Archive for the 'Greece' Category

Leigh Fermor

June 11 2011

The Man Who Walked: 2008 profile by William Dalrymple.

New York Times.




The Traveller’s Tree – A Journey through the Caribbean Islands 1950

The Violins of Saint-Jacques – A Tale of the Antilles 1953 (novel)

A Time to Keep Silence 1957 (The Abbey of St Wandrille de Fontanelle, From Solesmes to La Grande Trappe, The Rock Monasteries of Cappadocia)

Mani – Travels in the Southern Peloponnese 1958

Roumeli – Travels in Northern Greece 1966

A Time of Gifts – On Foot to Constantinople: From the Hook of Holland to the Middle Danube 1977 (pre-war travels: PLF left England in December 1933 and arrived in Constantinope on January 1 1935)

Foreword in Colonel David Smiley, Albanian Assignment 1984 (the story of the Special Operations Executive in Albania by a brother-in-arms of Leigh Fermor)

Between the Woods and the Water – On Foot to Constantinople: The Middle Danube to the Iron Gates 1986 (a third volume may be published posthumously)

Three Letters from the Andes 1991 (letters to his wife from Peru in 1971)

Artemis Cooper, editor, Words of Mercury 2003 (anthology, including journalism)

Charlotte Mosley, editor, In Tearing Haste: Letters between Deborah Devonshire and Patrick Leigh Fermor 2008

There are some other forewords, and some translations from French and Greek. He wrote the screenplay for John Huston’s The Roots of Heaven 1958.


Dirk Bogarde played PLF in Powell/Pressburger’s Ill Met by Moonlight 1957 (about the SOE’s landing in Crete in 1944).

PLF was a friend of Philip Toynbee, but not, as far as one knows, of his father, despite their common intimate knowledge, not least as walkers, of Greece.

Patrick Leigh Fermor

June 10 2011

The library of a Hungarian count:

“There were any amount of Tauchnitz editions, industriously tunnelled by insects, faded by the last summers of the Habsburg monarchy and redolent of those peaceful times when, apart from the habitual ragged fusillade in the Balkans, scarcely a shot was fired between the battle of Sedan and Sarajevo: Ouida, Mrs. Belloc Lowndes, The Dolly Dialogues, My Friend Prospero, The Cardinal’s Snuffbox, The Indiscretions of Ambrosine, Elizabeth and her German Garden; Maupassant, Gyp, Paul de Kock, Victor Margueritte, early Colette … ”


Between the Woods and the Water – On Foot to Constantinople: The Middle Danube to the Iron Gates (1986).

Telegraph obituary.

Ibsen’s Julian

June 3 2011

Adrian Murdoch on Ibsen’s “world-historic” Emperor and Galilean, his longest play, on now at the National Theatre in London in a new version by Ben Power (adapted and condensed from a literal translation by Anne-Marie Stanton-Ife and Marie Wells and directed by Jonathan Kent).

Julian Seeing Contempt

May 31 2011

“‘Observing, then, that there is great contempt for the gods]
among us’ – he says in his solemn way.
Contempt. But what did he expect?
Let him organize religion as much as he liked,
write to the High Priest of Galatia as much as he liked,
or to others of his kind, inciting them, giving instructions.]
His friends weren’t Christians; that much was certain.
But even so they couldn’t play
as he could (brought up a Christian)
with a new religious system,
ludicrous in both theory and application.
They were, after all, Greeks. Nothing in excess, Augustus.]”


Julian Seeing Contempt, from Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard, translators; George Savidis, editor, CP Cavafy, Collected Poems, revised edition, Princeton University Press, 1992, at

“Nothing in excess” comes from “meden agan”  (μηδεν ἀγαν), an inscription in the temple of Apollo in Delphi.

A Great Procession of Priests and Laymen

Julian in Nicomedia

Julian at the Mysteries

You Didn’t Understand

Vacuous Julian

Vacuous Julian

May 30 2011

“Vacuous Julian had the following to say
about our religious beliefs: ‘I read, I understood
I condemned.’ He thought we’d be annihilated
by that ‘condemned,’ the silly ass.

Witticisms like that don’t cut any ice with us Christians.
Our quick reply: ‘You read but didn’t understand;
had you understood, you wouldn’t have condemned.’”


You Didn’t Understand, from Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard, translators; George Savidis, editor, CP Cavafy, Collected Poems, revised edition, Princeton University Press, 1992, at

A Great Procession of Priests and Laymen

Julian in Nicomedia

Julian at the Mysteries

In the Tavernas

May 29 2011

“I wallow in the tavernas and brothels of Beirut.
I didn’t want to stay
in Alexandria. Tamides left me;
he went off with the Prefect’s son to earn himself
a villa on the Nile, a mansion in the city.
It wouldn’t have been right for me to stay in Alexandria.
I wallow in the tavernas and brothels of Beirut.
I live a vile life, devoted to cheap debauchery.
The one thing that saves me,
like durable beauty, like perfume
that goes on clinging to my flesh, is this: Tamides,
most exquisite of young men, was mine for two years,
and mine not for a house or a villa on the Nile.”


In the Tavernas, from Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard, translators; George Savidis, editor, CP Cavafy, Collected Poems, revised edition, Princeton University Press, 1992, at

East and West

May 27 2011

Though, in all persecutions, there are, no doubt, always many weaker vessels who […] fail to stand the ordeal, the followers of the higher religions have been conspicuous, on the whole, for their steadfastness and courage when put to the test.

The Christian Church was put to this test by the Roman Empire; the Mahāyāna by the Chinese Empire in its avatar in the age of the T’ang Dynasty. Both churches responded by producing martyrs; but the Christians in the Roman Empire seem to have been more steadfast than the Mahayanian Buddhists in China in standing a more severe ordeal; and this apparent preeminence of the Christians in a common heroism is, indeed, what was to be expected. We should expect both the Mahāyāna and Christianity to shine in facing persecution, since the distinguishing mark of the higher religions is, as we have seen, their voluntary acceptance of Suffering as an opportunity for active service. At the same time we should expect the persecution itself to be sharper, and the endurance of it more heroic, in the western than in the eastern half of the Old World because the temper of life in South-West Asia and in the Graeco-Roman Society was more tragic and more intransigent than the temper in either India or China. In appraising both the comparative mildness of the T’ang imperial government and the comparative softness of its Buddhist victims, we must make the allowance for this general difference in psychological climate. It would be unwarrantable to assume that the T’ang régime was more virtuous than the Roman régime was, or that the Buddhist martyrs were less heroic than the Christian martyrs were.

The same difference in temper between the two halves of the Old World comes out in other historical parallels as well. For example, Christianity and Buddhism were, each, expelled from its homeland by a rival younger religion which had derived its inspiration from the older religion that it was opposing and evicting. Christianity was expelled from South-West Asia by Islam; Buddhism was expelled from India by a post-Buddhaic Hinduism whose philosophy bears indelible marks of its Buddhist origin. But the advance of Hinduism at Buddhism’s expense in India in the age of the Gupta Dynasty was accomplished as peacefully as the previous advance of Buddhism at the expense of a pre-Buddhist Indian paganism in the age of the Maurya Emperor Açoka. By contrast with this Indian record, the supplanting of Christianity by Islam in South-West Asia and Egypt in the age of the Arab Caliphate was a story of pressure and penalization – though, by contrast with the treatment of subject Jews and Muslims in Christendom, the treatment of subject “People of the Book” in Dār-al-Islām has been honourably distinguished by its comparative tolerance.

The Chinese nurse

An Historian’s Approach to Religion, OUP, 1956

The East-West Schism

May 19 2011

Stages in a separation.

We can trace the differentiation of Western and Orthodox Christendom into two separate societies in the schism of their common chrysalis, the Catholic Church, into two bodies: the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church. The schism took rather more than three centuries to work itself out, and the final result was the cumulative effect of three crises. The first crisis was the conflict in the eighth century between the Iconoclasts and the Papacy over a matter of ritual – a conflict which immediately followed the successful evocation of the ghost of the Roman Empire in Orthodox Christendom by Leo and immediately preceded the abortive evocation of the same ghost in Western Christendom by Charlemagne. The second crisis was the conflict in the ninth century between the Oecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople and the Papacy over a question of ecclesiastical authority – a conflict which centred ostensibly upon the personality of the Patriarch Photius but fundamentally upon the competition between the Sees of Constantinople and Rome for the ecclesiastical allegiance of South-Eastern Europe. The third crisis was the fresh conflict and final rupture between the two sees in the eleventh century over a question of theological dogma [filioque] – a conflict which was closely connected with the contemporary political struggle in Southern Italy between the East Roman Empire, which was striving to maintain its rule over the local Latins, and the Norman adventurers who had come upon the scene as mercenaries of the East Roman Government and who were carving out a kingdom for themselves in the guise of knights errant for the Holy See.

The final rupture of A.D. 1054, which completed the schism of the Catholic Church into two churches, the Roman and the Orthodox, likewise completed the fission of the social fabric which was growing up within the ecclesiastical chrysalis into the two new societies of Western and Orthodox Christendom; and this simultaneous separation of the two churches and the two societies was accompanied by a differentiation into two utterly different morphological types. The Catholic Church in the West had become centralized under the authority of the Roman See – a Great Power which succeeded in humiliating its only conceivable peer, the Holy Roman Empire, and in retarding for some centuries the articulation of the Western Society into the sharply defined and narrowly self-centred local states of the Modern Age. In the meantime, the Orthodox Church had become a department of state, first in the revived East Roman Empire and then in each of the other states which were brought into the circle of the Orthodox Christian Society by conversion; so that Orthodox Christendom, in the age corresponding to “the Middle Ages” of the West, presented a spectacle which was most unlike medieval Western Christendom but not so unlike the Protestant part of the Modern Western World, where the map of ecclesiastical allegiances conforms to the map of political sovereignties and where people of one faith, instead of being united in the bosom of one church, are divided between a number of local churches which are separate, not because they differ in practice or in creed, but because they are borne upon the establishments of separate sovereign states.

Eighth, ninth, eleventh centuries.

Ottoman people and Orthodox churches

A Study of History, Vol I, OUP, 1934

Chance and necessity

May 12 2011

The Admonitions of a Prophet, written on a papyrus of the Twelfth Dynasty, recalled the First Intermediate Period of Egyptian history when “the land” turned “round as doth a potter’s wheel” (translated in A Erman, The Literature of the Ancient Egyptians, Methuen, 1927).

The dizzy motion of the Egyptiac potter’s wheel, which stands for the acme of disorder in the eyes of an Egyptiac poet whose imagination animates the clay that is helplessly spinning on this wheel’s whirling surface, is at the same time an example, on the mathematical plane of existence, of an orderly cyclic motion, while on the teleological plane it is an obedient instrument for impressing upon the clay the spiritual order that is represented by the potter’s will.

Said one among them: “Surely not in vain
My substance from the common clay was ta’en
And to this figure moulded, to be broke
Or trampled back to shapeless earth again?”

[Footnote: Edward Fitzgerald’s translation of the Rubāʿīyāt of ʿUmar Khayyām, Quatrain lxxxiv.]

