Archive for the ‘History’ Category

Carthago Delenda Est

September 6, 2014

That is, “Carthage must be destroyed”. These words were spoken by the Roman statesman and Senator Marcus Porcius Cato, or Cato the Elder at the end of every speech from around 157 BC to the beginning of the third and last Punic War. Who was Cato and why was he determined to have Carthage destroyed?

Carthage was a city in North Africa that was founded by Phoenicians, or Punics as the Romans rendered the name, about the same time as Rome. Carthage proved to have an excellent harbor and an advantageous position for commerce and soon came to dominate the western Mediterranean, rivaling the Greek colonies at Sicily and southern Italy. While Rome was slowly gaining the mastery of the Italian peninsula, Carthage built an empire based on trade along the North African coast and the islands of Corsica and Sardinia, along with the western half of Sicily. Carthage was originally ruled by kings, but they steadily lost power and by 300 BC, Carthage was, like Rome, a republic. The Carthaginians spoke the Semitic language language of their ancestors in Phoenicia and their culture was much the same as that found in ancient Phoenicia or Canaan. Unlike the Romans, the Carthaginians were never a particularly warlike or militaristic people. They preferred to hire mercenaries to do their fighting. They were excellent sailors however, and had a first class navy.

Carthage and its dependencies in the 3rd centu...

Carthage and its dependencies in the 3rd century BC. It was one of a number of Phoenician settlements in the western Mediterranean. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As Rome grew in power and completed its conquest of Italy, it was inevitable that the two powers would clash. The First Punic War lasted from 264 to 241 BC. The war began in Sicily between allies of the Romans and Carthaginians. Although there was fighting in Sicily, most of the First Punic War was a naval conflict. This was a problem for the Romans because they had no navy but the Romans proved to be determined and resourceful. They built a navy of ships copied from a shipwrecked Carthaginian warship.  Since the Romans were unused to battles between ships, they invented a sort of boarding ramp with a claw or beak which they called a “corvis”, the Latin word for crow. Instead of outmaneuvering the Carthaginian ships, the Romans would lower the corvis onto the enemy ship and Roman soldiers would board and capture it. In this way, Rome’s greatest disadvantage in the war was changed into their greatest advantage.

Romans attached corvi to their ships so they c...

Romans attached corvi to their ships so they could board and seize enemy vessels. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Romans won the First Punic War. They gained control of Sicily, Corsica and Sardinia and Carthage was obliged to pay a heavy indemnity. Naturally, the Carthaginians were unhappy with the outcome and wanted revenge. Carthage continued to prosper and the Carthaginians built a new empire in Spain under the command of one of their leading generals Hamilcar Barca. Hamilcar was determined to avenge the loss of the First Punic War and and his son Hannibal, considered to be the greatest general and tactician of ancient times, swore an oath of undying enmity towards Rome.

Depiction of Hannibal and his army crossing th...

Depiction of Hannibal and his army crossing the Alps during the Second Punic War. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Second Punic War was fought between 218-201 BC. This was largely Hannibal’s war. Hannibal concluded that the best way to defeat the Romans was to take the fight to Italy and so he gathered his army of Carthaginians and Spanish allies and march overland from Spain, through the Alps to Italy. Hannibal defeated every Roman army sent against him, often inflicting devastating casualties, but he lacked the men and siege equipment to actually capture Rome. Moreover, the Italian cities did not defect to his side in the numbers he hoped. Most Italians remained loyal to Rome. Once again,the Romans proved to be resourceful and they decided that if they could not defeat Hannibal, they could defeat Carthage by fighting where he was not. The Romans sent expeditionary forces into Spain and Africa under the command of Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus. Eventually the Carthaginians recalled Hannibal to defend his homeland where the Romans under Scipio Africanus finally defeated him at the Battle of Zama, ending the Second Punic War. This time Rome wasn’t taking any chances that Carthaginian power might revive as a threat. Carthage had to surrender its possessions in Spain to Rome and pay a huge indemnity. The Carthaginian army was disbanded and Carthage was forbidden to raise another army or to declare war without the permission of the Roman Senate, which had no intention of ever granting such permission.

Here Cato the Elder enters the picture. Cato was born in the year 234 BC in an old, rural plebeian family. He fought in the Second Punic War with some distinction and then entered politics. Cato was a “new man”, that is, he did not have any ancestors who held high office in the Republic. Since the Romans preferred political dynasties, he would normally be expected to rise very high in Roman politics.  Such was Cato’s ability and reputation for virtue, however, that the Roman electorate was willing to overlook such a handicap. Cato was appointed quaestor in 204 and helped to supply the army that was sent to Africa. He was elected aedile in 199, praetor in 198 and Consul in 195. The following year he was sent to Spain to subdue the natives who had rebelled against Roman rule. He put down the revolt swiftly and ruthlessly and brutally and won a triumph in Rome for his successes. He also led military campaigns in Greece against the Seleucid Empire. His last public office was that of Censor in 184 but he continued to play a leading role in the Roman Senate for the rest of his life.

