Flag of Abkhazia. The seven stars represent the seven historical regions of the country; the green and white stripes represent the friendly coexistence of Islam and Christianity; the upraised hand represents the Abkhazians’ traditional opposition to jaywalking.

Dear Dr. Boli: So I found out that July 4 is Independence Day in Abkhazia, which meant that I had to find out what an Abkhazia was, and then I started to notice how many other countries celebrate their independence in July. Why is that? Oh, and also August. —Sincerely, A Professor of Agriculture, but with an Interest in History.

Dear Sir or Madam: July and August, the hottest months of the year, are the times when people are at their most irritable. Minor inconveniences, such as a rise in parking-meter rates, are then perceived as monstrous injustices. A wise government will learn from your observation to make its most unpopular decisions in the spring or fall, when the weather is most pleasant.

Published in: on July 3, 2012 at 6:48 pm  Comments (1)  



LIKE EVERYTHING ELSE in classical history, the foundation of Rome was traced back to the Trojan War. It seems that, while the victorious Greeks were finding their way home past the various cyclopes and sirens that stood in the way, the defeated Trojans were scattering to the four corners of the earth and founding every non-Greek nation that would later aspire to a civilized antiquity. One of those Trojans was Aeneas, who made it past Dido, Queen of Carthage (apparently a more formidable obstacle than all the mythical monsters of the Odyssey put together), to found a little Trojan colony in far-off Italy. And if you ask why he did so, instead of staying in Carthage where he could have had a prosperous kingdom and a beautiful queen, the answer you will receive is that he did it because it was his destiny. Unlike modern politicians, who generally discover their destinies only after the sordid details of their corruption and immorality have been made into a mass-market paperback book, Aeneas could count on friendly gods to explain his destiny to him with a helpful PowerPoint presentation. There is nothing more inconvenient than missing one’s destiny; and it is sincerely to be regretted that, owing to the laxness of the Olympian gods in recent centuries, many a destined founder of an empire is probably frittering away his life as a county commissioner somewhere in the trackless Midwest.

Aeneas succeeded in planting the little Trojan colony, but it was not his destiny to found the city of Rome himself, so he wisely stuck within the limits of what the gods had told him to do and left the rest to future generations.

In the fulness of time, Romulus and Remus, descendants of the great Aeneas, were born and, to set the standard of Roman child care for centuries to come, were immediately discarded as of no use to anybody. Fortunately for the future destiny of Rome, a friendly she-wolf mistook the infants for a curiously hairless pair of cubs and reared them as her own. Romulus grew up to found the city of Rome; Remus grew up to be murdered by his brother, which is just as well, since nobody wants to read the story of the Reman Empire.

When we call Rome a “city,” of course, we must admit that we are playing fast and loose with the term. At first Rome was nothing more than a crossroads with two farmhouses and a Circle K. Even after Rome grew to several streets of scraggly houses with its own Rite Aid, it was still such a no-account place that it could not produce its own kings: it had to import cut-rate kings from the Etruscans next door, who seem to have had more kings than they knew what to do with. In 509 B.C., however—at just about the time the Athenians were deciding that a war with Persia might be fun—the Romans threw out the last of their Etruscan kings and decided to do without kings altogether. The last king had made himself so unwelcome, in fact, that “king” was a bad word for most of the rest of Roman history. Kings were evil: they were the people who told you what to do, even if you didn’t want to do it, and Rome was better off without them.

But if Rome was not a kingdom, then what was it? The Greeks had a word for everything, but Latin was still a young language. The Romans had no idea what to call their new government. Whenever they had to talk about it, they scratched their heads and spoke of “the public…um…thing.” And so it was called for the rest of time, because the Romans never did come up with a name for it. Even into imperial times, the Romans continued to call their government the res publica or republica—the public thing.

There were, of course, the usual dire predictions that a state with no king could not survive without tearing itself apart. These predictions proved absolutely correct. The Roman public thing could never hold itself together, and the next five centuries present us with a spectacle of constant class struggle and civil war that would have meant the end of any other state.

What the naysayers did not predict was that the public thing turned out to be fabulously good at conquering other better-run governments. The Romans could not build a government to save their lives, but they could put together the best armies in the world. They had a special knack for starting fights and winning them. Soon what had been the little village of Rome was the greatest city in the Italian peninsula, grown fat on the spoils of its neighbors. Each conquest brought piles of gold into Rome, enough to keep even the dysfunctional public thing going for a while longer. And whenever it began to look as though the whole fabric of Roman society was about to unravel, there was always another fight to get into.

Soon the expanding Roman public thing had become one of the two great powers of the western Mediterranean, which of course meant that it was time to pick a fight with the other great power. That power was Carthage, the Phoenician New York in North Africa, which had been busy carving out its own empire and was not at all keen on having the Romans chip away at it.

The conflict with Carthage was so valuable to the survival of the public thing that the Romans managed to keep the fight going for more than a century. It helped that the Carthaginian generals were not always the brightest bulbs. Hannibal, for example, tried to bring elephants over the Alps to attack Rome, which is almost as foolish as… well, actually, there really isn’t anything stupider than trying to bring elephants over the Alps. Yet Hannibal was considered quite brainy among the Carthaginian elite.

Indeed, the Romans might have won much earlier if the conflict had not been so useful in the internal politics of Rome. Politicians in the Roman Senate, the legislative body of the public thing, discovered that they could get virtually any measure passed by adding “and Carthage must be destroyed” as a rider: “A zoning variance for the construction of public rest rooms on the Aventine shall be granted, and Carthage must be destroyed.” As long as Carthage remained the great bugbear in the Roman imagination, the public thing could be administered as poorly as its greediest administrators desired. This happy state of affairs might have gone on for many more centuries if the Romans had not got a bit overenthusiastic and actually destroyed Carthage.

