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Archive for the ‘Ancient History’ Category

Last Hours

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‘The film Last Hours is the 2nd film in the Green World Rising Series ( the first one is Carbon that is available on this channel). Last Hours describes a science-based climate scenario where a tipping point to runaway climate change is triggered by massive releases of frozen methane. Methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, has already started to percolate into the open seas and atmosphere from methane hydrate deposits beneath melting arctic ice, from the warming northern-hemisphere tundra, and from worldwide continental-shelf undersea methane pools. Burning fossil fuels release carbon that, principally through greenhouse effect, heat the atmosphere and the seas. This is happening most rapidly at the polar extremes, and this heating has already begun the process of releasing methane. If we do not begin to significantly curtail the use of carbon-based fossil fuels, this freed methane threatens to radically accelerate the speed of global warming, potentially producing a disaster beyond the ability of the human species to adapt. With this film, we hope to awaken people to the fact that the earth has experienced five major extinctions in the deep geologic past – times when more than half of all life on earth vanished – and that we are now entering a sixth extinction. Industrial civilization with its production of greenhouse gases has the potential to trigger a mass extinction on the order of those seen in the deep geological past. In the extreme, it could threaten not just human civilization, but the very existence of human life on this planet. An asset for the climate change movement, Last Hours will be disseminated globally to help inform society about the dangers associated with climate change and to encourage the world community to chart a path forward that greatly reduces green house gas emissions . . . Last Hours is narrated by Leonardo DiCaprio, presented by Thom Hartmann and directed by Leila Conners. Executive Producers are George DiCaprio, Earl Katz and Roee Sharon Peled. Last Hours is produced by Mathew Schmid and was written by Thom Hartmann, Sam Sacks, and Leila Conners. Music is composed and performed by Francesco Lupica. Last Hours is brought to you by the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation and produced by Tree Media. Published on Sep 19, 2014′.

 

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Ancient Atheism: Professor Tim Whitemarsh and his book

Battling the Gods (2016)

The A.G. Leventis Professor of Greek Culture at Cambridge University, Tim Whitemarsh argues in his book that disbelief in divine causality and/or intervention was rather commonplace in the ancient world, more commonplace than monotheism at the very least he would argue. Illustrating this point, the Independent columnist Boyd Tonkin reasons that if “we accept that the Israelites in Jerusalem dumped all other gods in favour of the jealous, unique Yahweh sometime after 539BC, then by that period Xenophanes of Colophon had already recorded his scepticism. In other words, atheism may be ‘at least as old as the monotheistic religions of Abraham’. Let no one brand a non-believer as some post-Enlightenment freak, or atheists as modern weirdos who are ‘incomplete in their humanity’ . . . “.[1] Were it not that Xenophanes of Colophon actually “claimed that there was only one God, an eternal being, who shared no attributes with human beings” in the 6th century BCE, as related by the freelance writer and part-time Professor of Philosophy at Marist College, New York, Joshua J. Mark.[2] Still, Professor Whitemarsh “suggests [in his book] that atheism – which is typically seen as a modern phenomenon – was not just common in ancient Greece and pre-Christian Rome, but probably flourished more in those societies than in most civilisations since”.[3]

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Professor Whitemarsh argues that “[w]e tend to see atheism as an idea that has only recently emerged in secular Western societies . . . The rhetoric used to describe it is hyper-modern. In fact, early societies were far more capable than many since of containing atheism within the spectrum of what they considered normal . . . Rather than making judgements based on scientific reason, these early atheists were making what seem to be universal objections about the paradoxical nature of religion – the fact that it asks you to accept things that aren’t intuitively there in your world. The fact that this was happening thousands of years ago suggests that forms of disbelief can exist in all cultures, and probably always have”.[4] And he goes on that “[b]elievers talk about atheism as if it’s a pathology of a particularly odd phase of modern Western culture that will pass, but if you ask someone to think hard, clearly people also thought this way in antiquity”.[5] But this period of apparent leniency came to an end with the Roman adoption of Christianity in the 4th century CE: “The age of ancient atheism ended . . . because the polytheistic societies that generally tolerated it were replaced by monotheistic imperial forces that demanded an acceptance of one, ‘true’ God. Rome’s adoption of Christianity in the 4th Century CE was . . . seismic’, because it used religious absolutism to hold the Empire together. Most of the later Roman Empire’s ideological energy was expended fighting supposedly heretical beliefs – often other forms of Christianity. In a decree of 380, Emperor Theodosius I even drew a distinction between Catholics, and everyone else – whom he classed as dementes vesanosque (‘demented lunatics’). Such rulings left no room for disbelief”.[6]