In a similar way the disorderly motion of a rudderless ship, which stands in Plato’s eyes for the chaos of a Universe abandoned by God [a footnote refers us to an earlier reference to Plato’s Politicus], can be recognized, by a mind endowed with the necessary knowledge of dynamics and physics, as a perfect illustration of the orderly behaviour of waves and currents in the media of wind and water. [Footnote: It may be added that, in the Politicus, the simile of the ship adrift is one of only two elements that make up, between them, the picture which Plato is painting in the colours of myth. The state in which the Universe drifts at the mercy of Chance alternates, in an endlessly recurrent cycle, with a contrary state in which it is steered by the hand of God according to Plan.] When the Human Soul adrift thus apprehends that the force which is baffling it is not simply a negation of the Soul’s own will or caprice but is a thing in itself – albeit something that the Soul is failing to grasp or control – then the countenance of the unknown invincible goddess changes from a subjective aspect under which she is known as Chance to an objective aspect under which she is known as Necessity – but this without any corresponding change in the essence of this inhuman power’s nature.

A Study of History, Vol V, OUP, 1939

Greeks on the Indian Ocean

May 8 2011

The maritime [trade route to India] was commanded by South Arabian middlemen until the first through-voyage from Egypt to India was made by Eudoxus of Cyzicus circa 120 B.C. [Cyzicus is in Mysia.] Eudoxus’s Greek successors gradually shortened the voyage – ­which in Eudoxus’s day was still made coastwise all the way – by cutting more and more adventurously across the open sea with the aid of the monsoons; and this process of shortening, which began circa 100-80 B.C., was completed circa A.D. 40-50  (i. e. on the eve of the precipitation of the story of Jesus in the Gospels) [the passage is about religious connections between Greece and India], when the Greek navigators of the Indian Ocean ventured at last to sail straight across the open sea from the Somali coast to the southern tip of India, without approaching Arabia at all. As a result of this Greek conquest of the Indian Ocean, pepper was obtainable in abundance at Athens in 88 B.C., and a Buddhist gravestone, erected before the end of the Ptolemaic Age, has been discovered by Sir Flinders Petrie at Alexandria (Tarn, op. cit., [ie Tarn, W. W.: The Greeks in Bactria and India (Cambridge 1938, University Press)], pp. 367-75, superseding eundem: Hellenistic Civilization (London 1927, Arnold), pp. 196-9).

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

Platonic archaism

May 7 2011

Plato was born circa 430 B.C. (i.e. on the morrow of the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War), but he lived on till circa 347 B.C. (i.e. to the eve of the birth of the fourth generation to be born since the catastrophe); and, though, even in his old age, he may still have remained unseared at heart, he never recovered from the shock which he had suffered in his early manhood when the disastrous ending of a twenty-seven-years-long fratricidal war had been followed by the judicial murder of Plato’s master Socrates. One effect of this shock can be observed in the archaistic antedating of the imaginary dates of Plato’s dialogues to the extent of about half a lifetime […].


On the morrow of the breakdown we find Plato representing his fictitious dialogues as taking place, not at the time when the author himself was thinking the thoughts which the dialogues expound, or when he was putting these thoughts into words or setting the words down on paper: every dialogue is deliberately ascribed to some date that is prior to the death of Socrates; and for Plato the judicial murder of Socrates in 399 B.C., rather than the outbreak of the Atheno-Peloponnesian War in 431 B.C., was the symbolic catastrophe which proclaimed the breakdown of the Hellenic Civilization. The dramatis personae are carefully chosen to fit these imaginary dates, and their ages and outlooks are portrayed in conformity with this archaistic regression. [Footnote: “His dialogues are not only a memorial to Socrates, but also to the happier days of his own family. Plato must have felt the events of the end of the fifth century keenly, but he is so careful to avoid anachronisms in these dialogues that no one could ever guess from them that they were written after Kritias and Charmides had met with a dishonoured end” (Burnet, J.: Greek Philosophy: Part I, Thales to Plato (London 1914, Macmillan), pp. 208-9. Cf. pp. 211-13). […]] Since Plato (vivebat circa 430-347 B.C.) himself was born immediately after the outbreak of the fatal war, and was still a young man at the time of the inexpiable judicial murder, the Time-span involved in this Platonic Archaism is not more than half a lifetime. This, however, was only the first move in a game that was to be played, as the centuries passed, with an ever-growing extravagance until, in the Hellenic World of the second century of the Christian Era, we are treated to the spectacle of a new Socrates being commemorated by a new Xenophon, Arrian’s digest of Epictetus’s dissertations is a conscious repetition of Xenophon’s act in writing the Memorabilia; and the Nicomedian public servant of a Roman Imperial Government can never forget that his literary mission is to follow in the footsteps of an Athenian man-at-arms and man-of-letters who was Arrian’s senior by about five hundred years, and whose life had been lived, and Weltanschauung been formed, in utterly different social circumstances.

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

A Study of History, Vol VI, OUP, 1939

A late antique tsunami

March 14 2011

Adrian Murdoch quotes Ammianus Marcellinus’s description of the tsunami which hit Alexandria, the Nile Delta and Libya in AD 365 after an earthquake near Crete.

“Huge ships, thrust out by the mad blasts, perched on the roofs of houses […] at Alexandria.”

The most powerful earthquake ever recorded, off southern Chile on May 22 1960, caused a tsunami which killed 140 people in Japan.

Fishing boat at Ofunato, Iwate prefecture in 1960 (Ofunato was entirely destroyed in the recent Sendai earthquake)

The 1933 Sanriku earthquake, conversely, had been off Iwate prefecture and caused a tsunami which reached Chile.

The recent Sendai earthquake, the most powerful ever recorded in Japan, also caused a tsunami which reached Chile.

Otsuchi, Iwate prefecture in 2011

Wikipedia on the 365 tsunami: “The sophist Libanius and the church historian Sozomenus appear to present it as either divine sorrow or wrath – depending on their viewpoint – for the death of emperor Julian.”

Wikipedia list of historical tsunamis.


March 6 2011

“The unpurged images of day recede;
The Emperor’s drunken soldiery are abed;
Night resonance recedes, night walkers’ song
After great cathedral gong;
A starlit or a moonlit dome disdains
All that man is,
All mere complexities,
The fury and the mire of human veins.”


Yeats, from Byzantium.

Julian at the Mysteries

March 5 2011

“But when he found himself in darkness,
in the earth’s dreadful depths,
accompanied by unholy Greeks,
and bodiless figures appeared before him
with haloes and bright lights,
the young Julian momentarily lost his nerve:
an impulse from his pious years came back
and he crossed himself.
The Figures vanished at once;
the haloes faded away, the lights went out.
The Greeks exchanged glances.
The young man said: ‘Did you see the miracle?
Dear companions, I’m frightened.
I’m frightened, friends. I want to leave.
Didn’t you see how the demons vanished
the second they saw me make
the holy sign of the cross?’
The Greeks chuckled scornfully:
‘Shame on you, shame, to talk that way
to us sophists and philosophers!
If you want to say things like that,
say them to the Bishop of Nicomedia
and his priests.
The greatest gods of our glorious Greece
appeared before you.
And if they left, don’t think for a minute
that they were frightened by a gesture.
It was just that when they saw you
making that vile, that crude sign,
their noble nature was disgusted
and they left you in contempt.’
This is what they said to him,
and the fool recovered from
his holy, blessed fear, convinced
by the unholy words of the Greeks.”


Julian at the Mysteries, from Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard, translators; George Savidis, editor, CP Cavafy, Collected Poems, revised edition, Princeton University Press, 1992, at

That website has an essay by GW Bowersock, The Julian Poems of C.P. Cavafy, from Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies, 7, 1981. Bowersock tells us that there are twelve Cavafy poems – published, withheld, finished, unfinished – about Julian. I blogged two of them before this post, which are finished: Μεγάλη συνοδεία εξ ιερέων και λαϊκών/A Great Procession of Priests and Laymen and Ο Ιουλιανός εν Νικομηδεία/Julian in Nicomedia.

A Great Procession and Julian at the Mysteries are the two Julian poems known to be early, from the 1890s. A Great Procession appears to have been rewritten in 1917. All the others were written between 1920 and 1933, though Bowersock speculates that Julian in Nicomedia may have dated from the ’90s too.

Five of the twelve were published during Cavafy’s lifetime, including A Great Procession and Julian in Nicomedia, but not Julian at the Mysteries.

“It has long been clear from the previously published poems that Cavafy did not much care for Julian. He shared none of the late romantic admiration for the last of the pagan rulers. Cavafy appears to have been obsessed with removing the glamour and exposing the fraud of this hero of latter-day pagans.”

Toynbee (who played a minor role in the introduction of Cavafy to Bloomsbury circles in the ’20s):

Julian’s state-supported pagan establishment collapsed in a trice at the news of the death of its Imperial architect and patron; and thereafter nothing remained of Iamblichus’s grandiose dream save a pathetically futile coterie of cranks.

Julian at the Mysteries, an early poem, from November 1896, was written at the time in which Cavafy was engaged in his critical reading of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall. Bowersock:

“The episode of Julian’s making the sign of the cross when he encountered demons in an underground cavern occurs in Gregory of Nazianzus, whose original text was in all probability familiar to Cavafy. But it was Gibbon [in chapter 23 of the Decline and Fall] who inferred from Gregory that Julian was at Eleusis: ‘He [Julian] [brackets in original] obtained the privilege of a solemn initiation into the mysteries of Eleusis … .’ Hence the [original] title O Iουλιανός εν Eλευσίνι. With the indisputable evidence we now have of Cavafy’s study of Allard in regard to the massacre of Julian’s family, it becomes almost certain that his study of the same author led to his alteration of the title of his earliest Julian poem. Allard argued at length against the supposition that Julian was initiated into the Eleusinian Mysteries: ‘Les historiens modernes disent presque tous que Julien fut alors initié aux mystères d’Éleusis. Cela ne résulte pas clairement du texte d’Eunape … . Il me semble difficile que Julien ait Allard été initié … . Nulle part il [Julien] [brackets in original] ne laisse entendre qu’il ait reçu l’initiation d’Eleusis … .’ Hence a new title for an old poem.”

Bowersock tells us that Cavafy had a copy of Gregory of Nazianzus in the 1890s, but not later, and that, according to Cavafy, two unspecified poems remained incomplete because he did not have Gregory to hand for checking (he gives us only a secondary source for this statement). He seems to suggest that one of them was Julian at the Mysteries – but that does not seem (and is not classified as) incomplete.

He furthermore speculates that Julian at Nicomedia, although published in 1924, was written in the 1890s, since it depends in part on Gregory. But then why wasn’t Julian at the Mysteries published? Why isn’t Bowersock clearer on this?

“It is with Tα επικίνδυνα, published in November 1911, that Cavafy publicly declared himself a sensualist. Although the poem is not yet explicitly homosexual as later poems were to be, it is nonetheless a striking departure for Cavafy. It is especially notable for the conjunction of his historical interests with his advocacy of sensuality. The speaker is a young Syrian in the reign of Constans and Constantius, therefore precisely between A.D. 340 and 350, the years of Julian’s adolescence. These were the years in which Julian was raised a Christian and became a pagan […]. The young Syrian of this epoch is described as partly pagan and partly christianized: εν μέρει εθνικός, κ’ εν μέρει χριστιανίζων. He proclaims that he will not fear his passions, he will satisfy his most daring erotic proclivities. He repeats that he will not be afraid because he is confident that if he is called upon to be ascetic he will have the power to be so. The appearance of this poem [marks] a new stage in Cavafy’s life and oeuvre. He is moving, with the help of historical analogues, toward a reconciliation of his sexuality and his Christianity. The Syrian in Tα επικίνδυνα was partly Christian but still sensual, just as the Christian Myris in a poem of 1929 set in Alexandria of the year A.D. 340 had rejoiced in the love of a pagan. Inevitably Cavafy would have asked himself what impact Julian would have had on the Greek world of that Syrian youth or of Myris’ lover. This was a world in which pagans and Christians could associate easily with one another in unhindered pursuit of the sensual life. It was the avowed aim of Julian, the ascetic pagan, to put an end to all that.”