It is a curious principle of Roman history that most of Rome’s conquests were unintentional collateral damage. Rome intentionally went after Carthage; but, when the dust had settled, she discovered that she had accidentally become mistress of Spain and Greece as well. Rome had not really intended to absorb most of the civilized world: it just sort of happened, and now the public thing, which had proved itself utterly incapable of governing a moderately prosperous city-state in the Italian hills, was stuck with the task of administering the greatest empire in the world. Naturally, it made a big fat mess of the whole thing.

Meanwhile, the city of Rome itself, now the biggest and most prosperous in the Mediterranean if not the entire world, was paralyzed by the sort of political disagreements that always end with somebody’s head on a stick. The Roman politics of those days had a bracing vigor to which future ages would look back with nostalgia. “Remember the glorious days of the public thing,” future Romans would say to each other, “when the Forum was always gaily festooned with severed heads, and gangs of roving thugs fought each other in the streets every night? Ah, those were the good old days.”

Now, while all this conquest and chaos was going on, a strange thing was happening to Roman culture. The Roman upper classes, who had once looked on “culture” as the sort of thing effete intellectual snobs liked to talk about, were falling under the spell of Greece. The Greeks might not have been able to resist the unstoppable force of the Roman legions, but they still kept their old unshakable conviction that Greeks were better than other people, and their curious knack for passing that conviction on to the other people. When the Roman upper classes were not beheading members of the rival political party, they were busy sucking up all the Greek literature and art they could get their hands on. They judged their own efforts by how closely they met the Greek standard; indeed, a Roman who had any ambition of making an impression on the intellectual world would write in Greek. Latin was for hicks. One might have been forgiven for supposing that Greece had conquered Rome instead of the other way around.

Thus Rome had become both the most sophisticated city in the world and the most violent. It was only a matter of time before she produced a man who, in his refined and sophisticated violence, was the perfect image of his city.

Julius Caesar began his political career as one of those compromise candidates who are drafted into a high position less because of their talent than because all the talented people have made too many enemies. The real political powers in Rome decided to stick him in front of an army, even though he had never held any significant command, on the theory that he was unlikely to do any real damage if he was given a relatively easy assignment well away from the real theater of war, which was in the distant east.

But Caesar was a man whose fertile imagination never lacked an excuse for a fight. If a war was not provided for him, he could provide it himself. Expecting him to hold the frontier against the Gauls with passable competence, the Roman Senate was soon informed that he had conquered all three parts of Gaul, and Britain as well, which was a place so far away that most Romans probably regarded it as mythological.

This was not at all what the powers in Rome had had in mind. They had quite enough heroes to deal with already. The last thing they needed was a really competent general messing about with their plans. So the Senate sent Caesar a pink slip.

It was, however, more difficult than the senators had anticipated to fire the most popular general the public thing had ever produced, especially when he was headed straight for Rome with the same invincible army that had flattened western Europe. The Senate therefore drew a line at the river Rubicon. “Do not cross this line,” the senators said, “or we shall be very cross.”

Caesar sat down by the river to think it over. “Alea jacta est,” he said at last: “The die is cast.” But just then some of his most trusted officers appeared and persuaded him that Rome could be his if he would stop playing Monopoly and continue the march.

Once Caesar had taken Rome, the Senate assured him that it had just been kidding about the pink slip and offered him the position of dictator for life. From here Caesar went from success to success. He made an alliance with Cleopatra of Egypt that was so friendly it produced a son, and he published his memoirs of the wars, setting a standard of dull competence in Latin prose that is still held up to yawning schoolchildren as the acme of style today.

The one thing the conservative party in Roman politics could never forgive him for was that Caesar seemed to be bringing stability to the public thing. It had been far too long since there was bloodshed in the streets of Rome. Instead, for the first time in history, the public thing was simply doing its job of keeping the people safe to go about their business unmolested. Was all this competence and prosperity any way to run a government? No, Caesar must go; and so the men who considered themselves most attached to the rule of law in Rome decided to murder Caesar. “Not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more,” as the conspirator Brutus famously put it. “Though actually, if it comes to that, I didn’t really like Caesar very much.”

The murder of Caesar was even more effective than the conspirators had dared hope in bringing back the glories of the old public thing. Soon blood was flowing not only in the streets of Rome, but from one end of the Mediterranean to the other, as rival gangs of thugs surrounded themselves with some of the largest armies the world had ever seen. Even now the strange luck of the Romans did not fail them; part of the collateral damage of this gigantic civil war was Egypt, which somehow sort of accidentally ended up subject to Rome.

Finally, when the dust had settled and everybody was good and tired, the gang that had followed Caesar’s adopted son Octavian found itself sitting on top of the heap. By promising to restore the dignity of the public thing, Octavian won over the Senate, which gratefully gave him the title Augustus.

Now, at last, there was peace throughout the Roman world. The only difference from the old days of the public thing was that now there was one more line at the top of the org chart, a line that was definitely not labeled “king,” because Rome was governed by a public thing that most certainly had nothing to do with kings, but a line that nevertheless made all the difference. The Senate continued to govern the public thing exactly as before, but now there was an Augustus to tell the Senate what to do, relieving the senators of the burdensome responsibility of thinking, which history had shown was not the thing they were best at.

And everything would have been just peachy from there on, except that, just as Augustus was settling in for a long and prosperous era of peace, something was happening in the backward province of Judea that would ultimately ruin everything.


Chapter 10.—Christianity Ruins Everything.

Published in: on July 1, 2012 at 9:33 pm  Comments (1)  


ON THIS DAY in 1184 B.C. (according to Eratosthenes, who put some effort into working out the date), the city of Troy fell after a ten-year siege. Thus the tawdry little affair between Helen and Paris came to a spectacular end. In those days, there were no supermarket tabloids to shame adulterers in public, so an offended husband could not simply call his publicist, and had to resort to war as his only recourse.

