Alivox on History

This was going to be a short history of western religion, but I get sidetracked pretty easily. So I decided to let myself ramble, in the hope of putting the history of religion in a broader context. The "short history of western religion" is still there, just like the thin person inside every fat one - in fact, just like the original noble thought now concealed behind all the religions we'll discuss - but it's now embedded in a long history of everything I feel like telling you about.

My knowledge of history comes almost exclusively from books, and I enjoy reading history in many kinds of book from scholarly works to mad rants by obvious nuts. Of course I have a bias or two (understatement) and of course those biases inform my choice of reading: I tend to read people who make sense to me. But this page is not at all a scholarly work. I wish I'd taken notes from all those books, but I didn't, so now I'm writing from memory and I'm sure I've mixed up all the details. But I think I kept track of the big picture.

So is everything on this page 100% true? Of course not - I'm sure some of my sources have been wrong, sometimes I've misunderstood or misinterpreted, and some of my ideas are just whacko theories or bad guesses. But I can without any hesitation assure you that what follows is much, much, much truer than any church or national history, so for those of you who have only heard the official version (or who weren't paying attention at all), this may be quite informative. And if it makes you hit the books yourself, so much the better.

Another beef I have with the official versions is that they rarely make sense from a big picture point of view. For example, in American history classes we are taught about the age of exploration (Columbus, Hudson, Cabeza de Vaca, etc.) and then the age of colonization (the Mayflower, Jamestown, Miles Standish, etc), leaving students with the impression that North America was colonized as a result of its being discovered. But actually, almost a full century elapsed between those two eras, and what started the wave of colonization was European religious wars. But you'd have to be paying pretty close attention in class to figure that out. So I've tried to portray the sweep of things, not just a dry recitation of dates and names.

I find all this stuff - how we got here - extremely interesting, and I hope you will, too.

Scene 0 - Adam
Scene 1 - 5 million years ago
Scene 2 - 50,000 years ago
Scene 3 - 10,000 years ago
Scene 4 - 5000 years ago
Scene 5 - Abraham
Scene 6 - Joseph
Scene 7 - Moses
Scene 8 - David
Scene 9 - Buddha
Scene 10 - Plato
Scene 11 - Cyrus
Scene 12 - Alexander
Scene 13 - Caesar
Scene 14 - John
Scene 15 - Jesus
Scene 16 - Paul
Scene 17 - Mithra
Scene 18 - Constantine
Scene 19 - Christ
Scene 20 - Patrick
Scene 21 - Attila
Scene 22 - Pope
Scene 23 - Muhammad
Scene 24 - Charlemagne
Scene 25 - Rurik
Scene 26 - Omar
Scene 27 - Saladin
Scene 28 - William
Scene 29 - Chingis
Scene 30 - Beyazit
Scene 31 - Columbus
Scene 32 - Luther
Scene 33 - Friedrich
Scene 34 - Victoria
Scene 35 - Squanto
Scene 36 - Washington
Scene 37 - Napoleon
Scene 38 - Bismarck
Scene 39 - Einstein
Scene 40 - The Future


Scene 0 - Adam top

Everything in the Bible up to the story of Abraham is 100% horseshit - not a word of it is true: not Adam and Eve, not Noah and the flood, not guys living to be 930 years old. Snakes don't eat dust (Genesis 3:14), and they definitely don't talk (3:1-5). That doesn't mean it isn't interesting, or doesn't reveal some deep truths about our ancestors or our unconscious selves - it just means that the Bible isn't history, even though it seems to want to be.

If you don't accept that premise, you might as well stop reading right here. I once argued for months via email with a Cambridge-educated Biblical literalist. I found it amusing to hear him suggest how Noah saved the freshwater fish (big tanks, with Ham, Shem, and Japheth pedaling a Flintstone bubble-maker to oxygenate the water?), or even managed to identify a breeding pair of each of the 350,000 species of beetles, much less feed all those animals (and what about the plants?) for forty days and forty nights, cart away their shit, and keep them from killing each other. But he didn't get the joke, and in the end it was a waste of time for both of us.

So if you cling resolutely to the fairy tales of your childhood, or you can't immediately see that, for example, ducks and geese are more closely related to each other than they are to fish (which is what creationism denies), reading this page is going to be a waste of time for you. So stop here. Really.

I'm an American, and we Americans are taught certain legends about ourselves and our history, for instance the story of the first Thanksgiving, or the one about Washington admitting having chopped down the cherry tree. Are they true, in a journalistic sort of way? Well... no, and we all understand that: they're legends. In fact, these two stories portray us as peace-loving and honest, two traits we are spectacularly NOT, and thus reassure us what we want most to hear. In that sense, they reveal a deeper truth by illustrating our national self-image.

The Bible and other similar documents, including the Talmud, the New Testament and the Koran, the Rig-Veda, Ramayana and Upanishads, the Buddhist sutras, the I-Ching and the Tao Te Ching, the Greek, Roman and Norse myths, the stories of King Arthur, the Holy Grail and Robin Hood, and the Book of Mormon, are collections of legends - in other words, stories that are told because of what they teach, not because they're true in a literal sense. And that is the key to understanding them: figure out why they're being told.


Scene 1 - 5 million years ago top

About 5 million years ago, the tectonic plate that underlies eastern Africa began to rise, forming the Great Rift Valley, a line of cliffs and lakes that separates the highlands of eastern Africa from the lowlands of central Africa. The land to the west remains jungles and river basins, while the land to the east - modern East Africa - became much drier and hillier, forming mountains like Kilimanjaro and savannas like the Serengeti.

Over time, the chimpanzees living on the eastern, savanna side of the rift became human. (OK, they weren't exactly like modern chimpanzees, but they were close enough to be in the same genus, Pan - and that's the kind of nit I'm going to let the nitpickers pick from now on.) They stood up, lost their fur (it's hot in the sun), and relied more on sight than smell.

The evolutionary mechanism involved happened to be neoteny, the retention of juvenile characteristics in the adult. In other words, the genes that controlled the timing of maturation "malfunctioned", and the result was an adult chimp who had the big forward-facing head and lack of fur of a normal baby chimp, and by chance those turned out to be useful features, so the individuals who suffered from this malfunction got laid more than their smaller-headed, furrier cousins.

Animals are often classified into herbivores and carnivores, based on whether they eat plants or other animals. But I don't think that dichotomy merits the attention it's given; what I think is important is whether they spend lots of effort to find or catch concentrated nutritious food like fruit or meat, or whether they spend all their effort squeezing out their nutrition from a readily available but poor quality source, like grass or leaves. Biologists call those two strategies browsing and grazing, respectively. We're obviously browsers, while cows, for example, are obviously grazers.

I bring this up because the savannas of eastern Africa are famous for their large grazers: zebra, antelope, wildebeest, buffalo, giraffe, rhino, hippo, and elephant, for example. The place is also home to big, dangerous predators like lions and hyenas. So what did our ancestors do for a living without any fangs or claws? They couldn't eat the grass or leaves, nor could they run down a buffalo and administer a mortal bite to its jugular like a cheetah.

Some explanations rely on tools or pack hunting, but I have another theory: I think our ancestors were carrion eaters, specialists in scavenging dead bodies they didn't kill. But even that niche is pretty competitive, what with vultures, jackals, and invertebrates like beetles, worms and maggots. I think our competitive advantage was ... fire ! We cooked old rotting meat to make it edible, less tough and also to kill off all the vermin.

There's another theory I like: that humans coevolved with dogs. Our association with wolves dates back about 100,000 years, and since then, both species have lost about 10% of their brain size (which is common with domestication). We lost our olfaction (sense of smell) and other midbrain sensory power, but copied the lupine social system, including friendship and pair-bonding (unusual in mammals). Presumably, our canine friends found and chased big game - bigger than they could kill on their own - and we killed it, butchered it, cooked it and shared it.


Scene 2 - 50,000 years ago top

By 50,000 years ago, humans had spread to southern and western Africa and much further, e.g. China and Java. I think the full history of mankind's spread around the globe, once known, will turn out to be much more complicated than anyone now imagines, with groups replacing one another frequently, although I'm skeptical of theories mixing multiple lineages.

But even if they weren't the first hominids in each region, all modern humans are descendants of only one group of humans who lived only 50,000 years ago! That's amazing when you think about it: one group of humans who lived in the last 1% of human history suddenly spread all over the planet, from Greenland to New Zealand, and replaced all the other human lineages, who are deader than dodos.

What was their secret? I have another theory: language! I don't think humans spoke before about that time, and it would have been a huge advantage in social cooperation and in technology. So the chatterboxes told their pals where to find the fruit and how to make a club and the poor mute Neanderthals went out of business.

Let me take a couple of paragraphs to describe who our Stone Age ancestors were. As far as material culture, they had stone spear points, choppers, and flints, bone fishhooks and needles, woven containers and rope, hide thongs and clothing, and lots of wooden things: clubs, spears and spear throwers, log rafts and canoes, tentpoles and travoises, and dozens of useful and/or totemic doohickeys. They lived as foragers (a term I much prefer to "hunter-gatherers") in small tribes of maybe up to 50 individuals, roaming from place to place within a range. Some tribes progressed to becoming big-game hunters or fishers, especially where plant food was scarce.

Each tribe was led by one chief; the other men were all family, and obviously those tribes survived whose culture successfully prevented intratribal conflict by breeding loyalty to the patriarch. Life expectancy past infancy was about 40 years, although individuals up to 60 years old were not too rare. The main causes of mortality were childbirth for women and combat for men; rival tribes conflicted long before food shortage became an issue. Although they would capture women and children in battle, there were no slaves, so male prisoners were killed, usually by ritual torture. With rare exceptions, if any, tribal warfare was continuous, interminable and deadly.


Scene 3 - 10,000 years ago top

Nomadic life is a lot of work, and people must have been very attracted to sites where, by chance, food was abundant without too much travel, especially easy-to-catch plant food. The trouble is that suitable environments are rare - even now, the arable fraction of the world is only about 30%, and that's with extensive clearing and irrigation - and most of the places where plants grow readily are covered with those big tough inedible plants called "trees". And nobody is going to chop down a forest with stone axes to see whether fruit trees and grain grasses will replace them.

So the preconditions for the development of agriculture are simple: find some place where the soil and climate are suitable for growing food plants, but for some reason there are no trees. And the answer is ... floodplains!

Jared Diamond, in his informative but flawed book Guns, Germs and Steel, also credits the availability of particular species of domesticable plants and animals: wheat, cows, etc. I don't share that point of view, believing that sufficient variety in local material existed almost everywhere, and noting how much domestic species had to change anyway. (I call his book flawed because he spends almost 500 pages in paperback on the question of why it was western "cargo" that invaded New Guinea and not the other way around, without making the point that it was because it's better, regardless of where it originated.)

Suitable floodplains for the development of agriculture exist in four places in the world: the Nile valley in Egypt, the Tigris and Euphrates valleys in Mesopotamia (modern Iraq), the Indus valley in Pakistan, and the Huanghe (Yellow River) and Yangzi valleys in China. There are some other candidate rivers, but those four are where agriculture began (although other species were also domesticated elsewhere).

The development of agriculture provided a stable food source, enabling population to grow much denser and a sedentary lifestyle and material culture to arise, but it was a negative for the individual humans. In relation to foragers, farmers were smaller, shorter-lived and much less healthy, what with the diseases and parasites that density and settledness bring, with the hard work that farming is, and with the anonymity of larger-than-family groups.

In addition, the periodic floods, famines and plagues made us an r-strategy population instead of a K-strategy one - a huge change which we are still dealing with. This isn't the place to present that idea in more detail, but the basic idea is that unstable environments promote a suite of adaptations including short lifespans, lots of offspring, and little investment in them, while stable environments promote the opposite.

For a good example from history, consider the two Chinese river valleys, the Huanghe and the Yangzi. The Huanghe runs across a plateau covered with blown loess from Mongolia; the soil is fertile but too loose to absorb floodwater. In contrast, the Yangzi meanders through uneven terrain, where it forms sedimentary plains at each turn. The Huanghe was the original homeland of the Han Chinese people, while the Yangzi was originally inhabited by Thais. The latter developed tight little villages that resisted integration, while the former evolved a life-is-cheap and everyone-is-the-same approach. Over the last 3000 years, floods of poor Chinese periodically emigrated to the south as flood, famine, plague and war raged in the north, and now the Thais are only represented by remnant tribal populations in their original homeland.

At about the same time as some foragers were becoming farmers, some hunters were becoming herders. I can't figure out the connection between the two events, and maybe there isn't one, but they seem to appear about the same time. Herders are generally poorer than farmers, and often envious of the soft settled life, but whenever herders and farmers fight, the cowboys always win, even with a numerical disadvantage: after all, herding and fighting aren't that different. Thus, history is replete with the stories of how some horsemen out of the east (e.g. Mongols in Turkey and Russia), north (e.g. Mongols in India) or west (e.g. Mongols in China) conquer great civilizations, only to become fat patrons of great art (e.g. Kublai Khan). This simple fact promoted another important development: walled cities.


Scene 4 - 5000 years ago top

History, narrowly defined, really began about 5000 years ago with the invention of writing by the Sumerians, who irrigated the land between the two rivers of Mesopotamia back when the site of modern Baghdad was on the coast. In addition to writing, they invented the wheel and beer (which, in addition to being a less perishable form of bread, is healthier than drinking most water - and it tastes good, too!) but they never invented a way to prevent their irrigation canals from silting up or preventing backflow from salting their fields, so the action moved upstream.

Nobody really knows who the Sumerians were - their language is unrelated to any others, and they are good candidates if you would like to believe that the development of civilization was seeded by aliens from other planets. But their successors, the Akkadians (most famous king: Sargon) were Semites, members of the racial group that inhabited most of southwest Asia, from Yemen to Kurdistan, and is related to the Coptic and Cushitic groups of northern and eastern Africa. The modern name of the language family they all belong to is Afro-Asiatic: modern examples include Arabic, Hebrew, Amharic, Tigrinya, the Berber languages, and even Hausa from modern Nigeria.

The Akkadians took over from the Sumerians, built some cities, proclaimed themselves the greatest people that ever lived, and promptly disappeared. They were conquered by the Babylonians (Hammurabi), who were in turn conquered by the Assyrians, and so forth. Meanwhile, roughly the same thing was happening at the same time in Egypt, including the invention of a different type of writing - hieroglyphics - and a succession of dynasties as various pharaohs conquered up and down the river. I don't mean to dismiss all that history - pyramids, mummies, etc - but I'm eager to get to the beginning of the main story.


Scene 5 - Abraham top

The Indus river is a long way from Mesopotamia - a gap only bridged once in history: by Alexander the Great in 326BC. China is even further from India, across terrain so difficult that WWII pilots could barely fly "the Hump" from Assam to Kunming, and Buddhism only arrived in China from India via the Silk Road through central Asia.

By contrast, the distance between Mesopotamia and Egypt is a cakewalk: there are a few deserts and a few hills, but even most of the non-arable territory can support light grazing, so herders could move freely between them, ferrying trade goods and ideas back and forth. Perhaps that's why the two western floodplains became dominant.

One of the herders bringing ideas between them was a guy named Abram from the city of Ur in Mesopotamia. He moved upriver to Haran with his dad Terah around 1472BC (possibly fleeing the Mitani - Iranians), but then when his dad died he heard a voice telling him to head for Canaan (modern Israel) with his family. He lived there for a while, but could barely make a living in the rocky hills. One year around 1450BC, they had to give up because of famine, and they headed down to Egypt.

You would think that the arrival of one more starving herder in a famine year would cause no great uproar in royal Egypt, but the story goes that his wife Sarai was a major babe. She was quite a bit younger than Abram, and hadn't yet had any children. When her reputation spread all the way to the royal court and Pharaoh asked to meet her, Abram got worried that Pharaoh might prefer she were a widow, so he decided to lie and tell everyone she was his sister. (In fact, she probably WAS his adoptive sister, a common arrangement in Haran to distinguish one wife as the favorite.)

Sure enough, Pharaoh went ga-ga over her and added her to his stable of wives, making Abram a rich man in compensation. In Egypt, the pair became known as Abraham and Sarah, which sounded royal to the Egyptians - Sarah might mean princess. Abraham even got a couple more wives, with one of whom, Hagar, he had his first son, Ishmael. Soon thereafter, there was a plague in Egypt, which was viewed as punishment for some sin against the gods. When Pharaoh consulted his priests, they identified the cause: he had married another man's wife. So Pharaoh kicked her out of his harem, and told her and her "brother" to get lost.

