The Perils of Popular History: The Swerve — Greenblatt on Lucretius [2011 CE; 2017 CE]

A lawyer and a software engineer, both of whom I respect greatly, enthusiastically recommended to me Stephen Greenblatt’s book on the rediscovery of the Latin poet Lucretius during the Renaissance.  My appreciation of his presentation of the history of Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura was tempered by concerns raised by egregious errors in Greenblatt’s Preface, which provide critics of Greenblatt all too easy an excuse to reject his admirable scholarship and humanism.

Sic October 2014:  On page 11, referring to “the Sack of Rome,” Greenblatt states “Attila’s army quickly withdrew from the imperial capital.”

Sic July 2017:  On page 11, referring to “the Sack of Rome,” Greenblatt states “Alaric’s army quickly withdrew from the imperial capital.”

Rome had not been the imperial capital for 8 years before it was taken by the Visigoths, but correcting one grievous error out of two in the sentence is a move in the right direction.

October 2014:

Stephen Greenblatt is a learned Harvard University professor specializing in the Renaissance and Shakespeare. In 2011 CE he won a National Book Award and in 2012 he won a Pulitzer Prize for The Swerve: How the World Became Modern.

It tells the story of the Renaissance rediscovery of Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura, that first century BCE Latin poem on Epicurean physics and morals that contains, among other things, discussion of pre-scientific atomism and an astonishing opening invoking Venus. Greenblatt’s professional emphasis on historical and cultural context is as welcome as his willingness to write for the educated non-specialist, and his bestsellers have doubtless improved the general level of knowledge, culture, and the commonweal on a number of matters.

I read The Swerve hoping it would provide a complement to W.R. Johnson’s Lucretius and the Modern World, which ends with a discussion of Leo Szilard. In some ways, it does.

When Greenblatt deals with the Renaissance he writes with considerable authority. All of which makes it the more lamentable that I could not finish Greenblatt’s Preface without encountering a schoolboy howler.

On page 11, referring to “the Sack of Rome,” Greenblatt states “Attila’s army quickly withdrew from the imperial capital.”

Attila’s army never besieged much less took or sacked Rome. Whether this was because of the famine and disease prevalent in the Italian peninsula during 452 CE, or a Papal delivery of gold, or the miracle of pious legend is debatable, though a lack of supplies seems to me the most convincing explanation. Attila probably had the capability to take and sack Rome, but declined to do so for logistical reasons.

Furthermore the Western “imperial capital” had been moved to the more defensible Ravenna well before Rome’s first sack in the 5th Century: Ravenna served in this role from 402 CE to 476 CE.

Greenblatt appears to have confused the leader of the Huns with Alaric, whose Visigothic troops briefly sacked Rome in 410 CE. It wasn’t until 455 CE that the Vandals carried out a thorough pillage of the city.

Almost certainly Greenblatt intended to write something like “Alaric’s army quickly withdrew from the traditional imperial capital” or “The Goths quickly withdrew from the traditional imperial capital.”

But I doubt many readers worried about his confusing an Asiatic leader with a Germanic king, or his misplacement of more than 40 years of very busy history. After all, the English promoted confusion of the Germans with the Huns as a national propaganda policy during the First World War. And few college educated English speakers would be familiar with the name Alaric, though most have heard of Attila. And though forty years may seem like a lot from the perspective of an individual’s lifetime, it dwindles when considered from a vantage of a millennium or a millennium and a half. Still, I would expect better of a Harvard professor and Norton editors. I cannot speak for the Pulitzer and National Book Award committees.

Greenblatt’s gaffe stands as a useful reminder to check your facts, especially when writing outside your area of expertise; to proofread carefully; to avoid relying too much on your editors; and to maintain a healthy skepticism regarding the accuracy of historical writing.

Even Homer nods, as Horace noted with annoyance [indignor quandoque bonus dormitat Homerus].

Further Reading:

• Useful summaries of modern scholarship regarding the history of the Goths and Huns in relationship to Rome can be found in Peter Heather’s The Fall of the Roman Empire, his Empires and Barbarians, and Adrian Goldsworthy’s How Rome Fell.

• E.A. Thompson’s The Huns and Otto J. Maenchen-Helfen and Max Knight’s The World of the Huns provide English speakers with useful overviews of Hunnic history in Europe and their culture, respectively.


