armenian Genocide wasn’t carried out in secret, as the Holocaust was. It was more widely known, while it was happening, than the Holocaust, and there was considerable publicity about it after it was over. People in the West also sympathized with the Armenians at the time of the earlier massacres (in the 1870s and 1890s). In 1894, Julia Ward Howe spoke at Faneuil Hall in Boston, and said Americans should “take our stand and insist upon it that the slaughter [of Armenians] shall cease.”
By the time World War II started, however, the Armenian Genocide had been all but forgotten. Shortly before invading Poland, Hitler said he intended to exterminate Poles, and he said, “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?” Hitler may have felt that, if he carried out genocide, it would not be remembered or punished. Balakian argues that the Armenian Genocide should be remembered and punished; Turkey should admit guilt, and make some sort of reparation.
One of Balakian’s best-known books is Burning Tigris: The Armenian Genocide and America’s Response. Balakian recommends the contemporary account by Henry Morgenthau, Sr., who was U.S. ambassador to Turkey at the time of the Genocide; this account has been published as Ambassador Morgenthau’s Story: A Personal Account of the Armenian Genocide.1
This year is the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide. Balakian is pleased at the amount of attention that has been paid to the anniversary; he mentioned in particular the extensive coverage in the New York Times.
I saw a Booknotes interview with James Thomas Flexner, best known for his 4-volume biography of Washington. Flexner also wrote a one-volume abridgement, Washington: The Indispensable Man; this book was touted by Newt Gingrich, and became well known.2
Flexner’s father was a Jewish man who rose from humble beginnings to become a distinguished scientist/doctor. Father and son collaborated on books about the history of American medicine, such as Doctors on Horseback: Pioneers of American Medicine.
Flexner’s mother, Helen Thomas, might be described as a well-connected WASP: she was a Bryn Mawr professor, her sister was the Bryn Mawr president, and she was related to Bertrand Russell, Catherine Drinker Bowen, Mrs. Bernard Berenson, etc. Flexner was on friendly terms with Bernard Berenson, and this apparently led to his deep interest in American painting; Flexner wrote numerous books about American painting.
Flexner wrote a book about his parents, An American Saga: The Story of Helen Thomas and Simon Flexner. Flexner also wrote a book about his own life, Maverick’s Progress: An Autobiography. Apparently this book devotes considerable space to Flexner’s many affaires de coeur.
Flexner spent most of his life in Manhattan, and he frequented the Century Club. During the 1800s, many prominent American artists were members of the Century Club, and their works now hang on the club’s walls (Flexner wrote a book called Paintings on the Century’s Walls). Flexner died in 2003, at the age of 95.
Before I continue the story of ancient Rome, I’d like to make an outline of the previous chapters:
At the end of our last Rome discussion, the emperor Domitian was assassinated, and the Flavian Dynasty came to an end. The Flavian Dynasty was followed by the Nerva-Antonine Dynasty, which lasted from 96 AD until 192 AD.
The five emperors who followed Domitian are sometimes called “The Five Good Emperors.” (The phrase originates with Machiavelli.) The Five Good Emperors are Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, and Marcus Aurelius. Gibbon wrote,
Perhaps the chief blessing enjoyed by the Empire during this period was peace. Despite occasional wars, “it remains broadly true that the countries of the Roman Empire were never before and never afterwards more free from the shadow of war than in the first two centuries AD.”3
When Domitian died, the Senate had a rare opportunity to choose an emperor, and they chose well. They chose Nerva, a 65-year-old Senator. Though Nerva died after just two years in office, he chose his successor wisely, and he set the wheels in motion that led to a century of good government.
To strengthen his control over the army, Nerva chose a commander named Trajan to be his adoptive son, co-ruler, and successor. The next three emperors followed this pattern: they adopted a man of proven ability, and made him their successor, thus smoothing the transition to the next emperor.
The four emperors after Nerva — Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, and Marcus Aurelius — each ruled for about twenty years. Trajan commanded the respect of the troops, and also won the hearts of civilians. His courtesy was a welcome contrast to Domitian’s style, and earned him the title Optimus Princeps. As a result of his conquests, the Empire reached its greatest extent; he added Mesopotamia, Armenia, and Dacia (western Romania) to the Empire. He even defeated the Parthians, and sailed down the Tigris River to the Persian Gulf. After Trajan, no significant additions were made to the Empire.