Published in: on June 11, 2012 at 9:02 am  Leave a Comment  



MACEDON WAS A rural backwater in Greece, the sort of place about which Athenians told jokes involving moonshine and prohibited degrees of consanguinity. If you had told the more civilized Greeks that the next great world empire would begin in Macedon, they would have looked at you with the same puzzled and contemptuous stares you would get from a New Yorker today if you said, “Mark my words, the next big player on the global stage will be Parkersburg, West Virginia.”

One big advantage the Macedonians had, however, was a lack of principles. The Spartans were obsessed with their national honor; the Athenians were devoted to liberty, as long as it was their own liberty and not somebody else’s. But the Macedonians, free of juvenile and unwholesome ideas like “honor” and “liberty,” were entirely unencumbered in their pursuit of their own advantage. They were especially unencumbered when the throne was taken by Philip, a man whose simple pragmatism is still an inspiration to every ruthless tyrant who thinks that principles only get in the way. The more civilized Greeks thought of Philip as a bull in a china shop; but, simply by not caring how much of the china he broke, Philip soon made himself master of all Greece. He had just announced his intention of going after Persia as well when he was felled by an assassin.

Philip’s heir was a young man—hardly more than a boy—by the name of Alexander. And in order to account for the remarkable career of this young hick from the hill country, we must have a look at his education.

The environment in which Alexander grew up was a unique mixture of the sophisticated and the hayseed. He was surrounded by the court life of his father Philip, whose ideas of honor and morality were still decidedly Homeric, which is to say that they leaned heavily on evisceration as the solution to any particularly intractable problem. On the other hand, Philip was also eager to be accepted by the pretentious intellectuals in the big cities, for which reason he hired the famous philosopher Aristotle as his son’s tutor.

We can easily imagine how Alexander’s lessons went, with the wise old philosopher demanding that his pupil distinguish the kinds of causes, and Alexander replying, “Well, the material cause is the iron of my blade; the formal cause is the sharpness, and, if I may so call it, the bladishness of it; the efficient cause is my ripping his abdomen open with it; and the final cause is so that others may learn never to cheat when they play marbles with me.” We can imagine Aristotle gently suggesting that it might be clearer if we confined our examples to statues and cups and such things, and we can imagine Alexander losing interest in the lesson shortly after that.

This was the young man who, at the age of twenty, found himself master of all Greece, at least after he had finished pummeling Greece back into submission again. He had the greatest scientific mind the world had yet produced as his tutor; but it is worth noting that the book he carried with him everywhere he went was the Iliad, the classic Greek manual of practical evisceration. Abstract science, after all, will get you only so far in conquering the world.

Alexander was set on carrying out his father’s ambition of putting Persia in its place; so, once he had secured the allegiance of the grateful Greek cities, which were grateful that he had wiped only one of them off the map, he plunged into Asia Minor, where he began a long string of victories over Persian armies. After each disaster, the Persian king Darius would make good his escape. Alexander chased Darius all over the Persian Empire, merrily crushing armies and leveling cities along the way, until at last Darius’ luck ran out. Mortally wounded, he allowed Alexander to catch up with him at last. Then, as he lay dying, he breathed out his last words to the victorious conqueror: “You have slaughtered our armies; you have burnt and pillaged cities across the length and breadth of the empire; you have put our men to the sword and sold our women and children as slaves; and finally you have pursued me unto my death. Clearly no one has been more loyal to the cause of Persia than you have been, and it is my desire that you should succeed me as King of Kings.”

At least that was how Alexander told the story, and who was going to contradict him?

So Alexander took his place as the duly designated head of the Persian Empire, a vast territory that included Egypt in the south, Asia Minor in the west, and the borders of India in the east. Vast though his new empire may have been, however, his ambition was vaster. Under the usual pretext of some trifling border incidents, Alexander led his armies into India itself; and there, when he had reduced a large chunk of the subcontinent to his dominion, he sat down and wept because there were no more worlds to conquer. One wonders how he might have reacted if someone had told him about China, Siberia, Mongolia, Scandinavia, Indonesia, Australia, sub-Saharan Africa, North and South America, and Tristan da Cunha. But no one did tell him; so he ambled back to Babylon in a blue funk, and there he died of ennui.

Alexander’s generals agreed that one of them should succeed him, but on the question of which one of them it ought to be they could come to no agreement whatsoever. Eventually, after a long run of civil wars so monotonous that no historian ever bothers to chronicle them in detail, the territory was divided into three smaller empires, each one of which was still unimaginably vast by Greek standards, but none of which was vast enough for the grasping cupidity of its emperor.

What, then, did Alexander accomplish if he did not build a lasting empire?

Well, for one thing, he founded flourishing cities wherever cities appeared to be needed. Owing to some curious mental deficiency, Alexander could think of only one name for a city, so the map was peppered with Alexandrias from Thrace to India. It infuriated the Postmaster General and gave the travel agents fits, but the name had a certain ring to it. The most successful of the lot was Alexandria in Egypt, which still bears that name today, and which in turn has given its name to other Alexandrias all over the globe; so that, in a sense, Alexander’s empire really has reached as far as Virginia, Louisiana, and New South Wales.

This proliferation of Alexandrias was only part of a larger tendency to Hellenize the world. Wherever he went, Alexander propagated the noble idea he had learned from his great tutor: viz., that Greeks are better than other people. But Alexander brought his own little twist to the idea. Unlike Aristotle, he believed that anybody, deep down inside, was potentially a Greek. There was no difference in nature between Greeks and barbarians. All the barbarians had to do was dress more tastefully, learn to speak Greek, and stop acting so foreign, and then they could have all the benefits of Greek civilization.

