Posted in Empire, History, Meritocracy, Social status

Craig Brown – Ninety-Nine Glimpses of Princess Margaret

Here’s a challenge to any writer.  How do you write a book about someone famous who never did anything?  Craig Brown found an answer with his book, Nine-Nine Glimpses of Princess Margaret.  

Princess Margaret

In this book, he provides not a biography but a set of impressions of Queen Elizabeth’s younger sister as they were recounted by the people around her.  It’s as if she only existed in her reflection.  And he lays out these impressions in a series of 99 brief but poisonously pleasurable chapters.  The result is a feast for the reader and a model for writers of how to make something out of nothing.

Another thing I like about this book is that it undercuts some of my own critique of the meritocracy, which I frequently belabor in this blog.  Nothing like looking at minor royals to make meritocracy look pretty good.  At least people do something to gain their renown.

Brown says he came upon the idea for this book while researching another one, when he kept finding Princess Margaret listed in a vast array of books about the UK in the late twentieth century.  

It is like playing ‘Where’s Wally?’, or staring at clouds in search of a face. Leave it long enough, and she’ll be there, rubbing shoulders with philosophers, film stars, novelists, politicians.

I spy with my little eye, something beginning with M!

Here she is, sitting above Marie Antoinette in Margaret Drabble’s biography of Angus Wilson:

Maraini, Dacia
Marchant, Bill (Sir Herbert)
Maresfield Park
Margaret, Princess
Marie Antoinette
Market Harborough

The reflections she left in these sources are anything but pretty.  As Brown puts it,

It has been said that history is written by the victors, but, on the most basic level, this is not quite true: it is written by the writers.

Princess Margaret had the misfortune to be surrounded by catty people who were eager to leave a written record of their encounters with her — for consumption by people like me who love to read gossipy accounts about the one percent.

In part these accounts serve as a welcome counterpoint to the typical syrupy stories promoted by the royal family, for example,

The queen mother:

Along with radiance, she emitted delight. Her authorised biographer, William Shawcross, chronicles this trail of delight. Wherever she goes, she delights everyone, and they are in turn delighted by her delight, whereupon she is delighted that they are delighted that she is delighted that … and so forth. If you shut his book too abruptly, you’ll notice delight oozing out of its sides.

But from the age of twenty-five, Princess Margaret was rarely described as ‘radiant’, other than on her wedding day, traditionally an occasion on which the adjective is obligatory, to be withheld only if the bride is actually hauled sobbing to the altar.

Most of the stories follow another arc: the Princess arrives late, delaying dinner to catch up with her punishing schedule of drinking and smoking. At the table, she grows more and more relaxed; by midnight, it dawns on the assembled company that she is in it for the long haul, which means that they will be too, since protocol dictates that no one can leave before she does. Then, just as everyone else is growing more chatty and carefree, the Princess abruptly remounts her high horse and upbraids a hapless guest for over-familiarity: ‘When you say my sister, I imagine you are referring to Her Majesty the Queen?’

At times, the reader feels sorry for the princess serving as everyone’s favorite punching bag.  As a royal, your status is purely at the mercy of birth order, establishing your position in the line for the crown.

How odd, to emerge from the womb fourth in line, to go up a notch at the age of six, up another notch that same year, and then to find yourself hurtling down, down, down to fourth place at the birth of Prince Charles in 1948, fifth at the birth of Princess Anne in 1950, then downhill all the way, overtaken by a non-stop stream of riff-raff – Prince Andrew and Prince Edward and Peter Phillips and Princess Beatrice and the rest of them, down, down, down, until by the time of your death you have plummeted to number eleven, behind Zara Phillips, later to become Zara Tindall, mother of Mia Tindall, who, if you were still alive, would herself be one ahead of you, even when she was still in nappies. Not many women have to face the fact that their careers peaked at the age of six, or to live with the prospect of losing their place in the pecking order to a succession of newborn babies, and to face demotion every few years thereafter. Small wonder, then, if Princess Margaret felt short-changed by life.

Her life was defined by deficit.