The eastern provinces were protected by a wall, the Limes Arabicus, which stretched for about 1,000 miles; one purpose of this wall was to protect the eastern provinces from Arab raiders (Bedouin raiders). Agriculture flourished within the Limes Arabicus. Trajan built a road along the southern section of the Limes Arabicus, to facilitate troop-movements, trade, etc. (the Romans often built roads along their walls). Trajan’s road was called Via Traiana Nova (Trajan’s New Road). Later the Emperor Diocletian built a road along the northern section of the Limes Arabicus; this road was called Strata Diocletiana (Diocletian Street).
When Trajan decided to invade Dacia, he built a road and towpath along the Danube, through the gorge known as the Iron Gates. In 101 AD, Trajan invaded Dacia, and in 102, the Dacian king Decebalus surrendered. Trajan dismantled some Dacian fortresses, and stationed Roman garrisons in others, but allowed Decebalus to remain in charge. Thus, Trajan “injured Decebalus’ pride, yet failed to reduce him to impotence.”4
Decebalus soon began plotting another uprising. In 105, he attacked the Roman garrisons, and invaded the Roman province of Moesia. Trajan assembled one of the largest armies in Roman history — twelve legions, at least 120,000 men — and invaded Dacia again. After the Romans defeated the Dacians, Decebalus committed suicide. Trajan brought home about 500,000 pounds of gold and 1,000,000 pounds of silver — “the last of Rome’s great war hauls.”5
Trajan turned Dacia into a Roman province, and imported colonists to Romanize it. But Cary and Scullard argue that annexing Dacia didn’t make the Roman border stronger; rather, it replaced a clear border (the Danube) with an indefinite border. Hence Trajan’s successor, Hadrian, considered abandoning Dacia. The Romans could never decide where their borders should be, and could never make their borders completely secure.
Trajan built a forum (a portico-lined piazza), and in this forum he built a basilica or civic building (the Basilica Ulpia), and near this Basilica he built the largest Roman library. Trajan’s last act, choosing Hadrian as his successor, may have been his wisest.
Trajan’s Column, in Trajan’s Forum, just north of the Roman Forum
Detail from Trajan’s Column
The Parthian War began in 113 AD, when the Parthians installed someone unacceptable to the Romans on the throne of Armenia. While Trajan was busy fighting the Parthians, a revolt broke out in his rear. In 115 AD, the Second Roman-Jewish War erupted; this war is sometimes called the Revolt of the Diaspora, or the Kitos War, after the Roman general Lusius Quietus. On both sides, it was a war of extermination, genocide avant la lettre. The Jews took up arms in Egypt and Palestine, and seized power in Cyprus and Cyrene, and “wherever they obtained the ascendancy they massacred the Gentile population indiscriminately.”6 Where massacres took place, the land was depopulated, and colonists were later brought in to re-populate the land. In 116 AD, however, the Parthian War ended, and Trajan suppressed the Jewish revolt; his generals assisted the Greeks in carrying out massacres of the Jews.
The Third Roman-Jewish War, known as the Bar Kokhba revolt, began in 132 AD, during the reign of Hadrian. Simon bar Kokhba was the leader of the revolt, and he was regarded by many Jews as the Messiah. Like the First Roman-Jewish War (66-73 AD), the Third war was a rising of Jews in Palestine against their Roman rulers.
The Third war was sparked by Hadrian’s policy of “forcible assimilation — a policy which the Seleucid king Antiochus IV had attempted three centuries previously with disastrous results.”7 Hadrian tried to stamp out circumcision, he founded a Roman colony at Jerusalem, and he built a temple to Jupiter on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.
The Jewish rebels used the guerrilla tactics that they had used against Vespasian’s troops in 70 AD, and against the Seleucids in 170 BC. But while the Jews were initially successful, they were eventually overwhelmed by a large, well-organized Roman force. The war was “in effect a manhunt in which the Romans exterminated a large part of the population of Palestine.”8 More than 500,000 Jews may have died in the war.
After the war, Jews weren’t allowed to set foot in Jerusalem, except for an annual visit. Even the name “Judaea” was eliminated, and the province became known as Syria Palestina. But Hadrian’s successor, Antoninus Pius, reversed his policy of forcible assimilation, allowing Jews to practice their religion, establish schools, etc. Nonetheless, the Jews had become “a stateless and a homeless people.”9
“Of all Roman emperors,” write Cary and Scullard, “Hadrian was the one who came nearest to Caesar in the versatility of his talent.”10 Hadrian was known for his culture, and his fondness for traveling. “Of the twenty-one years of his reign Hadrian spent more than half outside Italy.”11 His traveling wasn’t mere tourism; his trips were “tours of inspection,” and enabled him “to exercise a more effective control over his subordinates than any previous emperor.”12 As a young man, Hadrian attended the lectures of Epictetus in Greece. Hadrian’s great love was apparently a young man named Antinous, who drowned in the Nile when he was about 20.
