Anglo-Saxon England, Part I

After the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, first spurred by the Visigothic sack of Rome in AD 410 followed by the collapse of the western Empire in AD 476, a cloud of darkness overcame the island of Britain. Very little writing or culture emerged as the world of the Britons became immersed in constant war. The bloody and murderous assaults were regularly perpetrated by the Picts and the Scots as they overran Hadrian’s Wall and fought the kingdoms of the Britons. However, a growing threat also emerged from the East: the seafaring Germanic warring culture known as the Saxons. Amidst this hazy picture of anarchy, Winston Churchill notes, there were four windows into a “dim and coloured glass” offering us a glimpse into what truly happened between the Britons and the Saxons: Gildas, Bede, and then much later, the Historia Britonium, and the famous Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

The first writer who documented the destruction of Britannia by the Saxons was Gildas “The Wise.” In the 6th century, he penned a diatribe from the perspective of the Britons entitled De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae (or “On the Ruin of Britain”). Gildas was a monk and his Latin text is composed of a series of sermons condemning many of the political and religious leaders of post-Roman Britain. In contrast, nearly 200 years later, from the perspective of the invaders, the Saxons, came the Venerable Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Bede was a provincial Anglo-Saxon monk from Northumbria, born in 673. He was sophisticated and well-educated and his chronological history is sober and reflective, with just a hint of contempt for early Britain. Still the haze enveloping this epoch makes it difficult to discern truth from fiction. Hundreds of years later Geoffrey of Monmouth celebrated this era for its fabled aristocracy, chivalry, Christian faith, knights and ladies and so on. Out of the cloud of this mist emerged the legend of King Arthur, a defiant British king who upheld the chivalrous customs of his ancestors while defending his kingdom against the Saxons. King Arthur was made popular in the chivalric romance tradition, and his story is echoed in the writings of Chrétien de Troyes and Thomas Malory.

How did the Saxons ultimately succeed over the Britons? After many years of coastal raids along the British isle, Gildas writes of how a naive king of the Britons, King Vortigern (“Mighty king”), was in need of military support to defend against the Picts and the Scots. Finding no help from Rome, he regrettably called upon the Saxons, led by two brothers, Hengist and Horsa. Vortigern fatefully invited them to the British island like a Trojan Horse being led across their network of coastal defenses. The Saxons were lured with the promise of payment in exchange for military support. However, in the absence of Roman bureaucracy, payment was difficult, slow, and not always accurate. Money became a growing bone of contention between the Britons and the Saxons. Thus, the Saxons soon turned their swords against the Britons, and eventually an all-out war erupted. Whole towns were sacked and entire populations were horrendously murdered across the entire island. Scores of Saxons flooded into Britain. The invaders were merciless, running naked through the countryside, sparing none, slaughtering all. Where once stood walls and roads, now sat piles of human bodies, toppled architecture, and scattered limbs with blood lining the roads and villas. However, at the Battle of Mount Badon (late 5th or early 6th century), one lone British royal hold-out secured a victory under the military guidance of Ambrosius Aurelianus around AD 490. But by the end of the 6th century, almost everything south of Hadrian’s Wall had been completely re-populated by Saxons.

From the opposite perspective, Bede tells us of three primary Germanic groups who invaded Britain: the Saxons, the Angles, and the Jutes. They were a mostly egalitarian people without kings, ruled by blood and kin. They were part of the greater diaspora of Germanic tribes, forever the enemies of Rome. Their German homeland lay on the plains between the River Elbe to the east and the River Ems to the west in a region still known as “lower Saxony” (Neidersachsen) in present-day northern Germany. For the Saxons, the tribe was the family unit and money was the supreme law, and the position of king grew in purpose and authority following their invasion of Britain. Upon the takeover of Britain, the Anglo-Saxons began creating feudal hierarchies intended to dominate their subordinates. Saxon leaders began referring to themselves as rex (“king”) and new laws were created. Much of the ethnographic information on the Germanic tribes, like the Saxons, comes down to us in the writings of the late Roman aristocrat, Tacitus because the Saxons were illiterate.

The Saxons had no cities, they disliked close neighbors. They lived in a smattering of hamlets throughout the countryside. Their houses were made of wood and their garb was simple, muted.

There is a rousing debate that continues to this day between whether the invading Saxons wholly exterminated the native Britons or instead intermingled and reproduced with at least some of them. I tend to agree with the latter -there is enough evidence to suggest the Saxons kept some living Welsh noblemen on their lands, and they likely took some British women as concubines. However, the overwhelming majority of the Britons were wholly massacred by the Saxon incursion.

