Friday, 28 April 2017

Holy Days and Lots of Fish

Holidays can mean both time off work and time spent away from home, lazing around, visiting ancient ruins, paragliding, or indulging in whatever else might be your preferred form of relaxation. The term originated from holy days, of which, in medieval England, a great many were celebrated.

I use the term ‘celebrated’ loosely. Some of these are still well-known or even participated in today (Lent, Easter, Christmas). But way back when, there were scores of them. And they came less with delightful presents and chocolate eggs, and more on restrictions of what you could eat.

Meat was banned. And if that sounds bad, that was true on Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays all year round. Now, if you’re Peasanty McPoorperson, this made as much difference to you as banning the use of golden footstools. The staple foods of humble people were bread and cheese, and weak ale.

On the other hand, if you were rich or moderately well-off (a yeoman farmer, say), then not being allowed to eat meat for perhaps as much as over half a year was a pain in the posterior. As we know, the wealthy and powerful are not necessarily renowned for sticking to inconvenient rules, so they conjured up some work-arounds.

Fish wasn’t banned. They swim in the sea or rivers or lakes, and don’t count as meat (veganism wasn’t big in medieval England). So, fish was a popular (although sometimes hugely expensive) alternative. Obviously it was cheapest and most readily available for those near the coast, rivers and lakes, but nobles might send one another fish as gifts (a large pike, for example). These piscine presents were kept fresh by catching them alive and transporting them in water.

The definition of the term ‘fish’ was also creatively applied. A puffin was considered fish, for example, on the basis they dive into the sea to eat. The same went for beavers and geese. It was a bit like early definitions of vegetarianism, (in the early 20th century, ‘vegetarians’ [such as Hitler] might eat kidney. Because that didn’t count, apparently).

Then there were the holiest of chaps: monks. They were banned from eating meat entirely. It said so, according to their holy rules. Thou shalt not eat meat in the refectory.

Sometimes monks can be slippery weasels. Some of them, particularly those from noble backgrounds, looked at the rule and realised that it actually only applied to the refectory. So, they created a second dining room called the misericord. As long as at least half the monks ate in the refectory, shunning meat, the rest could eat in the misericord, and eat meat.

There you have it. Thou shalt not eat meat on holy days or Wednesday, Friday or Saturday. Unless it’s a beaver, and then it’s ok. And no meat at all if you’re a monk. Unless you’re eating in the swanky dining room, obviously.


Friday, 21 April 2017

The Power Paradox

The last blog was loosely inspired by the shock decision by Theresa May to hold a General Election, since voted for by Parliament, and this one has a similar theme.

There have been some calls from people like Nicola Sturgeon for, in her words, a progressive alliance between Labour, the SNP, Lib Dems and so on, in order to oppose a Conservative Party which appears to be electorally formidable.

Of course, this wouldn’t be the first time a seemingly predominant power caused an alliance of rivals to oppose it.

After Alexander the Great died, there was a period of phony peace for about three years. Perdiccas was regent, but ended up getting killed by his own men after a failed invasion of Egypt, to punish Ptolemy for stealing Alexander’s corpse.

Theoretically, the remaining Diadochi (Successors) were still loyal to the two kings: Philip Arrhidaeus (Alexander’s mentally disabled half-brother) and Alexander IV (Alexander’s young son). In practice, they were all jockeying for position.

Ptolemy retained Egypt, wealthy and defensible land that it was. Antigonus Monopthalmus acquired substantial power, from modern day Syria to (roughly) the western border of Iran. Lysimachus got Thrace (Romania), strategically vital but also not the easiest land to tame. Antipater, the ageing viceroy who had held the reins in Macedon whilst Alexander conquered the world, retained his place there and became regent.

It wouldn’t last.

Antipater died a few years later and his chosen successor Polyperchon was not recognised by the other Diadochi. Cassander, Antipater’s overlooked son, toppled Polyperchon and taking Macedon, which ended up having terminal consequences for Alexander IV (Philip Arrhidaeus had already been murdered by Alexander’s mother Olympias).

Antigonus had steadily expanded his power, taking even more territory and becoming dominant on the seas, surpassing Ptolemy’s Egypt which had previously held sway. Then came a critical turn. Antigonus’ young son Demetrius (later nicknamed Poliorcetes – the Besieger) fought Ptolemy at the Battle of Gaza. Demetrius lost. It wasn’t catastrophic in itself, but for the ultimate consequence.

