Archive for the 'Greece' Category

Abandoned virtuosity

September 11 2014

We may [ask ourselves] why our own traditional Western styles of music and dancing and painting and sculpture are being abandoned by our own rising generation. In our own case, is the explanation a loss of artistic technique? Have we forgotten the rules of rhythm and counterpoint and perspective and light and proportion which were discovered, or invented, by that Italian and Flemish creative minority which carried our Western Society out of the second chapter in its history into the third chapter some four or five centuries ago? In this case, in which we happen to be first-hand witnesses, the answer to our question is palpably in the negative. In these days of mass-education our Western World is more amply supplied than ever before with virtuosi who are masters of these techniques and who could put them into operation again any day if they felt the impulse in themselves and received the demand from their public. The prevailing tendency to abandon our Western artistic traditions is no involuntary capitulation to a paralytic stroke of technical incompetence; it is the deliberate abandonment of a style of art which is losing its appeal to the rising generation because this generation is ceasing to cultivate its aesthetic sensibilities on the traditional Western lines. We have wilfully cast out of our souls the great masters who have been the familiar spirits of our forefathers; and, while we have been wrapt in self-complacent admiration of the spiritual vacuum which we have discovered how to make, a Tropical African spirit of music and dancing and statuary has made an unholy alliance with a pseudo-Byzantine spirit of painting and bas-relief, and has entered in to dwell in a house that it has found empty and swept and garnished. [Footnote: Matt. xii. 43-5, Luke xi. 24-6.] The decline which betrays itself in this revolutionary change in aesthetic taste is not technical but is spiritual. In repudiating our own native Western tradition of art and thereby reducing our aesthetic faculties to a state of inanition and sterility in which they seize upon the exotic and primitive art of Dahomey and Benin as though this were manna in the wilderness, we are confessing before all men that we have forfeited our spiritual birthright. Our abandonment of our traditional artistic technique is manifestly the consequence of some kind of spiritual breakdown in our Western Civilization; and the cause of this breakdown evidently cannot be found in a phenomenon which is one of the subsequent symptoms.

From the fourth volume of the Study. From “We have wilfully cast out” onwards, he sounds like the headmistress Miss Strudwick, whom he would quote twenty years later: see August 26 post. He started work on Vol IV in the summer of 1933. She made her speech that June. I am sure he filed a cutting. We know from the same volume what he thought about the state of universal education, and from Vol IX his views (expressed just after the Strudwick quotation) on neo-barbarian city-dwellers and their entertainments.

See an old post on dated pessimism.

Benin bronzes became known in the West somewhat earlier than the historically-earlier stone, bronze and terracotta heads of Ife. But they have nothing to do with the country of Dahomey, now called Benin. This looks like a howler. The Empire of Benin was in what is now Edo state. Ife was in Yoruba country, further west.

Toynbee, like many of his English class and generation, had, when he wrote this, no grasp of what modern art was or of what made it happen. His taste in modern literature, such as it was, was also unreliable.

For all his awareness of the impact of the West on Japan, he does not mention in a single place, even a caption in the Caplan abridgement, and may not even have known about, the effect on art in the West in the nineteenth century of the West’s discovery of Japanese aesthetics.

In the passage I have quoted, he sees a “breakdown” of the culture that had come before, rather than a prescient response to what was approaching or a dynamic response to what was new. European culture had never been something static and therefore liable to break down. It was breaking down all the time. Why, nevertheless, did things change so dramatically when even comparatively conservative artists seemed unexhausted? I asked that question, in relation to music, here and here.

Was he so ignorant of modern art in his old age? Perhaps not. An artist such as Epstein (August 27), whom I took as a bogeyman for his class and generation, should have had great appeal for him. Epstein wasn’t even avant-garde at the end. He was quasi-religious and humane, like Toynbee.

Toynbee’s travel in his retirement (1955-75) included Latin America several times between 1956 and 1966, India in 1956-57 and 1960, the US repeatedly during the civil rights struggle, Japan in 1956 and 1967, Nigeria in 1964. His perspectives on art must have changed. From April 1970 to August 1972, he worked on an illustrated abridgement of A Study of History with Jane Caplan, which contained images by Raoul Hausmann, Rivera, Franz Wilhelm Seiwert, CRW Nevinson, Magnus Zeller, Bruno Caruso, Picasso, Dix. He was ready at the end of his life to take African and southeast Asian history seriously, about which he had known nothing earlier. He quotes TS Eliot on the title page of his Gifford lectures (published 1956).

We have evidence of a pre-retirement change of outlook in the ninth volume of the Study (1954). There is a section about renaissances of the visual arts of a dead civilisation in the history of an affiliated civilisation of the next generation. The Sumeric style of carving in bas-relief was revived under the Neo-Assyrian Empire (911-612 BC). The style of sculpture and painting of the Old Kingdom was revived in the Saite age (Twenty-Sixth Dynasty, the last before the Persian conquest). The Hellenic style of carving in bas-relief (see Attic masterpieces of the fifth and fourth centuries BC) was nostalgically revived on Byzantine diptychs carved not in stone but in ivory in the tenth, eleventh and twelfth centuries CE. The Babylonic civilisation was indeed, in Toynbee’s scheme, affiliated to the Sumeric, and the Orthodox Christian civilisation to the Hellenic. But why is he suggesting that Saite Egypt was part of a civilisation affiliated to the Egyptiac?

The example on which he dwells, however, is a further one, namely

the renaissance of Hellenic visual arts in Western Christendom which made its first epiphany in a Late Medieval Italy and spread thence to the rest of the Western World during a Modern Age of Western history. This evocation of ghosts of Hellenic visual arts was practised in the three fields of Architecture, Sculpture, and Painting; and, in every one of these three fields, the revenant style of art made so clean a sweep of the style that it found in possession of the corresponding sector of a Western artistic arena that, by the time when the aggressive ghost had spent his formidable force, Western Man had become so thoroughly used to living his aesthetic life under this alien ascendancy that he did not know what to do with a liberty that was not recovered for him by his own exertions, but was reimposed upon him by the senile decay of a pertinaciously tyrannical intruder. When the evaporation of an Hellenic spectre presented Western souls with an aesthetic vacuum, they found themselves at first unable, for the life of them, to say what was the proper visual expression for the West’s long-suppressed native artistic genius.

Hellenism had been an “intruder”. Now he seems to want modernism to hurry up, as if it might be the expression of “the West’s long-suppressed native artistic genius”. “Vacuum” now means something different.

The most extraordinary episode [had been] the triumph of an Hellenic revenant over the native genius of the West in the province of Sculpture in the Round; for, in this field of artistic endeavour, the thirteenth-century Northern French exponents of an original Western style had produced masterpieces that could look in the face those of the Hellenic, Egyptiac, and Mahayanian Buddhist schools at their zeniths, whereas in the field of Painting, by the time when a revenant Hellenic style invaded it, Western artists had not yet shaken off the tutelage of the more precocious art of a sister Orthodox Christian Society, while in the field of Architecture the Romanesque style – which, as its latter-day label indicates, was a nascent Western World’s variation on an architectural theme inherited from the latest age of an antecedent Hellenic Civilization – had already been overwhelmed by an intrusive “Gothic” style which, contrary to the implication of its misnomer, had originated, not among the barbarians in a no-man’s-land beyond the European limes of the Roman Empire, but in a Syriac World which, in articulo mortis, had made a cultural conquest of the savage Western Christian military conquerors who had seized upon fragments of a dissolving ʿAbbasid and a dissolving Andalusian Umayyad Caliphate.

So Gothic had been another alien intrusion. This nativism seems out of place in a man who had never been taken in by racial theory. Whatever the eastern influences in Gothic, to suggest that its small debt to something external made Hellenism’s subsequent triumph over it less surprising than its triumph over an “original” Medieval sculpture is extreme sophistry.


The sterility with which the Western genius had been afflicted by a renaissance of Hellenism in the domain of Architecture was proclaimed in the West’s surprising failure to reap any architectural harvest from the birth-pangs of the Industrial Revolution. In Great Britain at the turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and in the Western World as a whole before the nineteenth century reached its close, a mutation in industrial technique that had begotten the iron girder had suddenly thrust into the Western architect’s hands an incomparably versatile new building-material; and this gift of the grimy gods might have been expected to inspire the favoured Western human recipient to break even the toughest cake of inherited architectural custom in an eager exploration of the potentialities of a hitherto untried instrument. As it happened, no great effort was required of a Western architect of that generation to break a Hellenizing architectural tradition that was then already crumbling between his fingers; yet the architect who had been presented by a blacksmith with the iron girder, and by Providence with a clean slate, could think of no better ways of filling an opportune vacuum than to cap an Hellenic Renaissance with “a Gothic Revival” and to recoil from the “Gothic” ironmongery of Ruskin’s Science Museum at Oxford [1855-61] and the Woolworth Building in New York [1910-13] into a “Colonial” brickwork [equivalent of our Georgian] reproducing the Hellenizing Western style of architecture as this had been practised during an eighteenth-century North American “Indian Summer”.

Ruskin had deemed the use of iron improper in neo-Gothic buildings, but it became increasingly common. In France, Viollet-le-Duc made a virtue of it.

The first Westerner to think of frankly turning the iron girder to account as a building material without bashfully drawing a “Gothic” veil over his Volcanic vulgarity was not a professional architect but an imaginative amateur; and, though he was a citizen of the United States, the site on which he erected his historic structure overlooked the shores of the Bosphorus, not the banks of the Hudson. The nucleus of Robert College – Hamlin Hall, dominating Mehmed the Conqueror’s Castle of Europe – was built by Cyrus Hamlin in A.D. 1869-71; [footnote: “The building is 113 feet by 103. … The stone is the same as that of the fortress built in A.D. 1452-3. … It is fire-proof, the floors being of iron beams with brick arches” (Hamlin, Cyrus: Among the Turks (London 1878, Sampson Low), p. 297). [...]] yet it was only within the life-time of the writer of this Study, who was born in A.D. 1889 and was writing these lines in A.D. 1950, that the seed sown by Hamlin in Constantinople bore fruit in a Western World that was Brunel’s as well as Hamlin’s homeland.

Toynbee had known Robert College since 1921 and had written about it before that, but was it really the first non-Gothic architectural marriage of stone and iron?

Iron had been married to glass in the revolutionary Crystal Palace and had been used in bridges earlier still. By about 1890, steel frames would enable skyscrapers.

It is true that modernism had a delayed entrance. The steel-framed Woolworth Building, and much of early twentieth-century New York, was a halfway house. But while it was going up, so were the earliest examples of modernism in the US.

Toynbee’s generation had been taught to despise neo-Gothic. The generation which valued it – which included, among English taste-makers, Evelyn Waugh, Kenneth Clark and John Betjeman – was a little younger.

This sterilization of the West’s artistic genius, which was the nemesis of a Hellenizing renaissance in the realm of Architecture, was no less conspicuous in the realms of Painting and Sculpture. Over a span of more than half a millennium running from the generation of Dante’s contemporary Giotto (decessit A.D. 1337), a Modern Western school of Painting, which had unquestioningly accepted the naturalistic ideals of an Hellenic visual art in its post-archaic phase, had worked out, one after another, divers methods of conveying the visual impressions made by light and shade until this long-sustained effort to produce the effects of photography through prodigies of artistic technique had been stultified, on the eve of its consummation, by the invention of photography itself. After the ground had thus inconsiderately been cut away from under their feet by the shears of Modern Western Science, Modern Western painters made a “Pre-Raphaelite” Movement, in the direction of their long since repudiated Byzantine provenance, before they thought of exploring a new world of Psychology which Science had given them to conquer in compensation for the old world of Physical Nature which she had stolen from the painter in order to hand it over to the photographer. After the invention of photography the best part of a century had to pass before the rise of an apocalyptic school of Western painters who made a genuinely new departure by frankly using paint – veritably more Byzantino – to convey the spiritual experiences of Psyche instead of the visual impressions of Argus; but the increasing sureness of foot with which the Western painters were advancing along this new road by the close of the first half of the twentieth century seemed to augur that the Western sculptors, in their turn, would eventually set their faces in the same direction after discovering, by trial and error, that the broken road to Athens, which they had been following ever since a Niccolò Pisano had swerved into it in the thirteenth century, could not, after all, be regained by a detour through either Byzantium or Benin.

So they would abandon the road altogether? Was it a road to Athens?

More Byzantino. Byzantine art is about the expression, or rather holding or representation, of spiritual reality, not (pace the Medieval ivories) about the representation of surfaces. The bronzes of Benin influenced modern artists. I don’t know whether there were Benin bronzes at the Palais du Trocadéro in May or June 1907, when Picasso experienced his African revelation there.

Thus, at the time of writing, it looked as if, in all three visual arts, the sterilization of a native Western genius by an exotic Hellenizing renaissance might eventually be overcome; but the slowness and the difficulty of the cure showed how serious the damage had been.

Sterilization of a native Western genius! Cure! Damage! This is the kind of thing that made Trevor-Roper write off Toynbee.

A footnote after the reference to Argus shows that his thinking on modern art has advanced:

In IV. iv. 52, this positive aim [Byzantinist rather than Beninist?] of a revolutionary twentieth-century school of Western painting has not been given due recognition.

He has come, in other words, as far as Expressionism, which is a fair way.

In Mankind and Mother Earth, we have:

Artists have psychic antennae that are sensitive, in advance, to portentous coming events.

They did before 1914. But this isn’t a historical law either. Did Athenian artists have the jitters before the Peloponnesian War, which is Toynbee’s Hellenic First World War?

Perhaps northern European artists on the eve of the Reformation had presentiments of an end of an order.

And in the illustrated abridgement of A Study of History, we have an illustration of Picasso’s Woman with a Fan of 1907, with a caption probably written by Caplan:

The camera’s conquest of the visual world left twentieth-century artists free to explore the hidden worlds of the mind and its modes of perception; art finally exorcized its Hellenic ghost: Picasso, Woman with a Fan, 1908 [ says 1907].

Picasso, Woman with a Fan,1907

Archaism in art (old post).

