Rational reforms

July 16 2015

or, The ambivalence of Sarastro

“The culture of Enlightenment […] bears witness to a deep and recurring conflict. The free individual, motivated by reason, and guided by universal ideals, at the same time longs for community, for locality and for the warmth and protection of the tribe. Hence the era which saw the ‘rational’ reforms of the Emperor Joseph II in Austria [recent post, older one], the Revolution in France, the birth of modern democracy in America, and the programmes for universal education, saw too the rise of the Masonic and Rosicrucian Orders, with their closed doors, their mysteries and their rites of passage. Study that sublime masterpiece of Masonic art – The Magic Flute of Mozart – and you will see that the two conflicting impulses of Enlightenment have a common emotional source. The priest Sarastro, who offers freedom, truth, and the community of moral beings, is also an excluder, who offers these universal goods at the end of ordeals, and through mysteries which speak once again of the tribe, its comfort, and its all-enveloping darkness. The marriage of Pamino and Tamina is not a contract but a vow, the subject-matter of an elaborate rite which purges the individual of his wilfulness and subjects him to a moral order beyond the reach of reason. That which the Enlightenment drove from the public world – superstition, ceremony and the rites of the tribe – has been resurrected as a mystery, the exclusive property of the enlightened few. And, in a certain measure, this symbolises the role of high culture in the newly enlightened world.”


Roger Scruton, Modern Culture, Bloomsbury, 1998.

Old post:

Gothic mouth.

Rome on verge of collapse

July 16 2015

Reuters. Perhaps Renzi needs a Rienzi, rather than a Marino. Note below.

Family portrait

July 16 2015


By @bhgross144

Pluto shouldn’t really be there without Eris, Makemake, Haumea and Ceres, but he was part of the family from 1930 to 2006.

Gunther Schuller

July 16 2015

Another post by Alex Ross. “A great force in American music is gone.” His link.

Seven Studies on Themes of Paul Klee (1959). Radio Philharmonic of Hannover, Schuller. What are the themes? I don’t know, but one is obviously North Africa. Klee visited Kairouan, the fourth holiest city in Islam, in 1914. The Maghrebian light changed him.

I wonder whether any visual artist has ever been referred to by more composers than Klee was.

You also hear Schuller’s jazz origins.

Greek jazz by Antonis Ladopoulos, saxophone, and Sami Amiris, piano (Morning Waltz, Alt Take, not Schuller), with Klee images:


July 15 2015

Pluto 2015

July 14

Jon Vickers

July 14 2015

Jon Vickers’s supreme rendition of Grimes’s final soliloquy.

Soliloquy is the only word to use here. This is Lear-like. Unlike Alex Ross, I was lucky enough to see Vickers in this role, also under Colin Davis in Covent Garden, but earlier than this.

Peter Grimes redefined, as the Enigma Variations had done in 1899, what British composers were capable of.

Its premiere at Sadler’s Wells on June 7 1945 belongs to the series of events which rebuilt an exhausted Britain’s morale after the war. July 26 Labour landslide – May 3 1951 opening of Festival of Britain – May 29 1953 conquest of Everest – June 2 Coronation.

Obituaries: Telegraph, Guardian, Independent.

Drones and apostates

July 13 2015

The Drone Eats with Me. Diaries of the last Gaza war by Atef Abu Saif reviewed at Qunfuz.

Same site: Arabs without God.

I was driven this year in Cairo by an Egyptian who confessed to being an atheist, though he loved the medieval mosques. It will not surprise people who know Egypt to hear that he was in his seventies. If a young person said that, he would probably be from a privileged class.

An English investment adviser there told me on the same visit that one of the untold stories in the Arab world is that of Muslims who are embracing Christianity. It must be a very small number, and he may have been so attracted, charmed, by the phenomenon as to exaggerate it, but it happens.

On my to be watched list is Cheyenne Carron’s 2014 film The Apostle, about a French Muslim who becomes a Christian. It is hard to find or even to google, but it’s on iTunes. I have not heard either good or bad things about it yet.

Gaza pictures from Reuters. Hold cursor over images.

Blood is seed

July 12 2015

“Plures efficimur quoties metimur a vobis; semen est sanguis Christianorum.” Tertullian: Apologeticus, chap. 50 (Migne, J.-P.: Patrologia Latina, vol. i, col 535).

“We multiply as we are mown down. The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” Translation by nobody in particular.

And here in the translation by Lewis Carroll’s father.

Diego Rivera, La sangre de los martires revolucionarios fertilizando la tierra, part of Tierra fecundada fresco (1925-27), Autonomous University of Chapingo, Texcoco, Mexico State:

La sangre de los martires

There were many Christian martyrs in those years too. The Cristero War was fought from 1926 to ’29 against the violently anti-religious forces of Plutarco Elías Calles, President of Mexico 1924-28. I don’t know whether Rivera allied himself with him, but he was an atheist of Sephardic converso ancestry.

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

Omar Sharif’s religion

July 11 2015

He was born in Alexandria into a Christian family which was neither “Coptic” nor Coptic Catholic, but Melkite Greek Catholic. The family was of Levantine descent.

They spoke Arabic and (like many upper-class Egyptian families) French (old post) and perhaps other languages. He spoke or learned Greek, Italian, Spanish and English. He converted to Islam in 1955 in order to marry his Sunni Muslim wife. He had a Jewish grandson. Obituaries.

Recent post on the Melkite Church. My guide to eastern Christianities is here and here.


St Anthony of Padua, an early Franciscan, took his name from St Anthony of Egypt.

The Greeks and Their Heritages

July 10 2015

The Greeks and Their Heritages

In the year of Greece’s accession to the EU – or rather, EEC – OUP published a final book by Toynbee.

In the last two working years of his life, 1972-74, he wrote two chronological studies: Mankind and Mother Earth (completed 1973, published posthumously 1976) and The Greeks and Their Heritages (completed 1974, published 1981).

All scholars, he thought, should pursue general and specialised interests in parallel, so these were late reviews of his two main subjects, world history (necessarily general) and Greece (specialist even if he covers thousands of years). The only chronological study which preceded them had been the brief Hellenism, published in 1959. Mere chronological history wasn’t normally his way, and even these do not descend into narrative. The main chapter headings of the later Greek book do not promise an easy read, but rather arouse forebodings of a lugubrious pedantry. Of course, it is fascinating as well (and Mankind and Mother Earth has real grandeur).

The Influence of Heritages from the Past

The Mycenaean Greeks’ Successes and Failures

The Hellenic Greeks’ Heritage from the Mycenaean Greeks

The Hellenic Greeks’ Successes and Failures

The Byzantine Greeks’ Heritage from the Hellenic Greeks

The Byzantine Greeks’ Successes and Failures

The Modern Greeks’ Heritage from the Byzantine Greeks

The Modern Greeks’ Heritage from the Hellenic Greeks

The Modern Greeks’ Successes and Failures


At least this plan suggests a way of treating Greek history, with all its discontinuities, as a whole. And he was returning to his scholarly roots and to his youth, having had a thoroughbred training in the classics at Winchester, of a type no longer available; having been introduced there even to the then little-known field of Byzantine history through reading JB Bury; and having encountered modern Greece after Oxford, first as a serious traveller, then through the Foreign Office in London and at Versailles, and then as a correspondent from the Greco-Turkish War. Does the repeated phrase “successes and failures” remind one of old-fashioned exam questions? (The whole table of contents is like a dream of an exam, the repeated ordeal of his youth.)