She remained conscious of her image as the one who wasn’t, and to some extent played on it: the one who wasn’t the Queen; the one who wasn’t taught constitutional history because she wasn’t the one who’d be needing it; the one who wasn’t in the first coach, and wouldn’t ever be first onto the Buckingham Palace balcony; the one who wasn’t given the important duties, but was obliged to make do with the also-rans: the naming of the more out-of-the-way council building, school, hospital or regiment, the state visit to the duller country, the patronage of the more obscure charity, the glad-handing of the smaller fry – the deputies, the vices, the second-in-commands. Her most devoted friends praised her stoicism for assuming the role of lightning rod. ‘For nearly five decades,’ said Reinaldo Herrera, ‘she bore with great dignity the criticism and envy that people dared not show the Queen.’

But sympathy for her situation is hard to sustain for very long, when she spends so much of her time putting other people down.

Her antennae for transgressions were unusually sensitive, quivering into action at the slightest opportunity. ‘I detested Queen Mary,’ she told Gore Vidal. ‘She was rude to all of us except Lilibet, who was going to be Queen. Of course, she had an inferiority complex. We were Royal, and she was not.’ Unlike her, Queen Mary had been born a Serene Highness, not a Royal Highness. The difference, invisible to most, was monumental to Princess Margaret, who treasured the definite article in Her Royal Highness the Princess Margaret. Lacking that ‘the’, her grandmother was in some sense below the salt.

Far more than her sister, she was given to pulling rank. She once reminded her children that she was royal and they were not, and their father was most certainly not. ‘I am unique,’ she would sometimes pipe up at dinner parties. ‘I am the daughter of a King and the sister of a Queen.’ It was no ice-breaker.

Margaret had been born to the King-Emperor at a time when the map of the world was still largely pink. Her sense of entitlement, never modest, grew bigger and bigger with each passing year, gathering weight and speed as the British Empire grew smaller and smaller, and her role in it smaller still.

As a result, she played her role as an awkward mix of princess and bohemian, leaving those around her on edge about whether she was going to go high or go low.

She was of royalty, yet divorced from it; royalty set at an oblique angle, royalty through the looking glass, royalty as pastiche.

She was cabaret camp, Ma’am Ca’amp: she was Noël Coward, cigarette holders, blusher, Jean Cocteau, winking, sighing, dark glasses, Bet Lynch, charades, Watteau, colourful cocktails at midday, ballet, silk, hoity-toity, dismissive overstatement, arriving late, entering with a flourish, exiting with a flounce, pausing for effect, making a scene.

It is languid, bored, world-weary, detached, bored, fidgety, demanding, entitled, disgruntled, bored. It carries the seeds of its own sadness and scatters them around like confetti. It looks in the mirror for protracted periods of time, but avoids exchanging glances with itself. It is disappointment hiding behind the shield of hauteur, keeping pity at bay. ‘I have never known an unhappier woman,’ says John Julius.

Read the book.  You’ll have a hard time putting it down.

Posted in Democracy, Empire, History, Politics

“The Crown” and the Long Tradition of Petitioning the Monarch for Redress of Grievances

In episode 5 of The Crown‘s season 4, a desperate out-of-work painter named Michael Fagan breaks into Buckingham Palace, enters the queen’s bedroom, sits on the foot of her bed, and asks her for a cigarette.  “Filthy habit,” she replies. “Yes, I know, I’m trying to quit,” he says.  Then he gets down to business, by asking her to provide relief from his dire economic condition.  The incident is real, occurring on January 9, 1982, during the time when Margaret Thatcher was prime minister. In light of the bizarre circumstances of the encounter, both parties were remarkably calm. When security officers arrived, the queen asked them to delay arrest until she could shake the intruder’s hand.  