Hadrian’s Villa in Tivoli, about 15 miles east of Rome
At the start of Hadrian’s reign, four leading Senators were executed without trial. For the rest of Hadrian’s reign, his relations with the Senate were tense; that may explain why he spent much time traveling, and much time at his villa in Tivoli, instead of in Rome. When Hadrian died, his successor (Antoninus Pius) “had great difficulty in persuading the Senate to grant Hadrian divine honors.”13
Hadrian spent time with the soldiers — eating with them, sleeping with them, etc. — and he made military training more rigorous. Unlike Trajan, Hadrian didn’t believe in enlarging the Empire; Hadrian shrank the Empire, abandoning Mesopotamia and Armenia. Hadrian pursued a defensive policy, building a wooden palisade in southern Germany, and erecting stone walls in North Africa and northern England.
Hadrian’s Wall in northern England
Hadrian’s Wall was an enormous project — a stone wall at least 8 feet wide, and at least 12 feet high, with a ditch in front of it that was 27 feet wide and 15 feet deep, and another large ditch behind it. The earth removed to create the ditches was used to make mounds — walls of earth. So Hadrian’s Wall was much more than simply a wall, it was a series of ditches and walls. Forts and towers were built at intervals. Hadrian’s Wall ran for about 75 miles. The entire project was apparently carried out between 122 and 126 AD.
“I can understand why they’d dig a ditch in front of the wall, but why would they dig another ditch behind the wall?” There were native tribesmen, and potential foes, on both sides of the wall, so an attack could come from either side. Furthermore, the Romans didn’t want the tribesmen on one side of the wall to join forces with those on the other side — “divide and conquer.”
As soon as Hadrian’s walls were complete, his successor, Antoninus Pius, decided that he could advance the Roman borders further. So Antoninus erected new walls in Germany and Britain. His British wall wasn’t built of stone, as Hadrian’s Wall was; rather, it was built of earthen mounds, ditches, and perhaps a wooden palisade. It was about 40 miles long.
Hadrian’s Wall (green), the current border of Scotland (red), Antonine Wall (brown)
When Antoninus Pius pushed forward to his new border, his new wall (the Antonine Wall), he soon discovered that his forces further south were too weak. He needed his northern forces to suppress uprisings further south. So he abandoned his new wall, burned the forts along the wall (lest the enemy use them), and pulled back to Hadrian’s Wall.
Perhaps we can generalize thus: when the Romans were expanding, they weren’t building walls. When they stopped expanding, they built walls at the edge of their Empire. When they started retreating, they built walls around Rome itself.
Under the Five Good Emperors, the army was evolving. Once the legions were recruited from Italy, the auxiliaries from the provinces. Now, however, almost all troops — legionaries and auxiliaries — came from the provinces. But Cary and Scullard argue that “the army was not yet barbarized.”14 Perhaps the army was still drawing recruits from provinces that were Romanized, and didn’t become barbarized until it recruited from un-Romanized provinces. Under the Five Good Emperors, the only troops recruited from un-Romanized provinces were the numeri (units); Cary and Scullard say that the numeri were “raised from the less Romanized provincials who fought with their own native weapons and used their native languages.”15
As for military equipment, body armor was becoming common. The armor consisted either of metal strips or scales. Scale armor was called squamata (now we classify lizards and snakes as squamata). Cavalry was becoming more important, and riders were sometimes armored (in the 4th century, horses were also armored). These developments were forerunners of the armored knights of the Middle Ages. Armored cavalry were called cataphractarii.
Here we have both kinds of armor, scales and metal strips.
Hadrian not only made a wise choice of successor (Antoninus Pius), he also shaped his successor’s choice of successor, requiring Antoninus Pius to adopt Marcus Aurelius.16 Like Nerva, Antoninus Pius was a high-ranking Senator when he became emperor. And like Nerva, Antoninus Pius was no longer young when he became emperor (he was 52 at the time of his accession).
As for Marcus Aurelius, our authors say that the Stoic philosophy inspired him to shoulder the burdens of rule, though he was inclined toward quiet study. “Of him it can be said much more truly than of another Stoic product, M. Brutus, that ‘he was the noblest Roman of them all.’”17
Like Trajan, Marcus Aurelius was drawn into a war in the East. His generals, Avidius Cassius and Statius Priscus, swept through Armenia and Mesopotamia around 165 AD, and sacked the Parthian capital. But unlike Trajan, Marcus didn’t expand the Roman Empire eastward; Marcus was content to give the Parthians a scolding, and set up dependent kingdoms in the area.