Buy here. I quote a review by Hugh Lloyd-Jones here and here.

OUP don’t identify the church, but it is the Church of the Pantanassa or of the Dormition of the Theotokos in Monastiraki Square in Athens. The cover shows Hellenic, Byzantine and modern Greece in the background, middle distance and foreground.

Mariori mou, Mariori mou

July 9 2015

The name of a folksong. Mariori is a woman’s name: My Mariori. Fourth in the third series of Greek Dances by Skalkottas (see comment under this post). BBC Symphony Orchestra, Nikos Christodoulou.

Fourteen Greek constitutions

July 8 2015

Wikipedia, with links where they exist:














1975, revised 1986, 2001, 2008


1968 and 1973 were imposed by a dictatorship.

Greece’s “strong democratic tradition”?

July 7 2015

Joseph Stiglitz’s phrase “Greece, with its strong democratic tradition” took some people by surprise. What democratic tradition in this rotten, almost third-world Balkan country? Did Stiglitz know anything at all about history?

Greece-bashing may not have reached such contemptible levels as some of the Greek rhetoric on Germany, but it, too, needs examining. Perhaps Greece does have a democratic tradition. Perhaps Greece has even on occasion behaved with maturity. I am not able to judge, but here are some extemporised thoughts.

Outside the mind of Condoleezza Rice, democracies take root over time. The Greeks have held regular parliamentary elections for nearly 200 years, with periodic electoral reforms. To have had at least fourteen constitutions during this time is not a sign of stability, but it may be a sign of political life.

They kicked out a lazy Bavarian king in 1863 and got a better Danish line. That spirited act is remembered by some as an earlier confrontation with Germany. The Wittelsbachs had nearly bankrupted the young state and “disfigured” a Byzantine nation. Mikis Theodorakis, quoted in the Telegraph, does sound third-world on all this, recently alleging “two centuries of European crimes against Greece” by the Western enemies of the Hellenic Orthodox world.

Still, Otto’s failings are admitted. His deposition by politicians was welcomed by the people.

The Greeks were no greedier for scraps of the Ottoman empire than anyone else.

Greek irredentism was not more fanatical than German or Italian. And the Greeks took their catastrophic defeat of 1922 rather well: instead of sulking and starting a cold war with Turkey, they had a diplomatic reconciliation. It was led by the very person, Venizelos, who, with the encouragement of the Allies (who were partly lying to him in 1916, as they were to TE Lawrence, but wanted him to join the war), had been such a champion of the Great Idea. Perhaps that would not have happened without an exchange of populations, but in any case it happened. The Greeks are not living in the past on that matter. Are they?

The Greek semi-fascist of the ’30s, Metaxas, refused to capitulate to the Italians.

George II did not become a German puppet in 1941. He presumably could have been one. His father had been removed in the First World War by Venizelos for being too pro-German.

The German invaders committed criminal acts in Greece. The destruction of the Jews of Thessalonika was one of the major acts of the Holocaust.

Is it a sign of immaturity to have had a struggle with communism?

The Colonels only stayed seven years and Constantine II wasn’t implicated.

Golden Dawn received a much smaller percentage of the vote (6.3%) in the 2015 Greek parliamentary election than the National Front did in the first rounds of the French 2012 presidential and parliamentary elections (17.9% and 13.6%).

And when one hears young Greeks talk, they often sound not very different from young Germans. Are there worrying signs of maturity here?

However corrupt the Greek system was, however much they lied to get in and deserve their fate (most of them surely deserve nothing), few deny outright that irresponsible lending helped to get Greece into the mess.

I’d rather spend an evening with the clownish Tsipras or insufferable Varoufakis than with Juncker or Lagarde. At least Varoufakis speaks good English.

This excruciating crisis might be the making, not breaking, of Greece.

The tyranny of Greece over Germany

July 6 2015

Eliza Marian Butler.


July 3 2015

Back July 6.

Eight Greek plebiscites

July 3 2015

I  1920, December 5, YES to return of Constantine I

He had abdicated and gone into exile in Switzerland in 1917 (retaining his titular right) because of a disagreement with the charismatic and anti-royalist prime minister, Venizelos, over whether Greece should enter the war. Constantine supported the Central Powers, Venizelos the Entente.

He came back after his son Alexander had died from a monkey bite.

He abdicated again on September 27 1922 after the Greek debâcle in Asia Minor and spent the last few months of his life in exile in Italy. He was succeeded by his eldest son, George II, but the defeat nearly destroyed the monarchy.

II  1924, April 13, NO to continuation of the reign of George II

George had himself gone into exile in December 1923 (Rumania, then Britain) after royalists had attempted and failed to take control of the government. A republican interlude followed: the only time after the revolutionary years of 1822-32 and before 1973 when Greece was a republic.

III  1935, November 3, YES to reinstatement of George II

Metaxas was the prime minister from 1936 to ’41 and died in office before the German invasion, but after the Italian invasion; despite his fascist sympathies, he had rejected an Italian ultimatum demanding the stationing of Italian troops in Greece.

George went into exile in Britain when the Germans invaded. The old regime had been quasi-fascist, but he did not become a German puppet.

IV  1946, September 1, YES to return of George II

He died in 1947. The monarchy was, of course, anti-communist in the Civil War (1946-49). The last two kings were Paul and Constantine II.

V  1968, November 15, YES to new constitution prepared by the Colonels

Military junta of 1967-74. The monarchy was retained, but Constantine II had gone into exile (Italy, then Britain) at the end of 1967. He returned to live in Greece in 2013.

VI  1973, July 29, YES to Colonels’ proposed abolition of the monarchy

VII  1974, December 8, NO to reinstatement of the monarchy after the collapse of the junta

VIII  2015, July 5, YES or NO?


As far as I can see, the record of the monarchy was not entirely dishonourable.

A referendum about conditions for debt relief was proposed under Papandreou in 2011, but not carried out.

I don’t think these referenda, which were anyway often manipulated, justify Stiglitz’s rather shallow-sounding reference in the Guardian the other day to “Greece, with its strong democratic tradition”.

On the other hand, Greece has been holding parliamentary elections for nearly two centuries.

Alexis Tsipras led the left-wing Syriza party to victory in a snap general election on January 25 2015.

There’s a list of Greek monarchs after this post.

The Serbian-Hungarian border

July 2 2015


Skalkottas sketches

July 2 2015

Nikos Skalkottas, Ten sketches for stringsc 1940, New Hellenic Quartet

Greek guitar music

July 1 2015

And, at the end, Theodorakis at 90.