They headed back to Canaan, and soon discovered that Sarah was pregnant. The Bible says that Abraham was the father, and what a miracle it was to give a son to such an old man, blah, blah, blah. But the context, the overdone explanation (like the afterthought miscarriage story), and other sources make it clear that the son, Isaac, was the son of Pharaoh.

Tradition has it that it was Abraham who established the famous Covenant with Jehovah, wherein Jehovah promises all the land between the Nile and Euphrates to Abraham's descendants if only they will worship him and only him (among the many gods). Circumcision, an Egyptian custom, is supposed to be the sign of that covenant.

But why should Jehovah have made that offer - to reward Abraham for having lied to Pharaoh? And why should Abraham have threatened to sacrifice his son Isaac? Why should Isaac's sons Esau and Jacob have argued over Isaac's birthright, when Esau got all the wealth? And why did Jacob change his name to Israel?

Clearly, something's fishy here. The question isn't so much whether these stories are true - I take it for granted that they started out with a grain of truth and were then subsequently retold and adjusted to the use of the retellers at every stage. So for me the big question is what point they're trying to make - why are these stories being told? If they were simple lies, they'd be simpler.


Scene 6 - Joseph top

I believe that the explanation for all these legends of the patriarchs has to do with the story of Joseph, Jacob's son and thus Abraham's great-grandson. As the Bible recounts, Jacob had many sons, but preferred his youngest because his mother Rachel was Jacob's first love. This didn't endear him to the other brothers, who eventually sold him into Egyptian slavery. But Joey was a clever lad, and by explaining a dream he made a name for himself in Egypt and in fact became Vizier, the Pharaoh's Prime Minister.

The figure of Joseph is where the Bible first makes contact with non-legendary history, for the Vizier Yuya is a historical figure, in fact the only non-Pharaoh to have been mummified and entombed as royalty after his death (along with his wife, Tuya). He was first appointed Vizier by the Pharaoh Tuthmosis IV, who ruled from 1413-1405 BC, and continued in the post under his son Amenhotep III (1405-1367 BC).

Most remarkable, Amenhotep III married Yuya's daughter Tiye and chose her to become his Great Royal Wife, first among the queens, over his own half-sister Sitamun (by marrying whom he had claimed the throne, since it passed through the eldest daughter). Tiye was the mother of Akhnaten, who became Pharaoh (1367-1350) after his father. But we'll talk about Akhnaten below; for now we're talking about Joseph/Yuya.

To put this amazing story in perspective, let me recap. The pharaohs of the Egyptian royal house, an institution so conservative that it married brother and half-sister to keep the throne in the family, not only chose a foreigner as Vizier, but married his daughter, made her the Great Royal Wife, and chose her son as the next Pharaoh from among the many sons of Pharaoh, thus in effect giving the throne to a foreigner! It's hard to imagine that happening even today in conservative monarchies like Japan or Jordan (where the son of the American wife was NOT chosen to be king).

This must have horrified the Egyptians, especially the very powerful priesthood, who in fact ended up deposing Akhnaten later on. I can imagine that while this was all going on, Yuya and Amenhotep were under quite a bit of pressure to make it seem acceptable, and so they adjusted the story of what happened when Abraham had lived in Egypt (as, I'm sure, a marginal figure, if he ever went there at all) to explain that Yuya's grandfather Isaac had been the son of a Pharaoh.

A thousand years later, when the stories of the Bible were being written down for the first time, Yuya's descendants were facing a different issue: their claim to the land of Israel (independent of the claims of Egypt). So the story got altered again, this time to show that Isaac was, after all, the son of Abraham, the guy who had made the covenant.


Scene 7 - Moses top

The Egyptians under the Tuthmoses (especially I and III) had expanded all the way to the upper reaches of the Euphrates, conquering quite a mix of peoples and bringing back all sorts of goods, slaves, and new ideas. Among the new ideas was apparently that of a single sun god being dominant over all the other gods.

Until that time, religion all over the western world was similar. Every little group had their own gods, often based on ancestors who continued in their old roles after their deaths or based on the personification (and thus explanation) of natural forces, especially the miracle of fertility. These gods were identified with their representations, so that a statue of a bull-headed god was the god (just as a modern statue of Mary can weep). These gods weren't interested in whether you were a good boy or avoided using an elevator on Saturday, but they could be motivated to help you using bribery and flattery. Since every group had their own gods, those gods rooted for their own supporters in conflicts with other groups. The Egyptians had a whole pantheon of these gods: crocodile-gods, cat-gods, sun- and moon-gods, and so forth, and they all had to be propitiated lest they vent their wrath on their ungrateful subjects. The elaborate rituals this need sustained were the occupation of the priesthood.

But Akhnaten, perhaps under the influence of a Syrian princess he married, came to believe that there was only one dominant god, the sun god Aten. He went so far as to change his own name from Amenhotep IV to Akhnaten, and to found the new capital city we call Heliopolis: Sun City. All this threatened to disenfranchise the priesthood, so when they had a chance, there was a coup d'état, and Akhnaten and all his pals were driven into exile or killed, and (after a few machinations) a new dynasty was founded by a general, Horemheb. All that happened around 1335 BC, and is not controversial.

What is controversial is the claim that Moses was an Egyptian, a member of the royal family if not Akhnaten himself or one of his sons. Clearly, "Moses" is an Egyptian name, as in Tuthmoses or Rameses. Clearly, the biblical story of Moses, from his postnatal river voyage down to the speech defect that explained why he couldn't speak Hebrew, is an attempt to convince Hebrews that this Egyptian prince is really secretly one of them. The Egyptian royalty became the Kahanim (Cohens - the hereditary priests) and their interpreters became the Levites (Levis & Levines - the hereditary cantors). And the religion he preached - Judaism - closely resembles that of Akhnaten.

As the Bible tells, in the wake of Joseph's success, his tribe settled in northeast Egypt; they were given a town named Pithom in Goshen, east of the Nile towards Sinai. They were not welcomed by the Egyptians, who disliked foreigners, and they were associated with this newfangled religion espoused by their descendant, Akhnaten. So when the shit hit the fan and Akhnaten and his court and family had to leave town in a hurry, they headed up to Pithom and hooked up with their kinfolk before heading further east to Sinai.

From this point on, this group is called the Hebrews. They were a mix of the tribe of Abraham and Egyptians, with one source putting the ratio at 80% Egyptian. The Abrahamites, like most herders, worshipped bull gods (farmers tend to worship earth goddesses), but the Bible tells how Moses converted them to his abstract monotheism with its strict code of conduct.

The Bible goes on to relate the story of the conquest of Canaan by the Hebrews under Joshua and the establishment of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah in fulfillment of Abraham's covenant with Jehovah. I think it's only about 50% true, but it doesn't really matter - they're good stories.


Scene 8 - David top

To set the scene for what follows, bear in mind that the ancient Near East was contested by four groups of people: Egyptians, Mesopotamians, Aegeans (including Minoans, Mycenaeans, Philistines, and Canaanites), and peripheral raiders such as the Hyksos, Iranians and Hittites. Over the long course of history, each of these groups expanded at the expense of others at various times, and then receded when it was their turn to be the bug instead of the windshield. The Bible tells this story from the point of view of the Egyptians, seeing all three other groups as enemies.

For a long time after the conquest of Canaan, the Hebrews ran the Jordan Valley, dividing it into two kingdoms, Israel and Judah. The Mediterranean coastline stayed Philistine (and so modern Israel has no historical right to it), but the central valley from Aqaba to Galilee was Hebrew. The Bible tells us the stories of Kings Saul, David, and Solomon, and they might be true, but I think the Biblical King David, who supposedly conquered all the way up to the headwaters of the Euphrates, is a confused memory of the Pharaohs Tuthmosis I and III, who really did that, much earlier than David is supposed to have lived. The name David is spelled DUD in Hebrew (pronounced Daoud in Arabic) while - coincidence! - the name of the god Thoth is spelled DUD in Coptic (Tuthmosis means "son of Thoth"). But it doesn't really matter.

During this long period, Judaism centered around the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem, where all adult male Jews were obliged to show up for the High Holy Days in September. There, a coterie of hereditary priests performed rituals involving animal sacrifices paid for by donations, and everybody reassured each other that their god - Jehovah - was better than all the other gods and would kick all their butts in battle.

Much the same thing was going on in the temples of Egypt, Babylon, Crete, and Asia Minor at the same time, with the priests of Ra swearing he would kick Zeus's butt, and so on. Maybe the Jews were the only ones worshipping only one god, but they certainly didn't believe he was the only god - there obviously were other gods, since Jehovah was their god only. Maybe they were the only ones with exactly Ten Commandments, but every god forbade killing your neighbor and porking his wife, so this is no big deal. I will call this religion Temple Judaism.

Meanwhile, the two other regions of the world were developing. China was united under the Shang dynasty, which also destroyed all older written material (in order that history start with them), but by the time of David, they had been replaced by the Yin dynasty, under which Chinese Imperial power reached its zenith. In India, the Rig-Vedas were compiled, forming the basis of modern Hinduism. On their peripheries, Hittites, Iranians, and Tartars (future Huns and Mongols) already had long but unimpressive histories, while the Greeks, Phoenicians, and Assyrians were just starting theirs.

I'm going to fast-forward through the next 750 years, from roughly 1300BC to 550BC. To recap what happened during this period:


Scene 9 - Buddha top

In about 550BC, the pace of development really picked up all over the world.

A religion is really an organizing principle for a human society (the word means binding in Latin), a structure in which people live out their lives and through which they see the world. These organizing principles need have nothing to do with ethics or cosmology; in my view, science, nationalism, communism, individualism (e.g. free enterprise and market economics and bill-of-rights libertarianism in America) and even New Age romanticism are all religions. It's clear that the societies organized by different religions are going to be different from each other, adapted to different challenges and circumstances, and subject to evolutionary pressures just like biological organisms. And some are going to prosper while others don't.

In practice, the great question is the balance between order and chaos, between strength and flexibility. Rigid societies last longer, but crash harder, while disorderly societies melt away and re-emerge in a different form. The trick is to strike a healthy balance, or better yet to develop a society in which conservative traditionalists (the political Right) and progressive liberals (the political Left) alternate dominance - modern democracies do a decent job of this.

Viewed in this regard, the societies of the Occident have tended to err on the side of rigidity, and Western history is a litany of successive appearances and disappearances of societies, each building on the ruins of the last (Pharaonic Egypt being the great exception). The Orient has tended to err on the side of flexibility, with underlying continuity being preserved through a series of quite superficial shifts in dominance. For example, the capital of China has moved many times in its history, but it hasn't made much difference, good or bad, to the average Chinese. India is where the two meet, and in fact India shows both patterns: waves of invaders (Aryans, Moghuls, the British) dominating a persistent underlying culture.

In 560BC, Siddhartha Gautama was born in the city now called Lumbini in modern Nepal on the border with India, in the foothills of the Himalayas. The Sakya society into which he was born and the broader culture of the Ganges plain were Hindu, a religion famous for its rigidity: in Hinduism, everyone is born into a caste, which almost completely determines one's lot in life. Siddhartha was fortunate - he was born into the high ksatriya caste, warriors and rulers. But when, emerging into adulthood from a spoiled and sheltered childhood, he encountered the misery of the poor, he was filled with empathy and determined to help them.

So far, it's a good story, and with a start like that Siddhartha might have become a great leader who reformed Hindu society. India might then have been the site of the incredible explosion in intellectual progress that, instead, took place in Greece (as we'll see in the next scene). But that's not what happened: he did both less and more. Faced with a society that offered no hope for the disenfranchised, he taught that true happiness and fulfillment does not come from the external things in life. He urged people to turn inward, away from society and its woes, towards an inner enlightenment. After experiencing this enlightenment himself, he became the Buddha, and began preaching from under a banyan tree. By the time he died in 479BC, Buddhism had spread widely, and in 262BC, India's greatest king, Asoka, made Buddhism the state religion of India.

However, over the following centuries, the Brahmins (the highest Hindu caste) succeeded in reestablishing Hinduism and, thus, their privileged place in society. But Buddhism had already spread beyond the borders of India in two directions: to the east into Southeast Asia (Theravada Buddhism) and to the north into Tibet, China, Korea and Japan (Mahayana Buddhism), both of which are still thriving today.

Interestingly, almost the exact same thing was happening in China at the same time, the main difference being that both the traditional and the progressive religions were developed simultaneously. The inward-facing religion that urges you to renounce worldly ties is called Taoism - its founder, Lao Tse, lived from 570BC to 490BC. The conservative traditional religion that urges you to play your destined role in society is called Confucianism - its founder, Confucius, lived from 551BC to 479BC and is said to have met Lao Tse. As in India, it is the conservative religion that has become the traditional culture of China. The Orient today is still best understood in terms of the opposition of the traditional centers of India and China (the Chinese name for China, Zhongguo, means "Middle Country") and surrounding Taoist/Buddhist rings from Sri Lanka and Vietnam to Thailand to Tibet to Mongolia to Korea to Japan (the Muslim swath from Bangla Desh to Malaysia to Indonesia to the Philippines is the exception).

It's a fair question to wonder what accounts for the observation that the two great Oriental civilizations, India and China, have basically stagnated since the fifth century BC, while the Occident - from Persia west - has taken over the rest of the world. It seems strange to us Westerners that the Chinese, for example, never showed much interest in conquering other nations until the 20th century (when they conquered Tibet, Mongolia & Uighur Xinjiang and intervened in Korea and Vietnam).

It wasn't for lack of might: in the early 15th century, about the same time as the Portuguese were timidly sending one ship at a time on long voyages of exploration, the Chinese admiral Zheng He led numerous expeditions of as many as 250 ships as far east as Egypt and the east coast of Africa, bringing back elephants and other prizes for the Emperor. The 200 million Overseas Chinese, who still dominate the commerce of Southeast Asia, testify to the depth of the Chinese trading empire. But when the opportunity to expand China arose, instead they built a Great Wall to keep foreigners out.

In my opinion, that's because the traditional religions of the Orient have always kept their distance from politics and even commerce, allowing dynasties to come and go without disturbing the status quo. Meanwhile, in the Occident, there are very few areas of life that religions did not seek to dominate, so that dynasties and religions have always changed in lockstep: Pagan Graeco-Romans, Orthodox Catholic Byzantines, Roman Catholic Germans, Sunni Arabs, Shiite Persians, Sunni (again) Turks, Protestant Germans (again), and finally Revivalist Americans (imported Congregationalists, Quakers and Baptists, and home-grown Christian Scientists, Jehovah's Witnesses, Seventh-Day Adventists, Mormons, and non-denominational fundamentalists). The separation of church and state in the Orient has made their societies more flexible, and thus more stable, and thus less expansionist.

From now on I'm going to concentrate on the Occident, roughly the part of the world bounded by the Atlantic Ocean, the Sahara desert, the Indian Ocean, the deserts and mountains of Persia (modern Iran), the Caspian Sea, the Ural mountains, and the Arctic Ocean. It would be nice to assert here that the Orient and the world's other regions, with their fascinating histories and rich heritages, are just as important if we only had the time to examine them, but that would be wishful thinking: they have made negligible contributions to the development of human society, and that influence is only weakening as globalization continues - China will progress in direct proportion to how quickly the Chinese jettison their national culture and adopt western ways. That's why Hong Kong - a fishing village when the British arrived in 1841 - is now one of the world's great cities. There is even a saying in China that "at home, a Chinese is a worm, while overseas he is a dragon": "overseas" means "free of Chinese culture".


Scene 10 - Plato top

In Greece as elsewhere, the great organizing principles of society were taking hold, with astounding effect. The Athenians and others founded, discovered, and invented almost everything taught in school, including school itself, math, science, philosophy, democracy, diplomacy, history, literature, all the arts (poetry, sculpture, music, dance, theater, etc), architecture, navigation, navies and lots of military advances. In this period lived Solon, Thales, Pythagoras, Pericles, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Anaxagoras, Socrates, Democritus, Phidias, Herodotus, Thucydides, Plato, Aristophanes, Demosthenes, and Aristotle. This dramatic awakening of the human intellect demands an explanation, and as usual I think I have one.

Back in the forager days, life was so touch-and-go that good decision-making and leadership were crucial to survival, and the Chief system provided the best simple way to assure that: everybody knew who was in charge, and he tended to be the oldest and most experienced member of the tribe. I'm sure he took advantage of his power to live a little better than the others: to eat first, marry more wives and have the biggest tent, but there wasn't much more wealth to hoard.