The Hellenization program really took off, because one of the immediately obvious benefits of Greek civilization was getting rich. With a common language from Marseilles to India, merchants could trade across vast distances and bring expensive luxuries to newly opened markets. Most luxuries, after all, were luxuries only because they came from somewhere far away. Greeks would pay enormous sums for the pepper that clambered all over the ground in India, and the Indians were equally enchanted with the cheap wine that the Greeks themselves usually bought in cardboard boxes. For anyone who had the ambition to transport worthless rubbish to some port so far away that the rubbish became a precious treasure, there were vast fortunes to be made.

Thus Greek culture was spread over an enormous area that stretched from the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean. Of course, to spread so far, it had to be spread pretty thin. Instead of stirring epics and immortal tragedies, the literary lights of the new “Hellenistic” age tended to produce dime novels.

Nevertheless, there was a certain cultural uniformity across the known world (“known” meaning “known to the Greeks,” of course). And that would prove to be very convenient for the next stage of history, because it meant that, when the time came, the known world would be ripe for conquering in big chunks, rather than in unprofitable little pieces.

Published in: on June 6, 2012 at 9:03 pm  Comments (1)  


ON THIS DAY in 1962, a fire began in an abandoned coal mine under the borough of Centralia, Penna.  Fifty years later, it is still burning, and the town has been condemned and mostly abandoned. The ten remaining residents, however, still maintain a functioning borough government, which supports itself by offering tours of the site in which “extreme tourists” are guided through the steaming sinkholes, jagged smoking ditches, and fiery pits by a dead Roman poet of their choice.

Published in: on May 27, 2012 at 1:30 pm  Comments (2)  



THERE IS AN art as well as a science to history. As an artist, the historian uses his imagination, or his experience if he has any, to place himself in the time about which he writes. His aim is to explain, through an imaginative analysis of motivations and currents of thought, how the people of that time came to be such idiots. He attempts to understand what led them to make so many boneheaded decisions that he would not have made if he had been in their place.

The Greeks made more boneheaded decisions in their history than any other ancient people; it is therefore not surprising that the art of history itself must be attributed to them.

To Herodotus, the “Father of History,” we owe the first serious attempt at history in the modern sense. Herodotus set out to tell the story of a turning-point in world history: the conflict between Greece and Persia. It was a turning-point in world history because, of course, the Greeks were writing the history. From the Persian point of view, it was a minor frontier nuisance; but for the Greeks, it was a life-or-death struggle to determine whether Greece would be ruled by Eastern despotism or by the many indigenous Greek forms of despotism.

Herodotus traces the Persian conflict back to the Trojan War: the Greeks traced everything back to the Trojan War, and Herodotus’ audience would have been bitterly disappointed if he had found the roots of the Persian conflict anywhere else. Modern historians, however, tend to trace the conflict back to the Persian conquest of Lydia. Old King Croesus, the inventor of money, could not buy an army good enough to defeat the Persian Empire. What a marvelous opportunity for a long digression on the futility of wealth!—a digression we shall miss merely because the present author is too lazy to write it.

The disappearance of Croesus’ semi-Hellenized Lydian kingdom meant that Persia was now rubbing up against, and soon absorbing, the easternmost Greek cities. The great collision between Greece and Persia had begun. But to understand it, we must first understand what we mean by “Greece” and “Persia.” And that will prove more difficult than it might seem. “Greece” and “Persia” are both very slippery ideas.

The Persian Empire was a large agglomeration of different nations, all professing allegiance to the Persian emperor, but generally allowed to keep their own traditions and much of their own government as long as they would sit still and pay their taxes. The unifying principle was the emperor himself, whose person was so sacred that it was forbidden to look directly at him. For all we know, he may have been a department-store mannequin. What was important was that there were enough people who believed that there was such a thing as an emperor to make an empire.

Greece, on the other hand, had no unifying principle at all. The Greeks were divided into an infinite number of city-states, each consisting of a city with just as much of the surrounding territory as it could steal from its neighbors on a good day. The Greeks did speak the same language, but only in the way that a citizen of Liverpool speaks the same language as a citizen of Brooklyn.

The Greek cities had about as many systems of government as there were cities; but the two systems that made the deepest impression on the thoughts of the Athenian philosophers, and thus the two we spend the most time talking about today, were the systems of Athens and Sparta.

Sparta was governed by a sophisticated form of fascism, in which the individual citizen was regarded as existing only for the sake of the state. The Spartans destroyed every child that showed any sign of weakness or deformity, and they trained the survivors from a very young age to be perfect warriors for the state if they were boys, or perfect mothers of warriors if they were girls. For the other necessities of life, the Spartans had a slave caste, the Helots, a race of Untermenschen who existed only to perform the sort of manual labor that was too icky for purebred Spartans to deal with. In his most optimistic moments, Adolf Hitler could only dream of attempting in Germany what the Spartans had actually accomplished.

Athens, on the other hand, was governed as a democracy, which is to say that her citizens existed only to make money for the upper classes. Of course, for democracy to function properly, it is necessary to disguise its true intent, leading the governed to believe that they are governing themselves—a notion so absurd that it is difficult to imagine how anyone ever actually fell for it. Who would be so foolish as to believe that the powerful would willingly allow the powerless a share in their power? Nevertheless, the appearance of popular sovereignty was preserved, and the people were generally persuaded that they had chosen their own leaders, all of whom, by the merest coincidence, happened to be rich and powerful already. How amusingly naïve the ancient Greeks were! It is impossible to imagine the sophisticated public of today falling victim to such a transparent deception.

As long as there was no pressing external danger, the Greek cities were content to burn up their resources in perpetual squabbling. When the Persian Empire began to look like a real threat, however, the memory of the Trojan War came back to them. They recalled that there had been a time when they had laid aside their differences, brought the combined military forces of all Greece together, fought a desperate ten-year struggle, and finally succeeded in one glorious cooperative accomplishment: bringing a middle-aged woman back from Troy. If they could get that done merely by working together, surely it would be mere child’s play to overcome the Persian threat.