Fagan and the Queen

Watching this I was struck by the way it represented a much broader historical phenomenon:  the longstanding practice of people petitioning the sovereign for the redress of grievances.  In many ways, this practice is an answer to the question of why monarchy was such a durable form of governance over the centuries.  The answer is that, except in absolutist regimes, the king was able to position himself as head of state rather than head of government.  Government was the domain of his ministers, who set policy and passed laws.  The king appointed his ministers but could claim some distance from their policies, able to dispatch them quickly — by dismissal or decapitation — if the policies didn’t work out.  In this way, the king could represent himself as the guardian of the people while the ministers were just the functionaries of government.  And as sovereign, he granted ordinary people the right to petition him when government policies put them in jeopardy.  This gave a remarkable durability of the monarchy, as it was able to evade responsibility for bad outcomes and earn affection from the populace by occasionally redressing their grievances.  It was a very effective good-cop/bad-cop arrangement that has endured right up to the present.  

As constitutional monarch, Queen Elizabeth appointed Margaret Thatcher as prime minister, but she had plausible deniability for being responsible for Thatcher’s draconian policies, which had caused so much economic harm to UK workers like Fagan.  So it made sense for him to approach her directly in seeking relief, as so many had approached monarchs in the past.  In his extreme state — barred access to his children, perpetually out of work, and with no hope in sight — he had nothing to lose by his daring palace break-in.

There is a long history of petitions to the crown.  In 1774, the First Continental Congress of the American colonies sent a petition to George III requesting relief from a set of grievances they put before him.

Most Gracious Sovereign: We, your Majesty’s faithful subjects of the Colonies of New-Hampshire, Massachusetts Bay, Rhode-Island and Providence Plantations, Connecticut, New-York, New-Jersey, Pennsylvania, the Counties of New-Castle, Kent, and Sussex, on Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina, in behalf of ourselves and the inhabitants of those Colonies who have deputed us to represent them in General Congress, by this our humble Petition, beg leave to lay our Grievances before the Throne.

After laying out these grievances in detail, the Congress closed the petition in a tone of hope and respect:

We therefore most earnestly beseech your Majesty, that your Royal authority and interposition may be used for our relief, and that a gracious Answer may be given to this Petition.

That your Majesty may enjoy every felicity through a long and glorious Reign, over loyal and happy subjects, and that your descendants may inherit your prosperity and Dominions till time shall be no more, is, and always will be, our sincere and fervent prayer.

The king, of course, did not respond as they had requested and the ultimate result for the American war of independence.  So petitioning the sovereign has been no guarantee of success, but the sheer possibility of the king’s intervention has kept hope alive.  

Consider another famous petition, whose outcome was both faster and worse.  In January of 1905, a group of 135,000 workingmen presented the following plea to Tsar Nicholas II at his winter palace in St. Petersburg.

Sire,—

We working men of St. Petersburg, our wives and children, and our parents, helpless, aged men and women, have come to you, О Tsar, in quest of justice and protection. We have been beggared, oppressed, over-burdened with excessive toil, treated with contumely. We are not recognized as normal human beings, but are dealt with as slaves who have to bear their bitter lot in silence. Patiently we endured this; but now we are being thrust deeper into the slough of right-lessness and ignorance, are being suffocated by despotism and arbitrary whims, and now, О Tsar, we have no strength left. The awful moment has come when death is better than the prolongation of our unendurable tortures.

After a long list of grievances and demands, the petition closed with the following words:

Those, Sire, constitute our principal needs, which we come to lay before you. Give orders and swear that they shall be fulfilled, and you will render Russia happy and glorious, and will impress your name on our hearts and on the hearts of our children, and our children’s children for all time. But if you withhold the word, if you are not responsive to our petition, we will die here on this square before your palace, for we have nowhere else to go to and no reason to repair elsewhere. For us there are but two roads, one leading to liberty and happiness, the other to the tomb. Point, Sire, to either of them; we will take it, even though it lead to death. Should our lives serve as a holocaust of agonizing Russia, we will not grudge these sacrifices; we gladly offer them up.

The Tsar chose Door No. 2 and several hundred workers were gunned down in front of the palace, an event remembered in history as Bloody Sunday.

Michael Fagan’s petition didn’t end well either.  Thatcher’s policies remained in effect; he was declared insane by a court and sentenced to a mental hospital.  Released three months later, he spent years in and out of prison.  But he’s also been talking about the incident ever since.  Wouldn’t you?