Kostas Grigoreas plays Adagietto from Skalkottas’s 1925 solo violin sonata, arranged by Grigoreas; it is hard to imagine this sounding more natural in the original version

Stella Kypreou plays Αισθησιακό (Sensual) by Manos Hadjidakis

Kostas Grigoreas plays Η μπαλάντα των αισθήσεων και των παραισθήσεων (Ballad of Sensation and Illusionsby Manos Hadjidakis; it has a kind of leftist drive to it, but isn’t political

Last two from what? Originally for guitar? The last is also a song, with lyrics by Aris Davarakis.

Hadjidakis wrote the music for Never on Sunday, the “other” Greek soundtrack hit of the ’60s.


Mikis Theodorakis will be 90 later this month. I can’t post music when I don’t know what I think of it. It’s not a matter of not getting past the Zorba tune. Or teaser for a tune. I have no response at all yet to what I’ve heard. But Bob Shingleton at On an Overgrown Path has good things to say, especially about the Requiem. Here are his posts.

The main events in Greece in the twentieth century were its wars with Turkey, an invasion by the fascist forces of Italy and Germany, the subsequent Civil War and a military junta. Not that the Colonels were Greece’s first dictators. Theodorakis fought successively against fascists, anti-communists and the junta. He was tortured, went into hiding and was jailed and exiled.

There were many noble Theodorakises in Latin America. But the humane left is no longer fighting militarists or fascists. Theodorakis has declared himself in favour of Tsipras, but his leftism thrives in an unreformed system. It is part of the same set of illusions which caused the mess. The renewers of the left now are the Green movement and an emerging global class warfare in which Tsipras and Varoufakis are (sort of) players.

The Wittelsbachs and Greek debt (old post)

The Archives of the Planet

June 30 2015

Albert Kahn called his vast photographic project (last post) Les archives de la planète.

Selection. Music: part of slow movement of Mozart’s sonata for two pianos, K 448. I don’t know who’s playing. It is one of the pieces said to produce the Mozart effect.

Kahn called his garden in Boulogne-Billancourt, in the west of Paris, Les jardins du monde.

Thessaloniki 1913

June 29 2015

From a five-part BBC documentary series about Albert Kahn, Edwardians in Colour [why Edwardians?]: The Wonderful World of Albert Kahnc 2007. The talking head is Mark Mazower, mentioned in the last post.

BBC: “In 1909 the millionaire French banker and philanthropist Albert Kahn embarked on an ambitious project to create a colour photographic record of, and for, the peoples of the world. As an idealist and an internationalist, Kahn believed that he could use the new Autochrome process, the world’s first user-friendly, true-colour photographic system, to promote cross-cultural peace and understanding.

“Until recently, Kahn’s huge collection of 72,000 Autochromes remained relatively unheard of. Now, a century after he launched his project, [a] book and the BBC TV series it accompanies are bringing these dazzling pictures to a mass audience for the first time and putting colour into what we tend to think of as an entirely monochrome age.

“Kahn sent photographers to more than 50 countries, often at crucial junctures in their history, when age-old cultures were on the brink of being changed for ever by war and the march of twentieth-century globalisation. They documented in true colour the collapse of the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires, the last traditional Celtic villages in Ireland, and the soldiers of the First World War. They took the earliest known colour photographs in countries as far apart as Vietnam and Brazil, Mongolia and Norway, Benin and the United States. In 1929 the Wall Street Crash forced Kahn to bring his project to an end. He died in 1940, but left behind the most important collection of early colour photographs in the world.”

The photographer of Thessaloniki in early 1913 was Auguste Léon, but the name mentioned at 00:20 is hard to understand.

Cf Prokudin-Gorskii, who photographed the Russian Empire in colour. Posts about him here. He used a different method to obtain colour, not colourised, photographs – not the Autochrome process.

Mesmerising as some of the images are, does Kahn concentrate too much on street sellers and the like? What is unrecorded by his photographers and by most others is what life was like indoors. That is the real lost world.

And these records show nothing of people’s manners.

Mitchell and Kenyon are of similar importance in England before the First World War because of the technical quality of their work, though they made moving films, and in black and white.

Musée Albert-Kahn, Paris.


June 28 2015

Islam: A tent for the ignorant.

Singing Sephardim

June 28 2015

[Sephardic Jews] developed under the Ottoman régime a quite different êthos from the Jewish êthos as we know it in the West, because the treatment which they received at the ʿOsmanlis’ hands was quite different from the treatment which Jews have customarily received at the hands of Westerners.

The psychological effect of four centuries of the [comparatively benign] Ottoman régime upon the descendants in the Near East of these Sephardi refugees from Castile was once brought home to the writer of this Study by an incident which came under his personal observation.

One day in August 1921, some eight years and more after Salonica, with its Sephardi population of eighty thousand souls, had passed by conquest out of Ottoman jurisdiction into Greek, I found myself travelling by train from Salonica to Vodena in the same carriage with three Sephardi school-teachers going on a holiday and one Greek officer going to rejoin his regiment. The holiday-makers – two girls and a man – were in high spirits, and they gave vent to their mood by breaking into song. They sang in French: the “culture language” in which the modern Near Eastern Jew has found the necessary supplement to his hereditary Castilian vernacular. After they had been singing for some time, the Greek lieutenant broke his own silence. “Won’t you sing in Greek for a change?” he said. “This country is part of Greece now, and you are Greek citizens.” But his intervention had no effect. “We prefer French” the Jews answered, politely but firmly, and fell to singing lustily in French again, while the Greek lieutenant subsided. There was one person in the carriage, however, who was even more surprised at the Jewish teachers’ reply to the Greek officer than the Greek himself, and that was the Frankish spectator. Seldom, he reflected, would a Jew have shown such spirit in such circumstances in France or England or America. The incident bore witness to the relative humanity with which the Jews in the Ottoman Empire had been treated by the ʿOsmanlis; and it also had a wider and more interesting significance. It was evidence that the Jewish êthos was not something ineradicably implanted by Race or something indelibly ingrained by Religion but was a psychic variable which was apt to vary in response to variations in Gentile behaviour in different times and places.

The Jews were singing in a lingua franca, French, not in a ghetto language, and they were not showing a ghetto mentality. Such cheerful defiance in the presence of a member of the dominant culture, and a soldier, would not have been thus demonstrated in Russia or Austria – but really not in France, England or America?

Would the point have been made even more strongly if they had been singing in Turkish or Greek or would that have come from mere cultural dilution? Would they have shown even more confidence if they had been singing in the “hereditary Castilian vernacular”, ie Judaeo-Spanish, ie Ladino? Ladino was spoken by Sephardic minorities in the Balkans, Turkey, the Middle East and North Africa. Most speakers are now in Israel.

It is not to be confused with another Romance language, Ladin, which is spoken in parts of northern Italy and is related to Friulian and the Swiss Romansh.

The Jews of Salonika were happier in the multi-ethnic Turkish Empire (before the arrival of the Young Turks) than under the Greeks (1912-41). 98% of them died in the Holocaust. Much of the Jewish Quarter had been destroyed in the fire (probably accidental) of 1917.

See Mark Mazower, Salonica, City of Ghosts: Christians, Muslims and Jews 1430-1950, Harper Collins, 2004.

