Archive for March, 2010

Greek cities in Asia

March 31 2010

“The basis of the Seleucid settlement was the military colony and not the Greek city, the polis. The first two kings [Seleucus I Nicator and Antiochus I Soter] did not … fill Asia with Greek cities directly”; at the same time “the aim of every military colony was to become a full polis … ; there was a steady upward growth of the colony into the polis, and it was this which, before the end of the second century B.C., had filled Asia with ‘Greek’ cities.” – Tarn, W. W.: The Greeks in Bactria and India (Cambridge 1938, University Press), pp. 6 and 9.


“The only places which were founded directly as poleis from the start were some, probably the majority, of those which bore the four Seleucid dynastic names: Antioch, Seleuceia, Apamea, Laodicea.” – Tarn, op. cit., p. 12.


In the Seleucid Empire the obverse of the eponymous cities’ (and other royal foundations’) loyalty to the Crown was the Crown’s tact in dealing with the cities. “Though in theory the Seleucids were autocrats, they could not afford to ride roughshod over the Greeks, and the popularity of the dynasty shows that they did not do so” (Tarn, op. cit., p. 26). “The new cities were not, of course, sovereign states. But neither were they municipalities of the Empire, as they were to be of the Roman Empire; they were a sort of half-way house” (Tarn, op. cit., p. 24).

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

Debt to Eduard Meyer

March 30 2010

Eduard Meyer, in his essay “Der Gang der alten Geschichte: Hellas und Rom”, [footnote: In his Kleine Schriften (Halle 1910, Niemeyer), pp. 231-2.] helped me to break away from the conventional nineteenth-century Western presentation of History as a play in three acts – “Ancient, Medieval, and Modern” – by showing me that the history of “Greece and Rome” was a unity, and that this unity was a whole that was complete in itself with its own Dark Age, Middle Age, and Modern Age. This unitary view of Greek and Roman history, which Eduard Meyer had given me, led me to look for a unitary name to describe the society whose history this was. I labelled it “the Hellenic Civilization”, and, when once I had identified one civilization, twenty other societies of the same species came into focus, one after another, in my field of historical vision.


Eduard Meyer, in his masterly picture of the Achaemenian Empire, [footnote: Meyer, E.: Geschichte des Altertums, vol. iii (Stuttgart 1901, Cotta), Erstes Buch: Der Orient unter der Herrschaft der Perser, pp. 1-233.] revealed to me the specific historical function of a universal state. By liquidating a host of idolized parochial states without succeeding in inspiring the same degree of devotion to itself, a universal state liberates, for conversion to the worship of God, psychic energy that has previously been concentrated on mutually conflicting idolatrous worships of Man’s Collective Self.

Meyer, 1910/11, by Lovis Corinth

A Study of History, Vol X, OUP, 1954

Civil services: 3, British Indian

March 29 2010

Civil services: 1, Achaemenian, Ottoman

Civil services: 2, Umayyad, Manchu

Nabobs and sahibs

The transformation of a civil service.

The antecedents of [the] British Indian civil servants […] were commercial. They had originated as the employees of a private trading organization whose purpose had been pecuniary profit; one of their original incentives for taking employment far from home in an uncongenial climate had been the possibility of making money for themselves by personal trading on the margin of their work for their employers; and, when the break-up of the Mughal Rāj had suddenly transformed the East India Company from a mere commercial concern into the virtual sovereign of the Mughals’ largest and most lucrative successor-state, the Company’s servants had yielded to the temptation to make illegitimate and inordinate pecuniary profits out of the political power that Fortune had thrust into their hands, [footnote] with much the same shamelessness and irresponsibility as the Roman equites had shown when they had found a prostrate Hellenic World at their mercy after Rome’s victory over Carthage in the Hannibalic War.

[Footnote: The metamorphosis of the East India Company’s servants “from pettifogging traders … into imperialistic swashbucklers and large-scale extortionists” was accomplished between A.D. 1750 and A.D. 1785 (see Spear, T. G. P., The Nabobs (London 1932, Milford), p. 23). “The transformation of factors into soldiers and statesmen … meant that soldiers and officials brought commercial minds to their new duties, in which, if they were not always over-careful of the Company’s coffers, they never forgot their own” (ibid., p. 28). In Bengal the European adventurers’ reign of terror was at its height from A.D. 1761 to A.D. 1771-2, when it was curbed by Warren Hastings’ reforms (see ibid., pp. 32-33).]

In the British, as in the Roman, case, this start might have seemed so bad as to be beyond hope of retrieving; [footnote] yet in the British, as in the Roman, episode of administrative history a predatory band of harpies was converted in a surprisingly short time into a body of public servants whose incentive was not personal pecuniary gain and who had come to make it a point of honour to wield enormous political power without abusing it.

[Footnote: In the early years of the nineteenth century of the Christian Era the highest reasonable hope might well have been thought to be the conversion of a piratical Clive into a chicken-livered Jos. Sedley […]. At Calcutta, where the transition from a respectable obscurity to a corrupt ascendancy had taken place between A.D. 1756 and 1765, there was a reversion towards respectability under Cornwallis’ régime (proconsulari munere fungebatur A.D. 1786-93). The nineteenth-century era of virtuous aloofness was inaugurated by Wellesley (fungebatur A.D. 1798-1805). See Spear, op. cit., p. 26.]

This redemption of the character of the British administration in India was due in part to the East India Company’s decision to educate their servants for bearing the new political responsibilities that had fallen upon their shoulders. The Company acquired the financial administration of Bengal, Bihar, Orissa, and the Northern Circars in A.D. 1765; it opened its college in Hertfordshire for probationer-appointees to its administrative service in India in A.D. 1806; and the college played an historic role during the fifty-two years (A.D. 1806-57) for which it performed this function. [Footnote: The East India Company’s College was installed in Hertford Castle [close to London] at its opening in February 1806, but was moved into new buildings at Haileybury [also in Hertfordshire] in A.D. 1809. There were about 100 students; the length of the course was two years; and the age of admission ranged between 16 and 19. A student obtained admission through a nomination by one of the Directors of the East India Company which assured him not only of a place in the college but of a post in India thereafter. This method of admission was abolished by an Act of Parliament, passed in A.D. 1853, which provided for the future recruitment of the Indian Civil Service by open competitive examination. The first examination of the kind was held in London in A D. 1855, and the College was closed, by an Act of A.D. 1855, as from the end of the calendar year 1857. [It reopened in 1862 as a public school, Haileybury, which still exists.]

Besides the contribution that it made to the improvement of British administration in India, the College had the distinction of contributing to the advancement of the science of human affairs through the work of Malthus, who was a professor on its staff from A D. 1806 until his death in A.D. 1834.]