“Permissive Christianity, then, appears to be the fundamental interest of Cavafy in handling the various Julian episodes. To be a Christian did not preclude being a pagan in the old sense, like the young Syrian in Tα επικίνδυνα, nor did it preclude a romance with a pagan like Myris’ lover. In Antioch Cavafy found the resolution of the problem he began to solve in 1911 when he started to make his erotic verse public. It was no accident that the historical and sensual categories of his oeuvre tended to merge at times, as the writer of May 1927 observed [he has earlier described him as “the poet or a sympathetic associate”, but does not give a proper reference]; for Cavafy was able to interpret his own eroticism in terms of historical examples that preserved for him what he probably found more important than anything else: his Christianity and his consciousness of being Greek. In the Julian poems he struggled for historical accuracy because it was clearly imperative for him to know that there really had been a world that could accommodate a sensualist, both Christian and Greek.”

Whence the backdrop? Is it Chinese? It looks too heavy to be silk. From

A Study of History, Vol V, OUP, 1939

Julian in Nicomedia

March 4 2011

“Things impolitic and dangerous:
praise for Greek ideals,
supernatural magic, visits to pagan temples.
Enthusiasm for the ancient gods.
Frequent talks with Chrysanthios.
Speculation with Maximus, the astute philosopher.
And look what’s happened. Gallos is extremely worried.
Konstantios has become suspicious.
Julian’s advisors weren’t at all prudent.
The matter, says Mardonios, has gone too far,
the talk it has aroused must be stopped at all cost. —
So Julian goes to the church at Nicomedia,
a lector again, and there
with deep reverence he reads out loud
passages from the Holy Scriptures,
and everyone marvels at his Christian piety.”


Julian in Nicomedia, from Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard, translators; George Savidis, editor, CP Cavafy, Collected Poems, revised edition, Princeton University Press, 1992, at

Chrysanthius and Maximus were neoplatonist philosophers. Gallus was Julian’s half-brother; Constantius II was Julian’s cousin and predecessor as Emperor and finally co-Emperor with him before Julian succeeded outright. Mardonius, a Gothic eunuch, was Julian’s tutor in Nicomedia.

Constantius II, bust from Syria, Museum of Archaeology, University of Pennsylvania; Wikimedia Commons

Oecumenical empires

March 3 2011

After an oecumenical empire has gone into decline to the point of becoming practically impotent, its fainéant emperors still continue for generations and centuries to be the indispensable founts of legitimization for the usurpers who have carved out successor-states at their expense. An act of investiture at the hands of the legitimate emperor is required in order to secure the subjects’ acquiescence in the usurper’s rule; and this apparent formality is a matter of such practical importance that the most hard-headed usurpers take the greatest pains to obtain it, and make the greatest parade of it thereafter. An Odovacer, a Theodoric, and a Clovis ruled stolen western provinces of the Roman Empire as vicegerents of the Roman Imperial Government surviving at Constantinople; the Hindu Marāthās and the Christian British East India Company ruled in India as vicegerents of fainéant Muslim “Great Moguls” at Delhi; and most of the Christian successor-states of the Ottoman Empire were content to start life as autonomous principalities under the Padishah’s suzerainty before venturing to claim sovereign independence for themselves.

Moreover, even after a moribund oecumenical empire has at last received its long delayed coup de grâce, there may be attempts, and even repeated attempts, to resuscitate it. Classical examples of such renaissances are the resuscitation of the Ts’in and Han Empire in China by the Sui and T’ang dynasties; the resuscitation of the Roman Empire in Orthodox Christendom, first as the Byzantine Empire and then as “Moscow the Third Rome”; the three avatars of the Roman Empire in Western Christendom that were conjured up successively by Charlemagne, by Otto I, and by the Hapsburgs; and the Ottoman Empire’s attempt, from the end of the eighteenth century of the Christian Era onwards, to revive its drooping prestige by posing as an avatar of the Arab Caliphate.

An oecumenical empire’s hold over its worshippers’ hearts is […] both strong and well deserved; and yet even an oecumenical empire is an unsatisfying object of worship, whether it offers itself for adoration in an institution or in a person. The institutional representation of the idol will be too remote, impersonal, and aloof to win sufficient affection, while the personal incarnation of it will be too familiar and unworthy to inspire sufficient respect.

The impersonalness of an oecumenical empire as an institution makes itself felt in the remoteness of its metropolis from the daily life of the great majority of its subjects. Now that Rome’s citizens are deployed as far afield as Cadiz, Bayrut, and Cologne, and now that Rome has no need to call them to arms for her defence against neighbouring rival Powers, Dea Roma can no longer inspire, even in their hearts, the same love and devotion as when every Roman citizen lived and worked within a day’s march of the Capitol and might be called upon, in any campaigning season, to fight for Rome against Clusium or Samnium. A fortiori, a subject of the Roman Empire who is a citizen of Sparta or Athens, or some other once sovereign independent city-state of glorious as well as shameful memory, will not be able to worship Dea Roma with anything like the conviction and enthusiasm with which he has once worshipped Athana [or Athena] Chalcioecus [in Sparta] or Athene Polias [in, inter alia, Athens, Argos, Sparta, Gortyn, Lindos, Larisa]. The thrill which he then felt can be recaptured by a Modern Western pilgrim when he stands on the acropolis of Athens at the spot where Pheidias’ statue of the Attic Athene once stood, and stares at the peak of Aegina and the pinnacle of Acrocorinthus a stone’s throw away, just across the Saronic Gulf. As he gazes, the figures of a Corinthian Poseidon and an Aeginetan Athana Aphaia rise up, before his inward eye, to bid defiance to the queen of Athens. The parochial goddess was a very present help against her rival over there, before Dea Roma’s long arm put them both down from their seats. Dea Roma, the ubiquitous policewoman, cannot mean anything like as much as this to her Athenian clients, even when they have eventually been granted Roman citizenship, or even when the value of Rome’s service to their Hellenic Civilization has been brought home to them in the third century of the Christian Era by a recurrence of the danger of social collapse.

An Historian’s Approach to Religion, OUP, 1956

Alexander, Gama, Columbus

February 26 2011

Objectively, Alexander’s march from the Hellespont to the Hydaspes [Jhelum River in the Punjab] is comparable in scale with da Gama’s voyage from Lisbon to India and with Columbus’s from Palos [Andalusia] to the New World; subjectively, the post-Alexandrine Hellenes took the reception of an Attic version of Hellenism in Macedonia, and the Atticized Macedonians’ conquest of the Achaemenian Empire, as marking the beginning of a new era in Hellenic history as definitely as the Western peoples of the Atlantic seaboard of Europe felt their own Modern Age to be marked off from its “medieval” predecessor by their reception of Italian culture and their conquest of the Ocean […].

It’s either Gama or Vasco da Gama in Portuguese, and should be in English. The Spanish composer referred to by his surname only is Falla, not de Falla. In German it’s Humboldt, not von Humboldt. The rules in French are here, Italian here.

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

The pull of the east

February 14 2011

At the turn of the third and fourth centuries of the Christian Era the transfer of the principal capital of the Roman Empire from Rome to Constantinople or to some maritime city in that neighbourhood was, in fact, inevitable. But it is remarkable to find evidence that, more than three hundred years earlier, when Rome was towering at the zenith of her power under the auspices of Julius Caesar and Augustus, the Romans were already anxiously foreboding a shift in the seat of the imperial government, and were expecting that the Roman dictator with whom the decision of Rome’s destinies now lay would choose his new site in that very region – on or near the shores of the waterway between the Aegean and the Black Sea – which did in fact eventually attract the choice of Diocletian and Constantine.

One of the causes of the unpopularity that gave Julius Caesar’s enemies at Rome their opportunity for compassing his death was said to have been a rumour that he was proposing “to migrate to Alexandria [Troas] [brackets in original] or Ilium and at the same time to transfer thither the empire’s resources after exhausting Italy by levies of man-power and leaving friends of his own as his agents for administering the city of Rome”. [Footnote: Or “the cities of Italy” if the correct reading is not “Urbis” but “urbium”. This passage occurs in Suetonius Tranquillus, C.: The Lives of the Caesars, “Divus Iulius”, chap. 79.] This anecdote might have been discounted as an echo of a malicious propaganda campaign were it not for a revelation of the same anxiety in a celebrated passage in one of Horace’s odes. [Footnote: Horace: Carmina, Book III, Ode iii, ll. 57-72.] The Augustan poet must have written these lines not many years after the Battle of Actium had disposed of the Egyptian Alexandria’s attempt to challenge, with Roman arms, Rome’s title to be the imperial capital of a politically unified Hellenic World. At that moment Rome stood in solitary omnipotence without any rival to dispute her primacy; and Augustus, who had at last succeeded in winning the support of a consensus Italiae by defeating Mark Antony’s attempt to transfer the seat of government of the Mediterranean World to the Levant, could not readily be suspected, without substantial evidence, of planning to make on his own initiative a move which had proved a fatal false step for his rival and a damaging insinuation against his predecessor. One of the fundamental principles of Augustus’s policy was to steer clear of his adoptive father’s fate by eschewing provocatively revolutionary acts and pursuing Caesarean aims by Fabian tactics. Yet it is plain that Horace, writing when and as he did, believed a transfer of the capital of the Roman Empire from Rome to some site on the Asiatic shore of the Hellespont to be both a serious possibility and a dangerous subject. Horace tactfully misrepresents a cold-blooded “geopolitical” calculation as a pious tribute to the legendary derivation of Rome from Troy, and, after cautiously expressing his disapproval in the form of a mythological conceit, he precipitately breaks off with an apology for trespassing on high matters of state in a mere poet’s jeu d’esprit.

In the political geography of the Roman Empire, Troy or Alexandria Troas were the equivalents in Augustus’s day of Nicomedia or Byzantium in Diocletian’s and Constantine’s; and the whimsical prophecy, put by Horace into the goddess Juno’s mouth, that, if Troy were to be refounded by the Romans, she would infallibly be recaptured by the Greeks, did in fact come true of Byzantium after her refoundation as a New Rome by Constantine. Though the Latin-speaking Dardanian founder of Constantinople and his successors down to his Latin-speaking fellow countryman Justinian were resolved to make and keep their new Rome a Latin-speaking city, the Greek language had captured the New Rome by the close of the sixth century of the Christian Era, as it had captured the Old Rome in Juvenal’s time, some four hundred years earlier; and at Constantinople, with its Greek-speaking hinterland, the Latin language had no chance of repeating the victorious counter-attack by which at Rome it eventually overwhelmed what had never been more than a Greek-speaking enclave in an elsewhere Latin-speaking Italy.

He has said that Rome was a predominantly Greek-speaking city in the generation of Juvenal and for some time afterwards. Was this true even among uneducated people?

“Elsewhere Latin-speaking Italy”: surely that did not include the south.