How the “Sword of Islam” Gave European Christendom a Half-century Respite [1402 CE]

Sultan Bayezid I, known as the Thunderbolt, had less time than he expected to savor his victory at Nicopolis over Sigismund’s crusading army [1396 CE].

It was not for lack of military success against the Christians. Bayezid’s overwhelming triumph at Nicopolis, made possible by the feckless bravery, strategic incompetence, and ignorant overconfidence of French aristocrats, was just the most recent demonstration of Ottoman military superiority over the armies of Europe.

Bayezid’s career had focused on four major strategic concerns:

• Consolidation of the small and squabbling Islamic states of Anatolia [the Turkish peninsula] into a larger Islamic state under his control

• Conquest of the Christian metropolis of Constantinople, one of the last remnants of the Byzantine Empire

• Expansion of the power of the Ottoman state further north and west in Europe, and

• Defeat of any Christian crusades against Islam in general and the Ottomans in particular.

Bayezid had assembled a military force formidable for its size and skill. He had carefully arranged legal rulings from Islamic scholars justifying his conquest of the welter of tiny Islamic states to his east in Anatolia. These he reduced to submission by 1390. From 1389 to 1395 he expanded his territories to the north in Europe until his army was temporarily checked by hard fighting Wallachians. In 1394 Bayezid began an investment of Constantinople that he returned to after defeating the crusaders at Nicopolis [1396]. It may be doubtful that the cannon technology of Bayezid’s time would have enabled him to conquer the great Christian metropolis, as Mehmet II did in 1453, using field cast artillery to breach the land walls of Theodosius, but Bayezid’s patient siege of Constantinople raised serious doubts about the ability of the city to resist.

With his record of achievement and demonstrated abilities, it may seem unfair that Bayezid is best known in the English-speaking world for his catastrophic loss of the Battle of Ankara in 1402, and propagandistic accounts of the conditions in which he was held as a prisoner of war. His reversal of fortune deserves a closer look.

As Bayezid built up his army and state, an even greater power was rising far to the east. This was the work of Timur [1336 – 1405], a member of a Mongolian clan that had adopted a Turkish language and Islam. Timur dedicated himself to waging war on behalf of his Islamic faith and to the restoration of the Mongol Empire of Chinggis Kahn [Genghis Kahn, 1162 – 1227]. Timur, whose name is recorded in many variant forms including Temur, Temür, Timūr(e)lang [Timur the lame] and Tamerlane, styled himself the “Sword of Islam.” His was the last of the great steppe empires.

Timur’s campaigns left behind them broad swaths of destruction and pyramids of human skulls marking the remnants of conquered cities’ walls. A Moslem historian visiting the ruins of Isfahan counted 28 pyramids with about 1,500 heads each before he stopped his circumambulation of the site and personal tally of the dead. The total for that Persian city alone has been variously estimated at between 70,000 and 200,000.

Estimates of the total number of dead that can be ascribed to Timur’s campaigns range between 7 million and 20 million. A credible median of approximately 17 million deaths has been put forward. By some counts, this would constitute roughly 5% of the total human population of the Earth at the time.

Despite Timur’s fanatical devotion to Islam and his oft proclaimed hostility towards Christians, most of the victims of his wars were Moslems. He devastated Moslem trading cities and centers of Islamic learning and culture, including Karbala, Herat, Isfizar, Zaranj, Isfahan, the Sultanate of Delhi, Aleppo, Damascus, and Bagdhad.

His animus against the Christian infidels found expression on a far smaller scale. He repeatedly terrorized the tiny Christian states of Armenia and Georgia. After demolishing the port city of Smyrna and its complement of Knights Hospitaller, Timur added ghazi [a Moslem warrior against the infidels] to his list of honorifics.

Timur’s campaign against Bayezid was a masterpiece of maneuver and diplomacy. First he enticed Bayezid out of a defensible position near Ankara to chase Timur’s army eastwards. Timur then circled around Bayezid’s forces and established his position at Ankara. Bayezid had no choice but to turn around and conduct a series of exhausting forced marches back to Ankara.

The battle that took place there on the 28th of July, 1402, was hard fought until a large contingent of Bayezid’s Tatars, with whom Timur had been secretly negotiating, deserted Bayezid’s forces to join Timur. The Ottoman force fell apart, and Bayezid was captured.