Constitutional monarchs like Queen Elizabeth continue to enjoy the benefit of being head of state without the responsibility and accountability that comes from being head of government.  Presidents, in governments like the United States, don’t have the luxury of enjoying prestige without power, of being the symbol of the nation while remaining above the fray.  On the other hand, maybe pinning your hopes on someone who can’t deliver for you is a fool’s game.  Maybe we’re better off with a leader who can be held to account.

Posted in Empire, History, Modernity

Mikhail — How the Ottomans Shaped the Modern World

This post is a reflection on the role that the Ottoman Empire played in shaping the modern world.  It draws on a new book by Alan Mikhail, God’s Shadow: Sultan Selim, His Ottoman Empire, and the Making of the Modern World.  

The Ottomans are the Rodney Dangerfields of empires: They don’t get no respect.  If we picture them at all, it’s either the exotic image of turbans and concubines in Topkapi Palace or the sad image of the “sick man of Europe” in the days before World War I, which finally put them out of their misery.  Neither does them justice.  For a long time, they were the most powerful empire in the world, which dramatically shaped life on three continents — Europe, Asia, and Africa. 

But what makes their story so interesting is that it is more than just an account of some faded glory in the past.  As Mikhail points out, the Ottomans left an indelible stamp on the modern world.  It was their powerful presence in the middle of Eurasia that pushed the minor but ambitious states of Western Europe to set sail for the East and West Indies.  The Dutch, Portuguese, Spanish, and English couldn’t get to the treasures of China and India by land because of the impassable presence of the Ottomans.  So they either had to sail east around Africa to get there or forge a new path to the west, which led them to the Americas.  In fact, they did both, and the result was the riches that turned them into imperial powers who came to dominate much of the known world.  

Without the Ottomans, there would not have been the massive expansion of world trade, the Spanish empire, the riches and technological innovations that spurred the industrial revolution and empowered the English and American empires.

God's Shadow

Here are some passages from the book that give you a feel of the impact the Ottomans had:

For half a century before 1492, and for centuries afterward, the Ottoman Empire stood as the most powerful state on earth: the largest empire in the Mediterranean since ancient Rome, and the most enduring in the history of Islam. In the decades around 1500, the Ottomans controlled more territory and ruled over more people than any other world power. It was the Ottoman monopoly of trade routes with the East, combined with their military prowess on land and on sea, that pushed Spain and Portugal out of the Mediterranean, forcing merchants and sailors from these fifteenth-century kingdoms to become global explorers as they risked treacherous voyages across oceans and around continents—all to avoid the Ottomans.

From China to Mexico, the Ottoman Empire shaped the known world at the turn of the sixteenth century. Given its hegemony, it became locked in military, ideological, and economic competition with the Spanish and Italian states, Russia, India, and China, as well as other Muslim powers. The Ottomans influenced in one way or another nearly every major event of those years, with reverberations down to our own time. Dozens of familiar figures, such as Columbus, Vasco da Gama, Montezuma, the reformer Luther, the warlord Tamerlane, and generations of popes—as well as millions of other greater and lesser historical personages—calibrated their actions and defined their very existence in reaction to the reach and grasp of Ottoman power.

Other facts, too, have blotted out our recognition of the Ottoman influence on our own history. Foremost, we tend to read the history of the last half-millennium as “the rise of the West.” (This anachronism rings as true in Turkey and the rest of the Middle East as it does in Europe and America.) In fact, in 1500, and even in 1600, there was no such thing as the now much-vaunted notion of “the West.” Throughout the early modern centuries, the European continent consisted of a fragile collection of disparate kingdoms and small, weak principalities locked in constant warfare. The large land-based empires of Eurasia were the dominant powers of the Old World, and, apart from a few European outposts in and around the Caribbean, the Americas remained the vast domain of its indigenous peoples. The Ottoman Empire held more territory in Europe than did most European-based states. In 1600, if asked to pick a single power that would take over the world, a betting man would have put his money on the Ottoman Empire, or perhaps China, but certainly not on any European entity.

