Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Blog has moved

I will no longer be hosting my blog through blogger, but instead through my own site and wordpress. The new link is as follows: blog.seleukosnikator.net

Saturday, January 3, 2009

How Austria almost won the Great War

And it had nothing to do with the battlefield. For all of its longevity and prestige, the Hapsburg Monarchy was not usually associated with military strength. They were badly walloped by Napoleon and any number of other Europeans, were saved by Poles and the weather when Suleiman came knocking, but when the Ottoman Empire was in decline and Napoleon long defeated, the Hapsburg Empire remained. Gone were the days of their global empire, ruled from Spain and gone was the German Empire ruled from Austria, yet at the dawn of the 20th century the Hapsburg Dynasty under Franz Joseph were creating a new empire; one of nations.

As the Ottoman Empire regressed the Austrian (from here on out, I refer to Austria to represent the Hapsburg Empire, the Emperor of Austria being one of numerous royal titles held) one advanced, except where met by newly freed Orthodox Christian states such as Serbia and Greece. It was in this theatre where the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and the military overseer of the Balkans was assassinated by a political activist who wished to remove the Austrian military presence. As the story goes, this single act, and one that was not at all unusual for the day, brought about World War One.

Now prior to the war and during it, Franz Joseph and his successor, Emperor Karl attempted a truly amazing thing: to harness the powers of nationalism for the betterment of the Hapsburg Empire. In part it was attempted because of the disparate population in the Empire already, so instead of conquering new peoples, it was bringing the brethren of current subjects into the fold. Austria fared poorly at first (supposedly 82% of the pre-war army of 1 million men were casualties by three months in), but the tide turned and by 1918 Austria possessed Northern Italy, half of Ukraine, Poland and Serbia and wanted peace.

Yet the two objectives were actually Poland and Ukraine, to be annexed by Archduke Stefan and his son Wilhelm respectively. The plan was thus: allow these men and any family they had to ingratiate themselves with their respective country, using flattery, privileges to the minority in Austria, natural linguistic skill (Wilhelm spoke English, French, Ukrainian, German, Italian and Polish all with near fluency), and absolute adoption of the country's cause to actually become a member of that society. From there they could use their Hapsburg lineage to become national monarchs or at least the regent of the territory for the Hapsburg Monarch.

In reality these would be little more than provinces, but they would be self-governing provinces ruled in their best interest by a direct representative of the Hapsburg Emperor.

At first this seems ludicrous, something akin to showing up, saying you are king and having everyone acquiesce. Then comes the realization that it almost worked. The Hapsburgs offered national unity within a united Eastern Europe (more or less). Stefan and most of his family fervently adopted the cause of Poland, while Wilhelm was unequivocally pro-Ukrainian. Further, both ethnic groups were already in the Hapsburg fold, and so it was merely unifying the groups.

All of this was not enough for Woodrow Wilson, who wanted true independence, and certainly this pleased neither France, Britain, Tsarist Russia, nor Bolshevik Russia, but with Russia driven back and torn within, had Austria persuaded Germany to end the war about the time the Americans joined--and before the Serbs and Italians could regroup, then they would have come out on top. There is a real possibility that both Poland and Ukraine would have become Austrian provinces, while Germany was defeated, but not destroyed (perhaps thwarting the Nazi movement) and the Kaiser may have not abdicated and the status quo remained in Western Europe. Who knows what would have happened with the Great Depression lurking around the corner, but if Austria could have repainted themselves as ending the bloodshed, then it would have doubled in size and changed the face of Europe as we know it.

It didn't work, but it was damn clever.

Monday, October 27, 2008

What really matters?

Is what matters about history the narration of the events that came before or the interpretation of the events? Are the events themselves, or the historians’ perception thereof, more significant than the analysis of how the causes? Are there historical events with a deeper truth that are more valuable than those without? Is the true value of history the series of stories that may be used to provide solid basis for analytical arguments? How much about history is sequencing and descriptions, and how much is nothing more than an exercise in self-discovery?