Jewish Museum of Thessaloniki.

A Study of History, Vol II, OUP, 1934


June 27 2015

To be added to London anthologies:

“If you roll a boxful of shoes down some stairs, you will hear the word ‘London’.”

Andrew Cover, a friend, c 2000.

Elgar, Cockaigne, Elgar conducting BBC Symphony Orchestra, April 11 1933


June 26 2015

The sovereign of the Achaemenian Empire, which served as a universal state for the Syriac World, asserted the oecumenical range of his rule by styling himself “King of the Lands” or “King of Kings” [footnote: Meyer, E.: Geschichte des Altertums, vol. iii (Stuttgart 1901, Cotta), pp. 24-6.] – a title which was laconically translated into Greek in the one word βασιλεύς without even an introductory definite article. [Footnote: This verbal recognition of the uniqueness of the status and office of the Achaemenian Great King was a striking act of homage on the lips of Hellenes who were defying his efforts to extend his oecumenical authority over their own city-states.]

Caricaturing Persia (old post).

A Study of History, Vol VI, OUP, 1939

GM Trevelyan on film 2

June 25 2015

1945 film directed by Richard Massingham and perhaps made for the British Council, which shows, at 6:50, the most popular serious English historian of the first half of the twentieth century, the Master of Trinity, lecturing at Cambridge.

University lectures and lecturers are often (usually?) disappointing. “Forged on the anvil of time.” He could write better than that. Apart from the important collective experience of sitting together and seeing your teacher, what could such wooden discourses offer that a book couldn’t? Trevelyan is old-fashioned, but he deserved his reputation in print.

We see Lawrence Bragg, Cavendish Professor of Physics, who had won the Nobel Prize at the age of twenty-five; John Sheppard, the Provost of King’s, talking theatrically to foreign visitors about Greek “freedom and friendship”; absurdly old-fashioned conducting by Patrick Hadley, and Bach performance, at 19:25.

The waves of Marxism, sexual liberation, deconstruction, gender politics and political correctness of later decades seem far off.

Where was bohemianism? In 1945, perhaps nowhere.

Toynbee was an Oxford man, though only briefly a don, but he declined the Regius Professorship of Modern History at Cambridge in 1947 in succession to GN Clark. The job would surely not have suited him. It was taken by JRM Butler instead.

Old posts:

GM Trevelyan on film

Trevelyan bibliography

Differences between Oxford and Cambridge

Forster at King’s in 1958

The Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race, 1829-


The Turkish spy

June 24 2015

Twice on [his] antiquarian tour [of Italy and Greece in 1911-12], the Oxford don-elect was arrested as a Turkish spy, first on the evening of the 16th November, 1911 on the last lap of a day’s march from Terracina to Formia, by an Italian carabiniere [Footnote: On this occasion, the suspect was able to clear himself by showing a card with “Balliol College, Oxford” engraved on it. “Ah! Collegio! Dunque non siete Turco”, reasoned the intelligent Italian security officer, and straightway left the left the suspicious-looking traveller in peace. Forty years later, in A.D. 1952, the carabiniere would, of course, no longer have been justified in acting on an a priori assumption that “Turk” and “college” were incompatible ideas.]

The Italians had every reason to be spy-conscious: their war with the Ottoman Empire, which gave them Libya and the Dodecanese (Rhodes), had begun at almost the exact moment Toynbee arrived in Italy. It ended soon after his return from Greece. (They held both colonies until the Second World War. The Dodecanese were returned not to Turkey but to Greece.)

and then again, on the 21st July, 1912, by a Greek military patrol. [Footnote: On this second occasion, he was arrested on the reasonable charge that he had walked across the perilously vulnerable railway viaduct over the gorge of the River Asopus at Elefterokhóri, where the sole railway running from Athens to the Graeco-Turkish frontier leaped across a chasm to come to earth again along the eastern flank of the citadel of Trachis. This charge was supported by the less convincing argument that the trespasser must be a foreign military spy because he was wearing insignia in the shape of a military water-bottle that was not of the pattern affected by the Greek Army.]

The Balkan Wars began a few weeks after his return to England.

A Study of History, Vol X, OUP, 1954

From the latifundia to Eni

June 23 2015

Apropos Byron’s Childe Harold (last post), I asked my friend Giovanni Caselli whether the Romans would have recognised the Italian landscapes of 1818. He generously replied with this broad-brush agrarian history of Tuscany, Umbria and the Marches and has allowed me to quote him. The same patterns are not necessarily found in northern Italy, Latium or the south. 1818 was a good time.

“The latifundia of Roman times collapsed during the war between the Goths and Byzantines. The large estates of the Late Empire, with great fields of wheat, vineyards, and olive groves with flocks grazing under the trees became a wilderness (5th-6th centuries CE).

“During the Longobard and Frankish period this wilderness was reclaimed with the [primitive feudal] courts system (7th-9th centuries). Patches of cultivated land appeared in clearings of the Mediterranean bush and oak wood forests.

“These cultivated clearings expanded during the castles period (10th-12th centuries), interspaced by larger clearings used for grazing.

“In the 12th-14th centuries the city bourgeoisie destroyed the power of the earls, who had demanded tolls for the transit of goods, and took over the production of wine, wheat and olive oil, with a crop-sharing system [payment of a share of the crop as rent]. Central Italy became dotted with hill-towns and scattered houses with mixed agriculture, and the mountains, largely deforested by charcoal burning, were used for grazing. The bourgeoisie employed the former slaves of the earls as farmers, giving them a better deal with contracts, enough land, and autonomy. They also bought slaves from the Crimea and the khanates of the Tartars. These introduced tools and implements of their own and also an ‘oriental’ method of growing vines. Women slaves introduced the use of pasta in Italy, being house servants and concubines. Each vine grew supported by the branches of a maple, shaped as a chandelier, each at a distance of eight to ten yards one from another.

“The Black Death caused a collapse of the countryside. By the start of the 15th century the towns and scattered farmhouses were gradually restored and reoccupied. Again the landscape was planted with mixed crops and trees. Sheep rearing was enormously increased with laws and regulations for summer and winter pastures and droves connecting them. Siena grew wealthy with this transit of sheep and by renting grazing areas to flocks along the Tuscan coast. The wool trade made cities like Florence rich.

“This mixed agricultural landscape collapsed again in the course of the 17th century, with another great plague, and this lasted till the shabby landscape that was seen by Tobias Smollett in 1766.

“Then, province by province, the country was restored to its ancient orderly farming system by the Grand Dukes of Tuscany, especially Peter Leopold of Augsburg [who became the Emperor Leopold II], a genius neglected by biographers. Tuscan farmhouses were specially designed by an appointed architect, new ways of farming and drainage of the country were perfected, and the Grand Tour travellers saw this Tuscany. Napoleon said, upon conquering Tuscany, that it was vastly more civilised than any French Department. No hovels, but great houses and competent healthy, proud farmers were seen working with their great white cows in the fields of North-Central Italy. Cities grew wealthy with a farming economy. Tuscany abolished the death penalty in the 1830s and many taxes. It drastically curbed the power of the church to the minimum for survival. Tuscany had Protestant leanings.