A Study of History, Vol IV, OUP, 1939

A Study of History, Vol IX, OUP, 1954

Mankind and Mother Earth, A Narrative History of the World, OUP, 1976, posthumous

With Jane Caplan, A Study of History, new one-volume abridgement, with new material and revisions and, for the first time, illustrations, and with a Foreword by Toynbee, Thames & Hudson, 1972

The age of Medina

July 31 2014

Thanks to the intuition of the discordant oligarchs of an oasis-state in the Hijāz, who had invited the rejected prophet of a rival community to make himself at home with them and try his hand at being their ruler, in the hope that he would bring them the concord which they had failed to attain by themselves, Yathrib became, within thirty years of the Hijrah, the capital of an empire embracing not only the former Roman dominions in Syria and Egypt but the entire domain of the former Sasanian Empire. [Footnote: Ibn Khaldūn suggests that the Primitive Muslim Arabs’ success in conquering the whole of the Sasanian Empire was a consequence of their conquest of the Sasanian imperial capital Ctesiphon, and that their contemporary failure to conquer more than a portion of the Roman Empire was a consequence of their inability to conquer the Roman imperial capital Constantinople (see the Muqaddamāt, translated by de Slane, Baron McG, (Paris 1863-8, Imprimerie Impériale, 3 vols.), vol. i, p. 333).] Yathrib’s title to remain the seat of government for this vast realm was indisputable on its juridical merits. This remote oasis-state was the territorial nucleus out of which the Muslim Arab world-empire had burgeoned in its miraculously rapid growth, and it was now also hallowed as Madīnat-an-Nabī, the City of the Prophet which had recognized his mission and had furnished him with home, throne, and sepulchre. This title was so impressive that de jure Medina remained the capital of the Caliphate at any rate until the foundation of Baghdad by the ʿAbbasid Caliph Mansūr in A.D. 762. Yet de facto the swiftly expanding dominions of the Prophet Muhammad and his successors were governed from Medina for no longer than thirty-four years; for the fact was that this oasis hidden away in the interior of the Arabian Plateau – a vaster, wilder, barer, emptier counterpart of the Plateau of Iran – had condemned itself to political nullity by the immensity of its political success.

Toynbee is referring to the thirty-four years from the Hijra (622) to the move to Kufa by the fourth Caliph Ali (regnabat 656-61) after the assassination of Uthman.

A Study of History, Vol VII, OUP, 1954

The exile of Thucydides

July 11 2014

A greater luminary in Toynbee’s “Pleiad” of captured or exiled historians (last post).

Thucydides (vivebat circa 454-399 B.C.) was a citizen of Athens who lived through the Twenty-Seven Years’ War of 431-404 B.C., and who was overtaken by the outbreak of the war in his early manhood. He thus belonged to a generation which was just old enough to have known the pre-war Hellenic World as an adult member of the pre-war society; and at the same time he lived long enough to see the denouement of the great catastrophe that brought the growth of the Hellenic Civilization to an end and set in motion the long and tragic movement of decline and fall. The definite breakdown of the Hellenic Civilization was, in fact, the challenge which the generation of Thucydides had to encounter and the experience through which they had to live; and Thucydides was fully alive to the significance of the catastrophe. “This war”, he says in the preface to the first part of his work, [footnote: Thucydides’ History of the Twenty-Seven Years’ War is in two parts, each introduced by a preface. [...] Part II is unfinished. (The work was apparently interrupted by the author’s death.) The narrative breaks on abruptly in the middle of the record of the twenty-first year of the war (411 B.C.) out of the total of twenty-seven years (431-404 B.C.) which the author intended to cover.] “was … the greatest upheaval ever experienced by Hellas and by a part of the non-Hellenic World (it would hardly be an exaggeration to say: by the Human Race)”; and he informs his readers in the same passage that, “in the belief that this war would eclipse all its predecessors in importance, he began to write as soon as war broke out”. In the Athens, however, of Thucydides’ day an able-bodied adult male citizen was constrained in peace-time, and a fortiori in war-time, to devote the best part of his time and energy to public service if the State made the demand; and we may suppose that, as soon as war broke out, this “practical” demand upon Thucydides became exacting. At any rate, in the eighth year of the war, we find Thucydides serving as one of the ten Athenian Generals: a board of public officers, elected annually for a twelve months’ term, who exercised the chief executive authority in the civil government in addition to their command over military operations.

It was in this position of “practical” responsibility, which Thucydides held in 424-423 B.C., that he suffered the break in his career which was the turning-point in his life-history. In the winter of 424-423 B.C., when Thucydides was in command of an Athenian naval squadron stationed at Thasos [north Aegean], he failed to prevent a Lacedaemonian expeditionary force commanded by Brasidas from capturing Amphipolis [Thracian mainland]. The lost fortress was a key-position, since it commanded the passage across the River Strymon on the land-route leading from Continental Greece towards the Dardanelles: the only route along which it was possible for the Peloponnesians to strike, with their superior land-power, at a vital point in the Athenian Empire, so long as Athens retained her command of the sea. The Athenian People sought relief for their feelings of chagrin and alarm at the news of this reverse by cashiering Thucydides and sentencing him to exile. And it was thanks to this personal mishap to Thucydides the soldier that Thucydides the historian at last obtained the opportunity to accomplish his life-work.

He never returned to Athens. Where did he live?

“I lived”, he writes in the preface to the second part of his work, “through the whole of [the Twenty-Seven Years’ War] [bracket in original], and I was not only of an age of discretion, but I took special pains to acquire accurate information. It was my fate to be exiled from my country for twenty years after my command at Amphipolis; and in this situation I was enabled to see something of both sides – the Peloponnesian as well as the Athenian – and to make a special study of the War at my leisure.”

Thanks to this fortunate misfortune, Thucydides was able to complete rather more than two-thirds of his projected work, though he seems to have died a premature death before he was out of his fifties. What is more, he has triumphantly achieved his ambition, declared in the preface to the first part of the work, to produce “an everlasting possession” – a permanent contribution to knowledge – “rather than an ephemeral tour de force”. In his own austere intellectual way, this cashiered Athenian officer has anticipated the injunction

“Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon Earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal;

“But lay up for yourselves treasures in Heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal;

“For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” [Footnote: Matt. vi. 19-21.]

The passing agony of one unhappy generation of Hellenes who dealt their own Hellas a mortal blow and knew that her blood was on them and on their children has been transmuted by Thucydides, in a great work of art, into an ageless and deathless human experience.

A Study of History, Vol III, OUP, 1934

“The Rest I Will Tell to Those Down in Hades”

March 21 2014

“Indeed,” said the proconsul, closing the book,
“this line is beautiful and very true.
Sophocles wrote it in a deeply philosophic mood.
How much we’ll tell down there, how much,
and how very different we’ll appear.
What we protect here like sleepless guards,
wounds and secrets locked inside us,
protect with such great anxiety day after day,
we’ll disclose freely and clearly down there.”

“You might add,” said the sophist, half smiling,
if they talk about things like that down there,
if they bother about them any more.”


“The Rest I Will Tell to Those Down in Hades”, from Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard, translators; George Savidis, editor, CP Cavafy, Collected Poems, revised edition, Princeton University Press, 1992, at

The scene is imaginary. The title is a quotation from Sophocles’s Ajax, the protagonist’s last words before his suicide.

Rome on the eve of the First Romano-Punic War

February 25 2014

In the course of seventy years – 342-272 B.C. – Rome had imposed political unity, under her own ascendancy, on the whole of Peninsular Italy south of, but not including, the basin of the River Po.

342 was the year, at the beginning of the First Samnite War, in which the Romans defeated the Samnites at Mount Gaurus, and also the year in which Aristotle became tutor to the young Alexander at the court of Philip II at Pella.

These Roman conquests in Cisappennine Italy, rapid though they were, were neither so rapid nor so spectacular as the contemporary conquests of Alexander the Great in South-Western Asia.

Why Cisappennine if they were of the entire peninsula south of the Po? The word must mean south of where the Appennines start, but it seems odd to use it, since the Appennines run north-south, not west-east.

They were, however, not less momentous; for, as a result of them, the Roman Commonwealth made its entry on to the stage of Greek history as one of five Great Powers in an expanding Greek world. Two of the other four – the Carthaginian Empire and the Kingdom of Macedon – had already been on the map before the face of this map had been changed by the Macedonians’ and the Romans’ military achievements. The other two – the Achaemenian Empire’s Seleucid successor-state in South-West Asia and an insurgent native Egyptian Kingdom’s Ptolemaic successor-state in the Lower Nile Valley – were also old empires under new management. The Roman Commonwealth was the only one of the five that was new in reality. Rome had turned herself from a middle-sized city-state into a Great Power by imposing military and political unity upon Italy – an enterprise which had proved to be beyond the strength of the Etruscans in the sixth and fifth centuries B.C. and of the Siceliot Greeks in the fifth and fourth.

An expanding Greek world had begun to impinge upon Italy 400 years before the Roman conquest of Italy, and the Roman Commonwealth was entangled in the Greek world because it included two important Italian pieces of it: Magna Graecia (what was left of it, after the infiltration of the Oscan barbarians in the fourth century B.C.) and a semi-Hellenized Etruria, particularly the Etruscan black country (Elba and Populonia).

Black country must refer to Greek-influenced black-figure Etruscan vase painting (seventh century BC-circa 480 BC).

This political entanglement raised questions that were social and cultural; for by the time, in the third decade of the third century B.C., when Rome’s conquest of Italy had thus brought Rome back into the Greek World again, Rome herself and the central Italian heart of her newly-built commonwealth had been out of touch, for some 150 years, with the main movement of Greek history. In the sixth century B.C. Rome had been a partly commercial and industrial city-state ruled by a despot, like the neighbouring Etruscan city-states and the leading Greek city-states of the day: Corinth, Sicyon, Miletus, Athens. But when, towards the end of the sixth century, Rome – again behaving like her more eminent contemporaries – had turned her despot out, she had had to pay for her self-liberation by falling into a state of isolation and weakness that had lasted for about a century; and, when she had exerted her reviving strength in the military and political enterprise of conquering Italy, she had built up her power by turning inland into a culturally and socially backward interior, into which the city-state dispensation had not yet penetrated and in which the native population was therefore more malleable than it was in older and more advanced communities with more deeply engraved memories of a more glorious past. In moulding this native central Italian human raw material, Rome had the institutional advantage of being, herself, a city-state of old standing; but, by the third century B.C., Rome’s way of life had come to be old-fashioned. It was a way that had been put out of date, east of the Adriatic, by the sweeping social and political revolution there in the generation of Alexander the Great; and in 264 B.C. there were at least four signal differences between Rome and some or all of the other Great Powers in the new world into which Rome had now been drawn as a result of her Italian conquests.

One of these differences was constitutional. Since the days of Alexander and his father Philip, the typical constitution of a Great Power in the Greek world had come to be monarchy. Carthage was the only third-century Great Power besides Rome in which the sovereign authority was a city-state. A second difference was a military one. In accordance with the pre-Alexandrine Greek city-state tradition, Rome’s fighting-force was a compulsory levy of free citizens possessing property of at least a minimum value; and the contingents furnished, under treaty, by Rome’s Italian confederate communities were levied from the same class. But there was only one other Great Power, besides Rome, that now still had a citizen army, and this was Macedon. The other three contemporary Great Powers – Carthage, Ptolemaic Egypt, and Seleucid Asia – all employed professional armies largely composed of foreign mercenaries. A third difference, closely connected with the military one, was economic. Rome’s citizen fighting-force consisted of farmers who made their living by subsistence farming, whereas all the other contemporary Great Powers, except Macedon, had gone over to cash-crop farming with a labour-force, not of citizen-soldiers, but of serfs or slaves who were exempt from military service. In the fourth place, there was an administrative difference which distinguished the Roman Commonwealth sharply from contemporary Ptolemaic Egypt, though not so sharply, perhaps, from any of the other three Great Powers. The Roman Commonwealth in the third century B.C. did not possess anything like the contemporary Ptolemaic professional civil service.

272 was the year of the surrender of Tarentum, the last stronghold of Pyrrhus of Epirus, which brought the cities of Magna Graecia under Roman control and left Rome free to complete its subjection of the Samnites. It was also the year, during the First Syrian War, in which Ptolemy II turned Egypt into the leading naval power in the eastern Mediterranean by defeating Antiochus I Soter.

Economic and Social Consequences of the Hannibalic War, lecture, John Rylands Library, Manchester, March 10 1954; Bulletin of the John Rylands Library, Vol 37, No 1, September 1954

Spanish cities in the Americas

February 13 2014

[The] practice of diffusing Hellenism in the Roman Empire by means of the foundation of city-states was reproduced in the Spanish Empire of the Indies; and the Medieval Spanish institution which was thus propagated in the Americas in an Early Modern Age of Western history was in truth a renaissance of the Hellenic institution that had originally been propagated in Spain by Roman conquistadores from Italy. [Footnote: See Haring, C. H.: The Spanish Empire in America (New York 1947, Oxford University Press), p. 159.] Like the Hellenic cities planted in the post-Alexandrine Age by Macedonian empire-builders in South-West Asia and Egypt and by Roman empire-builders round all the shores of the Mediterranean, these Spanish cities in the Americas had individual founders; [footnote: See ibid., p. 160.] they were laid out on the rectangular plan that, in the history of Hellenic town-planning, had been inaugurated in the fifth century B.C. [footnote: See ibid., p. 161.] by Hippodamus’s layout of the Peiraeus; and each civitas had a rural territorium attributed to it, to use the Roman technical term. [Footnote reference to an earlier part of the Study.] In the more settled regions of the Spanish Empire these municipal territoria were conterminous; and, in the undeveloped regions on the fringes, some of them were of vast extent. [Footnote: See Haring, op. cit., pp. 161-2.] By A.D. 1574 about a hundred Spanish city-states had already been founded within the area of the Incaic Empire’s former domain. [Footnote: See ibid., p. 160, n. 4.]

So is all this about the Viceroyalty of Peru rather than of New Spain?

“The Spanish American provinces, therefore, were in many instances a collection of municipalities, the latter … being the bricks of which the whole political structure was compacted.” [Footnote: Ibid., p. 162.]