The influence of an educational tradition and environment on the professional êthos of a civil service may be no less profound when the aspirants for admission to its ranks are educated in non-official institutions. In the history of the British Indian civil service, this was shown when in A.D. 1853-5, on the eve of the transference of the Government of India from the Company’s hands to the Crown’s, Parliament’s decisions to recruit the service in future by competitive examination and to close the Company’s vocational school for cadets opened the door to candidates drawn from the wider field offered by such non-official institutions as the universities of the United Kingdom and the so-called “public schools” from which the English universities were almost exclusively recruited at that date.

[…] The indigenous Indian contingent in the personnel of the British Indian civil service – which always vastly outnumbered the handful of Europeans occupying the key posts at the top – was recruited, both under the Company and under the Crown, from the alumni of Western Christian missionary schools and colleges in India, and of Indian universities built up round them or founded side by side with them, whose curricula and standards were largely governed by those of the universities of the United Kingdom, particularly the University of London. On the whole, it would seem that, the less direct the hand that a government finds it necessary to take in the training of candidates for its civil service, the more satisfactory the results are likely to be.

A Study of History, Vol VII, OUP, 1954

Kanda bookshops 2

March 28 2010

Charing Cross Road and Kanda

Kanda Bookshops

Click images to enlarge.

Flickr credit: Tokyo Views

Flickr credit: d_chronicle

Flickr credit: pict_ur_re

Flickr credit: -LucaM- Photography WWW.LUCAMOGLIA.IT

Flickr credit: Camera Freak

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Flickr credit: 007 Tanuki

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Flickr credit: Tokyo Views

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Flickr credit: busy.pochi

Flickr credit: zizi the blackcat

Flickr credit: d_chronicle


Shipley, art bookshop in Charing Cross Road that closed in 2008. Flickr credit: jelens

Kanda bookshops

March 27 2010

My claim that you could find a better selection of twentieth-century second-hand English books in the Kanda district of Tokyo than you would in Charing Cross Road in London may have been hard to believe, but a CNN travel site says (March 11):

“Despite being a land where few actually speak English, the Jimbocho [Jinbōchō or Jimbōchō is the part of Kanda where most of the bookshops are concentrated] English language book stores are often on par with anything around the world.”

“In Jimbocho, Tokyo’s secondhand book district, many of the booksellers are likely to be the last generation of vendors to sell secondhand books in this neighborhood. The danger of extinction, however, only makes these bookshops more valuable.”

I hope the prediction is overly gloomy. The area still has vitality. The Japanese haven’t yet embraced ebooks, but all the usual threats to bookshops apply. The article recommends:

Kitazawa, founded 1902,,

Bondi Books,,

Subun-So (which it misspells), founded 1941, and

Book Brother Genkido,

Kitazawa is showing all twelve volumes of A Study of History in English on its home page, with dust jackets, and apparently in excellent condition – for ¥60,000 or $650! A bargain. I might call them.

Charing Cross Road and Kanda

March 26 2010

I nearly posted a lament for Quinto’s and Francis Edwards in Charing Cross Road (the Bloomsbury Quinto closed a couple of years ago) when I walked past an empty pair of shops a few days ago, but they are moving from 48a to 72. Quinto used to buy up academic and scholarly libraries and change its entire stock monthly. What happened to the unsold books? The business model kept people coming in, though there was junk too. A year or two ago, a connecting door with Francis Edwards was put in. From then on the stock changed less frequently. The shop became tidier, more spacious and less interesting.

It used to be fashionable to disparage Foyles (for new books), because it was so disorganised. Dillons in Gower Street, closer to London University, was preferred. But Dillons never had any atmosphere, and in 1999 it became Waterstone’s. (Waterstone’s is the Starbucks of bookshops. Howard Schultz believed that Starbucks – in Europe! – was a new “third space” between office and home.)

The problem with Waterstone’s, and most “modern retail”, is that there are no surprises. Foyles was eccentric. Wikipedia: “Christina Foyle refused to install any modern conveniences such as electronic tills or calculators; nor would orders be taken by phone. The store operated through a payment system that required customers to queue three times (once to collect an invoice for a book, and then again to pay the invoice, then a third to collect the book), simply because sales staff were not allowed to handle cash. Equally mystifying to customers was a shelving arrangement that categorized books by publisher, rather than by topic or author.”

The three queues allowed the employees who couldn’t be trusted with money to mount a sustained scam, suspected in 1994 and proven in 2000. It had been going on for years, and I can picture in my mind a bespectacled assistant on the ground floor (male) who, I am convinced, was in on it, if not behind it. I don’t think I remember the organisation by publisher.

Foyles was and is large enough to be full of surprises. For several years after 2000 second-hand volumes were occasionally found on the same shelves as brand-new – a wonderful enrichment – and sub-lets to outside second-hand dealers occupied one or two corners. Perhaps they had done all this before. For decades, there was a Foyles-run antiquarian section on the third floor. Most or all of that richness has gone. Foyles, apart from a café on the first floor, is now a regular bookshop.

Shops in Charing Cross Road close faster than they open. (Ordinary antique, as distinct from junk, shops in the UK are extinct.) Zwemmers (art books, two shops in the road) closed in 2003, Shipley (art books) in 2008, Murder One in 2009. Henry Pordes at no 58-60 survives. Borders came into the UK in 1998 as a pale reflection of its US self and bought a sub-Waterstones called Books Etc. It closed in Charing Cross Road (where it traded as Borders) in 2009 and Borders UK went into administration. Blackwell’s opened in Charing Cross Road in 1995 as a very pale reflection of its Oxford self and is still there.

Cecil Court, between Charing Cross Road and St Martin’s Lane, is more or less intact as a bookselling alley. Is Charing Cross Road a great bookselling street? The Kanda district in Tokyo is said to have 176 bookshops. Even if you are looking for books in English, Kanda beats Charing Cross Road (perhaps not Cecil Court) for quality of twentieth-century stock. The decline of Charing Cross Road (but when were the great days?; when were eighteenth-century books last sold there?; even good Victorian books are now rare) is partly due to rents. It probably is not mainly due to online selling. The recession might slow the decline down. Bloomsbury, once a rival but more upmarket centre, is in worse trouble.

84 Charing Cross Road was a book by Helen Hanff, later made into a stage play, television play and film, about a twenty-year correspondence between her and Frank Doel, the chief buyer of Marks & Co, which closed circa 1971. The film somehow escaped having Emma Thompson in it.

Any Amount of Books at no 56 has a site about book collecting. On March 23 it posted a piece about the odd volumes of sets that all booksellers dread. “Third in line [after bits of Churchill’s The Second World War and after Proust] used to be Toynbee’s 12 volume Study of History, but it is now of so little value that attempts to make a set are futile – odd vols get recycled, tossed or put in the £1 bin. This does not stop the entrepreneurial Bookbarn demanding £99 for an ex-library reprint of the ninth volume.”