When the threatened Persian war failed to begin on schedule, the Athenians decided to stir things up a bit. Several of the Ionian Greek cities on the eastern shore of the Aegean—including Miletus, home of the proto-philosopher Thales—were ruled by Persia under the usual liberal terms. The Athenians gave lavish promises of assistance to the anti-Persian parties in those cities. Never stopping to think that there was something of a difference in size between Athens and Persia, the Ionian cities rebelled, killing the Persian governors and declaring themselves independent.

The Persians may have been reasonably liberal-minded on the subject of local government, but this was pushing things a bit too far even for them. They put down the rebellion, wiped Miletus off the map, and overran Thrace and Macedonia as well. Then they came looking for Athens.

Faced with this imminent invasion of Greece proper, the Greek cities came together in a spirit of unity they had not exhibited since the fall of Troy. Setting aside their petty quarrels, they decided as with one mind to stay out of the way and let Persia stomp Athens into gravel.

Absurdly, however, Athens won the battle of Marathon. The story everyone has heard about the runner who brought news of the victory back to Athens, only to expire with the word “joy” on his lips, is almost certainly false. So, too, are the similar legends of large groups of people who gather in our cities today and attempt to duplicate that fatal run for no better reason than sporting recreation. Obviously one thing that has changed very little in the past two and a half millennia is human gullibility.

The victory at Marathon sent the Persians packing and bought Greece ten years of respite from foreign invasions. The Athenians spent the years from 490 B.C. to 480 B.C. (remember that the ancients used a peculiar chronology that counted years backwards) building up the most formidable navy in the world. For some reason, they had decided that it would be best not to rely on their neighbors to defend them from the next invasion.

In 480 B.C., the news reached Greece that Xerxes, the Persian emperor, was on his way with an army of five million men. (Modern historians believe that number to be exaggerated, calculating that Xerxes could hardly have supported more than 4,850,000 men.) Athens was the obvious target; so, once again, the Greek cities banded together, and, with noble unanimity, decided to retreat to a safe distance and see what would happen to Athens. Sparta did send a tiny detachment to hold the pass at Thermopylae, where they died heroically but uselessly, since the Persian host ran over them like a freight train crushing a unicycle. It would be churlishly cynical to suggest that the Spartans had calculated exactly how cheap a price would buy their city a reputation for immortal valor while still keeping every important Spartan out of harm’s way,—so of course one will not suggest it.

Seeing that, once again, they had only themselves to rely on, the Athenians placed all their hope on their navy, which inflicted a catastrophic defeat on the Persians. Once the mighty empire was down, the other Greek cities were no longer afraid to kick it, so that all Greece could claim a share in the credit for expelling the Persian invaders.

The defeat of the Persians left Greece with two great powers, Athens and Sparta; and from here on it becomes strangely difficult to tell whether we are talking about the 400s B.C. or the 1900s A.D. Freed from the common enemy, the two superpowers were at leisure to recall how much they hated each other. The collision was inevitable; but, instead of a straightforward war between Athens and Sparta, the great division was played out as innumerable smaller conflicts all over the map. Athens, the champion of democracy, undermined the governments of its neighbors and propped up ruthless dictators whenever doing so seemed to earn a temporary advantage over Sparta; and finally the Athenians humiliated themselves with an ill-advised meddling in Sicily, a place that seemed as far away from them as, oh, say, Southeast Asia does from us.

So Sparta and her allies gained the upper hand in the Peloponnesian War, at least temporarily; but it looked very much as though Athens might be gearing up for a rematch.

Quite suddenly, however, everything changed, and local politics became quaintly irrelevant. The Greek liberties, so jealously guarded, were extinguished by an unstoppable force from Macedon. And, really, it was all Aristotle’s fault.

Published in: on May 22, 2012 at 10:06 pm  Comments (5)  



THE ANCIENT ISRAELITES give us one of the two great threads that will combine to make the metaphorical string of Western civilization. The other thread comes from Greece.

It is usual and customary to begin a discussion of Greece with a brief outline of Greek history, and then to move on to a more thorough examination of Greek ideas and how they are still fooling us today all these centuries later. The ideas, however, are obviously what make Greece worth talking about. Who would care about ancient Greek politics if the Greeks had not been the ones who invented politics? Who would read about the petty triumphs of obscure Bronze-age warlords if it had not been Homer who told us their stories? In this history, therefore, we shall begin with the ideas, and then go on to the history if we still have the patience for it.

When we first meet the Greeks, they are in the middle of their Bronze Age, having discovered how effective bronze tools can be in separating a man from his intestines. Fortunately they have left us a vivid picture of themselves in the works of Homer, where we already see the early signs of that scientific curiosity that was to characterize the best in Greek thought. The old bard’s knowledge of human anatomy is encyclopedic. Page after page of the Iliad is devoted to minutely correct catalogues of the various internal organs spilled out on the battlefield. The publisher who wished to produce an illustrated edition of the poem could simply lift the out-of-copyright engravings from old Henry Gray’s Anatomy, Descriptive and Surgical.

The subject of Homer’s Iliad is one small incident in the Trojan War, which the Greeks regarded as the central event in their history. Historians today are generally of the opinion that the Trojan War never happened. We shall find, as we go through history, that whenever an event is universally believed and well attested in antiquity, historians are of the opinion that it never happened. This is how the professional historians distinguish themselves from the rank amateurs.

Whether the Trojan War was a real event or not, however, we may take it as representative of the time when the greatest accomplishments of the Greeks lay in the art of evisceration. Some time later, they began to take up other hobbies as well, and then they quickly astonished the world with their discoveries. Or at least they astonished one another; there is good evidence that the rest of the world merely shook its head and yawned.

