The EU & the Holy Roman Empire

Holy Roman Empire map

In our double issue for the Christmas holidays, I’ve once again let my hair down and indulged myself with a cheeky but (hopefully) not silly historical comparison. This time:

The Holy Roman Empire: European disunion done right

Looking over my past Christmas Specials, it strikes me that I seem to default to one of two categories:

  1. Sociological profiles of subcultures: Filipina maids in Hong Kong, Mexican farmworkers in America, Californian Hippies
  2. those aforementioned cheeky historical comparisons: Socrates in America, now the Holy Roman Empire, .. (and of course Hannibal and Me!)

Anyway, study this beautiful map we made. As you know, I’m a map geek.

And then get a glass of some Malbec-Cabernet mixture and ponder whether you think I was right to draw some analogies to the Holy Roman Empire. Would love to know what you think.

PS: Sorry for having been a lazy blogger these past months. For those of you who want to follow my ongoing weekly story output, I’ve started tweeting my articles. The Twitter feed also appears here, in the right side bar.

Which is, of course, quite a capitulation, worthy of your ridicule, for one who long took pride in being a brave Twitter hold-out. ūüėČ

Hannibal’s lifetime path: the map

Copyright David Lindroth

Look at this beautiful map. It depicts the dramatically simplified life path that Hannibal probably took. And you’ll find it in the beginning of my book.

The mapmaker and copyright owner is David Lindroth, a cartographer who seems to specialize in historical, educational, fictional and other unusually interesting maps.

I first came across David’s name when I saw a different version of this map by him in The Ghosts of Cannae, a great book about Hannibal by Robert O’Connell. (It came out last year, after I finished my manuscript, so it was unfortunately too late to be one of my sources.)

So I called David and he made this map for me. We put in some of the battle sites and other places of interest in the book, including Hannibal’s sketchy meanderings in the eastern Mediterranean in his final years.

Anyway, you know I like maps. Enjoy.

Minard’s map of Hannibal’s crossing

As you know, I love maps, especially historical maps, and I like to play with them to make points.

For instance, in this post, I turned a map of Hannibal’s invasion of Italy upside down to illustrate the arc of his and his enemy’s lives.

And¬†in this post¬†I paid my respects to Charles Minard, a Frenchman who, in the 19th century, launched the field of data visualization by producing a new kind of map — one that graphically as well as geographically shows Napoleon’s invasion of Russia.

Now I get an email from one Jonnie Lappen, a senior at Arizona State University who is studying geography and considering doing his honors thesis on a different map by Minard.

I didn’t even know about that map until Jonnie showed it to me. Which is shocking: On it, Minard depicts Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps.

If it’s not famous, that’s probably because it is not nearly as good as the Napoleonic map: Minard gives us an angle of the Riviera we’re not used to seeing, and the shrinking line of the Carthaginian army is not as striking as in the Napoleonic map. (Still, look at that Alpine crossing: suddenly the line shrinks by half. That’s a lot of human beings dropping into gorges, slipping off ice sheets, dying of dysentery…)

Anyway, Jonnie is now engrossed in Livy to improve upon this map and give it its proper drama. A great idea. Good luck, Jonnie!

The vapors of Delphi

Pythia (oracle of Apollo)

When the ancient Greeks and Romans had a question of great import, they traveled to the navel (omphalos) of the world, which they believed to be at Delphi, on the steep slopes of Mount Parnassus in Greece (see map below).

They climbed up the Sacred Way, past about 3,000 statues and various temples and shrines, until they reached the Temple of Apollo. (This post is apropos of our discussion about Apollo the other day.)

Mount Parnassus was Apollo’s mountain — the mountain of wisdom and music, the place where Apollo had given Orpheus his lyre and taught him to play it, a place that other artistic places (such as Montparnasse in Paris) still try to evoke today.

Click for credits

Because Apollo could see the future, he would have the answer to any question, here at his temple.

And he gave his answer through a woman, the Pythia (pictured above). She would sit above a chasm in the rock through which the god sent vapors (pneuma) that put the woman in a trance. Thus possessed, the Pythia would babble, and priests were at hand to transcribe her words into beautiful hexameter which they gave to the individual who had asked a question.

The answer was coherent syntactically but not necessarily substantively. You recall that both King Croesus and Socrates, for example, had received answers from the Pythia that were ambiguous at best (disastrously so, in Croesus’ case).

But nobody could dispute the power of the god, or rather of his vapors.

And that remains true even today. The vapors are real, it turns out. Mount Parnassus sits atop several very active faults. The earth below constantly rubs and often quakes, grinding the rock until it emits … vapors.

Which vapors? Methane and ethane, apparently. Even the spring water at the site contains ethylene.

In short, even the scientists who go there today, if they hang out there long enough, if they inhale and ingest, may enter the trance of the Pythia and receive the ambiguous wisdom of Apollo.

And so mythos and logos meet; and ‘Socrates’, Dionysus and Apollo become one.

They can’t stop writing about Hannibal

It has been 2,200 years, and yet we can’t stop thinking about, and writing about, that man.

My book — about our own lives as seen through Hannibal’s — is essentially ready (but still awaiting a publication date from Riverhead, which is killing me). Meanwhile, others are coming out with their books.