Ptolemy had been sheltering Seleucus, another of Alexander’s former generals. After the death of Perdiccas, he had been made satrap (regional king) of Babylonia, but Antigonus had wrested the large and wealthy satrapy from him. Following victory at Gaza, Ptolemy gave money and some troops to Seleucus, who returned to Babylonia, surprisingly managed to defeat Antigonus’ forces, and was welcomed by the local population. From there, he expanded east, and entered into marriage with the daughter of the Indian ruler Chandragupta, which included a wedding present to Seleucus of several hundred elephants.

All the kings, as they now openly titled themselves, held great power. Cassander in Macedon had the critical resource of top notch Macedonian infantry. Ptolemy’s Egypt was brimming with wealth and very hard to invade. Lysimachus held the gateway between Europe and Asia. Seleucus ruled vast lands and had more elephants than the rest combined.

But it was Antigonus Monopthalmus and Demetrius Poliorcetes, co-ruling now that Antigonus was in his eighties, who were still predominant. If anyone could reunite the whole Macedonian empire, it was them.

And the others knew it.

At certain times in history, it’s remarkable just how idiotic leaders can be, or how one-sided a war can seem. This was not one of those times. All Alexander’s generals were ruthless, bold, cunning and extremely capable. And the other kings realised their salvation only lay in alliance.

Cassander, Lysimachus and Seleucus agreed to face Antigonus together, at the Battle of Ipsus. Ptolemy himself did not take part, perhaps preferring to keep his forces fresh to take advantage of the situation afterwards.

Demetrius was campaigning in Greece and was rapidly called back by his elderly father. Had Antigonus been younger, he probably would’ve destroyed Lysimachus’ forces, the first to arrive, but they managed to slip away from under his nose. Later, foot soldiers from Cassander and Seleucus’ men (as well as 400 elephants) completed the alliance army.

Even so, it was only an even match for Antigonus and Demetrius’ forces. The two armies lined up, and battle commenced. Demetrius led a strong cavalry attack and drove back the opposing horsemen (he was accompanied in this by Pyrrhus, a cousin of Alexander). But it was a trap. The retreating horsemen led Demetrius far from the battle, and when he tried to return, he founded Seleucus’ elephants arrayed against him. Cavalry, quite understandable, won’t charge elephants. Demetrius tried to find a way through as his father, on the other side of the battlefield, kept faith that his son would return to rescue the situation.

He couldn’t. Antigonus Monopthalmus died under a hail of javelins, and his son was forced to flee the field. Territory was carved up between Lysimachus and Seleucus, with Cassander regaining the parts of Greece that had succumbed to Demetrius previously.

Demetrius himself was eventually captured by Seleucus, and treated well, but ended up drinking himself to death. Unusually for this period, he had a very good relationship with his father, and it’s not hard to imagine how terrible he felt after the Battle of Ipsus. His descendants would go on to rule Macedon for generations to come, but the dream of reuniting Alexander’s empire had gone.

Antigonus, in his pomp, had almost all the advantages imaginable. Yet it wasn’t sufficient for victory. He didn’t make severe mistakes, and came very close to ultimate victory. But it was his very strength that led to his defeat because it forced his rivals, individually weaker by far, to unite against him.

To return to British politics, in 1997 Tony Blair won a historic landslide for Labour, and got a second in 2001. In 2007, Prime Minister Gordon Brown was contemplating a snap election and there was genuine speculation that the Conservative Party could not withstand another defeat. He did not call one. Now, the Conservatives are (if polling is accurate, and we know, from the 2015 election, the British public aren’t above fibbing for six months...) on the brink of increasing their majority and Labour look down and out.

Whether that makes you gleeful or despondent, it won’t last. Things can change quickly in politics, and they have.

If you liked the sound of the Diadochi era, I can recommend two books on the subject (links to reviews):


Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Grasping Power

Today, Theresa May (UK Prime Minister) announced a snap election. This came after saying for some time she wouldn’t do this, and just two years after the last UK General Election (UK terms are usually four to five years).

Obviously, it’s a big gamble, and on 8 June we’ll see how it pans out. Of course, it’s not the first such gamble in history.

The classic would be Julius Caesar, standing with his army on one side of the Rubicon. He’d been ordered back to Rome, without his army. Caesar had understandable reservations. The unofficial triumvirate that had dominated Roman politics had fractured. He was one member, and another, Crassus, had been killed whilst on campaign in Parthia. Pompey, the third member, had been married to Caesar’s daughter, but she had died.