A Study of History, Vol VII, OUP, 1954

Roman Europe to Roman Asia

February 13 2011

Before the addition to the Roman Empire of [Gallia Comata and the Danubian provinces], the main route from the European to the Asiatic territories of the Empire had run from Rome via the Via Appia to Brundisium, had crossed the mouth of the Adriatic by a sea-passage to Dyrrhachium or Apollonia, and had then followed the Via Egnatia, via Thessalonica and Lysimacheia, to the Hellespont [Dardanelles]. By Diocletian’s day the corresponding main route had come to be an unbroken overland highway running from Lyons via Milan and Aquileia (or even north of the Alps, from Trier via Augsburg and Vienna) to Belgrade, and thence south-eastwards, up the valley of the Morava and down the valley of the Maritsa, to the Bosphorus. As late as the year A.D. 360, when the Rhine-Danube limes had long since been submerged and when Swabia was in the hands of the independent and aggressive barbarian confederacy of the Alemanni, the Emperor Julian took the route north of the Alps in his march upon Constantinople from Northern Gaul. Yet, although by Constantine’s day the Bosphorus had thus supplanted the Hellespont in the role of affording the most convenient passage across the narrow seas between Roman Europe and Roman Asia, Constantine is said to have started to build his new imperial capital on a site commanding the Asiatic shore of the Hellespont, at a point between Alexandria Troas and Ilium [south of the Dardanelles], before arriving at his eventual decision in favour of a site commanding the European shore of the Bosphorus (see Zosimus: Historiae, Book II, chap. xxx, §§ 2-3).

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

Priest at the Serapeion

January 11 2011

“My kind old father
whose love for me has always stayed the same –
I mourn my kind old father
who died two days ago, just before dawn.

Christ Jesus, I try each day
in my every thought, word, and deed
to keep the commandments
of your most holy Church; and I abhor
all who deny you. But now I mourn:
I grieve, O Christ, for my father
even though he was – terrible as it is to say it –
priest at that cursed Serapeion.”


Priest at the Serapeion, from Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard, translators; George Savidis, editor, CP Cavafy, Collected Poems, revised edition, Princeton University Press, 1992, at

Serapis was invented during the third century BC by Ptolemy I and was a version of the Egyptian god Osiris-Apis. He was shown as Greek with Egyptian trappings and combined iconography from various cults to do with abundance and resurrection. His worship was not confined to Egypt. There is a Serapeum at Hadrian’s Villa. The poem refers to the Serapeion in Alexandria, which was destroyed by a mob led by the Patriarch Theophilus in 389. The official abolition of paganism by Theodosius followed in 391.

As often with Cavafy, there is an extra force in the final line.

Serapeion: Myris: Alexandria, A.D. 340

Ptolemy I failed, like Ikhnaton before him, to make an artificial religion produce the result that was his objective. This Macedonian Greek founder of an Egyptian successor-state of the Achaemenian Empire wanted to create a bond of feeling between the intrusive Greek and the indigenous Egyptian element in the population of his usurped dominions. [Footnote: This is the motive for the establishment of the cult of Osiris that has been attributed to Ptolemy by most Modern Western students of his policy, but there are some dissentient opinions (see Nilsson, M.P., Geschichte der Griechischen Religion, vol. ii (Munich 1950, Beck), p. 148).] He sought to achieve this politically desirable effect by Hellenizing the Egyptian god Osiris-Apis, in whose temple at Memphis, the ancient national capital of Egypt, the successive bull-incarnations of Apis were buried. This Memphite Egyptian god was given a new temple in Rhacôtis, the Egyptian quarter of Ptolemy’s new Greek capital Alexandria, and here he was installed under the name Serapis, in a Hellenized visual form in which he would be an acceptable object of worship for Greeks both in Ptolemy’s dominions and beyond them. Since, by Ptolemy’s day, the Greeks were beginning to be addicted to the religiosity to which the Egyptians had long since succumbed, this new Hellenic version of an old Egyptian cult did duly strike root. But, if this successful religious innovation of Ptolemy’s was really inspired by the ulterior political purpose of promoting a rapprochement between Greeks and Egyptians, then his policy was a failure. The old Egyptian cult of a Memphite Osiris-Apis and the new Greek cult of an Alexandrian Serapis lived on side by side for centuries without ever coalescing; so that the naturalization of an Egyptian god in the Hellenic World did nothing to bring together this common god’s respective Greek and Egyptian worshippers.

The Serapeion at Pozzuoli, near Naples (Naples was mainly Greek-speaking)

An Historian’s Approach to Religion, OUP, 1956

Robert Markus

January 10 2011

Historian of late antiquity. Guardian.

The flowers of Africa

The inheritors of the Ottoman Empire

November 24 2010

Though the discomfiture by British arms of a moribund Mughal Empire’s local viceroy in Bengal might do little to upset Islamic complacency, and might be regarded in the West mainly as an incident in a struggle over India between Great Britain and France, the defeat of the Ottoman Empire by Russia in the Great Russo-Turkish War of A.D. 1768-74 was taken everywhere as a portent; and, when in A.D. 1798 the French descended upon the Ottoman dominion of Egypt, and overcame all resistance there with ease, as a step towards reopening in India a contest with their British rivals which had been decided there against France in the Seven Years’ War, even shrewd observers took it for granted that they would live to see the Ottoman Empire partitioned between France, Russia, Great Britain, and the Danubian Hapsburg Monarchy. Yet this expectation, natural though it was at the time, was not fulfilled in the event; for the only parts of the Ottoman Empire, within its frontiers of A.D. 1768, which were in the possession of any of those foreign Powers in A.D. 1952 were the territories adjoining the north and east coasts of the Black Sea, from Bessarabia to Batum inclusive, which had fallen to Russia; Cyprus, which had fallen to Great Britain; and Tunisia and Algeria, which had fallen to France. As for the Danubian Hapsburg Monarchy, which had held Bosnia-Herzegovina from A.D. 1878 to A.D. 1918 and the sanjāq of Novipazār from A.D. 1879 to A.D. 1908, she had voluntarily evacuated Novipazār and had lost Bosnia-Herzegovina in the act of losing her own existence. [Footnote: The occupation of Bosnia-Herzegovina in and after A.D. 1878, and annexation of this occupied Ottoman territory in A.D. 1908, had, indeed, been nails driven into the Hapsburg Monarchy’s coffin by its own statesmen’s hands, since these Hapsburg acts of aggression against a moribund Ottoman Empire had had the effect of bringing the Monarchy into a head-on collision with a youthful Serb nationalism.] The lion’s share of the Ottoman Empire of A.D. 1768, from Bosnia to the Yaman and from Tripolitania [footnote: A “Libya” consisting of Cyrenaica, Tripolitania, and Fazzān, which had been conquered from the Ottoman Empire by Italy in A.D. 1911-12, and from Italy by Great Britain in the general war of A.D. 1939-45, had attained independence on the 24th December, 1951.] to Moldavia inclusive, had passed into the hands, not of alien Great Powers, but of Orthodox Christian and Muslim successor-states, of which the largest in area – apart from a mostly arid Sa‘ūdī Arabia – was a Turkish Republic stretching from Adrianople to Mount Ararat.

A Study of History, Vol VIII, OUP, 1954


November 23 2010

The sublimity of Leonidas’ and his three hundred fellow Lacedaemonians’ personal self-sacrifice in their forlorn hope at Thermopylae in 480 B.C. was more than offset, in Sparta’s moral account with Hellas, by the political selfishness and strategic fatuousness of the Lacedaemonian Government’s contemporary public policy. A Power which in the crisis of 490 B.C., had ignominiously failed to put in an appearance on the battlefield of Marathon until after the Achaemenian expeditionary force had been repulsed by the Athenians and Plataeans single-handed, ran true to form in the greater crisis of 480 B.C., when Sparta refused to stake the whole of her magnificent infantry on trying to hold the pass of Tempe, or even the pass of Thermopylae, in concert with Athens’ magnificent navy. The example shown to Hellas at Thermopylae by Leonidas and his token force was the soldiers’ deed and not their Government’s. While Leonidas and his companions were sacrificing their lives, the Lacedaemonian Government’s one idea was to look after the parochial interests of Laconia and her Peloponnesian neighbours by fortifying the Isthmus of Corinth; and, in compromising their country’s honour by staking her existence on this poor-spirited plan, they do not appear to have reflected that, in thus abandoning Attica as well as the central and northern sections of Continental European Greece, they were virtually inviting the Athenians to capitulate to the invader and were thereby doing their worst to deprive themselves of the assistance of the Athenian Navy, without which the Peloponnese would have been indefensible. If, after the Persians’ break-through at Thermopylae, the Athenians had shown the same uninspired common sense as was shown by the Thebans, the Athenian Navy would either have gone out of action or would have changed sides, and in either of these events the Peloponnesians’ Isthmian wall would have been outflanked by the naval operations of an irresistibly superior enemy sea-power without any need for the land-troops of the Achaemenian expeditionary force to attempt to storm the Isthmus by a frontal attack. The situation was saved for the Peloponnese, as well as for Hellas as a whole, by the Athenians’ decision, in this supreme emergency, to emulate the heroism of a Spartan Leonidas whose own Government had failed to catch the hero’s inspiration. By summoning up the fortitude to keep the sea after the enemy’s occupation of their country and devastation of their city, the Athenians won for Hellas her decisive naval victory at Salamis.

Even after Athens had thus saved the Peloponnese at Salamis in 480 B.C., the Lacedaemonian Government managed nevertheless to come within an ace of losing the war for Hellas after all in 479 B.C. by threatening to “miss the bus” for Plataea as they had previously “missed the bus” for Marathon; and, in the event, the Hellenic victory at Plataea, like the Hellenic feat of arms at Thermopylae, was a soldiers’ battle and not an achievement of generalship or statesmanship, as far as the Lacedaemonians were concerned. Moreover, the Lacedaemonian soldier’s magnificent faithfulness to his traditional standards of military honour and prowess was offset after the Battle of Plataea, once again, by disgraceful conduct in high places. The Lacedaemonian Government’s cowardice after Thermopylae was eclipsed after Plataea by the treachery of the Lacedaemonian commander under whose official auspices the victory had been won. When it came, in the next phase of the war, to carrying the hostilities into Achaemenian territory for the purpose of liberating those Hellenic communities that had been under Achaemenian rule before 480 B.C., the Spartan Regent Pausanias demonstrated his own imperviousness to the inspiration of his uncle King Leonidas by surrendering unconditionally to the temptation of allowing himself to be dazzled by a signally defeated Achaemenian Imperial Majesty’s tinsel sheen of pomp and circumstance. In the act of disgracing himself by losing his head and becoming a renegade, Pausanias lost for his country the leadership in the war for the liberation of the Asiatic Hellenes from an Achaemenian yoke.

Typical Victorian language! The contrast between good soldiers and blinkered generals may have had a contemporary resonance. Pausanias was a traitor.

Melvyn Bragg’s 2004 discussion (45 minutes) with Tom Holland, author of Persian Fire; Simon Goldhill, Professor of Greek Literature and Culture, King’s College, Cambridge; and Edith Hall, Leverhulme Professor of Greek Cultural History, University of Durham and author of Inventing the Barbarian: Greek Self-Definition through Tragedy.

Themistocles (Wikipedia).

David, Leonidas at Thermopylae (1814), Louvre

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

Sculptor of Tyana

November 13 2010

“As you’ll have heard, I’m no beginner.
I’ve handled a lot of stone in my time,
and in my own country, Tyana, I’m pretty well known.
Actually, senators here have also commissioned
a number of statues from me.

Let me show you
a few of them. Notice this Rhea:
reverential, all fortitude, very old.
Notice Pompey. And Marius here,
and Paulus Aemilius, and Scipio Africanus.
The likeness as close as I could make it.
And Patroklos (I still have to touch him up a bit).
Near those pieces of yellowish marble there
stands Kaisarion.