The latest is historian Robert L. O’Connell, whose new book is called The Ghosts of Cannae: Hannibal and the Darkest Hour of the Roman Republic.

Here he is on NPR, talking about it.

Separately, geomorphologists (people who study the features of the earth) and archeologists are still debating which route Hannibal took with his army and elephants over the snowy Alps in October 218BC.

(Thank you to Peter Practice for the link!)

William Mahaney, a Canadian researcher, and his team now think that the likeliest pass is the Col de la Traversette in France. They believe they have located geographical features — such as a gorge where Hannibal was attacked by Gauls, or a rock fall that blocked his way — that either Polybius or Livy described.

Their main “rival” is Patrick Hunt at Stanford, who thinks that the Col de Clapier is the likeliest route.

What all these boffins of course hope to find is … evidence. Coins, swords, poop, bones, sandals, elephant tusks, … anything. Whoever finds any dropping of the Punic army is sure to become our era’s Heinrich Schliemann.

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Justice: by truth or victory?

Credit: Javitomad

Which sort of judicial system, generally speaking, is more likely to lead to justice? One that:

  • looks for the truth, or
  • lets two sides fight it out to see who wins?

You might think that I’m setting up another facile thought experiment, but I am not. Most of the world has, through the fascinating and mysterious quirks of history, chosen one or the other of these underlying approaches to justice.

The first philosophy — justice as a search for truth — we call the inquisitorial system (because a judge sets out to inquire after the facts of a case, ie the truth).

The second philosophy — justice by duking it out until one side is left standing — we call the adversarial system (because two adversaries and their lawyers meet in court, and a judge merely makes sure that the rules are observed).

We generally find the inquisitorial philosophy undergirding the civil law systems of continental Europe and its former colonies and the countries that have adopted it voluntarily. That turns out to be most of the world — all the countries in blue on the map above.

And we find the adversarial philosophy mainly in the common law systems of England and all the lands it ruled at one point or another — ie, the countries in red or brown on the map. (Let’s leave the countries with Islamic Law, in yellow, and Mongolia, in green, out of this post.)

Because justice, and therefore law, is so fundamental to freedom (which is one of my favorite topics) I have for some time been pondering the question I opened with. So I challenged Richard, a frequent commenter on The Hannibal Blog and a veteran English lawyer, to compare the two systems. Somewhat to my surprise, he did.

In this rigorous¬†series of posts, Richard introduces the systems in turn, proceeding methodically and cautiously to unveil — somewhat coquettishly, I might add ūüėČ — his preference. (I won’t spoil the fun: Go and find out for yourself.)

Here now is my modest contribution.

A brief history of the systems

Historically, the adversarial system descends from the brute medieval practice of trial by combat.

You did me wrong! ‚Üí¬†Let’s fight.

It is, in short, the law of the stronger.

Click for credits

Right from the start, especially whenever ladies were involved, the adversaries were allowed to appoint champions to fight on their behalf.

Like its gruesome medieval judicial cousin, trial by ordeal, trial by combat made no pretense to truth. Somebody prevailed, that was all. So it was efficient. But we would not call that justice.

In 1215, Pope Innocent III wanted to change that. So he reformed the court system administered by the Catholic Church across Europe (ie, the ecclesiastical courts, from Greek ekklesia, assembly or church).

The idea was that an ecclesiastical court could take the initiative and summon and interrogate witnesses even without an accusation by one adversary against another.

Trial by combat was now forbidden in the ecclesiastical system. On the continent, this ecclesiastical tradition then became the basis for the subsequent evolution of secular courts.

But in England, Henry II had, during the 1160s, established parallel secular courts. When the church-administered courts in England switched to the inquisitorial system, the secular courts remained adversarial, and those in time became the courts of England. Hence the split.

Henry II


I) The adversarial system

The adversarial system makes me — intrinsically, philosophically, emotionally — uncomfortable because it was not originally designed to ascertain truth, merely the supremacy of one side.

That said, it has evolved in such as way that truth is now the implicit and desired¬†by-product of the adversarial struggle. If the rules (of evidence, testimony, presumption of innocence et cetera) are sophisticated, it is hoped, the truth is revealed in the process and the “right” side wins, so that the outcome is indeed just.

Nonetheless, there are troubling remnants of the system’s combat origins:

1) The undue role of the “champions”

Today, we call those champions lawyers (attorneys, solicitors….). In the adversarial system, they are the stars. What do you tell a friend in trouble in an adversarial country? “Get a good lawyer.”

Some people try to get a good lawyer, but end up with a bad one, or at least one less good than the adversary’s. Other people cannot afford a good one. Others can afford entire armies of lawyers, and usually win. So money plays an unsavory role.

If the truth really wanted to be revealed, why should it matter so much which lawyer you have? But we all know that it does matter.

2) The undue emphasis on winning

An inquisitor wants to find the truth. But a prosecutor wants to win. To him, that means to convict.

A couple of days ago, I was chatting with Steve Cooley, the district attorney of Los Angeles County and a candidate for attorney general of California. How does he compare himself to his rival, Kamala Harris, the district attorney of San Francisco? Through the conviction rate, of course. Whether or not the convictions were just does not even come up for discussion. (How would you even discuss it?)

