war and peace

The Prince: Brutality or Realism?

As I continue my journey to catch up in the reading for the Great Books Reading Project, I just completed the reading for May 2015, Machiavelli’s famous tract on leadership, The Prince. This is now the fourth time in my life that I have read The Prince and I was struck, as I have been in each reading since the first, in how different its effect upon was from previous readings.

The first time I read The Prince I was a teenager and, like all teenagers of an intellectual bent, a lover of Nietzsche. At that time, Machiavelli seemed to me to be a sort of proto-Nietzsche, and I loved it. I read The Prince again twice during my college years, for two different classes, one of which was while I was in my early 20s and the other while I was in my mid-20s. I think the line of separation that stands between these two readings is the experience of war. In the first, I was just beginning my time in the military. In the second, my stint in the Army was drawing to a close. As a result, in the first reading of the two college-era readings I saw in Machiavelli a brutal realist and in the second I saw in Machiavelli a realistic brutality.

It is only a thread that separates this brutal realism and realistic brutality from each other, but there is a world of difference in that thread. On the one hand, I think it is possible that Machiavelli is merely describing what he sees, and this was certainly my impression from my early college reading of him. On the other, he does seem to take some delight in describing and to turn his descriptions into prescriptions about how a prince should behave, which, in a sense, positions him as an advocate for a more brutal world.

I am undecided as to where I stand this time around, though I have to say that I like Machiavelli less each time I read him and this reading has been no exception. What are your thoughts? Is Machiavelli describing how to succeed in a brutal world or is there something brutal in Machiavelli himself that he prescribes for his prince? Or … ?

The Roman Reformers (Introduction to Western Civilization 4.6)

While events went well for Rome in its wars with its neighbors and its power continued to spread, things were not going well in the capital. There, the patricians and the plebeians continued to struggle with each other over power and wealth. These struggles between the social classes of Rome made it possible for certain charismatic politicians to gain large groups of follows. These politicians promised to make life in Rome better for the plebeians, slaves, and other poor people by reforming the government and the economy. Three of the most important of these politicians were the two Gracchi brothers, Tiberius and Gaius, and, later, the Roman general Gaius Marius.

One of the primary concerns of the plebeians was the growing wealth of those patricians who owned the land around Rome. Over time a plantation system had developed in Italy. In this system, a few wealthy patricians owned all of the land while slaves did all of the actual labor of farming. In this way, the rich landowners continued to get richer while it was increasingly difficult for small farmers to make money.

In 133 BC, Tiberius Gracchus attempted to reform the land ownership policies in the Roman Republic. Rather than having a few large plantations worked by slaves, Tiberius thought it was better to have many small farms whose owners worked to raise their own food. He began to give away government land to people who wanted to set up these small farms.

The Senate and other Roman leaders wanted to stop Tiberius’s plan to redistribute Roman land to the plebeian farmers. Eventually, the arguments between Gracchus and the other politicians turned violent. When Gracchus decided to try to continue in his position in government even after his term was up, a group of patricians finally assassinated him.

After the death of Tiberius Gracchus, his brother Gaius Gracchus attempted to continue his brother’s policies. Gaius Gracchus passed laws which allowed poor plebeians to be given land in the areas conquered by the Romans. He also used government money to buy food for poor people. Eventually, Gaius Gracchus also was assassinated by a group of patricians angry at him for helping the plebeians.

The next of the reformers was Gaius Marius. Like the Gracchi brothers, Marius promised the plebeians that he would reform Roman law to make them more equal to the patricians. Unlike the Gracchi, however, Marius was not a politician but a military leader. As a general in the Roman military, Marius used his position to change the requirements for those men who wanted to join the army. Previously, only Roman men who owned land could become Roman soldiers. Marius changed the law to say that a man did not have to own land to join the army. Because the army was a career that paid well and allowed a man to improve his position in society, many poor people began to join the army.