But with the arrival of agriculture, societies began to produce excess wealth, and the immediate beneficiaries were the Kings. They spent all the excess wealth on themselves - just think of all the work that went into the pyramids. But big piles of stone are bad investments, and societies that spent their wealth that way eventually disappeared, as did the Pharaohs. In fact, one of the kingdoms that disappeared about this time was that of the Lydians, whose last king, Croesus, is still famous for his wealth.

Much has been made of how undemocratic the Athenian democracy was, with voting restricted to free adult male citizens. But that's still an enormous class of people who are allowed to spend money on themselves, compared to one king. And I think that's why Athens produced so much in the Classical period. Much the same flowering of invention occurred in the 17th and 18th centuries AD, as the revolutions in the Netherlands, England, America, and France enfranchised the common man - yes, only the free adult male citizens, but quite a number of people nonetheless. The result was another revolution: the industrial one.

Whether it's a cause or a result of this enfranchisement, the result was that the Greeks are the world's first adults, who took responsibility for their own fates and developments. Egyptians and Jews, Mesopotamians and everybody else around saw themselves as dependent children of an almighty god. Truth was revealed, and our job here is to do what the gods want, not what we want. But the Greeks said "Hey, we can think for ourselves!". That's still a controversial attitude, 2500 years later.

There is another intriguing theory: that the development of the alphabet spurred the development of the kind of analytic and synthetic skills that underly intellectual effort. The Greeks were the first to write vowels with equal stature as consonants, the first to use a real alphabet as we now understand it. But proponents of this theory must explain why Jews and Arabs, with their abjads (consonant-only alphabets), contributed so much to intellectual life in their heydays, while the conversion to an alphabet hasn't triggered an intellectual revolution in, for example, modern Indonesia or Korea after the conversion to Hangul.

Be that as it may, back in 550BC, despite all the intellectual ferment going on in Greece, the real action was taking place in Persia.


Scene 11 - Cyrus top

Up until now, the Iranians were a bunch of nomadic tribes loosely federated into several coalitions, among them the Medes and the Persians. Cyrus became king of a small tribe in 559BC and proceeded to unify all the Iranians into the huge kingdom of Persia, which was to be a major player for centuries. Of course he also conquered a bunch of neighboring peoples, including the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Lydians, and many Ionian Greek cities, and his son Cambyses conquered Egypt. Their successors Darius and Xerxes continued to extend the empire, finally meeting defeat at the hands of the Greeks (whom they united) at Marathon, winning at Thermopylae, and then losing for good at Salamis - three famous battles.

But Cyrus wasn't just the latest Big Swinging Dick - he was the first enlightened emperor. When he conquered a kingdom, he didn't raze the cities, kill all the men, enslave all the women, and topple the idols, as was the custom. He basically let them continue with their thing, saying in effect that their gods were as good as his - he invented religious tolerance. As a result, he created the first multi-ethnic empire, a form of confederation that was to last until the rise of nationalism under Napoleon, 2350 years later, and which is our only hope for the third millennium.

There is one side note to make here. As I mentioned above, over the seven long centuries of Assyrian supremacy, they never managed to completely subdue the Babylonians, and towards the end of Assyria's prime, the Babylonians rose again under Nebuchadnezzar II. Now known as the Chaldeans, among the kingdoms they conquered were the Jewish ones, long reduced to irrelevance, and the Jewish upper classes were transported to Babylon as slaves. When Cyrus conquered Babylon 70 years later, he freed the Jews, who then went back to Israel.

This period in Jewish history is called the Babylonian Captivity, and it is here that, in my opinion, they first become unique. In the big picture, what always made them different was their position as the ping-pong ball between Mesopotamia and Egypt, with long exposure to the Mediterraneans (Aegeans, Greeks, and Phoenicians) along the Levantine coast. They could, and did, absorb the best from each culture and pass it along, flourishing in their role as apparent innovators. Now, during their 70 years in Babylon, they were exposed to the most advanced cultures of the era: Assyria and Chaldea. One indication of how much they absorbed is that they gave up Hebrew for Aramaic.

And it was in Babylon that the most important change to Judaism took place. As I mentioned before, Temple Judaism hadn't been very different from all the other contemporary religions, with priests in temples performing rituals involving idols, sacrifices and donations to please their god(s). But in Babylon, the Jews were far from their Temple (which had been burned down), their idols, and their priestly rituals. In their stead, the Jews focused on written Scriptures, finally writing down the Torah (Bible) and compiling the Talmud (more laws and commentaries). They also established another ecclesiastical class to replace the priests: the Rabbis (scribes), and another ecclesiastical meeting-place to replace the temple: the Synagogues.

Books instead of idols, scribes instead of priests, synagogues instead of temples: this is a completely new religion, which I'll call Bible Judaism (it's also known as Rabbinic Judaism). To compare the difference in modern terms, Temple Judaism is like the "high" Christian churches (Orthodox Catholic, Roman Catholic, Anglican/Episcopalian), while Bible Judaism is like mainstream Protestantism (Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians). In the former, the priests are god's (only) representatives on earth, so they sit across from you at the imaginary negotiating table (in fact, facing towards the congregation during the service), while in the latter, the ministers are guys like you - married fathers with day jobs - who by virtue of study are further along the path to god (Protestant pastors marry and face in the same direction as the congregation).


Scene 12 - Alexander top

In the end, the biggest achievement of the Persian Empire turned out to be the unification of the Greeks against them. This was accomplished by Philip of Macedon (who actually wasn't ethnic Greek, but he was culturally Hellene). But it was his son, Alexander, who went on to become one of the greatest rulers of all time and one of history's most interesting personalities.

From early on, Alexander the Great had a few things going in his favor besides his noble birth. He was a great athlete, and very bright - in fact, at the age of 13, Aristotle became his tutor. But his great gift was military strategy, which he learned in battle from a young age. His other great asset was an ambitious mother, Olympias: so ambitious for her son that she had her husband murdered to bring him to the throne at the age of 20.

Once in charge, he didn't waste any time. In short order, he subdued the remaining recalcitrant Greek cities, burning Thebes to set an example. He then crossed into Asia Minor and started pushing the Persians back eastward. From there he headed south along the coast, then into Egypt, where he founded the city of Alexandria in the Nile Delta. From Egypt he headed east to Mesopotamia, defeating Darius and conquering Persia.

This is a remarkable military campaign, bringing the whole known world of the West under one man. But it would have been an empty victory were Alexander not also an enlightened ruler whose conquests welcomed him as a liberator. He was careful to pay his respects to the local gods wherever he went, and he didn't have to spend resources maintaining control over hostile subjects.

But in the end, this was also his weak point. He was so open to new ideas from the great civilizations of Egypt and Persia that he kind of "went native", dressing in foreign garb and even marrying a foreign princess, Roxana. From Persia he continued eastward towards India, despite the homesickness and misgivings of his troops. Finally, having crossed the Indus river, 18,000km (11,000 miles) from home, they would go no further, and Alexander had to turn back. He died of a fever in Babylon in 323BC, 33 years old.

Unfortunately for the Greeks, he left no heirs (after all, he was gay). After his death, his generals squabbled over his empire, finally dividing it in three: the Antigonids in Greece, the Seleucids in Syria & Mesopotamia, and the Ptolemies in Egypt. These last were the longest-lasting, maintaining Alexandria as the apex of Hellenistic culture for another three centuries.


Scene 13 - Caesar top

According to tradition, Rome was founded in 753BC, when Romulus killed his twin brother Remus. Legend has it that they were descended from a Trojan refugee named Aeneas, and suckled by a she-wolf. And if you believe that...

Be that as it may, Rome was a pretty typical kingdom for its first 250 years, as it grew to unite the local Latins, Sabines, and Etruscans with fugitives from the east. At that point in time, Italy was a backwater.

The big turning point came in 510BC, when the son of the king and heir to the throne raped a noblewoman named Lucretia. In the ensuing uproar, he and his father were run out of town, and the Romans vowed never to have another king. This marked the founding of the Roman Republic.

As a republic, Rome flourished - another example of my theory (above) that the widening of enfranchisements leads to great advances. By about 250BC, they had united all of Italy and repulsed a Greek invasion (by the famous King Pyrrhus, who won a Pyrrhic victory but lost the war).

At this point, there were four powers in the Mediterranean: Rome, Greece, Egypt, and Carthage (in northwestern Africa). Like players around a bridge table, each partnered with its opposite against its neighbors, so Egypt and Rome became allies. This game ended when Rome, led by Scipio, defeated Hannibal in the second Punic war, annexed Egypt, and set its sights on Greece. By about 150BC, Antigonid Greece and even the Seleucid Syrians had fallen, and Rome had conquered the Western world.

But Roman rule in the next century or so was not at all peaceful. The Parthians had taken over in Persia and founded Mithraism - a religion which borrowed elements from Zoroastrianism, Babylonian worship of Marduk, some remnant bull-worshipping stuff from nomad days, and the worship of a sun-god: Mithra. Of course the Parthians and the Romans were at war continuously.

In addition, the Celts were now making life difficult for the Romans in the north of Italy. Indo-European herders had first invaded Western Europe between 1000BC and 500BC, displacing the native Basques and becoming farmers in their place. Their big secret was animal power: they were the first in the area to use animals for riding, carrying, and pulling, not just meat and milk. The first wave of Indo-Europeans was the Celts (pronounced with a hard C, as if written Kelts).

But more Indo-Europeans just kept coming from the east, pushing the Celts south and west, up against the Romans. So in 44BC, an ambitious Roman general named Julius Caesar led an army against the Celts. They were wildly successful, conquering Gaul (modern France), Iberia (modern Spain and Portugal) and Britannia (England). But since this was a military campaign, not a settlement program, the Celts just remained in place, becoming happy Roman subjects like everyone else.

Jules returned to a hero's welcome in Rome - so popular that the other consul (Rome was ruled by two consuls serving simultaneously for one-year terms) and the senators began to worry for the health of the Republic. Their fears were justified, because Caesar decided to "run for" sole Dictator. As he brought his army back into Roman Italy across the river Rubicon, he said "Alea iacta est" - the die is cast.

The rest is history: Caesar became Dictator, but one month later the whole Senate conspired to assassinate him for the sake of the Republic, including his best friend Brutus ("Et tu, Brute?"). The people rose up to avenge him, killing all the senators and patricians, and Rome was plunged into chaos. At the end of all this bloodshed, only Caesar's consul, Marc Antony, and his nephew Octavian were left alive among the ruling class. They divided the Empire between them, with Antony taking Egypt (and shacking up with Cleopatra), but that didn't last, and when Octavian defeated Antony and Cleopatra at the battle of Actium in 31BC, they committed suicide. Octavian became the Emperor Augustus, declared himself and his uncle gods, added July and August to the calendar, and the Roman Empire was on its way.


Scene 14 - John top

Only by the thinnest of coincidences is anything that happened in the last years of the ancient-but-never-important Jewish kingdoms of any interest to us. To a degree, the anonymity of this backwater made the legends easier to embellish - nobody knew better. This became especially true after the destruction of Judea in 70AD, when most of the evidence and witnesses were destroyed.

To set the story up, remember that the ruling class of the Jews returned from Babylon about 538BC. They built another Temple for ordinary Jews, but they kept their own new religion, Bible Judaism, and became known as Pharisees (a name which means "Persians", referring to the Babylonian origins of this sect). They didn't patronize the Temple and remained suspicious of Temple Judaism and its money-grubbing priests.

In 334BC the Jews were conquered by Alexander along with everybody else, and they passed into the Seleucid dominions after his death. Nobody really liked being a subject of the Seleucids, and the Jews never liked being anybody's subjects, so you can imagine how unhappy they were.

In about 160BC, the Jews successfully revolted under the leadership of a tough guy and his two sons (in succession, as each was killed) called the Maccabees, or "hammers" - that's how tough they were. This is the victory celebrated in the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah, and the line of kings they started is known as the Hasmonaeans. But in the course of this victory, they had been forced to fight on the sabbath, and anyway they weren't of the tribe of Judah as David had been, so there was a group of pooh-poohers who never accepted their kingship, and kept heckling them from the sidelines.

In 63BC, the Romans intervened in a civil war between two Hasmonaean brothers, and they ended up putting one of them, Hyrcanus, in charge of Judea, which became a client state of Rome's: nominally independent, but under Roman supervision. Frankly, the area was so poor and so much trouble that the Romans didn't want it in their Empire.

Hyrcanus' successor was an Idumaean named Antipater, whose son was Herod (the Great). Even though he wasn't himself a Jew, he supported the Temple Judaism of the Sadducees, both financially and politically. And they in turn supported him, despite his despotism.

Meanwhile, the Romans were running a huge Empire stretching from Britain to Egypt. The administrative language of this empire was Koiné (pronounced coy-nay), the common Greek spoken all over the Mediterranean (as opposed to the purer Attic Greek of the Classical period). Latin was only the language of the Roman army, the courts and the province of Latium (around the city of Rome) - even Milan and Naples spoke Greek up to about 300AD. But commoners could not read or write, and educated noblemen didn't want to be bureaucrats.

The solution was ... Pharisees. Pharisees could read and write because Bible Judaism demanded it, so they became the functionaries of the Roman Empire: tax collectors, record keepers and court reporters. Every major city in the whole Empire had a Jewish quarter, and the Jews were given special permission to keep their religion instead of converting to Paganism (the Roman state religion involving Jupiter, Apollo, and some other gods). Fully 10% of the Roman Empire was Jewish.

And the hecklers were still off in the hills around the Dead Sea, insisting that both the Sadducees and the Pharisees were big sinners, and that the only true Judaism meant getting rid of the Romans altogether and restoring the house of David to the throne. They may have been called Nazarenes, from the Hebrew word for "covenant" (although the name might also come from "nazarite", see below). Interestingly, these three sects of Judaism correspond well to the three Christian sects in modern America: the Roman Catholic Sadducees, the Protestant Pharisees, and the Fundamentalist Nazarenes.

After Herod the Great died in 4BC, his three sons divided his kingdom. But they were such bad kings and fought so much among each other that Rome took over direct rule in 6AD and kept it until 48AD, long after the events of the New Testament. Judea became a Roman province, ruled by procurators like Pontius Pilate. But before we let the Herods pass into deserved obscurity, here's one story illustrating their misrule.

The eldest son, the one who got Jerusalem, was named Herod Archelaus. He got the hots for his younger brother's wife, Herodias, and arranged to have him killed, his part of the kingdom annexed, and Herodias made his wife. Meanwhile, running around Galilee at the time was an itinerant preacher named John, who claimed to be able to purify people of their sins by "baptising" them in a nearby river. I don't think he was a Nazarene, but he sure shared their conviction that the world was going to hell in a handbasket. When he heard that Herod had killed his own brother and married his widow, a no-no under Jewish law, he began making a big deal about it, and setting tongues a-wagging with his boldness - after all, Herod was king (and not Jewish).

Sure enough, at least Herodias and her daughter Salome were sensitive to this kind of trash talk. One day, Salome did a striptease for her stepfather, and it gave him such a hard-on that he offered her anything she wanted, and she chose to ask for the head of John the Baptist on a platter. And she got it!


Scene 15 - Jesus top

After John's death, his gig was taken over by his cousin Josh, whose mother Miriam was the younger sister of John's mother Elizabeth. Josh's name in Aramaic was Yeshua, derived from the Hebrew name Yehoshua, the name of the guy who went up Mount Sinai with Moses and led the Israelites into Canaan - we call him Joshua in English. But Yeshua became Iesous in Greek and Iesus in Latin, and we have come to know this particular Joshua as Jesus, pronounced Jeezus.

Before continuing with the story, let's pause here to correct some of the bullshit relating to Jesus' life.

The actual story of Jesus is short and simple. As far as we can tell (because his legend has attributed to him credit for teachings that have definitively been shown to have originated beforehand), the main thrust of his preaching is the message that following the rules does NOT, alone, make you a good Jew - you also have to be a good person. That is good advice even today, when many people think going to church gives them license to be a scumbag the rest of the week.

But the preacher got swept up in the events of his time. The Nazarenes loved him for his fundamentalist message, and in fact after his death they became known as the Essenes (from the colloquial Arabic name for Jesus, Essa ). The Zealots, a group of resistance fighters dedicated to gaining independence from the Romans, loved him for his high-moral-ground opposition to the collaborating Sadducees. And the out-of-power politicians in the Jewish Senate (known to us by the Greek name Sanhedrin), like Joseph of Arimathea, loved him for challenging the status quo.