Emperor Theodosius

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[1] Boyd Tonkin, “Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World by Tim Whitmarsh, book review” The Independent (18 Feb 2016). http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/reviews/battling-the-gods-atheism-in-the-ancient-world-by-tim-whitmarsh-book-review-a6881636.html.

[2] Joshua J. Mark, “Xenophanes of Colophon” Ancient History Encyclopedia (02 September 2009). http://www.ancient.eu/Xenophanes_of_Colophon/.

[3] “Disbelieve it or not, ancient history suggests that atheism is as natural to humans as religion” University of Cambridge Research (16 Feb 2016). “http://www.cam.ac.uk/research/news/disbelieve-it-or-not-ancient-history-suggests-that-atheism-is-as-natural-to-humans-as-religion#sthash.DpC54PeT.dpuf.

[4] “Disbelieve it or not, ancient history suggests that atheism is as natural to humans as religion”.

[5] “Disbelieve it or not, ancient history suggests that atheism is as natural to humans as religion”.

[6] “Disbelieve it or not, ancient history suggests that atheism is as natural to humans as religion”.

Palmyra Falls: IS FTW?!?!?

(20 May 2015)

From Beirut, Reuters’ Sylvia Westall and Tom Perry report that “Islamic State insurgents stormed the historic Syrian city of Palmyra on Wednesday [, 20 May], fighting off pro-government forces who withdrew after evacuating most of the civilian population, state television said. The capture of Palmyra is the first time the al Qaeda offshoot has taken control of a city directly from the Syrian army and allied forces, which have already lost ground in the northwest and south to other insurgent groups in recent weeks. The central city, also known as Tadmur, is built alongside the remains of a oasis civilisation whose colonnaded streets, temple and theatre have stood for 2,000 years. Islamic State has destroyed antiquities and ancient monuments in neighbouring Iraq and is being targeted by U.S.-led air strikes in both countries. Syria’s antiquities chief called on the world to save its ancient monuments and state television said Islamic State fighters were trying to enter the city’s historical sites”.[1]

Originally re-discovered in 1678, scholars usually describe Palmyra as a “caravan city” and the “brief seat of an empire” . . . “As the Romans expanded their frontiers during the 1st and early 2nd centuries AD to occupy the eastern Mediterranean shores, the Seleucid dynasty failed. Tadmor [the Arabic name for Palmyra] became stranded between the Latin realms to the west and those of the Parthians to the east. The oasis used this situation to its advantage, keeping the east–west trade routes open and taking the role of middleman between the two clashing superpowers. The influence of Rome grew, and the city they dubbed Palmyra (City of Palms) became a tributary of the empire and a buffer against rivals to the east. The Palmyrenes were permitted to retain considerable independence, profiting also from rerouted trade following the defeat of the Petra-based Nabataeans by Rome. The emperor Hadrian visited in AD 129 and declared Palmyra a ‘free city’, allowing it to set and collect its own taxes. In 212, under the emperor Caracalla (himself born of a Syrian mother), Palmyra became a Roman colony. In this way, its citizens obtained equal rights with those of Rome and exemption from paying imperial taxes. Further wealth followed and Palmyra spent lavishly, enlarging its great colonnaded avenue and building more and larger temple”.[2]  The expression “brief seat of an empire” primarily refers to the reign of Queen Zenobia, who succeeded her husband Odainat who had been Rome’s ‘Corrector of the East’. Zenobia declared independence from Rome in 267 AD. The Roman “[E]mperor [Gallienus, r. 253-68] dispatched an army to deal with the rebel queen. Zenobia met the Roman force in battle and defeated it. She then led her army against the garrison at Bosra, then the capital of the Province of Arabia, and successfully invaded Egypt. With all of Syria and Palestine and part of Egypt under her control, Zenobia declared her independence from Rome and had coins minted in Alexandria bearing her image and that of her son [Vabalathus], who assumed the title of Augustus, or emperor. Claiming to be descended from Cleopatra, Zenobia was, it seems, a woman of exceptional ability and ambition”.[3]  The rebel queen was eventually defeated and taken as a hostage to Rome by Emperor Aurelian (r. 270-5) in the year 271 AD.[4]