Caesar and Pompey found themselves on opposing sides of Roman politics. The two men, previously allies, were now to fight for control of Rome (still technically a republic). Caesar had a choice to make. Obey the summons of his city and probably be prosecuted, or march an army into Italy.

He crossed the Rubicon, crossing the river with a loyal army at his back. It was a decision from which there could be no turning back (the phrase is still sometimes used today, and could well apply to the Prime Minister’s decision). Ultimately, it paid off. Caesar won the war and briefly ruled what was in effect an empire, until his assassination a year or so after the civil war ended. His adopted son, taking the name Augustus, won his own civil war and became the first emperor, reigning for decades.

It was not the last civil war the Roman Empire would see. Julian, appointed as Caesar (junior emperor) by his cousin Constantius II (largely on the basis he was the only surviving male relative the emperor had) to govern Gaul and protect it from the rampaging Germanic tribes, set about his task with surprising confidence for a man plucked from obscure academia. Julian was so competent, in fact, that his soldiers proclaimed him emperor, which put him in a tight spot. He could either accept, and embark upon civil war against the man who had appointed him in the first place, or decline, and risk getting murdered by his own men.

Julian decided to accept.

The two sides geared up for war, and Julian scored perhaps the most perfect victory in a civil war in the history of mankind. Before the armies met, Constantius fell terminally ill. On his deathbed, he named his cousin as his successor. Not a drop of blood was shed, and Julian the Apostate became emperor.

Of course, snap decisions to achieve sovereign power don’t always work out well, and rarely as well as Julian’s bloodless triumph.

Sir Roger Mortimer had been a relatively close friend of Edward II. However, the latter’s capacity for alienating others, not least at the behest of Hugh Despenser, gradually led to Roger becoming disaffected and then rebelling outright. The Mortimer, as then known, was imprisoned and destined for death.

However, he managed to escape to France, where he formed a political (and personal) alliance with Edward II’s wife Isabella. The pair returned to England, successfully overthrowing Isabella’s husband. Edward II was imprisoned, and Roger Mortimer became ruler of England.

This left Edward, Isabella’s son by her husband, in a very precarious position. He was effectively under house arrest and too young to exercise, or even try to assert, his authority. The youth became a young king, Edward III, when his father was (probably) killed whilst in custody. His uncle was also executed.

Things looked rather bleak. Edward III was nearing adulthood, and Mortimer, who was gathering vast power and endless titles unto himself, seemed unlikely to suffer a rival. However, hope was not lost. A small group of friends, young and intrepid fellows, sought to free Edward. A secret passage was unlocked, and the rescuers made their way into Nottingham Castle, where Edward, Mortimer, and Isabella were all living. Edward III was freed, Mortimer captured, and a rather sombre conversation had between mother and son.

Sir Roger Mortimer appeared to have won. The old king was dead, Queen Isabella was his mistress, and the young king his prisoner, to be dispensed with once the time was right. Yet despite all these advantages, his rapacious greed had made the nobility fearful, and the loyalty of his friends saved Edward III.

Those seeking power should beware that in the getting of it they don’t plant the seeds of their own destruction.


Friday, 14 April 2017

Review: The Jewish War, by Josephus

This had been on my to-read list for years, and I finally finished it this month. The Jewish War covers the build-up and events of the war that occurred when Judea was a Roman province and rebelled in the middle of the 1st century AD.

Josephus is a Jewish historian who also played a part in the war. You may think this made him a little biased, but actually he’s very biased. Fortunately, it’s usually quite obvious (his own role is secondary most of the time, and his dislike of John, son of Levi, eminently deserved).

The background that leads up to the war itself is extensive, and includes a fascinating depiction of Herod (he comes across rather better than he does in the New Testament) in his earlier years. Fighting alongside his brothers as a loyal, bold, brave and intelligent man, it’s intriguing to see his conduct in war (generally noble and wise), his relationships with Roman leaders (diplomatically malleable) and his kingship (quite good, if you leave aside heavy taxation and child killing…).

By the time we reach the preamble to the war itself, the scene is very much set. An unsuitably small garrison coupled with a greedy and malevolent Roman governor (not to mention persistent tension between Roman and Jewish Law) led to the rebellion of the Jews coming about. At first, there was some success for the Jews, but a combination of the competence of Vespasian and Titus (both of whom have their characters portrayed well, although Josephus was on good terms with them) and incessant, brutal Jewish infighting delivered Rome victory.