But the ones who didn't love him - the Romans and the Sadducees - had all the power, and events ran to their inevitable conclusion. Most of the story of the Passion - the betrayal by Judas, the denials by Peter, the admiring Centurion who says "Truly this was the Son of God" (which god, Jupiter?) - all that is 100%, maybe even 200% bullshit. The "trial" by the 70 members of the Sanhedrin, which somehow took place between his arrest on Friday (at Passover dinner) and his crucifixion on Saturday, even though the Sabbath started at dusk on Friday - I wish the US Congress had their work ethic! And Barabbas - the "name of the thief" the crowd was shouting to be pardoned - means "Son of the Father" and consequently referred to Jesus himself, but of course the Roman writers of the Gospels didn't know that.

Needless to say, Jesus didn't rise from the dead - look at how different the various accounts are, and coming back for three more days of life is no great triumph, anyway. In fact, the early rumors were that it was John who had come back - after all, he started the movement.

Why would those nice Romans, who wrote the New Testament and founded the Christian church (and still run it), try to blame the Jews for the Crucifixion? I can't imagine.


Scene 16 - Paul top

The crucifixion of Jesus in about 33AD was one of tens of thousands of crucifixions the Romans performed in the course of the many years between when they took over Judea in 6AD and their final destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD (the Hebrews preferred death by stoning), and it was just part of a long campaign to put down the rebellious Jews - one of the few peoples who weren't happy being Roman subjects.

One of the cops the Romans brought in to track down the rebels was a Pharisee from Tarsus called Saul (named after the Old Testament king), but his Roman pals gave him the rhyming nickname Paul, which means "shorty" in Latin - apparently he was short of stature. The Romans had soldiers and centurions galore, but they couldn't go undercover - they needed a Jew for that.

After the crucifixion, Joseph of Arimathea, who had supported Jesus by, for example, lending him the donkey on which he rode into Jerusalem to fulfill another prophecy, was exiled - according to (British) legend, to found the abbey of Glastonbury. Jesus' wife Mary Magdalene and their two sons were exiled to the Jewish colony of Septimania in the south of France - according to (French) legend, to found the Merovingian dynasty of French kings.

But Jesus' pals, the Twelve Apostles (why don't the Gospels agree on who they are?), fled to Damascus, in modern Syria, under the leadership of Jesus' younger brother Iakov (Jacob), whom we know as St. James the Just. Paul tracked them down there, but when he confronted them, instead of arresting them he claimed to be a new convert to their cause - standard undercover infiltration tactics. He claimed to have had a vision of the risen Joshua on the road there.

Of course they didn't believe him, so Jake said "Hey Shorty, if you really believe what we preach, why don't you go back to wherever it is you come from and preach it to your Pharisee friends?". So he did, whether sincerely or to build his cover, we don't know. What we do know is the result of his efforts, because almost the entire New Testament (outside of the Gospels, which were written much later) was written by or about St. Paul and his travails. It's striking that Paul never mentions any of the events in the Gospels, which bear an uncanny resemblance to the stories told about every hero from Oedipus to Luke Skywalker.

He first started preaching in the Jewish quarters of Roman cities in the eastern Empire, like Antioch and Corinth. But the Pharisees had no interest at all in his ideas, which in fact were pretty odd. They had almost nothing to do with Judaism or even the teachings of Jesus, and in fact Paul seems to have thought that the Joshua who had risen from the dead to appear to him on the road was the one who had climbed Sinai with Moses more than 13 centuries earlier, not some modern heckler - that was the kind of thing a Bible Jew would have found interesting, since the corruption and hypocrisy of the Temple was, for a Pharisee, a given.

Jesus, like all apocalyptic preachers, preached that the end of the world was nigh - remember how many born-again Christians were convinced that the world was really going to end this time at the Year 2000? In that, he seems to have been sorely mistaken (and we're still waiting for the meek to inherit the earth, too). But he used that threat to exhort people to start acting good now, in other words, to live each day as if it were your last, and that's good advice. I will call his preaching Star Christianity (after the six-pointed Star of David, since this religion was a sect of Judaism).

But Paul doesn't seem to have cared very much how you acted towards your fellow humans - his big key to the kingdom of heaven was faith: if you believe that Yehowah is the only god and that Yehoshwa was his only son, you will be forgiven (and thus you can be a scumbag your whole life, as long as you repent on your deathbed - a convenient belief for the scumbags of the world). For the pious and rule-bound Pharisees, that doctrine had no appeal. In effect, it mocked all the effort they put into living correctly, like getting circumcised and not eating pork. So he had no luck at all preaching to the Jews.

But it had a lot of appeal for the downtrodden among the Romans: slaves, women and the poor. Not that they felt much guilt for all their bad deeds, but they loved the idea that God - some god, any god - actually cared about them! The Roman Gods certainly didn't - they cared only about noblemen rich enough to make donations. In this, Paul and Jesus had something in common: they both preached that the "afterlife" offered some compensation for those who weren't big winners in the "beforedeath".

Paul started out trying to convert these Gentiles to Judaism, since Jesus had made it clear that his teachings were only for Jews. He even circumcised St Barnabas as an adult! But he soon realized that demanding that converts chop off the ends of their weewees was scaring most people away (duh!), and they weren't too happy giving up their bacon cheeseburgers, either, so Paul just decided those things weren't really important (and I agree) and just preached that ye need only have faith and ye shall be saved.

So after a few false starts, Paul was actually doing OK with his new religion, until James heard about what he was up to. James called Paul back to Jerusalem for a scolding - What the fuck are you doing telling Gentiles they don't have to be Jews to get to Heaven? - and they ended up having a big argument and calling each other nasty names, like Wicked Priest and Lying Teacher (as preserved in the Dead Sea Scrolls, a cache of Essene documents found in a cave in 1947AD). James and the other Essenes ended up chasing Paul through the streets of Jerusalem with a lynch mob, but Paul threw himself at the feet of the soldiers of the Roman garrison, shouting "Save me! I'm a Roman citizen".

He was, they did, and he exercised his right as a Roman citizen to a trial in Rome. He was shipped off, spent three years in prison in Rome, and was then tried, convicted, and executed. Meanwhile, James had sent St. Peter - a brave fellow if not too bright - to Rome to try to fix Paul's bastard version of the message, and he too was caught, imprisoned, tried and executed. The Christians have tried to portray Paul and Peter as good pals in prison, going so far as replacing James with Paul in pictures with Peter, but that's more horseshit.

I will call the religion that Paul invented Fish Christianity, since in the years that followed, the outline of a fish was used as a "secret password" to mark Christian homes and meeting places: the initials of "Iesous CHristos THeos (h)Ieronymos Soter", which means "Jesus the Annointed God, Holy-named Savior" in Greek, kind of spell the Greek word ichthyos, which means fish. The word Christ is the Greek translation of the Hebrew word Messiah, which literally meant annointed but referred to the Hebrew habit (taken from the Egyptians) of annointing their kings with oil instead of crowning them.

Most important to notice is that this Fish Christianity is not a form of Judaism and has little to do with the ideas preached by Jesus - what's important for them is not what he said, but who he was - the Son of God, risen from the dead to save the faithful from the coming apocalypse.

By the way, the church founded by St. James, which is now called the Jacobite or Monophysite Church, still exists, and they still speak Syriac, a dialect of the Aramaic that Jesus spoke. They are by far the oldest Christian church, founded in 34AD. To escape the Romans, they moved to Edessa (modern Sanliurfa in eastern Turkey) and spread from there throughout the Persian Empire and even further east, into India, China, Mongolia and Korea, where they influenced Islam and Buddhism. They are sometimes called Nestorian because they share some theology with John Nestorius, a Patriarch of Constantinople in the fifth century whose preaching was later denounced, causing many of his followers to flee east and join the Jacobites.


Scene 17 - Mithra top

The Roman Empire reached its peak in about 100AD, about the time that Hadrian's wall was built across northern Britain. Back in 70AD, the Roman general Titus had finally solved the Jewish problem with typical Roman subtlety by destroying Jerusalem, destroying the Temple, and destroying the Jews as a nation. The royal house of David was systematically hunted down and exterminated and everybody was scattered all over the Empire and parts east. Some resisters held on for another couple of years, notably the 960 Jews who held out in the fortress Masada, then finally committed mass suicide when they realized their cause was hopeless. Temple Judaism and the Nazarenes/Essenes both disappear from history, and all the Judaism we have left is Rabbinic - Bible Judaism.

(Actually, even the remaining Jews revolted twice more, once in 115-117AD and again in 132-135AD under Simon Bar Kochba. In 135, after crushing this last rebellion, Emperor Hadrian renamed the province Syria Palaestina, which is what it's still called. That was really the end of Judea for 1800 years.)

Over the course of the next two centuries, the Empire suffered a gradual decline. Whether it was a cause or an effect I don't know, but one of the concomitant factors was a decline in Pagan worship. The classical Greeks had developed an elaborate mythology based around their pantheon of 12 Olympian Gods: Zeus and his wife Hera, his brothers Poseidon and Hades, his children Apollo, Athena, Ares, Aphrodite, Artemis and Hermes, and his sister Hestia and her son Hephaestus. The common people also had a lot of affection for two non-Olympian gods, Demeter and Dionysus, gods of grain and grape. Back when the Romans conquered the Greeks around 150BC, they took over the same pantheon, translating only the names into Latin: Jupiter/Jove, Juno, Neptune, Pluto, Apollo (kept his name), Minerva, Mars, Venus, Diana, Mercury, Vesta and Vulcan, Ceres and Bacchus.

But by the second century AD, all this had gotten boiled down to two main gods: Jove (from the Hebrew Jehovah), also known as Jupiter (a contraction of Deu Pater, meaning God the Father), and his son, the sun, Apollo. Not only is Apollo both The Son and The Sun in English (and the other Germanic languages), but the Greek words philios and helios sound alike, too. Coincidence?

Over the course of the centuries, Romans were exposed to lots of foreign religions, brought by slaves, traders, and returning soldiers. As the Pax Romana banished the fear of foreign invasion, people became more open to foreign ideas. And as we noted above in the discussion of Fishy Christianity, the Roman state religion didn't really offer people a personal relationship with the gods, like the Jews had. So the common people turned more and more to exotic Eastern religions (as is happening now in the West as Christianity loses its luster).

One such religion was the worship of Osiris, the Egyptian god of the dead. In Greek, he was called Seraphis. His cult dates back to at least the second millennium BCE, and was one of the first to preach that we are all going to be judged after death, and so he invented the idea of sinning - the idea that some behavior was bad in the eyes of the gods, for example wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy, and gluttony. The Christian idea of sin simply was copied from Seraphism.

But the most popular of these "Oriental mystery religions" was worship of Sol Invicta, the unconquered Sun. This was a Roman interpretation of Persian Mithraism, which had become kind of a fraternity in the Roman army. I quote a web site:

Mithra was regarded as created by, yet co-equal with, the Supreme Deity. Mithraists were Trinitarian, kept Sunday as their day of worship, and their chief festivals were what we know of as Christmas and Easter. Long before the advent of Jesus, Mithra was said to have been born of a virgin mother, in a cave, at the time of Christmas, and died on a cross at Easter. Baptism was practised, and the sign of the cross was made on the foreheads of all newly-baptised converts. Mithra was considered to be the saviour of the world, conferring on his followers an eternal life in Heaven, and, similar to the story of Jesus, he died to save all others, provided that they were his followers.

In 279AD, Mithraism was proclaimed the official religion of the Roman State by the Emperor Aurelian. Ironically, this ended up favoring Christianity, since Mithraism had a much more restricted clientele than Paganism. The Pagan gods had no natural interest in people - they didn't care whether you were good or not, they only cared about their own lives - but at least they could be bribed with offerings or worship to use their powers in your interest.

But when Jupiter and Apollo were replaced by Mithra, even that avenue was closed: Mithra was worshipped in underground caverns by Roman soldiers, and his mysteries could not even be revealed to other groups, notably women and slaves. So those two groups, in particular, turned to another mystery religion that claimed to reveal to them the mysteries of Judaism: Christianity. After all, everybody could see how well the Jews were doing - they were the bureaucracy of the Empire, and while nobody particularly likes civil servants, their gigs are still widely admired (most contemporary French or Japanese would choose the civil service over any other career). Little did it matter that the cartoon understanding of Judaism that Christianity promulgated is a tired retread of pagan ideas, like for example the virginity of Mary or the taste for pork. The important part is that Christianity was daubed in Jewish cachet.


Scene 18 - Constantine top

The third century AD wasn't a happy one for Rome. Not only were the Romans beset by the usual problems - Germans in the north, Persians in the east - but they also had 54 different emperors in the forty years between 253 and 293, including simultaneous rivals and mini-Emperors in Gaul and Britain.

In 284AD, a guy named Diocletian become Emperor and set out to impose a number of reforms designed to reunify the empire, including reestablishing control over the army, reorganizing the provinces, ending inflation, putting in place a succession procedure for choosing new Emperors, and reestablishing the state religion as the only religion. In 303AD, he began to persecute the Christians, who up to then had been tolerated (unless they denied the Roman gods too loudly). It's too bad that this is mostly what he is now remembered for, because his reforms were badly needed and generally successful.

In 306AD, a guy named Constantine inherited one of the emperorships from his father Constantius. He also married the daughter of another emperor, Maximian. But Maximian's son Maxentius had aspirations to the throne as well, and after negotiations broke down between the two, they ended up fighting.

Constantine, like most soldiers, was a devout worshipper of Sol Invicta, but his mother Helena was a Christian. The Romans had the habit of marrying much younger women when they themselves were older (after having concubines for many years), a habit which bred young widows. Under Roman law, the widows inherited their husbands' property, but when they remarried, their new husband got it all (since women couldn't own property). Over centuries, the Christians developed a reputation as hearse chasers who would seek out rich widows and convince them not to remarry, but instead to dedicate their lives to Christ (and leave their wealth to the Church). This wasn't that hard a sell, since the alternative was making another pompous sexist a rich man. So when Constantius died, his widow Helena became a Christian.

On his way to the decisive battle of Milvius Bridge, Constantine had the butterflies. Legend has it that he had a dream the night before the battle in which he was commanded to place a sign on his men's shields. Back then, the sign of Christ was the labarum, or chi-rho (the first two letters of CHRist in Greek), which looks to us like the letters X and P. But he didn't see two intertwined Greek letters written in the sky! The sign he saw was the rays of the sun breaking through a layer of clouds, the sign of Sol Invicta. He marked the shields, won the battle and became sole Emperor, and in gratitude he legalized all the mystery religions, including Christianity, and he stopped the persecutions. But he didn't convert to Christianity, himself - not yet.


Scene 19 - Christ top

Constantine's main goal in legalizing the mystery religions was simply to stop the arguing about whose god was better and to unite the Empire in the face of the many problems. So he was mighty pissed off to discover that, as soon as he made Christianity legal, all the bishops began to argue with each other about every little detail of the faith, for instance the burning question of whether Christ had been just as eternal as his father. Athanasius said "yes", Arius said "no", but everybody agreed that anybody who didn't agree with them was a heretic.

So in the summer of 325AD, Constantine ordered all the bishops to show up at his summer palace in Nicaea (modern Iznik, near Istanbul). 318 of them did (but not the bishop of Rome - too far, too Greek). There, in front of the Emperor Constantine sitting on his throne, they argued out all the little points of doctrine. Needless to say, it was Constantine, not even a Christian, who made all the final decisions.

For example, it is said that 23 different Gospels were circulating, with many direct contradictions among them. After all, the first weren't written until after the fall of the Temple, 40 years after Jesus' death (since Star Christians before then thought the world was about to end, why bother writing stuff down?). None of them were written by anyone who had ever been to Judea (as the bad geography shows), none of them were written by anyone who had known any of the characters involved even second-hand, and they were all written in Koiné Greek, a language Jesus didn't speak.

But Constantine whittled them down to the four in the New Testament, at the same time making sure that the Romans were portrayed as the good guys - for example, Pilate has to be begged by the priests to order the crucifixion of Jesus, a strange hesitation for a guy who ordered so many other crucifixions. If the priests wanted Jesus dead so badly, why didn't they just have him stoned to death themselves? Some of the other, "apocryphal" gospels have turned up, for instance in an buried urn in Nag Hammadi, Egypt, but the church did a great job of suppressing all the unofficial versions for centuries.