To provide troops for his Eastern campaign, Marcus depleted the garrisons along the Danube. Taking advantage of this, German tribes surged across the Danube in 167 AD, swept through the Roman provinces of Dacia, Pannonia, and Noricum, and even struck at northern Italy. The tribes who made this incursion were the Marcomanni, the Quadi, etc. This incursion may have been prompted by migrations/invasions further east; in an earlier issue, I spoke of “Domino Migrations,” in which one tribe pushes another, which pushes another, which invades the Roman Empire.
In 168 AD, Marcus struck back, raising war funds by desperate means, recruiting all and sundry into the army (even slaves and gladiators), building fortifications in threatened areas, etc. He personally went to the Danube front, and continued going there until his death in 180. As with much of Roman history after 100 AD, we have little information about these wars. We know that, by 175 AD, Marcus had defeated the invading tribes, and was planning to push forward to the Carpathian Mountains and the mountains of Bohemia, create new provinces, and replace a river border (the Danube) with a mountain border.
But Marcus had to put his plans on hold because of a mutiny by his commander in the East, Avidius Cassius. The mutiny of Avidius may have been inspired by rumors of Marcus’ death. The Greek aristocrat Herodes Atticus sent Avidius a one-word letter: emanes (you are mad). Avidius didn’t garner enough support to challenge Marcus, and his mutiny fizzled out in three months. A centurion killed Avidius and sent his head to Marcus. The humane and philosophical Marcus didn’t want to see the head; apparently he wanted Avidius to survive so he could pardon him.
When Marcus died in 180 AD, his successor (Commodus) abandoned Marcus’ plan to form new provinces north of the Danube. Commodus made a treaty with the tribes, stipulating that they return Roman prisoners, provide troops to the Roman army, and not come within ten miles of the Danube. Some tribesmen were allowed to settle within the Roman borders.
Under the Five Good Emperors, the imperial bureaucracy continued to evolve, becoming larger, more powerful, better organized. No longer was the bureaucracy dominated by ex-slaves (freedmen, liberti); freedmen were replaced by equites (knights, bourgeoisie). These equites would start as tax collectors or accountants (procuratores), with the title vir egregii (distinguished men). If they rose to the next grade, they were put in charge of the corn supply, or the firemen/policemen, and had the title viri perfectissimi. If they rose still higher, they were put in charge of the household troops, and had the title viri eminentissimi. As for senators, they put V.C. after their names, vir clarissimus (most illustrious man). Even cities were hungry for adjectives, and many cities called themselves splendidissimum municipium.
During this period, civil service and military service were separated, in contrast to the Republican period, when magistrates had both civil and military responsibilities.
The Five Good Emperors continued to extend the franchise, giving provincials “Latin rights” (partial citizenship), and eventually full citizenship. A few decades after the Nerva-Antonine Dynasty, full citizenship was given to all free men in the Empire.
The legal system became more humane: slaves were no longer at the mercy of their masters, nor children at the mercy of their parents; in courts, women and slaves enjoyed rights similar to those of free men. Compassion for the poor prompted Trajan to institute a kind of welfare for needy children in Italy. This food program, or “alimentary institution,” was continued by Trajan’s successors; Hadrian created a praefectus alimentorum. Trajan continued providing free grain to a substantial part of the Roman population, and he began giving out cash, wine, and oil, too. These gifts or “congiaria” were continued, and even enlarged, by Hadrian and the Antonines.
In an earlier issue, I mentioned that Vespasian subsidized higher education. These subsidies were revived by Hadrian and the Antonines, and perhaps extended from higher education to education in general.
Trajan and Hadrian undertook costly building programs. Hadrian rebuilt the Pantheon, giving it the form that it has today. Hadrian also built a massive mausoleum, which was later named the Castel Sant’Angelo.
Hadrian’s Mausoleum, now the Castel Sant’Angelo
All this government spending was made possible by a healthy treasury — the result of political stability and “Five Good Emperors.” The treasury received a windfall from Trajan’s conquest of Dacia, as mentioned above. Trajan seized the accumulated treasures of the Dacian kings (as Augustus had seized the treasures of the Ptolemies). Trajan also seized Dacia’s gold mines, which provided steady income to the treasury.