If these Spanish colonial city-states thus resembled the post-Alexandrine Hellenic colonial city-states in serving as the cells of an intrusive alien régime’s administrative and judicial organization, they likewise resembled them in enjoying little more than a simulacrum of local self-government; for they had no sooner been founded than the Crown took into its own hands the appointment of the municipal officers. [Footnote: See ibid., pp. 164-5.] Above all, they resembled their Hellenic prototypes in being parasitic.

“In the Anglo-American colonies the towns grew up to meet the needs of the inhabitants of the country: in the Spanish colonies the population of the country grew to meet the needs of the towns. The primary object of the English colonist was generally to live on the land and derive his support from its cultivation; the primary plan of the Spaniard was to live in town and derive his support from the Indians or Negroes at work on plantations or in the mines. … Owing to the presence of aboriginal labour to exploit in fields and mines, the rural population remained almost entirely Indian.” [Footnote: Haring, op. cit., pp. 160 and 159.]

A Study of History, Vol VII, OUP, 1954

Emperors of Rome

February 5 2014

Emperors of Rome final cover

Reluctant churchmen in late antiquity

December 23 2013

Three historic figures, who each gave a decisive turn to the development of the Catholic Church in the West, were recruits from the secular Roman imperial public service.

The section called Civil Services in which this appears mentions, but doesn’t discuss, the survival of a Roman civil service in Italy and Gaul under the barbarians. He had earlier discussed the survival of Roman law.


Ambrosius (vivebat circa A.D. 340-97) was the son of a civil servant who had reached the peak of his profession by attaining the office of praetorian prefect in the Gauls; and the future Saint Ambrose was following in his father’s steps as a young and promising governor of the two North Italian provinces of Liguria and Aemilia when in A.D. 374, to his astonishment and consternation, he was dragged out of the rut of an assured official career and was hustled into the episcopal see of Milan by a popular impetus that did not wait to ask his leave.


Flavius Magnus Aurelius Cassiodorus Senator (vivebat circa A.D. 490-585) [sic] spent his working life on the thankless – and, as his [lay] colleague Boethius’s fate proved, perilous – task of administering a Roman Italy in the service of a barbarian war-lord [Theodoric, who had Boethius executed in 524]. It was only after his retirement from secular public life that Cassiodorus found a creative use for a literary archaism that had been an impediment to his draftsmanship as a Minister of State. In his latter days he turned a rural property of his in the toe of Italy – the Vivarium, in the district of Squillace [Calabria] – into a monastic settlement that was the complement of Saint Benedict’s foundation at Monte Cassino. Saint Benedict’s school of monks broken-in, by the love of God, to hard physical labour in the fields could not have done all that it did do for a nascent Western Society if it had not been wedded, at the start, to a Cassiodoran school that was inspired by the same motive to perform the mentally laborious task of copying the Classics and the Fathers.


As for Gregory the Great (vivebat circa A.D. 540-604), he abandoned the secular public service, after serving as Praefectus Urbi, in order to follow Cassiodorus’s example by making a monastery out of his ancestral palace in Rome, and he was thereby led, against his expectation and desire, into becoming one of the makers of the Papacy.

Two country gentlemen.

After citing the names of these three great luminaries, we may single out, among the lesser lights, two country gentlemen, Gaius Sollius Modestus Apollinaris Sidonius of Auvergne (vivebat A.D. 430-83) and Synesius of Cyrene [Libya] (vivebat A.D. 370-415), who were both drawn out of a life of innocent but uncreative literary dilettantism when their local countryside was engulfed in the oecumenical catastrophe of their age. Both of them responded nobly to this personal challenge by taking on their shoulders the burdens, anxieties, and perils of local leadership; and each found that he could best perform an arduous duty, that he would not shirk, by allowing himself to be made bishop of his local community.

Five careers.

Diverse as the origins and histories of these five personalities were, they had four things in common. For all of them except, perhaps, Cassiodorus, their ecclesiastical career went against the grain. Ambrose was aghast at being made a bishop, while Synesius and Sidonius half-whimsically acquiesced in a role which evidently struck them as being, to say the least, incongruous. Gregory was as reluctant to be made seventh deacon [one of the seven deacons of Rome], apocrisiarius [papal ambassador to Constantinople], and pope, and even to become abbot of his own monastery, as he had been eager to enrol himself as an ordinary monk. The second common feature in these five ecclesiastical careers was that all these ci-devant lay notables were constrained, willy-nilly, to employ their secular administrative gifts and experience in the Church’s service. In the third place, they found a scope for the use of this mundane faculty in the ecclesiastical field which they had not found in secular life. And, finally, they eclipsed their own performance as ecclesiastical administrators by their prowess on the spiritual plane. Thus, when the break-up of the universal state for whose administrative service they had been educated had deprived these Roman honestiores of the possibility of following secular public careers, they responded to this formidable challenge by entering the service of the Christian Church and devoting all their powers to assisting in the creation of a new order of society.

Was Ambrose’s appointment to Milan connected with the “break-up” of the Empire? It happened under Valentinian I.

Cassiodorus and Gregory lived during the upheaval caused by the reconquest of Italy from the Goths by Justinian, the epidemics and famine that followed, an abortive invasion by the Franks and then the arrival of the Lombards, leaving Byzantium with a foothold mainly in the south (535-68).

Cassiodorus retired to his monastery after Justinian had retaken the south.

Gregory was Prefect of Rome under the Lombards. Was he deprived of the possibility of following a secular public career? Did Gregory follow the rule of St Benedict?

Sidonius and Synesius had both held secular office. Sidonius lived through the invasion of Arian Visigothic Gaul by pagan Franks.

Synesius must, in Ptolemais, have been affected by the disruption caused by the Visigoths’ sack of Rome, but the Vandals did not arrive in Africa until after his death. Was he ever a country gentleman?

The Church’s history is full of stories of reluctance. Basil Hume received the news of his appointment to the archbishopric of Westminster during dinner at Ampleforth in 1976 and remarked later “I must confess I did not enjoy the rest of the meal”.

A tap on the shoulder in a monastery is different from a tap during a Workers’ Party meeting in Pyongyang or a Baath Party plenum in Baghdad.

A Study of History, Vol VII, OUP, 1954

Twin assaults

November 27 2013

The Mongols invaded Japan in 1274, and again in 1281, after the completion of their conquest of the Sung Empire in 1279. On both occasions Japanese valour was assisted by storms that made havoc of the invaders’ ships. In 1274 the Mongols’ expeditionary force was small, and it broke off its attack after only one day’s fighting. In 1281 the invading force was on a large scale, and the attack was kept up for two months. The repulse of these two Mongol assaults on Japan had as momentous an effect on mankind’s history as the repulse of the two Persian assaults on European Greece in the fifth century B.C. [492-90 and 480-79] and as the failure of the two Muslim Arab sieges of Constantinople [674-78 and 717-18].

He could have added: “and as the failure of the two Turkish sieges of Vienna” (1529 and 1682-83).

The Persians never set foot on mainland Greek soil again, nor the Mongols on Japanese. The Arabs never returned to the walls of Constantinople, nor the Turks to the walls of Vienna.

Mankind and Mother Earth, A Narrative History of the World, OUP, 1976, posthumous

A rival civilization of the proletariat

November 21 2013

Greek civilization [...] was eventually supplanted by a rival civilization of the proletariat – the Christian Church.

From chapter called History contributed by Toynbee to RW Livingstone, editor, The Legacy of Greece, Essays by Gilbert Murray, W. R. Inge, J. Burnet, Sir T. L. Heath, D’Arcy W. Thompson, Charles Singer, R. W. Livingstone, A. Toynbee, A. E. Zimmern, Percy Gardner, Sir Reginald Blomfield, OUP (Oxford at the Clarendon Press), 1921

The horror of the Hannibalic war

November 20 2013

The Hannibalic war in Italy was, very probably, the most terrible war that there has ever been, not excepting the recent war in Europe. The horror of that war haunted later generations, and its mere memory made oblivion seem a desirable release from an intolerable world.

Nil igitur mors est adnos neque pertinet hilum,
quandoquidem natura animi mortalis habetur.
et velut anteacto nil tempore sensimus aegri,
ad confligendum venientibus undique Poenis,
omnia cum belli trepido concussa tumultu
horrida contremuere sub altis aetheris oris,
in dubioque fuere utrorum ad regna cadendum
omnibus humanis esset terraque marique,
sic, ubi non erimus, cum corporis atque animai
discidium fuerit quibus e sumus uniter apti,
scilicet haud nobis quicquam, qui non erimus tum,
accidere omnino poterit sensumque movere,
non si terra mari miscebitur et mare caelo.

That is a passage of Lucretius (iii. 830-842) which follows upon an elaborate argument to prove that death destroys personality and that the soul is not immortal. Here is an attempt at a translation:

“So death is nothing to us and matters nothing to us, since we have proved that the soul is not immortal. And as in time past we felt no ill, when the Phoenicians were pouring in to battle on every front, when the world rocked with the shock and tumult of war and shivered from centre to firmament, when all mankind on sea and land must fall under the victor’s empire and victory was in doubt – so, when we have ceased to be, when body and soul, whose union is our being, have been parted, then nothing can touch us – we shall not be – and nothing can make us feel, no, not if earth is confounded with sea and sea with heaven.”

Lucretius wrote that about a hundred and fifty years after Hannibal evacuated Italy, but the horror is still vivid in his mind, and his poetry arouses it in our minds as we listen. The writer will never forget how those lines kept running in his head during the spring of 1918.

But the victors suffered with the vanquished in the common ruin of civilization. The whole Mediterranean world, and the devastated area in Italy most of all, was shaken by the economic and social revolutions which the Roman wars brought in their train. The proletariat was oppressed to such a degree that the unity of society was permanently destroyed and Greek civilization, after being threatened with a violent extinction by Bolshevik outbreaks – the slave wars in Sicily, the insurrection of Aristonikos and the massacres of Mithradates in Anatolia, the outbreaks of Spartakos and Catilina in Italy – was eventually supplanted by a rival civilization of the proletariat – the Christian Church.

From synoikismos to dissolution (old post).

From chapter called History contributed by Toynbee to RW Livingstone, editor, The Legacy of Greece, Essays by Gilbert Murray, W. R. Inge, J. Burnet, Sir T. L. Heath, D’Arcy W. Thompson, Charles Singer, R. W. Livingstone, A. Toynbee, A. E. Zimmern, Percy Gardner, Sir Reginald Blomfield, OUP (Oxford at the Clarendon Press), 1921


November 18 2013

[A] discouraging symptom in Modern Western history had been the emergence there, first in Prussia and latterly in Germany at large, of a militarism that had been deadly in the histories of other civilizations. Militarism was a portentous moral evil because it was an abnormal one. The millions of human beings who had sacrificed wealth, happiness, and life itself in fighting the battles of some parochial state, whose subjects they had happened to be, had mostly gone to war, not because they had delighted in War for its own sake, but because they had more or less ruefully resigned themselves to war-making as an evil necessary for the preservation of another evil – Parochial Sovereignty – to which they had perversely said “Be thou my good”. [Footnote: Milton: Paradise Lost, Book IV, l. 110.] In contrast to this normal negative human attitude towards the evil of War, militarism was a state of mind in which War had ceased to be looked upon merely as a means of serving an idolized state and had become an idol and an end in itself; and this cult of War was manifestly something contrary to Human Nature.

On this showing, it was disquieting for a Western historian to recall in A.D. 1952 that a Modern Western militarism in its pristine Prussian form had made its first appearance – regnantibus Frederico Gulielmo I et Frederico II, A.D. 1713-86 – in an age in which, of all ages of latter-day Western history, the evil of War had been at its minimum. Yet this Western militarism, as it had been practised in Prussia in the days of Frederick the Great and even in the darker days of Bismarck, had been, like the Hellenic militarism practised at Sparta in the days of Cleomenes I, a vice that had still been kept within bounds by a surviving respect for at least some of a civilization’s traditional conventions. The more devastating militarism of a post-Bismarckian Prussia-Germany which had brought upon the Western World the catastrophe of A.D. 1914-18 had been a Western counterpart of a Spartan spirit, exacerbated by the Great Atheno-Peloponnesian War of 431-404 B.C., which had found its nemesis in 371 B.C. at Leuctra, or of a Babylonic militarism practised in Assyria in the days of Asshurnazirpal II and Shalmaneser III (regnabant 883-824 B.C.). As for the mad-dog militarism of a National-Socialist Germany, this could only be compared with the last phase of the furor Assyriacus, after its temperature had been raised to the third degree by Tiglath-Pileser III (regnabat 746-727 B.C.). It was true that, in A.D. 1952, it might look as if the fires of Western militarism had at least temporarily burnt themselves out, even in Germany, and at the same date it seemed improbable that even the virus of Russophobia would prove sufficiently inflammatory to kindle the same flame in the traditionally unpropitious atmosphere of the United States. Nevertheless, the fact that, no farther than seven years back, one of the principal nations of the Western World had been still waging an unprovoked war for war’s sake, and this with all its might, was a fact of bad augury for the Western Civilization’s prospects.

A Study of History, Vol IX, OUP, 1954

The bandaged shoulder

November 7 2013

“He said he’d hurt himself against a wall or had fallen down.]
But there was probably some other reason
for the wounded, the bandaged shoulder.

Because of a rather abrupt gesture,
as he reached for a shelf to bring down
some photographs he wanted to look at,
the bandage came undone and a little blood ran.

I did it up again, taking my time
over the binding; he wasn’t in pain
and I liked looking at the blood.
It was a thing of my love, that blood.

When we left, I found, in front of his chair,
a bloody rag, part of the dressing,
a rag to be thrown straight into the garbage;
and I put it to my lips
and kept it there a long while –
the blood of love against my lips.”


Was Cavafy aware of the kylix from the Etruscan city of Vulcic 500 BC which is now at the Pergamon Museum in Berlin?

The Bandaged Shoulder, from Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard, translators; George Savidis, editor, CP Cavafy, Collected Poems, revised edition, Princeton University Press, 1992, at

The Greek occupation of Smyrna

November 5 2013

May 1919 – September 1922.

(The Allied occupation of Constantinople lasted from November 1918 to September 1923.