The Lydian king Croesus, who may not have been strictly Greek but certainly liked to pretend to be Greek, accomplished a particularly astonishing thing when he became the richest man in the world. That is a remarkable enough accomplishment for anyone, but Croesus labored under a considerable handicap. If you were to ask any random passer-by what it takes to be the richest man in the world, would you not be told that it is necessary to have more money than anyone else? Yet Croesus lived at a time when money did not yet exist. It was therefore necessary for him to invent money before he could proceed to the business of being rich. Croesus’ first coins were primitive affairs, cut out of construction paper with a crude portrait of the king in orange crayon. But what wonderful results flowed from the simple discovery of money! When we consider what our civilization truly values as most laudable and permanent, we must bow our heads in silent tribute to Croesus, the inventor of being rich.

Another Greek invention was philosophy, which in Greek means “love of wisdom.” Other cultures had their wise men who claimed to love wisdom, and whose memorable pontifications were passed down from one generation to another; but the Greeks were the first to make a profitable business out of being smart. A teacher had only to equip himself with a few memorable epigrams about the nature of life, and he was ready to open his own school of philosophy, where people would actually pay to hear his opinions. Imagine how elated the first philosophers must have been when they discovered that they could make a living from the half-baked ideas they were always spouting at the corner bar anyway! It was an ideal career for anyone who was too cowardly to fight and too clumsy to make pottery.

According to tradition, the first of these professional wisdom-lovers was Thales, an Ionian Greek from Miletus who announced in about 600 B.C. that he had everything figured out. Until the time of Thales, the Greeks had attempted to explain nature by referring to a bunch of silly myths that had no basis in reality. Throw away those myths, Thales said, and stick to what we know. In the real world, everything is made of water.

From our modern point of view, Thales’ explanation may seem little better than the myths it replaced. But it is important to remember what Thales had accomplished. He had opened the floodgates of philosophy: now it was legitimate to think about things instead of telling traditional stories about them. And practically anybody could think about things. Soon the Greek world was filled with philosophers all claiming to explain nature without reference to mythology. One said that everything was made of fire; another said that everything was made of love; yet another said that everything was made of blue raspberry soda. There was no limit to the number of profitable philosophical schools that could be founded thanks to the wonderful innovation of Thales.

After a while, all the famous philosophers were concentrated in Athens, for exactly the same reason that all the car dealers always line up on the same street. One of the most successful of these philosophers was Socrates, who has the distinction of being the only philosopher ever to star in his own Broadway show, the all-singing all-dancing musical extravaganza The Clouds. Socrates affected to disdain wealth, which was very easy to do when you ate every night at the swankest dinner parties in Athens. Unfortunately, Socrates was tried and convicted on the absurd charge of corrupting the youth of the city, merely because he taught them that the Athenian system of democratic government was laughably absurd and should be replaced by a strong and ruthless dictatorship. Forced to swallow poison, Socrates became the very first martyr to the cause of fascism, and his memorable political ideas have been passed down to us by his student Plato, whose Republic has served as a detailed statement of principles for ruthless dictatorships for two and a half millennia.

Aristotle was another of the great names in Greek philosophy, and one whom we shall encounter again more than once in history. With his careful and methodical investigation and his rigorous logic, Aristotle made a large number of important scientific discoveries. For example, he discovered that falling bodies fall at different speeds according to their weight. This was such an important discovery that it took about two thousand years to undiscover it.

The Greek philosophers were often mathematicians as well, and to them we owe the foundations of the science of Geometry, or “earth-measuring.” In fact, the Greek philosophers were so good at geometry that they succeeded in measuring the size of the earth itself, which one would think would have rendered further geometry unnecessary; but once you get started with a thing like that, it’s hard to stop.

Later Greek philosophers showed a surprising aptitude for useless mechanical inventions. Automatic mills, steam engines, pennyfarthing bicycles—all these inventions were of no use to them whatsoever, because they also had slaves. Mechanical improvements were thus quite superfluous. Who wants to make a slave’s job easier?

When we look at all the ideas and discoveries the ancient Greeks have left us, we must confess that the single most important is the simple idea that it is worth the trouble to think about things. “The unexamined life is not worth living,” as Aristotle wrote on his business cards. As a result of this memorable idea, we have the multi-billion-dollar pop-psychology industry of today. Even more important, we are now convinced that one can be sitting down, obviously doing nothing, and still be “working”—an idea that would have seemed like nonsense to anyone who came before Thales.

So far we have seen how the Greeks examined their lives relentlessly. It remains for us to see in the next chapter how this constant self-examination rid them of all irrationality and selfishness, allowing them to create a utopian paradise on earth in which happiness reigned perpetually, and where poverty, war, and injustice were unknown. Just kidding.

Published in: on May 14, 2012 at 8:51 pm  Comments (2)  



WITHOUT EXCEPTION, ALL the great ancient civilizations were polytheistic: they believed in a god for every occasion. Religion was therefore a very complicated business, because it had to take into account the fact that what pleased one god might easily send another into a funk that would result in three years of drought or a rise in utility rates. The safest thing to do was just to keep bribing all the gods and hope it made them happy. If all else failed, you could try sacrificing a virgin. Gods always liked virgins. If you were looking for a recession-proof business to invest in, you couldn’t do better than getting into the sacrificial-virgin trade. You might also do a sideline in temple prostitutes.

Some time around 2000 B.C., when Egypt had already been going full tilt for more than a thousand years, a Mesopotamian named Abram came up with a brilliant new theory in theology. What if, instead of an unknowable number of gods, there was only one God?

It was a Copernican revolution in religion. The idea might or might not be true, but it sure did simplify the calculations.