“With the unification of Italy, Tuscany became a Mediterranean country and ceased to be progressive and functional. In 1982 a law made the crop sharing system illegal. Farming collapsed for this reason, founded on political ideology, and climate change made matters worse. Marx had called the peasants conservative and obtuse. There were songs proclaiming ‘I won’t marry a peasant, I want a factory labourer and to have a good life’. Farmers could no longer find a wife. They all wanted to be employed by FIAT. If not by FIAT, they would prefer to become road sweepers rather than remain on the land. They lost both culture and wisdom, becoming indiscriminate consumers and never created a workers’ ‘culture’, like for example in England or in other European countries. The workers never wanted a ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ either, contrary to what the ‘intellectuals’ proposed to them. They wanted to cease to be a proletariat and become petty bourgeois, imitating the life-style of their factory masters. Instead of a big villa, they would seek a small one. Rather than a big car, they would be happy with a 500. Instead of skiing in Cortina they would go skiing in the Apennines. And so forth. Plainly, Thorstein Veblen was right and Marx wrong in the interpretation of what the masses wanted.

“Now the landscape is reverting to the state it was in in the Baroque period, with sections of entire regions devoted to intensive agriculture and intensive industry, the rest an abandoned wilderness. Where the Italians speak about ‘National Parks’, these are mere wastelands. The people live in a bubble, they have no idea of what is done in other countries. Like the savage, they think in terms of themselves being the right people and the rest ‘barbarians’. Italy lives in this illusion, and the Mafia and corruption have a really good time. Should anyone object to this description, I shall take him by the neck and drag him to see reality. Organic agriculture is practiced only by a small number of heroes, fighting against ENI, the firm that produces masses of weed killers, fertilisers and other poisons that have killed every insect species, including bees, and made farming products inedible by people gifted with a sense of taste, smell and eyesight, who can see the disaster around them.”


Giovanni Caselli is an Italian historian, archaeologist, illustrator and expert on pilgrim ways. Emilio Sereni’s History of the Italian Agricultural Landscape is too theoretical for his taste: like Toynbee, he prefers to understand a landscape by walking in it.

I have already posted a piece by him about the Appian way between Rome and the Alban Hills and one about the impoverishment, or rather creation, of the Italian language since unification.

Botros, Tuscany in the fall

Fall in Tuscany, copyright, used with kind permission of F Botros at fbotros.com

Old command

June 22 2015

“A land
Which was the mightiest in its old command”


Byron, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, Canto IV, 1818.

The next line has … “and is the loveliest”.

England’s landscape declined with its power. The trajectories were different, but (if you have anything like a classical view of landscape) they were in decline together from the moment English power started to decline.

The great twentieth-century popular historian of the English landscape was WG Hoskins, who published The Making of the English Landscape in 1955. That link is to a Wikipedia article which contains a summary of the book. The story was set in a wider historical context for the same generation, which had a stronger memory of old landscapes than we do, by GM Trevelyan (post here). For Trevelyan, the English landscape was still at its loveliest in 1818.

But would the Romans have recognised the Italian landscapes of 1818? I asked my friend Giovanni Caselli this question. I will post his reply tomorrow.


June 13 2015

Back June 22.


June 13 2015

The Wagon Passes, from Elgar, Nursery Suite. Ulster Orchestra, Bryden Thomson.

Or, as Elgar actually wrote, The Waggon (Passes).

Salonika 1912

June 12 2015

The writer of this Study vividly remembers how the continental character of Macedonia impressed itself upon him at the first view. He first visited Macedonia in the summer of 1912, at the end of a visit to the Kingdom of Greece within the frontiers as they then stood. Since the standard-gauge railway which now links Athens with Salonica had not been completed at that date, he travelled from the Peiraeus to Salonica by sea. He had been looking forward with interest to observing the political aspect of the passage from territory under Greek to territory under Turkish rule; but, as the steamer entered Salonica harbour, his eye was caught, not by the Turkish flag flying above the custom house, but by Austrian and German railway-wagons standing along the quay, on rails which ran without a break from Salonica to Vienna and from Vienna to Berlin. He then realized in a flash that this economic solidarity with Central Europe was the distinctive and fundamental characteristic of Macedonia, and that the political connexion with Turkey-in-Asia, though picturesque, was accidental and superficial.

These were the last days of the Ottoman suzerainty in Salonika which had begun in 1430. The First Balkan War broke out on October 8. On November 8, the feast day of Salonika’s patron saint, Demetrius, the Greek army accepted the surrender of the Ottoman garrison.

The Bulgarian army arrived a day later. Tahsin Pasha, the governor, said to them: “I have only one Salonika, which I have surrendered”.

The rail connection to central Europe had been built some years before the connection to Constantinople.

The Treaty of Bucharest of 1913, at the end of the Balkan Wars, divided Macedonia between Greece, Serbia and Bulgaria, with Greece getting the lion’s share; a small section went to Albania. The Serbian part ended (from 1946) as a separate constituent republic of Yugoslavia and is now an independent country.

Toynbee also visited the Athos Peninsula in 1912. On his way home to England in August, he either visited Durrës (Durazzo) or saw the Turkish flag over it from his ship. After a short period of occupation by Serbia it would become part of Albania in 1913.

The Great Fire of Thessaloniki of 1917, unlike the Great Fire of Smyrna of 1922, seems to have been accidental.

Summary of the Balkan Wars (old post).

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

Demotic China

June 11 2015

“I found that the history of Chinese literature consisted of two parallel movements: there was the classical literature of the scholars, the men of letters, the poets of the imperial courts, and of the élite; but there was in every age an undercurrent of literary development among the common people which produced the folk songs of love and heroism, the songs of the dancer, the epic stories of the street reciter, the drama of the village theatre and, most important of all, the novels. I found that every new form, every innovation in literature, had come never from the imitative classical writers of the upper classes, but always from the unlettered class of the country-side, the village inn and the market-place. I found that it was always these new forms and patterns of the common people that, from time to time, furnished the new blood and fresh vigour to the literature of the litterati, and rescued it from the perpetual danger of fossilisation. All the great periods of Chinese Literature were those when the master minds of the age were attracted by these new literary forms of the people and produced their best works, not only in the new patterns, but in close imitation of the fresh and simple language of the people. And such great epochs died away only when those new forms from the people had again become fixed and fossilised through long periods of slavish imitation by the uncreative litterati. …

“It was the anonymous folk songs of Antiquity that formed the bulk of the great Book of Poetry [mainly Western Zhou, 1046-771 BC] and created the first epoch of Chinese Literature. It was again the anonymous folk songs of the people that gave the form and the inspiration in the developments of the new poetry in the Three Kingdoms [immediately post-Han] and later in the T’ang Dynasty. It was the songs of the dancing and singing girls that began the new era of ts’ĭ or songs in the Sung Dynasty [between the post-T’ang Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period and the Mongols]. It was the people that first produced the plays which led to the great dramas of the Mongol period and the Mings. It was the street reciters of epic stories that gave rise to the great novels [Ming, and before and after], some of which have been ‘best sellers’ for three or four centuries.”