But war could also stress the treasury. Under Marcus Aurelius, wars in Germany entailed considerable expenses. Furthermore, a plague or pandemic, brought from the East by a returning army, caused much hardship and claimed some five million lives. This plague, sometimes called the Antonine Plague, was probably smallpox or measles. With expenses rising, and tax revenues falling, Marcus Aurelius “sold off the crown jewels and wardrobe and depreciated the coinage by 25 percent.”19
Under the Five Good Emperors, most cities in the Empire were ruled by hereditary aristocracies, in which power was handed down from generation to generation. Aristocrats sometimes carried out public works at their own expense, and there was a healthy spirit of municipal pride. But in some cities, new magistrates were required to make a substantial donation to the city; this requirement deterred people from seeking office, and it became difficult to fill government positions. In some cities, new magistrates would spend money on frivolous things like gladiatorial shows, leaving urgent needs unmet. Some cities fell into debt, and the emperor had to appoint people to straighten out the city’s finances.
A. Another article in the New York Times about “paired particles” and action-at-a-distance. The article says that “since the 1970s, a series of precise experiments by physicists are increasingly erasing doubt — alternative explanations that are referred to as loopholes — that two previously entangled particles, even if separated by the width of the universe, could instantly interact.” The article points out that Einstein was uncomfortable with this research, and said it was “spooky.” The “precise experiments” referred to in the article demonstrate the reality of the occult, and demonstrate that rational-scientific thinkers, like Newton and Einstein, need to go “back to the drawing board” and re-examine their view of the universe.
B. I saw a documentary called Harvard Beats Yale 29-29. I highly recommend it — one of the best sports films I’ve ever seen. It’s about the 1968 Harvard-Yale football game, in which Harvard made a miraculous comeback, scoring 16 points in the last 42 seconds. It felt as if Harvard had won, hence the Harvard student newspaper ran the headline “Harvard Beats Yale, 29-29.” Both the documentary and the game have their own Wikipedia pages.
Both teams were undefeated entering the game. Yale was heavily favored, and was led by quarterback Brian Dowling and running-back Calvin Hill. Yale took a 22-0 lead, and Harvard inserted their backup quarterback, Frank Champi. Then the comeback started.
C. I saw a 90-minute documentary called Kissinger (2011). It consists largely of Niall Ferguson interviewing Kissinger. Though not a great documentary, it’s a good overview of Kissinger’s career, and of the history of that time. Ferguson recently released the first volume of his Kissinger biography; this first volume runs to 900 pages, though it ends before Kissinger enters government. Click here to see Ferguson on the CharlieRose show, discussing his Kissinger biography.
D. I saw the movie Zero Dark Thirty (2012), which deals with the hunt for, and eventual killing of, Osama bin Laden. The movie begins with torture scenes, gathers momentum, and ends quite strongly. It’s controversial because it implies (falsely, according to many people) that torture led to the finding of bin Laden. Evidently Hollywood is so fond of torture scenes that it seizes any excuse to use them.
|1.|| There are also accounts by American missionaries in Turkey, such as Days of Tragedy in Armenia, by Henry Riggs. back|
|2.|| One might compare Flexner’s 4-volume Washington biography with Dumas Malone’s 6-volume Jefferson biography. Malone wrote little besides his Jefferson biography, while Flexner wrote a wide variety of books. Malone was an academic, Flexner a man-of-letters.|
Perhaps the most thorough JohnAdams biography is Page Smith’s 2-volume work, which won the Bancroft Prize in 1963. Smith attended Dartmouth, then earned a Ph.D. at Harvard, studying under Samuel Eliot Morison. For most of his career, he taught at California universities. back
|3.|| Ch. 38, #9 back|
|4.|| Ch. 38, #5 back|
|5.|| Ch. 38, #5 back|
|6.|| Ch. 38, #4 back|
|7.|| Ch. 38, #4 back|
|8.|| Ch. 38, #4 back|
|9.|| Ch. 38, #4. While Antoninus Pius reversed most of Hadrian’s laws against the Jews, he kept the ban on proselytizing. back|
|10.|| Ch. 37, #1 back|
|11.|| Ch. 37, #5 back|
|12.|| Ch. 37, #5 back|
|13.|| Ch. 37, #2 back|
|14.|| Ch. 38, #8 back|
|15.|| Ch. 38, #8. As examples of “less Romanized provincials,” Cary and Scullard mention Moors, Palmyrenes, Celts, and Britons. back|
|16.|| He also required Antoninus Pius to adopt Lucius Verus, who ruled jointly with Marcus Aurelius from 161 AD to 169. “But the co-regent was such an insignificant person that he left all power and responsibility in the hands of Marcus Aurelius.” back|
|17.|| Ch. 37, #1 back|
|18.|| Ch. 38, #9 back|
|19.||Ch. 37, #4 back|