And for some time now I’ve been busy
working on a Poseidon. I’m studying
his horses in particular: how to shape them exactly.
They have to be made so light
that it’s clear their bodies, their legs,
are not touching the earth but galloping over water.

But here’s my favorite work,
wrought with the utmost care and feeling.
This one – it was a summer day, very hot,
and my mind rose to ideal things –
this one came to me in a vision, this young Hermes.”


Sculptor of Tyana, from Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard, translators; George Savidis, editor, CP Cavafy, Collected Poems, revised edition, Princeton University Press, 1992, at

Line 6 is indented in the original and the translation. Tyana is in Cappadocia.

The Paropanisadae

November 2 2010

Maps of Central Asia

Transoxiana and Bactria

The Old World’s eastern roundabout

The Paropanisus or Paropamisus range is a name for the western Hindu Kush. Paropanisadae or Paropamisadae can refer both to the region and its inhabitants.

I was standing on a terrace at Istâlif [about 18 miles northwest of Kabul], looking out northeastwards over the Koh-i-Daman plain. The northern horizon was barred by the snow-crowned wall of the Hindu Kush – not quite so lofty here, perhaps, as farther east above Nuristan [Afghan province in the southern Hindu Kush bordering Pakistan], yet lofty enough to be an obstacle even for an eagle, if the range’s ancient name is something more than a poetic hyperbole. The graecised version of this ancient name is Paropanisus, and the original word is said to mean, in the Iranian language of the Avesta [ancient Zoroastrian texts], a mountain loftier than the ceiling of even an eagle’s flight. There it now was, the Paropanisus, barring the horizon from east to west. And down here, in the middle distance, this isolated miniature mountain, rising abruptly out of the Koh-i-Daman plain, gives me the bearings of the invisible point where the Ghorband and Panjshir rivers meet. Either river leads up to [flows down from] a pass, practicable for men and donkeys, over the eagle-baffling Paropanisus. So the point where the two rivers meet was always supremely important until the recent rise to prominence of the city of Kabul deflected the lines of communication from their natural courses.

For at least fourteen hundred years running from the sixth century B.C., the strategic and political centre of this part of the world was not Kabul; it was a pair of cities bestriding the confluence of the Ghorband and Panjshir rivers just to the north-west of that miniature mountain down there in the plain. Darius calls this pair of cities Kapisha-Kanish. Today, the deserted site is known as Begrám [or Bagram, about 40 miles north of Kabul; the Greeks called it Alexandria of the Caucasus, ie of the Hindu Kush]. The double city attained its political zenith in the first and second centuries of the Christian Era, when it was one of the capitals of an empire stretching from the Oxus to the Jumna. The builders of this empire were the Kushans, ex-nomadic immigrants from Central Asia. Under the aegis of the Kushan Empire, Buddhism made its passage of the Paropanisus in the course of its long roundabout trek from India through Central Asia to China. But the imperial Kushans were heirs of imperial Greeks. And, as I stood on that terrace at Istâlif and feasted my eyes on that magnificent landscape of plain and mountain, my mind was running on the exploits of Alexander and Demetrius and Hermaeus [one of the last Greek rulers in the Paropamisadae].

When the Greeks reached the land of the Paropanisadae after crossing South-West Asia from the Dardanelles, they felt at home again here for the first time. This mountain-girt plain reminded them of their own Eordaea or Thessaly, and the vineyards convinced them that their own god Dionysus must have forestalled Alexander’s conquests. This land of the Paropanisadae must be Dionysus’s legendary land of Nysa. The god had made it his own; and his latter-day Greek worshippers joyfully took their cue from him. Alexander planted a Greek colony at Begrám, and, in the first century of the Christian Era, a Greek prince, Hermaeus, was still ruling here after Greek rule had evaporated everywhere else. Hermaeus is said to have fraternised with the Kushans from the other side of the mountain-wall. No doubt, his power was a puny one compared to theirs. But he did still hold the key to the passage from Central Asia to India, so his good will still had an appreciable value for his Kushan heirs. The Kushans, like the Romans, were Philhellenes; and on the banks of the Jumna and the Oxus, as well as round the shores of the Mediterranean, Greek culture, fostered by a non-Greek but Philhellene regime, long survived the extinction of Greek rule.

No one now believes that Hermaeus lived in the first century CE. He died c 80-70 BC.

Musing on the terrace at Istâlif, I thought of Alexander crossing the Hindu Kush from the Koh-i-Daman plain to invade Bactria from the south. I thought of Demetrius, the later Greek king of Bactria, crossing the same mountain-wall from north to south, a century and a half later, on his way to invade India. Demetrius and his successors carried Greek arms and Greek coinages into India farther afield, and with more lasting effects, than Alexander in his ephemeral raid into the western fringe of the huge Sub-continent. The lovely coins of the Bactrian Greek conquerors of India and the Hellenising art of the Bactrian Greeks’ Kushan successors testify to the vitality of Greek culture in this far-away land of the Paropanisadae and in the still more remote land of Gandhara, where the Kabul River loses itself in the mightier Indus. For fifty years past, I had been studying this chapter of the World’s history in books and on maps. Here, at Istâlif, I had been able to take it all in at a glance; and that one glance had told me more than my fifty-years’ book-work had. has images which might remind you of the Greek landscape.

Bagram relief, c 100 AD, National Museum of Afghanistan, Kabul

There is something oddly Indian in this image of the rear of the V&A’s plaster copy of Donatello’s David, the first freestanding nude sculpture made in the West since antiquity. (What a revolutionary work, for a man born in the fourteenth century.) The buttocks remind one of Indian sculpted breasts. The akimbo arm, tilting hips, legs look Indian. Of course there was no Indian influence on Italian sculpture, but a Greco-Buddhist art was exported to China and beyond. Is it stretching things too far to imagine a Hellenic influence on a non-Greco-Buddhist “Hindu” sculpture?

Between Oxus and Jumna, OUP, 1961

Then and now

August 1 2010

The revelation of Thucydides

I expected to be a Greek and Roman historian spending all my time and energy on Greek and Roman history. My first job was at Oxford where I was a so-called ancient history don – and I started by absorbing as much knowledge of my subject as I could. And when I had taken my degree I began to absorb what I hadn’t studied as an undergraduate. I was teaching Greek and Roman history when the First World War broke out and it suddenly struck me, teaching people from Thucydides, that Thucydides had already anticipated our experiences, namely the outbreak of a great war, which he immediately saw as a turning point in the history of his civilization. We were just coming to that point, which meant that although Thucydides was centuries back in chronological time, measured by the experience of human affairs and destiny he had already experienced what I was just reaching, and this made me see that one could put Greek and Roman history side by side with modern Western history and compare them right outside the chronological framework. This rather sudden flash of insight made me realize that I must organize my study of history – not just amass more and more shapeless information – and that I must organize it on comparative lines. Next, I found that comparing Greek and Roman history with only modern Western history wouldn’t do – I must compare all the histories of all civilizations and obtain enough information about each of them to make a reasonable comparative study of the gamut of them. The patterns and regularities which you find in my Study emerged empirically from these comparisons.

A pose of empiricism

Toynbee on Toynbee, A Conversation between Arnold J Toynbee and GR Urban, New York, OUP, 1974

Recorded for the 1972-73 programmes of Radio Free Europe.

Frankish tortoise, Visigothic and Arab hares

July 22 2010

The organized and purposeful military campaigns of the Muslim Arabs were very different from the half automatic and barely conscious pressure of their ancestors against the yielding desert-frontier of a decaying Seleucid Empire in the second and the last century B.C. They are more comparable to the momentary Arab occupation of the Syrian, Egyptian, and Anatolian territories of the Roman Empire under Palmyrene leadership in the third century of the Christian Era. But they utterly surpassed both these anticipatory reconnaissances in the potency of their driving-force. [Footnote: This immense superiority, in potency, of the third of the three Arab offensives against the Hellenic World was almost certainly due to the most conspicuous of its distinctive features: that is to say, to the fact of its having been launched under the auspices of Islam. […]] While the Arab encroachments in the last two centuries B.C. had got no farther than the line of the Lebanon and the Orontes, [footnote: See Jones, A. H. M.: The Cities of the Eastern Roman Provinces (Oxford 1937, Clarendon Press), pp. 255-6.] and the momentary Palmyrene conquests in the third century of the Christian Era had come to a halt at the banks of the Nile and of the Black Sea Straits, the Muslim Arab conquerors penetrated as far as their Palmyrene predecessors towards the north-west, while on the south-west they left them far behind. In Asia Minor the Constantinopolitan Government succeeded – at the price of abandoning its commitments and cutting its losses on all other fronts – in pushing the Muslim Arabs back from the line of the Straits to the line of the Taurus and holding them there at the cost of grievously overstraining and fatally deforming the nascent body social of Orthodox Christendom. In Africa, however, the wave of Muslim Arab conquest swept on from the Nile to the Atlantic – meeting and overpowering and, carrying along with it the lesser wave of Berber aggression which was at that time breaking, likewise for the third time, upon the remnant of the African domain which Rome had inherited from Carthage.

Justinian had expelled the Vandals from the Maghreb.

The two earlier waves of Berber aggression had been, first, the Numidian intervention in the Second Punic, or Hannibalic, War and the Numidian King Jugurtha’s war with Rome (these are taken together) during the Hellenic “Time of Troubles” and, second, renewed pressure during the shorter crisis of the middle of the third century CE.

At the Straits of Gibraltar the united Arab and Berber wings of the Afrasian Nomad forces collided with the epigoni of the Visigoths, who had settled down in the Iberian Peninsula at the end of a Völkerwanderung which had carried them across the whole breadth of the Roman Empire from a starting-point on the Great Western Bay of the Eurasian Steppe. When these Gothic pupils of the Eurasian Nomads now encountered the Afrasian Nomad invaders of the Roman Empire at a point on the Empire’s extreme western verge which was almost equally remote from the original mustering-grounds of both the rival war-bands, it was the Afrasian Nomadism that was victorious; [footnote: The victory of the Afrasian Nomads over the Visigothic representatives of the Eurasian Nomadism at Xeres [modern Jerez de la Frontera in Andalusia], on the Iberian threshold of Europe, in A.D. 711, has the same piquancy as the victory of the Indian over the African elephants at Raphia, on the Egyptian threshold of Africa, in 217 B.C.] for the united Arab-Berber forces were not flung back from the Straits of Gibraltar by Roderick in A.D. 711 as the Arabs were flung back from the Bosphorus by Constantine IV in A.D. 677 and again in A.D. 718 by Leo Syrus. Scattering the Goths like chaff, the Arabs and Berbers pressed on across the Pyrenees and reached the banks of the Rhône and the Loire before they collided with the Franks and fared as ill at their hands in A.D. 732 on the road to Tours as the ancestors of the Arabs’ discomfited Gothic adversaries had fared at the same Frankish hands at Vouillé in A.D. 507. It was characteristic of the heavy-footed gait of the sedentary North European barbarians that, at dates which were two hundred and twenty-five years apart, they should win their successive victories over their mobile rivals from the Ukraine and the Hijāz on battlefields that were something less than twenty miles distant from one another as the crow flies. [Footnote: The battle between the Austrasians and the Arabs which is traditionally known by the name of Tours seems actually to have been fought in the neighbourhood of Old Poictiers [sic], in the angle between the rivers Elain and Vienne.] Charles Martel allowed the Arabs to come that much nearer to the home territory of the Frankish Power in the basins of the Seine and the Rhine [footnote: Charles Martel’s sluggishness in marching to the help of the Aquitanians in A.D. 732 may be compared with the sluggishness of the Spartans in coming to the Athenians’ aid in 490 B.C. and again in 479 B.C.] than Clovis had allowed the Visigoths to advance in the same direction before marching out to defeat them; but the event was the same. At Tours in A.D. 732, as at Vouillé in A.D. 507, the immovable Franks remained masters of the field.