A complete Study can be sold for several hundred dollars, so why not try to make the set? The answer is that these “monstrous” volumes (AJP Taylor in MF Ashley Montagu, editor, Toynbee and History, Boston, Porter Sargent, 1956, writing of VII-X) look so gristly, intractable and, often, lonely (one of twelve is lonelier than one of two or three) that all booksellers’ hearts sink. This blog tries to show their charms.

84 Charing Cross Road

Kanda district (Flickr credit: nobuojp)

Historical novels: Mary Renault

March 25 2010

Film about Renault produced by Colin Cameron. BBC4, April 18 2006. First of seven clips.

Her Greek novels

The Last of the Wine 1956 (Athens during the Peloponnesian War; the narrator is a pupil of Socrates)

The King Must Die 1958 (the mythical Theseus up to his father’s death)

The Bull from the Sea 1962 (the remainder of Theseus’s life)

The Mask of Apollo 1966 (an actor at the time of Plato and Dionysius the Younger; Alexander appears briefly near the end)

Fire from Heaven 1969 (Alexander the Great from the age of four up to his father’s death)

The Persian Boy 1972 (Alexander after the conquest of Persia, from Bagoas’s perspective)

The Praise Singer 1978 (Simonides of Ceos)

Funeral Games 1981 (Alexander’s successors)

The Persian stimulus 2

March 24 2010

The Persian stimulus

The pre-eminence of Athenian vitality in [the] outburst of Hellenic life which followed the repulse of Xerxes’ onslaught is comparable with the rejuvenation of France after the War of 1914-18 [this was published in 1934; the passage follows a discussion of France and Germany]; for Athens on that occasion, like France on this, bore the brunt of the stimulating blow. While the fertile fields of Boeotia were saved from devastation by the treachery of their owners to the Hellenic cause, and the fertile fields of Lacedaemon by the presence and the prowess of the Athenian fleet at Salamis, the poor land of Attica was devastated systematically by the invaders in two successive seasons. Indeed, Attica suffered more in 480-479 B.C. than France in A.D. 1914-18; for the Germans only succeeded in occupying a fraction, albeit an especially valuable fraction, of the French national territory, whereas the Persians occupied and devastated the whole of Attica, including Athens itself and the Acropolis and the temple of Athene, on the summit of the rock, which was the Attic holy of holies. The whole population of Attica – men, women, and children – had to evacuate the country and cross the sea to the Peloponnese as refugees; and it was in this situation that the Athenian fleet fought and won the Battle of Salamis, within sight of the victors’ abandoned fields and ruined homes and altars. It is no wonder that a blow which aroused this indomitable spirit in the Athenian people should have been the prelude to achievements which are perhaps unique in the history of Mankind for their brilliance and multitude and variety. In the material reconstruction of Attica, the new equipment of the farmsteads surpassed the old as conspicuously as the new equipment of the French factories has surpassed the plant destroyed by German shell-fire. Half a century later, this new apparatus of agriculture in Attica was still so far superior to anything that was to be found in other parts of Hellas that when Athens – betrayed into folly by excess of good fortune – at last conjured up against herself an overwhelming counter-coalition of other Powers, the Boeotian contingent in the Allied and Associated Armies found it worth while to carry off the woodwork of the Attic farm-buildings bodily across the mountains. [Footnote] Yet, in the reconstruction of Attica, this imposing re-equipment of the farmsteads was nothing accounted of. The work which was regarded as truly symbolic of the country’s glorious resurrection was the rebuilding of the temples; and in this work Periclean Athens displayed a vitality far superior to that of post-war France. When the French recovered the battered shell of Rheims Cathedral, they performed a pious restoration of each shattered stone and splintered statue. When the Athenians found the Hekatompedon burnt down to the foundations, they let the foundations lie and proceeded, on a new site, to create the Parthenon.

[Footnote: This fact [the carrying-off of Athenian farm buildings by the Thebans] is recorded in the fragment of a history of Hellenic affairs, of unknown authorship, which has come to light on the Oxyrhynchus Papyrus. The relevant passage runs as follows:

“Thebes had enjoyed a great increase in general prosperity as an immediate result of the outbreak of the Atheno-Peloponnesian War … she prospered still more after the joint Thebano-Lacedaemonian occupation of Decelea. While the occupation lasted, the Thebans bought up cheap the slaves and other prize of war; and the fact that they were the Athenians’ next-door neighbours enabled them to transport to the Thebaid all the capital equipment of Attica, including the very timber and tiling of the buildings. At that time the Attic countryside was more lavishly equipped than any other in Hellas. It had suffered very little in the previous Lacedaemonian invasions, and an immense amount of skill and labour had been invested in it by the Athenians. …” (Hellenica Oxyrhynchia (Oxford 1909, University Press), xii. 3-4.)]

A Study of History, Vol II, OUP, 1934

Sons and fathers

March 23 2010

An intuition that Christianity [threatened] the stability of the Roman Empire does not, perhaps, account for the original persecution of Christianity by Nero, since Nero was manifestly seeking a scapegoat for personal odium incurred through personal misconduct. But it does account for the subsequent retention of this proscription on the statute book, through the reigns of “the virtuous emperors” from Nerva to Marcus inclusive, until its repeal in A.D. 313 by Constantine I and Licinius in Constantine’s Edict of Milan. The Roman authorities would have felt that they had been justified in acting on their intuition regarding Christianity if they had been acquainted with two passages in the Christian Church’s scriptures – Matt. x. 34-7 and Luke xii. 49-53 – in which the Founder of the Church is represented as saying that He has come to bring, not peace and unity, but strife and discord.

“Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword. For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law. And a man’s foes shall be they of his own household. He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.”

“I am come to send fire on the earth; and what will I, if it be already kindled? But I have a baptism to be baptized with; and how am I straitened till it be accomplished! Suppose ye that I am come to give peace on earth? I tell you, Nay; but rather division: For from henceforth there shall be five in one house divided, three against two, and two against three. The father shall be divided against the son, and the son against the father; the mother against the daughter, and the daughter against the mother; the mother in law against her daughter in law, and the daughter in law against her mother in law.”

King James Version.

An Historian’s Approach to Religion, OUP, 1956

Six German atlases

March 22 2010

The chief source of this book is an ingrained habit of gazing at maps, and much of my material had been imbibed unconsciously in this way long before the war broke out and I sat down to write. My conscious debts are to Stieler’s Hand-Atlas of the contemporary world, and to the wonderful Historical Atlas created by Karl Spruner and Theodor Menke his apostle. Both of these I have consulted continuously while writing the book and compiling my own maps that accompany it, and I have also derived much profit from the little Alldeutscher Atlas published under the auspices of the Alldeutsche Verband by Justus Perthes, which plots out the distribution of languages in Central Europe with admirable exactitude, though it combines scientific execution with chauvinistic inspiration in a characteristically German fashion. The reader will note in passing that the other atlases cited are also of German authorship, and that conclusions based on their evidence are not likely to be biassed to Germany’s disadvantage.