The sheer scope was the empire at its height was extraordinary:

For close to four centuries, from 1453 until well into the exceedingly fractured 1800s, the Ottomans remained at the center of global politics, economics, and war. As European states rose and fell, the Ottomans stood strong. They battled Europe’s medieval and early modern empires, and in the twentieth century continued to fight in Europe, albeit against vastly different enemies. Everyone from Machiavelli to Jefferson to Hitler—quite an unlikely trio—was forced to confront the challenge of the Ottomans’ colossal power and influence. Counting from their first military victory, at Bursa, they ruled for nearly six centuries in territories that today comprise some thirty-three countries. Their armies would control massive swaths of Europe, Africa, and Asia; some of the world’s most crucial trade corridors; and cities along the shores of the Mediterranean, Red, Black, and Caspian seas, the Indian Ocean, and the Persian Gulf. They held Istanbul and Cairo, two of the largest cities on earth, as well as the holy cities of Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem, and what was the world’s largest Jewish city for over four hundred years, Salonica (Thessaloniki in today’s Greece). From their lowly beginnings as sheep-herders on the long, hard road across Central Asia, the Ottomans ultimately succeeded in proving themselves the closest thing to the Roman Empire since the Roman Empire itself.

One of the interesting things about the Ottomans was how cosmopolitan and relatively tolerant they were.  The Spanish threw the Muslims and Jews out of Spain but the Ottomans welcomed a variety of peoples, cultures, languages, and religions.  It wasn’t until relatively late that the empire came to be predominately Muslim.

Although all religious minorities throughout the Mediterranean were subjected to much hardship, the Ottomans, despite what Innocent thought, never persecuted non-Muslims in the way that the Inquisition persecuted Muslims and Jews—and, despite the centuries of calls for Christian Crusades, Muslims never attempted a war against the whole of Christianity. While considered legally inferior to Muslims, Christians and Jews in the Ottoman Empire (as elsewhere in the lands of Islam) had more rights than other religious minorities around the world. They had their own law courts, freedom to worship in the empire’s numerous synagogues and churches, and communal autonomy. While Christian Europe was killing its religious minorities, the Ottomans protected theirs and welcomed those expelled from Europe. Although the sultans of the empire were Muslims, the majority of the population was not. Indeed, the Ottoman Empire was effectively the Mediterranean’s most populous Christian state: the Ottoman sultan ruled over more Christian subjects than the Catholic pope.

The sultan who moved the Ottoman empire into the big leagues — tripling its size — was Selim the Grim, who is the central figure of this book (look at his image on the book’s cover and you’ll see how he earned the name).  His son was Suleyman the Magnificent, whose long rule made him the lasting symbol of the empire at its peak.  Another sign of the heterogeneous nature of the Ottomans is that the sultans themselves were of mixed blood.

Because, in this period, Ottoman sultans and princes produced sons not from their wives but from their concubines, all Ottoman sultans were the sons of foreign, usually Christian-born, slaves like Gülbahar [Selim’s mother].

In the exceedingly cosmopolitan empire, the harem ensured that a non-Turkish, non-Muslim, non-elite diversity was infused into the very bloodline of the imperial family. As the son of a mother with roots in a far-off land, a distant culture, and a religion other than Islam, Selim viscerally experienced the ethnically and religiously amalgamated nature of the Ottoman Empire, and grew up in provincial Amasya with an expansive outlook on the fifteenth-century world.

Posted in Empire, History, Modernity, War

What If Napoleon Had Won at Waterloo?

Today I want to explore an interesting case of counterfactual history.  What would have happened if Napoleon Bonaparte had won in 1815 at the Battle of Waterloo?  What consequences might have followed for Europe in the next two centuries?  That he might have succeeded is not mere fantasy.  According to the victor, Lord Wellington, the battle was “the nearest-run thing you ever saw in your life.”

The standard account, written by the winners, is that the allies arrayed against Napoleon (primarily Britain, Prussia, Austria, and Russia) had joined together to stop him from continuing to rampage across the continent, conquering one territory after another.  From this angle, they were the saviors of freedom, who finally succeeded in vanquishing and deposing the evil dictator. 