Cato the Elder

Cato the Elder

Cato the Elder was much admired by the Romans, both of his time and afterwards for his virtues.  He was conservative and upheld the Roman traditional way of life and he detested the Greek culture that the Roman elite had begun to adopt. He was frugal, stern, disciplined, honest, and brave. Cato seemed to embody all the virtues the Romans admired. He does not seem to be all that attractive a figure in modern terms. He was stern to the point of cruelty to his family and slaves. He was a miser who worked his slaves almost to death and then sold them so that he could avoid the expense of caring for slaves too old to work. He was self righteous, very conscious of his own virtues, and I imagine, very conscious of others failings. He was kind of a jerk.

In 157 BC, Cato was part of a delegation sent from the Senate to Carthage. He was alarmed to see that despite every Roman effort, Carthage was again prospering. Upon returning to Rome, He began to urge the destruction of Carthage. At the end of every single speech he made in the Senate, he would add, “ceterum censeo Carthaginem esse delendam” or, “Furthermore, it is my opinion that Carthage must be destroyed”. This is usually shortened to Carthago delenda est.

In 151, Carthage finally paid off the indemnity and the Carthaginians considered themselves free of any further obligations to Rome. When Numidia, a neighboring kingdom and an ally of Rome invaded, the Carthaginians fought back. Cato and Rome was not pleased. The Carthaginians tried to negotiate peace with Rome and Numidia but the Romans were looking for any excuse to start another war. When the Romans demanded that the Carthaginians abandon their city and move inland, they refused and in 149 BC, Rome declared war on Carthage.

This was not Rome’s finest hour. Carthage was defenseless and was no longer any threat to Rome. Nevertheless, the Romans acted as bullies provoking a fight against a weak adversary. The Third Punic War lasted from 149 to 146 and was essentially a siege of Carthage. The Carthaginians knew they had no hope to survive and fought a ferociously as those who have nothing to lose. In the end, the Romans captured and destroyed Carthage, killing or enslaving the entire population. Cato was not around to see his wish granted. He had died in 149.

Hannibal had his revenge, eventually. Carthage was at too good a location to remain uninhabited forever and Carthage was rebuilt as a Roman colony about a century later by none other than Julius Caesar. No doubt Cato was rolling over in his grave. Carthage survived as the leading Roman city in North Africa until it was captured by the Vandals, a germanic tribe that had made its way all the way across France and Spain, into Africa, in AD 430. In 455, the Vandal king Genseric invaded Italy and sacked Rome. One can imagine the ghost of Hannibal smiling with satisfaction as soldiers from Carthage finally sacked his hated enemy, Rome.

In 534 Carthage was taken back by the Romans under the the command of Belisarius, as part of the Emperor Justinian’s attempt to recapture the western half of the Empire. In 698, the Islamic armies captured and destroyed Carthage. This time Carthage was not rebuilt and the nearby town of Tunis took its place as the leading city of North Africa. Carthage still survives as a suburb of Tunis and is a major tourist attraction in Tunisia. Finally in 1985, the mayors of the cities of Rome and Carthage signed a treaty formally ending the Third Punic War and establishing a pact of friendship. There is no word on how Hannibal or Cato the Elder felt about that.

Ruins of Carthage

Ruins of Carthage (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


August 21, 2014

I hadn’t intended on writing anything on the happenings in Ferguson, Missouri. I obviously wasn’t there and the details of the shooting of Michael Brown seem to change with each reporting. Since I do not know what actually occurred, I have thought it best not to comment. I wish a lot of other people had shown a similar restraint. Instead, it seems that every pundit and politician in the country has had to put forth their opinion based on inadequate and often conflicting accounts. I can say that the original media narrative, that a racist police officer gunned down an innocent African-American youth for no particular reason is almost certainly not in accord with the facts. Officer Darren Wilson seems to have been attacked and to have suffered injuries. Michael Brown was not a little kid but a three hundred pound teenager. If he had assaulted Officer Wilson or even acted in a threatening manner, Wilson would have had good reason to be afraid for his life. That doesn’t mean that he acted appropriately. I simply do not know.

What concerns me about the way this is unfolding is that the media is not really interested in emphasizing the little details that might conflict with their original narrative. I am afraid that any sort of serious inquiry over the shooting may well find reason to exonerate Officer Wilson. Since the good people of Ferguson, Missouri and elsewhere may very likely be unaware of the details that prompted Wilson’s exoneration, and being ginned on by the likes of Al Sharpton, will conclude that a racist murderer has gotten away with his crimes. Then there will be rioting.