Whether consciously or not, these are all questions that must be addressed by a historian at some point or another and even more so by a would-be history teacher. Sciences tend to be about facts, statistics, proofs; history has no such luxury. There is no such thing as truly unbiased source information, be it modern or historical. Historical research is a journey into the human condition, biases and perceptions, as much as it is a journey into the story of what came before. Successive generations of historians seek to surpass their predecessors in point of style or in revealing new inner truths, to paraphrase Livy. Most often these author’s merely bring to light a new or, at most a slightly varied, perspective. Whether this validates the acclaim (or lack thereof), accorded to them is another matter entirely.

This point about perspective can be seen clearly in a brief review of two famous scholars and their work: the late N.G.L. Hammond, and Victor Davis Hanson. In his time, the former was the best known scholar of Macedonian and Illyrian history, concentrating on the time before and after Alexander III (the Great). To read his obituary is to discover a man who threw himself completely into the pursuit of ancient Macedonia. As a senior at Brandeis University, I found myself sputtering at what I wryly derided as the prattling of a dead Englishman. I wanted to throttle, argue and prove him wrong all at once. In time that feeling subsided and I was able to laugh at the presumptiveness of this upstart college student, full of himself and still sophomoric, despite two years’ removal. Later, I found renewed respect for this esteemed scholar, but I was no less convinced that his conclusions were wrong. This is an argument that will never be resolved; he is incapable of providing me with any more counterexamples or clarifying his argument; likewise, I am unable to elucidate my argument to him. However, I am able to use his work and perspective as a foundation for my own analysis.

Victor Davis Hanson is best known for his theory about the Western Way of War, which, simply put, is that “the West” prefers to settle conflicts and disputes with a decisive conflict or battle that is often horrifying. In contrast, “the East” prefers a prolonged conflict with light-armed troops, one that is less likely to provide a decisive victory, but will also prevent catastrophic loss. I would not call his views on this and other matters scripture, but I tend to agree with most of what Professor Hanson argues. In the grand conflict between East and West, as is the setting for the history of Herodotus, scholars may point to other fundamental differences or claim that Hanson’s is nonsensical, but their argument is as indicative of their perspectives as is Hanson’s. Neither One is not more valid than another. Once a perspective exists, the only barometer of validity is the ability to persuade; the ability to persuade resides in argumentation.

Alexander is the perfect example of this challenge of validity. At times it seems as though everyone under the sun has written a book on the greatest and worst of humans, and, invariably, entitled it “Alexander the Great.” Many of these are “whodunits” built around the claim that the author has discovered who really killed Alexander. Two of the more recent books claim that either Ptolemy or Roxane killed him and offer “definitive” proof that the cause of death was poison based on the symptoms. Neither of these books is persuasive, in large part because of the unreliability of the sources to the required degree of detail, and Alexander’s death will forever remain one of the world’s great mysteries, because of the dearth of evidence. If, on the other hand, someone were able to provide evidence and afterwards argue their theory, then it would gain validity and come into vogue.

My own thoughts on the subject of Alexander’s death not withstanding, for merit is these core philosophical truths about history that move it from the beyond the simple memorization of names and dates and into the realm of higher learning. To embrace the fundamental concepts of discourse, research, analytical thought, the written word and to connect it to the personal—and the more general human—story, is to embrace history. To embrace history is to embrace not only the stories, the events and the dates, but also the nature of people and the beauty of language. Whether an idle pastime or a vocation, history transcends names and dates of the simple timeline and the arbitrary boundaries of subjects; history is universal and should be taught as such instead of tedious memorization.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

The Tapestry of History.

There is safety in simplicity. In limits. In boundaries.

There is safety in precision and detail.

There is mortal danger those traits too.

Aside from Thucydides, upon whom I could dwell ad nauseum, the two historians for whom I have the most respect and desire to emulate are Livy and Edward Gibbon. Whatever their faults, whatever their own limitations, both sought to see the broad picture. Both were undaunted by the enormity of their respective projects. Where other historians may blanch at the corners cut to achieve a unified vision and at the scope involved, I imagine that these two would, perhaps, view the historical ventures of today as too limited, too inconsequential to be of value.