The op cit footnote refers to:

Hu Shih: The Chinese Renaissance: The Haskell Lectures, 1933 (Chicago 1934, University Press) […].

A Study of History, Vol IX, OUP, 1954

Port Said to Yokohama

June 10 2015

or, East of Suez

“[…] Aden, Bombay, Madras, Calcutta, Rangoon, Singapore, Penang, Bangkok, Saïgon, Hue, Hanoi, Hong-Kong, Shanghai, their names roll on the tongue savourily […]”

Somerset Maugham, The Gentleman in the Parlour, A Record of a Journey from Rangoon to Haiphong, 1930.

That shore-hugging list may not correspond exactly to anything on a real timetable. The Mediterranean to Japan would have taken perhaps four weeks with these stops.

Penang should come before Singapore. If anywhere is missing, it is Colombo. And the first stop after Aden could have been Karachi.

So the imperial journey might have touched Port Said, Aden, Karachi, Bombay, Colombo, Madras, Calcutta, Rangoon, Penang, Singapore, Bangkok, Saigon, Hue, Hanoi, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Yokohama. Hanoi’s port was actually Haiphong, 65 miles downstream on the Red River delta.

The cities between Siam and China in Maugham’s list correspond to the three divisions of the old Vietnam: Cochinchina’s capital was Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City), Annam’s was Hue (Huế), Tonking’s was Hanoi.

AE5Y2B White Man Burden is to teach cleanliness described in a Pears Soap advertisement 1890s

Siam and the West, 1511-1932

June 9 2015

The Portuguese were the first Europeans to give an account of Siam. After their conquest of Malacca in 1511, they sent a diplomat, Duarte Fernandes, to Ayutthaya.

A century later, on August 15 1612, an East India Company merchantman, The Globe, arrived bearing a letter from James I.

Ayutthaya may have been the largest city in the world in the seventeenth century, with a population of a million. Trade flourished, especially with the Dutch, French, Chinese and Japanese.

Episode of Constantine Phaulkon. Siam became more closed after the 1688 revolution (last post but one).

The heirs of Rama I became concerned with the threat of European colonialism after British victories in Burma in 1826.

They signed a series of treaties with foreign powers: the Burney Treaty with Britain in 1826, treaties with the US in 1833 and 1856. Others with other powers during the reigns of Mongkut or Rama IV (reigned 1851-68) and his son Chulalongkorn or Rama V (reigned 1868-1910).

They were caught between the British in Burma and the French in Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia.

The French had designs on Siam. Britain was Siam’s ally and wanted to preserve it as a buffer state, and so it remained. The Thais gave Britain economic privileges in return.

Their survival was due to a balance of power between Britain and France, but they believe that they also owe it to the diplomatic skills and modernising reforms of Mongkut and Chulalongkorn (1851-1910).

They were nevertheless forced to concede territory, influence or claims (it is often hard to tell them apart), especially to the French. Ie:

Cochinchina, or the extreme south of Vietnam, to France in 1862;

Cambodia to France in 1867; Cambodia had been a pawn in power struggles between Siam and Vietnam since the seventeenth century;

Thai-speaking Shan States in the north to British Burma; various dates (1893 Hansard discussion here);

Laos to France in Franco-Siamese War of 1893; large parts of Laos had come under Siamese control when the unified Lan Xang Laotian kingdom had disintegrated at the beginning of the eighteenth century; there had already been cessions in 1888; more was handed over in 1904 and 1907;

Territory in the south to Britain; but the Anglo-Siamese Treaty of 1909 defined the border between Siam and British Malaya by recognising Thai authority over the semi-Malay areas of Patani, Yala, Narathiwat and Satun.

Siam became the only country in Southeast Asia to avoid European colonisation.

From 1892 to 1924, the Siamese government retained lawyers who specialised in international lawGustave Rolin-Jaequemyns served as Adviser-General from 1892 to 1902. Edward Strobel, a Harvard law professor, served as American Adviser-General from 1906 until his death in 1908. He was followed by further Harvard professors: Jens Westengard, Francis Sayre and Eldon James.

A coup planned by young military officers was discovered and thwarted in 1912. Compare the Russian revolution of 1905, Persian revolution of 1905-07, the Young Turks of 1908.

Siam declared war against the Central Powers on July 22 1917, mainly to gain favour from Britain and France. In 1918 it sent 1,284 volunteers to the Western Front. The force included 95 qualified pilots and a medical unit. In addition to the Chinese Labour Corps and 140,000 Vietnamese troops and workers drafted by the French, the Siamese troops were the only Southeast Asians to participate in the European theatre.

Siam was given a seat at Versailles and used the opportunity to argue for amendments of nineteenth-century treaties. The US obliged in 1920, France and Britain in 1925, but I am not aware of any territorial concessions. Siam was a founding member of the League of Nations in 1920.

Modern Thai politics begin in 1932, when the military staged its first successful coup and transformed the government of Siam from an absolute to a constitutional monarchy, with a cabinet presided over by a prime minister.

Conrad in Bangkok

June 8 2015

“One morning, early, we crossed the bar, and while the sun was rising splendidly over the flat spaces of the land we steamed up the innumerable bends, passed under the shadow of the great gilt pagoda, and reached the outskirts of the town.

There it was, spread largely on both banks, the Oriental capital which had as yet suffered no white conqueror; an expanse of brown houses of bamboo, of mats, of leaves, of a vegetable-matter style of architecture, sprung out of the brown soil on the banks of the muddy river. It was amazing to think that in those miles of human habitations there was not probably half a dozen pounds of nails. Some of those houses of sticks and grass, like the nests of an aquatic race, clung to the low shores. Others seemed to grow out of the water; others again floated in long anchored rows in the very middle of the stream. Here and there in the distance, above the crowded mob of low, brown roof ridges, towered great piles of masonry, King’s Palace, temples, gorgeous and dilapidated, crumbling under the vertical sunlight, tremendous, overpowering, almost palpable, which seemed to enter one’s breast with the breath of one’s nostrils and soak into one’s limbs through every pore of one’s skin.”


Joseph Conrad, The Shadow-Line, a late novel, written 1915, published 1917. Crossing the bar meant crossing the sandbank which often lies at the mouth of a river. Going in the other direction, it could be a metaphor for setting off into the unknown. Conrad’s young narrator is sailing up the Chao Phraya River.

Siam’s 1688 revolution

June 7 2015

… or, King Narai’s falcon

Constantine Phaulkon (1647-88) was a Greek adventurer, born to Orthodox parents in Venetian-ruled northern Cephalonia.

He left Greece to work for the English East India Company and became an Anglican. He arrived in Siam in 1675, became fluent in Thai, and began to work at the court of King Narai of Ayutthaya as a translator and finally as the king’s chief adviser.

Ayutthaya was the dominant power in Thailand from the fourteenth century to the eighteenth. Recent post. Its capital, Ayutthaya, was the “largest city in the world”. It would be interesting to make a list of all the cities that have had that claim made for them through the centuries.