Something rather similar happened with Rodney King. The whole country saw the video of the Los Angeles policemen beating Mr. King, always described as a motorist as though he had been out for an innocent drive. What the country did not see was the high-speed chase in which King endangered other drivers and pedestrians while his blood alcohol level was twice the legal limit. They did not see King resist arrest nor were they told that tasering King had no effect on him. The beatings, while excessive, were understandable since they were trying to subdue what appeared to be a dangerous man. Because most people in this country were not made aware of these important details, the acquittal of the officers in the video came as a shock and provoked rioting. The media acted irresponsibly then, and I fear they are acting irresponsibly now. If there are more riots in Ferguson, they will have blood on their hands.

Would it be too much to ask that everyone calm down and keep their mouths shut unless they happen to have first hand knowledge of events?

The Election of 1820

August 18, 2014

There is not much to write about the election of 1820. This election was the only uncontested presidential election in American history except for the first two elections when Washington was the only candidate. The Federalist Party had almost completely faded away by then and with it, the first party system of American politics. There was still a handful of Federalists serving in Congress, but the Federalist had lost all of their influence outside of New England and was not able to nominate a candidate to oppose the reelection of James Monroe. The Democratic-Republicans nominated their team of Monroe and Daniel D. Tomkins for a second term.

There was no real campaign and little interest in the election. Turnout for the election was light, even in the fifteen of the twenty-four states that chose their electors by popular vote. There was some controversy over the status of Missouri. The new state had adopted a constitution in July of 1820, but Congress delayed Missouri’s admission into the Union until August of 1821 because of a provision the constitution that prohibited free Blacks from residing in the state. It made no difference to the outcome, so the matter was not pursued.

As for the outcome, James Monroe won 228 of the 232 electoral votes. Three electors, one each from Mississippi, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee had died before  casting their votes and so were not counted. There was only one dissenting vote cast by William Plumer, a former Senator and governor from New Hampshire. It is sometimes said that he voted for John Quincy Adams so that Monroe would not equal Washington’s achievement in gaining a unanimous vote in the Electoral College, but he had no way of knowing what the votes of his colleagues  would be. He simply believed that John Quincy Adams would make a better president than James Monroe. He also disliked Daniel Tomkins and voted for Richard Rush for vice-president.

The Election of 1820

The Election of 1820

After this election, it seemed as if the United States would become a one party state. James Monroe was happy with that result. The founding fathers had not approved of political parties believing them to be divisive and troublesome. Most political observers looked forward to a future of calm elections with no partisan rivalry. Just four years later they would find out how wrong they were.


The Yazidis

August 9, 2014

The Yazidis of Iraq have been much in the news lately and not in a good way. The Islamic terrorists who have been gaining power in Iraq in the wake of the US withdrawal have taken to murdering and oppressing every non Muslim in the territories they control, but they seem to have a particular hatred for the Yazidis. Currently, some 40,000 of these people are trapped on a mountain without food or water with the choice of dying for their faith or converting to Islam. Who are the Yazidis and why do the Islamic fanatics hate them?

The Yazidis are a people that live in the Kurdish regions of Iraq, Turkey and Syria as well as Armenia and Georgia. There is also a small population of Yazidis in Europe who have fled the persecution in their native lands.  They speak Kurdish as their native language and many speak Arabic, but they are neither Arabs or Kurds. While their culture is very similar to Kurdish culture they have a distinctive religion of their own. The precise population of the Yazidis is not know but it is estimated that there are around 700,000 of them. Their numbers are declining due to persecution.

Yazidi men in Mardin, late 19th century

Yazidi men in Mardin, late 19th century (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Yazidis are distinguished most by their ancient religion. They are quite secretive about their beliefs and little is known. Their religion seems to be something of an offshoot of Zoroastrianism, but there are many other influences including the religions of ancient Mesopotamia, Mithraism, and some mystic elements of Christianity and Islam. The Yazidis are monotheists, believing in one God who created the universe. After the creation, God entrusted the rule of the universe to seven angels who were His emanations. The chief of these angels is named Malik Taus or the Peacock Angel. Malek Taus was either cast out of Heaven or left voluntarily in a manner strikingly similar to legends of the fall of Lucifer, especially as found in the Koran. Like Satan or Iblis, refused to bow to Adam. While Allah in the Koran expelled Iblis from Heaven for his pride and he became Satan, the Yazidi account has the Creator praising Malik Taus for his steadfast refusal to worship anyone besides God and places him in charge of the Universe.  Malik Taus extinguished the fires with his tears and was reconciled with God.

English: Malak Taus ქართული: მალაკ ტავუსი Kurd...

English: Malak Taus  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

These beliefs along with an alternate name for Malik Taus, Shaytan, have led many believers of the other monotheistic religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, to suspect that the Yazidsis are devil worshipers. This the Yazidis steadfastly deny. They do not believe that Malik Taus is an evil being. Indeed, they do not believe in a devil at all, holding that evil comes from human actions. Nevertheless, the coming of the religion of peace and tolerance to Mesopotamia in the seventh century has resulted in centuries of often savage persecution.