When I point out to Christians that the New Testament was put in its current form by a non-Christian Roman emperor 3 centuries after Jesus's death, they often say "Yes, but it was based on earlier material." I'm sure that's true, but if it really was a faithful compilation of earlier material, why did they so thoroughly destroy their sources? We'll never know what was recorded on the 18 minutes that Nixon erased from the Watergate tapes, but the fact that he went to so much trouble to do so indicates that it wasn't likely to support his version of events. Likewise, the manner in which the Christians so thoroughly suppressed older material - to the extent (as we'll see below) of having the Normans conquer England and Ireland to destroy the Celtic monasteries - is our best indication that the New Testament is not faithful to its sources.

By the end of the Council of Nicaea, Christianity had been standardized and sanitized. It had also become changed beyond recognition, even in relation to Fish Christianity. Since I've been using symbols for the names of religions, I'll call this religion Chi-Rho Christianity. In an effort to reduce religious dissent, they basically took all the religions they had and made a big stew, with one measure of Fish Christianity, two measures of Paganism, three measures of Sol Invicta, and even a smidgen of Bible Judaism, the Bible itself. They reckoned that if they simply bound the new revisions into the back of the Bible, they could fool people into thinking it was ancient Jewish wisdom. And it works! I'm sure Jesus is rolling in his grave.

Making the Romans look good was not the only goal of the revisions. Star Christianity, the religion of Jesus, was revolutionary, with his main teachings opposed to those of the Jewish state religion, Sadduceeism. But Chi-Rho Christianity was another state religion, intended to maintain the status quo, not overthrow it. From then on, the church was the propaganda arm of the Empire, simply one more department of the state.

For example, Jesus was so attentive to the opinions of his wife Mary that the Apostles complained - they thought a woman's role should be to shut up and obey her husband, as all the Jewish sects taught, and the Chi-Rho Christians agreed. They went so far as to take advantage of the coincidence that Jesus' wife and mother had the same first names to switch his mother into the principal female role, even though the Gospels record that he and his mom didn't get along (e.g. Luke 8:21), to turn his wife into a prostitute, and to portray the ideal woman as a passive baby-oven who doesn't even have sex. Too much has already been written about the pervo Christian attitude towards sex to digress in that direction.

Another example: the Gospels all record the incident in which Jesus overturns the tables of the "money-changers" in the Temple. Most modern Christians think that was a protest against commerce, or at least banking - they misunderstand. In the days before Roman conquest, the Temple donations were paid in Hebrew shekels, the local currency. But when the Romans conquered Judea, the currency became Roman denarii, with Caesar's likeness on them. In order to keep the Temple pure from Caesar's (or any) image, the priesthood came up with a simple plan: as you came to the Temple, you would exchange your denarii for shekels, and then make your donation using them. What Jesus was protesting was the whole idea of buying influence with God using money! But that would be very inconvenient for the Church to admit, wouldn't it?

But the most important difference between the three versions of Christianity we've met so far is their attitude toward the church itself. Star Christianity - Jesus - taught that it wasn't enough to do what the church said, you also needed to be a good person. Fish Christianity taught that Jesus might be asking too much, but you didn't need to follow the church either: all you needed to do was apologize as you died. But Chi-Rho Christianity went right back to complete prescription: you will only get into Heaven if you do exactly what we tell you to do, no matter what you think is right. Those Christians who felt that they could have a direct relationship with God, independent of the church, were called Gnostic Christians, and there were a lot of them - at least until the Romans got through with them.

Constantine went on to do two more important things. In 330AD, he founded a new capital for the Empire, straddling the border between Asia and Europe at the site of ancient Byzantium (and modern Istanbul) - he modestly called it Constantinople. This move eventually led to the loss of the western part of the Empire, but it enabled the Empire to hold on in the east for another 11 centuries until it fell in 1453AD.

And on his deathbed in 337AD, Constantine finally accepted Christian baptism and converted, no doubt because the Christians made the point that by doing so he would be forgiven for all his previous sins, which were numerous (for example, he murdered his own wife and son). It's funny to think that if he had died suddenly, say by choking on a peeled grape, he wouldn't have had time to convert and the Empire would have stayed Mithraist: we would have crosses on top of our churches and celebrate Christmas in December and ... wait a minute! That's what we do now anyway!


Scene 20 - Patrick top

The island of Great Britain (so called because Little Britain is Brittany, the western peninsula of France) was conquered by the Romans in the aftermath of Caesar, but they didn't displace the local Celts, called Britons, who had been there for centuries already (having displaced the Picts). In fact they didn't even conquer all of Britain, just modern England, which was farmland. They didn't bother with the rugged western highlands: Cornwall, Wales, Ireland, Man and Scotland.

As they did everywhere, the Romans brought civilization to this remote hinterland, including Latin, writing and Chi-Rho Christianity. But the Celts "beyond the pale" (a term which first referred to the fence, or pale around Dublin) stayed Druid and Gaelic-speaking.

In 403AD, these wild Celts kidnapped the 16-year-old son of a minor nobleman in one of their frequent slave raids and took him back to Ireland. Padraig, we call him Patrick, spent 6 years there, learning Gaelic and Druidism, before escaping back to Britain. He eventually became a cleric and was asked to undertake a mission to evangelize the Irish, almost certainly a suicide mission. But he did it, succeeded, and Ireland became Christian.

But by the beginning of the sixth century AD, the Romans were gone, unable to afford to garrison such a remote possession. Before leaving, they invited several German tribes to immigrate as Roman federates (see below), notably the Angles, Saxons, Jutes and Frisians. By the end of the century, the Germans had pushed even the British Celts into the highlands, and England (Angle-land) had replaced Britain. These tribes were not Christian, and in fact the Saxons were so faithful to the Norse/Germanic gods (Wotan/Odin, Thor, etc) that the word Saxon came to mean heathen. They were finally conquered and Christianized by Charlemagne after 800AD.

This invasion of heathens effectively cut the Irish off from other Christians for centuries, and they kept the old ways long after Chi-Rho Christianity had disappeared from the West. Their church used a cross with a circle around it as its symbol, but I'll just call it the Celtic Church like everyone else.

By the way, the events of the legends of King Arthur and his Round Table are supposed to have taken place during the British war against the invading Anglo-Saxons. But there's no historical evidence for it, no records of a king named Arthur, for example. But they're still good stories!

Several of the Arthurian legends concern the search for the Holy Grail, or in old French the San Gréal, which is thought to have been a chalice or cup containing Jesus' blood. In fact, it was a vessel containing Jesus' blood, but not a cup - it was a person! The name is a slight corruption of the phrase "Sang Réal", which means "Holy Blood", and the search was for Jesus' heirs, the ones who carried his blood. According to the legend, Arthur reunited two bloodlines of Jesus, one through Jesus' brother James and the other through his son Josephus.


Scene 21 - Attila top

Back in the days of Caesar, the Germans had been successfully confined behind the Rhine and Danube, a line (the Limes) patrolled by Roman legions. But as the Empire faltered, so did their vigilance, and by the fourth century, several German tribes had crossed the Rhine, for example the Franks. Several of them crossed on New Year's Eve of 406 (or maybe it was 405), when the Rhine froze over.

I've used the name Germans to refer to these people because they all spoke languages from a family we now call the Germanic languages, but since it was really just a collection of individual tribes, each of their enemies knew them by the name of the tribe they were fighting: the Alemanni, Suevi (Swiss), Helvetii, Hatti (Hessians), etc. The word German actually derives from the Latin for "War-man", and the words Deutsch, Dutch, Tysk, Tedeschii and Teuton come from the name of their war-god, Tiu (as does the name Tuesday).

The Germans, as a group, appear to history for the first time in southern Scandinavia, but their own legends refer to their origins in Tyrkland ("land of the Turks"), and the good guys in the Norse myths are called Æsir , which means "Asians" (not "gods", for which the Norse word was goð). Like the Celts, they were Indo-Europeans, but unlike the Celts, they weren't farmers (and in fact northern Europe wasn't farmland until after the arrival of the potato in the 18th century).

Maybe the Huns, Avars, Slavs, Bulgars, and Mongols were forcing them westward, or maybe it was just easy pickings after the Romans fell apart, but the Franks brushed aside the Roman legions and marched right into the center of Roman Gaul, taking over the city of Lutetia, which sat across an easy-to-defend island in the Seine river at the modern site of Paris. And there they sat (and still sit), thumbing their noses at the Romans.

But in their old age, the Romans were weak but not stupid, and they had a clever idea. They said to the Franks "Hey, you seem like a bunch of swell guys, and we think you deserve the great, great honor of being our personal representatives here in northern Gaul, with all the prestige that brings. Of course, then it would be your job to keep out all the other Germans, but we'll even let you become Christian and try to speak Latin (not Koiné, because it was the Roman army talking) instead of that guttural barking you call a language". And they bought it: hook, line and sinker!

So the Franks became confederated with the Roman Empire, and the official representatives of the Emperor in those parts, and they're still trying to speak Latin, too. And the area they dominated - the present Ile de France - became known as France, the language became French, and their towering contributions to the advancement of our species were the French Kiss and French Fries (just kidding about that last - they didn't even invent French Fries). Clovis (Chlodwig, from which name come Ludwig and Louis) became the first Christian king of France, and the founder of the Merovingian dynasty (named after his grandfather, Merovis).

But they weren't the only Germans on the move. Another group, the Goths, may have originated in southern Sweden, in the area between the city of Gothenburg (Göteborg) and the island of Gotland. But they wandered from there to modern Poland (their probable real homeland) and from there drifted down to Scythia (modern Ukraine) sweeping up locals into their tribe as they went. From there, they invaded Roman Asia Minor a few times but were finally defeated by Aurelian.

But then the Huns invaded Scythia in the second half of the fourth century, and the Goths faced the choice of "Hun or run". The Goths that stayed became Hun vassals, and are known as the Ostrogoths (eastern Goths), while those that left became the Visigoths (western Goths). The latter went west (following Horace Greeley's advice from 16 centuries in the future) and wandered into Italy. There, they terrorised the local Romans and even sacked Rome itself in 410AD, under the leadership of Alaric.

But Rome by that time was no longer important - even the capital of the western region of the Empire had been moved to Ravenna. In 476AD Rome was conquered for good by another German, Odoacer, and then abandoned: the modern Piazza del Popolo was filled with grazing sheep for the next 1000 years. And the Visigoths kept moving west and founded a kingdom in Toulouse, modern southwest France, supplanting the Gallo-Roman culture of the ex-soldiers.

Meanwhile, the Huns were doing the Hun thing, but after trying to attack the main part of the Empire directly, they too went west. Under the leadership of Attila (after whom, amazingly, the Ford Motor Company named the Edsel), they reached all the way to the Rhone river in modern France, near Chalons. There, a great battle was fought between, on the one hand, Attila, the Huns and their Ostrogoth pals, and on the other the Romans, Franks, and their Visigoth pals. The Romans won, thus saving us from the double accent marks of the Hungarian language (which is actually the language of another group, the Magyars). It is said that the Roman general, Aëtius, could have destroyed the Huns after defeating them but worried that, in their absence, the Visigoths would overrun Gaul. If so, he screwed up.

The Huns threatened Italy on the way home, but didn't conquer it, and the mighty Attila died of a nosebleed in his bed in 453AD. The rest of the Huns went back to Pannonia, which became Hungary (although the modern Hungarians are of unrelated Magyar descent). The Ostrogoths went back with them, but ended up choosing to become Roman federates. But after a few years of that, they weren't happy, and finally they all just up and marched into Italy under the leadership of Theodoric - more a migration than an invasion, with 100,000 people of whom only 20% were combatants. But that was enough to conquer Odoacer, and in 493AD Theodoric became King of Italy (and the modern Italians are a big mix, but mostly Ostrogoths).

So by the end of the fifth century AD, the Germans - a people who were such barbarians when the Romans first met them five centuries earlier that they didn't yet even have clothing (only a slight exaggeration) - had conquered all of Western Europe. Their descendants are the dominant populations of Scandinavia, Britain, the Low Countries, France, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Switzerland, Austria and couldn't-think-of-a-better-name-than-just-plain-Germany, with only a few Basques, Celts, Lapps, Finns, and Magyars west of the Slavs. From there, by the end of the 19th century, they had conquered the entire world, and they are still the dominant population everywhere but in Africa and Asia - not such a bad record. I have yet to come across a good explanation of that fact.


Scene 22 - Pope top

Through all this turmoil in the West, the Roman Empire continued just fine in the East; it turns out that the West had always cost more in trouble than it had ever earned. We call this continued empire the Byzantines, but in Greek, they called themselves Romei. They kept Koiné as their language, Chi-Rho Christianity as their state religion, and Constantinople as their capital for another 1000 years. The mother church of Christianity - its "Vatican" - was the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, and since there was no separation of Church and State, the Emperor was "Pope".

But in the West, the Romans simply disappeared, leaving no descendants or heirs. The Germans wandered among the ruins of empire, playing with the city, insignia, language (Latin), and religion of Rome like a passenger wandering into the deserted cockpit of an airliner in flight: push a button, twirl a knob, "Look Ma, I'm a pilot!".

At first, the Germans didn't know what to do with the religion. They wore the trappings as a sign of legitimacy, but the actual teachings themselves didn't mean anything to them - they simply had no use for them, they weren't relevant. Most of the tribes had adopted Christianity as a condition of federation, but many of them had, by chance, chosen the Arian credo (as opposed to the Athanasian credo Constantine had chosen), since they'd been baptised north of the Empire, where Arianism was strong. Clovis was the exception : when he conquered the south of France, he agreed to convert to please the old Gallo-Roman aristocracy.

In the end, the Germans founded yet another religion, one I'll call Cross Christianity. They basically took the state religion of Chi-Rho Christianity, but since there wasn't a state any more, they applied it to the church itself: the church became its own "state", with Cross Christianity its state religion and the bishop of Rome (who had been just one more bishop out of hundreds) its Emperor - now called the Pope, (from the Italian papo, "Daddy"). He's also called the Pontifex Maximus ("biggest bridge-builder"), the old name for the emperor as leader of the Pagan religion.

Over the next 13 centuries, this Roman Catholic church sometimes ruled territory like any king, but most of its domain was the churches, abbeys and monasteries spread across German Europe, and its monopolies on birth, death, and marriage ceremonies; writing (only clerics were allowed to own books or learn to read); coronation of kings; abortion, infanticide, and prostitution ("get thee to a nunnery"); and the sale of indulgences (pardons for sins) and clerical positions. It was quite a racket - it still is.


Scene 23 - Muhammad top

The Arabian desert would seem to be a strange place for anything important to happen. It's difficult enough to cross, much less to inhabit. But something important did happen there, in the seventh century: Muhammad.

I have read that the Arabs started out in Yemen, at the southern tip of the Arabian peninsula, which is fertile enough, but that excess population was continually forced northward into the desert (although clearly some went to the Horn of Africa, too). Each tribe would spend generations as nomadic herdsmen before finally reaching the great valleys to the north: the Levant, Mesopotamia, and Egypt. The author felt that the desert years were the key to understanding the Arabs, even the settled ones.

Muhammad lived in Mecca, a desert trading city not too far from the Red Sea, where he belonged to a minor tribe in a society in which tribal membership meant everything. The main feature distinguishing Mecca from other nearby cities was the presence of a huge black stone, the Kaaba (which means cube), in the center of town. This stone was surrounded by idols and worshipped as part of an unsophisticated system of beliefs, but the Arabs had no organized religion. In this, they compared themselves unfavorably to the Jews, several tribes of whom lived in the area, too.

At the age of 25, Muhammad married a rich widow, Khadijah, whom he grew to love very much, and they had six children. By the time Muhammad was forty, he was comfortable and respected for his character. He got into the habit of going away alone to a nearby mountain for a meditative retreat every year, and in the fifth year he experienced his first revelation.

One thing I like about the story of Muhammad is his reluctance. When, as legend has it, the angel Gabriel appeared to him and said "write this down", Muhammad answered "I can't write!". They both insisted, until finally the angel said "OK, if you can't write it down, you will have to recite it from memory!". So the Qur'an (Koran) is written in beautiful poetry. That's one reason why, unlike the Christian canon, it doesn't translate well.

Some Muslims believe that Muhammad was a descendant of Abraham via his first son Ishmael, and thus the Arabs are the people fulfilling Abraham's covenant with Jehovah. They also believe Muhammad's appearance was prophesied, and that he is the last in a series of 25 prophets including most of the cast of the Old Testament and even Jesus. And they accept most of the Old Testament as scripture, although they maintain it has been corrupted (and they're right).

These revelations continued for a period of 23 years, and are all in the first person in the voice of Allah (God) speaking to his subjects. They were recorded on whatever was handy when Muhammad first repeated them, and tradition has it that he would check his memory of the previous verses with Gabriel at each session. The history and form of the Qur'an has always given it an integrity and power that the Christian canon lacks.