The German world-historical atlas in my library is Westermann (1956; my edition 1985).

The old, two-volume Penguin Atlas of World History (1974 and 1978), which I also have, is a translation of the two-volume German dtv-Atlas zur Weltgeschichte (1964 and 1966).

I was obsessed as a kid with the Große Shell-Atlas, a road-atlas of Germany and, in less detail, of other parts of Europe (edition of circa 1962).

Old atlases online.

Nationality and the War, Dent, 1915

Spring 1914

March 21 2010

One of the sub-themes of this blog is vintage performances of miniatures by Darius Milhaud, français de Provence et de religion israélite.

On the first day of spring, here is Le printemps, opus 18, composed in 1914, and recorded later by Joseph Szigeti with Kurt Ruhrseitz. (The unnecessary curtain-raiser is the mazurka from Coppélia by Delibes.)

Was it written in the final spring of peace? From the number of works that followed it in that year, it seems likely that it was. Is it impressionistic? Not quite. There is a bitonal bite. The outlines are not blurred, but clear, like those of the landscapes of Provence.

Barber centenary

March 20 2010

The first performance of Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, in a 10 pm radio broadcast by the NBC Symphony Orchestra under Toscanini, in front of an audience, on November 5 1938 in New York. (Where in New York? Live? 10 pm seems late for New Yorkers.)

The music was an arrangement of the slow movement of his first string quartet (1936). It was played at the funeral of Einstein at Princeton (quartet or transcription?). In 1967 he would transcribe it again for eight-part unaccompanied choir as a setting of the Agnus Dei. It has been used in films, such as Platoon. Adagios-with-violence are a cinematic cliché, but Barber’s music is irreducible.

Toscanini takes the piece faster than Bernstein, as you’d expect. Is there a barely perceptible and wholly inappropriate Italianate tremolo in the reprise of the theme after the climax, from 5:36? It is probably the recording.

Barbara Heyman tells us that Toscanini made slight changes to Barber’s scoring, as he did with the other Barber work he premiered in the same concert, the first Essay for Orchestra.

Barber, a 28 year-old American, was too grateful for the double accolade from Toscanini, and for the quality of the performances, to be concerned. William Primrose was the first violist, Alfred Wallenstein the principal cellist.

Roger Scruton in Beauty (OUP, 2009), on

“The long step-wise melody in B-flat minor which is less a melody than a melody remembered; the tensions resolved on half-cadences, as though pausing for breath but refusing to come to a halt, so that there is a continuous cycle of tension and relaxation; the constant fall of the melodic line that burdens every attempt to rise, until the sudden climb through a pair of diminished fifths, like the last efforts of someone struggling to free himself so as to reach the rock which is his goal, only to find that this rock, the high B flat which was the tonic for which the melody had longed for 12 bars, is without foundation, being now the dominant of E-flat minor, lying above an unstable dissonance […].”

Perhaps, fine as Toscanini is, Bernstein gives the music more grandeur. There are versions by him on YouTube with the New York Philharmonic (with poor sound) and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the latter a late Deutsche Grammophon recording from a live performance.

November 5 1938 was a few days before Kristallnacht. At the end of the Toscanini, you can hear a man talking on a neighbouring radio channel, whose signal drifts in as the Barber fades away.

Barber, March 9 1910-January 23 1981, c 1938

Bitter bread

March 19 2010

It took two hundred years for the tyranny of a Philip II (regnabat A.D. 1555-98) to refine itself into the “enlightened” absolutism of a Joseph [II] (imperabat A.D. 1765-90), and three centuries for “the divine right” of kings, who had converted their limited hereditary feudal rights into an unlimited adventitious Justinianean prerogative, to water itself down into the prosaic “legitimacy” pleaded by the shell-shocked beneficiaries of a brief post-Napoleonic Restoration.

The kings crept out – the peoples sat at home,
And finding the long-invocated peace
(A pall embroidered with worn images
Of rights divine) too scant to cover doom
Such as they suffered, cursed the corn that grew
Rankly, to bitter bread, on Waterloo.

[Footnote: Browning, E. B.: Crowned and Buried, Stanza xii.]

A Study of History, Vol IX, OUP, 1954

A soldier from Chitral

March 19 2010


Chitral News.

Image via Hunza Times.

The end of freshness

March 18 2010

“Journeys, those magic caskets full of dreamlike promises, will never again yield up their treasures untarnished. A proliferating and overexcited civilization has broken the silence of the seas once and for all. The perfumes of the tropics and the pristine freshness of human beings have been corrupted by a busyness with dubious implications, which mortifies our desires and dooms us to acquire only contaminated memories.

“Now that the Polynesian islands have been smothered in concrete and turned into aircraft carriers solidly anchored in the southern seas, when the whole of Asia is beginning to look like a dingy suburb, when shanty towns are spreading across Africa, when civil and military aircraft blight the primeval innocence of the American or Melanesian forests even before destroying their virginity, what else can the so-called escapism of travelling do than confront us with the more unfortunate aspects of our history? Our great Western civilization, which has created the marvels we now enjoy, has only succeeded in producing them at the cost of corresponding ills. The order and harmony of the Western world, its most famous achievement, and a laboratory in which structures of a complexity yet unknown are being fashioned, demand the elimination of a prodigious mass of noxious by-products which now contaminate the globe. The first thing we see as we travel round the world is our own filth, thrown in the face of mankind.”


John and Doreen Weightman, translators, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques, Jonathan Cape, 1973; first French edition Librairie Plon, 1955.

Moral spices

March 17 2010

“In the old days, people used to risk their lives in India or in the Americas in order to bring back products which now seem to us to have been of comically little worth, such as brasil or brazilwood (from which the name Brazil was derived) – a red dye – and also pepper which had such a vogue in the time of Henry IV of France that courtiers used to carry the seeds in sweetmeat boxes and eat them like sweets. The visual or olfactory surprises they provided, since they were cheerfully warm to the eye or exquisitely hot on the tongue, added a new range of sense experience to a civilization which had never suspected its own insipidity. We might say, then, that through a twofold reversal, from these same lands our modern Marco Polos bring back the moral spices of which our society feels an increasing need as it is conscious of sinking further into boredom, but that this time they take the form of photographs, books and travellers’ tales.”


John and Doreen Weightman, translators, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques, Jonathan Cape, 1973; first French edition Librairie Plon, 1955.

Oc, si, oïl

March 16 2010

… and the origin of oui

Nam alii oc, alii si, alii vero dicunt oil” (“some say oc, others si, others oïl”): Dante in De vulgari eloquentia.

He thus classified the Romance languages into oc (southern France), si (Italy and Iberia) and oïl groups (northern France, southern Belgium).

The Latin hoc, this, led to oc.