And now, in the 21st century the Caliph has captured Zenobia’s city in an effort to unseat Bashar al-Assad. Westall and Perry relate that the “attack [on Palmyra] is part of a westward advance by Islamic State that is adding to pressures on the overstretched military and allied militia. The group holds tracts of land in the north and east and is now edging towards the more heavily populated areas along its western flank. In the east, U.S. special forces carried out a ground assault on Saturday [, 16 May] against Islamic State and killed a militant believed to be in charge of the group’s financial operations . . . Islamic State supporters posted pictures on social media showing what they said were gunmen in the streets of Palmyra, which is the location of one of Syria’s biggest weapons depots as well as army bases, an airport and a major prison”.[5]

[1] Sylvia Westall and Tom Perry, “Islamic State seizes ancient Palmyra city from Syrian forces” Reuters (21 May 2015). http://in.reuters.com/article/2015/05/20/mideast-crisis-syria-northeast-idINKBN0O52AH20150520.

[2] “Palmyra History” Lonely Planet. http://www.lonelyplanet.com/syria/palmyra/history.

[3] “Palmyra History”.

[4] “Zenobia” Livius. http://www.livius.org/person/zenobia/.

[5] Sylvia Westall and Tom Perry, “Islamic State seizes ancient Palmyra city from Syrian forces”.

Limited Intervention in Syria???

While the world’s leaders are in Russia, plans to attack Syria appear bigger and brighter than had been suggested previously . . . at least, that is what ABC News reports.

The Associated Press, for its part, still reports that the ‘NATO’s chief [Rasmussen] says a U.S. strike on Syria would not require deeper NATO involvement because it would be a limited operation’. NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said Thursday, 5 September that the Syria intervention will be “a short, targeted, tailored military operation. And for that you don’t need the NATO command and control system”.[1]  Does this now mean that the U.S. is really going it alone and that President Obama’s understanding of the words “targeted’ and  “tailored” is as confused (or precise) as Bill Clinton’s appreciation of the verb “is” . . .


[i] “Syria Attack Would Not Have to Draw in NATO” AP (5 September 2013). http://abcnews.go.com/International/wireStory/syria-attack-draw-nato-20166322.

Eric Hobsbawm dies at 95: Marxist till the End

Eric John Ernest Hobsbawm, historian, born 9 June 1917; died 1 October 2012. Here is an interview with the esteemed but now dead historian, conducted by Alan Macfarlane on 13 September 2009.

His books are vivid and full of conviction. His obituary in the Guardian reads as follows: “Unlike some others, Hobsbawm achieved this wider recognition without in any major way revolting against either Marxism or Marx. In his 94th year he published How to Change the World, a vigorous defence of Marx’s continuing relevance in the aftermath of the banking collapse of 2008-10. What is more, he achieved his culminating reputation at a time when the socialist ideas and projects that animated so much of his writing for well over half a century were in historic disarray, and worse – as he himself was always unflinchingly aware. In a profession notorious for microscopic preoccupations, few historians have ever commanded such a wide field in such detail or with such authority. To the last, Hobsbawm considered himself to be essentially a 19th-century historian, but his sense of that and other centuries was both unprecedentedly broad and unusually cosmopolitan. The sheer scope of his interest in the past, and his exceptional command of what he knew, continued to humble many, most of all in the four-volume Age of series, in which he distilled the history of the capitalist world from 1789 to 1991. “Hobsbawm’s capacity to store and retrieve detail has now reached a scale normally approached only by large archives with big staffs,” wrote Neal Ascherson. Both in his knowledge of historic detail and in his extraordinary powers of synthesis, so well displayed in that four-volume project, he was unrivalled”.