On the other hand, it didn’t necessarily endear him to the local establishment, whose prosperity depended on the god-bribing business. It doesn’t take a mathematical genius to figure out that one God with one temple won’t employ as many specialists as dozens of gods with dozens of temples. Centuries later, when Akhenaten, the pharaoh of all Egypt, attempted to promulgate his own form of monotheism, he made himself so unpopular that the Egyptian priests spent the next several dynasties trying to pretend he had been some sort of used-car salesman who accidentally wandered into the palace. And Abram did not have the sort of authority that Akhenaten had.

So Abram left his comfortable townhouse in Ur of the Chaldees and set out for parts unknown. He believed that God was leading him, but he may also have cast more than one glance over his shoulder to see who was following him.

What Abram told his family and retainers was that God had promised to lead him to his ultimate home, a land bursting with every good thing, which God would give to Abram and his descendants forever. So God led and Abram followed, and finally he ended up in Palestine.

We can imagine what Abram must have been thinking. “This? This is it? I leave the most sophisticated city in the world because you promise me a land that will be mine forever—and you bring me here? To this hick podunk backwater where the cultural event of the season is a high-school production of ‘Hello, Dolly’? I left the department stores and five-star restaurants of Ur for this?”

We can imagine Abram thinking those things, but what he actually said to God was “Thank you very much.” He wasn’t called the Friend of God for nothing.

So Abram settled in Palestine and started calling himself Abraham, using the local pronunciation of his name and making himself right at home. And we should like to say that he lived happily ever after, but that never happens in history. “Happily ever after” happens in fairy tales only because the storytellers wisely end their stories before they get to the part where the handsome prince starts to find the jousting scores more interesting than he does the princess, and the princess starts to drown her sorrows in mead. History, on the other hand, keeps going.

Abraham’s family continued to live in Palestine, a little nest of monotheists among the normal people, until in the time of Abraham’s grandson Jacob there was a rotten famine in the land. Fortunately for Jacob, he had a son who had made something of himself in Egypt, after having been sold as a slave in one of those little outbreaks of sibling rivalry that, as every father of a large family knows, always end up with somebody being sold as a slave. Simply by being more virtuous than all the Egyptians put together, Jacob’s son Joseph had risen to be Prime Minister in the government down there. (This, incidentally, marks the very last time such an office was ever assigned on the basis of virtue.) He was thus in a position to wangle an invitation for his father and brothers to settle in the land of Goshen, a new tract-housing development in northern Egypt that was desperate for buyers at the time.

All this stuff matters because Jacob had changed his name to Israel, although (as often happens when people try to change their own names) people kept calling him Jacob no matter how often he corrected them. His family therefore called themselves the Children of Israel, and their descendants were destined to have a greater impact on the course of world events than any other backwater hick tribe in history.

The Israelites prospered and multiplied in Egypt until a pharaoh from the Know-Nothing party came to power. Promising to “protect Egyptian jobs” and “get tough on immigration,” the new king decided to tackle the Jewish question by killing all the newborn male infants. Doubtless the pharaoh merely intended to share the benefits of enlightened modern family planning with his Israelite subjects, but they took it the wrong way. They were also unhappy about his full-employment program, which involved making bricks without straw, a task whose very hopelessness guaranteed that the Israelites would never be out of work. There is simply no pleasing some people.

The discontent of the Israelites found its voice in Moses, an Israelite who had had the benefit of a thorough acquaintance with Egyptian court life. Thus, for example, he knew exactly at what times of day it was permitted to walk into the throne room and denounce the pharaoh. This was an enormous time-saver. Other lobbyists had to worm their way through the bureaucracy for months or years to get an appointment, but Moses could just walk in any time he wanted and thunder ominously, “Let my people go!” Nobody ever chopped his head off or anything.

It took ten plagues’ worth of divine intervention, but eventually the Israelites did leave Egypt and head back to Palestine—a trip that should have taken them about two weeks, but instead took them forty years, because they refused to stop and ask for directions.

While wandering in the desert, the Israelites stopped at Mount Sinai, or Horeb, where God gave Moses the Tablets of the Law. Moses came down the mountain with the stone tablets in hand, only to discover that the Israelites had already given up on him and his God, and had decided to worship the Midianite gods, who knew how to throw a party. Moses was so furious that he hurled the tablets to the ground, where they shattered into a thousand pieces. God had to pick up all the bits of stone and glue them back together like a jigsaw puzzle, and the result is still known as the Mosaic Law today. This is an example of that sophomoric humor Dr. Boli warned you about in Chapter 3.

Eventually the Israelites did reach Palestine, which very inconveniently turned out to be already inhabited by Canaanites who had cheekily named the place Canaan after themselves. The Israelites never did quite succeed in displacing the Canaanites, whose gods demanded human sacrifice, sacred prostitution, and orgies—a religion of which the Israelites could never disguise their envy. The God of Israel demanded things like justice and mercy. Why couldn’t Israel have fun-loving gods like the ones the Canaanites worshiped? Was a little orgy once in a while too much to ask? A god who kept a staff of temple prostitutes on hand was a god who knew how to have a good time.

Thus the history of Israel for the next thousand years is depressingly repetitive. The Israelites turn away from their own God and start going to their neighbors’ parties, until God has finally had enough of them and decides to smack them around a bit. Then they remember who they are and go back to God for a little while, but as soon as the present danger is lifted they’re back at the orgy again. Whoever said “History is written by the winners” had obviously never read the Old Testament. The Israelite historians had the job of recording one disastrous conquest after another. It was a good day when the Israelites were only being enslaved rather than massacred.

Yet through all these disasters, a small band of prophets kept the monotheistic idea of Abraham alive, even when all the other Israelites were cheerfully fricasseeing their children to please Moloch. And that one idea, though it was hanging by a thread more than once during the centuries, would eventually burst out of Palestine and ruin everything (see Chapter 10, Christianity Ruins Everything).

Next: Chapter 6.—The Ancient Greeks Live the Examined Life.