In practice, said Cooley, about 95% of convictions come through plea bargains, an inherent part of the adversarial system. (Ie, the two sides come to an agreement even before an independent judge or jury evaluates the truth of their arguments.)

Well, I recently mentioned Harvey Silverglate’s book detailing the various excesses to which prosecutors can go in the pursuit of victory. You can make anybody break down by piling more charges on him until he pleads. That does not make it just.

II) The inquisitorial system

The inquisitorial system makes me uncomfortable in a different way.

In theory, it is splendid to task somebody with inquiring after the truth. Take the example of plea bargains cited above: In the inquisitorial system, a guilty plea does not automatically lead to conviction. It is merely one more piece of evidence. (The inquisitor might decide to ignore the plea if he suspects, for instance, that the pleader is trying to protect somebody else, or is insane, et cetera.)

In practice, however, you have to choose an actual human being to find out the truth, and how is that likely to go?

There is a reason why we (or at least I) hear bad connotations in the word inquisition. It reminds us of the Spanish Inquisition, a time when the system went awfully wrong. The inquisitors, as it happened, were altogether more concerned with pleasing Ferdinand and Isabella than with ascertaining the truth. And they subscribed to the notion that you can get any truth that suits you; it’s just a matter of how you ask.

So an inquisition into truth can become corrupt. Notice, however, that this is a problem common to both the inquisitorial and the adversarial systems: The judiciary must be absolutely independent from political pressure. That includes not only the executive branch of government but also the mob. Ask black people in the Jim Crow South how well the adversarial system worked for them.

The subtler but more profound critique of the inquisitorial system has to do with what Richard calls “over-confidence in the expert”:

If you have a trained magistracy, ostensibly expert in discerning and charged with discovering the truth, there is the risk of over-valuing their work.

And why would that be a problem? Because experts are experts precisely because they have seen lots and lots of cases. And so they are likely to slip into a thought process that says “Hmm, this case X reminds of Y, and I should be consistent so I will…”. No. The facts (truth) of case X must be considered on its own merits alone.

Perhaps experts are less able to do that. As Richard says,

Justice is the art of espying the exception.

Which leaves us, unfortunately, where we started: with questions.

Who, expert or lay, is more likely to espy the exception? ¬†Who is most likely to be free and fair? Which process — a search for truth or a struggle that reveals it — is more just?

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How Muhammad created Europe

Historians are still arguing about why and how (and even when) the Roman Empire fell — and by extension why, how and when the “Middle Ages” and “Europe” (ie, northwestern Europe as we understand it) began.

One theory is that the answer is to be found, somewhat surprisingly, not in northwestern Europe but on the opposite side of the former Roman Empire. This story-line involves Muhammad, Islam and the Arab conquests in the century after Muhammad’s death in 632. The stages of those conquests you see in the map above.

In this post, I want to introduce that thesis to you and the one it tried to replace.

I do this not in order to endorse either thesis, but in order to celebrate the elegant and imaginative beauty of the thought processes of the two historians who produced them.

These two thinkers are

  • Edward Gibbon and
  • Henri Pirenne,

and I am¬†hereby including them into my pantheon of the world’s greatest thinkers.

(Which reminds me: Scientists and philosophers are currently over-represented on my list, so I am also retroactively including the historians Herodotus, Polybius, Livy and Plutarch. Thucydides is already on the list.)

And at the end of the post, I’ll ponder what this eternal debate about Rome tells us about intellectual theorizing in general.

My source, besides the books of Gibbon and Pirenne, is Philip Daileader’s excellent lecture series on the Early Middle Ages.

I) Edward Gibbon

Edward Gibbon

Gibbon was a typical specimen of the Enlightenment. He hung out with Voltaire, considered religion (and especially Christianity) a load of superstitious poppycock, trusted in human reason and was enamored by the classics.

Being a man of independent means, he was able to devote all his time and energies to investigating what he considered the great mystery of antiquity. Why did the Roman Empire fall?

The result was an epic work of beautifully written English prose called The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. The first of its six volumes came out in the year of America’s Declaration of Independence.

The book was so powerful that its thesis turned into what we would call a meme. Ask any semi-literate person today why the Roman Empire fell and he is likely to answer something like this:

Barbarians invaded → Rome fell

Gibbon’s thesis in more detail


In brief, Gibbon believed that the Roman Empire was

  1. in part a victim of its own success, having prospered so much that its citizens had become soft, and
  2. in part a victim of Christianization, which replaced the pagan warrior ethic with an unbecoming concern for the hereafter.

As Gibbon famously said, Rome’s

last remains of military spirit were buried in the cloister.

This corrosion of morals or values, according to Gibbon, left the Western Roman Empire (Diocletian had divided it into two halves, east and west, for administrative purposes) vulnerable to the blonde hordes from the north.

And thus, federations of Germanic tribes crossed the Rhine and Danube and ransacked the Roman Empire, eventually sacking Rome itself and deposing the last (Western) Roman emperor in 476.

The Ostrogoths and Lombards took Italy, the Visigoths took Spain and the Franks took Gaul (→ Francia, France).

Within a few generations, one Frankish family, the Carolingians, seized power. Under Charlemagne (= Carolus Magnus, Karl der Grosse, Charles the Great), the Carolingians then united much of western Europe, an area that happens to overlap almost perfectly with the founding members of the European Union.