Muhammad started reciting in public, and attracted some followers. He also attracted some opponents, especially the powerful Quraish tribe who ran the Kaaba concession. Mecca started to divide along tribal lines, and eventually Muhammad was forced out of town and narrowly escaped assassination. He went to Yathrib, a mostly Jewish city not too far away. This exodus, in 622AD, is known as the Hijra - it marks the beginning of the Muslim calendar.

In Yathrib, later called Medina, Muhammad was asked to mediate in local disputes, and soon rose to a position of power. Two years after his arrival, he and his followers attacked a Meccan caravan, triggering a war between the two cities that ended up uniting Medina. Finally, in 629AD, Muhammad marched on Mecca with an army of 10,000 Muslims, and the city was his. But instead of slaughtering his opponents, he forgave them, and as a result they all converted. The idols were destroyed, and the Arabs were united.

Muhammad died peacefully in 632AD, but Islam certainly didn't. The expansion that followed was incredible: his followers spread his ideas with such fervor, using the sword when necessary, that within 90 years of his death, they had converted Egypt and the rest of north Africa and Spain, the Levant, Mesopotamia (still Persian), Iran itself and the Caucasus north of it, India, and all across Turkestan to the Uighur province in the northwest of modern China. But they failed to convert or conquer Byzantine Asia Minor.

Everything west of Iran was also settled by Arabs, overlaying native populations such as the Berbers, the Jews, the Assyrians, and several kinds of Christian (e.g. Coptic, Maronite). But Islam showed great tolerance for all other religions (until its decline from about 1500AD on) and they coexisted for centuries. In fact, the Jews played the same administrative roles in the great Muslim empires of the Turks and the Moors (Spain) as they had in the Roman Empire and would later for the Tsar.


Scene 24 - Charlemagne top

By the eighth century, the Franks had lost their spunk. Burgundy, Aquitaine, and Provence had regained their independence, and the Moors in Spain were a threat. Although Clovis's descendants were still kings, the real power lay in the office of Mayor of the Palace. One such Mayor, Charles Martel (Charlie the hammer), reversed this decline and defeated the Moors at Tours in 732AD. Had he lost that battle, Europe would have become Muslim and saved itself 7 more centuries of the Dark Ages.

His son Pepin the Short decided he didn't need the titulary king, and he assumed the title himself. But it was Pepin's son Charlemagne (Big Charlie) who was the greatest of these Carolingian Kings. In the course of thirty years from 771AD to 800AD, he led or sent more than 50 military expeditions, (re)conquering all of modern France, Benelux and Switz, much of Germany and Italy, and even parts of Austria and Spain. In one campaign (in which he was allied with the Moors against Christian cities in Spain) the Basques attacked his rearguard and killed a count named Hruodland - this episode became the basis for the famous French poem Chanson de Roland.

But his real genius lay in organization, administration and reform. He came to power at the low point of Roman Catholic civilization, when the economy, trade, civil institutions, and intellectual life were all at a low ebb. He passed laws governing almost every aspect of life, from tolls and highways to weights and measures to currency reform to the founding of schools to how Latin should be pronounced - Charlemagne and his court spoke German but created the French language by demanding that Latin be spoken correctly. He protected the rights of serfs and the king's lands, set up systems for taxation and the qualification of clergymen, and in general reformed the church, which had become corrupt and degenerate.

As the final phase of this last project, in 800AD he became the first Holy Roman Emperor. A few years earlier, he had given the Pope, Leo III, sanctuary from Roman mobs, and when he came back to Rome Leo crowned him, although it's not clear that Charlemagne expected it! Whosever idea it was, it was a big one. By claiming to be the successor to the great Roman Emperors, for whom people now felt nostalgic, he could tap into a wellspring of prestige. He was risking war with Byzantium, since he could be seen as challenging the legitimacy of their Emperors, but they were going through a weak period, with a woman, Irene, on the throne.

But the main advantage was to put the power of the church back into the hands of the Emperor (although, in so doing, he also put the power to crown Emperors in the hands of the Church). For the remaining years of his reign, until he died in 814AD at his capital of Aquis (now Aachen in the far west of modern Germany), he tried to heal the breach between the two Empires, even offering to marry Irene, but to no avail.

His kingdom was divided among his sons on his death, but his successors were weak, and it soon fell apart into warring nations, much along its modern borders. But the Church continued, again a state religion with no state, as it still does. To some degree, like a cancer that has metastasized, having no territory meant they couldn't be attacked - with no body, they were immortal. It reminds me of that scene in the first Star Wars movie when Obi-Wan turns off his light sabre and says "You can't win, Darth. If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine". But instead of "Darth", we would say "Earth".


Scene 25 - Rurik top

The last two centuries of the first millennium AD would justify some kind of "hydraulic" theory of history. After Charlemagne's empire disintegrated and the power of Roman Catholic Europe waned, the great beneficiaries were the Orthodox Catholic Byzantines on the one hand, and the heathens to Charlemagne's north, the Vikings.

No doubt the Vikings were fierce warriors, and maybe the other Germans had all become soft couch potatoes, living in cities and going to church. But the tremendous success of the Vikings, however fleeting, deserves a more thoughtful explanation. I think it was due to three factors

Whatever be the causes, the Vikings exploded out of Scandinavia in both directions, east and west, starting in around 800AD. The westbound Vikings, who we call the Danes, conquered eastern Britain (the Danelaw, between the rivers Thames and Tees) and northeastern France (Norman means "norse men"). They built the first cities in Ireland (e.g. Dublin), raided the Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts all the way to Italy, and explored the Ocean Sea to settle the Faroes, Iceland, Greenland, and Vinland.

The eastbound Vikings, who were called Varangians but are now called simply Swedes, are less known but perhaps more deserving of renown. They raided and settled the whole Baltic, from Finland to Germany, pushed deep into modern Russia as far as Muscovy, and then followed the Don and Volga river systems all the way down to the Black and Caspian Seas.

At the time, that whole area was already populated by the Slavs, the next wave of Indo-European horsemen out of the eastern steppes. They had the bad luck to arrive too soon after the Germans and Huns, who had not yet become soft farmers, so the Slavs didn't actually get too far west: they stopped where they met Roman Catholicism, at roughly the same longitude that split the Roman Empire. And they were no match for the Vikings.

But Viking power and influence didn't last, and by the time they converted to Christianity around the turn of the millennium, their glory days were over, (at least until the all-mighty Viking bards called Abba ruled the pop music charts at the turn of the next millennium). Their main legacies were the cross-fertilization of ideas and trade goods, and the shaking up of the status quo ante.

One footnote: in 862AD, the city of Novgorod, about halfway between modern Moscow and St. Petersburg, invited the Viking prince Rurik to come rule them, and under his guidance they became the dominant power in the area. The line of kings he founded became the Russian monarchy, united most of the eastern Slavs, conquered everything to the south and east as far as Persia and the Pacific Ocean, and lasted until 1917AD.


Scene 26 - Omar top

Meanwhile, after the defeat of Abd-er-Rahman by the Franks, the Muslims stopped expanding and began to develop internally. For the next few centuries, Islam had a "Golden Age" under the Caliphs of Baghdad, notably Haroun al- Rashid, the Caliph of The Thousand and One Nights. But they still never prevailed against the Byzantines. Instead, they became a vector for the spread of both Greek and Persian culture further to the east, notably into India.

Their initial wave of expansion back before 800AD had included the Turks, a big group of horse-riding nomads who inhabited the vast steppe between Persia and China. The Turks were fierce warriors but divided into small tribes and disorganized. But soon the Caliphs realized that the combination of Muslim organization and Turkish courage was unbeatable. And so it was.

Unfortunately for the caliphs, the Turks also realized that, once they had been organized, they no longer needed the Arabs and Persians, and they took over in Baghdad. We call that dynasty the Seljuk Turks, and they were responsible for a revival of Muslim expansion that finally conquered Christian Syria, including Palestine and Jerusalem itself.

The Seljuks were also responsible for a revival of Muslim culture, and it was under their stewardship that the Persian poet Omar Khaiyyam wrote his famous verses, The Rubaiyyat. An excerpt:

The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.
(Fitzgerald translation)

As an aside, this era offers one of those fascinating footnotes that make me so popular at cocktail parties (except with attractive women).

From about the fifth century on, the lower reaches of the Volga and Don river valleys were ruled by a Turkic people called the Khazars. By the way, their arrival drove the Bulgars (named for the river Volga or vice versa, and from whom we get the word vulgar) to split and flee, half of them to modern Bulgaria on the west coast of the Black Sea and the others upriver to found Volga Bulgharia. At its peak in the tenth century, the Khazar kingdom stretched from Kiev (which they founded) to the Aral Sea and as far south as Georgia. The modern city of Astrakhan derives its name from Atil-Khazaran, the twin capitals of Khazaria on either bank of the lower Volga, and the Turkish and Arabic names for the Caspian Sea derive from Khazar.

Legend has it that the Khazars ran a fine kingdom, tolerant and prosperous, which included Muslims, Christians and Jews, but that one of their kings felt shame that the Khazars themselves were heathen. So he invited representatives of the three great religions to his court to evangelize him. He finally chose Judaism, and converted some 12 million people - an enormous number for that era - who adopted circumcision, a kosher diet, the Hebrew alphabet, and all the other marks of Judaism. This has been claimed to represent the origins of the Ashkenazi Jews, some 85% of world Jewry.

Nowadays, this issue has become a hot potato, with the evidence (which shows the Ashkenazi are not Khazar) overwhelmed by the desire of the various scholars to demonstrate that modern Jews are or are not the descendants of ancient Jews. That question is uninteresting to me, since I have no more desire to give Palestine back to the descendants of the people who lived there in 70AD than I have to give America back to the Iroquois, Mexico back to the Aztecs, France back to the Gauls, England back to the Britons, Turkey back to the Greeks, South China back to the Thais, South and East Africa back to the Khoisan, etc. But I seem to be a voice crying alone in the wilderness on that point.

Interestingly, as Russia falls apart, the many ethnic groups of the Volga Basin are also arguing madly over their history, whether the Tatars, Chuvash, Bashkir, Kipchak or Karakalpak are the true heirs of the Bulghars, or the Khazars, or maybe of the Kazan Khanate or the Golden Horde (see below), and just where the Ugric Magyars and the Iranian Sarmatians fit in, not to mention the Slavs, Scandinavians, and Finns.


Scene 27 - Saladin top

To continue with the hydraulic model of history, the Seljuk expansion came during a period of Byzantine contraction, thus of Roman Catholic expansion as well. Perhaps it was the unifying influence of the Church, or perhaps the nations of western Europe just settled down into an uneasy equilibrium, but the pace of internal fighting slowed down and was replaced by a bout of external military adventures, the Crusades.

The Muslims had finally conquered greater Syria, including Palestine - the Holy Land where Jesus had lived and died - and the Byzantines realized they needed the help of the Roman Catholics to resist them. The Pope, sensing an opportunity, responded, and in 1096AD, the first group of Roman Catholic Crusaders arrived in Constantinople. By 1099AD, they had reconquered Jerusalem, killing all the Muslims and Jews they came across.

Although the leader of the expedition had been Raymond of Toulouse, he refused the crown of the conquered territories, and his second in command, Godfroi de Bouillon, became King of Jerusalem. He was faced with an interesting problem. Until this time, there had only been three ways to structure the relationship between a boss and the workers he led:

This last is a contract, but in the absence of courts of law, it was only observed as long as it was in the interests of both parties. In practice, that wasn't very often.

Godfroi's problem was the absence of all three possibilities. The Crusader kingdoms were unlike other Roman Catholic kingdoms in that they belonged to the Church, not to a royal family. So he had neither relatives nor noble vassals to run a government with. But a fourth solution had recently been developed.

Long before Jesus, prophets had learned the benefits of withdrawal from society - for instance, both Moses and Buddha had spent time alone in the wilderness. The idea of renouncing earthly ties for the company of God had appealed to adherents of all religions, both mainstream and fringe, whom we can call monks. And as early as the sixth century AD, the monks of the Benedictine order had made themselves useful as scholars and copyists within the hierarchy of the Catholic Church.

But in the twelfth century AD, monastic orders became a big deal, driven frankly by the need to organize groups of people without blood ties to work together in peacetime. During this period were founded the Augustinians, Carmelites, Carthusians, Dominicans, and Franciscans. Subsequent orders include the Cistercians, Trappists, Jesuits, and Opus Dei. You can think of them as giant corporations with unpaid workers.

When the Crusader kingdoms were set up in the reconquered Holy Land, three monastic orders were set up to administer the government in the name of the Church. The simplest was the Order of St. John the Hospitalier, which was set up to run hospitals and hospices (what we'd now call hotels ). After the final fall of the Crusader kingdoms, they retreated first to Rhodes and then all the way to Malta. They still exist, running ambulances in much of Europe, where they are known as the Order of Malta. The Maltese cross - four arrowheads - is their symbol.

The second order is the famous Templars, the Order of Poor Knights of the Temple of Solomon. Their mission was to protect pilgrims on the road to Jerusalem, for which they were given dispensation to bear arms, unusual for monks or any clerics. After the Third Crusade, a fourth monastic order was founded, the Teutonic Knights, whose mission combined those of the Hospitaliers and the Templars.

The third order that was founded after the First Crusade was the shadowy Priory of Zion, whose mission was to protect Church dogma from any unanticipated discoveries made in the Holy Land. They were charged with identifying sites with those mentioned in the Gospels (not an easy task, since the authors and editors of the Gospels had never been to Palestine) and making sure the numerous pilgrims didn't pick up any heretical ideas.

The descendants of Godfroi ruled for another 88 years in uneasy cooperation with the neighboring Muslim kingdoms. But in 1187AD, a frail Roman Catholic king coincided with a strong Muslim king, Saladin (who was a Kurd born in Tikrit, modern Iraq, Saddam Hussein's hometown), and Jerusalem was retaken.

Over the next century, there were four more Crusades, which met with varying degrees of success. The Third Crusade, led by Richard the Lionheart, was the most successful, but despite its military prowess, the resulting Kingdom of Acre didn't last. And the subsequent Crusades degenerated into black comedy: one of them didn't even bother fighting Muslims, preferring to sack Constantinople itself.

So in the end, the Crusades became just an excuse for a bunch of minor Catholic noblemen with little prospect for advancement at home to run around the non-Catholic world, killing, raping and robbing in the name of God. It's true that the influences they brought back from the far-more-advanced civilizations of the Orient made a huge contribution to the development of the West, but that's faint praise for wholesale barbarism.


Scene 28 - William top

The era of the Crusades, roughly 1000-1300AD, actually sent Catholic expeditions in four different directions. We've already discussed those to the southeast.

The southwest crusades were Frankish expeditions nominally against the Cathars in the south of France. The Cathars (the word means pure) were a group of pious and devout Christians who believed that the world was a struggle between the forces of good and evil, God and the Devil. That doesn't seem in such discord with Roman Catholic teaching now, but back then it was ruled a heresy, on the basis that it made Satan co-equal with God. Actually, it was a thinly veiled excuse for the French to conquer the southern half of modern France with the blessing of the Pope. It's good to have friends in high places.

These Albigensian Crusades, as they are known, demonstrated to the fullest the love of their fellow man that Roman Catholics are justly famous for. They would raze a city of 20,000 people, killing everyone, in punishment for harboring 200 Cathars. In fact, it during this campaign that a Crusader responded, when asked who to kill, "Kill them all. God will know his own." In the end, the great cities of the southern Visigoth kingdoms, like Toulouse and Narbonne, were destroyed, and the area became French, as it still is.

To the northeast, the Teutonic Knights conquered and converted the (non-Slav) "White Baltic": Pomerania, Prussia, Lithuania, Latvia, Livonia, Courland and Estonia (Poland did not yet touch the Baltic). Since the Knights were both a military brotherhood and a religious order, they imposed a rather austere rule on the area - one which presaged the Prussian national spirit that unified Germany 600 years later.

To the northwest, the Pope blessed the claims of the Normans to the English throne, and William the Conqueror took advantage of fighting between the English and the last of the Vikings to invade. At the Battle of Hastings in 1066AD, the Normans conquered England, and the English court became French-speaking, with profound implications for the English language.

Once the Normans had had a century to pacify England, the Pope (the office, not the same guy) proceeded with what had perhaps been his original purpose in supporting the Normans (aside from the bribes, the gratitude for past favors, and the expectations of future ones, I mean). Once the English had converted to Christianity at the end of the sixth century, the Celtic Church was no longer geographically isolated from other Christians. But now they were theologically isolated.