Published in: on April 29, 2012 at 10:56 pm  Comments (5)  


…that the flowers of the common Persian Speedwell (Veronica persica) are always turned to face Perth Amboy, New Jersey?

…that Marie Antoinette spent the entire French budget for the month of July, 1782, on wig powder?

…that Samuel Johnson deliberately left the word “wombat” out of his dictionary because he had a morbid fear of the creatures?

…that the pope always wears underwear in the appropriate liturgical color for the season?

…that the Hittite language had no word for “diode”?

Published in: on April 27, 2012 at 10:01 pm  Comments (1)  



HAVING DISPOSED OF Egypt, which still sells more trinkets and doodads than all the other ancient civilizations put together, we turn now to some of the other great cultures whose influence on the course of history was at least as important, even if they lacked the appealing Art Deco sensibilities of the Egyptians.

First on the list is Mesopotamia, that broad plain between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Here the landscape is so dull that the inhabitants were forced to invent civilization out of sheer boredom.

There were actually several successive Mesopotamian civilizations, all of which tend to get muddled up in the popular imagination, and Dr. Boli will certainly not attempt to sort them out in these few paragraphs. The Sumerians came first and made the desert bloom with their irrigation works, which is about all we need to say about them. Their successors founded the wondrous city of Babylon, which at the time earned a reputation as the wickedest place on earth; indeed, Babylon is still a byword for iniquity, though today it is handily outdone in wickedness by Fort Wayne, Indiana. Babylon is also famous in legend as the site of the Tower of Babel, an ambitious vanity project in which the Babylonians attempted to reach heaven without the benefit of steel-cage construction. According to the book of Genesis, the Lord God frustrated their efforts by confusing their language, creating a communication gap between labor and management that persists to this day.

We should not fail to mention that the Babylonians gave us many mathematical and scientific gifts, such as the division of the circle into the peculiar number of 360 degrees and the art of astrology. The next time a Babylonian sends you a gift, mark it “return to sender” and stick it back in the mail.

The Mesopotamians had a distinctive system of writing, which paleographers call “cuneiform,” or “wedge-shaped,” because it was wedge-shaped. Creativity is not always required in the field of paleography. This form of writing was every bit as expressive as Egyptian hieroglyphic writing, but it has made no similar impression on the public at large, probably because Egyptian hieroglyphs, with their cute little pictures of birds and eyeballs, are perfectly adapted to the production of souvenir jewelry. Cuneiform writing was, however, used to set down the Epic of Gilgamesh, a grand and tragic tale that has earned a permanent place in the world’s literature by being featured prominently in an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

In the Indian subcontinent, the mysterious Indus Valley civilization built cities on a grand scale, organized huge public-works projects, and wrote what will doubtless prove to be delicately evocative poems of adolescent angst. They neglected only to provide us with a Rosetta Stone so that we could interpret their writing. Since they therefore left us no history we can read, we are forced to return the favor by leaving them out of the histories we write.

China was another place that developed civilization early and stuck with it. The Chiese discovered tea: if they had decided to retire after that and never accomplish anything else, they would still have earned their place as civilization’s greatest benefactors. But in fact the Chinese made many other marvelous discoveries, such as gunpowder and printing, two inventions of vast destructive power. They also developed the art of bureaucracy to such a peak of perfection that even now our civil servants labor in the shadow of their illustrious Chinese predecessors. From the historian’s point of view, China’s only error was in being, until quite recently, too tenuously connected with Europe to form part of history properly so called.

In Africa, the grand ruins of Zimbabwe have excited the admiration of explorers since the first Europeans arrived. The first white explorers, seeing the marvelously skillful stonework, concluded that builders of such obvious intelligence must have been a previous generation of white explorers. Their African hosts had the good breeding to refrain from pointing out that the current generation of white explorers could just barely put up their tents without having the things fall down on their heads. Unfortunately, Zimbabwe is another one of those enigmatic civilizations that have chosen to pass no written records down to posterity, so we can have little to say about it in the present work.

The Americas, too, were infected with various civilizations, some of them surpassing in magnificence and organization anything that could have been found in Europe at the time. There were the Maya, who built ten pyramids for every one the Egyptians managed to fling together, and who invented the idea of zero and numerical place value at a time when Europeans were still struggling to multiply DCCCXLIX by MMMDCCLXXXIV. There were the Inca, who developed a system of totalitarian government so thorough and efficient that it would make Stalin and Mao hang their heads in shame. There were the Aztecs, who could kill more people as sacrifices at the dedication of a single temple than most nations manage to kill in the course of an entire war. And there were the real pioneers of civilization in Mexico and Peru, whose names are known only to specialists, because their stories are taught in our schools as anthropology rather than history, and nobody cares about anthropology.

The Pacific Islands also had their advanced cultures, but some anthropologists would refuse them the title of “civilizations” because they did not make buildings out of stone or brick, thus leaving us no ruined cities for archaeologists to dig up. It is true that they did form settlements of large numbers of people with specialized trades, but they formed them mostly on islands where materials for stone or brick construction were not available. If you should be called upon to found a civilization, remember that the archaeologists would very much prefer it if you founded your civilization somewhere near a quarry.

Some of these early civilizations, like the Chinese or the Mesopotamian, gave birth to traditions that continue uninterrupted to the present day. Many others, like the Inca and the Aztec, were rather rudely interrupted by European adventurers. Because they had no contact with Europe until their discovery, these civilizations do not form part of history proper until after the first European explorers had visited them, after which they become part of history retroactively. History, you see, is a difficult and complex science. If it were merely a matter of arranging events chronologically, anybody with a calendar could do it. The science comes in determining which peoples and civilizations are making history at any given time and which ones are merely goofing off.


Chapter 5.—The Israelites Discover Monotheism and Spend Most of the Rest of Their History Trying to Back Out of It.

Published in: on April 24, 2012 at 9:16 pm  Comments (1)