In the nice round year of 800, Charlemagne, the king of Francia, became a new Emperor.¬†He sparked a small cultural and economic recovery (the “Carolingian Renaissance”), but his descendants bickered about inheritance, and the Carolingian empire split into what would become France, the Low Countries and Germany.

And there we have it: “Europe”.

II) Henri Pirenne

Henri Pirenne

Like Gibbon, Henri Pirenne was a man of his time. But that time was the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Historians now felt that “moral” explanations of history were a bit woolly and preferred to think in terms of impersonal, and primarily economic, forces rather than great individuals or events.

And this led Pirenne, a Belgian (and thus a Carolingian heir), to a very different, and extremely original, thesis. The title of his monumental book, Mohammed and Charlemagne, essentially says it all.

The Pirenne thesis begins with a view that, first of all, nothing noteworthy “fell” in 476. Who cares if an emperor named, ironically and aptly, “little Augustus” (Romulus Augustulus) was deposed in that year? Roman civilization went on exactly as before. To most Europeans, nothing whatsoever changed.

That civilization was

  1. urban
  2. Mediterranean and
  3. Latin in the West

The Germanic tribes in fact came not to destroy but to join this civilization. They had entered the Roman Empire long before 476 to live there in peace, but were forced repeatedly to move and fight. When they eventually deposed the Romans, the Barbarians settled in the Roman cities and gradually adopted Latin (which was by this time, and partially as a result, branching into dialects that would become Catalan, Spanish, French etc).

Most importantly, the Mediterranean (medius = middle, terra = land) remained the center of this world, and trade across its waters enriched and fed all shores, north and south, east and west.

So what changed?

What changed was that Muhammad founded Islam, united the Arabs and then died. Suddenly, the Arabs poured out of the desert and conquered everything they encountered.

Look again at the map at the very top. In effect, the Arabs conquered the entire southern arc of the former Roman Empire until Charles Martel (Charlemagne’s grandfather) stopped them near Poitiers in France.

The Arabs thus split the Mediterranean in two. Suddenly, the “Mediterranean” was no longer the center of the world, but a dividing line between two worlds.

Ingeniously, Pirenne then inferred the rest of his thesis from archaeological finds: In the years after the Arab conquests, papyrus (from Egypt) disappeared from northwestern Europe, forcing the northerners to write on animal hides. Locally minted coins disappeared, too. Gone, in fact, was everything that was traded as opposed to produced locally.

The Arabs, Pirenne concluded, had blockaded and cut off northern Europe from the rest of the world. Europe thus became a poor, benighted and involuntarily autarkic  backwater.

This, finally, amounts to the “fall” of Roman civilization in northwestern Europe. Roman cities, administration and customs disintegrated. Europe becomes a¬†small and isolated corner of the world.

It is within this then-forgettable corner that the Carolingians rise and create “Europe”. As Pirenne famously said:

Without Islam, the Frankish Empire would have probably never existed, and Charlemagne, without Muhammad, would be inconceivable.

III) So who was right?

I promised to ponder what this debate might say about intellectual theorizing in general. Well, here goes:

1) Nobody needs to be wrong

As it happens, neither Gibbon nor Pirenne have ever fallen out of favor. Both are still considered to have got much of their interpretation right. The caveat is merely that their theses are considered … incomplete.

We encountered such a situation when talking about Newton and Einstein. Einstein in effect proved Newton “wrong”, and yet we have never discarded Newton, just as we won’t discard Einstein when somebody shows his thinking to have been incomplete.

2) Progress = making something less incomplete

Although both Gibbon’s and Pirenne’s theses were incomplete, they add up to an understanding that is less incomplete, so that others can make it even less incomplete.

This, in fact, is what has been happening. Subsequent historians have wondered why, if their theories were true in the West, the Eastern Roman (ie, Byzantine) Empire did not fall for another millennium.

Regarding Gibbon: The East, too, faced Barbarian invasions (from the same tribes). And the East was even more Christian than the West. So something must be missing in Gibbon’s explanation.

Regarding Pirenne: The East, too, was cut off from the south by the Arab conquests (though perhaps not as much).

IV) One possible omission: depopulation

So, even though both Gibbon and Pirenne, may well have been right, that there had to be at least one more factor: disease.

Perhaps it was smallpox arriving from China, and later plague. Perhaps it was something else. (The theory of massive lead poisoning is now discredited. Again: They had lead pipes in the East and the West.)

Whatever the disease(s), the population of the Roman Empire collapsed. And the West, which had fewer people than the East to begin with, became largely empty.

Its cities were deserted. Rome’s population was 1 million during the reign of Augustus but 20,000 by the time of Charlemagne. People used the Roman baths of northern cities as caves. New city walls were built with smaller circumferences than older city walls.

Fields and land lay fallow, too. We know this because taxes were levied on land (not labor), and tax revenues fell due to agri deserti, “abandoned fields”.

Viewed this way, both the Germanic invasions that Gibbon focussed on and the Arab invasions that Pirenne focussed on were perhaps not a cause but a symptom of the fall of Rome. It seems likely that the Germans and Arabs showed up because there were few people blocking their way, and conquered for that same reason.