Livy spent much of his life writing his history entitled Ab Urbe Condite, or From the Founding of the City. The story opens with his profession that he would rather dwell in the glorious past than the troubled present and that this pursuit is his passion; Livy, the first self-professed history nerd dedicated his life to this project because he loved it—and he loved Rome. The single-minded goal in this treatise was to prove that Rome was the greatest nation to ever exist.

Gibbon wrote about the opposite end of the Roman experience: the collapse into the middle ages, yes, but also into the “modern world.” In fact, Gibbon wrote so much on the topic that most editions today are abridged and it takes a daring soul to actually read the full text (Livy has no such problem, in part because most of his work is absent). The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, whether abridged or in full, takes the reader through over a thousand years of Roman history, with examination of people, religion, government, and other causes throughout. While sticklers will be quick to point out that Gibbon was biased rather thoroughly himself, any pragmatist would be quick to point out that there is no such thing as an objective historian and that it is actually the core duty of the historian to judge that which has come before, both in the events and in what was written.

Neither the start of, nor the end of the Roman Empire is what I wish to spend my life studying and it is not what Livy and Gibbon were saying that I admire, it is how they sought to say it. Individual events, details and nuances have their value to history, but as clarification and elaboration upon a greater whole. From this logic, the ideal history must be entitled “The Concise History of Human Existence, a summation.” Of course this concept is too much for even the greatest of human minds to conceive and would therefore be broken down into subunits that would form the larger picture.

In the interest of practicality my suggested history should never be written. It would not further scholarship, but would only serve to entangle those writing it. At the same time historians should not be afraid of challenges, of using a wide-angle lens and of using scholarship on the particulars to draw together the larger themes into the grand tapestry of history.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008


First, I have been remiss in posting just because I have had a lot going on in life, almost none of which pertains to my study of history, but I hope to rectify this by writing about various things I pick up, mostly from the books I am currently reading.

Second, I have been designing classes for almost a year now, in effect just picking topics I am interested in knowing more about or that would make an interesting class or that I would like to teach.

The first class I made was with a fellowship from Brandeis University in which I designed a course on the fall of the Roman Empire, tracing it from the mid 200's until 1400, largely with the help of Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. I think I did well and could find myself teaching it if called upon, but it was not my favorite subject.

The second class that I decided upon was a class on classical eduction. It is designed as a freshman seminar (for Brandeis students, think USEM), wherein it looks at the classical tradition, why it is important and makes people think about requirements and what they want to do. In part I chose to do this because of one book I read, and in part it is because I think I would have benefited from a course about it. At present the course is about 1/3 set and I need to find some of the additional books I lined up for it.

The second class I am currently working on is one that I only thought of today. It is still in the brainstorming phase, but I am thinking it would be on scandals in the ancient world and going against cultural norms. Like I said, I don't have anything on paper yet, but I was thinking about selecting a number of scandalous situations and the characters involved and then going from there. The list so far includes The Queen of Bythinia, Alcibiades (his divorce and other scandalous behavior), Agrippina and Nero (Nero's boat designed to collapse and kill her), and Procopius' secret history.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

How did I miss this?

One of the dark moments in the life of Alexander III was the assassination of Parmenion, his father's general par-excellence, which was stemmed from Alexander's execution of Parmenion's son Philotas. Now two theories exist about the incident, the first of which says that Alexander was trying to eliminate the Macedonian nobility and that he headed a conspiracy against Philotas in order to remove Parmenion. The second theory (and the one that I tend towards) is that Alexander led a bunch of willful soldiers, some of whom thought to attack Philotas in order to gain positions for themselves.

Various evidence is cited for both causes, both theoretical and non, but one that I hadn't seen, even though I mentioned it in my thesis is that Alexander clearly did not have a purely biased stance against Parmenion's family. According to Curtius Rufus 6.6.19 (yes, I memorized the location of the quote), Alexander is called the saddest person in the army at the news of Nikanor's death (Nikanor being Philotas' brother), and that he wanted to stay for the funeral, but was lacking in provisions so he had to carry on. This could be a purely literary issue to show Alexander to be a good guy, but I think it goes deeper towards indicating that Alexander was wary of Parmenion and Philotas, but this was true for almost every one of his officers--even those he liked, but that Alexander liked Nikanor and by extension actually liked or at least didn't hate Parmenion and Philotas. This may be a romantic notion, but I believe it, if for no other reason than that if we discount this as a purely literary device and Parmenion's advice as a purely literary device (as I say elsewhere), then we really don't have any sources for this time period and all of it should be thrown into the fiction category.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Murder at Babylon, the problem with pop-history, don't trust everything you read!