A Syrian chronicler, who was more consistently hostile towards Timur than he was accurate, reported that Timur caged Bayezid like a wild animal, subjecting the captured Sultan and his wives and concubines to a program of aggressive humiliation.

A historian at Timur’s court, however, indicated that Bayezid was treated with honor, suggesting that in part this may have been because of Bayezid’s record of war with the infidels. Timur frequently established defeated enemies as vassal administrators of conquered territories. He was said to have planned to do the same for Bayezid, and later did so for Bayezid’s sons. Bayezid died in the spring of 1403 before any such plans could be put into effect.

But the lurid stories of Bayezid’s captivity were too good for Christopher Marlowe to pass up when he wrote his play Tamburlaine the Great [1587]. Bayezid was portrayed caged, demeaned, and used as a living footstool. Such humiliations fit Marlowe’s taste, as did the irony that Timur, the self-styled “Sword of Islam,” halted serious Ottoman attacks against Christianity for 50 years by defeating Bayezid. In the build up to the Battle of Ankara, Timur had requested and received pledges of aid from various Christian powers, including the Regent of Constantinople and the Governor of a Genoese colony.

After his victory at Ankara, Timur turned east. He was preparing to attack Ming Dynasty China when he perished in 1405.

The given name Tamerlan in various forms has maintained a certain popularity among the people of Uzbekistan and other regions of Central Asia, notoriously so in the case of the Boston Marathon bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who died after a shootout with police in Watertown Massachusetts on April 19, 2013. His death was at least in part caused by being run over by a sport utility vehicle driven by his younger brother Dzhokhar.

Further Reading:

• Justin Marozzi’s Tamerlane: Sword of Islam, Conqueror of the World details Timur’s rise and legacy.

• Matthew White’s The Great Big Book of Horrible Things: The Definitive Chronicle of History’s 100 Worst Atrocities is a handy if unfortunately titled compendium of disasters, with short narratives and summary statistics. He ranks Timur’s campaigns as the 9th largest man-made catastrophe on record.

• Christopher Marlowe was born the same year as Shakespeare [1564], but matured as a playwright earlier than his ultimately more famous contemporary. Marlowe’s smash hit Tamburlaine the Great [1587] revolutionized the English theater. He was developing along lines quite different from Shakespeare when he was killed at the age of 29, possibly assassinated, in a tavern brawl. The Famous Tragedy of the Rich Jew of Malta is a very dark comedy, resonating in interesting ways with Shakespeare’s Richard III and The Merchant of Venice. Marlowe’s The Tragicall [sic] History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus holds conventional morality and scholarly pursuits in equal contempt, and even in the corrupted and censored texts that have come down to us is ruthless in its depiction of how easy it is for a man to sell his soul for trivialities, and how long it takes to earn damnation. Its last act is as powerful a depiction of the crucial difference between regret and repentance as ever written in the English language.

Nicopolis: The Failure of Bravery in the Last Western Medieval Crusade [1396 CE]

While traveling through the Balkans in the spring of 2013, my wife and I found ourselves in the Bulgarian town of Nikopol on the Danube, better known historically in Western Europe as Nicopolis [Victory City, so named circa 1059 CE during a period of Byzantine influence].

We were hurried past the site of the conflict. The Russians destroyed many sites of historical interest and demolished virtually all the historic military strongholds they took along the Danube during the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878. One of the few to survive in riparian Bulgaria can be found in the tiny river port of Vidin, close to the Romanian and Serbian borders.

I mentioned to our Bulgarian concierge my disappointment that the battlefield of 1396 was not better preserved and more prominently featured in the town’s attractions. She was unaware of the conflict, but researched the subject on the Internet overnight. As this crushing Christian defeat marked the effective end of the Medieval European Crusades against Islam and led directly to the demise of the Second Bulgarian Empire, I found myself in the anomalous situation of dealing with a significant local topic in history that was not vividly remembered or even more vividly misconstrued by the Balkan indigenes I met.

By 1396 crusading had become simpler for King Sigismund of Hungary, who was also later the head of the Holy Roman Empire, that post-Carolingian amalgam of petty German states, Slavic dependencies, and largely disaffected Italians. No lengthy trip to the Middle East was required: the Ottomans had brought Islam into Europe and could be attacked simply by crossing the frontier of Sigismund’s lands.