The Sultanate was abolished on November 1 1922. Mehmed VI left the country on November 17.

The Grand National Assembly governed for a year and declared a Republic on October 19 1923.

The Caliphate was abolished on March 3 1924.)

The area provisionally assigned to Greece round Smyrna under the Treaty of Sèvres was small compared to the territories mandated to Great Britain and France in Syria, Palestine, and Mesopotamia. The whole area carved out of the Ottoman Empire since 1821 to make an independent Greece is even smaller in comparison with the vast French and British dominions over Middle Eastern peoples in India, the Nile Basin, and North-West Africa. It is the misfortune as well as the fault of Greece – and the unmitigated fault of Allied statesmanship – that the occupation of Smyrna has had specially untoward consequences, but the circumstances could not fail to make trouble. The Greek troops were sent to Smyrna, with a mandate from the Supreme Council and under cover of the guns of Allied warships, more than six months after the armistice with Turkey. The landing – technically camouflaged as a movement of Allied troops for the maintenance of order – was probably contrary to the letter of the armistice, for no previous local disorder had been proved, and it was certainly contrary to its spirit. Within a few hours of the landing, the troops committed a bad massacre in the city; within a few days they advanced into the interior; and a new and devastating war of aggression against Turkey began in her only unravaged provinces. In the sixteenth month of this war, the Powers gave Greece a five-years’ administrative mandate in the Smyrna Zone, with the possibility of subsequent annexation. Turkey was the leading state of the Middle Eastern world, Greece a Near Eastern state of recent origin. She had been admitted with generous facility into the Western concert of nations; but the mandate now given to her – to govern a mixed population in which one element was of her own nationality – would have been a difficult test, in parallel circumstances, for the most experienced Western Power. It was wanton rashness to make such an experiment at Turkey’s expense; and after the experiment had proved a failure, it showed blind prejudice and partiality on the part of Western Governments that they should continue to give Greece material and moral support in her enterprise as an apostle of their civilisation.

The Western Question in Greece and Turkey, A Study in the Contact of Civilizations, Constable, 1922

This book was published before the dénouement in Smyrna: its Preface is dated 22nd March 1922. Toynbee was a war correspondent in Turkey for the Manchester Guardian from January to September 1921.

Stepsons of Italy

November 4 2013

In the Roman Empire [...] the military cantonments and civilian colonies acted as social “melting-pots”. [Footnote: The Roman Army’s role in propagating the Latin version of the Hellenic culture in the Greek-speaking and Oriental provinces of the Roman Empire and at the same time introducing Greek and Oriental influences into the Latin western provinces is described in Hahn, L.: Rom und Romanismus (Leipzig 1906, Dieterich), pp. 160-6.] The ferment must have been particularly active in the Roman colony planted in 45 B.C. by Caesar at Corinth, since the Roman citizens whom Caesar settled here were freedmen; and these “stepsons of Italy” [footnote: “Quorum noverca est Italia” (Velleius Paterculus, C.: Historia Romana, Book II, chap. iv, § 4)] – as Publius Scipio Aemilianus had once called the free populace of the city of Rome to their face, in contemptuous allusion to the servile source to which so many of them owed their origin, even as early as Aemilianus’s day – were drawn from all quarters of the Hellenic World and its hinterlands. In their settlement at Corinth, Caesar’s freedman-colonists were merely consummating a process of pammixia [sic] of which they themselves were earlier products.

Wasn’t Velleius’s first name either Marcus or Gaius? Rome differed from Greek city-states in allowing freed slaves to become citizens. Citizenship was a privilege granted to the inhabitants of particular communities. There were categories of citizenship. With the Edict of Caracalla in 212, all free men in the Empire became full citizens.

A Study of History, Vol VII, OUP, 1954

The expansion of Greece, 1832-1947

September 15 2013

Expansion of Greece

Click to read.

A Ciceronian and no Christian

August 8 2013

Jerome [dreamed] that he was hailed before the heavenly tribunal of Christ; was convicted by his divine judge of being still a Ciceronian and no Christian; and was reprieved only thanks to the intercession of the consistory and in consideration of an oath which he swore by Christ’s name, binding himself never to read any profane literature any more: “si legero, te negavi” [“If I read, I reject you”] (Hieronymus [Jerome]: Epistulae, No. xxii ad Eustochium, chap. 30).

A Study of History, Vol IX, OUP, 1954 (footnote)


July 24 2013

The miracle by which Life enters into its Kingdom [...] is described by the Hellenic mythology in the parable of Pygmalion’s statue, and portrayed by our Western art in Watts’s picture of Chaos. In the Hellenic myth, a piece of marble turns to human flesh and blood in response to the prayer of a sculptor who has fallen in love with the creature of his own creative hands.

The Pygmalion story is in Ovid, Metamorphoses, Book X. The Cypriot sculptor had offered his prayer to Venus.

In Watts’s Chaos, huge figures of titans are pictured in the act of shaking themselves free from the frame of their Mother Earth. They are still clay of her clay – glowing-red forms of one earthy substance and one fiery heat with the glowing-red landscape. Some of them are drowsily stirring in a flux of volcanic flames; others, wholly liberated and fully come alive, are leaning, stupefied, upon the Earth-Mother’s breast. But we know that in a moment – the moment after this which the artist has caught in his vision – these giants will surely rise to their feet and then stride forward over land and sea. We know it because already, on the peaks of the mountains, the grim chthonic glow is turning miraculously into the ethereal flush of dawn; and because, down here in the shadow, unhurried but unhindered, there floats or dances through Space and Time a living chain of Goddesses, hand linked in hand: the endless procession of the Hours.

The Hours represent the establishment of measurable time and space.

We forget that in 1880 Watts was the most revered figure in British art, a British Michelangelo. He died in 1904. See, to return to a thread in this blog, George Clausen’s The Art of G.F. Watts RA, OM, A Lecture Delivered in the Town Hall, Manchester on 31 May 1905, Sheratt and Hughes, 1905, delivered the year after Chesterton published his book.

Watts, Chaos

GF Watts, Chaos, Tate Britain, c 1875-82

A Study of History, Vol III, OUP, 1934

History written by the losers

July 17 2013

The Athenians [...] didn’t win in the military sense, but they did win in the intellectual sense. They ran away with the monopoly of writing the story, so, although they were defeated in the Peloponnesian War, it is all told from their point of view.

Other examples of loser-monopolies, not counting outsider or subaltern studies and tribal-grudge historiography?

With Philip Toynbee, Comparing Notes, A Dialogue across a Generation, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1963

The King of the Wood

July 15 2013

… or, A priest and a murderer

“Who does not know Turner’s picture of the Golden Bough? The scene, suffused with the golden glow of imagination in which the divine mind of Turner steeped and transfigured even the fairest natural landscape, is a dream-like vision of the little woodland lake of Nemi, ‘Diana’s Mirror,’ as it was called by the ancients. No one who has seen that calm water, lapped in a green hollow of the Alban hills, can ever forget it. The two characteristic Italian villages which slumber on its banks, and the equally Italian palazzo whose terraced gardens descend steeply to the lake, hardly break the stillness and even the solitariness of the scene. Dian [sic] herself might still linger by this lonely shore, still haunt these woodlands wild.

“In antiquity this sylvan landscape was the scene of a strange and recurring tragedy.”

… the opening of the most influential book on comparative religion ever published. The Alban hills are south of Rome. The Pope has his summer palace at Castel Gandolfo by Lake Albano, north of Lake Nemi.

“On the northern shore of the lake, right under the precipitous cliffs on which the modern village of Nemi is perched, stood the sacred grove and sanctuary of Diana Nemorensis, or Diana of the Wood. The lake and the grove were sometimes known as the lake and grove of Aricia. [...] In this [...] grove there grew a certain tree round which at any time of the day and probably far into the night a strange figure might be seen to prowl. In his hand he carried a drawn sword, and he kept peering warily about him as if every instant he expected to be set upon by an enemy. He was a priest and a murderer; and the man for whom he looked was sooner or later to murder him and hold the priesthood in his stead. Such was the rule of the sanctuary. A candidate for the priesthood could only succeed to office by slaying the priest, and having slain him he held office till he was himself slain by a stronger or a craftier.

“[...] No one will probably deny that such a custom savours of a barbarous age and, surviving into imperial times, stands out in striking isolation from the polished Italian society of the day, like a primeval rock rising from a smooth-shaven lawn. It is the very rudeness and barbarity of the custom which allow us a hope of explaining it. [...] For recent researches into the early history of man have revealed the essential similarity with which, under many superficial differences, the human mind has elaborated its first crude philosophy of life. Accordingly if we can show that a barbarous custom, like that of the priesthood of Nemi, has existed elsewhere; if we can detect the motives which led to its institution; if we can prove that these motives have operated widely, perhaps universally, in human society, producing in varied circumstances a variety of institutions specifically different but generically alike; if we can show, lastly, that these very motives, with some of their derivative institutions, were actually at work in classical antiquity; then we may fairly infer that at a remoter age the same motives gave birth to the priesthood of Nemi. [...]

“I begin by setting forth the few facts and legends which have come down to us on the subject. According to one story the worship of Diana at Nemi was instituted by Orestes, who, after killing Thoas, King of the Tauric Chersonese (the Crimea), fled with his sister to Italy, bringing with him the image of the Tauric Diana. The bloody ritual which legend ascribed to that goddess is familiar to classical readers; it is said that every stranger who landed on the [Crimean] shore was sacrificed on her altar. But transported to Italy, the rite assumed a milder form. Within the sanctuary at Nemi grew a certain tree of which no branch might be broken. Only a runaway slave was allowed to break off, if he could, one of its boughs. Success in the attempt entitled him to fight the priest in single combat, and if he slew him he reigned in his stead with the title of King of the Wood (Rex Nemorensis). Tradition averred that the fateful branch was that Golden Bough which, at the Sibyl’s bidding, Aeneas plucked before he essayed the perilous journey to the world of the dead. The flight of the slave represented, it was said, the flight of Orestes; his combat with the priest was a reminiscence of the human sacrifices once offered to the Tauric Diana. This rule of succession by the sword was observed down to imperial times; for amongst his other freaks Caligula, thinking that the priest of Nemi had held office too long, hired a more stalwart ruffian to slay him.


“Such then are the facts and theories bequeathed to us by antiquity on the subject of the priesthood of Nemi. From materials so slight and scanty it is impossible to extract a solution of the problem. It remains to try whether the survey of a wider field may not yield us the clue we seek. The questions to be answered are two: first, why had the priest to slay his predecessor? and second, why, before he slew him, had he to pluck the Golden Bough? The rest of this book will be an attempt to answer these questions.”


The book is James Frazer’s The Golden Bough. I have referred to the first, two-volume, edition of 1890. The second, in 1900, was in three volumes. The third, published between 1906 and 1915, was in twelve. I have omitted the footnotes here, which give his sources (Ovid, Cato quoted by Priscian, Virgil, Servius, Strabo, Pausanias, Solinus, Suetonius).

Frazer wrote in a supplementary volume in 1936: “When I first put pen to paper to write The Golden Bough I had no conception of the magnitude of the voyage on which I was embarking; I thought only to explain a single rule of an ancient Italian priesthood.”

The Golden Bough became a worldwide comparative study.


A runaway slave is the insecure master or temporary priest-king of a wood sacred to Diana. He can be ousted by another in a trial by combat, provided that the other has first broken the Golden Bough.

The sacrifice of the priest-king is an echo of the human sacrifices once regularly offered to Diana in the Crimea (post). The cult of Diana was thought to have been brought to Nemi by Orestes (Servius’s commentary on the Aeneid, but not, as far as I can tell, the Aeneid itself, and there is no historical or archaeological evidence to support the story). The flight of the slave represents the flight of Orestes into exile. Whether or not Diana had a Crimean connection, she became conflated in Italy with the Greek Artemis. The Golden Bough is a reminiscence of the bough once plucked by Aeneas before he began his journey to the underworld (Virgil, Aeneid, Book VI).

Pausanias mentions another deity, Hippolytus (Virbius), the son of Theseus. So do Virgil and Ovid. “The Aricians tell a tale … that when Hippolytus was killed, owing to the curses of Theseus, Asclepius raised him from the dead. On coming to life again he refused to forgive his father; rejecting his prayers, he went to the Aricians in Italy [was carried there by Diana herself]. There he became king and devoted a precinct to Artemis, where down to my time the prize for the victor in single combat was the priesthood of the goddess. The contest was open to no freeman, but only to slaves who had run away from their masters.” Pausanias, Description of Greece, Book II, 27, 4.

What is Frazer’s justification for implying, as he does, that this is a “secondary” foundation myth?

By the time Caligula interfered in the succession of priest-kings, the murder-succession had devolved into a gladiatorial combat in front of an audience.

A statue of Diana stood in the sacred grove of Aricia in front of the temple of Diana Nemorensis. Vitruvius, in the first century BC, describes the temple as archaic and “Etruscan” in form. The image was standing at least as late as 43 BC, when it appears in coinage. The votive offerings, none earlier than the fourth century BC, found in the grove portray her as a huntress, and as blessing men and women with offspring and granting expectant mothers an easy delivery.

Ovid gives a poetic account of the priesthood of Nemi in his Fasti, Book III. Strabo says: “and in fact a barbaric, and Scythian, element predominates in the sacred usages, for the people set up as priest merely a runaway slave who has slain with his own hand the man previously consecrated to that office; accordingly the priest is always armed with a sword, looking around for the attacks, and ready to defend himself.” Geographica, Book V, 3, 12.

What, then, are the answers to Frazer’s questions? “Why had the priest to slay his predecessor? and second, why, before he slew him, had he to pluck the Golden Bough?”

I can suggest them by quoting from two later passages in the first volume of that first edition. Not having read everything, I may not be choosing the best ones.

“Since the King of the Wood could only be assailed by him who had plucked the Golden Bough, his life was safe from assault so long as the bough or the tree on which it grew remained uninjured. [My italics.] In a sense, therefore, his life was bound up with that of the tree; and thus to some extent he stood to the tree in the same relation in which the incorporate or immanent tree-spirit stands to it. The representation of the tree-spirit both by the King of the Wood and by the Golden Bough (for it will hardly be disputed that the Golden Bough was looked upon as a very special manifestation of the divine life of the grove) need not surprise us, since we have found that the tree-spirit is not unfrequently thus represented in double, first by a tree or a bough, and second by a living person.

