The Breakdown of Democracy and the Return of Family Murders in Rome

Monday, April 14th, 2014

Randall Collins discusses the breakdown of democracy and the return of family murders in Rome:

The Roman Republic had a strong antipathy to kingship; when it came back, in the hereditary succession of the Caesars, its was accompanied by a renewal of family murders. The great founder and administrator Augustus kept domestic peace. He was personally very upright, moralistic, even prudish; but the younger generations of his family turned out just the opposite. Succession crises grew steadily bloodier through the next four rulers. It got so complicated you can’t tell the murders without a scorecard.

Augustus lived to be 77, and the only one of his children or grandchildren who survived him was his daughter Julia, who was so profligate with her lovers that he banished her and adopted as his heir a favorite general, Tiberius. Tiberius grew paranoid of conspiracies as his reign went on, resulting in a veritable reign of terror encouraged by his chief ministers, in which over 100 suspects were killed, and Tiberius’ only son was poisoned. Tiberius’ brother Drusus was long since dead, but his son Germanicus was another popular general; Tiberius had this nephew killed out of jealousy, along with his wife and two sons. To keep the lineage alive, the youngest of Germanicus’ sons was spared (only 7 years old at the time of these murders), and when Tiberius died (37 AD, at the age of 79), he had grown up to become the Emperor Caligula. Caligula in turn banished or murdered almost of all of his relatives except his incestuous sister; reigning only 4 years, he was killed by the Praetorian guard. The soldiers then put on the throne the only remaining member of the imperial household, Caligula’s old uncle Claudius, a retiring scholar, son of Tiberius’ brother Drusus. Claudius was an ineffectual emperor, run by his third wife Messalina– she married her own uncle. Notorious for her sexual appetite, Messalina also killed the daughters of Germanicus and Drusus, expanding the victim list from males to females to clear away potential rivals. Claudius finally had her killed when she married her lover in public. His next wife was even worse: Agrippina, one of the daughters of Germanicus that Messalina missed; she got Claudius to put aside his own son and adopt her son by a previous husband, Nero, as heir. That accomplished, she apparently poisoned Claudius.

Nero, finally, murdered Claudius’s son– just to make sure; then killed his own mother– the evil interfering Agrippina; followed by killing his wife, another wife, another daughter of Claudius who he offered to marry but was turned down, and took yet another wife after killing her husband. Finally the legions rose against him and he committed suicide, replaced by one of the generals. From then on, things moved away from family murders, into a pattern where the army generally decided the succession; in some periods of orderly rule the emperor would adopt a competent follower as his heir.

It was almost an experiment in all the things that can go wrong with family succession: aging rulers who outlive their own children; spoiled brats with unlimited resources surrounded by plotters; paranoia about conspiracies leading to preemptive murdering of all possible candidates, in turn resulting in even more unsuitable candidates, either completely unworldly types like Claudius or irresponsible pleasure-seekers like Caligula and Nero, Messalina and Agrippina. The amount of husband-murdering, wife-murdering, child-murdering, and even mother-murdering that went on match pretty much anything that the Greek dramatists could have plotted from their nightmares, without the dignity of projection into the world of myth.

I am aware that the structural conditions listed for the family murders in the Persian/Greek period do not all hold for the Roman period. The early Roman Empire was not a time of complicated multi-sided geopolitics; nor of exiles and pretenders at foreign courts eager to interfere. What was similar was hereditary rule based on personal loyalty, without checks and balances or administrative bureaucracy; and legitimate succession through marriages calculated purely for political advantage. The Romans seemed more reflective about it, in the sense that they looked for plots everywhere and engaged in paranoid purges to forestall possible rivals. Arranged marriages did exist in Rome, becoming quite prominent during the last two generations of the Republic, when the country went through repeated civil wars.

Despite the strong patriarchal structure, maternal connections became important; for instance Julius Caesar got his start by being related through his mother to Marius, the famous general and leader of the liberal faction during the Social Wars. Julius made his daughter Julia marry his various political allies, and divorce them when alliances changed. Since Rome did not have polygamy, divorce became common. Elite women got used to being important political actors—like Anthony’s wife, who carried on politics in Italy during his absences. The situation became more gender-symmetrical as the Empire was established; strong rulers like Augustus insisted that his favorite generals divorce their wives to marry into his family. This helps explain why there were women like Messalina and Agrippina. Roman women of the elite, unlike in Greece, were much more active schemers in their own interest; the nearest Greek equivalents were Alexander’s mother, and the last Cleopatra.

