Sunday, November 29, 2009

Adventures in Google Books, Pt 1

Last night I was looking at a lot of different public-domain editions of Velleius Paterculuson Google Books. (Yeah, that's right, I'm a wild man, tearin' it up on Saturday night.) (Velleius Paterculus was an ancient Roman who wrote a history of Rome.) And it was really fascinating. Mostly 19th-century editions, many 18th- and 17th-, the oldest one I've seen so far is from 1590. The 18th-centiry editions tend to have very fanciful etchings on or near the title pages. I wish I could link a couple of them here but I haven't figured out how to link Google Book pages.

And I take back what I said about extremely-long critical apparatus and prefaces and on and on being a recent sign of doom. Some currently-published editions of Latin classics may have a lot of non-text in them compared to your typical one from the early 20th or late 19th century -- that'd been my main point of comparison up until now -- but they've got nothing on some 18th-century editions, in which prefaces follow each other like clowns getting out of a tiny car, more and more of them while you wonder When o when merciful Lord will it stop? followed by the main text which is one-fifth main text on an average page and four-fifths footnotes, followed by huge appendices and incredibly useless commentaries which just. Don't. End.

I was having big fun looking at all these different editions when suddenly Google Books ended my fun: every time I tried to take a look at another book I got an automated message informing me that Google suspected that my computer was sending automated requests.

It seems Google just can't imagine that an actual human being would do anything like that for fun.

And you still can't search for pages, or books, written in Latin on Google. There are over 1,000 hits for a Google Book search for public domain books written by Velleius Paterculus, a relatively obscure author, most of them in Latin, untranslated. You can do a search in Icelandic or freakin Esperanto -- Esperanto?! You know what? I hope not -- but not in Latin.

Anyway, for the moment Google is back to not suspecting me of -- doing what, exactly? Last night it began refusing my requests to search in public-domain material -- so I'm back to looking at different editions of Velleius Paterculus.

Friday, November 27, 2009

"Deus lo volt!"

On this day 914 years ago, 27 November 1095, at the Council of Clermont, Pope Urban II called for a holy war against the Muslims, who had been in control of Jesrusalem and much of area considered the Holy Land by Christians, Moslins and Jews alike, since the seventh century, and had recently been at war with the Byzantine Empire in Asia Minor. More specifically, it was the Seldjuk Turks who were warring with the Byzantines in Asia Minor. Although the Christians of western Europe tended to view the Islamic world as one entity, in fact different states struggled with one another and rose and fell much as they did in the Christian West. The immediate impulse for Urban's call for holy war had been a request for military aid from emissaries of the Byzantine Emperor Alexius who spoke at an earlier Council, at Piacenza in March 1095. The war was going well for the Byzantines, there was little reason to doubt that the declining Seldjuk power would soon be beaten back from the environs of the Byzantine capitol at Constantinople, but Alexius felt it would go better still with more troops. Much of the Byzantine army army already consisted of foreign mercenaries. Besides the Seldjuks in Turkey, the Byzantine army had to check the advances of tribal people across the Danube, and of the Empire's always-restive Bulgarian subjects.

However, the Byzantines felt that their appeal for military aid might carry more weight if, instead of describing the Byzantine military situation in great detail, they couched it more in terms of a struggle of all Christendom, Catholic West and Byzantine, Orthodox East, against their common Muslim foe. The Emperor's emissaries were well-received in Piacenza, and Pope Urban took their message and expanded upon it in his famous address at Clermont, held outdoors because the crowds which came were too big for the town's cathedral to hold. Urban described the infidels' control of the Holy Lands as an outrage, mentioned -- and very probably greatly exaggerated -- the hardships of Christian pilgrims at the hands of Moslims and the desecrations of holy Christian sites.

Alexius definitely got more than he had asked for, and Urban, too, soon saw the movement he had called to life grow beyond his control. It is reported that as he spoke, a cry of "Deus lo volt!" ("God wills it!) spread through the huge crowd. Before the main army of the First Crusade, made up of nobles and their followers, got underway, a more spontaneous crowd of tens of thousands, few of them skilled soldiers, mostly peasants, including many women and children, led by charismatic monks, set off from France, pausing in some cities in Germany to rob and kill Jews over the protests of bishops and other authorities. At Constantinople, perhaps at their insistence, perhaps because he was alarmed at the sight of this hungry, angry, riotous mob, numbering perhaps tens of thousands, Alexius had them promptly ferried across the Bosporus and into the path of the Seldjuk army, who promptly massacred most of them. Of those who were not killed in battle many starved or were enslaved; few ever returned to their homes in Europe.