If we ever find out the complete answer, it will be because Gibbon and Pirenne pointed us in the right direction.

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The wrong heroine: Joan of Arc

What does Joan of Arc — Jeanne d’Arc in French — say about our notions of heroism?

I’ve been pondering this for a while. So far in this thread on heroism, all the heroes have been male (and mythological). So the question of feminine heroism, raised but not satisfactorily addressed, has become more urgent.

So I read Larissa Juliet Taylor’s biography of Joan: The Virgin Warrior: The Life and Death of Joan of Arc.

Taylor takes the dry — quite dry! — historian’s approach to Joan, and that was the approach I wanted for my purpose. Who was the actual woman, rather than the “saint” and statue that we have made of her. (Yes, in 1920 she officially became a saint.)

So here is I) the background, II) her story, and then III) my interpretation:

I) Historical background

Click for attribution

Joan lived her short life — she was executed at 19 — in the 15th century, during what we retroactively call the Hundred Years’ War between England and France.

The most important thing to understand about this time is that nations or countries as we understand them did not yet exist. Instead, there were kingdoms and dynasties, shifting constantly depending on which royal married and procreated with which other royal.

“England” was ruled by French-speaking Norman royalty which, to complicate matters, frequently married royals from “France”, which were in turn more or less descended from Frankish (Germanic) royalty. (I venture to say that the common people neither understood nor cared who ruled them.)

As Joan was growing up, the English king claimed also to be King of France and held most of northern France, including Paris. He was allied with Burgundy, another originally Germanic kingdom that we today consider “French”.

Another contender to the throne, Charles Valois, considered himself dauphin but was considered wimpy and weak. The map above shows the lands under his control as “France”. This portrait of him, I believe, says it all:

Charles VII

II) Joan

Joan was born into a family neither poor nor rich — we would say “middle class” — in the Anglo-Burgundian part.

She was different from the other girls. She didn’t go dancing with them, and seems to have been a bit of a killjoy. She was constantly praying, and obsessed with the Virgin.

Starting at the age of 13, as she later claimed, she began hearing “voices.” The voices told her to go “to France.” She decided that the voices belonged to angels or saints.

Also around this age, she vowed to remain a virgin for the rest of her life. No reason given. She just did. This later became part of her mystique: She became La Pucelle (The Maid), which implied not only virginity but nobility and purity and innocence.

She became what we could call deranged. If she were alive today, she might be a suicide bomber. Guided by her voices, she wrote a famous “letter to the English”. In it, this teenage girl informed them that she would have mercy on them (!) if they did exactly as told, but that

you will not hold the realm of France from God, the King of Heaven, son of Holy Mary, for it will be held by King Charles, the true heir, because God, the King of Heaven wants it to be so, and this has been revealed by the Maid.

So there.

In 1429, aged 17, she set out to meet the dauphin Charles — ie, she left the “English” part of France and traveled to the “French” part, specifically a chateau on the Loire where Charles was staying. Already, she had short hair and wore only male clothing, as she would from then on.

When she arrived at the chateau, Charles’ advisers reacted as we might: They thought she was loony. They questioned her for a while.¬†Joan told them that she was on a mission

  1. to lift the English siege of Orléans, an important town at the time, and
  2. to lead Charles to Reims (in English-controlled territory) to be crowned king of all France.

So the counsellors admitted her to see Charles. Charles also thought she was mad, or at least suspicious. But she was offering to make him king, and he had no other plan.

So Charles sent Joan to another town for a month for a thorough¬†“theological validation.” This was their equivalent of psychoanalysis — the churchmen being the shrinks. Joan conducted herself well. Even her claims to virginity survived, ahem, examination.

So Charles saw her off to Orléans and put her in charge of some troops. Joan put on shining armor and set off. In the picture above, she is entering Orléans.

She sent another letter to the English:

… King of England, … if [the English forces] do not obey, I will have them all killed. If they obey, I will show mercy. I am sent here by God, the King of Heaven, to kick you out of all of France….

She perplexed but also fascinated every man there, both “French” and “English”.

She had one mode only: Charge!

She did not know doubt.

So she told the defenders to charge, and charge they did. In confused fighting, with Joan even getting wounded by an arrow, the tide turned and the English retreated from Orléans.

Suddenly, everybody either feared (if “English”) or adored (if “French”) the Maid.

Joan now led a laddish camp life. She was one of the guys. She got most angry whenever female “camp followers” came near her boys. She personally attacked the ladies with her sword to keep her soldiers pure.

Apparently feeling invincible, Joan led Charles’ forces to several more victories. Then it was time to bring Charles to Reims for his coronation. And thus the dauphin became Charles XII, King of France.

Charles, however, distrusted Joan more than ever. She seemed just plain deranged to him. Furthermore, Charles now had to begin the adult and mature business of negotiating with Burgundy and England to settle this mess in a civilized way. Joan, however, was constantly going on about her voices from the angels. She appeared not to understand the geopolitical context she was in. Which would be understandable: she was a teenager.

Joan, knowing only her one mode (Charge!), kept charging until she fell off her horse and was captured.¬†In 1430 she was brought to Rouen, English-held Normandy, and put on “trial”.