For this reading I used Winston Churchill’s essential History of English Speaking Peoples, David Starkey’s Crown and Country, Peter Ackroyd’s FoundationThe History of England From Its Earliest Beginnings To The Tudors, and the writings of Gildas, the Venerable Bede, Historia Britonium (perhaps written by Nennius), The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Tacitus, and Geoffrey of Monmouth.

Where Did The Hebrew Bible Come From?

The origins of the term “Hebrew” remain a mystery. The Biblical term Ivri, meaning “to traverse” or “to pass over,” is usually rendered as “Hebrew” in English, and it comes down to us from the ancient Greek Ἑβραῖος and the Latin “Hebraeus.” The Biblical word Ivri has the plural form Ivrim, or Ibrim.

In addition, the word “book” is somewhat mysterious, as well. It comes down to us from the Middle English, via the Old French from ecclesiastical Latin for “biblia”, which comes from the Greek “biblia” meaning ‘(the) books’, from biblion ‘book’, originally a diminutive of biblos meaning ‘papyrus, scroll’, of Semitic origin. It may refer to the ‘people of the book,’ the ancient Hebrews.

The Tanakh, or Hebrew Bible, is the canonized collection of books, divided into 24 scrolls, that has come down to us from ancient times. The modern 24 scrolls have been canonized from the Masoretic text (developed in the medieval period which is the primary source for the Hebrew and Aramaic language texts in the Hebrew Bible, and confirmed with certain texts found at Qumran). However, much earlier the canon was divided into three main sections: the Torah,  or “Teaching,” also called the Pentateuch in Greek or the “Five Books of Moses”; the Neviʾim, or “Prophets”; and the Ketuvim, or “Writings.” Since we cannot possibly know the true origins of the Hebrew canon, we can only point at the “likely story,” to quote Plato’s Timaeus. A popular theory is that Ezra and Nehemiah were the faithful scribes who returned the Torah to Jerusalem after the Babylonian captivity, which ended in 539 BC when Cyrus conquered Babylon and freed the Jewish slaves.

Many of the early books of the canon were cited by rabbis, particularly books of the Torah, among other apocryphal Hebrew texts, such as in the book of Sirach or also in the writings of Philo and Josephus. The contemporary Hebrew Bible was likely set somewhere between the Hasmonean Dynasty in Judah or even as late as the 2nd century, though the Torah was likely assembled much earlier.

The Hebrew canon survived near constant imperial domination of Israel and was thankfully absorbed into the Hellenic world. The scrolls were adopted into the library at Alexandria and they were translated as the Septuagint (transliterated and latinized from the Greek meaning the “the translation of the seventy” -in reference to the 70 Jewish scholars commissioned by Ptolemy II Philadelphus, six from each of the twelve tribes of Israel to produce an identical translation). The Pentateuch (meaning something like “five books”) is the Greek term for the Torah. The Septuagint is the earliest Koine Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, the one most commonly used during the time of Jesus. As Christianity developed, the Hebrew canon was transformed into the “Old Testament.” In the late 4th century, Jerome translated the Vulgate, a Latin translation of the Bible, and gradually the Bible became widespread as it was translated into the common tongues of people the world over. In Islam, the Torah (“Tawrah”) is believed to be a revelation to Moses, and the Psalms (“Zabur”) are believed to be a revelation to David. Therefore, the Hebrew Bible, its collection of ancient scrolls, have been interpreted and reimagined the across the world, spawning three monotheistic religions.

The Peloponnesian War, Book III: Invasion and Revolution

Book III of Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War begins as Archidamus, King of Sparta, invades Attica. This triggers a revolt, notably on the island of Lesbos, owing to Athens’s enslavement of its allies. This rebellion in turn causes a proxy war for Athens with the Mytilenians. The Plataeans are attacked by Thebes and retreat to Athens, and Athens defeats the revolt of the Mytilenians, who Cleon, the most “violent man” in Athens and a “man of the people” argues for the Athenians to execute the Mytilenians. He claims arguments are useless and that action and punishment are needed. While Diodotus argues against execution as the Mytilenians can actually be useful. Thus Athens spares Mytilene. Meanwhile, Sparta decides to execute the remaining Plataeans from the attack by Thebes.