In practice, the Yazidi religion is much concerned with ritual purity, much like Zoroastrianism. They do not like to mix the elements; earth, air, fire, and water and have a complicated system of taboos. They believe that they are a people apart, descended not from Adam and Eve like the rest of the human race, but they are descended from Adam alone. They do not marry outside their community and they do not accept converts. In addition, they believe that too much contact with outsiders is polluting and limit such contacts. This, doubtless, does not endear them to their neighbors.

The Yazidi pray five times a day, facing the sun and make pilgrimages to the  tomb of Sheikh Adi ibn Musafir, a Sufi mystic whom they believe to be an avatar of Malik Taus. This tomb is in the city of Lalish, Iraq, where there are many Yazidi shrines. They are supposed to have two holy books, the Kitêba Cilwe or Book of Revelations and the Mishefa Reş or the Black Book. These books seem to be forgeries, however, written by Westerners around 1912 to take advantage of travellers’ interest in the Yazidis. The material in the books seems to incorporate the actual oral traditions of the Yazidis and may be accurate accounts of their beliefs. Westerners have been fascinated by the Yazidis’ obscure and secretive religion and they have often been depicted as on order of devil worshipers by writers such as H. P Lovecraft.

Now there is a distinct possibility that this ancient community will be exterminated. It seems to me that the real devil worshipers in Iraq, and elsewhere, are the ones whose god commands them:

And when the sacred months have passed, then kill the polytheists wherever you find them and capture them and besiege them and sit in wait for them at every place of ambush. But if they should repent, establish prayer, and give zakah, let them [go] on their way. Indeed, Allah is Forgiving and Merciful.


Fight those who do not believe in Allah or in the Last Day and who do not consider unlawful what Allah and His Messenger have made unlawful and who do not adopt the religion of truth from those who were given the Scripture – [fight] until they give the jizyah willingly while they are humbled.

But perhaps the ISIS simply doesn’t understand their own religion.



Prince Charming

July 28, 2014

There comes a time in most little girls’ lives when they go through a princess phase. They fantasize about being princesses, dress up as princesses for Halloween and watch the videos from the execrable Disney Princess franchise. If you happen to ask a little girl in her princess phase what is so great about princesses, she will likely reply something to the effect that princesses get to live in castles, wear beautiful gowns, and when they grow up they marry handsome princes. All of this is true, though it leaves out a few pertinent details. Castles are uncomfortable and drafty, gowns require tight corsets to wear, and you don’t get to choose which prince you marry. In fact, the prince is more likely to look like this



than to be handsome. That is King Carlos or Charles II, the last Habsburg king of Spain. He reigned from 1665-1700 and he was a mess. His subjects called him Carlos el Hechizado or Charles the Bewitched and he also believed himself to be cursed. He was indeed cursed, not by witchcraft but by generations of inbreeding among his ancestors. As a result he was physically and mentally disabled. He was retarded and could not talk until the age of four or walk until he was eight. He suffered from epilepsy and his tongue was abnormally thick, making it difficult for his speech to be understood. His Habsburg Lip was so pronounced he had difficulty chewing his food. He was often ill and confined to his bed.

Charles’s sad story began centuries earlier with the rise of his ancestors, the House of Habsburg. The Habsburgs began their ascent to power around AD 1000 as the Counts of Habsburg, a castle in what is now the canton of Aargau in Switzerland. Over the centuries they worked their way up becoming Dukes of Austria and various other lands, Archdukes of Austria, and finally by 1440 Holy Roman Emperors. The Habsburgs, like other noble and royal families liked to expand their holdings and gain more titles, but unlike most others, they preferred strategic marriages to gain power rather than fighting wars. This was, no doubt more humane than sending men off to be killed, but the Habsburgs ended up paying a terrible price for their acquisitions. In order to keep the lands and titles they gained by marriages, they ended up having to marry each other. The results were not pretty.

The Hapsburgs gained the crown of Spain when the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I (1508-1519) arranged the marriage of his son Philip to the daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella ( the ones who sponsored Columbus’s voyages) Juana el Loco or  Joanna the mad in 1496. As her name indicates, Joanna was indeed mad, most likely she had some form of schizophrenia, and eventually she was confined to a convent. Philip became Phillip I of Castile in 1506 and then died that same year.