Sic, thus, became si.

Hoc ille, from, for example, hoc ille fecit, this he did, was also a form of assent. Thus o il or oïl, thence oui.

Dante’s decision to compose the Divina Commedia [c 1309–20] in stanzas of rhyming lines of Tuscan [si] verse instead of in Latin hexameters has been momentous for the subsequent inspiration of poetry in all the vernacular languages of the Western World. Dante was conscious that, in using the vernacular, he was following a lead given by earlier Transalpine [ie French, for example troubadour] poets; but, for a Tuscan, it was a greater feat to liberate himself from the spell of the Latin language and literature than it had been for poets whose mother-tongues were the Langue d’Oc and the Langue d’Oil – not to speak of poets whose mother-tongues were, not Romance, but Teutonic. The medieval Italians might have remained prisoners of their ancestral Latin language. They might have compromised by writing serious Latin poetry in the metres and style of the contemporary popular poetry in the vernacular. Some exquisite Latin poetry of this genre was, in fact, written in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. In liberating themselves from a linguistic servitude to the Graeco-Roman past, the medieval Italians were more successful than their Greek contemporaries […].

The French si is used in the same way as the Latinism sic in English.

Another name for the Langue d’Oc is Occitan. It used to be called Lemosin or Provençal. Nowadays, Lemosin and Provençal mean specific varieties, whereas Occitan is used for the language as a whole. Many non-specialists continue to refer to the language as Provençal.

Catalan is related to it.

Occitania, as the whole area in which Occitan was spoken, is thus a larger area than the individual modern regions of (for example) Languedoc-Roussillon, Limousin or Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur.

Modern Italian is in part a literary derivative from Tuscan, forged by Dante, Petrarch, Boccaccio, Machiavelli, Ariosto and Guicciardini; but Tuscan was one of many Romance dialects in Italy.

Mankind and Mother Earth, OUP, 1976, posthumous

Persia’s losses

March 15 2010

The most serious territorial diminution which the Persian Empire has suffered since the definitive Ottoman conquest of ‘Irāq [1533] has been the loss of the Transcaucasian territory which was conquered by Russia in the early nineteenth century and which now constitutes a Republic of Azerbaijan which is one of the constituent […] members of the U.S.S.R.

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

Syrian School

March 14 2010

I mentioned this BBC4 series of stereotype-confounding films earlier, but have only just watched the first. They are about four schools in Damascus. All five hour-long segments go off the air on March 17. You can’t access them outside the UK unless you know how to, but people with an interest in the middle east should give them a try, even if they do not manage all of them (I’m going to try to). Only the Germans regularly do similar things on this scale.

People who know the middle east well might have been struck (because they have heard similar things themselves) by a speech of Mrs Amal Hassan, the headmistress at Zaki Al Arsouzi Girls’ School, at a staff meeting:

“I can see our humanity vanishing into thin air. We no longer love each other or wish each other well. Everyone is looking out for themselves. Caring for others was something really beautiful about the East. We fought the whole world armed with our humanity. Now it’s all gone. We’re neither East nor West. Where’s the spirit of brotherhood?”

The school is secular, though there are religious schools in Syria. Religious symbols on the person are forbidden, though not the hijab, whose use is increasing.

I can’t comment on this article (November 2003): Joshua M Landis, Islamic Education in Syria: Undoing Secularism. Maybe others can.

Director, Max Baring. Executive Producer, Bill Locke. Episode guide in a Comment.

Starkey & Co

March 13 2010

Who are the best-selling living British historians? In alphabetical order, taking into account total number of books sold to date, I’d guess:

Karen Armstrong
Felipe Fernández-Armesto
Antonia Fraser
Simon Schama
David Starkey
Alison Weir
Michael Wood

Born 1932-50. If I had to take the collected œuvre of one to a desert island, whose would it be? Starkey’s or Schama’s.

Simon Schama spoofs

March 13 2010

This schoolboy humour is not funny in itself. It is if you know Schama.

A Voice through a Cloud

March 12 2010

It seemed the destiny of certain postwar artists to die in car and plane crashes.

In May 1935, TE Lawrence had died on two wheels in Dorset. One remembers the opening sequence in the film.

The following month, an English art student, Denton Welch, was hit by a car while cycling in Surrey and suffered a fractured spine.

He had been born in Shanghai in 1915, dropped out of Repton, an English public school, and studied art at Goldsmiths’. His art is very English and neo-romantic. There is a self-portrait in the National Portrait Gallery.

“I heard a voice through a great cloud of agony and sickness. The voice was asking questions. It seemed to be opening and closing like a concertina. The words were loud, as the swelling notes of an organ, then they melted to the tiniest wiry tinkle of water in a glass. I knew that I was lying on my back on the grass. I could feel the shiny blades on my neck. Bright little points glittered all down the front of the liquid man kneeling beside me. I knew at once that he was a policeman, and I thought he was performing some ritual operation on me. There was a confusion in my mind between being brought to life – forceps, navel-cords, midwives – and being put to death – ropes, axes and black masks; but whatever it was that was happening, I felt that all men came to this at last.”

One day a film will be made from his writings. He didn’t have much to draw on, since he was only 20 when the accident happened. It did not paralyse him, but led to severe pain and to many illnesses. His invalid life was mainly spent in Kent. He died in 1948, when he was 33.

There are four quasi-novels: Maiden Voyage (1943, based on his childhood in China), In Youth Is Pleasure (1944), A Voice through a Cloud (1950, unfinished, almost a memoir), I Left My Grandfather’s House (1984, a novella-memoir about a hiking holiday). Also journals, stories and poems. Michael De-la-Noy has written a biography.


March 11 2010

The motif [of Withdrawal-and-Return] presents itself conspicuously in the case of one minority of a natural order which always exists of necessity in every society: the minority consisting of those male members of any given society who, at any given moment, are in course of passing out of boyhood into manhood through the metamorphosis of puberty. The withdrawal of the boys from the common life of Society on the eve of puberty in order that they may return as men when they are ripe for marriage is a social movement which is not only common in the life of primitive societies, but is also traceable in the lives of societies that are in process of civilization – sometimes as a theme of Mythology and sometimes as a custom that lingers on in practice in some by-way of practical life. The temporary segregation of the boys of a primitive society during their years of puberty is a commonplace of Anthropology [Footnote: For a survey of the prevalence of this institution in the lives of extant primitive societies, see Schurz, H.: Altersklassen und Männerbünde (Berlin 1902, Reimer).] The reflexion of this custom in Mythology is illustrated by the Hellenic myth of the Centaur Cheiron’s school of heroes in the wilderness of Mount Pelion. Its survival as a “going concern”, into the history of a civilization is illustrated by the Spartan institution of the so-called “Lycurgean Agôgê” and by the English institution of the so-called “Public Schools”. [Footnote: […] It is to be noted that while the English boy who is segregated from his family on the eve of puberty by being sent to a “public school” does return to ordinary life upon reaching manhood, the Spartiate never returns, after his entry into the Agôgê at the age of seven, until he is superannuated from military service at the age of sixty.]