In 1682, Phaulkon became a Catholic and married a Catholic woman of mixed Japanese-Portuguese-Bengali descent named Maria Guyomar de Pinha. They lived a life of affluence as he rose as de facto minister of finance and of foreign affairs to Narai. There were two sons – with Greek, Portuguese, Bengali and Japanese blood, João and Jorge – the first of whom died before their father.

Following troubles with the over-aggressive English and Dutch, Phaulkon engineered circa 1680 a Franco-Siamese rapprochement. Several embassies were exchanged between France and Siam. This was not the beginning of Franco-Thai relations, but from about 1680 to 1688 the contact was close.

In 1687 Siam fought a war with the East India Company and the French, seeking to press home their advantages, sent an expeditionary force.

Ayutthaya had been open to other traders and tolerant of missionaries. Chinese, Annamese, Indians, Japanese, Persians, Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch and French came and went. Some set up villages outside the walls of the capital. There had been limited contact with the British, starting in 1612, when an East India Company ship arrived, carrying a letter from King James I for the Siamese king.

Louis’ ambassadors compared Ayutthaya in size and wealth with Paris. The Abbé de Choisy, who was part of the embassy of Chevalier de Chaumont in 1685: “The king has absolute power. He is truly the god of the Siamese: no-one dares to utter his name.” (Wikipedia)

French engineers constructed fortifications for the Thais and built a new palace for Narai at Lopburi. French missionaries engaged in education and medicine and brought the first printing press into Siam. Louis XIV’s personal interest was aroused by reports from missionaries suggesting that Narai might be converted to Christianity.

Phaulkon’s closeness to the king earned him the envy of some Thai members of the court. The Abbé de Choisy:

“He was one of those in the world who have the most wit, liberality, magnificence, intrepidity, and was full of great projects, but perhaps he only wanted to have French troops in order to try and make himself king after the death of his master, which he saw as imminent. He was proud, cruel, pitiless, and with inordinate ambition. He supported the Christian religion because it could support him; but I would never have trusted him in things in which his own advancement was not involved.” (Mémoires pour servir à l’histoire de Louis XIV via Wikipedia)

When King Narai became terminally ill, a rumour spread that Phaulkon wanted to use the designated heir, Phra Pui, as a puppet and become ruler himself. French motives also came under suspicion. All this provided an excuse for Pra Phetracha, the foster brother of Narai, to stage a coup d’état.

Without the king’s knowledge, Phaulkon, his followers and Phra Pui were arrested and executed on June 5 1688 in Lopburi.

King Narai learned what had happened, but was too weak to take any action. He died several weeks later, a prisoner in his own palace. Phetracha proclaimed himself the new king of Siam. The French were expelled (Siege of Bangkok). Phetracha began a xenophobic regime which expelled almost all foreigners from the kingdom.

Phaulkon (which means falcon) was in effect, or became, a double agent, if that is not too modern a phrase. The revolution interrupted relations between France and Siam until the nineteenth century, although French Jesuits were allowed to resume preaching. After 1826, the Thais had to deal with the new territorial acquisitiveness of the British and then of the French.

In 1893 and 1941, they fought wars with France. But they are another story.

A narrative of Constantine’s life was written in France circa 1691 by a Père de Beze, one of a group of Jesuit fathers who arrived in Siam in September 1687 at the request of Phaulkon. The manuscript found its way into the hands of GE Morrison, “Morrison of Peking”, The Times correspondent there from 1897 to 1912. In 1917 Baron Iwasaki, the former President of Mitsubishi, bought Morrison’s library. It became the kernel of the great Japanese Asian library, the Tōyō Bunko.

An English scholar, EW Hutchinson, saw the manuscript in Tokyo in 1936 and made some use of it in Adventurers in Siam in the Seventeenth Century, London, The Royal Asiatic Society, 1940. He believes that it was addressed to Père de la Chaise, the Confessor to Louis XIV, and was never intended for publication.

The manuscript was published in Tokyo in 1947 as Mémoire sur la vie de Constance Phaulkon, par Père de Bèze, Presses Salesiennes, in an edition prepared by Jean Drans, Acting French Director at the Maison Franco-Japonaise and Father Henri Bernard, S.J., Professor at the École des Hautes Études de Tientsin.

In 1957 Hutchinson decided to translate the whole memoir “slowly” into English.

The result was a scholarly book of which I bought a well-printed local edition in Bangkok in 1992: 1688 – Revolution in Siam, The Memoir of Father de Bèze, s.j., Translated into English with Introduction, Commentary, Appendices and Notes, Hong Kong University Press, 1968. Father de Bèze is considered more reliable than the highly-coloured tales strung together and published by Père Tachard (1686 and 1687), which in turn were used for the Histoire de Monsieur Constance of yet another Jesuit, the Père d’Orléans (1690).

Somerset Maugham, aware of the Père d’Orléans but not of the Père de Bèze, describes Phaulkon in The Gentleman in the Parlour, A Record of a Journey from Rangoon to Haiphong, published in 1930. He had made the journey with Gerald Haxton in 1922-23.

“I was within forty-eight hours by rail of Bangkok, but before going there I wanted to see Lopburi and Ayudha, which at one time were capitals of Siam. In these Eastern countries cities are founded, increase to greatness and are destroyed in a manner that cannot but fill the Western traveller, accustomed for many centuries now to a relative stability, with a certain misgiving. A king, forced by the hazards of war or maybe only to gratify a whim, will change his capital and founding a new city, build a palace and temples and richly ornament them; and in a few generations the seat of government, owing to another hazard or another whim, moving elsewhere, the city is abandoned and desolation usurps the place of so much transitory splendour. Here and there in the jungle, far from any habitation, you will find ruined temples, overgrown with trees, and among the dank verdure broken gods and elaborate bas-reliefs as the only sign that here was once a thriving city, and you will come across poverty-stricken villages that are all that remain of the capital of a rich and powerful kingdom. It is a sombre reminder of the mutability of human things.

“Lopburi is now but a narrow winding street of Chinese houses, built along one bank of the river; but all about are the ruins of a great city, mouldering temples and crumbling pagodas with here and there a fragment of florid carving, and in the temples are broken images of the Blessed One, and in their courtyards bits of heads and arms and legs. The plaster is grey as though it had been discoloured by London fogs and it peels off the bricks so that you think of old men with loathsome diseases. There is no elegance of line in these ruins and the decoration of doors and windows, robbed by time of their gold and tinsel, is mean and tawdry.

“But I had come to Lopburi chiefly to see what remained of the grand house of Constantine Faulkon, who was, I suppose, one of the most amazing of the adventurers who have made the East the scene of their exploits. The son of a Cephalonian innkeeper, he ran away to sea in an English ship, and after many hazards arriving in Siam rose to be the chief minister of the King. The world of his day rang with the tale of his unlimited power, splendour and enormous wealth. There is an account of him in a little book by the Père d’Orléans of the Company of Jesus, but it is a work of edification and dilates unduly upon the tribulations of Constantine’s widow when after his death she sought to preserve her virtue from the rude onslaughts of a Siamese prince. In her laudable efforts she was supported by her saintly grandmother, who at the age of eighty-eight, having lost nothing of the ardour and vivacity of her faith, talked to her continually of the famous Martyrs of Japan, from whom she had the honour to be descended. ‘My daughter,’ she said to her, ‘what glory there is in being a martyr! You have here the advantage that martyrdom seems to be an heirloom in your family: if you have so much reason to expect it, what pains should you not take to deserve it!’