Sigismund put together a coalition including forces from Hungary, the Holy Roman Empire, France, Wallachia, and Bulgaria, with crusading Knights Hospitaller adding a touch of the exotic, and Venice and Genoa providing water transport. As usual, the French presented difficulties exceeding their numerical contribution.

The Gallic leadership disdained to bring siege engines for attacking the Turkish held fortress of Nicopolis, boasting that ladders were easy to make and worth more than catapults when used by brave men. But the French crusaders spent two weeks before the walls of Nicopolis feasting, drinking, playing games, and insulting the courage of the enemy as Sultan Bayezid I approached with his army and its Serbian allies in a series of forced marches.

A brave and competent Frenchman, Coucy, left camp and ambushed a large group of Turks in a mountain pass, slaughtering many of them. His action was admired by some of the crusaders, but caused jealousy in the French high command, who accused him of glory seeking, and interpreted his success as further proof that the Ottomans were not a serious foe.

Sigismund, drawing on years of experience fighting the Turks, advised the French that the Ottomans typically used a vanguard of poor quality expendable troops to tire the Christian front lines. The fatigued crusaders would then be surrounded by elite Turkish cavalry.

The French, with the serene confidence that comes from ignorant courage, refused to follow peasant foot soldiers into the fray as Sigismund recommended, and announced that they would lead the Christian forces with a charge into the Ottoman host. As the French got drunk over dinner, Sigismund made what plans he could. Bayezid was less than a day’s march away.

Elder voices in the French camp counseled prudence, but were shouted down by overconfident youth and the high command. On the day of the battle, September 25th, the French charged ahead of the crusading army through the expendable Turkish vanguard, and fought their way through the second line of infantry only to be faced with and surrounded by Bayezid’s elite troops, which had been held in reserve. Some French fled. Many went down fighting. When the eldest son of the Duke of Burgundy, nominal commander of the French, was taken for ransom, the survivors surrendered.

The aristocrats were kept alive for the sums they would fetch. The commoners were executed on the battlefield.

Sigismund escaped the slaughter of his army, taking a fishing boat to a Venetian ship waiting in the Danube. He summed up the battle saying “We lost the day by the pride and vanity of these French. If they believed my advice, we had enough men to fight our enemies.”

Coucy died in captivity in 1397 as ransoms were being negotiated.

The Turks went on to dominate the Balkans for more than 400 years. Viewed from such a perspective, the dissolution of Ottoman power in the Balkans in the 19th century was one proximate cause of the First World War.

Further Reading:

• Barbara Tuchman details the campaign in A Distant Mirror.

Sometimes It Pays to Pay the Specialist: The Fall of Constantinople 1453 CE

The Eastern Roman Empire lasted in one form or another more than 1,000 years longer than the Western Roman Empire. Rome was sacked by the Visigoths in 410 CE; Constantinople fell to the Ottomans in 1453 CE. Gibbon’s elegant denigration of the Byzantines long made it difficult to properly appreciate their survival in the face of challenges even more severe than those of the West.

The longevity of the Byzantine state is doubtless due primarily to the East’s more developed economy and several fundamental administrative and land reforms undertaken from the mid-7th through the 11th centuries. The brilliant defensive siting of their capital city also played a significant role in assuring the continuance of the Empire.

Military practices were also important, including flamethrowers delivering Greek Fire, which ignited on contact with water, and the heavily armored cavalry known as cataphracts, similar to the mounted forces of many of the Byzantines’ enemies to the east. Cataphracts deeply influenced the development of Western Europe’s feudal knights.

The defensive fortifications often referred to as the land walls of Theodosius, begun in the 5th Century and frequently repaired and upgraded to the 15th, were also crucial to the longevity of the Eastern Empire. They frustrated sieges by Persians, Arabs, Avars, Bulgars, Rus, and Turks among others. As long as the Byzantines controlled the seas, and the land walls held, Constantinople was impregnable.

The Fourth Crusade’s attack on Constantinople in 1204 succeeded in taking the city. This was largely due to loss of control of the seas to the Venetians. After this disaster, Byzantium was a hollow shell, with West European traders impoverishing the lands, peoples, and government of the remains of the Empire. The Fourth Crusade, mercilessly manipulated to their own advantage by the Venetians, is arguably the most effective and destructive commercial coup of all time. It took the remnants of the Eastern Empire until 1261 to win Constantinople back.