I want to explore an alternative interpretation, which draws on two sources.  One is an article in Smithsonian Magazine by Andrew Roberts, “Why We’d Be Better Off if Napoleon never Lost at Waterloo.”  The other is a book by the same author, Napoleon: A Life

Napoleon

The story revolves around two different Napoleons:  the general and the ruler.  As a general, he was one of the greatest in history.  Depending on how you count, he fought 60 or 70 battles and lost only seven of them, mostly at the end.  In the process, he conquered (or controlled through alliance) most of Western Europe.  So the allies had reason to fear him and to eliminate the threat he posed.  

As a ruler, however, Napoleon looks quite different.  In this role, he was the agent of the French Revolution and its Enlightenment principles, which he succeeded in institutionalizing within France and spreading across the continent.  Andrews notes in his article that Napoleon 

said he would be remembered not for his military victories, but for his domestic reforms, especially the Code Napoleon, that brilliant distillation of 42 competing and often contradictory legal codes into a single, easily comprehensible body of French law. In fact, Napoleon’s years as first consul, from 1799 to 1804, were extraordinarily peaceful and productive. He also created the educational system based on lycées and grandes écoles and the Sorbonne, which put France at the forefront of European educational achievement. He consolidated the administrative system based on departments and prefects. He initiated the Council of State, which still vets the laws of France, and the Court of Audit, which oversees its public accounts. He organized the Banque de France and the Légion d’Honneur, which thrive today. He also built or renovated much of the Parisian architecture that we still enjoy, both the useful—the quays along the Seine and four bridges over it, the sewers and reservoirs—and the beautiful, such as the Arc de Triomphe, the Rue de Rivoli and the Vendôme column.

He stood as the antithesis of the monarchical state system at the time, grounded in preserving the feudal privileges of the nobility and the church and the subordination of peasants and workers.  As a result, he ended up creating a lot of enemies, who initiated most of the battles he fought.  In addition, however, he drew a lot of support from key actors within the territories he conquered, to whom he looked less like an invader than a liberator.  Andrews points out in his book that:

Napoleon’s political support from inside the annexed territories came from many constituencies: urban elites who didn’t want to return to the rule of their local Legitimists, administrative reformers who valued efficiency, religious minorities such as Protestants and Jews whose rights were protected by law, liberals who believed in concepts such as secular education and the liberating power of divorce, Poles and other nationalities who hoped for national self-determination, businessmen (at least until the Continental System started to bite), admirers of the simplicity of the Code Napoléon, opponents of the way the guilds had worked to restrain trade, middle-class reformers, in France those who wanted legal protection for their purchases of hitherto ecclesiastical or princely confiscated property, and – especially in Germany – peasants who no longer had to pay feudal dues.

When the allies defeated Napoleon the first time, they exiled him to Elba and installed Louis XVIII as king, seeking to sweep away all of the gains from the revolution and the empire.  Louis failed spectacularly in gaining local support for the reversion to the Ancien Regime.  Sensing this, Napoleon escaped to the mainland after only nine months and headed for Paris.  The royalist troops sent to stop him instead rallied to his cause, and in 18 days he was eating Louis’s dinner in the Tuileries, restored as emperor without anyone firing a single shot in defense of the Bourbons.  Quite a statement about how the French, as opposed to the allies, viewed his return.  

Once back in charge, Napoleon sent a note to the allies, reassuring them that he was content to rule at home and leave conquest to the past: “After presenting the spectacle of great campaigns to the world, from now on it will be more pleasant to know no other rivalry than that of the benefits of peace, of no other struggle than the holy conflict of the happiness of peoples.” 

They weren’t buying it.  They had reason to be suspicious, but instead of waiting and seeing they launched an all out assault on France in an effort to get him out of the way.  Andrews argues, and I agree, that their aim was not defensive but actively reactionary.  His liberalized and modernized France posed a threat to the preservation of the traditional powers of monarchy, nobility, and church.  They sought to tamp out the fires of reform and revolution before it reared up in their own domains.  In this sense, then, Andrews says Waterloo was a battle that didn’t need to happen.  It was an unprovoked, preemptive strike.