Another Roman military leader, Sulla, opposed Marius’s reforms. Sulla took the side of the Senate and the patricians. After Marius’s death from a lung disease, Sulla and other patricians took power on the Italian peninsula. Many of Marius’s supporters and others who desired reform were put to death. This was not the last time that Rome would fall under the influence of a politician with a charming personality and an attractive message, however.

 

Review Questions

 1. What were the names of the two Gracchi brothers?

2. Describe the reforms of the Gracchi brothers in a paragraph.

3. How did Gaius Marius reform the military? Answer in a sentence.

 

 Vocabulary Words

 Assassination – murder of an important political figure

Reform – make changes in something in order to improve it

The Punic Wars (Introduction to Western Civilization 4.5)

The Romans very quickly came to dominate the Italian peninsula. By about 200 BC, the Romans had conquered all of Italy and began to expand to other areas around the Mediterranean. In 218 BC, they conquered the Iberian Peninsula, where Spain is. In a series of battles fought between 215-148 BC, the Romans conquered the city-states of Greece as well as the region of Macedonia, where Alexander the Great had come from. Eventually, the Romans and their powerful legions would dominate the entire area around the Mediterranean Sea, which the Romans called “Mare Nostrum,” meaning “Our Sea.”

In order to take over the Mediterranean, though, the Romans had to fight a long and bitter war with another important power, the Carthaginians. The Carthaginians lived in Northern Africa just across the Mediterranean Sea from Italy. The Carthaginians had been a nation for almost as long as the Romans and, like the Romans, had been steadily increasing in power. Now, these two rising empires found themselves in a conflict over who would dominate the Mediterranean Sea. Only one of the two empires would survive the conflict.

This conflict, called the Punic Wars, began in 264 BC over a dispute concerning which of the two powers would be in charge of Sicily. Sicily is an island in the Mediterranean Sea between the Italian peninsula where the Romans were and the northern part of Africa where the Carthaginians were.

At first, the Punic Wars went terrible for the Romans. Because this was a war about who would dominate the Mediterranean Sea, most of the fighting took place on the water. The Romans, however, were more used to fighting on land. They had a very weak navy with badly built boats and inexperienced sailors. The Carthaginians, on the other hand, had been fighting on water for a long time. The Carthaginians had developed the fastest and most powerful ships in the world and their sailors, strong and experienced, knew how to use them well.

Through hard work and creativity, however, the Romans were able to recover in just a few years. They began by copying Carthaginian naval technology and tactics. They then used their own ingenuity to improve on these. Within a short time, the Romans were able to defeat the Carthaginians in naval battles.

The Carthaginians then decided to change tactics and attack the Romans on land using their most powerful weapon: armies of elephants. A Carthaginian general named Hannibal came up the idea. He brought the elephants as well as a large army of men with him from Africa by crossing the Strait of Gibraltar, the narrow part of the Mediterranean Sea between Africa and the Iberian Peninsula. He then marched the men and the elephants all the way from the Iberian Peninsula to Italy. The most difficult part of his journey was passing the Alps, the mountain range filled with very tall mountains just north of the Italian peninsula. Getting hundreds of elephants through a mountain range was a challenge, but Hannibal was able to do it.

In 218 BC, Hannibal launched his first attack on a Roman city in Italy. The people were terrified of the size and strength of the elephants. They Romans had never seen animals that large before. Hannibal spent years taking his army and its elephants all over the Italian peninsula, destroying Roman cities and crushing Roman armies. The Romans believed he was undefeatable. They were afraid that he would eventually come to the city of Rome itself and destroy the Roman people forever.

A Roman general named Scipio came up with a plan, however. Rather than trying to drive Hannibal and his army out of Italy by attacking them as other Roman leaders had tried to do, Scipio decided to take a Roman army across the sea to Carthage, the capital of the Carthaginian Empire. In 203 BC, Scipio and his men travelled to Africa and attacked the Carthaginians there. The capital had been left without many soldiers to defend it because most of the soldiers had gone to Italy with Hannibal.