The English did not prosecute or judge Joan. Instead, it was the French and Burgundian churchmen. Yes, they were aware that the power of the land, England, considered Joan a political problem. But their main bugbear seems to have been more Freudian-patriarchal. Joan threatened … something.

The obvious problem was to find something to accuse her of. What had she actually done?

The trial notes show the church, if not all religion, as silly, petty, ridiculous, irrational, vindictive and dumb. The inquisitors asked questions that were stupid, and Joan made fools of them.

The charges, when read, compensated for vagueness with length. Joan was to be tried

as a witch, enchantress, false prophet, a caller-up of evil spirits, as superstitious, implicated in and given to magic arts … [She was] scandalous, seditious, perturbing and obstructing the peace … [and she] indecently put on the ill-fitting dress and state of men-at-arms…

Sounds like everything I like to do in my spare time. ūüėČ

Up on the scaffold she went, and onto the stake. They burned her. She died of smoke inhalation before she burned, but it was a cruel spectacle nonetheless, and nobody enjoyed it.

Her legend was born in the decades and centuries after her death.

She became, to different people at different times:

  • a martyr
  • a saint
  • a patriot and symbol of France.

Indeed, her retroactive importance is largely that she helped to bring about this concept of “France”.

So, was she a heroine?

III) Interpretation

Hua Mulan

Joan seems to belong to a small category of heroines who choose to remain virgins, dress up as boys and then fight with the boys.

China’s Joan, for example, might be Hua Mulan (pictured). Greece’s Joan might be Atalanta; Rome’s might be Camilla (who fought and died in the Italian wars against Aeneas).

But there is an obvious problem with such hermaphroditic or asexual heroines: Their heroism seems in large part to require denial of their femininity. That would suggest that heroism really is a male thing and the girls can play with the boys only if they pretend to be boys. I don’t like that at all.

Contrast that with a variation on her theme: the hyper-sexual warrior woman.

Here, for instance, is Brunhilde of Norse myth, with considerable Va Va Voom:

Then, of course, there are the Amazons, who not only fought but slept with male heroes, including Theseus and Hercules.

These women are seductive and fertile as well as brave and strong, and thus the direct primal equivalent of their male counterparts. As heroines they celebrate their sex rather than hide it. In fact, the Amazon queen, Hippolyta, seems to have been the model for Wonder Woman:

So Joan does not do it. She was a clueless teenager fired by inappropriate certitude (which describes pretty much every teenager) who never had the chance to grow into a whole person and become a genuine heroine.

But there are plenty of those out there, and The Hannibal Blog intends to find them

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Trojan/Roman Aeneas: the historical big picture


What was Virgil trying to accomplish in writing his Aeneid, perhaps the greatest poem in history?

That’s the question I want to try to answer in this post.

(Since the Aeneid merits several posts, I’ll get into what its hero, Aeneas, meant for the development of Western ideas about¬†heroism in a subsequent post.)

I propose that to answer the question, we need to understand something about

  1. Virgil’s own time, and
  2. All of history (ie, ‚Čą1,250 years between the Trojan War and Emperor Augustus), as viewed by Romans in Virgil’s time.

1) Virgil’s own time

Publius Vergilius Maro was born in 70 BCE in the northern part of what we now call Italy, which was then still considered part of Gaul. He probably became a Roman citizen only at the age of 21, when Julius Caesar extended civic rights to the region.

Virgil was thus born in the middle of the century-long Roman Revolution, a time when the old Republic disintegrated — first gradually, then suddenly — as strongmen seized power and fought one another, murdering and terrorizing much of the population in the process. Virgil lived through several rounds of civil war. He was a scholar and spent some of these years in the relative peace of Naples. But the constant and often arbitrary slaughter terrified everybody at the time, including him.

Octavian (Augustus)

Out of that chaos, like a Lotus flower out of pond muck, rose Octavian, later known as Emperor Augustus. Virgil was in Octavian’s social circle and began writing the¬†Aeneid as Octavian consolidated his power, following his naval victory over Mark Antony and Cleopatra at Actium in 31 BCE.

Shrewd and subtle, Octavian was careful to avoid the mistakes of his great-uncle and adoptive father, Julius Caesar, who had begun to resemble a¬†king — a dirty word to the Romans — and was murdered. So Octavian never called himself a king, but a¬†princeps — “first head,” as in leading citizen (whence our word¬†prince).

Over time, Octavian¬†allowed the Senate and people of Rome — his genius manifested itself in this psychological coup — to bestow upon him ever greater powers and titles, increasingly mocking the non-use of the word¬†king. In 27 BCE, the Senate began calling him¬†Augustus, the august or blessed.

But to Virgil and most Romans of the time, all this was a huge improvement over the apparent alternative: more civil war. Augustus imposed peace, on Rome and on its empire. What we call the Pax Romana was really the Pax Augusta.

Augustus thus appeared to be the reluctant hero, the hero who wages war only to end war, who finally lets Rome reach its full, world-ruling and world-changing potential and mission. He seemed to be the end of Roman history, its telos.

What was needed was a story that would tell all of the past, starting before Rome even existed, as though everything inexorably led up to this man, this peace, by divine will.

And this is the answer to the question. Virgil wanted to write that story. We today might be tempted to call it propaganda, and it was. But it was sublime propaganda, in the most moving and intimate words, with allusions to all poems that preceded it. It was epic.