Andrews concludes his Smithsonian article with this assessment of what might have been if Waterloo had turned out differently:

If Napoleon had remained emperor of France for the six years remaining in his natural life, European civilization would have benefited inestimably. The reactionary Holy Alliance of Russia, Prussia and Austria would not have been able to crush liberal constitutionalist movements in Spain, Greece, Eastern Europe and elsewhere; pressure to join France in abolishing slavery in Asia, Africa and the Caribbean would have grown; the benefits of meritocracy over feudalism would have had time to become more widely appreciated; Jews would not have been forced back into their ghettos in the Papal States and made to wear the yellow star again; encouragement of the arts and sciences would have been better understood and copied; and the plans to rebuild Paris would have been implemented, making it the most gorgeous city in the world.

Napoleon deserved to lose Waterloo, and Wellington to win it, but the essential point in this bicentenary year is that the epic battle did not need to be fought—and the world would have been better off if it hadn’t been.

What followed his loss was a century of reaction across the continent of Europe. The Bourbons were restored and the liberal gains in Germany, Spain, Austria and Italy were rolled back.  Royalist statesmen such as Metternich and Bismarck aggressively defended their regimes against reform efforts by liberals and Marxists alike.  These regimes persisted until the First World War, which they precipitated and which eventually brought them all down — Hohenzollerns, Habsburgs, Romanovs, and Ottomans.  The reactions to the fall of these monarchies in turn set the stage for the Second World War.

You can only play out historical counterfactuals so far, before the chain of contingencies becomes too long and the analysis turns wholly speculative.  But it seems quite reasonable to me to think that, if Napoleon had won at Waterloo, this history would have played out quite differently.  The existence proof of a modern liberal state in the middle of Europe would have shored up reform efforts in the surrounding monarchies and headed off the reactionary status quo that finally erupted in the Great War that extinguished them all.

Posted in Empire, History, Resilience, War

Resilience in the Face of Climate Change and Epidemic: Ancient Rome and Today’s America

Tell me if you think this sounds familiar:  In its latter years (500-700 ACE), the Roman Empire faced a formidable challenge from two devastating environmental forces — dramatic climate change and massive epidemic.  As Mark Twain is supposed to have said, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.”

During our own bout of climate change and ravaging disease, I’ve been reading Kyle Harper’s book The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease, and the End of Empire.  The whole time, rhymes were running through my head.  We all know that things did not turn out well for Rome, whose civilization went through the most devastating collapse in world history.  The state disintegrated, population fell in half, and the European standard of living did not recover the level it had in 500 until a thousand years later.

Fate of Rome Cover

So Rome ended badly, but what about us?  The American empire may be eclipsing, but it’s not like the end is near.  Rome was dependent on animal power and a fragile agricultural base, and its medical “system” did more harm than good.  All in all we seem much better equipped to deal with climate change and disease than they were.  As a result, I’m not suggesting that we’re headed for the same calamitous fall that faced Roman civilization, but I do think we can learn something important by observing how they handled their own situation.

What’s so interesting about the fall of Rome is that it took so long.  The empire held on for 500 years, even under circumstances where its fall was thoroughly overdetermined.  The traditional story of the fall is about fraying political institutions in an overextended empire, surrounded by surging “barbarian” states that were prodded into existence by Rome’s looming threat.

To this political account, Harper adds the environment.  The climate was originally very kind to Rome, supporting growth during a long period of warm and wet weather known as the Roman Climate Optimum (200 BCE to 150 ACE).  But then conditions grew increasingly unstable, leading to the Late Antique Little Ice Age (450-700), with massive crop failures brought on by a drop in solar energy and massive volcanic eruptions.  In the midst of this arose a series of epidemics, fostered (like our own) by the opening up of trade routes, which culminated in the bubonic plague (541-749) that killed off half of the populace.

What kept Rome going all this time was a set of resilient civic institutions.  That’s what I think we can learn from the Roman case.  My fear is that our own institutions are considerably more fragile.  In this analysis, I’m picking up on a theme from an earlier blog post:  The Triumph of Efficiency over Effectiveness: A Brief for Resilience through Redundancy.