“On the whole then, if we consider his double character as king and priest, his relation to the Golden Bough, and the strictly woodland character of the divinity of the grove, we may provisionally assume that the King of the Wood, like the May King and his congeners of Northern Europe, was deemed a living incarnation of the tree-spirit. As such he would be credited with those miraculous powers of sending rain and sunshine, making the crops to grow, women to bring forth, and flocks and herds to multiply, which are popularly ascribed to the tree-spirit itself.”


“If the course of nature is dependent on the man-god’s life, what catastrophes may not be expected from the gradual enfeeblement of his powers and their final extinction in death? There is only one way of averting these dangers. The man-god must be killed as soon as he shows symptoms that his powers are beginning to fail, and his soul must be transferred to a vigorous successor before it has been seriously impaired by the threatened decay. The advantages of thus putting the man-god to death instead of allowing him to die of old age and disease are, to the savage, obvious enough. For if the man-god dies what we call a natural death, it means, according to the savage, that his soul has either voluntarily departed from his body and refuses to return, or more commonly that it has been extracted or at least detained in its wanderings by a demon or sorcerer. In any of these cases the soul of the man-god is lost to his worshippers; and with it their prosperity is gone and their very existence endangered. Even if they could arrange to catch the soul of the dying god as it left his lips or his nostrils and so transfer it to a successor, this would not effect their purpose; for, thus dying of disease, his soul would necessarily leave his body in the last stage of weakness and exhaustion, and as such it would continue to drag out a feeble existence in the body to which it might be transferred. Whereas by killing him his worshippers could, in the first place, make sure of catching his soul as it escaped and transferring it to a suitable successor; and, in the second place, by killing him before his natural force was abated, they would secure that the world should not fall into decay with the decay of the man-god. Every purpose, therefore, was answered, and all dangers averted by thus killing the man-god and transferring his soul, while yet at its prime, to a vigorous successor.”

Frazer is arguing that the tale of the priesthood of Nemi was an instance of a worldwide myth of a sacred king who must periodically die as part of a regular fertility rite.


The opening of The Golden Bough is misleading. I noticed this and sought corroboration. I could only find it in a piece by Jonathan Jones in the Guardian. I haven’t looked at commentaries that are only in print.

Frazer is explicit: “The scene [in Turner’s painting] [...] is a dream-like vision of the little woodland lake of Nemi.”

No, it is not. He wanted his book to start at Nemi and with Turner. How much less elegant would the passage have been if he had had to admit to his readers that the Turner Golden Bough was in Campania.

The painting is based on the Aeneid. The Trojan hero, Aeneas, has come to Cumae, not Nemi, to consult the sibyl, a prophetess, who will take him to the underworld so that he can meet his father. The gateway to the underworld is at Lake Avernus, not Lake Nemi.

Cuma is near Naples, Nemi is near Rome. (How strange, when one thinks historically and culturally, or remembers deliciously-long train journeys in the ’70s, to realise that the distance between the two cities is, as the crow flies, little more than a hundred miles.)

The sibyl tells Aeneas that he can only enter the underworld if he offers Proserpine a golden bough cut from a sacred tree. Turner shows the sibyl holding a sickle and the freshly-cut branch in front of the lake. The dancing figures are the Fates. They and the snake in the foreground hint, amid the beauty of the landscape, at death and the mysteries of the underworld.

Only near the end of the second volume, in a footnote, does he write:

“Virgil (Aen. vi. 201 sqq.) places the Golden Bough in the neighbourhood of Lake Avernus. But this was probably a poetical liberty, adopted for the convenience of Aeneas’s descent to the infernal world. Italian tradition, as we learn from Servius, placed the Golden Bough in the grove at Nemi.”

Do we know whether Turner’s Golden Bough was based on sketches made at Nemi? He certainly visited both places. The Tate has sketches and watercolour studies of both Nemi and Avernus.

An earlier, less accomplished oil, from c 1798, also at Tate Britain, is called Aeneas and the Sibyl, Lake Avernus.

When I write a Toynbee-Frazer post, I will point to some other (to my amateur eye) questionable statements in the book. Yet, though his views on kingship may have been qualified or superseded, Frazer is still regarded as a serious scholar, and was one.


A more benign ritual at Nemi was the festival of Nemoralia, or Festival of Torches, celebrated in August in honour of Diana and described by Ovid, Plutarch and Propertius. The Christian Feast of the Assumption is related to it. A procession of torches and candles would move around the lake. Worshippers and dogs wore wreaths of flowers. Offerings were made to Diana: messages written on ribbons tied to the altar or to trees, baked clay or bread models of body parts in need of healing, clay images of mother and child, tiny sculptures of stags, apples. Offerings of garlic to Hecate (who is associated with Iphigeneia).

Lake Nemi is also famous for Caligula’s floating palace and floating temple to Diana. The giant ships were raised from the lake-bed under Mussolini and a museum built for them in the town of Nemi. The museum was destroyed, perhaps by Americans, perhaps by Germans, in 1944. It re-opened in 1953 to house scale models (Museo delle navi romane).

Something numinous and mysterious comes across, perhaps not always intentionally, in nineteenth-century paintings and prints of the volcanic crater of Nemi, and even in modern photographs.

Frazer prefaces his first chapter with some lines from Macaulay’s Lays of Ancient Rome:

“The still glassy lake that sleeps
Beneath Aricia’s trees –
Those trees in whose dim shadow
The ghastly priest doth reign,
The priest who slew the slayer,
And shall himself be slain.”

The Golden Bough exhibited 1834 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

JMW Turner, The Golden Bough, 1834; click to enlarge


July 14 2013

The Greek word παράδεισος [paradeisos], [...] is the transliteration of a Persian word signifying a stretch of savannah – a mixture of grassland and woodland abounding in game – which was artificially preserved in its virgin state in order to enable the dominant minority in an agrarian and urban society to enjoy, as a sport, the primitive occupation of hunting.

… a kind of royal park.

A Study of History, Vol I, OUP, 1934 (footnote)

Ancient Crimea

July 13 2013

Artemis (Diana to the Romans) sent Iphigeneia to Tauris (Crimea) after rescuing her from the human sacrifice that Iphigeneia’s father, Agamemnon, was about to perform on her. Iphigeneia became a priestess at her temple. Here, she was forced by the Taurian king Thoas to perform human sacrifices on any foreigners who came ashore. (Euripides, Goethe. Campra, Gluck, Piccinni.)

The Scythians expelled the Cimmerians in the interior during the seventh century BC (both were Indo-European). The Cimmerians who survived in the southern coastal regions became known as the Tauri and gave their name to the peninsula.

Were Cimmerians participating in a Greek cult? Was Artemis originally Cimmerian? Tauris and its inhabitants’ custom of killing Greeks are described by Herodotus.

In the fifth century BC, Greek colonists began to settle along the Black Sea coast. Dorians from Heraclea founded the port of Chersonesos outside modern Sevastopol. Ionians from Miletus landed at Feodosiya and Panticapaeum (the latter also called Bosporus, after the strait between the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea).

In 438 BC, the Archon of the Ionians assumed the title of King of the Cimmerian Bosporus. This Bosporan Kingdom came to dominate the other colonies in the peninsula. It supplied Athens with wheat, honey and other commodities. The last of that line of kings, Paerisades V, hard-pressed by the Scythians, put himself under the protection of Mithridates VI, the king of (Greek or Greco-Persian) Pontus, in Anatolia, in 114 BC.

After a long struggle with Rome in the Mithridatic Wars (88-63 BC), Pontus was defeated. From 63 BC until AD 370, when it was overrun by Huns, the Cimmerian Bosporus was a client kingdom of Rome.

A few centuries after the Hunnic invasion, the Bosporan cities enjoyed a revival, under Byzantine or Bulgarian protection. Other powers: Khazars (Turkic converts to Judaism), Kievan Rus, Kipchaks and Cumans (Turkic), Genoese, Mongols, Crimean Tatars (Turkic), Ottoman Turks, Russian Empire.

Cimmerian darkness

Mystery religions

July 9 2013

Mystery religions – cults reserved to initiates – formed one of three types of Greco-Roman religion, the others being the imperial cult or ethnic religion particular to a nation or state, and the philosophic religions such as Neoplatonism. Mysteries supplemented rather than competed with civil religion. One could observe the rites of a state cult, be an initiate in one or several mysteries, and at the same time follow a philosophical school. In contrast to the compulsory public rituals of civil religion, initiation to a mystery was optional. The same gods could be worshipped inside and outside a mystery. Was Mithras mystery-only?

The Roman establishment objected to Christianity not on grounds of its tenets or practices, but because, unlike adherents of the mystery religions with which it was competing, Christians considered their faith as precluding their participation in the imperial cult.


Of the Eleusinian MysteriesDionysian Mysteries, Samothracian Mysteries and Orphic Mysteries, the first three may have been influenced by Thracian or Phrygian cults, but lasted, with whatever gaps in the Dark Age or at other stages, from the Mycenaean period until the end of paganism.

The Eleusinian Mysteries were annual initiation ceremonies held at Eleusis in Attica for the cults of Demeter and Persephone (Proserpina). Of all the ancient mysteries, they were held to be the ones of greatest importance.

The Dionysian (Bacchic) Mysteries were not connected with a particular place.

The mysteries on Samothrace in the northern Aegean predate Greek colonisation in the seventh century BC. The pantheon there included the Cabeiri and a Great Mother who is often identified with Demeter. Both may have originally been Phrygian. Samothrace formed a Macedonian national sanctuary during the Hellenistic period and remained an important site under Rome.

The Greek Orphic Mysteries (Orpheus) go back at least to the fifth century BC. When did they die out?


Some of the gods that the Romans adopted from other cultures came to be worshipped in mysteries – the Phrygian Cybele, the Thracian/Phrygian Sabazius, the Egyptian Isis, the Zoroastrian Persian Mithras. So did Adonis, who is related to the Mesopotamian Tammuz and the Egyptian Osiris.

The originally Phrygian cult of Cybele reached mainland Greece in the sixth century BC and, as a cult of Magna Mater, was officially adopted during the Second Punic War and again by Augustus.

The Phrygian cult of Attis, the consort of Cybele, reached the Greek world in the fourth century BC, if not earlier, and Rome in the first century CE.

The Phrygian cult of Sabazius entered the classical Greek world at an early stage and survived into the Roman Empire.

The ancient pharaonic gods Isis and her consort Osiris joined the Greek pantheon when Egypt was hellenised. The cult of Isis spread through the Roman Empire during the formative centuries of Christianity.

The Persian cult of Mithras entered the Roman world in the first century and was popular in the army. Wikipedia, citing Clauss, M., The Roman Cult of Mithras: “Soldiers were strongly represented amongst Mithraists; and also merchants, customs officials and minor bureaucrats. Few, if any, initiates came from leading aristocratic or senatorial families until the pagan revival of the mid 4th century [Julian]; but there were always considerable numbers of freedmen and slaves.”


Were Serapis and Sol Invictus ever worshipped as mysteries by initiates? Serapis was a god invented by Ptolemy I as a means of unifying the Greeks and Egyptians in his realm. Ptolemy failed in his objective, but Serapis grew in popularity throughout the Roman period and often replaced Osiris as the consort of Isis in temples outside Egypt.

The cult of Sol Invictus from Aurelian to Constantine and beyond was perhaps a revival of the emperor Elagabalus’s cult of the Syrian sun-god from whom he took his name. What were the “oriental” and what were the “indigenous” elements in the Sol Invictus cult?

The confiscated harp

July 6 2013

“At Sparta, any departure from the primitive canons of music was censored. Terpander himself, who was a primitive of primitives and the best harpist of his day and a eulogist of heroism, was fined, all the same, by the Overseers (ἔφοροι) [Ephors], and had his harp permanently confiscated by them, because he had added just one extra string in order to increase the instrument’s range. The Overseers only approved of simple melodies. Again, when Timotheus was competing at the festival of the Carnea, one of the Overseers snatched up a knife and asked the performer on which side of his instrument he (the Overseer) was to cut the necessary number of strings in order to bring the total down to the permitted number of seven.” (Plutarch: Instituta Laconica, No. 17.)

A Study of History, Vol III, OUP, 1934 (footnote)

Caricaturing Persia

June 25 2013

In the hostile caricature which had been the convention in Hellas during the interval of 146 years by which Alexander’s passage of the Hellespont was separated from Xerxes’ unluckier crossing of the same straits in the opposite direction, the Persian grandees had been held up to odium as monsters of luxury, tyranny, cruelty, and cowardice; and now, when Xerxes’ abortive aggression had been avenged at last up to the hilt by Alexander’s victorious riposte, the Macedonian champion of Hellas learnt, through the intimate and illuminating intercourse of warfare, that these arch-barbarians were in reality men capable of showing a bravery in battle and a dignity in defeat which even a Spartan might envy.

A Study of History, Vol VI, OUP, 1939

Jewish revolts, Christian non-violence

June 21 2013

In striking contrast to the series of Jewish insurrections against first Seleucid and then Roman rule during the three hundred years running from 166 B.C. to A.D. 135, the Christians never once rose in armed revolt against their Roman persecutors during the approximately equal period of time that elapsed between the beginning of Jesus’ mission and the conclusion of peace and alliance between the Roman Imperial Government and the Church in A.D. 313.

A Study of History, Vol VII, OUP, 1954


June 18 2013

The sea-faring empire-builders of a thalassocracy control their overseas dominions from the sea-ports linking them with the metropolitan territory across the water. [Footnote: The typical structure of a thalassocracy is illustrated on the Aegean scale by “the thalassocracy of Minos” and by the Athenian Empire that grew out of the Delian League, and on the Oceanic scale by the British Empire. The British conquered India from three maritime bases: the river-port of Calcutta, the sea-port of Madras, and the inshore island of Bombay. The transfer of the political capital of the British Indian Empire from Calcutta to New Delhi in A.D. 1912 was a step towards the renunciation of British rule over India [...].]