The Guardian obit continues: “Hobsbawm was born in Alexandria, a good place for a historian of empire, in 1917, a good year for a communist. He was second-generation British, the grandson of a Polish Jew and cabinet-maker who came to London in the 1870s. Eight children, who included Leopold, Eric’s father, were born in England and all took British citizenship at birth (Hobsbawm’s Uncle Harry in due course became the first Labour mayor of Paddington). But Eric was British of no ordinary background. Another uncle, Sidney, went to Egypt before the first world war and found a job there in a shipping office for Leopold. There, in 1914, Leopold Hobsbawm met Nelly Gruen, a young Viennese from a middle-class family who had been given a trip to Egypt as a prize for completing her school studies. The two got engaged, but the first world war broke out and they were separated. The couple eventually married in Switzerland in 1916, returning to Egypt for the birth of Eric, their first child. “Every historian has his or her lifetime, a private perch from which to survey the world,” he said in his 1993 Creighton lecture, one of several occasions in his later years when he attempted to relate his own lifetime to his own writing. “My own perch is constructed, among other materials, of a childhood in the Vienna of the 1920s, the years of Hitler’s rise in Berlin, which determined my politics and my interest in history, and the England, and especially the Cambridge, of the 1930s, which confirmed both.” In 1919, the young family settled in Vienna, where Eric went to elementary school, a period he later recalled in a 1995 television documentary which featured pictures of a recognisably skinny young Viennese Hobsbawm in shorts and knee socks. Politics made their impact around this time. Eric’s first political memory was in Vienna in 1927, when workers burned down the Palace of Justice. The first political conversation that he could recall took place in an Alpine sanatorium in these years, too. Two motherly Jewish women were discussing Leon Trotsky. “Say what you like,” said one to the other, “but he’s a Jewish boy called Bronstein.” In 1929 his father died suddenly of a heart attack. Two years later his mother died of TB. Eric was 14, and his Uncle Sidney took charge once more, taking Eric and his sister Nancy to live in Berlin. As a teenager in Weimar Republic Berlin, Eric inescapably became politicised. He read Marx for the first time, and became a communist. He could always remember the day in January 1933 when, emerging from the Halensee S-Bahn station on his way home from his school, the celebrated Prinz Heinrich Gymnasium, he saw a newspaper headline announcing Hitler’s election as chancellor. Around this time he joined the Socialist Schoolboys, which he described as “de facto part of the communist movement” and sold its publication, Schulkampf (School Struggle). He kept the organisation’s duplicator under his bed and, if his later facility for writing was any guide, probably wrote most of the articles too. The family remained in Berlin until 1933, when Sidney Hobsbawm was posted by his employers to England. The gangly teenage boy who settled with his sister in Edgware in 1934 described himself later as “completely continental and German speaking”. School, though, was “not a problem” because the English education system was “way behind” the German. A cousin in Balham introduced him to jazz for the first time – the “unanswerable sound”, he called it. The moment of conversion, he wrote some 60 years later, was when he first heard the Duke Ellington band “at its most imperial”. He spent a period in the 1950s as jazz critic of the New Statesman, and published a Penguin Special, The Jazz Scene, on the subject in 1959 under the pen-name Francis Newton (many years later it was reissued with Hobsbawm identified as the author). Learning to speak English properly, Eric became a pupil at Marylebone grammar school and in 1936 he won a scholarship to King’s College, Cambridge. It was at this time that a saying became common among his Cambridge communist friends: “Is there anything that Hobsbawm doesn’t know?” He became a member of the legendary Cambridge Apostles. “All of us thought that the crisis of the 1930s was the final crisis of capitalism,” he wrote 40 years later. But, he added, “it was not.” When the second world war broke out, Hobsbawm volunteered, as many communists did, for intelligence work. But his politics, which were never a secret, led to rejection. Instead he became an improbable sapper in 560 Field Company, which he later described as “a very working-class unit trying to build some patently inadequate defences against invasion on the coasts of East Anglia”. This, too, was a formative experience for the often aloof young intellectual prodigy. “There was something sublime about