These Frankish victories over Goths and Arabs were a double triumph for the tortoise who had been content to crawl from the Rhine to the Loire during the time that it had taken one hare to sprint from the Ukraine, and another to sprint from the Hijāz, to the tortoise’s doorstep in Aquitaine. In this contest between the barbarians for the division of the Hellenic dominant minority’s territorial spoils the race was certainly not to the swift, though the battle may have been to the strong. [Footnote: Ecclesiastes ix. 11.] But this revelation of the relative strengths of the rival barbarian war-bands is not the main interest of the two battles in which they tried conclusions with one another. The outstanding historical event to which the battles of Vouillé and Tours bear witness is not the discomfiture of the Goths and the Arabs by the Frank, but the collapse of the resistance of the Roman Power which had been the common arch-adversary of all the three combatants. By the time when, in the heart of the Orbis Romanus, the war-bands from beyond one of the four anti-barbarian frontiers encountered and defeated – on derelict Roman ground – the war-bands from beyond each of the other three frontiers, it was manifest that the third of the three attempts of the external proletariat to take the Hellenic universal state by storm had been completely and definitively successful.

The four frontiers are defined in an earlier passage as

the front against the sedentary barbarians of Continental Europe from the North Sea coast to Transylvania; the front against the Eurasian Nomads (and the Nomadicized sedentary intruders upon the Nomads’ ranges) in the Lower Danubian bay and the Middle Danubian enclave of the Great Eurasian Steppe; the front against the barbarians in the interior of North West Africa (Nomads on the Sahara and highlanders in the Atlas); and the front against the Arabs beyond the desert-coast of Syria who constituted the Asiatic wing of the Afrasian Nomad forces.

The two earlier attempts to take the universal state had been, first, the series of attacks – by Sarmatians, Arabs, Numidians, Cimbri, Teutones, Suevi – in the last two centuries BC during the Hellenic “Time of Troubles” (he treats this as a single crisis) and, second, the attacks – by Goths, Arabs, Berbers, Franks, Alemanni – of the crisis of the middle of the third century CE.

Perhaps one could quibble with this by pointing out that, according to Toynbee’s own system, the first attempt was an attack on the society before it had had a universal state (the Roman Empire) imposed on it.

In the third attempt

the action opened on the Eurasian front, where the eruption of the Hun Nomads blew the nomadicized [lower case this time] Goths right off the Steppe into the far interior of the Roman body politic – as rocks and trees are uprooted and hurled through the air by an exploding shell. From the end of the fourth century to the end of the sixth the pressure continued to be heavier on this front than on any other, as the ebb of the Hun wave was followed by the onrush of the Avar wave, and the vacuum left by the violent propulsion of the Goths was filled by the gentle infiltration of the Slavs. It was only in the seventh century, when the onslaughts of pagan Huns and Avars were outmatched by the demoniac outbreak of the Muslim Arabs, that the main pressure shifted from the Eurasian front to the Arabian.

Charles de Steuben, Bataille de Poitiers en Octobre 732, Musée du Château de Versailles, Wikimedia Commons

A Study of History, Vol V, OUP, 1939

Trevor-Roper, Gibbon and Toynbee 3

July 15 2010

Trevor-Roper, Gibbon and Toynbee

Trevor-Roper, Gibbon and Toynbee 2

What does David Womersley, quoted in the first of those posts, mean by saying that, according to Trevor-Roper, Gibbon’s withdrawal from Oxford put him outside the “historical guild”? What historical guild? There was no guild of historians in the eighteenth century to be outside. We know that Trevor-Roper had a low opinion of the intellects of the narrow professional historians of the Oxford of his own day: “Manchester mice”. An unattractive low opinion, one might say. Like despising one’s servants. He must have rejoiced that the world of his hero Gibbon did not contain them or similar professionals. But that does not mean that Gibbon stood outside a “historical guild”, it means that there was no guild.

And Gibbon was neither a bishop nor a pile of relics, so what does Womersley mean by writing of his “translation” to Lausanne?


June 11 2010

The measure of the hostility which is evoked by alien authors of universal states – a hostility which is evidently only exacerbated, instead of being mitigated, by the passage of Time – is given by the uniformly fanatical êthos of the thoroughbred indigenous régimes which sometimes succeed in bringing such alien universal states to a premature end. This touch of fanaticism is shared by the Ming, who expelled the Mongols from China between A.D. 1351 and A.D. 1368, with the Marāthās who were the executors of the Hindu Society’s revenge upon the Mughals in the eighteenth century; and we can detect the same temper, not only in the anti-British revolutionary movement in twentieth-century Bengal, but also in the successive Babylonian revolts against Darius the Great and Xerxes, and in the Moreot Greek revolt against Ottoman rule in A.D. 1821.

A Study of History, Vol V, OUP, 1939

Byzantine Constantinople

June 8 2010

Wikimedia Commons map. (It shows the quarters belonging to the repubbliche marinare – Venice, Amalfi, Pisa, Genoa – in the old city in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, but not the Genoese colony in Galata (1261-1453) or earlier Jewish, Genoese, Venetian and perhaps other settlements on the Galata side.)

The Hellenist lobby

June 2 2010

Jacket blurb of Richard Clogg, Politics and the Academy, Arnold Toynbee and the Koraes Chair, Routledge, 2004. Buy here.

“During the First World War King’s College of the University of London became a leading centre for the study of Russia and Eastern Europe. Its principal, Ronald Burrows, a committed philhellene and devoted admirer of the Greek prime minister Eleftherios Venizelos, had a particular interest in the promotion of Byzantine and Modern Greek studies. It was Burrows’ enthusiasm, supported by Venizelos, that led to the establishment in 1919 of the Koraes Chair of Modern Greek and Byzantine History, Language and Literature. The endowment for the chair was raised by a group of wealthy Anglo-Greeks, while the Greek government provided an annual subsidy. The 29-year-old historian Arnold Toynbee was chosen as the first incumbent of the chair.

“In 1921 Toynbee, on leave of absence, covered the Greek-Turkish war in Asia Minor for the Manchester Guardian and reported on the atrocities committed by Greek troops. On his return he wrote The Western Question in Greece and Turkey, which appeared in the summer of 1922 shortly before the rout of the Greek forces by the Turkish nationalists led by Mustafa Kemal (Atatürk). Toynbee’s writings and his growing sympathy for the Turkish cause enraged the Greek donors of the chair who, grouped in a Subscribers’ Committee, put strong pressure on the college and university authorities. Toynbee also came under fire from an influential group of colleagues. The cumulative furore forced Toynbee to resign from the chair in 1924 at the end of his first five-year term.

“Now the papers of the major protagonists have enabled a detailed reconstruction to be made of the interaction of international and academic politics. The controversy has some contemporary relevance as it touches on fundamental questions of academic freedom and on the problems inherent in the reliance of academic institutions on outside sources of funding.”

Toynbee, apparently, had not known of the existence of the Subscribers’ Committee when he took the chair. Modern parallel: denial of tenure to Norman Finkelstein, author of The Holocaust Industry, at DePaul University, Chicago, in 2007. Did Toynbee’s views on Israel eventually marginalise him in the US? When did the lobby tighten its grip?

The fifth chapter in McNeill’s biography is about Toynbee’s changing views of near-eastern politics and how events there in the ’20s confirmed him in positions he had taken in the Foreign Office towards the end of the First World War; and about his changing ideas on history before and during the King’s years, and how they were leading him towards the Study. It is hard not to feel some sympathy with the Greeks in the row in which it all culminated. Were they being so unreasonable?

Ancient Greece in the King’s entrance hall (Sophocles by Constantin Dausch, a copy of a Roman copy, the Lateran Sophocles at the Vatican; Sappho by Ferdinand Seeboeck, original; both commissioned by Frida Mond, wife of Ludwig, and passing to King’s on her death in 1923)


Trevor-Roper, Gibbon and Toynbee 2

May 24 2010

Trevor-Roper, Gibbon and Toynbee

By way of a parergon to the last post, there’s a sting in the tail of Toynbee’s expression of thanks to Gibbon in the Acknowledgements and Thanks section of the Study. Of the dozens acknowledged, Marcus Aurelius is mentioned first, Toynbee’s mother second, Gibbon third.

To Edward Gibbon, for showing me, by Example, what an Historian could do

Edward Gibbon, in The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, has always been my cynosure; and I have come to appreciate the greatness of his intellectual powers as I have come to realize that he did almost all that he did do by sheer intellectual prowess, in despite of the handicap imposed on his imagination by the narrowness of his sympathies with the human objects of his historical studies.

A Study of History, Vol X, OUP, 1954

Trevor-Roper, Gibbon and Toynbee

May 23 2010

Hugh Trevor-Roper was one of the twentieth century’s best writers of English, directly comparable to Waugh (who wrote a Decline and Fall). His medium was the essay. David Womersley (professional page) asks in Standpoint:

“Who was the greatest English historian of the mid-20th century? Was it that flamboyant ancestor of our current rash of teledons, A. J. P. Taylor? That severe technician, Lewis Namier? That progenitor of endless dullness, E. P. Thompson? Confronted by such contenders, judgment is baffled. However, if you narrow the question to ‘who was the greatest historical stylist’, there is no competition. Hugh Trevor-Roper suddenly emerges at the head of the field. How did he do it? It’s clear that Trevor-Roper’s élan as an historian was partly derived from his great 18th-century counterpart on whom he wrote so often and so well, Edward Gibbon. But why did Trevor-Roper make such a close study of this great predecessor? What sustenance did he draw from him?”

I’m presenting Womersley’s main points here in something different from their original sequence. Closing a quotation mark shows a break. He says that there were two Gibbons for Trevor-Roper: “[…] a companionable Gibbon – a source of stylistic solace and inspiration, a brilliant scourge with which to lash the grey specialists who were polluting the groves of Clio, particularly in Oxford. But he also admired a more remote Gibbon – the man who stood alone and unchallenged on the summit of European historiography.”

“That Neapolitan martyr to papal oppression [Womersley’s “thats”, illes, seem an imitation of Trevor-Roper], Giannone, had led Gibbon towards an awareness that the subject of the decline and fall of the Roman empire was the greatest historical problem thrown up by the Enlightenment, because of the challenge it seemed to pose to the Enlightenment’s darling doctrine of progress.” Gibbon placed the historical effects of religion at the heart of his answer (“I have described the triumph of barbarism and religion”); Pietro Giannone had been excommunicated for writing about the malign influence of the Church in his Storia civile del regno di Napoli (1723).

Trevor-Roper discussed Gibbon in a series of essays, articles and lectures. “And he lent his weight and authority to the re-publication of Gibbon’s own writings – the reprint of A Vindication in 1961; the abridgements [two different ones?] of the Decline and Fall for which he wrote introductions in 1963 and 1970; and, as an appropriate coping-stone, his substantial introduction to the six-volume complete Decline and Fall published by Everyman in 1993.”

“[…] there was a core of a few details of the historian’s biography, and a few – indeed, surprisingly few – passages of the Decline and Fall, to which Trevor-Roper returned time and again. What constituted this core?