Then Corcyra revolts and is defeated. Thucydides provides a lengthy, cautionary, and illuminating reflection on the nature and evils of revolution. Portions are quoted below:

“So bloody was the march of the revolution, and the impression which it made was the greater as it was one of the first to occur. Later on, one may say, the whole Hellenic world was convulsed; struggles being everywhere made by the popular leaders to bring in the Athenians, and by the oligarchs to introduce the Spartans. In peace there would have been neither the pretext nor the wish to make such an invitation; but in war, with an alliance always at the command of either faction for the hurt of their adversaries and their own corresponding advantage, opportunities for bringing in the foreigner were never wanting to the revolutionary parties. The sufferings which revolution entailed upon cities were many and terrible, such as have occurred and always will occur as long as the nature of mankind remains the same; though in a severer or milder form, and varying in their symptoms, according to the variety of the particular cases. In peace and prosperity states and individuals find themselves suddenly confronted with imperious necessities; but war takes away the easy supply of daily wants and so proves a rough master that brings most men’s characters to a level with their fortunes. Revolution thus ran its course from city to city, and the places which it arrived at last, from having heard what had been done before, carried to a still greater excess the refinement of their inventions, as manifested in the cunning of their enterprises and the atrocity of their reprisals. Words had to change their ordinary meaning and to take that which was now was given them. Reckless audacity came to be considered the courage of a loyal supporter; prudent hesitation, specious cowardice; moderation was held to be a cloak for unmanliness; ability to see all sides of a question incapacity to act on any. Frantic violence became the attribute of manliness; cautious plotting a justifiable means of self-defense. The advocate of extreme measures was always trustworthy; his opponent a man to be suspected…The fair proposals of an adversary were met with jealous precautions by the stronger of the two, and not with generous confidence. Revenge was also held of more account than self-preservation. Oaths of reconciliation, being only offered on either side to meet an immediate difficulty, only held so long as no other weapon was at hand…The leaders in the cities made the fairest professions: on the one side with the cry of political equality of The People, on the other of a moderate aristocracy; but they sought prizes for themselves in those public interests which they pretended to cherish and, stopping at nothing in their struggles for ascendancy, engaged in direct excesses. In their acts of vengeance they went to even greater lengths, not limiting them to what justice or the good of the state demanded, but making party caprice of the moment their only standard….Meanwhile the moderate part of the citizens perished between the two, either for not joining in the quarrel, or because envy would not suffer them to escape.”

“Thus every form of iniquity took root in the Hellenic countries by reason of the troubles. The ancient simplicity into which honor so largely entered was laughed down and disappeared; and society became divided into camps in which no man trusted his fellow” (3.82-3.84).

He concludes his thoughts on revolution as follows:

“In the confusion into which life was now thrown in the cities, human nature, always rebelling against the law and now its master, gladly showed itself ungoverned in passion, above respect for justice, and the enemy of all superiority; since revenge would not have been set above religion, and gain above justice, had it not been for the fatal power of envy. Indeed men too often take upon themselves in the prosecution of their revenge to set the example of doing away with those general laws to which all alike can look for salvation in adversity, instead of allowing them to subsist against the day of danger when their aid may be required” (3.84).

Does Thucydides believe in virtue? If war is the natural state, and he agrees with Socrates that war is the “city in motion”, then does he believe the rule of the strong is the truest form of human political activity? At least on the surface, Thucydides laments the destructive forces of revolution, but he also acknowledges that revolution will exist so long as human nature embraces faction and passion over moderation. His description brings to mind tales of the chaos that ensued during 18th century France.

The conclusion of Book III ends with a return of the plague to Athens and several skirmishes with neighboring cities, which the Athenian General Demosthenes leads to victory. There is a minor withdrawal of the Spartans, and Mount Etna, the largest volcanic mountain on Sicily, suddenly erupts. Natural chaos mirrors political chaos. Thus concludes the sixth year of the war. Each book closes with a reminder that Thucydides was the author of his history.

For this reading I used the impeccable Landmark edition of Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War by businessman-turned classical scholar Robert B. Strassler.

Notes on Numbers

The traditional Hebraic title for the book of Numbers is “Bemidbar” meaning “In The Wilderness.” It is titled to honor the census that takes place in its opening chapters, followed by a reiterating of the Israelites in the Sinai wilderness following the embodiment of the Lord in a cloud.

Eventually, at Chapter 11, the Israelites complain – at least in their slavery in Egypt they had food and shelter. Continually throughout Numbers, the Israelites complain to Moses and Aaron, who fall on their face before the people, and God proves himself to them. For example, he utterly destroys the Amalekites in Chapter 14, however still the Israelites complain about a lack of food. Thus, the Lord decides to condemn them to wander in the wilderness until a new generation can be brought into the promised land. Eventually even Moses disobeys God by not speaking to a rock, thus he is forbidden from entering Canaan. On the steppes of Moab after crossing the Jordan across from Jericho, Balaam betrays the Israelites. Joshua is appointed as Moses’s successor. As with the opening of the book, Numbers closes with a census of the Israelites.

Numbers is an odd collection of reiterated prohibitions from Leviticus, as well as a long series of censuses taken, and in the middle it tells the story of the Israelites in their unfaithful acts toward God, and His routine demonstrations to them of His power and the need for their faith in the promise of Canaan, a land of their own.

For this reading I used Robert Alter’s masterful translation of the Torah.