Here is how Harper describes the institutional framework of this empire:

Rome was ruled by a monarch in all but name, who administered a far-flung empire with the aid, first and foremost, of the senatorial aristocracy. It was an aristocracy of wealth, with property requirements for entry, and it was a competitive aristocracy of service. Low rates of intergenerational succession meant that most aristocrats “came from families that sent representatives into politics for only one generation.”

The emperor was the commander-in-chief, but senators jealously guarded the right to the high posts of legionary command and prestigious governorships. The imperial aristocracy was able to control the empire with a remarkably thin layer of administrators. This light skein was only successful because it was cast over a foundational layer of civic aristocracies across the empire. The cities have been called the “load-bearing” pillars of the empire, and their elites were afforded special inducements, including Roman citizenship and pathways into the imperial aristocracy. The low rates of central taxation left ample room for peculation by the civic aristocracy. The enormous success of the “grand bargain” between the military monarchy and the local elites allowed imperial society to absorb profound but gradual changes—like the provincialization of the aristocracy and bureaucracy—without jolting the social order.

The Roman frontier system epitomized the resilience of the empire; it was designed to bend but not break, to bide time for the vast logistical superiority of the empire to overwhelm Rome’s adversaries. Even the most developed rival in the orbit of Rome would melt before the advance of the legionary columns. The Roman peace, then, was not the prolonged absence of war, but its dispersion outward along the edges of empire.

The grand and decisive imperial bargain, which defined the imperial regime in the first two centuries, was the implicit accord between the empire and “the cities.” The Romans ruled through cities and their noble families. The Romans coaxed the civic aristocracies of the Mediterranean world into their imperial project. By leaving tax collection in the hands of the local gentry, and bestowing citizenship liberally, the Romans co-opted elites across three continents into the governing class and thereby managed to command a vast empire with only a few hundred high-ranking Roman officials. In retrospect, it is surprising how quickly the empire ceased to be a mechanism of naked extraction, and became a sort of commonwealth.

Note that last part:  Rome “became a sort of commonwealth.”  It conquered much of the Western world and incorporated one-quarter of the earth’s population, but the conquered territories were generally better off under Rome than they had been before — benefiting from citizenship, expanded trade, and growing standards of living.  It was a remarkably stratified society, but its benefits extended even to the lower orders.  (For more on this issue, see my earlier post about Walter Scheidel’s book on the social benefits of war.)

At the heart of the Roman system were three cultural norms that guided civic life: self sufficiency, reciprocity, and patronage.  Let me focus on the latter, which seems to be dangerously absent in our own society at the moment.

The expectation of paternalistic generosity lay heavily on the rich, ensuring that less exalted members of society had an emergency lien on their stores of wealth. Of course, the rich charged for this insurance, in the form of respect and loyalty, and in the Roman Empire there was a constant need to monitor the fine line between clientage and dependence.

A key part of the grand bargain engineered by Rome was the state’s responsibility to feed its citizens.

The grain dole was the political entitlement of an imperial people, under the patronage of the emperor.

Preparation for famine — a chronic threat to premodern agricultural societies — was at the center of the system’s institutional resilience.  This was particularly important in an empire as thoroughly city-centered as Rome.  Keep in mind that Rome during the empire was the first city in the world to have 1 million residents; the second was London 1500 year later.

These strategies of resilience, writ large, were engrained in the practices of the ancient city. Diversification and storage were adapted to scale. Urban food storage was the first line of redundancy. Under the Roman Empire, the monumental dimensions of storage facilities attest the political priority of food security. Moreover, cities grew organically along the waters, where they were not confined to dependence on a single hinterland.

When food crisis did unfold, the Roman government stood ready to intervene, sometimes through direct provision but more often simply by the suppression of unseemly venality.

The most familiar system of resilience was the food supply of Rome. The remnants of the monumental public granaries that stored the food supply of the metropolis are still breathtaking.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we in the U.S. could face the challenges of climate change and pandemic as a commonwealth?  If so, we would be working to increase the resilience of our system:  by sharing the burden and spreading the wealth: by building up redundancy to store up for future challenges; by freeing ourselves from the ideology of economic efficiency in the service of social effectiveness.  Wouldn’t that be nice.