Hannibal and his soldiers rushed back to Africa, moving as fast as they could to protect their capital city. They were too late, however. By the time they returned Scipio had already destroyed the few Carthaginian soldiers who had remained in Africa. Scipio then turned and quickly defeated Hannibal and his exhausted soldiers. Eventually, the Romans decided to complete destroy the entire city of Carthage. They burned all of the buildings to the ground and enslaved all of the people who lived there. Later, a Roman city was built over top of it. When the Punic Wars ended in 146 BC Carthaginian civilization ceased to exist and the Romans were left as the only group of people powerful enough to control the entire Mediterranean Sea.

 

 Review Questions

 1. What Carthaginian general led the attack on Italy? What did he do to terrify the Romans?

2. What Roman general led the attack on Carthage? What did he do to surprise the Carthaginians?

3. Who won the Punic Wars?

Alexander the Great (Introduction to Western Civilization 3.11)

Aristotle had many outstanding students. One of his students, a man named Theophrastus, for example, wrote two of the earliest books on botany. Perhaps the most famous and important of Aristotle’s students, however, was a young prince named Alexander.

Alexander, who would later be known as Alexander the Great, was not a Greek. Instead, he lived in a small kingdom just north of Greece called Macedonia. His father, Philip, was the king there. Aristotle was hired by Philip to be Aristotle’s personal teacher. Alexander learned many things from Aristotle. Among the subjects Alexander most enjoyed learning about were philosophy, religion, and art. Alexander was also very interested in literature. He loved the works of Homer so much that Aristotle gave him his own copy of the Iliad. Alexander later carried the book with him every time he left home.

In 336 BC, Alexander’s father, Philip, died and Alexander became king of Macedonia. Alexander had been eagerly waiting for the day when he would become king. He was very inspired by the stories of the great warriors and kings who had come before him. He dreamed of a conquering a vast empire like the conquerors he had read about.

Alexander set out on his conquests almost immediately. Within twelve years, Alexander conquered the largest empire that the world had ever seen. Alexander’s conquests included even the once-powerful kingdom of Egypt and the Persian Empire. In all of the twelve years he spent on his conquests, Alexander never lost a single battle. By the time Alexander was 32, his empire stretched from Macedonia to India.

He probably would have continued to conquer more land and expand his empire. At the age of 32, however, Alexander suddenly fell ill and died. After his death, Alexander’s empire was divided up among his top generals. The world would not see another empire as large as Alexander’s empire until the formation of the Roman Empire several hundred years later.

Although Alexander lived a short life and his empire broke up very quickly, he still had a very large impact on history. Through his conquests, Alexander spread Greek culture to other lands far away from Greece, such as Egypt. Greek language very quickly became the most popular and important language nearly everywhere around the Mediterranean Sea. Greek ideas, such as those of Plato and Aristotle, also spread nearly everywhere around the Mediterranean and changed the way that people thought. Most of all, Alexander’s conquests set the stage for the conquests of the Romans that would soon come.

 

Review Questions

 1. Who was Alexander the Great’s teacher?

2. What happened to Alexander’s empire after he died?

The Greco-Persian Wars (Introduction to Western Civilization 3.4)

After the end of the Greek Dark Age in about 800 BC, the city-states of Greece began to flourish. The epic of poems of Homer, the Iliad and the Odyssey, were written in about 800 BC and were performed all over Greece. The ideas and practices that made Greece unique began to form and increase in importance. In contrast to the Greek focus on liberty, however, the nearby Persian Empire instead believed that all people should be forced to submit to their emperor, who was viewed as being almost a god. The Persians invaded Greece twice to try to conquer it. These two invasions of Greece by the Persians are called the Greco-Persian Wars.

The Persians invaded Greece the first time in 490 BC. They landed near the Greek polis of Athens and demanded that the Athenians immediately surrender. The Athenians refused and began to prepare themselves for battle. They sent messengers to Sparta, the other very strong Greek polis, but the Spartans were unable to help. The Spartans were in the midst of a religious festival during which they were forbidden by their beliefs to engage in war. The Athenians had to fight the Persians on their own.