them and about Britain at that time,” he wrote. “That wartime experience converted me to the British working class. They were not very clever, except for the Scots and Welsh, but they were very, very good people.” Hobsbawm married his first wife, Muriel Seaman, in 1943. After the war, returning to Cambridge, he made another choice, abandoning a planned doctorate on north African agrarian reform in favour of research on the Fabians. It was a move that opened the door to both a lifetime of study of the 19th century and an equally long-lasting preoccupation with the problems of the left. In 1947 he got his first tenured job, as a history lecturer at Birkbeck College, London, where he was to remain for much of his teaching life. With the onset of the cold war, a very British academic McCarthyism meant that the Cambridge lectureship which Hobsbawm always coveted never materialised. He shuttled between Cambridge and London, one of the principal organisers and driving forces of the Communist Party Historians Group, a glittering radical academy which brought together some of the most prominent historians of the postwar era. Its members also included Christopher Hill, Rodney Hilton, AL Morton, EP Thompson, John Saville and, later, Raphael Samuel. Whatever else it achieved, the CP Historians Group, about which Hobsbawm wrote an authoritative essay in 1978, certainly provided a nucleus for many of his first steps as a major historical writer. Hobsbawm’s first book, Labour’s Turning Point (1948), an edited collection of documents from the Fabian era, belongs firmly to this CP-dominated era, as does his engagement in the once celebrated “standard of living” debate about the economic consequences of the early industrial revolution, in which he and RM Hartwell traded arguments in successive numbers of the Economic History Review. The foundation of the Past and Present journal – now the most lasting, if fully independent, legacy of the Historians Group – also belongs to this period. Hobsbawm was never to leave the Communist party and always thought of himself as part of an international communist movement. For many, this remained the insuperable obstacle to an embrace of his writing. Yet he always remained very much a licensed free-thinker within the party’s ranks. Over Hungary in 1956, an event which split the CP and drove many intellectuals out of the party, he was a voice of protest who nevertheless remained. Yet, as with his contemporary, Christopher Hill, who left the CP at this time, the political trauma of 1956 and the start of a lastingly happy second marriage combined in some way to trigger a sustained and fruitful period of historical writing that was to establish fame and reputation. In 1959 he published his first major work, Primitive Rebels, a strikingly original account, particularly for those times, of southern European rural secret societies and millenarian cultures (he was still writing about the subject as recently as 2011). He returned to these themes again a decade later in Captain Swing, a detailed study of rural protest in early 19th-century England co-authored with George Rudé, and Bandits, a more wide-ranging attempt at synthesis. These works are reminders that Hobsbawm was both a bridge between European and British historiography and a forerunner of the notable rise of the study of social history in post-1968 Britain. By this time, though, Hobsbawm had already published the first of the works on which both his popular and academic reputations still rest. A collection of some of his most important essays, Labouring Men, appeared in 1964 (a second collection, Worlds of Labour, was to follow 20 years later). But it was Industry and Empire (1968), a compelling summation of much of his work on Britain and the industrial revolution, that achieved the highest esteem. It has rarely been out of print. Even more influential in the long term was the Age of series, which he began in 1962 with The Age of Revolution: 1789-1848. This was followed in 1975 by The Age of Capital: 1848-1875 and in 1987 by The Age of Empire: 1875-1914. A fourth volume, The Age of Extremes: 1914-91, more quirky and speculative but in some respects the most remarkable and admirable of all, extended the sequence in 1994. The four volumes embodied all of Hobsbawm’s best qualities – the sweep combined with the telling anecdote and statistical grasp, the attention to the nuance and significance of events and words, and above all, perhaps, the unrivalled powers of synthesis (nowhere better displayed than in a classic summary of mid-19th century capitalism on the very first page of the second volume). The books were not conceived as a tetralogy, but as they appeared, they acquired individual and cumulative classic status. They were an example, Hobsbawm wrote, of “what the French call ‘haute