The classical Greek/Persian situation did reappear in some later instances, as in England during the time of Henry VIII and his 6 wives, in the midst of volatile foreign alliances and religious side-switching. It culminated in the struggle between two of his daughters, Queen Mary (“bloody Mary”) and Queen Elizabeth, the latter winning out via a series of revolts, plots, stake-burnings, and executions. Once parliamentary rule was established, murders inside elite families became a thing of the past.

When Oedipal Conflicts Were Real

Sunday, April 13th, 2014

Is it a coincidence that the Oedipus story and the Orestes-Electra story were first made popular in Greece, Randall Collins asks, in the century before Philip and Alexander?

These were the most famous plays of the Greek tragedians, Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. They were performed at the great festival in Athens, when theatrical drama was just being created, beginning in the years after the Persian invasions were turned back (490–466 BC). The theme of sons and daughters killing fathers and mothers and vice versa, and of sibling loyalty and betrayal, are just what they would have heard about the Persians, with their bloody succession fights from the time of Cyrus onwards, indeed what happened to Xerxes the most dangerous invader.*

*Xerxes was murdered in his palace (quite possibly by his son and heir) in 465 BC; Aeschylus’ Orestes trilogy was produced in 458.

The Greek dramatists set these themes in the historic or mythical past — not a time of democracy like the present, but of hereditary kings in the most important cities of Greece — Argos, Thebes, Corinth, Athens. And what did they find most dramatic about them?

What the dramas depicted was happening in Persia at the very time they were being performed in Athens; would happen again in places like Macedonia on the Greek periphery that still had kings; and would follow in the career of Alexander and his successors.

The story of Orestes and Electra, brother and sister, is the story of a father killing his daughter; a wife and her lover killing her husband; and a son and daughter killing their mother and step-father. It is tacked onto the Homeric history of the Trojan war. Agamemnon, greatest of the Homeric kings (and one of the bad guys in the Iliad plot), is depicted as having sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia in order to procure a favorable wind from a goddess for his voyage to Troy. During the ten years while he is away, back in Argos his wife Clytemnestra takes a lover, Aegisthus — a conventional enough story of soldiers away at war (in the US Army, hearing from such a wife used to be called getting a Dear John letter). Agamemnon finally returns; the lovers kill him, and Aegisthus becomes King. (This isn’t too different from Arsinoe displacing a previous wife to the King of Macedon and killing the heir; whereupon the aggrieved wife calls on her siblings to take revenge.) They search for Agamemnon’s son and heir, the baby Orestes, to eliminate any threat to the succession, but his older sister Electra has taken him away and entrusted him to a foreigner to bring up. Orestes finally returns, grown to adulthood, and he and Electra murder their mother and King Aegisthus.*

*Nobody really cares about the murder of Iphigenia, except her mother Clytemnestra, which is her initial motive for taking a lover and murdering her husband. But Clytemnestra is depicted as evil, and the lives of females did not count much anyway in this system. It is killing a husband/father that is the really bad thing.

In real life, as we see from the Persian, Macedonian, and Hellenistic cases, the story would have ended here. Orestes would have set up as legitimate King, and who was to criticize him? In the plays, however, the plot turns surrealistic; supernatural vengeance, in the form of the Furies, chase Orestes from city to city.

The Oedipus story, which Sophocles produced about 440-400 BC, is about an attempted infanticide (which fails); whereupon the boy grows up, kills his father, and marries his mother. Like Orestes, the parent-killer is marked to be killed as a child, but is brought up by foreigners (like Philip and many other exiles and hostages). When he is strong enough he returns home, gets into a prideful quarrel with a pugnacious older man — a road-rage dispute — and kills him (one can easily substitute Alexander and his drunken father). The mother-marrying angle is the only part that is not paralleled in real life; one can say that it is what Sophocles the dramatist adds to make the plot a real shocker, but it does have a structural aspect, since it is by marrying her that Oedipus becomes King — the goal that everyone was always fighting about.*

*Once again the infanticide is glossed over, it being normal then for parents to kill their children; the Greek audience presumably thought no one should resent it, although Alexander’s life suggests that some sons did not take kindly to being menaced by their parents. That this sort of thing regularly happened in the ancient Mediterranean world is attested by laws in the Hebrew Old Testament that parents should have a disobedient son stoned to death (Deuteronomy 2:18-21). Another indication is Abraham’s willingness to kill his son Isaac in blood sacrifice, although it is finally called off by the Lord’s angel with a promise that the people of Israel will conquer all their enemies (Genesis 22: 1-18). Child-sacrifice for war-success continued down to 150 BC in Carthage, a colony of Phoenicia, one of Israel’s neighbours. Alexander witnessed it himself: a Balkan tribe that opposed him in 335 BC preceded their battle, as was their custom, by sacrificing three boys, three maidens, and three sheep. Alexander’s attack interrupted the sacrifice (Bury p. 742). Parents killing their children historically preceded the children fighting back. Freud misinterpreted this as a childhood fantasy.