Their son, Charles, was born in 1500 and  became Carlos I King of Spain in 1516, ruling with his mother, and Holy Roman Emperor Charles V in 1519. With his many titles, Charles V perhaps ruled over more territory than any single human being has before or since. Along with Spain and its colonies and Austria, Charles V ruled over the Netherlands, most of Italy, Burgundy, and the frontier with the Ottoman Turks in central Europe. Charles V abdicated in 1556 and died in 1558. When he abdicated he divided his lands between his younger brother Ferdinand, who received the Habsburg territories in Austria and central Europe, as well as the title of Holy Roman Emperor, and his son Phillip who got  the Spanish Empire along with the Netherlands and Italy. Philip ruled as Phillip II from 1556-1598

Phillip II married four times, including a marriage to Mary I (Bloody Mary) of England who died before producing an heir. His other three wives died in childbirth. His last wife was Anna of Austria, the granddaughter of Ferdinand I and the daughter of Phillip’s sister Maria, making her parents first cousins and her his niece . Their son was Phillip III of Spain who ruled from 1598-1621.


Phillip III married Margaret of Austria, She was the granddaughter of Ferdinand I and the sister of Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand II, making her Phillip III’s cousin. Her parents were Charles II Archduke of Austria and his niece Maria Anna of Bavaria. You may notice a pattern forming here. Phillip’s son was Phillip IV who ruled from 1621-1665.



Phillip IV’s second wife was Mariana of Austria, the daughter of Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand III and Phillip’s sister Maria Anna of Spain, making her Phillip’s niece. Her parents were first cousins. Only two of their children survived to adulthood, a daughter Maria Theresa and the unfortunate Charles II.



If the genealogy of Charles II seems confusing, here is a handy chart I found on the Internet that will make it all clearer.




Charles II was only three years old when he became king, so his mother was appointed regent. Regencies were often difficult times in the history of most kingdoms. In most kingdoms a certain mystique about the person of the king in encouraged by his court. The king is held to be a special person, one with a direct line to the gods or God, and perhaps even divine himself. This sort of mystique helps to discourage rebellions and assassinations. The problem is that while regent may rule in the name of the king, he is not the king and cannot have the same authority as the king. As a result, while the king is a minor, the nobility begins to intrigue in ways they would not dare if a mature king were on the throne and also the regent cannot often initiate bold new policies, so the kingdom tends to drift. If the kingdom is lucky, the king will prove to be a strong leader, carefully trained in statecraft when he becomes an adult. If a kingdom is unlucky, the king will grow up to be a weak, spoiled brat under the control of his favorites. Spain was very unlucky. It soon became clear that Charles II would never be able to rule, so for thirty-five years the country drifted aimlessly at a time when the Spanish Empire was decaying rapidly and only firm, decisive policies had any chance to reverse the decline. The Spanish government was under the control of favorites of his mother Mariana, and of his two wives, yes he was married, Marie Louise of Orleans and Maria Anna of Neuburg. Neither marriage produced an heir and Charles was almost certainly sterile if not completely impotent. This may have been a blessing since any child of Charles would have inherited all of his deficiencies, but Spain was unlucky again. A king without a clear heir was certain to bring about a war for the throne.


Mariana died in 1696 and Charles at last ruled without a regent. He was still incapable of governing so there was no real difference in the Spanish government. He did call for an investigation of the Spanish Inquisition just before he died and it may be that if Charles had lived longer and had been less crippled, he might have ended that institution a century earlier. Unfortunately the report that investigation produced disappeared after his death. Charles died in 1700 at the age of 38 and almost immediately after his death, the War of the Spanish Succession began. This war lasted from 1701-1714. Charles had named Philip, the son of his half-sister Maria Theresa, Philip IV’s daughter by his first wife, Elizabeth of France, as his heir. Philip was the second son of Louis the Dauphin, the son of King Louis XIV of the Bourbons. The problem was that there was the possibility that Philip could inherit the French throne and so unite France and Spain as one kingdom. No one really wanted that to happen and eventually, Philip agreed to renounce any claims to the Kingdom of France. The Habsburgs were not willing to give up Spain and had candidates of their own for the Spanish crown. There were also disagreements over how Spanish possessions in the Netherlands and Italy should be divided. No one bothered to ask the people of Spain who they might want as their king. In the end Philip got to be Philip V of Spain and a branch of the Bourbons have ruled in Spain to this day.

I don’t know if there are any deeper morals in the sad story of King Charles. The efforts the Habsburgs made to keep Spain by interbreeding between the Austrian and Spanish branches of the family eventually caused them to lose it. Spain suffered under a series of increasingly incapable monarchs and for thirty-five years was effectively leaderless when leadership was badly needed. Maybe the moral of this story is that royal families should marry outside their immediate circle. Maybe a system that encourages such inbreeding is not a very good one and we are well rid of it. Maybe little girls should aspire to something more meaningful than being princesses.

India, A History

July 20, 2014

It must be a daunting project for a historian to attempt to write a history of India on one volume. The grand sweep of India’s history, stretching back five thousand years with a bewildering diversity of cultures, languages, religions, and ethnic groups provides so much material that it must be very difficult to decide what to write about and what to exclude. This diversity must also make finding a common theme throughout the history of the subject difficult. If a historian wishes to write a history of France, he has only one nationality to examine. Most French speak the same language, follow the same religion and culture, and have a shared identity. China is somewhat more diverse, but a historian still has the cycle of dynasties to use as a framework. India is more difficult. The subcontinent has only been completely unified as one state under the British and as soon as the British left, the former colony was split between India and Pakistan, and later Bangladesh.