Degas’ Young Spartans Exercising (1860) at the National Gallery reminds us that there was not always total segregation of adolescent boys. Plutarch writes in his life of Lycurgus that girls were encouraged to exercise, dance and sing naked in front of the young men in order to encourage them to marry, and to humiliate them and criticise those who were weak.

A Study of History, Vol III, OUP, 1934


March 10 2010

The nineteenth century

Dennis Brain and Denis Matthews

Sir Kenneth Dover

March 10 2010

Greek scholar.



The climax of the Holy Roman Empire

March 9 2010

The undivided Hapsburg Power which Charles V had held together before his abdication in A.D. 1555/6 had come into his hands by successive stages during the years A.D. 1515-19. On the 5th January, 1515, he had inherited the Burgundian dominions; on the 23rd January, 1516, he had succeeded King Ferdinand as King of Aragon and Castile; on the 12th January, 1519, he had succeeded Maximilian I as ruler of the hereditary dominions of the House of Hapsburg; on the 28th June, 1519, he had succeeded Maximilian I as Holy Roman Emperor.

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

Mud, concrete and obsolete comparisons

March 8 2010

1964, first half, and harking back to an ancient world view:

[In] Old Massawah [in Eritrea] […] one is in the Oceanic world of Zanzibar and Maskat and Bahrain and Singapore.

1964, first half, and equally strange now:

The city that Kano recalled to my mind was Riyadh, the capital of Sa’udi Arabia […].

In 1964, Riyadh did not look much more developed than Kano, northern Nigeria. Twenty years earlier, Kano must have had the edge.

Riyadh changed, Kano did not, or not as much. Much of Kano has become concrete recently. I haven’t been there. But old Kano has and probably has always had the edge in architecture. The mud buildings, domestic and religious, are close in style to the buildings of Niger and Mali.

There are now almost no clay or mud-brick buildings in Riyadh, though Masmak fortress stands. There were a few more when I first went there in 1984.

It is relatively difficult to make ugly buildings with mud and relatively difficult to make beautiful buildings with concrete.

Concrete replaced mud as Riyadh grew from settlement to metropolis, but it remained a low-rise city. There are only two high buildings, even now. One is the pointed Al Faisaliyah Center, which you can see on the left of the picture below. The other is the awe-inspiring and rather chilling Kingdom Tower, whose 66th floor (there are 99) is the private domain of Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal.

I am the only person I know who prefers Riyadh to Jeddah, and I would choose it as the place to live if I had to live in Saudi Arabia.

October 1929, en route to Japan:

Bombay is one of the great cities of the modern world – the only really first-rate modern city which I have yet encountered on this journey since I left Vienna […].

Newsreels and Imperial propaganda presented Bombay in this way, as a great, modern trading metropolis. What Toynbee and his contemporaries were seeing was a Victorian city with a big railway station and drains, and electric light and broad streets, and a port where big ships arrived. Therefore it was modern.

A few days earlier:

As I landed at Karachi I admired those docks where a ship could do its business alongside the quay without the plague of boats and lighters which beset the same ship when it calls at Muhammarah or Bushire. As I drove through the streets of Karachi I admired the solidity of the buildings: shipping offices and banks and business houses.

In February 1957 he is still sufficiently dazzled by the modernity of Bombay to think of it as a city apart from the real India:

Much of the World’s business is transacted [in Bombay]; but you might as well be in Liverpool or in New York.

The parallel with England and the US no longer works because the colonial scales have fallen from our eyes, because Victorian cities no longer seem modern anyway, and because Bombay, like most cities formerly in European empires, has lost most of its colonial neatness.

I have never thought of New York as at all “modern”, but as a nineteenth-/early twentieth-century encampment. It has changed less than London in the past twenty years, so it seems even more old-fashioned now than it used to.

Kano from Dala Hill,

Riyadh from the air, source lost

Hausa house in Kano,

Between Niger and Nile, OUP, 1965 (first two quotations)

A Journey to China, or Things Which Are Seen, Constable, 1931

East to West, A Journey Round the World, OUP, 1958

The US and the Armenian genocide

March 7 2010

On March 4 the US House Committee on Foreign Affairs passed a resolution describing the killings of Armenians in the First World War as genocide. There had been “joint resolutions” in the House of Representatives in 1975, 1984 and 1996, which had been resisted by the White House. I’m not sure about the Senate or whether the resolutions actually became “joint”.

The same fate presumably awaits this resolution and was the fate of a similar House Committee resolution in 2007.

Obama had used the word without equivocation before he took office, but is unlikely to use it now.

There has been no official US federal recognition of an Armenian genocide.

The countries which have recognised one are listed here, a Wikipedia page which looks as if it was written by Armenians, but quotes sources. They include France, Germany and Italy, but not the UK. Here is the page on Turkish-Armenian relations.

I have avoided using the word here. While there is no doubt that hundreds of thousands of Armenians were massacred by Turks on Turkish territory, starting in 1915, the debate about how much of the killing was centrally directed may, for all I know, still be justified. Would the word be applicable if there was limited, or superfluous, central direction?


The Wikipedia page on the massacres is comprehensive, but quotes mainly from secondary sources. I omit the most of the references in the quotations below.

“While there is no consensus as to how many Armenians lost their lives during the Armenian Genocide, there is general agreement among western scholars that over 500,000 Armenians died between 1914 and 1918. Estimates vary between 300,000 (per the modern Turkish state) to 1,500,000 (per modern Armenia, Argentina, and other states). Encyclopædia Britannica references the research of Arnold J. Toynbee, an intelligence officer of the British Foreign Office, who estimated that 600,000 Armenians ‘died or were massacred during deportation’ in the years 1915-1916.


“Reacting to numerous eyewitness accounts, British politician Viscount Bryce and historian Arnold J. Toynbee compiled statements from survivors and eyewitnesses from other countries including Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Sweden, and Switzerland, who similarly attested to the systematized massacring of innocent Armenians by Ottoman government forces. In 1916, they published The Treatment of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, 1915-16. Although the book has since been criticized as British wartime propaganda to build up sentiment against the Central Powers, Bryce had submitted the work to scholars for verification before its publication. University of Oxford Regius Professor Gilbert Murray stated of the tome, ‘… the evidence of these letters and reports will bear any scrutiny and overpower any scepticism. Their genuineness is established beyond question.’ Other professors, including Herbert Fisher of Sheffield University and former American Bar Association president Moorfield Storey, affirmed the same conclusion.