The description of the factionalism and cruelty is very well-done, and the latter days of Jerusalem (before its destruction) are very sad reading indeed.

In addition to the events in Judea, there are occasional diversions elsewhere, most notably when Vespasian contested mastery of the Empire in 69 AD (this happened in Italy). Comments on external events (Herod’s friendship with Mark Anthony, Cleopatra’s attempts to persuade Mark Anthony to give her Judea as a gift) tend to be made only when they had a clear impact on Judea.

Although Josephus is sometimes blatantly biased (not least about his own brilliance) he puts across the suffering and tragedy of the Jews, most of whom would have sued for peace had the Zealots not been oppressing the masses, very well indeed. The writing style is easy to read. Slight digressions (on terrain or the differing nature of Jewish sects) are usually interesting, but drag every now and then.

I would criticise, as always, the use of endnotes over footnotes. And there are many endnotes.

At the back of the book are the usual maps and six appendices, including (and I appreciate most people won’t be as interested in this as me) a Macedonian calendar, which was still used in that particular time/place (a hangover from Alexander’s empire).

Overall, a good book, an interesting history, and a vivid portrayal of the bitterness of factional infighting and the sorrow it caused.


Friday, 7 April 2017

Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder

Across history and cultures, what’s deemed attractive has varied. There are a few constants. Being rich never scares off potential bed-warmers. To quote Blackadder, being a ‘thrice-endowed supreme donkey of the trouser part’ is also not harmful (that said, excessive endowment can be a problem, and one unlikely to yield much sympathy).

But most things do change. In the modern world a ‘healthy tan’ is appreciated by many people. A few centuries back, a tan meant you were a peasant working the fields, rather than a porcelain-skinned lady who lived in a lovely house and spent her day contemplating God and doing needlework.

Change can also occur very rapidly. Fashion varied wildly from the start to the end of the Tudor period. More recently, a few decades ago it was the norm for catwalk models to be unhealthily skinny. They’re hardly fat now, but the change is stark (a reaction to the rise of anorexia, as well as common sense).

Although this is changing, in parts of Africa women being of larger size is/was deemed attractive. The reason is pretty basic. Large size means plenty of food, means prosperity and security. Only a few generations ago “You’ve gained weight” was a compliment in the UK. When the world you live in has famines, diseases, poor medicine and occasional massive wars, a surplus of food is not seen as a bad thing.

But today, in the UK, where famine doesn’t really exist, diseases can be treated, medicine is much improved and wars tend to be small and overseas rather than existential and at home/just over the English Channel, the prism shifts. Excessive weight is seen not as a sign of success, prosperity and security, but as the symptom of sloth and greed, of lack of exercise and risking health problems.

And the reverse is also true. “Impiety has made a feast of thee” Shakespeare wrote in Measure for Measure (I think). This refers to one character greeting another who has lost weight. Huzzah, you might think. But in Elizabethan English, Shakespeare’s one-liner means the first character is asserting the second is skinnier because he’s been shagging so many prostitutes he contracted syphilis, which has caused his weight to drop.

Another old saying is that someone (this has been aimed at me) is just ‘skin and bone’. Don’t hear it much nowadays, but it does hark back to a time when bigger was better and skinniness was to be avoided.

Pox scars could help you get a job. I forget the precise time/place (I think it was the UK a century or two ago, during a pox outbreak). The scars only came after you’d survived, and once you made it through without dying, you became immune to the pox. So, the scars, whilst ugly, meant you wouldn’t die and inconvenience your company with paperwork and finding a replacement.

On a similar note, another type of disease (smooth-skin leprosy, if memory serves) often suffered by milk maidens made the skin, er, very smooth. No scars of disfigurement and probably helped milk maids achieve their fond folk memory of frolicking delights.

There’s also an element of, if not choice, elitism in attractiveness. To be well-rounded centuries ago required wealth. To be in great shape now requires the time, money or willpower to spend down the gym or running on the streets. The ‘healthy tan’ requires time to sunbathe and money to go abroad. Obviously, people are naturally blessed with glorious fingernails or stunning cheekbones, or cursed with bad breath or having one eye larger than the other, but the degree to which we’re attractive is, to a large extent, in our hands.

If we have the means to take advantage of it, of course.