“Thalassocracy of Minos” seems to be an allusion to Thucydides, Book 1, Chapter 4.

A Study of History, Vol VII, OUP, 1954

Ghosts of universal states

May 30 2013

The ʿAbbasid Caliphate of Baghdad was [...] resuscitated in the shape of the ʿAbbasid Caliphate of Cairo, the Roman Empire in the two rival shapes of the Holy Roman Empire of the West and the East Roman Empire of Orthodox Christendom; the Empire of the Ts’in and Han Dynasties in the shape of the Sui and T’ang Empire of the Far Eastern Society in China. Such ghosts of universal states are conspicuous products of the historical phenomenon of “renaissance” or contact in the Time-dimension between a civilization of the “affiliated” class and the extinct civilization that is related to it by “apparentation”, and, in that aspect, they are dealt with in a later part of this Study.

The four representatives of this spectral species of polity that are here in question display wide differences from one another both in the timing of their evocation and in their subsequent fortunes. Whereas the Sui and T’ang Empire in the Far East and the Holy Roman Empire in the West were not evoked till after an interval of more than four hundred years since the de facto break-up of the universal state of which each of them was respectively a revival, [footnote: The Empire of the Posterior Han became impotent de facto circa A.D. 175; the Far Eastern Society in China was united politically under the Sui Dynasty in A.D. 581. The Roman Empire in the West became impotent de facto after the Clades Gothica of A.D. 378 or, at latest, after the death of the Emperor Theodosius I in A.D. 395; Charlemagne was crowned Emperor in St. Peter’s at Rome on Christmas Day, A. D. 800.] and the East Roman Empire not till after an interval of some hundred and fifty years, [footnote: The Roman Empire in the East ran out between the death of Justinian in A.D. 565 and the overthrow of Maurice in A.D. 602; the East Roman Empire was constructed by Leo Syrus (imperabat A.D. 717-40).] the ʿAbbasid Caliphate was resuscitated at Cairo less than three and a half years after its extinction at Baghdad. [Footnote: See Arnold, op. cit , p. 82, following Suyūtī: Husn-al-Muhddārah, vol. ii, pp. 53 seqq. and 57. The Caliph Mustaʿsim was put to death at Baghdad in February 1258; his uncle was installed at Cairo as the Caliph Mustansir in June 1261.] [The reference is to Arnold, Sir T. W.: The Caliphate (Oxford 1924, Clarendon Press) [...].] From the date of their prompt installation in A.D. 1261 by the strong hand of the Mamlūk Sultan Baybars to the date of their almost unnoticed cessation as a result of the conquest and annexation of Egypt by Sultan Selīm I ʿOsmanli in A.D. 1517, the Cairene ʿAbbasid Caliphs were never anything more than the puppets that they were intended to be. [Footnote: When the first of them, Mustansir, showed signs of taking his office seriously, his Mamlūk patron Baybars packed him off to his death, on the forlorn hope of reconquering Baghdad from the Mongols, and installed another member of the ʿAbbasid House in his stead. This lesson was not forgotten by Caliph Hākim and his successors (see Arnold, op. cit., pp. 94-95).] The Holy Roman Empire, after starting as a mighty power in virtue of being imposed upon the Austrasian Frankish state at the culminating moment of its history, shared in the collapse which Charlemagne brought upon his ambitious political structure by recklessly overstraining its resources, and was never more than partially rehabilitated by the successive efforts and sacrifices of Saxon, Franconian, and Swabian heirs of this fatal incubus; yet it survived, at least as a name – the ghost of a ghost – for nearly a thousand years after Charlemagne’s death. [Footnote: Charlemagne died in A.D. 814; the Emperor Francis II Hapsburg renounced the title of Roman Emperor in A.D. 1806 [...].] On the other hand the East Roman Empire in the main body of Orthodox Christendom and the Sui and T’ang Empire in the Chinese portion of the Far Eastern World fulfilled the intentions of their respective founders by becoming and remaining solid political realities – the East Roman Empire for more than 250 years [footnote: From the raising of the second Arab siege of Constantinople in A.D. 717 to the outbreak of the Great Romano-Bulgarian War in A.D. 977.] and the Sui and T’ang Empire for not much less than 300 [footnote: From the foundation of the Sui Empire in A.D. 581 to A.D. 878, when the T’ang regime became impotent de facto [...].] – but this at the cost, on which their founders certainly never reckoned, of exhausting the strength of the still immature societies on whose life-blood these two lusty vampire-states waxed fat for a season. The common feature, conspicuous above these differences, that concerns us here is the status which these ghosts, like their originals, acquired and retained as founts of legitimacy.

A Study of History, Vol VII, OUP, 1954

In the Saronic Gulf

May 25 2013

In the fatally long-drawn-out effort to transcend the institution of Parochial City-State Sovereignty – an effort which began with a tragically swift Athenian failure in the fifth century B.C. and ended no less than four hundred years later with a tragically belated Roman success – the historic sovereign city-states of Hellas played, from first to last, a role which was either negatively unconstructive or else positively mischievous. The appeal of Lampsacus and Smyrna to Rome in 193 B.C., which brought the Seleucid Empire to the ground, was inspired by the same perverse spirit that had once led the allies of Athens in the Delian League to rebel against their treaty obligations, and led Athens herself to transform the League into an Athenian tyranny; and the aberration of inward thought and feeling which was responsible for this perversity in outward behaviour was a stiff-necked persistence in idolizing the institution of City-State Sovereignty in an age when this institution had become inimical instead of serviceable to the life of the Hellenic Society. When this idolatry captivated and paralysed the ancient and famous communities which were the original sources of Hellenic light and leadership, the work of political construction, which had to be performed by somebody, was carried out crudely and painfully and slowly by communities which had been lying in obscurity, in the penumbra [Macedon and Rome], in the age when an Athens and a Corinth and a Chalcis and a Miletus had been the brilliant luminaries of the Hellenic firmament. And at the culmination and close of the Hellenic “Time of Troubles”, when this long labour and travail was on the eve of bearing a tardy and savourless fruit, a sudden view of four once magnificent Greek cities lying derelict within sight of each other, with their brilliance quite extinct, made an overwhelming impression on an experienced Roman statesman of the day.

“On the voyage home from Asia, when my ship was making for Megara from Aegina, I began to take my bearings of the regions round about. Behind me was Aegina, ahead of me Megara, to the right of me Peiraeus, to the left of me Corinth; and all these cities have had their floruit – only to lie now prostrate and ruinous for all eyes to see. I began to think to myself: ‘How monstrous it is for little creatures like ourselves, whose natural term of life is of the shortest, to grow indignant if any of us passes away or has his life taken from him, when the dead bodies of all these cities lie cast out here on this one spot. Servius, pull yourself together and remember that you have been born a son of man.’” [Footnote: Letter written by Servius Sulpicius Rufus to Marcus Tullius Cicero from Athens in 45 B.C. (Ad Familiares, iv. 5), upon receipt of the news of the death of Cicero’s daughter.]

A Study of History, Vol IV, OUP, 1939

Jerome’s dream

May 3 2013

The difficulty of persuading a sophisticated audience to give a hearing to an outlandish gospel would be great [...] in any case; and the apostles to “the high-brows” would have deprived themselves in advance of all prospect of success if they had gone out of their way to antagonize their shy spiritual quarry at the outset by wantonly making the form of their creed as rébarbatif as the substance of it could hardly fail to seem to an aesthetically sensitive Hellenically-cultivated mind (“si quando … prophetam legere coepissem, sermo horrebat incultus” [“whenever [...] I began to read the prophets, their language seemed to me uncouth”] – Saint Jerome, Ep. xxii ad Eustochium, chap. 30). These diplomatic considerations, however, were not the Fathers’ only motive, and indeed not even their strongest one, for resorting to the use of a cultural instrument which their church had officially condemned as frivolous at its best and, at its worst, pernicious. The evangelists of a cultivated pagan society were moved to address this audience in its own idiom chiefly because these evangelists themselves were mostly converts from these very pagan circles. Their conversion to an alien proletarian religion had not availed to break the spell of a pagan cultural heritage that was their birthright; and, when they used their pagan literary equipment for a religious missionary purpose, they were acting, not on calculation in cold blood, but spontaneously, con amore.

The abiding value of a pagan culture for Christian converts from a cultivated pagan milieu was demonstrated by the severity of the blow which Julian succeeded in dealing to the Christian community in the Hellenic World of his day by his shrewdly malicious stroke of making a professing Christian ineligible, ex officio religionis, for holding a teacher’s official licence [...]. The Christian victims of this sly manoeuvre in a “cold” religious war were so hard hit by their exclusion from a pagan field of cultural activity, and were at the same time so well versed in a literature which was the common heirloom of both parties, that, according to the story (as told by Gibbon, Edward: The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, chap, xxiii, following Sozomen), Christian men of letters “had recourse to the expedient of composing books for their own schools. Within a few months Apollinaris produced his Christian imitations of Homer (a sacred history in twenty-four books), Pindar, Euripides, and Menander; and Sozomen is satisfied that they equalled, or excelled, the originals”.

Julian’s stroke was a shrewd one because the Christians’ unwillingness to dispense with a pagan cultural instrument not only laid them open to a public exposure as hypocrites but also secretly vexed their own consciences and continued to vex them even when Julian was no longer there to taunt them with their inconsistency. At a time when Julian was dead and his Hellenic paganism was moribund, a Saint Jerome suffered the same inward spiritual discomfort from a tension between a Christianity to which he had dedicated himself and a pagan cultural heritage which he had failed to pluck out and cast from him (“bibliothecâ … carere non poteram” [“I was not able to be without the [...] library”] – Saint Jerome, ibid.) as a Father Maffeus [sixteenth-century Italian Jesuit humanist] was to suffer, in his day, from a corresponding tension between a Humanism to which he had dedicated himself and a Christianity from which he had found himself unable to break loose. Jerome’s psychological conflict came to the surface of his consciousness in the celebrated dream in which he fancied that he was hailed before the heavenly tribunal of Christ; was convicted by his divine judge of being still a Ciceronian and no Christian; and was reprieved only thanks to the intercession of the consistory and in consideration of an oath which he swore by Christ’s name, binding himself never to read any profane literature any more: “si legero, te negavi” [“If I read, I reject you”] (Hieronymus [Jerome]: Epistulae, No. xxii ad Eustochium, chap. 30). Paganism had to become not merely moribund but extinct before the Christian heirs of a pagan Hellenic culture could play their part as Hellenism’s literary executors with an easy conscience.


Subbing point: last Jerome citation is presented inconsistently.

A Study of History, Vol IX, OUP, 1954 (footnote)

The closed sea

April 13 2013

The only Mediterranean waters that were a mare clausum to the Hellenes [...] were those bounded by the north coast of North Africa west of a point just north by west of Carthage, by the south-east coast of Spain as far [east] as a point at some [...] distance north-east of (the future site of) Cartagena, and by the Carthaginian insular possessions in the Balearic Islands, Sardinia, and the western tip of Sicily. For the light thrown upon the limits of this Carthaginian preserve by the terms of successive commercial treaties between Carthage and Rome see Strachan-Davidson, J. L.: Selections from Polybius (Oxford 1888, Clarendon Press), pp. 65-70.

Why “north by west” of Carthage?

Plus ultra!

Carthaginan Empire

The Carthaginian Empire before the First Punic War, 264-241 BC

A Study of History, Vol IV, OUP, 1939 (footnote)

Aurelian’s deluded soldiers

April 10 2013

Aurelian used to say that the soldiers deluded themselves in supposing that the destinies of the Emperors lay in their hands. For he used to aver that it was God who had bestowed the purple and … had decided the period of his reign.

[Footnote: Anonymous post Dionem, Dindorf’s edition, p. 229.]

An Historian’s Approach to Religion, OUP, 1956

Double great wars

March 17 2013

The social effect of any great war is to speed up the pace of social change; and, when, within the span of a single lifetime, one great war is followed by a second, the cumulative effect is much more than double that of a single great war. In our world in our time we are conscious of this overwhelming cumulative effect in our own experience of the wars of 1914-18 and 1939-45. In our own case, however, we have not yet had time to see beyond the beginning of the sequel; so perhaps we may find ourselves interested in looking at past instances in which we do know the whole story.

“Double great wars” are rare; but there were three of them in the history of the Graeco-Roman Civilization; and each of these pairs of wars had a decisive effect on the destinies of the society in which it was perpetrated. The first pair was the Archidamian War of 431-421 B.C. followed by the Decelean War of 413-404 B.C.; and this double great war – the Great Atheno-Peloponnesian War – was the occasion of the Greek Civilization’s breakdown. The second pair was the First Romano-Punic War of 264-241 B.C. followed by the Hannibalic [or Second Punic] War of 218-201 B.C.; and this double great war was the occasion of the Greek Civilization’s relapse into a débâcle after a brief third-century rally.

The Roman Empire gave the civilisation a reprieve by providing it with a universal state.

The third pair of great wars was the Romano-Persian War of A.D. 572-90 followed by its successor of A.D. 603-28; and this double great war was the occasion of the Graeco-Roman Society’s final dissolution.

Economic and Social Consequences of the Hannibalic War, lecture about the effects of the second of these double great wars, John Rylands Library, Manchester, March 10 1954; Bulletin of the John Rylands Library, Vol 37, No 1, September 1954

Cf similar passage in Vol IX of the Study, published that year, partly quoted here, and see Hannibal’s Legacy, The Hannibalic War’s Effects on Roman Life, Vol I: Rome and Her Neighbours before Hannibal’s Entry, Vol II: Rome and Her Neighbours after Hannibal’s Exit, OUP, 1965

The Holy Mountain

March 10 2013

According to the Athonite tradition, Mary was sailing, accompanied by St John the Evangelist, from Jaffa to Cyprus to visit Lazarus, when her ship was blown off-course, forcing her to stop there. From that moment the mountain was consecrated as the garden of the Mother of God and was out of bounds to all other women.

Monks have been in the Athos peninsula since the fourth century, possibly since the third. After the Islamic conquest of Egypt, many monks fled there from the Egyptian desert.