2) From Troy to Rome

There was, of course, an earlier epic poet to whom all of Mediterranean antiquity looked for explanation of the mysteries of life. That was Homer.


In about 750 BCE, Homer wrote the Iliad, about events in about 1,250 BCE just before the as yet un-named “Greeks” sacked Troy. And he wrote the Odyssey, one of the many nostos (“homecoming”) stories, in which the nominally victorious Greek heroes struggle and sometimes fail to re-enter society at home. (Whence our word nostalgia: nostos = return home; algos = pain.)

By Virgil’s time, the Romans had, of course, conquered the Greeks and in turn been culturally conquered by them. In fact, as Virgil has Aeneas’ father Anchises predict, in a vision just after the Trojan War for the not-yet-existing Rome:

Others [ie, the Greeks] will cast cast more tenderly in bronze their breathing figures, I can well believe, and bring more lifelike portraits out of marble; argue more eloquently, use the pointer to trace the paths of heaven accurately and accurately foretell the rising stars. Roman, remember by your strength to rule earth’s peoples — for your arts are to be these: to pacify, to impose the rule of law, to spare the conquered, battle down the proud. (VI, 1145-1154)

So this contrast, this proto-Ricardian division of labor, existed: Greek culture, Roman law. The Romans saw themselves as more trustworthy and purer than the Greeks, but simultaneously as the younger descendants of that older culture, a bit as Americans used to feel toward Brits.

So a creation myth had become fashionable in Rome that linked Rome to the same Homeric tradition and yet distinguished it from the Greeks.

This introduces a fascinating psychological symmetry and twist: The Romans had to have been there, to be fighting in the Trojan War, but not as Greeks. Ergo: They were the Trojans! As they had lost then, they prevailed now.

How? Homer himself had seeded the new storyline, in Book XX of the Iliad. Aeneas, a Trojan hero and the third cousin of Hector, Troy’s greatest warrior, fought the monstrous Greek killing machine Achilles and survived. Neptune (ie, Poseidon, to the Greeks) convinced the gods to take Aeneas out of danger, because

his fate is to escape to ensure that the great line … may not unseeded perish from the world…. Therefore Aeneas and his sons, and theirs, will be lords over Trojans born hereafter.

Aeneas rescuing his father and son

So there it is. Aeneas will survive the sack of Troy, a genocide he describes in the Aeneid in harrowing detail. With his father and his son and a band of other Trojan survivors, they will sail through the Mediterranean, trying to found a new Troy.

They try, and fail; again and again. One frustrating delay or disaster follows the next. As a result, Aeneas goes on his own “Odyssey”, criss-crossing the same ocean at the same time as Odysseus does. Virgil emphasizes this. Aeneas sails past Ithaca, Odyssues’ home, and meets one of Odysseus’ men who survived their encounter with the Cyclops. Aeneas’ itinerary, (click to enlarge), looks remarkably similar to Odysseus’:

Aeneas knows all along that he has a duty to found a new city, but he only discovers the details along the way, as they are revealed to him.

This is crucial, because through these revelations we (ie, Virgil’s Roman audience) are foretold the destiny of Rome — Rome’s future in the story which is already Virgil’s past. Indeed, Aeneas and his band of Trojans gradually become Romans — Virgil has them staging games and rituals that the Romans recognized as their own.

When Aeneas descends to the underworld to talk to his dead father, he, Anchises, spells out the next thousand years. He gives Aeneas glimpses of the Gallic wars and Pompey and Caesar and Augustus.

When Vulcan (Hephaestus, to the Greeks) forges him special armor, the shield depicts all of Roman history on its front — including, of course, Octavian’s victory at Actium. Message: This is what Aeneas is fighting to make come about!

The most traumatic part of the next thousand years of Roman history (ie, the millenium between Aeneas and Octavian) occurred during the third century BCE, when Rome fought Carthage and Hannibal came close to exterminating the race of Aeneas. How Virgil deals with that is fascinating. This being The Hannibal Blog, I’ll have more to say about it, as you might imagine. But I will do that in a separate post.

So this is the context of the first six books of the Aeneid: an “Odyssey” from burning Troy to “Hesperia”, the land of the West (ie, Italy).

The context of the remaining six books is a war that must be fought once Aeneas arrives in Italy, at the mouth of the Tiber: another “Iliad”, but this time a war for the founding of a city rather than the destruction of one.

Yes, it is his destiny to found a new Troy on this land, a new race that will rule the world. But the land is already taken. Aeneas and his Trojans will have to make alliances and to defeat the Latins. As Achilles once overpowered Aeneas’ cousin Hector, Aeneas now must become a Trojan Achilles to overpower the Latin hero Turnus.

Aeneas, killing Turnus

The Aeneid ends abruptly as Aeneas finishes the job, after a grueling battle. The last lines are these:

He sank his blade in fury in Turnus’ chest. Then all the body slackened in death’s chill, and with a groan for that indignity his spirit fled into the gloom below.

But through the revelations up to that point, and of course through the history that the Roman audience knew, it was clear that Aeneas is now done with killing. The time for generating has begun. Aeneas marries the Latin princess Lavinia, and Trojans and Latins merge to become a new race, the future Romans.