In the early 1450s, Sultan Mehmet II planned yet another Turkish attack on Constantinople. The forces of the Imperial City were led by Constantine XI, a brave and seasoned fighter.

Mehmet had fostered the development of a Turkish naval force, and had adopted the relatively primitive artillery of the times with enthusiasm. Advances in gunpowder formulation and barrel casting practices since the 1420s, when cannon were first used against Constantinople’s fortifications, meant that the threat posed to the land walls by artillery could no longer be dismissed. The Ottoman breaching of the Byzantine six-mile wall across the Isthmus of Corinth in December of 1446 served notice of the very real new threat cannon posed to the land walls of Constantinople.

This brings us to a person key to the chain of events that lead to the fall of Constantinople: Orban [or Urban], an engineer expert in casting cannons who appears to have arrived on the scene sometime shortly before or early in 1452. He seems to have come from a section of Hungary that is now part of Romania, and is sometimes argued to be of ethnically Wallachian or German background.

Orban offered his services to the Byzantines. Constantine arranged a tiny stipend to keep Orban in Constantinople, but even this pittance was not paid regularly. In 1452 Orban left for Edirne, where he was generously received by Mehmet. He offered to cast a supergun for the Ottomans, but claimed he did not know how to fire such a fieldpiece, which could be a dangerous procedure, as cannon barrels frequently ruptured.

Mehmet assured Orban that he had resources to fire any gun Orban could make, and an agreement was quickly achieved. Within 3 months Orban had cast a cannon used to command the Bosporus [November 1452].

Mehmet, well pleased, ordered a supergun and complementary long barreled cannons capable of breaching Constantinople’s land walls. These were cast in Edirne and laboriously transported roughly 150 miles [240 km]to the Ottoman siege lines, where they were installed and ready to commence bombardment by April 12. Mehmet had a total of about 70 field guns at Constantinople, and facilities to repair and cast new barrels on site if necessary. His army was unusual its ability to maintain and cast cannons in the field.

The barrel of the biggest of Orban’s guns cracked after several days of firing. It was repaired, only to rupture again, sending out deadly shrapnel. Christian sources claimed Orban lost his life when the gun barrel exploded, but there is evidence to suggest that this was a pious legend rather than historic fact.

A triangular targeting strategy ascribed to a Hungarian visitor to Mehmet’s camp resulted in efficient demolition of sections of Constantinople’s land walls. On April 18 Mehmet ordered an assault, which was repulsed. A subsequent defeat of Ottoman galleys enhanced the morale of the city’s defenders, until the Turks portaged galleys into the inadequately guarded waters of the Horn.

The siege was tightened. By the time of the final assault, May 29 1453, the Turks’ big guns had been bombarding the walls for forty-seven days, creating nine substantial breaches.

Constantine was lost in the melee. Mehmet became legendary with the victory. And a section of Constantinople became known as Gunner Verban District shortly after the Ottoman takeover, suggesting that the engineer and cannon maker may have taken up residence in the city he had offered to defend before turning to the Sultan for a job.

Refugee scholars fleeing the Ottoman takeover are often credited with accelerating and deepening the early Renaissance in Western Europe. More’s Utopians [1516] indicated they had enough Latin books. What they really wanted was more information about the Greeks.

Further Reading:

• Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire may have been superseded with regard to certain points as history, but remains a masterpiece of vision, scholarship, and prose style. J. B. Bury’s annotations and publications provide a useful balance to Gibbon’s prejudice against the Eastern Roman Empire.

• Romilly Jenkins’ Byzantium: The Imperial Centuries A.D. 610 – 1071 is a good introduction to the Eastern Empire’s period of greatness. John Julian Norwich’s trilogy [Byzantium: The Early Centuries; Byzantium: The Apogee; and Byzantium: The Decline and Fall] provides a narrative history with scope and specifics.

• The Fourth Crusade is dealt with in detail in Donald Queller and Thomas Madden’s The Fourth Crusade: The Conquest of Constantinople [Second Edition]. Ernie Bradford’s The Great Betrayal: The Story of the Fourth Crusade is a useful narrative summary of events.

• Steven Runciman’s classic account of The Fall of Constantinople not only deals with the context and events of the military conquest, but also points to the effect of refugee scholars on the Renaissance in Western Europe. Roger Crowley’s 1453: The Holy War for Constantinople and the Clash of Islam and the West is a briskly paced narrative.