Making matters more difficult the indigenous Indians, the Hindus were less interested in dating and precise dating than some other civilizations, such as the Chinese, and more inclined to mythologize their history. Thus, instead of annals of history with more or less precise dating, we have the great Sanskrit epics, which quite possible contain much true historical information. Many of the persons and events in the epics may be historical, but historians face considerable difficulty in determining just when these events occurred and how they are related chronologically, without the help of archeology. It was only when the Muslims invaded Indian that we begin to get reasonably precise dating.



Despite these difficulties, John Keay does an admirable job of telling the epic story of India in one volume, India, A History.  As someone who did not know very much about this fascinating, and increasingly important country, I was glad to read a history book that lays out the whole story, from its beginnings to the present day, in a way that holds my interest. The maps and charts are adequate, though my Kindle Paperwhite still does not handle graphics very well. I did get somewhat lost in all the exotic and unfamiliar names of princes and dynasties, and occasionally the history of a certain region of India at a particular time, or some of the less prominent kings of a dynasty was somewhat rushed through, but I think that India, A History is an excellent resource for the casual reader to learn about the history of India. Those who wish to study the subject further can use the bibliography John Keay provides. Either way, I think they will find this book useful and interesting.



July 18, 2014

No, I have not decided to write a post about porn. If you look carefully at the first letter in the title, you will see that it is not a p “pee”. It is actually the letter þ or “thorn” which was used in Old English, but has since been dropped. It has the sound that is represented in Modern English by the digraph “th”, so the actual title of this post is “thornography”. I hope you can forgive me for the word play. I have mentioned that the alphabet we use in English was originally the alphabet used by the Romans to write Latin. After the fall of the Roman Empire in the West, this alphabet continued to be used as the various dialects of Latin spoken in the former provinces of the Empire slowly evolved into the romance languages like Spanish, Italian , or French. The Latin alphabet was carried North and East by Christian missionaries, and so the various Germanic and Celtic peoples used them to write their own languages. The Anglo-Saxons who spoke Old English were among the Germanic speakers. Naturally the speakers of the various languages adapted the letters of the Latin alphabet to suit the needs of their own languages. Letters were dropped or added or the sounds they represented changed. Some languages added diacritical marks such as the accents, circumflexes, dots or curls you may see when studying Spanish, French or some other language. The Latin alphabet originally had 23 letters, the 26 found in English and other European language minus J, U, and W. Before being introduced to the Latin alphabet, the Anglo-Saxons, like other Germanic peoples had used the runic alphabet. When they switched to the Latin alphabet, they added four letters to the alphabet and dropped K, Q, and Z for a total of 24 letters. Two of the added letters were taken from the runic alphabet and two were adapted Latin letters. The altered Latin letters were Æ or ash, which was pronounced something like between the vowels A and E, and Рor eth, which was a sound close to D, perhaps DH. The two letters taken from the runes were þ, thorn and Wynn Ƿ which was used for the W sound. The letter Œ or ethel was also used. There was also a letter Ȝ or Yogh which was simply the English form of G. Yogh was used after the Norman Conquest along with the Carolingian G with gradually replaced it. The letter þ was used in Old English and survived into Middle English, though by the fourteenth century it was being replaced by the digraph th. The Letter Wynn had out of use already to be replaced by W or double U (UU). Over time þ began to be indistinguishable from the letter Y in handwriting. By the time William Caxton introduced the printing press to England in 1476, þ was only used in a few common words like “the”, which people were unwilling to change the spelling. The printing press had been invented in Germany and Caxton was obliged to import the type fonts from Germany. Since the German language did not use þ, he substituted Y. Over time most people forgot about the letter þ and simply assumed the letter in old printed texts was Y. This is why you will often see something like, “Ye Olde Antique Shoppe” in fake Medieval signage. The “Ye” is supposed to be “The” but since the people who make such signs do not know about þ and “ye” is the archaic second person plural pronoun, “ye” just sounds old fashioned, which is the effect they are going for. þ was used by other Germanic languages, particularly in Scandinavia, but it fell out of use there too. The only living language that uses þ is Icelandic where it retains the pronunciation “th”. In order to write thorn, I had to download an Icelandic keyboard, before I discovered that it is one of the special characters on WordPress’s toolbar. Ð and Æ were also on the Icelandic keyboard but I had to cut and paste Ƿ, Ȝ and Œ. The Icelandic language seems to have retained much of the grammar and vocabulary of Old Norse, the language of the Vikings and modern Icelanders can still read the old sagas with only a little effort. þat is all I have to say about þe letters þat are no longer used in þe English language. It seems a shame þat we lost some letters. Perhaps I should start a movement to reintroduce þ into þe alphabet. Maybe not.