Athos has had self-governing privileges since the reign of Basil I, the founder of the Macedonian dynasty, at the end of the ninth century. Its links with Russia are almost as old as Russian Christianity (Christianisation of Kiev late 980s). It remained under Turkish control until the First Balkan War (1912), when the Turks were forced out by the Greek Navy. It was assigned to Greece at the Treaty of London, May 30 1913.

The twenty monasteries in their order in the Athonite hierarchy:

  1. Great Lavra (Μεγίστη Λαύρα, Megísti Lávra)
  2. Vatopedi (ΒατοπέδιΒατοπαίδι)
  3. Iviron (Ιβήρωνივერთა მონასტერი, Iverta Monasteri), built by Georgians
  4. Helandariou (Χιλανδαρίου, Chilandariou, Хиландар), Serbian Orthodox
  5. Dionysiou (Διονυσίου)
  6. Koutloumousiou (Κουτλουμούσι)
  7. Pantokratoros (Παντοκράτορος, Pantokratoros)
  8. Xiropotamou (Ξηροποτάμου)
  9. Zografou (Ζωγράφου, Зограф), Bulgarian Orthodox
  10. Dochiariou (Δοχειαρίου)
  11. Karakalou (Καρακάλλου)
  12. Filotheou (Φιλοθέου)
  13. Simonos Petras (Σίμωνος Πέτρα, Σιμωνόπετρα)
  14. Agiou Pavlou (Αγίου Παύλου, Agiou Pavlou, Saint Paul’s)
  15. Stavronikita (Σταυρονικήτα)
  16. Xenophontos (Ξενοφώντος)
  17. Osiou Grigoriou (Οσίου Γρηγορίου, Venerable Gregory)
  18. Esphigmenou (Εσφιγμένου)
  19. Agiou Panteleimonos (Αγίου Παντελεήμονος, Saint Pantelemon, Пантелеймонов,  Ρωσικόν, Rossikon), Russian Orthodox
  20. Konstamonitou (Κωνσταμονίτου)

Do most or all of these monasteries follow the Order of St Basil?

There are also twelve sketes, communities of Christian hermits following a monastic rule, allowing a blend of hermetic and communal life.

I don’t think one should sneer at the casket containing the Marian belt in the last post even when it is carried by a corrupt abbot. The important thing is the notion of the holy, not the doubtful belt.


The three fingers of the Chalcidicean peninsula in the modern Greek region of Central Macedonia; the autonomous area of Mount Athos is part of the peninsula, but not of the region; click to enlarge

Laziness and greed on Mount Athos

March 9 2013

The monks of a monastery on Mount Athos in which the writer had been spending the night as a guest in June 1912 courteously expressed to him, the morning after, their hope that his sleep had not been disturbed by their frequent nocturnal celebrations of the Liturgy. Wishing to return his hosts’ courtesy in kind, the writer on his side expressed the hope that the monks did not find these never intermitted night-long vigils too painfully exhausting. “Not at all”, replied the monks, “considering that we are able to sleep in the day-time.” – “And how do you manage to do that?” their English guest inquired. “O, well, because we have fine estates in Rumili, with peasants on them to work them for us. You will remember our showing you yesterday our arsenal at the water’s edge, stored with provisions of gram, oil, and wine. All that comes from our estates, and the peasants have to deliver it to us at the arsenal by water.” – “And how do the peasants live?” I asked. “O, the peasants live like dogs”, said the monks, “but you can see for yourself what an admirable arrangement ours is. As the peasants work for us and fetch and carry for us, instead of our having to do any of this for ourselves, we can afford to sleep in the day-time and so keep ourselves fresh for praying at night, and this is really most advantageous, as you can imagine. After all, most people in the World – including, perhaps, Your Honour (τὸν λόγον σας) – are in this respect in the less favourable position of our peasants. Having, as they do have, to work all day, they are forced to spend the night in sleep instead of in prayer, in order to be fit for work again next morning; so at night-time the volume of prayers reaching God is at a minimum, and this means that God can give to a prayer offered up to Him during the night an amount of individual attention that would be out of the question in the day-time, when the great majority of Mankind are awake and in the running to gain a hearing for their prayers at odd moments of their working day. Yes, thanks to the endowments bequeathed to us by pious benefactors, we monks do find ourselves in a decidedly advantageous position.”

The kind of story, then considered gently funny, that used to appear in Douglas Woodruff’s Talking at Random column in The Tablet, 1937 to ’68 and ’72 to ’78. Toynbee would have read it occasionally.

In any case, entirely believable. In September 2008, on the eve of the recession in Greece, the Vatopedi monastery, one of twenty monasteries on Mount Athos, was accused of enhancing its real estate portfolio through corrupt deals made by Abbot Ephraim and the monk Arsenios with the government of Kostas KaramanlisMichael Lewis told the story in Vanity Fair, October 2010 and in Boomerang, Travels in the New Third World, New York, WW Norton, 2011, and compared Ephraim and Arsenios to Skilling and Lay of Enron.

Abbot Ephraim

Abbot Ephraim carrying the Belt of the Mother of God on a roadshow through Russia in late 2011; who are the others?; picture credit: Valeriy Melnikov at RIA Novosti, cropped, use deemed fair for non-commercial scholarly purposes

Ephraim was jailed in December on his return to Greece, but released the following March. He and Arsenios are still being investigated.

RIA Novosti, piece by Andrei Zolotov, Jr:

“The Belt of the Virgin Mary, otherwise referred to as the Precious Sash, or Cincture, of Our Most Holy Lady Theotokos – the holy treasure of the Vatopedi Monastery on Mount Athos in Greece – is travelling abroad for the first time. The Belt is travelling in style. It flies in a private jet, chartered by the tour’s organizer, the influential St. Andrew Foundation, and is accompanied by six Vatopedi monks. In St. Petersburg, it was welcomed by none other than Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. In Yekaterinburg, Russia’s fourth largest city, Governor Alexander Misharin and the region’s bishop, Metropolitan Kirill, met the relic with the guard of honor before a procession of some 15,000 people took it to the cathedral.”

He quotes George Fedotov’s The Russian Religious Mind (1946): “Russia knew neither Reformation nor Counter-Reformation with their explanations, symbolic interpretations and the uprooting of medieval idol-worshipping.” Didn’t he mean veneration? What kind of symbolic interpretation could have undermined icon-veneration in the Orthodox world? “People were more superstitious” might have been a better way of putting it.

Mary is supposed to have worn the belt on earth and given it to St Thomas during her transition to heaven. The Monastery also holds a silver and jewel-encrusted reliquary allegedly containing the skull of St John Chrysostom, a chalice made of a single piece of jasper, many icons and a large library.

A Study of History, Vol IX, OUP, 1954 (footnote)

America and Rome

February 22 2013

… or Ancient, famous states; or The vulgarians of  the west

Herbert Hart and I were speaking despairingly of the Americans, – these callow, touchy, boastful, flatulent invaders, who seem to think themselves, as politicians, a match for the case-hardened double-crossers of struggling, tortured Europe. Will they never see, I protested, that they are only great children, pampered children of the rich, among experienced and desperate sharpers? Will they never admit that Europe, though torn with immemorial conflicts, is still the foundry of the world’s ideas, while they are fresh from their luxurious nursery? But Herbert likened them to the Romans in the second century B.C., when they overran the East; and they look on us, he said, as the Romans looked upon the Greeks, miserable people, scratching about subtleties and upsetting the peace of the world. What interest have they in the ideas that divide Darlan from de Gaulle? Now I had recently been reading Mommsen, and I saw in terrible detail the picture he had suggested, – those sudden vulgarians of the west, like a fresh, loud, frothy heedless tidal wave, deluging the brilliant but atomised republics, the ‘ancient, famous states’ of the old world, and burying their splendid past in universal banality.”


Richard Davenport-Hines, editor, Hugh Trevor-Roper, The Wartime Journals, IB Tauris, 2012.

Those high-donnish journals are fascinating early Roperiana. The young man seems to parody his older self. Long swathes are about hunting. This passage is silly, but I suppose Hart and Trevor-Roper have a point.

The entry is from January 1943, when Trevor-Roper was in radio intelligence in MI6. Davenport-Hines does not identify the phrase “ancient, famous states”, but it is from a speech by Churchill at the Lord Mayor’s Day luncheon at Mansion House on November 10 1941 in which he warned, four weeks before Pearl Harbour, that Britain would fight on the side of the United States in the event of war between America and Japan. Trevor-Roper uses it again, without quotation marks, in The Last Days of Hitler. The idea for that book came in a conversation between Trevor-Roper, Hart and Dick White.

Wells on Daisy Miller

America and Rome: Google search

Constantine and Peter the Great

December 5 2012

Peter transferred the capital of his dominions from Russian Orthodox Moscow to a new city, founded by him in the maritime Western March of the Russian World and named after its founder; and, on the culturally as well as physically virgin soil of St. Petersburg, a Westernizing Russia was to have a seat of government that would be Western from the start, uncontaminated by any antecedent deposit of Orthodox tradition. [Footnote: A corresponding consideration had been in the mind of Constantine the Great when he had transferred the capital of the Roman Empire from Old Rome to his own foundation of New Rome or Constantinople. The seat of Government of a converted Roman Empire was to be Christian from the outset, unaffected by the archaistic paganism that was dying so hard in its Senatorial fastness on the banks of the Tiber [...]. In making the transfer, both Constantine and Peter were, of course, moved by political and strategic motives in addition to the cultural motive here in question [...].]

A Study of History, Vol VII, OUP, 1954

Constantinople and Vienna

December 4 2012

Twin sieges. Of Constantinople by Arabs: 674-78 and 717-18. Of Vienna by Turks: 1529 and 1682-83.

The Arabs never returned to the walls of Constantinople, nor the Turks to Vienna.

Constantine and Ashoka

December 4 2012

Constantine’s motive for becoming a convert to Christianity was ethically much inferior to Ashoka’s motive for becoming a convert to Buddhism. Ashoka’s motive had been repentance for his crime of having waged an aggressive war, and he had never gone to war again. Constantine’s motive was gratitude for his victories in three successive civil wars.

Mankind and Mother Earth, OUP, 1976, posthumous

Moscow, the Third Rome

December 3 2012

When, fourteen years after the ecclesiastical Union of Florence [a last-minute attempt to unify Christendom in the face of the Turkish threat], the Greek Roman Empire was extinguished by the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople, the Russians saw in this a divine retribution for the Greeks’ apostasy. Now that the Muslim Ottoman Empire had imposed its rule on all the Orthodox peoples of Anatolia and South-Eastern Europe, Muscovy was the sole surviving independent Orthodox Christian state. What was more, the Russians were the only Orthodox Christian people that had preserved its orthodoxy uncompromised by any concessions to Papal claims. On these grounds a sixteenth-century Russian ecclesiastical publicist asserted that Moscow was “the Third Rome”. Augustus’s Old Rome and Constantine’s New Rome had now each fallen in its turn. Moscow was the heir of both, and her dominion, unlike theirs, was to have no end. This doctrine was endorsed by the Muscovite government implicitly when, in 1547, the Grand Duke Ivan IV “the Terrible” assumed the title “Czar” (Caesar).

The “ecclesiastical publicist” was the monk Philoteus, who in 1510 wrote to the Grand Duke Vasili III (Basil III): “Two Romes have fallen. The third stands. And there will not be a fourth. No one will replace your Christian Tsardom!”

The Grand Dukes (or Grand Princes) of Moscow were nominally vassals of the Golden Horde until the reign of Ivan III (the Great), 1462-1505.

The notion of this further Rome seems to have appealed to Toynbee in the Study, but he prints comments by two Oxford scholars who warn him not to make to make too much of it.

[The writer has had] the benefit of comments and criticisms from B. H. Sumner, the Warden of All Souls College, Oxford, and from Prince Dmitri Obolensky, the Reader in Russian and Balkan Medieval History in the University of Oxford, on the question of the degree to which the course of Muscovite History was affected by the influence of the Byzantine element in the Russian Orthodox Christian cultural heritage. B. H. Sumner’s opinion on this question is set out in the following passages of a letter of his, dated the 25th January, 1951, to the writer of this Study:

“I find the build-up and development of the Muscovite state in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries very difficult to analyse, but, from what I have read of those two centuries from the Russian side, I should say that the most effective and practical influences in building up centralized administration and government came from autochthonous Russian developments of the semi-feudal conditions of Moscow and the other Russian principalities (shot through with a strong nationalist colouring), combined with some Tatar influence, but with little Byzantine influence. I do not think, for instance, that either Ivan the Great or Ivan the Terrible [reigned 1547-84] regarded themselves as successors of the Byzantine emperors, or that they and their civil servants, boyars, diplomats, &c., had any idea of ‘oecumenical’ pretensions. It is true that Ivan the Terrible, for instance, claimed to be Tsar ‘Autocrat’, Gosudar [sovereign], and appointed by God, combining plenitude of power both vis-à-vis his subjects and as against any other states, but he never claimed to be the successor of the Basileus [Roman Emperor in the East], or to be ‘oecumenical’ or ‘Tsar of the Orthodox Christians of the whole World’ (that was the expression used by the Patriarch of Constantinople in a letter to Ivan in A.D. 1561, but not by Ivan). I don’t think that it could be held that Ivan the Great and Ivan the Terrible and the civilians in Russia held that there had been any translatio imperii, or made any claim over all Christians or all Orthodox.

“Such claims, implicitly or explicitly, had appeared from the end of the fifteenth century onwards, bound up with the idea of Moscow as the Third Rome, but, at any rate at that time, this idea, which admittedly had its origins in writings of certain monks, continued to be confined to certain ecclesiastical circles in Russia, with occasional echoes from Constantinople. It is striking, I think, that the official historiography of the sixteenth century in Russia, which was built up by the Tsars, does not lean at all towards Byzantium: both in the chronicles and in Russian diplomacy of the time the emphasis is all on the heritage of Kiev, not at all on the heritage of Byzantium. That, of course, was because of the continuous struggle for the Russian western lands against Lithuania-Poland.