The battle took place at Marathon. In the Battle of Marathon, a much smaller and weaker Athenian force was able to defeat the powerful Persian Empire. It was a great victory of Greece. Without this victory, Western Civilization would not exist. The ideas of democracy, medicine, and science would have been lost forever had the Greeks been swallowed up by the Persian Empire. The Athenian soldiers sent a messenger named Pheidippides to bring the happy news back to the people in Athens. Pheidippides ran the entire 26 miles from Marathon to Athens. As he entered the city of Athens, he shouted, “We have won!” and collapsed dead from exhaustion. Today, when people run a marathon, they run 26 miles just like Pheidippides did.

The Persians were very angry at the Greeks for their defiance. The Persian emperor believed that he was a god and that all people should submit to him. Ten years after their first invasion of Greece, they invaded again in 480 BC. This time, the Spartans came to fight alongside the Athenians.

The Spartan soldiers, led by their king Leonidas, fought the Persian soldiers at the Battle of Thermopylae, near a valley between two mountains. At that place, Leonidas and his 300 Spartan soldiers were able to hold off the entire Persian army for several days. By the end of the battle, all 300 of Leonidas’s soldiers were killed but they had killed thousands of Persians. The Greek historian Herodotus guesses that about 20,000 Persian soldiers were killed in the Battle of Thermopylae. While we cannot be sure of the exact number, we know that so many Persian soldiers had been killed that the Persian army was forced to turn back rather than moving to attack the Greek cities. Although Leonidas and all 300 of his men were killed, they won the battle because they were able to protect Greece from the Persians. Today, there is a plaque on the spot where the Battle of Thermopylae was fought that has this inscription:

Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by,

That here, obedient to Spartan law, we lie.

The Athenians also fought the Persians again during the Second Greco-Persian War. Because they Athenians had a very large and strong navy, they decided to fight the Persians on the sea. At the Battle of Salamis, the Athenians were able to destroy almost 300 ships full of Persian soldiers, preventing them from landing in and attacking Greece. The Persian navy was almost entirely destroyed in the battle.

Following the defeats by the Spartans at the Battle of Thermopylae and the Athenians at the Battle of Salamis in 480 BC, the Persians were forced to once again withdraw from Greece. They had been beaten so badly by the Greeks that they never again invaded. As a result, Greek culture was allowed to continue to flourish and grow.

 

Review Questions

 1. List the year each of these battles occurred and which Greek polis was involved in the battle.

a. Battle of Marathon

b. Battle of Thermopylae

c. Battle of Salamis

We few, we happy, we band of brothers

If we are mark’d to die, we are enough
To do our country loss; and if to live,
The fewer men, the greater share of honour.
God’s will! I pray thee, wish not one man more.
By Jove, I am not covetous for gold,
Nor care I who doth feed upon my cost;
It yearns me not if men my garments wear;
Such outward things dwell not in my desires:
But if it be a sin to covet honour,
I am the most offending soul alive.
No, faith, my coz, wish not a man from England:
God’s peace! I would not lose so great an honour
As one man more, methinks, would share from me
For the best hope I have. O, do not wish one more!
Rather proclaim it, Westmoreland, through my host,
That he which hath no stomach to this fight,
Let him depart; his passport shall be made
And crowns for convoy put into his purse:
We would not die in that man’s company
That fears his fellowship to die with us.
This day is called the feast of Crispian:
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when the day is named,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say ‘To-morrow is Saint Crispian:’
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars.
And say ‘These wounds I had on Crispin’s day.’
Old men forget: yet all shall be forgot,
But he’ll remember with advantages
What feats he did that day: then shall our names.
Familiar in his mouth as household words
Harry the king, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester,
Be in their flowing cups freshly remember’d.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember’d;
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

 

– Henry V, in William Shakespeare, Henry V, Act IV, Scene III

A personal reflection on the Psalms

The Psalms, like any great literature or poetry, are both rooted firmly within their historical context and yet timeless and eternally contemporary. Reading the Psalms, then, is simultaneously an intensely personal experience and one that allows the reader to, in a sense, share in experiences which are entirely foreign to him. This is especially true for a person of faith, for whom the Psalms are both the word of God as well as his own words to God.