While this fiasco reached its conclusion, the main force of the First Crusade was setting out in a rather more orderly fashion. They were hardly less alarming to the Byzantines, however, than had been the earlier mob of peasants. Alexius had asked for a few mercenaries to fill out the ranks of his army, and instead whole armies arrived, independent units whose leaders clearly had no inclination to subordinate themselves to the normal Byzantine chain of command. Indeed, to many of the western Crusaders the Byzantines seemed scarcely less foreign than any non-Christian infidels. Alexius did his best to extract oaths of fealty from the leaders of these huge armies of knights, Bohemond of Taranto, his nephew Tancred, Godfrey of Bouilion, Raymond of Toulouse and others; but there was great distrust on all sides, and later, as these western armies, like the peasants' army, were sent by Alexius as quickly as possible out of his capitol and into the fighting against the Turks and other Moslims, there were accusations on all sides of treachery and broken promises.

In the first flush of their exuberant rush toward Jerusalem the Crusaders quickly won many victories, and set up principalities for themselves, one with its capitol in Antoch, another based in Edessa, and in July 1099 they took the city of Jerusalem, and in the aftermath of their victory, in a frenzy they massacred many inhabitants of the city, Moslims, Jews and Eastern Christians, men, woman and children. It's very hard to know the number of victims of this massacre -- people tended to be much less exact with numbers in the Middle Ages -- but some Western Christian historians of the time were horrified, along with the others of the time who wrote of it; they, too, wrote of blood running deep in the streets, of thousands of helpless victims.

So that was the First Crusade, and Moslims have tended to remember the massacre which was its climax much better than it has been remembered by Christians, and so when a Western politician uses the word "Crusade" they tend to think of things like that massacre, and of a few others perpetrated since by Westerners who have called themselves Crusaders. Warriors of the Cross, killing ruthlessly, because "God wills it."

Monday, November 9, 2009

My Theory About Why the (Western Part of the) Roman Empire Came to an End in the 5th Century AD

I think it was the Huns, pure and simple. They were the worst, most frightening thing the Germanic peoples had ever seen. The Germanic tribes ran away, as fast and as far as they could, and the only place to run to was over western Europe, all the way to northern Africa. In this view of things, the short-lived empire started by Attila is the main story; the fall of the city of Rome and the western Empire is one of the side effects. The phrase "wrath of God" was originally coined to describe the Huns. The famous line of Conan's, when someone asks him what is best in life -- "To crush your enemies, to see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women." -- was originally attributed to Attila.

For a long time, historians have been pondering the question of why (the western provinces of) Rome fell. Perhaps ever since they fell. Malaria has been mentioned as the culprit. Lead poisoning. Christianity, because it made the Romans stupid and weak. (A theory I like very much for sentimental reasons, strongly advanced by Edward Gibbon,who is still in many respects the last word in the historiography of the Roman empire, and whom you should read now, NOW! if you haven't already, and to which I used to subscribe, but it doesn't seem to hold water.) All of these and other theories posit that the fall happened because of some weakness or decay within Rome. My theory, on the contrary, asserts that Rome was as strong as it ever had been, that the decisive change occurred among the Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Franks, Lombards and other tribes along the empire's border, or rather, on the other side of those tribes from Rome. I don't deny that the Dark Ages were dark in western Europe, chaotic and impoverished and miserable -- some historians do deny all of that, but that's a notion so thoroughly stupid that I've already wasted too many words on it -- but I don't see it as the culmination of a long and steady decline of the western empire, but rather as the result of a sudden cataclysm: wrath of God spreading out from central Asia, killing and burning all in its path, Germanic tribes running away in sheer terror, coincidentally overrunning the western Roman provinces, flowing over borders which had been more or less stable for centuries. According to this view, the earlier barbarian incursions, the weakening effect on the empire of increasing numbers of soldiers from barbarian backgrounds in the imperial military, corruption, impoverishment of all but a very few super-rich Romans and other symptoms of decadence would all have been greatly exaggerated in retrospect, in the constant effort to explain a weakening of the western empire which, say it with me everybody, didn't actually occur.

I could be wrong. It's just a theory. I want to be very clear about that. I don't think anyone knows for sure. I'm not at all sure why (the western part of) Rome fell. What I'm trying to do here is offer food for thought. Encouragement to examine some assumptions. And I'm certainly not the first person who's said: It was the Huns! It's very hard to know what happened in large part because a large part of the darkness of the Dark Ages consists of the very small amount of writing, historical and otherwise, which has survived, the illiteracy of the new ruling classes and the sudden obscurity of the literate classes.