“Winston Churchill described the massacres as an ‘administrative holocaust’ and noted that ‘the clearance of the race from Asia Minor was about as complete as such an act, on a scale so great, could well be. […] [Wikipedia’s bracket.] There is no reasonable doubt that this crime was planned and executed for political reasons. The opportunity presented itself for clearing Turkish soil of a Christian race opposed to all Turkish ambitions, cherishing national ambitions that could only be satisfied at the expense of Turkey, and planted geographically between Turkish and Caucasian Moslems.’


“British historian Arnold Toynbee, whose 1916 report remains a critical primary source, changed his evaluation later in life, concluding, ‘These … Armenian political aspirations had not been legitimate. … Their aspirations did not merely threaten to break up the Turkish Empire; they could not be fulfilled without doing grave injustice to the Turkish people itself.’ [Footnote: Quoted in Gunter, Pursuing the Just Cause (1986) p. 16.] [Michael M Gunter, Pursuing the Just Cause of Their People: A Study of Contemporary Armenian Terrorism, Greenwood Press, 1986. I quoted the passage about Armenian aspirations, which appears in Acquaintances (1967), here. But Toynbee does use the word “genocide” in that book.]

“For Turkish historians, supporting the national republican myth is essential to preserving Turkish national unity. The usual Turkish argument is that the deportations were necessary because the Armenians had allied themselves with Russian invaders in wartime, and ‘some 100,000 Armenians … may have died between 1915 and 1918, but this was no greater a percentage than that of the Turks and other Muslims who died as a result of the same conditions in the same places at the same time.’ ‘There was no genocide committed against the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire before or during World War I.’ [Footnote: Statements by the Assembly of Turkish American Associations, 1982, quoted in Gunter (1986) p. 18.] Dissident historians in Turkey are trying to reclaim the Armenians as part of Ottoman and Turkish history and acknowledge the wrongs done to the Armenians as a condition for reconciliation with them on the basis of confidence in Turkish national unity.


“Arnold Toynbee writes that ‘the Young Turks made Pan-Islamism and Turkish Nationalism work together for their ends, but the development of their policy shows the Islamic element receding and the Nationalist gaining ground.’ [Footnote: Toynbee, Arnold Joseph, Turkey: A Past and a Future, 1917, pp. 22-3.] Toynbee and various other sources report that many Armenians were spared death by marrying into Turkish families or converting to Islam.”


Armenian refugees in Aleppo, 1915, Wikimedia Commons


March 6 2010

Tyler Cowen:

“I haven’t been to Concepción [Chile, near the epicentre of an 8.8 earthquake on February 27] since December 1989, yet I will never forget my trip there. It was the first time I learned what was for me to become an important truth. If you set off to a mid-sized city in South America – especially in the Southern Cone – your chance of finding an idyllic spot are high. There may be, in a way, nothing to do there, at least not in the sense that your guidebook can report. But it will feel so fresh, so undiscovered, so representative of the vitality of everyday life, that you will at times think you have stumbled upon paradise. Everyone there will seem so apart from the world you know and there is a sudden (and quite silly) shock at seeing how seriously they take the world they know.”

This could have been said, by a visitor, about much more of the world fifty or a hundred years ago than now.

City of swine

March 5 2010

A spiritually hard environment may be defined as being the atmosphere of “the city of swine” [footnote: Plato: Respublica, 369B-372D […]] in which the Soul’s spiritual aspirations are swamped by material well-being. This Circe’s magic is too much for the general run of Mankind; and in such adverse spiritual circumstances a majority is apt to find its way, like Odysseus’ shipmates, into the sorceress’ pigsties. Yet all is not lost; for the miasma of worldly prosperity that stupefies the mass will provoke spiritually sensitive and strenuous souls into an utter defiance of the charms of This World. Even on the relatively low level of barbarian virtue, the fortitude of a single hero may avail, as Odysseus showed, to save the situation; and at the level of the higher religions the failure of the priest is the signal for the prophet.

A Study of History, Vol VII, OUP, 1954

The Horses of Achilles

March 4 2010

“When they saw Patroklos dead
–  so brave and strong, so young –
the horses of Achilles began to weep;
their immortal nature was upset deeply
by this work of death they had to look at.
They reared their heads, tossed their long manes,
beat the ground with their hooves, and mourned
Patroklos, seeing him lifeless, destroyed,
now mere flesh only, his spirit gone,
defenceless, without breath,
turned back from life to the great Nothingness.

Zeus saw the tears of those immortal horses and felt sorry.]
‘At the wedding of Peleus,’ he said,
‘I should not have acted so thoughtlessly.
Better if we hadn’t given you as a gift,
my unhappy horses. What business did you have down there,]
among pathetic human beings, the toys of fate.
You are free of death, you will not get old,
yet ephemeral disasters torment you.
Men have caught you up in their misery.’
But it was for the eternal disaster of death
that those two gallant horses shed their tears.”


Achilles binding the arm of Patroclus after he was wounded by an arrow, kylix from the Etruscan city of Vulci, c 500 BC, Pergamon Museum, Berlin; the incident is not in the Iliad

Peleus married the sea-nymph Thetis and fathered Achilles by her. As a wedding present, Zeus’s brother Poseidon gave Peleus two immortal horses, Balius and Xanthus, whose father, according to one tradition, was Zeus.

The wedding feast was the beginning of the quarrel that led to the Judgment of Paris and to the Trojan War.

The Horses of Achilles, from Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard, translators; George Savidis, editor, CP Cavafy, Collected Poems, revised edition, Princeton University Press, 1992, at I have anglicised the spelling of defenseless.

Guilty Men

March 3 2010

Michael Foot dies. Champion of the left in Britain and one of the authors of Guilty Men (1940).

I used to see him, with stick and donkey jacket, taking his dog for a walk in Hampstead.

The Guilty Men, the appeasers, were:

Neville Chamberlain
Sir John Simon
Sir Samuel Hoare
Ramsay MacDonald
Stanley Baldwin
Lord Halifax
Sir Kingsley Wood
Ernest Brown
David Margesson
Sir Horace Wilson
Sir Thomas Inskip
Leslie Burgin
Earl Stanhope
WS Morrison
Sir Reginald Dorman-Smith

A quadrumvirate

March 2 2010

When I was a boy, the educated English middle class was loyal to some figures of what was a presumed “great tradition” of “English” culture. Who was the great modern poet? TS Eliot. The sculptor? Henry Moore. The painter? Graham Sutherland. The composer? Benjamin Britten. They were a quadrumvirate.

For this section of a by modern standards spartan class, whose festivals were musical (Aldeburgh and Glyndebourne) and whose members would meet in each other’s houses for “drinks”, consumed standing, before they returned to their own for Sunday lunches, those figures were reference-points.

The novelist? This was already less clear. Greene? Snow? Snow even after Leavis?

Sutherland and Britten came together at Coventry Cathedral in 1962, at an event which was the high point of this phase of culture.