“First, Trevor-Roper would lay heavy emphasis on the importance of Gibbon’s removal from Oxford after converting to Catholicism, and his consequent translation to Lausanne, which his father had imposed on him so that he might become again a compliant Protestant [which he did]. From this episode, Trevor-Roper drew two consequences. The first, and less important, was that the débâcle of Gibbon’s time at Oxford and his withdrawal from the University had put the pre-eminent historian outside the ‘historical guild’. […]

“The second, and more significant, consequence of the move to Lausanne was that it liberated Gibbon’s mind and made him ‘intellectually not an Englishman at all’. This un-English dimension was important to Trevor-Roper’s view of Gibbon, not simply because he took pleasure in the smiting of all parochialisms, but because it corroborated his interpretation of the Decline and Fall as a European work which merely happened to be written in English. He liked to remind his audiences and his readers of the fact that Gibbon had originally intended to write his history in French, before being dissuaded from doing so by David Hume.”

“Montesquieu had released Gibbon from the pulverising Pyrrhonism of Bayle and Voltaire [on matters of dogma], had [furthermore] oriented his stance on matters of religion away from sterile questions of doctrinal truth or falsehood, and had encouraged him to view religion through the lens of social function.

“Trevor-Roper [underlined] the Decline and Fall’s commitment to the view that civilisation was safe and human progress could not be undone because Western Europe was not vulnerable to calamitous change in the manner of the Roman Empire. This interpretation of the Decline and Fall as at root an anti-imperial work which described and celebrated how the 18th-century European republic of Christian monarchies had taken wing from the ashes of despotic antiquity has much to be said for it. Trevor-Roper was fond of […] drawing attention to Gibbon’s […] hatred of ‘immobilisation’, his commitment to ‘the free circulation of goods and ideas’, and his preference for open, rather than closed societies – characteristics illustrated typically by a contrast drawn with Voltaire, by Gibbon’s censure of monasticism in the Decline and Fall, and by his insistence to Lord Sheffield that his library should be broken up and sold after his death, on the grounds that he was ‘a friend to the circulation of property of every kind’.” Circulation of information, openness. In what way does any of this present a contrast with Voltaire?

“A different passage of the Decline and Fall was repeatedly used to show that, notwithstanding the hysterical response to the notorious ‘two chapters’ [15 and 16, which contained some of his most critical remarks about religion], which concluded the first volume of the Decline and Fall, when he contemplated religion Gibbon was indeed a follower of Montesquieu, rather than a disciple of Voltaire. […] The passage to which he gravitated was the final section of chapter 54, perhaps the most brilliant chapter in the entire history, which traces the fortunes of the obscure Byzantine sect of the Paulicians, before broadening to offer in little more than 1,000 words an extraordinary account of the progress of Christianity in Europe since the Reformation. Trevor-Roper particularly relished Gibbon’s challenge to the Reformers’ self-image as the liberators of the minds of men from the spurious doctrines of Roman Catholicism, notably transubstantiation.

“For, as Gibbon had acutely noted:

‘ … the loss of one mystery was amply compensated by the stupendous doctrines of original sin, redemption, faith, grace, and predestination, which have been strained from the epistles of St Paul. These subtle questions had most assuredly been prepared by the fathers and schoolmen; but the final improvement and popular use may be attributed to the first reformers, who enforced them as the absolute and essential terms of salvation. Hitherto the weight of supernatural belief inclines against the Protestants; and many a sober Christian would rather admit that a wafer is God, than that God is a cruel and capricious tyrant.’”

But “Gibbon’s criterion [in preferring one form of religion to another] is always social or humanitarian or intellectual: it is never doctrinal.”

“Some of the more memorable sallies in his reviews of publications on Gibbon were dictated by his disdain for those he saw as the myrmidons of Gibbonian scholarship, and their depraved appetite for the dust of textual minutiae […].”

“Trevor-Roper often reflected with deep satisfaction on the fact that Gibbon had been no professional historian, but had pursued his researches and composed his unrivalled narrative unsupported by any institution and in the character of a private scholar. Gibbon’s estrangement from the ‘historical guild’ made him, too, a foe of those ‘solemn professionals’ against whom Trevor-Roper himself, throughout his career, waged implacable war. Gibbon was thus an important early member of that informal and engaging party with which Trevor-Roper always associated himself – the party of ‘the laity and the gaiety’.”

Womersley tells us that in a notebook entry dated May 1944, and headed “The Solution”, he confided: “To write a book that someone, one day, will mention in the same breath as Gibbon – this is my fond ambition.” It never happened. Trevor-Roper wrote important books, but no magnum opus.

“When Hume had said of his own day that ‘this is the historical age’, he had seen that the advanced social thought of the time had thrown up problems that demanded the arbitration of the historian, and of the historian alone. Well might Trevor-Roper wryly agree that Gibbon had drawn a high prize in the lottery of life. He had been a supremely gifted historian whose powers were at their peak when history, of all the intellectual disciplines, had the most important work to do.

“But the second half of the 20th century was not such a time. Whatever the modern equivalent was to the Enlightenment problem of progress, it was unlikely to be answered by a book on the English Civil War, no matter how accomplished. Indeed, whatever it was, it was very possibly not a problem for historians at all. Perhaps it was a problem for physicists, or biologists. The moment of history’s intellectual hegemony had passed, perhaps never to return. Truly to emulate Gibbon was now impossible, and those who attempted it, such as Toynbee, succeeded in producing only gassy, shapeless, unhistorical monsters, as Trevor-Roper himself had reported in a letter to Berenson, in which superficial amusement at Toynbee’s folly was chilled by an undercurrent of dismay at its significance for the writing of history.

“Trevor-Roper was too wise to fall into the gulf of uncritical complacency into which Toynbee had rushed headlong. But the price of such wisdom was to suffer a version of the last pain which Tertullian had devised for the damned – the pain of seeing, but not sharing, the pleasures of the historians’ Paradise. It was for this reason that the greatest English historian of the 20th century was most at home in the form of the essay.”


Was that such an exile? Trevor-Roper has often appeared here, since he made himself the English arch-critic of Toynbee.

Something swaggering was trapped in that prose’s perfection. His dislike of Toynbee’s work was visceral and expressed in mockery. Yet Toynbee resembled Gibbon in some ways. He deserted Oxford just as Gibbon did (and as Trevor-Roper, in his letters to Berenson, always pretended that he wanted to), stood outside what Womersley calls the “historical guild”, and smote parochialisms. But Trevor-Roper admires Gibbon’s cosmopolitanism and has contempt for Toynbee’s globalism.

Toynbee would have “lashed the grey specialists” if lashing had been his way. Specialisation was necessary, but it should not be exclusive. He produced some monumental volumes of specialised straight history. Trevor-Roper dreamed of producing a Great Work comparable with Gibbon. Toynbee wrote (letter to his mother, June 30 1907, quoted in McNeill): “It would be a splendid task to carry on Herodotus’s story [of the wars between Europe and the East] … but it would be too vast.” And (less modestly, and mocked by Trevor-Roper): “As for Ambition with a great screaming A, I have got it pretty strong. I want to be a great gigantic historian – not for fame but because there is lots of work in the world to be done, and I am greedy for as big a share of it as I can get. … I am going to research and become a vast historical Gelehrte” (letter to RS Darbishire, January 30 1910, quoted in McNeill).

For Toynbee, as for Trevor-Roper, “there was a core of a few details of the historian’s biography, and a few […] passages of the Decline and Fall, to which [he] returned time and again”. Toynbee would return to the passage about the Antonines in chapter 3, always as a foil for his own idée fixe about the Hellenic civilisation having broken down five centuries earlier. And he would remind us how unprepared Gibbon was for the events of the French revolution, which ended the spell of low ideological temperature of the age between the Wars of Religion and the Wars of Nationality and shattered his illusion of a “Western Europe […] not vulnerable to calamitous change”, just as the events of 1914 would shatter Toynbee’s.

Toynbee seemed to be treating the Enlightenment as a mere interval or episode. He was not only a deluded schematiser and purveyor of a “philosophy of mish-mash”; he seemed to be hankering after a religiously-guided world which had held sway before the idolatrous worship of “parochial states” had set humanity on the road to 1914. Religion was being dragged out again after it had been put in its place.

Trevor-Roper cannot find it in him to praise the majesty or sincerity of Toynbee’s effort, but he need not have felt “an undercurrent of dismay at [Toynbee’s work’s] significance for the writing of history”, since Toynbee had no direct imitators.

In the inaugural lecture for the Greek-funded Koraes Chair of Modern Greek and Byzantine Language, Literature and History at King’s College in the University of London, which Toynbee occupied from 1919 to 1924, Johannes Gennadius, a figure in the Greek diaspora in London, defended the historic greatness of Byzantium against the sneers of Gibbon which, he believed, still distorted English understanding of Greek history. And, absurd though it sounds when modern Greeks say they invented democracy, the idea of successive ancient, medieval and modern Greeces was one which Toynbee examined in his essay in The Balkans, a book with several contributors, OUP, 1915, and in his final, posthumous The Greeks and Their Heritages, OUP, 1981.

I will summarise Toynbee’s rather equivocal view of Gibbon when I have looked at all his passages on him. Trevor-Roper’s writings about Toynbee are listed here. I think he says only one nice thing about Toynbee. In the 1989 piece he writes: “He was very learned.”

See Duncan Fallowell’s Telegraph review of Trevor-Roper’s correspondence with Berenson.

Namier was not always severe. His essays on eastern Europe in Looking East are lively, and one can see his influence on his protegé Taylor. He was a friend of Toynbee.

Adam Sisman’s biography of Trevor-Roper will be published on July 8.

The last battle

May 22 2010

(XENOPHON OF ATHENS (ca. 430-354 B.C.): A History of Hellenic Affairs, Oxford text, ed. by E.C. Marchant: Book II. chapter 23-4)

At Athens the disaster [footnote: The battle of Aegospotami, in the Dardanelles, in which the last Athenian fleet had been annihilated by the Peloponnesians in 405 B.C. [ED.]] was announced by the arrival of the Paralus, [footnote: The Paralus and the Salaminia were the two fastest sailers in the Athenian Navy, and were employed to carry dispatches. [ED.]] and a wail spread from the Peiraeus through the Long Walls into the city, as the news passed from mouth to mouth. That night no one slept. Besides mourning for the dead, they mourned far more bitterly for themselves, for they expected to suffer the fate which they had inflicted on the Melians (who were colonists of the Lacedaemonians) when they had besieged and captured their town [416 BC], and upon the Histiaeans, the Scionians, the Toronians, the Aeginetans and many other Hellenic peoples. Next morning they held an assembly, in which it was decided to block up all the harbours except one, to clear the fortifications for action, to dispose troops to man them, and to put the city into a thorough state of defence for the eventuality of a siege.

The Spartan admiral was Lysander, the Athenian Conon. The Aegospotami (Goat Streams) was a stream issuing into the Hellespont (Dardanelles) in the Thracian Chersonese. The Long Walls connected Athens to its ports at Piraeus and Phalerum. The siege followed; Athens surrendered in 404.