For example, they still kept the Orthodox Catholic date for Easter, while Roman Catholics used a different calculation for the date. When the two churches again came into contact - and it was Irish monks who were the great missionaries of the time - they had a conference to settle the difference, and Rome's representatives acknowledged the primacy of the Celtic date. But when they went home and told the Pope, he said "I didn't send you there to accept their date!".

So in the end, the Pope decided he'd rather conquer them than compromise, and he called on the Normans to do it. From 1169-1177AD, they invaded Ireland and imposed the Roman Catholic faith. The funny part of this is that most Irish (and especially Irish-Americans) blame the "English" for conquering Ireland and destroying the Celtic church, when it was actually French Catholics!


Scene 29 - Chingis top

Sometime around 1165AD, a son named Temüjin was born to a Mongol chief. While he was still young, his father was murdered and he became chief in turn. But his clan refused to be lead by a boy and abandoned him and his family, who famously survived solo nomadic life by living off rodents.

But by 1206AD, this former rat-eater had united all the Mongol tribes into a confederation, and had become their Universal Ruler, or Chingis Khan, and it's under this name (also spelled Genghis and many other ways) that history knows him. The Mongols then went on a conquering spree like none before or since, as I mentioned in Scene 3. By his death in 1227, he ruled from the Caspian to the Pacific, having conquered most of China, Russia and the Baghdad caliphate.

After Chingis, the Mongols divided themselves into several hordes; one ruled China, another Persia and Mesopotamia, a third Russia, and a fourth the cental Asian homelands. The Mongol Empire actually reached its greatest extent under his grandson Kublai Khan, who finished the conquest of China and Korea and founded the Yuan dynasty in China. It was during this period that Marco Polo visited China; his description of Kublai's summer palace at Shangdu became the model for Coleridge's Xanadu. At this point roughly half the world's population was ruled by the Mongols.

But the Mongol Empire didn't last long, although the cause of their demise was assimilation, not military defeat. In the end, the rough-riding nomads became settled city boys, although the Mongols continued to be a major player on the world stage, conquering India around 1500AD and founding the Moghul dynasty, which stayed in power until about 1707AD, with the death of Aurangzeb.

So the Mongols conquered three of the world's great centers of civilization: China, India and Mesopotamia. Why didn't they conquer the fourth, Egypt? Tune in next scene to find out.

Meanwhile, what was happening in Western Europe while the Mongols were sweeping all before them? Only the most important event in European history: the Black Plague. From 1347AD to 1350AD, bubonic plague hit almost every European city, eventually killing about one third of the population.

And why was this the most important event in European history? Because killing one in three is the equivalent of giving everybody else a 50% raise, especially in a world where land is the predominant form of wealth. And not only did the plague make all the survivors wealthy and shake up the status quo, but it permitted a rate of population growth that was sustained even after the population surpassed its previous levels, fueling the tremendous European expansion of the 15th century on.


Scene 30 - Beyazit top

When the Mongols conquered Baghdad, it caused a dynasty change among the Turks: the Ottomans took over from the Seljuks. Their orientation was westward, and they swiftly conquered Asia Minor (modern Turkey), bypassing the city of Constantinople, and pushed deep into the Balkans. In Kosovo in 1389AD, the Turkish sultan Murad was assassinated, and his son Beyazit took over (and immediately massacred the Serbs). At this point, the modern countries of Bulgaria, Greece, Romania, Albania, Macedonia, Serbia, Kosovo, Bosnia and Montenegro were all Turkish.

One innovation they introduced was the use of Janissaries (from the Turkish for "new armies"). These were an elite military force created of Christian children taken in tribute: each family owed the Ottomans their first-born son. Slaves raised from birth to be soldiers, they were a fierce professional army.

This dramatic Turkish expansion worried the Roman Catholics enough for them to consider helping the Byzantines, and another Crusade was organized: the flower of Christianity mounted up to defend their faith. In 1396 at Nicopolis (modern Nikopol, Bulgaria, on the Danube), Beyazit thoroughly defeated the Christians under future-Emperor Sigismund of Hungary, and Europe was at the mercy of the Turks.

So why aren't we all Turkish-speaking Muslims? A one-word answer: Mongols. In 1402 at the Battle of Ankara, Timur the Great, also know as Tamerlane (Timur the Lame, since he was lame from birth), the last great Mongol Khan, defeated the Turks, capturing Beyazit and keeping him on a chain in a cage like an exotic bird.

The Mongols conquered Turkey, but Ottoman Egypt was defended by a dynasty of Janissaries called the Mamluks (from the Arabic for "slave"). They held off the Mongols in 1260AD at Ain Jalut, the first time anyone had defeated the Mongols. The Mamluks went on to rule Egypt for the next 250 years, until the Ottomans reconquered it in 1517AD.

The Mongols left many legacies, including literacy, meritocratic bureaucracy, and religious tolerance on the good side, and halving the population of China on the not-so-good side, but their most enduring legacy has been...Christianity! Without them, Europe would be Muslim.

Timur died in 1405 and was entombed in Samarkand. There's a great story involving his body: in 1941, it was exhumed by the Soviets despite a local legend that disturbing his tomb would bring war. Three days later, Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa, invading the USSR.

After Timur, the Mongols never again represented a threat. The Turks reestablished the sultanate, and in 1453 they finally conquered the city of Constantinople, all that remained of the Roman Empire. It happened to be one of the first battles in which guns and cannons played a role. For that and many other reasons, it is often cited as the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of the Renaissance.

One interesting little tidbit about Constantinople. The ancient symbol of the city of Byzantium had been the crescent moon, since Diane was its patron saint. When Constantine made it the capital, he added a "star" as a symbol of his religion, Sol Invicta, which became Christianity. When the Turks conquered Constantinople, they kept the star-and-crescent, and it has now become the symbol of Islam, despite its Pagan/Mithraic/Christian origins! It appears on the flags of Algeria, Azerbaijan, Mauritania, Pakistan, Tunisia, Turkey, Turkmenistan and Western Sahara.

In 1520AD, Süleyman the Magnificent ascended to the Ottoman Sultanate, and his reign marks the high point of the Turks. In 1529AD, they were back at the gates of Vienna, where the Christians narrowly outlasted a long siege (and won the Battle of the Moles, during which competing teams of tunneling miners fought underground). When the invaders finally gave up and went home, defeated more by bad weather and hunger than by the Austrians, they left behind some sacks of exotic spice the Turks used to motivate themselves, and that's how coffee came to Vienna: we pay tribute to Süleyman at every café.


Scene 31 - Columbus top

The years before and after 1500AD were filled with so many earth-shattering developments in Western Europe that it's hard to single one out as causing the great transformation in intellectual climate known as the Renaissance, or to untangle which led to which.

The year that Galileo died - 1642 - was the year that Isaac Newton was born. Newton was perhaps the greatest scientist of all time, and his studies of optics and mechanics, e.g. the Law of Gravity and the Laws of Motion, are the foundations of physics. He also invented the calculus (as did Leibniz, independently). But his greatest achievement was to show that the universe obeys mathematical laws, or said another way, that mathematics is the language to describe the physical universe. In the three centuries since Newton's death, fields which couldn't be modeled in his time have turned out to yield to better math and computers, so there is hope yet for history and psychology!


Scene 32 - Luther top

In 1517AD, an obscure German priest named Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of his church in Wittenberg. In them, he makes a few points about things like repentance that seem uncontroversial now, but in fact flew in the face of established Church practice.

In Luther's day as now, the Church was primarily a business. Today's churches are reduced to threatening or begging for donations, but back then, Church revenue derived from the sale of services in which they maintained a monopoly: pardon for sins (indulgences), sale of ecclesiastical offices (simony), and payment for baptisms, marriages, burials and even confession. The Church also had monopolies on infanticide (the prevalent form of "birth control"), prostitution (in nunneries) and even writing (e.g. of wills) - these vices were too dangerous to be practiced by amateurs.

So when Luther challenged the Church's right to sell God's love and mercy - and their right to withhold it from the worthy in the absence of payment - he was undermining the very fundament of their business. No wonder they went after him. And had he been a lonely intellectual whose complaints didn't resonate with the bulk of the populace, no doubt we'd never have heard of him. But in fact his exhortations fell on fertile ground.

The 95 Theses started a chain of events which cascaded out of Church control, and in fairly short order the north of Europe - northern Germany and Scandinavia - split away from Roman Catholicism to become Lutheran. The south of Europe - Austria, Italy, and Iberia - stayed unreformed. But in the center, from Bavaria to Switzerland to France to the Netherlands to Britain, there were struggles between the church's defenders and its protesters ("Protestants") that continue to this day, 500 years later. Interestingly, each country has its own story.

Southern Germany saw the worst fighting. Each town or prince decided on its own, so one town might be Protestant while the next stayed Catholic. A first peace, the Peace of Augsburg in 1555, tried to preserve a status quo, but it didn't last, and the resulting war lasted 30 years and involved almost all the powers of Europe, including Spain, France, the Netherlands, Denmark, and Sweden. The Thirty Years War finally ended at the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, which can be taken as the point at which European supremacy passed from Spain to France. It also represents the founding of modern Portugal, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and Sweden, and the de facto disappearance of the Holy Roman Empire.

Switzerland, small as it is, was the intellectual and theological heart of the reformation, with Huldrych Zwingli and John Calvin the big names. The struggle in Switzerland was not so much between Catholics and Protestants as between these reformers and even more radical reformers like the Anabaptists (who are still around: in the USA, they're called Mennonites and Brethren), and later between Presbyterians (followers of Calvin) and Lutherans. The theological issues that provided the grist for discord were thin cover for the deeper underlying issues: how much control is in the hands of a central authority, and how much of a role does religion play in secular life.

French Protestants, called Huguenots, were Presbyterians. French society, at the time, was divided between the nobility and the peasantry, with not much scope for advancement by the latter, and that division was strongly supported by the Church. So Protestantism had strong appeal for the most able and successful of the commoners, for whom it offered a path upwards.

The Huguenots had a long sad history in France, starting with the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre in 1572, in which 100,000 unarmed French Christians were killed (and which the Pope commemorated by casting a medal!), and ending with the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685, which drove the remaining Huguenots abroad, to the great profit of England, Holland, Germany (they founded Berlin, for example), Geneva (not yet in Switzerland), and even South Africa and North America. The long-term results of this French inability to respond to the Church's critics were ultimately the fall of the ancien régime and the deferral of industrialization in France, to Germany's benefit.

The story of Protestantism in the Netherlands is intimately connected with its national history. At the beginning of the Reformation, the Netherlands still belonged to Hapsburg Spain, and while Charles V was on the throne of Spain, their Calvinism was tolerated. But his son Philip II began to persecute the Protestants, triggering the Dutch Rebellion, which ended in 1585 with Willem van Oranje's ascension to the throne of an independent Netherlands. 150 years later, the pendulum swung back when Catholic Belgium split off from the Protestant Netherlands, and it may swing again if Flanders and Wallonia eventually split.

The story of Protestantism in England, Scotland and Ireland is complicated by the fact that Henry VIII took them out of the Roman church for completely non-religious reasons in 1534, founding the Church of England. However, since these Anglicans kept most of the Roman theology, I don't consider them Protestant: they're just another flavor of Catholic. Over the course of the 16th and 17th centuries, English and Scottish kings and queens alternated between Anglicanism, rigid Roman Catholicism and a fanatical Calvinist Presbyterianism we now call "Puritanism". The details make a good story, but too long for these pages. Here is the briefest outline:

After Henry's death, the crown passed to his daughter Mary, who tried to return England to Catholicism, but only ended up inspiring a cocktail: the Bloody Mary. After her death, the religious turmoil abated while her sister Elizabeth I supervised a tolerant compromise that lasted all her long reign, to England's great benefit. During this Golden Age lived William Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, Ben Jonson and Francis Bacon, and she was served by the great admiral Francis Drake, who defeated the Spanish Armada. But after her death in 1603, the conflicts arose again, culminating in the decapitation of King Charles I in 1649 and the brief rule of Oliver Cromwell until the monarchy was restored in 1660.

In 1689, the crown passed from Catholic James II of Scotland to his daughter Mary and her husband William III of Orange (great-grandson of the Willem van Oranje mentioned above), both Protestants, briefly uniting England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland and the Netherlands. He spent most of their reign fighting France and her British allies, the Catholic Jacobites. Domestically, he made peace between Anglicans and Protestants, and between Parliament and the Crown - both worthy achievements. Interestingly, towards the end of his life he converted from Protestantism to Anglicanism, perhaps a sign of loss of zeal and desire for a durable moderation in succession. He died in 1702 and England and Scotland were united shortly thereafter (1707).

My choice for milestone to mark the end of this era of religious wars is the year 1715, the death of Louis XIV of France (the Sun King). His reign marked the high point of France's glory and ambition, and the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714) represents the last time European borders changed in any significant way. Since then, the clear victory of one dominant religion in each country permitted a modicum of tolerance of the other, kings of one country haven't made claims to the crowns of other countries, and the Europeans have had to find other reasons to invade each other.


Scene 33 - Friedrich top

I've chosen to name this scene after Friedrich II der Grosse of Prussia (Frederick the Great, who ruled 1740-1786), although several other "enlightened monarchs" deserve similar honor, notably Peter the Great of Russia. But Freddy was the greatest of the Greats, in my opinion.

First of all, he was a great general, and it's basically due to him that Germany is not part of Austria. Second, he was a great patron of the arts: a friend of Voltaire (a rabid foe of the Church), author of a refutation of Machiavelli's Prince, and a patron of musicians like Bach. Third and most important, he was a great admirer of "modern" developments such as bureaucracy, tax reform, the abolition of serfdom and torture, and other Enlightenment ideas. He brought Prussia (the core of modern Germany) from backwater to great power.

His most important contribution often goes unrecognized: he introduced the potato (and the turnip) to northern Europe. Actually, the potato had been first brought to Europe by Sir Francis Drake in 1586, and by 1650 it was the staple food of Ireland. Potatos were originally used only as fodder for animals, being suspected as poisonous, but a great French agronomist named Antoine-Augustin Parmentier taught us how to cook and eat them directly. Nonetheless, they were not popular across the north European plain (Germany, Poland, Russia, Sweden) until Big Fred made it happen.

The significance of the potato should not be underestimated - it multiplied the populations of the northern European countries by a factor of at least 5! The great breadbasket of northern France, centered in Paris, had always been very fertile as wheat fields, but before the potato, Germany was a country of small villages surrounded and separated by dark forest, the setting of Grimm fairy tales like Hansel and Gretel, Snow White, and Little Red Riding Hood. The physical isolation begat cultural and political isolation as well.

But the introduction of the potato and the subsequent population explosion led to massive urbanization. The Industrial Revolution - a series of inventions such as the harnessing of steam power by James Watt, a Scot working in Birmingham - although it started in England, spread quickly to the new densely-populated Germany. The long-term results were the unification of Germany in 1870, the development of whacko philosophies like Communism, Fascism, and the whole Nietsche/Hegel/Schopenhauer thing, Kafka's cynicism and Hesse's escapism, the degeneration of music from Beethoven to Wagner, the Blitzkrieg and the Holocaust. That's what happens when barbarians acquire technology before they have the civilization to manage it - the same thing happened in Japan and Russia, too.


Scene 34 - Victoria top

Another important discovery during the Age of Exploration was that Europe was now way ahead of the rest of the world, not just militarily but culturally in every way. For lack of a better explanation, I subscribe to the theory that it was because, between 1517 and 1715, Europe was never unified by a dominant culture, as happened in Islam, India and China (although those areas weren't as dominated as we think). But no matter what explanation we posit, or how much we admire the achievements of other cultures, it's important to grasp that the reason European culture spread all over the world at the expense of other cultures is that it was better. That's how evolution works: variety, then competition, then selection.

So the Spanish, Portuguese, French, British, Dutch and Russians colonized the rest of the world (with minor participation by Danes and Swedes). Spain and Portugal split South America; Spain alone took Central America, the Caribbean and the western part of North America; France and Britain split eastern North America, Africa and the Middle East; Britain took India and Australasia; Russia took northern Asia; and everybody took parts of China and Southeast Asia.

Colonialization was a mixed success. The colonial power got any raw materials or plantation crops: in an era when commodities like spices, gold, tea, cotton, sugar, tobacco, molasses, fur, ivory and slaves had single sources, it was good to be the monopoly power. But when competition put a premium on efficiency and cost, colonies became expensive and troublesome. And of course it was always a wrenching transition for the colonized, especially their old upper class, even if the end result was a huge step forward towards civilization.