vulgarisation'” (he did not mean this self-deprecatingly), and they became, in the words of one reviewer, “part of the mental furniture of educated Englishmen”. Hobsbawm’s first marriage had collapsed in 1951. During the 1950s, he had another relationship which resulted in the birth of his first son, Joss Bennathan, but the boy’s mother did not want to marry. In 1962 he married again, this time to Marlene Schwarz, of Austrian descent. They moved to Hampstead and bought a small second home in Wales. They had two children, Andrew and Julia. In the 1970s, Hobsbawm’s widening fame as a historian was accompanied by a growing reputation as a writer about his own times. Though he had a historian’s respect for the Communist party’s centralist discipline, his intellectual eminence gave him an independence that won the respect of communism’s toughest critics, such as Isaiah Berlin. It also ensured him the considerable accolade that not one of his books was ever published in the Soviet Union. Thus armed and protected, he ranged fearlessly across the condition of the left, mostly in the pages of the CP’s monthly, Marxism Today, the increasingly heterodox publication of which he became the house deity. His conversations with the Italian communist – and now state president – Giorgio Napolitano date from these years, and were published as The Italian Road to Socialism. But his most influential political work centred on his increasing certainty that the European labour movement had ceased to be capable of bearing the transformational role assigned to it by earlier Marxists. These uncompromisingly revisionist articles were collected under the general heading The Forward March of Labour Halted. By 1983, when Neil Kinnock became the leader of the Labour party at the depth of its electoral fortunes, Hobsbawm’s influence had begun to extend far beyond the CP and deep into Labour itself. Kinnock publicly acknowledged his debt to Hobsbawm and allowed himself to be interviewed by the man he described as as “my favourite Marxist”. Though he strongly disapproved of much of what later took shape as “New Labour”, which he saw, among other things, as historically cowardly, he was without question the single most influential intellectual forerunner of Labour’s increasingly iconoclastic 1990s revisionism. His status was underlined in 1998, when Tony Blair made him a Companion of Honour, a few months after Hobsbawm celebrated his 80th birthday. In its citation, Downing Street said Hobsbawm continued to publish works that “address problems in history and politics that have re-emerged to disturb the complacency of Europe”. In his later years, Hobsbawm enjoyed widespread reputation and respect. His 80th and 90th birthday celebrations were attended by a Who’s Who of leftwing and liberal intellectual Britain. Throughout the late years, he continued to publish volumes of essays, including On History (1997) and Uncommon People (1998), works in which Dizzy Gillespie and Salvatore Giuliano sat naturally side by side in the index as testimony to the range of Hobsbawm’s abiding curiosity. A highly successful autobiography, Interesting Times, followed in 2002, and Globalisation, Democracy and Terrorism in 2007. More famous in his extreme old age than probably at any other period of his life, he broadcast regularly, lectured widely and was a regular performer at the Hay literary festival, of which he became president at the age of 93, following the death of Lord Bingham of Cornhill. A fall in late 2010 severely reduced his mobility, but his intellect and willpower remained unvanquished, as did his social and cultural life, thanks to Marlene’s efforts, love – and cooking. That his writings continued to command such audiences at a time when his politics were in some ways so eclipsed was the kind of disjunction which exasperated rightwingers, but it was a paradox on which the subtle judgment of this least complacent of intellects feasted. In his later years, he liked to quote EM Forster that he was “always standing at a slight angle to the universe”. Whether the remark says more about Hobsbawm or about the universe was something that he enjoyed disputing, confident in the knowledge that it was in some senses a lesson for them both”.[1]


[1] Martin Kettle and Dorothy Wedderburn, “Eric Hobsbawm obituary” The Guardian (01 October 2012). http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2012/oct/01/eric-hobsbawm.

Ancients Behaving Badly: Julius Caesar

Julius Caesar is hailed as a great leader and military genius. But behind his brilliant reputation lurks a more sinister side. He is responsible for murder, mutilation and the destruction of an entire nation. When Caesar arrives in Gaul, the population is six million. When he leaves less than five million remain alive and 1.5 million of those survivors are now slaves.