Carolingian Miniscule

July 14, 2014

It is still widely believed that Western Europe during the Early Middle Ages, around AD 500-1000, was an intellectual wasteland, a dark age in which the vast majority of the people were illiterate and ignorant. During this dark age the learning of the ancient Greeks and Romans was completely forgotten by the barbarians who overthrew the Roman Empire, and what learning did survive was ruthlessly suppressed by a Catholic Church which worshiped ignorance and superstition. I have attempted to correct these misconceptions in previous posts by writing a little about what historians of the period have to say.

You may be surprised to learn that one of the greatest advances in transmitting the written word from the invention of the printing press all the way back to the invention of writing itself occurred during the so-called Dark Ages. This would be the development of the script called Carolingian minuscule. What is Carolingian Minuscule? In a sense, it is what you are looking at now. That is to say, our modern system of upper-case and lower case letters along with punctuation like periods and commas are derived from Carolingian Minuscule.

The alphabet we use in English comes from the Latin alphabet which the Romans used. They adapted their alphabet from a version of the Greek alphabet, which the Greeks had adapted from the alphabet invented by the Phoenicians. All of these ancient alphabets had only what we call upper-case or capital letters and no punctuation.


This is a little hard to read. Around the first century AD scribes began to experiment with various forms of cursive writing. Some of the Latin letters, when written quickly with a pen, began to resemble the letters we know as lower case letters. These scribes also developed simple systems of punctuation to indicate pauses when reading aloud. There was no difference in meaning between upper case and lower case letters. The differences in the shapes of the letters were simply the result of the handwriting of the individual writer. There was no consistent use of punctuation. As Christianity grew in numbers and influence, there was more interest in creating some sort of system of punctuation to help the reader when reading the Bible or other religious texts aloud during services. There was also a great need for more texts to be copied and any way of increasing the speed of making copies was appreciated.

After the fall of the Roman Empire in the West, the experimentation in developing various scripts continued in the monasteries, particularly in Ireland and England. The native Celtic languages of the Irish monks were quite unlike Latin and they felt the need to make the Latin texts they studied and copied easier to read. This, these monks introduced the idea of putting spaces between words. They also started to use different marks to indicate differing lengths of pauses, something like our periods, commas, semicolons, etc. On the continent, the monks and scribes of the Merovingian Franks also used a wide variety of scripts. Because these scripts varied from region to region and even from monastery to monastery and still didn’t have any consistent system of using upper and lower case letters or punctuation, writing in Western Europe was still a mess. These various scripts were not as clear and legible as they might have been and reading and making copies was still something of a chore.

Austrasia, homeland of the Franks (darkest gre...

Austrasia, homeland of the Franks (darkest green), and subsequent conquests (other shades of green). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Charlemagne, or Charles the Great, was the king of the Franks from 768 to 814 and the first Holy Roman Emperor from 800-814. His father Peppin had deposed the last of the Merovingian kings of the Franks and Charlemagne had united the Franks and conquered most of Western Europe, including what is now France, Germany, northern Italy, and a part of Spain. Charlemagne was no mere warlord, though he was fond of fighting. He was aware that education and culture had degenerated badly in his Frankish realm since the fall of the Roman Empire and he was determined to do something about it. He reformed the administration of his empire and put it on a more professional level than it had been for centuries. He introduced new coinage with improved trade and stabilized the empire’s finances. He was a pious Christian and tried to reform the Frankish clergy. Although Charlemagne himself was illiterate, he knew the importance of literacy for administration and established schools to educate the young. He himself attempted to learn to read and write. He had some success with reading but he started too late in life and was never able to learn to write. Since there were few teachers available among the Franks, Charlemagne sent abroad for teachers, particularly from the British Isles. The chief of these teachers was a monk from York named Alcuin.

Minuscule caroline

Minuscule caroline (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

York had become a center of learning in England and Charlemagne was eager to hire Alcuin to improve the palace school which had been used to train royal princes for rule. Alcuin introduced a liberal arts and religious curriculum at the palace school and gathered scholars  at Charlemagne’s capital of Aachen in the hopes of establishing another center of scholarship in Francia. He also helped to create the new, clearer, more legible script that came to be known as the Carolingian minuscule. This new script included letters with uniform rounded shapes to make reading and copying easier along with clear distinctions between capital and lower case letters, spaces between words and sentences and a standardized system of punctuation. As a result manuscripts produced in any part of western Europe could be read by a scholar in any other part of Europe. Because the letters were smaller, yet more legible, more words could be fitted on a page, thus conserving valuable parchment or vellum. Under Charlemagne and Alcuin’s guidance, scribes made new copies of every Latin manuscript they could find with the result that if a manuscript or book written in Latin managed to survive into Carolingian times, there is a very good chance that a copy made during that time survives today. In other words, if it were not for the reforms in writing that took place in the middle of the Dark Ages, most of the literature from the Roman Empire would have been completely lost.