Introduction and translations, Greek Historical Thought from Homer to the Age of Heraclius, with two pieces newly translated by Gilbert Murray, Dent, 1924 (taken from an American edition; spelling anglicised)

Christianity and the western barbarians

May 20 2010

The East German barbarians who overran the western provinces of the Roman Empire in the fifth century had been converted in the previous century to the Arian version of Christianity, which had been favoured by the Emperor Constantius II (imperabat A.D. 337- 61). The Burgundians were not converted to the Roman Christianity of their Roman subjects till the second quarter of the sixth century, the Visigoths not till A.D. 589, the Lombards only in the course of the first half of the seventh century. (The Vandal and Ostrogoth Arian Christian conquerors of Roman territory had been exterminated by Justinian.) The only German barbarians settled on ex-Roman territory who were converted to Roman Christianity from paganism direct were those West Germans – Franks and English – who had been still pagans when they had arrived. The English pagan barbarian invaders of Britain had insulated both the surviving Christians in western Britain and the newly converted Irish from the Roman See; these Far Western Christians’ rite, in consequence, had not kept in step with the changes in the Roman rite, and their allegiance to the Roman See had become dubious. In the seventh century, Rome had to contend with Iona for the allegiance of the English Kingdom of Northumbria. In A.D. 664, at the Synod of Whitby, Rome won this battle; Iona itself submitted to Rome in A.D. 716, and the Picts, Irish, Welsh, and Bretons also accepted the Roman method of fixing the date of Easter and the Roman form of tonsure in the course of the eighth century. At the conversion of the still pagan German peoples beyond the Rhine (Alemanni, Bavarians, Thuringians, Frisians, Saxons) there was no question of their adopting any form of Christianity other than the Roman.

The Romano-British St Patrick (c 387-493), among others, converted the Irish; the Irish St Columba (521-97), who founded the monastery on Iona, and his followers, converted the Scots and Northumbrian English; Gregory the Great’s Roman emissary Augustine of Canterbury (first third of sixth century-604) converted the rest of the English.

The English themselves sent missions to convert the pagans in the Netherlands and Germany. The Irish St Columbanus (540-615) had founded monasteries at Fontaines and Luxeuil (France) and Bobbio (Italy).

Iona Abbey, Wikimedia Commons

Constantine Porphyrogenitus and His World, OUP, 1973 (footnote)

Mandarin against Greek

May 4 2010

When Hastings Banda founded Kamuzu Academy (which I visited several years ago) in the Malawian countryside (1981), he made Latin and Greek compulsory at all levels. They are still compulsory up to O-Level. But from the 2010-11 academic year, Mandarin Chinese will be compulsory in the first year (age 11).

Banda had intended the school to support the four best students from every district of Malawi, however poor. It now takes mainly fee-payers.

I don’t know whether Mandarin will displace Latin or Greek in the first year, but the expectation is that it will become compulsory for older pupils and will displace them. Can that happen in defiance of Banda’s wishes? Yes. Malawi switched its allegiance from Taiwan to mainland China at the beginning of 2008.

Yamoussoukro and Kamuzu

Kamuzu Academy, Mtunthama

Volney and Cyprian

May 2 2010

The genius of Volney had casually exploded the eighteenth-century doctrine of the natural goodness and automatic improvement of Human Nature by testifying that “la source de ses calamités … réside dans l’homme même; il la porte dans son cœur”. [Footnote: Volney, C. F.: “Les Ruines” in Œuvres Complètes (Paris 1876, Didot), pp. 12-13.]


Volney’s intuition […] is anticipated in a passage of Saint Cyprian, in which the African Father applies the same truth to the entire field of social life. [Footnote: The two passages are also analogous inasmuch as they both fly in the face of the prevailing philosophy of the day. Volney’s intuition, as we have observed, gives the lie to the fundamental doctrine of eighteenth-century Western philosophy, while the passage here quoted from Cyprian contradicts another passage from Cyprian’s own pen which occurs in the same tract Ad Demetrianum. In this other passage [quoted here] Cyprian advocates the view that the Hellenic Society of the age is suffering from an automatic process of senile decay. A judicious admirer of Cyprian will not attempt to explain this manifest contradiction away. He will be content to observe that in chapter 3 of the tract the author is simply reproducing one of the commonplaces of Hellenic philosophy, while in chapter 10 he is expounding a Christian doctrine which has become a living part of Cyprian’s own thought.]

“You complain of the aggression of foreign enemies; yet, if the foreign enemy were to cease from troubling, would Roman really be able to live at peace with Roman (esse pax inter ipsas togas possit)? If the external danger of invasion by armed barbarians were to be stamped out, should we not be exposed to a fiercer and a heavier civil bombardment, on the home front, in the shape of calumnies and injuries inflicted by the powerful upon their weaker fellow citizens? You complain of crop-failures and famine; yet the greatest famines are made not by drought but by rapacity, and the most flagrant distress springs from profiteering and price-raising in the corn-trade. You complain that the clouds do not disgorge their rain in the sky, and you ignore the barns that fail to disgorge their grain on terra firma. You complain of the fall in production, and ignore the failure to distribute what is actually produced to those who are in need of it. You denounce plague and pestilence, while really the effect of these scourges is to bring to light, or bring to a head, the crimes of human beings: the callousness that shows no pity for the sick, and the covetousness and rapine that are in full cry after the property of the dead.” [Footnote: Thascius Caecilius Cyprianus: Ad Demetrianum, chap. 10.]

In this passage a man of penetrating insight and deep feeling, who was an heir to the tradition of the Hellenic culture before he became a convert to Christianity, has given the true explanation of the breakdown which had cut the growth of the Hellenic Civilization short some six or seven hundred years before, and which had brought the broken-down society to all but the last stage of its decline and fall in Cyprian’s own day. The Hellenic Civilization had broken down because, in the internal economy of this society in its growth stage, at some point something had gone wrong with that interaction between individuals through which the growth of every growing civilization is achieved.

Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage, was martyred in 258 under Valerian. Demetrianus was an African proconsul who had blamed the state of the world on the Christians.

A Study of History, Vol IV, OUP, 1939


May 1 2010

Wikipedia list. Covers the world, but incomplete.

In the age of water-transport, the key pieces of the land-surface of the Oikoumenê were those that offered portages from one sea or from one navigable river to another. Egypt itself was a portage area, since the Nile debouches into the Mediterranean, and, from the Nile to the Red Sea coast, there is a short portage from the easternmost arm of the Delta to Suez via the Wadi Tumilat, and another via the Wadi Hammamat from Coptos, in Upper Egypt, to El Qusayr (Leukos Limen).

These portages are the points where the Delta/Nile is closest to the Gulf of Suez/Red Sea. The second of them is a little north of Luxor. The Wadis are dry river beds that are flooded during rain.

Indeed, the portage across the Isthmus of Suez between the Red Sea and the Mediterranean is part of a wider portage area that includes Egypt to the west and Iraq to the east. In this area the Mediterranean, which is a backwater of the Atlantic Ocean, and the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf, which are backwaters of the Indian Ocean, are separated from each other by the narrowest extent of intervening dry land, and the passage from the Mediterranean to the Red Sea via the Nile is duplicated by the passage to the Persian Gulf via the Euphrates.

If you look at a map, it’s obvious that the key city in the Mediterranean-Euphrates portage is Aleppo.

Two other portages have been of outstanding historical importance: the portage between the rivers debouching into the Baltic and those debouching into the Caspian and the Black Sea, and the portage across the North China plain between the lower courses of the Yangtse, the Hwai, the Yellow River, and the Pei Ho – a portage that has been turned into a waterway by the digging of the Grand Canal. However, the Chinese and Russian portages are on the fringe of the Old-World Oikoumenê; they are surpassed in historical importance by the central portage between the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean.

In the seventh century BC, the Corinthian tyrant Periander built the Diolkos, a paved track which allowed boats to be carried across the Isthmus of Corinth between the Gulf of Corinth and the Saronic Gulf.

He had thought of building a canal. So did the Diadoch Demetrius (336–283 BC). So, according to Suetonius, did Julius Caesar and Nero. Nero actually began work, breaking the ground with a pickaxe himself and removing the first basket-load of soil. Six thousand Jewish prisoners of war started digging. The work stopped when Nero died. The modern Corinth Canal was built between 1881 and ’93.

The Diolkos

Mankind and Mother Earth, OUP, 1976, posthumous

The Libri Karolini

April 25 2010

In the Libri Karolini composed in Charlemagne’s name by his ecclesiastical advisers in A.D. 790, the Fathers of the Second Nicene Council were taken to task on the ground that they had taken it upon themselves to declare the cult of images to be obligatory under pain of anathema, whereas, according to the iconodule Greek theologians’ Frankish critics, the correct view was that the exhibition of pictures in churches was neither obligatory nor unlawful. Thereafter, at the council of Frankish bishops held at Frankfurt in A.D. 794, the acts of the Second Nicene Council were formally condemned on the false assumption (due apparently to a mistranslation) that the Fathers had awarded the same honours to the images as to the Holy Trinity (see Hodgkin, Th.: Italy and her Invaders, vol. viii, Book IX: The Frankish Empire (Oxford 1899, Clarendon Press), pp. 17-18).

This unfriendly reaction in Frankland to the Second Nicene Council’s decisions was, no doubt, to some extent the reflection of a cultural antipathy between Western and Orthodox Christendom and a political rivalry between the Carolingian and the East Roman Power. In the intercourse between the two churches it was a cardinal principle of policy on either side that the other party must never be admitted to be in the right; and the position taken up by Frankish theologians in the Libri Karolini was nicely calculated to put Greek iconodules and Greek iconoclasts equally in the wrong. It is suggested by Hodgkin, ibid., that Charlemagne’s hostility to the full-blooded Christian Iconodulia of the Nicene Fathers may also have been partly inspired by his own personal experience in wrestling with the pagan idolatry of Saxon barbarians whom he was finding it difficult to subdue and convert. Though there seems to be no positive evidence to corroborate this conjecture, it is supported by an analogy between Charlemagne’s experience and Muhammad’s; for Muhammad’s uncompromising Iconophobia was undoubtedly a reaction to the stubbornness of the Quraysh in clinging to their pagan worship of the idols in the Ka‘bah. Yet, when all due allowance has been made for local and temporary considerations of a religious order, as well as for non-religious considerations of a cultural and political order, which may have played some part in inclining the Frankish Church to react unfavourably to the Second Nicene Council’s Iconophilism, a recollection of the instances, noticed […] above, of iconophobe feeling in Gaul as early as the sixth century of the Christian Era may lead us to look for the main cause of the manifestations of Iconophobia in Frankland in A.D. 790 and 794 beyond the horizon of current affairs, in an original and abiding Judaic element in Christianity. We must not leave out of our reckoning here the gadfly ghost of a Judaic Aniconism.

The author of the books was probably Theodulf of Orléans. He is also remembered for the the private oratory built for his villa at Germigny-des-Prés, which contains the most complete surviving Carolingian mosaic (c 806, but over-restored in the 1860s).

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

In the Evening

April 20 2010

“It wouldn’t have lasted long anyway –
the experience of years makes that clear.
Even so, Fate did put an end to it a bit abruptly.
It was soon over, that wonderful life.
Yet how strong the scents were,
what a magnificent bed we lay in,
what pleasure we gave our bodies.

An echo from my days given to sensuality,
an echo from those days came back to me,
something of the fire of the young life we shared:
I picked up a letter again,
and I read it over and over till the light faded away.

Then, sad, I went out on to the balcony,
went out to change my thoughts at least by seeing
something of this city I love,
a little movement in the street and the shops.”


In the Evening, from Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard, translators; George Savidis, editor, CP Cavafy, Collected Poems, revised edition, Princeton University Press, 1992, at

Elegy for Young Lovers

April 18 2010

Fiona Shaw on the first of Hans Werner Henze’s AudenKallman collaborations (1961). The second was The Bassarids (1965).

Auden and Kallman had previously worked on The Rake’s Progress. I’ll be away, Eyjafjallajökull permitting, as I was with Phaedra.

English National Opera, Young Vic, London, April 24-May 8. Synopsis.

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)