“From about A.D. 1470 onwards, for more than a century, Moscow had a whole series of overtures, either from Rome or from the Emperor, or both, linking together an anti-Turkish alliance, re-union of churches, recognition of Moscow as the heir of the Byzantine Empire, and elevation of the Metropolitan of Moscow to the patriarchal dignity. It is, I think, significant that the Russians in reply were always silent as regards the inheritance of the Byzantine Empire, or coronation of the Tsar as ‘the Christian Tsar’. What the Russians were interested in was their claims against Lithuania-Poland and their struggle for an exit to the Baltic, and not the Balkans or the Ottomans: hence the failure of Western overtures for an anti-Turkish alliance and of Western attempts to win the Russians for this by dangling before them the lure of the Byzantine heritage.

“Thus, the conception of Moscow as ‘the Third Rome’, or of Muscovy as the inheritor of the ‘oecumenical’ role of Byzantium, was, in my view, of no practical importance and of very little theoretical or emotional importance among the governing class in Muscovy in the late fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries. Its appeal was in the main limited to certain ecclesiastical circles in Muscovy – and, in a sense, to needy Orthodox in the Ottoman Empire in quest of money from Moscow. It is quite true that the idea of Muscovy as the sole possessor of the pure Orthodox Christian faith after the Council of Florence and the capture of Constantinople was a stock-in-trade element in Muscovite national pride during these centuries, and it fostered Muscovite exclusiveness and xenophobia. But this line is not the same as stepping into the shoes of Byzantium by aspiring to an ‘oecumenical’ role.

“Much later [at the end of the eighteenth century], when the Russians had advanced far southwards and were strong enough to challenge the Turks, then the idea of the liberation of the Orthodox, and sometimes that of some form of resurrected Orthodox empire at Constantinople, became prominent, and increasingly so in the nineteenth century. Even so, I think that the influence of the messianic ideas of the Slavophils and Dostoievsky and their typicalness can be exaggerated, and that the ‘oecumenical’ and messianic elements in Russian nineteenth-century thought ought not to be read back into earlier centuries as being then powerfully creative and proof of a strong and continuous Byzantine heritage.”

In a note communicated to the writer of this Study on the ist June, 1951, Prince Dmitri Obolensky expresses the same view.

“Neither the successive Russian governments of the sixteenth century nor, on the whole, contemporary Russian writers and historians seem to have taken the theory of ‘Moscow the Third Rome’ very seriously; for the Muscovite rulers from Ivan III onwards, Moscow was much more the ‘Second Kiev’ than the ‘Third Rome’. I would agree here with Humphrey Sumner. Some recent historians have, rightly, it seems to me, ‘played down’ the importance of the theory of ‘Moscow the Third Rome’ in the development of Russian sovereignty. See, for example, G. Olšr: ‘Gli ultimi Rurikidi e le basi ideologiche della sovranità dello Stato russo’, in Orientalia Christiana Periodica, vol. xii, Nos. 3-4 (Rome, 1946), pp. 322-73.”

But he defends part of his view.

It will be seen that Sumner and Obolensky agree in making three points: In the first place, the concept of “Moscow the Third Rome” was an academic idea which was never taken very seriously outside ecclesiastical circles; secondly, the architects of a Muscovite autocracy were indebted to the institutions of the East Roman Empire for little except certain external forms and ceremonies; thirdly, the statesmen in control of Muscovite policy showed themselves unwilling to sacrifice the interests of their own Russian Orthodox Christendom to those of an Ottoman Orthodox Christendom which was sundered from Russia by the double barrier of the Eurasian Steppe and the Black Sea. None of these three points would be contested by the present writer; but he would point out, in his turn, that none of them is incompatible with the thesis that the extinction of the last glimmer of the East Roman Empire in A.D. 1453 had an important and enduring psychological effect on Russian souls, [footnote below] and that this effect consisted in the implantation in them of a feeling that Muscovy, as the now sole surviving Orthodox Christian Power of any consequence, had inherited from the East Roman Empire both the mission of preserving intact the purity of the Orthodox Christian Faith and the high destiny which this onerous mission carried with it ex officio.

It will be noticed that Sumner, in the passages quoted above, equates the ideological legacy of the East Roman Empire with a pretension to an oecumenical authority. As the present writer sees it, the idea for which the East Roman Empire had stood, first and foremost, in its own people’s minds was the guardianship of Christian Orthodoxy rather than the possession of a title to world-wide dominion. He would, however, go on to contend that, in fact, the second of these two pretensions was logically latent in the first, since it would be difficult for a people to believe that God had singled them out to be the unique heralds of His Truth on Earth without also believing that He had likewise singled them out to be His instruments for propagating this Truth eventually throughout the Oikoumenê. It was, for example, an article of orthodox Jewish belief among a politically impotent Jewish diasporà that the extinct Kingdom of David would eventually be restored by the Messiah, not in its historic form as a parochial state, but with a dominion that would be coextensive with the Oikoumenê. The writer would therefore take issue with Sumner’s contention that the idea of being the sole possessor of the pure Orthodox Faith does not carry with it an aspiration to an oecumenical role; and he would have consulted his friend and mentor further on this point if, by the date when he was revising the present Part of this Study for the press, Humphrey Sumner’s friends and fellow historians had not suffered an irreparable loss in this saintly scholar’s untimely death.

Footnote to the last paragraph but one:

This psychological effect of the concept of “the Third Rome” is, however, also questioned by Prince Obolensky:

“I do not wish to minimize the importance of the religious factor in the resistance offered by the seventeenth-century Russian conservatives to the infiltration of Western ideas and customs: some of them at least seem to have regarded Russia as a guardian of the Orthodox faith against the heretical West. But I doubt whether the theory of ‘Moscow the Third Rome’ had much to do with this attitude, except possibly among the ‘Old Believers’. Except in some ecclesiastical, and particularly monastic, circles, this theory does not seem to have made much headway in Russia. … [It] [bracket in original] does not seem to have been sufficiently accepted to justify the view that future generations of Russians were moved by it to resist the impact of Western culture upon their way of life.”

In an earlier passage – admittedly speaking of “survivals” rather than revivals or successions – he points out that

“survivals” afforded [EA Freeman and his school, with their exaggeration of the link between Hellenic and Western history] the intellectual and aesthetic pleasure of tracing – as they imagined – the continuity of this thread and that, as its colour flashed out and vanished and flashed out again in the shot-silk texture of historic sequences. This pleasant exercise of the fancy has sometimes led historians who have indulged in it into irrelevant conceits and barren controversies.

Whether he is right or wrong here, Toynbee was writing of what he knew: he sometimes allowed himself such “pleasant exercises of the fancy”. In due course I will quote the passage to which Sumner and Obolensky were objecting.

Novgorod and St Petersburg (with pre-Ivan background)

Vasili III of Russia

Vasili III, contemporary (west) European engraving

Change and Habit, The Challenge of Our Time, OUP, 1966 (first quotation)

A Study of History, Vol VII, OUP, 1954

A Study of History, Vol I, OUP, 1934 (last)

From Leo III the Isaurian to Francis II

December 1 2012

Imperial reigns:

Leo III Syrus (the Isaurian) 717-41

Charlemagne 800-14

Otto I 962-73

Otto III 996-1002

Henry IV 1084-1105

Frederick I (Barbarossa) 1155-90

Frederick II (Stupor Mundi) 1220-50

Francis II 1792-1806

Athênê Poliûchus, Athânâ Chalcioecus, Tychê Antiocheôn, Fortuna Praenestina, and the other deified combatants in a mêlée of conflicting parochial idols had eventually been called to order by being subordinated to the oecumenical supremacy of a Dea Roma and a Divus Augustus; and a post-Diocletianic absolute version of this consolidated worship of the concentrated power of a politically unified Mankind was formally revived in Western Christendom, a quarter of a millennium before the revival of city-state-worship in Lombardy, when Charlemagne was crowned as a Roman Emperor by Pope Leo III in Saint Peter’s on Christmas Day A.D. 800.

The memory of this Carolingian evocation of a “holy” Roman ghost of an extinct Hellenic universal state cannot come into our minds without reminding us simultaneously that, since then, the same ghost had been re-evoked again and again in the Western World in the course of the eleven and a half centuries that had elapsed between the date of the coronation of Charlemagne at Rome and the time of the writing of these lines.

The all but fatal collapse of the nascent Western Christian Civilization itself, which had been the price of Charlemagne’s failure to resuscitate the Roman Empire in the West effectively, did not deter a Saxon Otto I from repeating his Austrasian predecessor’s attempt; and the subsequent failure of Otto’s attempt in its turn did not deter a Swabian Frederick I [Barbarossa] from attempting, for his part, to undo the political effects of the humiliation of a Franconian Henry IV at Hildebrand’s hands by employing against a triumphant Hildebrandine Church the refurbished spiritual weapon of a recently disinterred Justinianean Law. Thereafter, when Frederick Barbarossa’s experience had demonstrated that the necromancer’s wand provided by his Bolognese legists was a broken reed, his grandson Frederick Stupor Mundi set himself to reverse, at the eleventh hour, the cumulative disaster of Charlemagne’s, Henry IV’s, and Frederick I’s successive discomfitures – though the weapon in which Frederick II trusted to conjure a victory out of his forlorn hope was one which had missed fire, more than two hundred years back, in the hands of his Saxon predecessor Otto III.

This imaginative tenth-century forerunner of a thirteenth-century Stupor Mundi had sought to condense an insubstantial wraith of a defunct Imperium Romanum into at least a similitude of flesh and blood by transferring the seat of a rehabilitated Western Christian “Holy Roman Empire” from Western Christendom’s Saxon marches over against the North European barbarians to her Roman march over against Orthodox Christendom. At the turn of the tenth and eleventh centuries of the Christian Era the Ducatus Romanus was a patch of common ground on which the domains of the two Christendoms overlapped; and, in installing himself in the ci-devant Imperial City, Otto III had hoped to fortify the sickly counterfeit of the Roman Imperial Power that had been palmed off on Western Christendom by reinforcing it with tougher metal imported from a Byzantine mint. The success of Leo III Syrus’s revival of the Roman Empire in Orthodox Christendom had been as conspicuous as the failure of Charlemagne’s subsequent attempt to perform a corresponding feat of political necromancy in the West. Could not a clumsy Western necromancer’s abortive essay be salvaged by the Herodian expedient of turning to Western Christendom’s account the achievements of an Orthodox Christian necromancer’s virtuosity?

This complicated experiment of trying to raise the ghost of a dead civilization by employing a living civilization as a medium, which Otto III had failed to carry to success in the cultural crucible of a late-tenth century City of Rome, was repeated by Frederick II under more promising conditions in a thirteenth-century Kingdom of Sicily which was the East Roman Empire’s Transadriatic successor-state. The outcome of this more ambitious adventure in the black art of political alchemy was [...] a war to the death between a pseudo-Byzantine “Holy Roman Empire” and a Hildebrandine Papal Roman Church which brought the victorious ecclesiastical combatant to the ground in the same ruin as his vanquished secular adversary and thereby compromised the future of a promising Western Christian attempt to explore a previously untried approach towards the goal of the baffling enterprise of Civilization. Yet the ghost of an obsolete Hellenic institution that had been so inauspiciously raised at the close of the eighth century of the Christian Era by an Austrasian king and a Roman patriarch was still able to induce fresh Western victims to feed it with their life-blood within full view of their infatuated predecessors’ unburied corpses.

By the time of the extirpation of Frederick II Hohenstaufen’s brood, the cumulus of historic disasters, that had gradually come to be associated with academic pretensions to the imperial prerogative in the West, had gathered round a tragic imperial crown into a lowering nimbus which might have been expected to serve as an effective deterrent against any further repetition of Charlemagne’s folly. Yet this scarecrow Caesarea Maiestas was eagerly appropriated by the architects of a Danubian Hapsburg Monarchy for the sake of the prestige that it could still lend to their strictly practical enterprise of providing an Early Modern Western World with a local carapace to protect it against Ottoman aggression in the Danube Basin; and, after the decay of the Ottoman Power had rendered a Hapsburg Empire’s service to the Western Civilization superfluous, [a Corsican adventurer proclaimed himself Emperor and on December 2 1804 crowned himself in Paris in the presence of Pope Pius VII].

The last Holy Roman Emperor, Francis II, abdicated on August 6 1806.

Leo the Isaurian, for Toynbee, is the real founder of a remodelled Orthodox Christian Roman Empire in the east:

The Roman Empire in the East ran out between the death of Justinian in A.D. 565 and the overthrow of Maurice in A.D. 602, the East Roman Empire was constructed by Leo Syrus (imperabat A.D. 717-40).

All Byzantine Emperors regarded themselves as “Roman” Emperors. The first use of the word “Byzantine” was in 1557, when the German historian Hieronymus Wolf published his Corpus Historiæ Byzantinæ, a collection of historical sources. The term comes from Byzantium, the name of Constantinople before it became the capital of Constantine.

In 812 the emperor Michael I Rhangabes recognised Charlemagne as Emperor, although not necessarily as “Emperor of the Romans”. What were the relations between the two emperors between 962 and 1453?

The second and third Romes


A Study of History, Vol IX, OUP, 1954

A Study of History, Vol VII, OUP, 1954 (footnote)

The calamitous seventh century

November 19 2012

For the East Roman Empire, the seventh century was a time of almost continuous troubles. The mutiny in 602 and the murder of the Emperor Maurice plunged the Empire into anarchy. In 604 the Persians started to invade the Empire’s Asian provinces, while the Slav Völkerwanderung from the north bank of the lower course of the Danube swamped the whole of the interior of the Balkan Peninsula. The Empire had hardly begun to recover from the last and worst Romano-Persian war of 604-28, when the Arabs launched their assault in 633. The climax of this assault was the Arab siege of Constantinople in 674-8, and this peril had only just been surmounted when, in 680-1, the Eurasian nomad Bulgars established a permanent foothold on the south bank of the Danube.

At the first Arab siege, napalm or Greek fire was first used. There was a second Arab siege in 717-18. The Bulgars were not Slavs, but by the tenth century had become slavicised.

The founder of the First Bulgarian Empire in 681 was Asparukh.

Mankind and Mother Earth, OUP, 1976, posthumous