Carolingian minuscule was adopted throughout Charlemagne’s empire and its influence survived even after his empire fell apart during the reigns of his grandsons.  Over time this script developed into the Blackletter script which was used in Germany until the twentieth century. Italian humanists came to believe that this script was barbaric and “Gothic” and looked back to the original Carolingian minuscule as the way that properly civilized Romans wrote, believing that the Carolingian manuscripts were original Roman texts. The humanists went on to develop new scripts based on the Carolingian minuscule and when printing was invented, printers used these scripts as models for their typefaces. So, if you can read this, be sure to thank Charlemagne and the medieval scholars who invented our modern letters and punctuation.

Charlemagne. Painted in the year of 14. This i...

You’re welcome (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Election of 1816

July 7, 2014

There is not much to say about the election of 1816. There was hardly any campaigning and with the collapse of the Federalist Party, there was little question that the Democratic-Republican candidate, James Monroe, would be elected.

The War of 1812 had ended the year before. The United States hadn’t exactly won the war, but we hadn’t exactly lost it either. The Treaty of Ghent had largely restored the relations between the United States and Great Britain as they had been before the war. Neither side had gained or lost any territory, so the war could be considered a draw. Actually, you might consider the US ahead on points since the last battle of the war, the Battle of New Orleans fought two weeks after the treaty was signed, was a resounding defeat for the British.

In any event, the War of 1812 turned out to be a “good war” and the Federalists who had opposed it were badly damaged by their opposition. The Federalist Party had been declining in numbers and influence for years and the War of 1812 finished them. It didn’t help that the Democratic-Republicans were stealing their better ideas. The trouble the United States had in financing the War of 1812 convinced many Jeffersonians that Alexander Hamilton’s ideas about a National Bank and encouraging American manufacturing weren’t so bad after all.

President Madison decided to follow the example of Washington and Jefferson and did not run for a third term. Instead, he supported the campaign of his Secretary of State, James Monroe. Monroe was yet another of the Virginia dynasty which had supplied the US with every president thus far, except for Adams. He had served in the Continental Army during the War of Independence and had been wounded at the Battle of Trenton. After the war, Monroe entered politics serving as a member of the Virginia House of Delegates and the US Senate. He was also ambassador to France under Washington, governor of Virginia, and President Madison’s Secretary of State and War. He was an obvious successor to Jefferson and Madison.

Not everyone thought so. Many in the North were wary of another Virginia president and felt it was time to end the Virginia dynasty. There was some talk of nominating another of Madison’s Secretary of Wars, William H. Crawford, but he declined to run and it came to nothing. In the end the Democratic-Republican Congressional Caucus nominated James Monroe for president and New York governor Daniel D Tompkins for vice-president.


The Federalists didn’t even bother to have a formal caucus to nominate a candidate. Most Federalists supported Rufus King, the Federalist Vice Presidential candidate from the elections of 1808 and 1812. Former Maryland senator and governor John Eager Howard was the informal candidate for Vice-President.


There was hardly any campaigning or excitement in this election, except for a slight controversy about the status of Indiana. When the official count of the electoral votes took place in February of 1817, there were some objections made that since Indiana was not recognized by Congress until December 11,1816 while the Electoral College had cast its ballots on December 4, therefore the State of Indiana did not yet exist and its votes shouldn’t be counted. Others argued that Indiana had been organized as a state, with its constitution on June 29, and that Congress was merely acknowledging a state that already existed. The debate was postponed and since it made no difference to the results, it was never taken up again.

As for the results, it was a landslide for Monroe and the Democratic-Republicans. The popular vote was 76,592 or 68.2% for Monroe and 34,740 or 30.9% for King. At this time only ten of the nineteen states chose their electors by popular vote, while the electors of the remaining nine were chosen by their state legislatures. In the Electoral College, Monroe won all but three states, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Delaware for a total of 183 electoral votes. King, with those three states only won 34 votes. This was the end of the Federalist Party and the first party system of the United States.

The Election of 1816

The Election of 1816




Independence Day

July 4, 2014

The Fourth of July is the day on which the American people celebrate their independence from Great Britain. It is not actually clear why Independence Day is the Fourth. Congress actually passed the Declaration of Independence on July 2, 1776. It has often been thought that the Declaration was signed on the fourth, but that doesn’t seem to be true. There wasn’t any one time when the members of Congress signed the Declaration and there were a few who didn’t get around to signing it until August. Nevertheless, the fourth is the date that stuck. As John Adams wrote to Abigail.

English: "The Declaration of Independence...


The second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more.


And so it has been, for the last 238 years. May God bless America and grant us many more years of freedom.




Happy Independence Day.




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