“It is satisfactory to learn that, sustained by these counsels and fortified by the incessant admonitions of the Jesuit fathers, the widow resisted all temptations to become the bejewelled inmate of an almost royal seraglio and ended her virtuous days as dish-washer in the house of a gentleman of no social consequence.

“One could have wished that the Père d’Orléans had been a little more circumstantial in his account of his hero’s career. The vicissitudes in the course of which he ascended from his lowly station to such a pinnacle surely deserved to be saved from oblivion. He represents him as a pious catholic and an upright minister devoted to the interests of his king; but his account of the revolution that overthrew both king and dynasty and delivered the Greek into the hands of the outraged patriots of Siam, reads as though a certain arrangement of the facts had seemed necessary so that neither le grand roi nor various persons in high places should incur reproach. A decent veil is thrown over the sufferings of the fallen favourite, but his death at the hands of the executioners is vastly edifying. Reading between the jejune lines you receive notwithstanding the impression of a powerful and brilliant character. Constantine Faulkon was unscrupulous, cruel, greedy, faithless, ambitious; but he was great. His story reads like one of Plutarch’s lives.

“But of the grand house which he built nothing remains but the high brick wall that surrounded it and three or four roofless buildings, crumbling walls and the shapes of doors and windows. They have still the vague dignity of the architecture of Louis XIV. It is an unhandsome ruin that reminds you of nothing but a group of jerry-built villas destroyed by fire.

“I went back to the river. It was narrow and turbid, deep between high banks, and on the other side were thick clumps of bamboo behind which the red sun was setting. The people were having their evening bath; fathers and mothers were bathing their children, and monks, having washed themselves, were rinsing out their yellow robes. It was a pleasant sight and grateful to the sensibility jarred by those sordid ruins and perplexed.”

History Today (not consulted):

Robert Bruce, Louis XIV’s Mission to Siam, March 1971

Robert Bruce, Constantine Phaulkon: The Greek Dictator of Siam, February 1982

Peter Murrell, Louis XIV and the King of Siam, May 2014.

A Siamese execution, 19th-century illustration from Le Petit Journal used on the jacket of my edition of Hutchinson’s translation:

EW Hutchinson, Revolution in Siam

Southeast Asian languages

June 6 2015

The main language systems are


Austroasiatic includes Mon (Burma), Vietnamese and Khmer.

I have done a post on Austronesia. Austronesian languages include Malay, Polynesian languages and Tagalog.

Hmong-Mien languages are spoken in mountainous areas of southern China. Within the last 3-400 years, many Hmong and Mien speakers have migrated to Burma, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam.

Sino-Tibetan includes Chinese (Mandarin and non-Mandarin), Burmese and the Tibetic languages. It has more native speakers than any other language family except the Indo-European. Tibeto-Burman refers to the Sino-Tibetan languages that are not Chinese.

Tai-Kadai includes Lao and Thai (last post).

These are linguistic, not ethnic, classifications.

African languages (old post).

From the Yangtze to the Gulf of Thailand

June 6 2015

The Thai are a subgroup of the Tai people, who include the Ahom in India, Dai in China, Shan in Burma, Lao in Laos and others in Vietnam. The Tai appeared historically in the first century CE in the Yangtze River valley. Chinese pressures forced them south.

The ancestors of the Thai entered the central part of the Southeast Asian mainland from Yunnan circa AD 1000.

The most powerful Tai kingdom in Yunnan had been Nanchao or Nanzhao, 729-902. It was followed by the Dali Kingdom, 937-1253, whose founder claimed Han descent, and which was conquered by the Mongols.

Some Tai presumably migrated because of infiltration of Yunnan by Han Chinese. More later fled from the Mongols. It was the Mongols who brought Yunnan definitively into China.

Nanzhao had been influenced by Tantric or Tibetan Buddhism. Its Indian Acharya version as present in the Dali Kingdom. After their migration (earlier?), the Thais became converts to the Theravada or Sinhalese southern Buddhism that had established itself in Burma in 1190.

There have been four main Thai polities in Thailand (capital here means main capital; other cities may have served the function for some of the time):

I  Kingdom of Sukhothai, 1238-1438
Capital Sukhothai, 265 miles north of Bangkok

Phra Ruang dynasty, but from 1368 under the suzerainty of the Kingdom of Ayutthaya

II  Kingdom of Ayutthaya, 1350-1767
Capital Ayutthaya, 50 miles north of Bangkok

First Uthong dynasty, 1350-70
First Suphannaphum dynasty, 1370-88
Second Uthong dynasty, 1388-1409
Second Suphannaphum dynasty, 1409-1569
Sukhothai dynasty, 1569-1629
Prasat Thong dynasty, 1630-88
Ban Phlu Luang dynasty, 1688-1767

Ayutthaya was brought down by Burmese invaders, who continued to harass Thailand in the coming decades.

III  Kingdom of Thonburi, 1768-82
Capital Thonburi, now part of Bangkok

Thonburi dynasty

IV  Kingdom of Rattanakosin, 1782-present
Capital Bangkok

Chakri dynasty

Rattanakosin comes from Rattanakosin Island in Bangkok, the original site of the capital.

All the Chakri kings have the official name of Rama. Bhumibol is Rama IX. His predecessor Ananda (last post) was Rama VIII.

Thais called the country Mueang Thai. The exonym Siam came from the Portuguese. It has been identified with the Sanskrit śyāma (श्याम), meaning dark or brown. Some Thais are very dark.

Siam was officially adopted under Mongkut or Rama IV (reigned 1851-68). On June 23 1939 the name was changed to Thailand. From 1945 to May 11 1949 it was Siam again. Then it reverted to Thailand.

The distance from the Yangtze basin to the Gulf of Thailand is about 2,500 miles.

Tibetan rivers (old post).


Mystery in Siam, and other unlucky kings

June 5 2015

Peter, Ananda and Faisal.

Yugoslavia: Ex-King Peter, 1945

Mystery in Siam, 1946

The exonym Siam became official under King Mongkut (reigned 1851-68). On June 23 1939 it was changed to Thailand. From 1945 to May 11 1949 it was Siam again. Then it reverted to Thailand.

Iraq Bombshell, 1958

Violent Buddhists

June 5 2015

… in Sri Lanka

Charles Haviland, BBC Radio 4. A depressing account.

Turbulent monks – the Pali Tipitaka (old post).

Tuba concerto

June 4 2015

Vaughan Williams, 1954. Patrick Harrild, tuba; London Symphony Orchestra, Bryden Thomson.

Prelude: Allegro moderato

Romanza: Andante sostenuto

Finale: Rondo alla tedesca, allegro.