For example, Spain conquered the Aztecs and Incas in the sixteenth century. In hindsight, the real treasures were New World crops like corn, beans, tomatos and other peppers, potatos and sweet potatos, squashes and melons, cocoa and chocolate, cotton, rubber, peanuts and cashews, avocados and pineapples. But the Spanish were obsessed with gold, which they brought back to Spain in huge quantities. The end result was inflation and Dutch independence.

In the Caribbean, devoid of rich civilizations, they killed off the natives, then imported black slaves (more docile) to work their ranches and plantations. While some Dons got rich off their American holdings, in the big picture the Spanish Empire (on which the sun never set, since the Philippines were a Mexican colony) was an expensive distraction.

By far the biggest success of the colonial era was the British colonization of India, which was accomplished by diplomacy much more than by arms. The despotism of the Mughal rulers they replaced played a role, too, as did the repression of Hindus by the Muslims after Akbar. The British were able to add a very thin layer of governance to a fantastically developed infrastructure, and institutions like the India Civil Service and the Sepoys (native soldiers), notably the Gurkhas, are still admired. The Raj lasted from 1765, when Robert Clive defeated the Mughals at Buxar, to 1947, when India and Pakistan were granted independence. During that period, the British Empire was the largest empire we've seen yet, peaking in the reign of Queen Victoria, 1837-1901 (who is mentioned out of sequence in this scene). Now, all that remains are trading posts like Singapore and Hong Kong, and even those are independent.

South Africa is an exceptional case, widely misunderstood because of two racist fallacies held by even well-meaning whites:

In fact, prehistoric Africa divided neatly into three cultural areas, each with a separate language family and race.

Around 1000BC, a tribe in southeastern Nigeria called the Bantu developed cultivation of the yam and began a series of expansions that carried them, first throughout the Negro jungles, then (about 0AD) into the eastern grasslands, where they completely replaced or marginalized the Khoisan. Around 1000AD in Zimbabwe, they founded the only black Empire, which lasted a few centuries before collapsing. But they never settled the farmland of Southern Africa.

When Dutch, Huguenot and German settlers arrived at Cape Horn in 1652, there were no Bantu there - the local population was colored, not black. But as the Boers trekked north- and east-ward, they finally met the Bantus coming south- and west-ward, in 1770. Over the next several centuries, the two races fought many bloody battles before the final black victory in 1994. What the Zulu were never able to do militarily, the Xhosa did through public relations!


Scene 35 - Squanto top

Besides India, the most successful colonies were the "settler" colonies in North America and Australasia. Contrary to popular imagery, those territories were essentially uninhabited when Europeans arrived, with population densities one-tenth that of modern Mongolia (the least densely populated sovereign nation) and more than four hundred times less than the world average. The consensus estimate of the entire population north of Arizona and New Mexico is only 2 million, fewer than now live in Manhattan! Even the highest estimate is only 10 million, five times denser (half of Mongolia). And this despite the fact that the Pacific Northwest supported the highest population density ever known for foragers.

The Americas were settled across the Bering Strait in three waves (counting only those that left descendants - I believe older human traces might be migrations that failed). The first arrived about 12,000 years ago via the Yukon interior, representing the ancestors of almost all the "Indians". They were big-game hunters following herds of ungulates, from caribou to mastodon. Their eyes must have bugged out when they saw a wall of beef from Nome to Miami, because it only took them about 1000 years to drive 85% of the big native mammals to extinction. The same thing then happened in South America.

About 3,000 years ago, the Athabaskans (or Na-Dene) arrived, following the Pacific coast. They include the Indians of the Northwest, plus the Navajo and the Apache. Since the first Indians had already killed all the animals, the Athabaskans had to settle for killing the other Indians, which they did very well: the Apache were the terror of the southwest. The Navajo, in contrast, adopted the Aztec way of life and became settled corn farmers.

Finally, the Eskimos arrived around 900AD, a little more than 1000 years ago, following the Arctic coast east. The western tribes form the Yupik, while the eastern are the Inuit (and those in the Aleutians are the Aleuts, naturally). They were hunters of marine mammals: seal, whale, walrus, etc.

What was North America like before Europeans? Some tribes planted corn, beans and squash together, but never to a scale that made them dependent on agriculture, nor did they ever surpass foraging population densities. There were no domestic animals, no metals, no writing, and no stone housing north of the pueblos. There was only one political unit larger than a tribe: the Iroquois Confederacy of five tribes in upstate New York, at war with all their neighbors. Slavery was common, and women were often captured in raids. Warfare was continuous and savage, with torture and mutilation the norm. How did these guys become poster children for peace and respect for nature?

While Vikings probably settled Newfoundland (Vinland) in about 1000AD, their colony didn't survive the cool period that started in about 1200. And the Europeans who followed Columbus weren't interested in North America once they saw how little it had: just trees and open space. Some French fisherman used to land in Nova Scotia to dry their fish in the sun - the English preferred salted fish.

But starting around 1600, Europeans began settling the East Coast and St. Lawrence in great numbers. New France was a government venture to set up a fur-trading network along the St. Lawrence. Unfortunately, the Hurons, who had the fur, were enemies of the Iroquois who lived where the French settled. Between the Indians, the cold, the missionaries, the nobility, and the politics, the French colony managed to grow to only 50,000 souls in the 150 years between its founding and its conquest by the British in 1755. That is such a complete failure that it's no wonder the Quebecois eagerly stayed loyal to Britain when the other colonies revolted twenty years later - they were damn happy to be rid of the French!

The southern British colonies - Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia - were also Crown colonies, founded to grow cotton for the Royal Navy. Like the Spanish, they imported slaves from Africa to work on the plantations, and like the Spanish, they were a society dominated by a few rich landowners. The northern colonies couldn't have been more different: fiercely populist and independent. The five New England colonies (Plymouth, Massachusetts Bay, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Connecticut - the first two later merged) were populated by extreme Protestants, especially after the Restoration in 1660.

New York, which included what's now New Jersey, was originally Dutch New Amsterdam but was taken over (without a fight) by Britain in 1664. Pennsylvania was founded by the Quaker William Penn. Delaware was Swedish, and Maryland was founded as a refuge for British Catholics. These four Middle Atlantic colonies were the tolerant and secular DMZ between the Anglican south and Protestant North.

Squanto, after whom I named this scene, has an interesting story. He was a Patuxet Indian who was kidnapped by a British expedition in 1605. He worked in England for nine years before returning to America on another expedition. But he was kidnapped again shortly thereafter, and this time taken to Spain. He escaped, made his way back to London, and thence to Newfoundland, from whence he started back home on foot. But he got a chance to hitch a ride with yet another expedition; unfortunately, it ended up back in England.

He finally made it back home in 1619, having crossed the Atlantic six times, only to discover that in his absence, his entire village (and many others) had been completely wiped out by smallpox. Not having anywhere else to go, he ended up settling with the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock, and taught them where to fish and how to use fish to fertilize crops. The irony is that the "savage Indian" was far more cosmopolitan than the Pilgrims who looked down on him.


Scene 36 - Washington top

In contrast to the French colonies in America, the British colonies were a big success, especially those in New England and the mid-Atlantic coast. Of course, all the growth came at the expense of the Indians, who were moved out of the way as necessary just like we still treat other animals, trees and wetlands. So the ones next to the British hated the British, just as the ones next to the French hated the French.

In 1753, the French and the British began to conflict in the Ohio river valley. The Indians who hated the British joined the French side, and the Indians who hated the French joined the British side, and they had a little war. Actually, their little war became part of a much bigger war, the Seven Years War, which remade the old alliances of Europe along very simple lines: everybody hated Prussia, which was beginning to act like a big power. But Britain decided than any enemy of France was a friend of theirs, so they joined Prussia against France, Austria, Russia, Sweden, Saxony, Spain and the Netherlands. It was really the first World War.

In the end, the Brits won big, the Prussians held off all their much-bigger neighbors, and the French lost almost everything. But the anti-British Indians were never defeated, and they felt it was unfair of them to be considered losers just because they allied with the French. So King George made them a deal: they conceded everything east of the Appalachians to him, and he conceded everything west of the Appalachians to them.

But he didn't ask the Americans (as we'll now call the settlers of the British colonies), who didn't want to concede anything to Indians. Georgie also wanted the colonies to help pay for the costs of the war he had just fought on their behalf, another unpopular measure. So the Americans started grumbling about independence.

I won't recount the story of the American Revolution here, save to refute the myth that it was won by the Americans: it was won by the French, full stop. There were more French soldiers at Yorktown than American, and it was the French navy that prevented the Brits from retreating or reinforcing. And it was due to French government support, negotiated by Ben Franklin and delivered by the Marquis de Lafayette, that the war wasn't ended early by the British occupation of Boston, New York and Philadelphia. The French were always happy to make trouble for the Brits, and the American revolution was one of many insurgencies they supported.

The French Enlightenment also provided most of the ideas behind the US Constitution, arguably ensuring that the American revolution didn't produce the backlash that made failures of the Dutch, English and French Revolutions. In all three of those cases, monarchy was reestablished after only short experiments in self-government. But whatever credit is due Voltaire and Rousseau, it was George Washington, Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and the other founding fathers of the USA that put those ideas into practice.


Scene 37 - Napoleon top

By the middle of the eighteenth century, it was clear that Britain, Germany and the countries in between had taken a Great Leap Forward, and France - still Europe's leading power - had missed the boat. Whether it was the population explosion caused by the potato, the social and intellectual fervent of Protestantism, or just the inevitable stagnation of every successful nation, the writing was on the wall. France was deep in debt with an immature financial system, and dealing poorly with domestic issues like famine, poverty and urbanization.

The French bourgeoisie didn't appreciate this development, especially when British tourists started visiting Paris as if it was their summer home in the country (and they still don't). But the nobility and the Roman Catholic Church were as resistant to any change as they had been in Spain, Portugal and Italy. Had they been less effective in keeping the lid on the pot, the pressure might not have built up so much, but as it happened, when the shit hit the fan in 1789, there was far too much water under the bridge for a minor correction.

In the end, it was the bourgeoisie and the peasants against the king, the church, and the army, and the revolutionaries carried the day. But it is far easier to tear down institutions than to build them up, and the next ten years saw a series of failed attempts to replace the ancien regime, ending when the Corsican Napoleon Bonaparte became Consul, and later Emperor.

The First Coalition of European monarchs, determined not to let the French set a dangerous example for their own populations, attacked France as early as 1792, but it was really the Second Coalition that, in 1803, started the Napoleonic Wars. Until his final defeat and second exile in 1815, Napoleon managed to conquer almost all of continental Europe.

How did he do this? Was he a military mastermind? Not at all - in fact, he was only a passable general. But France was by far the most populous country in Europe, in fact only third in the world behind India and China - the population boom in Northern Europe caused by the potato only peaked in 1848 (the year the potato crop failed, causing widespread famine and emigration).

Napoleon was a master of two other more important skills: administration and public relations. He understood that an army marches on its stomach, and he understood the importance of inspiring your men and discouraging your enemies. He also understood that fighting a modern war required a national effort, not just a military expedition: he founded the modern conscript army. Finally, he was completely unhesitant to sacrifice his men - a great advantage for a conqueror. Three million soldiers and sailors served under Napoleon, in an era in which no other country ever had had even one million. But, for example, of the 400,000 he took to Moscow, only 10,000 survived.

The irony of his legacy is that he ruined France, which has not won a war since his death. He betrayed the enlightenment ideals of the revolution, and it took France another 55 years and German conquest to reestablish a stable republic. But he played a big role in the founding of most of Europe's other republics, including Switzerland, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain and most importantly Germany.

Stepping back a little, this era marks another important milestone. Throughout the period discussed in this essay, there were two basic ways to make a living: farming and herding. The advantage of farming is that it produces huge populations; the advantage of herding is that individuals are more developed: physically bigger and generally more able. But farmers have more and better stuff.

Over the course of history, herders have always defeated farmers (despite the invention of cities), but in the end the conquering herders settled down and became farmers. That's the story, in a nutshell, of Europe, the Middle East, India and China - the four peninsulas surrounding central Asia, homeland of the herders.

But the Industrial Revolution changed all that! Ever since, the farmers' stuff has given them the edge, and the tide has turned. Farming Europe conquered the world, China's borders have never been further away from the center, and the main threat posed by central Asia is to be such a backwater that nuts like Al Qaeda can hide there.


Scene 38 - Bismarck top

This scene is perhaps misnamed, but Bismarck is as good a figure as any other to represent the main events of the nineteenth century.

To recap, the period from 1500 to 1870 was marked by European domination of the rest of the world under the succession of three European empires: Spain, France and Britain. Austria also deserves inclusion among these "old" powers.

But starting around 1848, a year of much civil unrest in Europe, dominance shifted to a quartet of "young" powers:

Otto von Bismarck (1815-1898) was the last of the three great diplomats of the 19th century, after Talleyrand (1754-1838) of France and Metternich (1773-1859) of Austria. To him is given most of the credit for the unification of Germany. And in fact, from 1815 until 1914, Europe saw many small wars but no big ones, a credit to their work.

In contrast, the following century was one of history's bloodiest, as the four young powers first conquered the old ones and everyone else, then fought each other until one one world power remained: the United States.


Scene 39 - Einstein top

The twentieth century deserves only a short scene, since there isn't much more to say once you understand that all that happened, in the grand scheme of things, was a global game of "king of the hill".

Why was it the USA that prevailed? The most cynical explanation is that North America is simply so isolated that it's hard to attack.

Another explanation is simply that the other three fucked up. If Russian Communism had taken a less extreme path (more like postwar Sweden or post-1970 Québec, for example), the Soviets might well have exported their system around the world. If Japan hadn't just replaced European racism with Japanese racism, they might well have founded a Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.

And the list of what-ifs for Germany is long and legendary. Why did Hitler persecute Germany's Jews, who had been its most loyal soldiers in WWI? If he hadn't, he probably would have developed the atom bomb, since most of its inventors were German Jews (represented by Albert Einstein as the title character of this scene). Why did he choose to conquer France instead of just letting them join the Axis (along with Spain and Portugal)? If he had, he probably would have won the Battle of Britain and pacified the Western Front. Why did he open a new front with the Soviet Union before he had to? Why did he declare war on the USA after Pearl Harbor? Yes, of course the guy was a nut, but why did the Germans follow a nut like that?


Scene 40 - The Future top

I see three possibilities for dominant power in the 21st Century.

The first - which everyone but me seems to think is inevitable - is that China will become the next superpower. I wouldn't mind, and I can't tell you it won't happen, but I can tell you it won't happen without some major changes in China, and I don't see them happening without some bumps in the road (understatement). I refer you to my page on China for a fuller exposition of my opinions on this subject.

The second is that a united Europe will become the next superpower. I wouldn't mind that, either, but I don't see it happening. I know Western Europe quite well, and it's at least a full generation away from the feeling that the future can be better than the past and that it's worth sacrificing for in the present. I refer you to my page on Europe for a fuller exposition of my opinions on this subject.

The third - and in my opinion the most likely - is that the United States simply continues to dominate by default, even as it continues its slow decline, until a general crisis overwhelms the current order in the second half of the century. The crisis will be environmental (Malthusian) in its ultimate cause, but the proximate problems will be social and political, including wars, diseases, famines, refugees, horrors, and a general collapse of the existing order in many places. It'll be ugly, and we can't say what will arise once it runs its course. Nor will most of us be around to see it.

And what will follow? Will Armageddon reduce humanity to pre-industrial status, like what happened to Khwarezm after the Mongols? Or will only the wealthy (or their wealth) survive, ushering in an era of growth and prosperity like what followed the Black Death in 14th century Europe? Probably neither.

It seems to me that the big winners of past revolutions have tended to be the second-rate players: not the losers, but not the big winners, either. Cataclysmic changes tend to require a flexibility in response that doesn't come easily to those who are used to being in charge, and an effort beyond the reach of the disadvantaged.

We can't know what will turn out to be the important factor in how well we all survive. Will it be isolation? The ability to do without? Cooperation and unity? Speed of reproduction? Mobility? A few geniuses and their technology? An able leader? Being perceived as harmless or not worth attacking? All we know is that it's not going to be what's important now, in placid times. But that's how evolution proceeds: variation, then perpendicular selection.

To a great extent, it doesn't matter who passes through the eye of the needle: what they emerge with will have much more to do with how they survive than how they lived before.

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