The new book Murder at Babylon is atrocious. [an inserted note is that I have not actually read the book, just skimmed a couple of chapters at the bookstore] True enough, it is laudable to go about trying to solve one of history's great mysteries in such a fashion (more on this presently), but troubling is how the information for the search was found, and this became more and more evident throughout.

I suppose that I should first comment on the methodology before proving why this is a mistake and to do this I should set the stage. The year is 323 BCE, sometime during the summer, the place is Babylon, which is Alexander's new capital, the center of the empire and the staging ground for a new wave of campaigns. The Macedonians who are left have been with Alexander since his rise to power after the murder of Philip and have since marched for 13 years and well over 25,000 miles.

Alexander had not been himself since Hephaestion died, nay, even before when he was wounded in India by some native dart. Newly recovered from sickbed, Alexander stormed through and conquered more territory, then crossed the desert, before presiding over a mass marriage and more campaigning, during which he lost his closest companion and even lover. To alleviate the depression that accompanied this loss, Alexander resumed a campaign to punish rebels before crossing into Babylon. Some months Later, Alexander died.

What this book does is approach Alexander's death the way a death in the modern world would be--first reaching the conclusion that it was an unnatural death, largely becuase "the symptoms" don't match any known disease; they do, however, match a number of poisons. After determining that it was poison, the author tracks eight suspects, looking for motive and opportunity to commit such a deed, before concluding that it was Roxane who killed Alexander, not Antipater, Seleukos, Meleagros or any of the other ludicrous possibilities.

Of course poison could have been used--and as much is suggested in the existing sources, but frankly this is rubbish. Poison had a very low success rate unless it was self inflicted, so it is not likely on that account, but also the author discredits himself with his historical research and source use.

None of the existing sources were written within 400 years of Alexander's life and all were based off of two accounts written shortly after Alexander died, by his contemporaries. This fact did not deter the author from using their testimony about symptoms as admissable, and creates an argument for poison based on which symptoms each author chose to use, discounting that any number of them could have been fictional and that there was noone taking down which symptoms were real when Alexander lay dying. As for the historical bent, his history is wrong. While reading the chapter on Seleukos, the author rewrites the plot against Philotas as a plot against Nikanor that was brought about by Seleukos, the second in command of the Hypaspists--with the other officers brought in at the last minute becuase Seleukos was low ranked. In the histories, however, Seleukos is nowhere mentioned, and Nikanor was six months dead by the time that the case against Philotas came to a head.

Rather than properly researching and coming up with suspects, the author has instead shoe-horned Seleukos and Nikanor into an unbelievable situation that is not based in fact while badly misportraying both. Though not to the same degree, he has done similar discredit to his work in the analysis of Meleager, who he judged a suspect because of his jealousy over being low ranked (which could be reasonable if that was not also the reason for his dismissal as a suspect), and Roxane who takes out her jealousy against Statiera and the son of Alexander by killing Alexander, instead of killing Statiera. I need to go back and review his arguments again, but it is much more feasible that if Alexander was poisoned by someone of note that it was done by Antipatros, but even then the most logical explanation is that Alexander was wounded a vast number of times, and that in the end he received an illness, be it malaria or pneumonia or something completely different, and his already weakened body, and lungs in particular, simply could not cope.

In an effort to bring this full circle to the title, there are two reviews of this book on Amazon. They both give the author five stars, though one person admitted that she didn't know what historians would say--that she started with the Oliver Stone movie of Alexander did not bode well for her, though. The other person considered himself an Alexander buff, owning every book made (I call bull on that, by the way, and I have problems with his type, but that is neither here nor there), but the point is that both of them chose this book for readability, not accuracy. I cannot talk about readability since I did not truly read it (though I shuddered at some of the organization), but it was inaccurate.