The city of Rome itself, mind you, will not be founded for another few centuries, when Romulus kills his brother Remus, both suckled as babies by the she-wolf, and starts building the city he names after himself.

But the Romans bridged those centuries in their story with genealogy. Romulus and Remus were the offspring of Aeneas and Lavinia fifteen generations downstream. If you define a generation as 25 years, this places Romulus and Remus 375 years after Aeneas. If you assume that Aeneas arrived in Italy between 1,200 and 1,100 BCE, then this fits Romulus’ customary founding date of 753 BCE.

Name is destiny

Ever wonder why the Iliad is not called the Troiad? Well, there’s a little story there that brings us full circle in this post. (This is a bonus round for geeks.)

Remember what my premise for this post is: The Aeneid was a genius work of propaganda for Octavian.

Well, Octavian was adopted by Gaius Julius Caesar, and in Roman law the son takes the name and lineage of his new father. So Octavian’s name was also Gaius Julius Caesar. We call them the first of “the Caesars” (whence the words¬†Kaiser, Tsar, Shah, etc). But they were from the clan of the¬†Julii.

Now, Troy and the Trojans were a city and people with many names (ditto the Greeks), depending on which ancestor you wanted to emphasize.

There was a Dardanus, so the Trojans in the Aeneid are sometimes the Dardans or Dardanians. In fact, we still call the former Hellespont, the straits that separate Europe from Asia, the Dardanelles. Troy was a few miles inland.

There was a Teucer, who married Dardanus’ daughter, so the Trojans are also sometimes called Teucrians. And Teucer had a grandson named Tros, whence Troy.

Tros had three sons: Assaracus, Ilus and Ganymede.

Ilus gave the city one of its names, Ilium. Hence the Iliad. (Ilus was also the grandfather of Priam and great-grandfather of Hector.)

Assaracus, meanwhile, was the grandfather of Anchises, who had the enormous luck to sleep with the goddess Venus (Aphrodite) and sire Aeneas. Aeneas then married Hector’s sister (his own third cousin) Creusa, and they had a son, Ascanius, also named Iulus, a form of Ilus.

Ilus, Iulus, Julius: They are all variations of the same family name. The Julii claimed direct descent from Aeneas and Venus.

Julius Caesar Augustus, you see, was Iulus, was Aeneas, was the reluctant warrior peacemaker, and Rome was the new Ilium, the new Troy.

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On English (and other dialects of Sanskrit)

I mentioned en passant in the previous post that the Sanskrit word vira, hero, is related to the Latin vir, man, and thus to our virtue and virility. And, of course, to the Modern Hindi vir, brave. (Thank you, Susan.)

Well, that sort of thing brings out the language geek in me, and I can’t help myself. There is something beautifully mysterious in this common Indo-European heritage (pictured above just after the fall of the Western Roman Empire) of our Western languages and this Eastern Ur-language, Sanskrit. It is like visiting very distant relatives and suddenly seeing a nose, a toe, a tilt of the head or an allergic sneeze that is exactly like your own and makes you imagine the stories of the past that unite you.

So indulge me in some word play.

The easiest way to compare languages is by counting to ten in them. Look how incredibly similar most of these word roots have stayed across millenia and continents:

Latin French German English

unus un eins one

duo deux zwei two

tres trois drei three

quattuor quatre vier four

quinque cinq f√ľnf five

sex six sechs six

septem sept sieben seven

octo huit acht eight

novem neuf neun nine
dasa decem dix zehn ten

But the real magic starts when you compare more meaningful words, because then you see not only their etymology but the genealogy of concepts and meanings (this used to be a hot field, called philology, and is how Nietzsche arrived at his philosophy about the evolution of morals).


Since I used the word magic, let’s start there. It “comes from” the Sanskrit word maya, whence the Latin magicus, French magique, German Magie.

Of all these, the Sanskrit word is by far the most interesting and nuanced and deep. It points to a philosophical and religious concept. Maya means magic in the sense of cosmic illusion, the metaphysical head-fake that our senses play on us. We think we exist in our mortal bodies in this changing world, but if we pierce the magic (maya) by making our minds completely still, we realize that there is only pure energy (Brahman) and our soul (Atman) merges into this void.

Bonus: Compare that last word, Atman (soul) with the German atmen (breathe).


Yoga not only means, but is the root of, union. But it gets more interesting. Yoga is also related to the Latin junctio, French joindre, English join.

Its Germanic descendants resemble it even more closely: German Joch, English yoke. (English, as is its wont, gets the root twice, once via Saxon and once via Norman French.)

A yoke at first does not seem very yogic. But if you think about it, that’s a matter of technological connotation. We yoke an ox to a cart, thereby imprisoning him. But in yoga, you yoke (connect, join, unite) your breath to your mind, thence to your soul (Atman), and thence to one-ness or union (Brahman), thereby liberating yourself.


Maharaja means great king in Sanskrit. So it has two words: maha (great) and raja (king). Now recognize:

  • maha ‚Üí Latin magnus (great), French majeur, German macht (might), English might & major
  • raja ‚Üí Latin rex/regina (king/queen), French roi, German Reich/reich/reichen (empire/rich/reach), English rich, reach, regal, royal

And so it goes on and on and on…

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