Here is a BBC television Monitor documentary on Moore from 1960, along with much more on Moore from their archive.

La chasse du jeune Henri

March 2 2010

The impress of that mighty race.

Most post-baroque hunting music bores me, but the overture of Méhul’s opera Le jeune Henri (fp Opéra-Comique 1797, in revised version 1801) is charming. The sections described dawn, the call to the hunt, the trail found, lost, found again, the gallop, the killing of the stag.

Horns, especially at 7:59. Méhul had them placed at different points in the orchestra so that they could answer each other.

The republican audience of 1797, when the opera was called La jeunesse de Henri IV, disliked everything except the overture, which had to be repeated.

Another half-forgotten hit among hunting pieces of the time is Sir George Alexander Macfarren’s rather manic concert overture Chevy Chace (sic) (1836, so from the Land ohne Musik), nyoY (not yet on YouTube, but Hyperion have recorded it), which Mendelssohn conducted and Wagner admired.

Méhul was the only important French symphonist before Berlioz.

Michel Swierczewski, Orchestra of the Gulbenkian Foundation

Chopin and Cortot

March 1 2010


March 1 2010

Randomly, Busoni, Raindrop Prelude, from a 1923 piano roll.

Chopin was born on February 22 1810 according to his baptismal certificate, but he gave the date as March 1.

Victorian Hellenism 2

March 1 2010

Victorian Hellenism

Victorians and post-Victorians were always talking about vital, stimulating, diverse Europe and static Asia. In the previous post I quoted an opinion that the Victorian view of Hellenistic culture was sometimes coloured by racism.

There was generalised prejudice against Asian Hellenes, no doubt, but what specific culturally-Greek philosophers, artists or institutions in the Hellenistic era were denigrated or not given their due?

The simple passage below is not especially condescending.

Greek culture before this contact with the Middle East had covered a period of about eight centuries. It had developed maritime city states around and in the Aegean. It had spread round the Mediterranean and had begun the process of penetration which Alexander was to carry to its farthest limits. This penetration had been going on for two or three centuries before the critical contact with the Persian Empire. At Marathon and at Salamis the Hellenic world had repulsed this attempt at unity by the Middle East acting westward. Their success on this occasion was the greatest event in the building-up of their national self-consciousness. Then came the failure of their own internal efforts at unity, the Athenian Empire baulked by Sparta in the Peloponnesian war. The catastrophe of 431 B.C. was followed by a century of woe. The internecine struggles of the city states left the way open for the Macedonian conquerors, Philip and Alexander, who put themselves at the head of the Hellenic world. The conquering house then led the Greek advance on its crusade to the Middle East.

What do we know of the Middle East before its contact with Alexander’s advance? and in what state was it prepared to meet it? Our knowledge here, though less intimate, is far more extensive; it reaches from the fourth millennium to the fourth century B.C., i.e. for more than four times as long as our knowledge of the Greek world. And the civilization itself was of much longer date than the Greek. These eastern civilizations had conquered and occupied the great river-basins in the earlier part of their long evolution. This had been accomplished by the beginning of the second millennium B.C. In this phase the Egyptian and the Mesopotamian basins were separate unities. In the second millennium, and for a period of more than a thousand years after, these two unities had come into contact with disastrous shocks. The Assyrian wars were the culmination. The Greeks could look on, tertii gaudentes. In the interval that passed before Alexander’s advance the Persians had succeeded easily in uniting the Middle East, but the Greeks, as yet unable to permeate Asia Minor themselves, resisted the Persian fusion. The Middle East lay torpid, awaiting the Greek expansion as Persia decayed.

Let it be noted that at the time of the Greek expansion under Alexander both the attacking and the attacked were past their zenith. But the Greeks, though they had just experienced their first grave catastrophe in the Peloponnesian war, were still full of energy and initiative. The war had not destroyed the national vigour which produced a Thucydides and a Plato. The training in warfare prepared Philip and Alexander for their work. On the other hand the civilization of the Middle East was passive and inert. It seemed bound to run out to the end of the course set by an earlier initiative, unless deflected by an outside force. It had been rising for two millennia and had then passed through more than one thousand years of catastrophe and conflict. It now lay ready for attack and absorption by the more vigorous Greeks; and Greek civilization was to recover itself by assimilating this fresh material, and to move forward again with renewed strength.

There were many factors in the situation, for and against successful fusion. It was a favourable factor that the oriental had an older religious experience than the Greek. In the East was wisdom born of sorrow. Hebrew prophets had been expressing in the eighth and seventh centuries what Greeks began to feel in the fifth and fourth. This is the source and explanation of that long religious penetration proceeding from the East to Greece, the cults of Cybele and Isis, and the later religion of Mithra and of Hermes. Christianity itself shows abundant traces of the communion of the Greek mind with the East. Another favourable factor was the superiority and vigour of the city state contrasted with the mass society and centralized organization of the Oriental powers. Antioch and the cities founded by Seleucus and his house bear witness to the vitality of this development. They contain the agora, the theatre of the old Greek world, they nourished schools of rhetoric and philosophy which had continued life down to the advent of Islam.

But there were other feelings and forces which made against fusion.

There is a certain natural antipathy between Greek and Oriental, a different outlook, a different rhythm of life. How the Persians felt about one aspect of Greek life was pointedly expressed by Cyrus to the Spartan herald who brought him the warning and defiance from their city. Never yet, he said, did he fear men such as these, who had a place appointed in the midst of their city where they gathered together and deceived one another by false oaths. “These words Cyrus threw out scornfully with reference to the Hellenes in general, because they got for themselves markets and practised buying and selling there; for the Persians themselves are not wont to use markets, nor have they any market place at all” (Herodotus i. 153). The absence of the “agora”, the talking-shop, the Parliament of the West, is a significant mark of the old theocratic order. These free-speaking, free-thinking Greeks had lost most of that old religious prejudice which led the Egyptians (Herodotus ii. 39) to cast into the river the head of their sacrificial beast like a scapegoat with its imprecations. If, we are told, they found a Hellene at hand they would sell it to him and despised him into the bargain. And was not the “Abomination of Desolation spoken of by Daniel the prophet, standing where it ought not”, only an altar of Zeus Ouranios?

But the Greeks also had feelings which made against fusion. They were intensely attached to their ancient homes, and this home-sickness showed itself even in the lives of the most distinguished and successful members of the Seleucid house. Seleucus himself was on his way back from Asia to his old Macedonian home when he met his death by the hand of Ptolemy Ceraunus. Antiochus Epiphanes preferred to build temples at Athens rather than at his own city of Antioch. All through, in fact, Hellenistic politics continued to cluster round the homeland of Greece.

With FS Marvin, Alexander and Hellenism, in The Evolution of World-Peace, Essays Arranged and Edited by F. S. Marvin, OUP, 1921

Najaf vs Qom

March 1 2010