One example of this simultaneous immediacy and distance exhibited by the Psalms is the martial imagery which runs throughout many of them. As a former soldier who experienced combat, psalms like the 18th present many images that are vivid and intimate to me. Verse 9, for example, “the earth heaved and shuddered, / the mountain’s foundations were shaken,” which Robert Alter identifies as describing an “artillery barrage” evokes my own memories of experiencing artillery attacks. The perception of being surrounded by enemies who want to destroy you which is referenced in many Psalms is also an experience with which I am familiar. In Psalm 3:7, for example, the psalmist describes “myriads of troops / that round about set against me.” The imagery being used here in the Psalms is imagery that is very real to me. As I read each Psalm and consider each verse, my mind most frequently turns to memories of my combat experiences.

This martial imagery, though, is not limited in its applicability only to events of my past. Though I am no longer a soldier and am far from a combat zone, the imagery, through its vividness for me, provides a powerful metaphor for the Christian life more generally. The experience of warfare between people informs my understanding of the spiritual warfare in which all Christians are engaged. In this sense, then, my own experience of warfare, viewed through the lens of the Psalms, informs my approach to my relationship with God. The real battle, though, is not against flesh but against sin.

Psalm 51 presents an example of a psalm which much more clearly focuses on this battle against sin, deploying no allegories of warfare but instead providing the words of a soul directly addressing God and imploring his mercy and forgiveness. This psalm is by far the one with which I feel the greatest connection. Given the prominent position this psalm has been given, as perhaps the most recited psalm, in both Jewish and Christian prayer, it seems this connection is one that many others throughout history have shared as well. In the Eastern Orthodox Church, this psalm is recited at some point in nearly every church service and is often included in the daily prayers of individuals, including myself. I believe this is because it is such a pure expression of the absolute humility a repentant sinner feels when standing in the presence of God. It is hard to be human and not relate to this psalm.

The same is true of the desperate pleas to a God who is “hidden” that recur throughout many of the psalms, such as Psalms 69:18 and 13:2. The idea of God hiding from a person perfectly captures the feeling of utter desperation and aloneness which any one of us feels when in the midst of dire trouble. The note of enduring hope upon which nearly all of the psalms end, including even those that express the greatest despair, however, confirm the unfailing faith of the psalmist that God will ultimately intervene in spite of his apparent hiddenness.

The overall message of the psalms is summarized in the first psalm, which Alter identifies as a kind of introduction to the Book of Psalms. Aristotle, rightly, I believe, identified the greatest desire of all human beings as happiness because this, he said, is the only thing we seek for its own sake rather than for some other end. It is fitting, then, that the first word of the first psalm is “happy” and that this psalm goes on to describe the path to happiness. As Aristotle identified the means to happiness as virtue, the psalmist describes the means similarly. For the psalmist, the path to happiness, to what every human being seeks, and certainly what I seek, is to obey and follow God. If this psalm accurately summarizes the message of the entire book, as I believe it does, the psalms are, ultimately, about how to live a truly and fully human life.

The question that I encounter every day and that I believe each person encounters, though many perhaps avoid answering, is one of how we should live our life, which is the only life we have, as human beings in the truest sense of that term. The Psalms teach us a great deal about the answer to that question. All great literature, in fact, teaches us a great deal about how to answer that question. Both because and in spite of the historical context in which each work falls, each provides us with a new insight into the eternal questions of humanity. The Psalms, however, as a book that is both thoroughly human and divinely inspired, surpasses nearly all of them. For me, the experience of reading the psalms cannot be separated from my experience of them as a Christian participating in the liturgical life of the Church. The psalms, then, are, for me, a dialogue between my soul and God, with the script provided by God through my forbears in faith.