The details of the Oedipus saga bring out the political aspects. Laius, King of Thebes, is driven out by a rival; he takes refuge with Pelops (ancestor of Agamemnon), but brings down a curse on himself and his family by kidnapping Pelops’ son. Returning to power in Thebes, he marries Jocasta, but is warned by a god that their son will kill him; so they drive a spike through his feet and leave him on a mountain to die. A shepherd finds the baby and takes him to Corinth, where the King and Queen bring him up as their own son — a variant on the usual practices of exile and hostage. Oedipus’s killing of his father Laius and becoming King of Thebes we know. The more elaborate story follows the fate of his sons.

After Oedipus blinds himself in shame at his offense, he curses his two sons that they will kill each other. The father is deposed and the sons succeed him, agreeing to divide the kingship by ruling in alternative years. But the one who rules first refuses to make way for his brother, who has gone into exile and married the daughter of the King of Argos; whereupon the father-in-law puts together a coalition to attack Thebes (the usual story of exiles getting support for interfering in domestic politics). The attack fails, and the two brothers kill each other simultaneously. The next King, Creon, is another harsh bad guy, leading to further troubles of the remaining daughter, Antigone, trying to get proper burial rites for her favorite brother; this is probably just the playwrights spinning out a favorite story with sequels, but it fits the general theme — bad blood in the family keeps on perpetuating itself.

Finally there is mitigation. The playwrights begin preaching that the cycle of ancestral sins and punishments passed on from generation to generation must have a stop; barbaric fury must give way to civilization. Aeschylus attributed the turmoil in Agamemnon’s family to an ancestral curse, deriving from his ancestor King Pelops who cheated and killed a rival for a king’s daughter. Oedipus discovers his own sins because his city is cursed with a plague which the oracle says cannot be dispelled until the murderer of the previous king is found, and Oedipus puts a curse on his own sons which causes them to kill each other. The chorus of the playwright Sophocles prays at Oedipus’s death for absolution. In the end, Orestes too finds relief from the Furies that pursue him.

Durkheim showed that the gods are constructed as a reflection of society. The Greeks saw multiple gods and spirits around them, pushing and warning humans one way and another; but above them all was Fate, Nemesis, a higher order of things. The most important of these patterns, revealed in the most famous plays that their dramatists created, was that fighting over hereditary power was never-ending; it generated family murder, in a chain passed along from generation to generation. The only way to stop it was to introduce the rule of law, law above the kings and queens and their ever-striving, ever-vengeful sons and daughters. This meant the end of hereditary monarchy; the Greek word for king — tyrannos — eventually came to mean tyrant. Democracy, for all its faults — and it had its own form of violence in faction fights and judicial prosecutions — would remove the legitimacy of rule from mere family heredity. Democracy at any rate eliminated succession crises and the structures that promoted family murder. Unfortunately for the Greeks, kingship returned with the Macedonians and the successor-states to the Persian Empire.

What or who gives a nation its sacred values?

Saturday, April 12th, 2014

What — or who — gives a nation its sacred values?

A moment’s reflection should tell us that, in fact, they emerge from political discussions within each nation. It is natural to wonder, then, whether powerful interests cannot steer those discussions towards certain desired ends. If they can, aren’t these so-called ‘sacred’ values really just the inventions of manipulative elites?

In a sense, that’s exactly what they are. Yet the process as a whole remains a matter of blind evolution, in which no party can be certain of the outcome. Suppose a particular interest group – a band of ideological entrepreneurs – were to introduce an ideological ‘meme’ into the public discourse (think of Cato the Elder’s catchphrase, ‘Carthage must be destroyed’). These memes compete against others. Some become popular and are internalised by a majority of the population; others remain niche preoccupations or fall by the wayside altogether. In time, popular memes come to exert an influence over the behaviour of the state. Then natural selection, acting through international conflict, eliminates those states that have internalised ‘bad’ memes.

This is a long-term dynamic involving multiple generations. In the short term, it’s true that ruling elites can whip up nationalistic fervour. External events (an attack, for example) can trigger it. But it still depends on the existence of certain bedrock attitudes that have evolved over many years. That means it isn’t always the elites who manipulate the wider population; popular attitudes also constrain elite choices and actions. And this suggests a further corollary: states in which the elites and the general population share the same bedrock values will tend to be much more effective in the international arena, committing to their course without demur.

No Heroes to Simplify Our Memory

Saturday, April 12th, 2014

The Hellenistic period of Greek and Middle-Eastern history is not a popular one, Randall Collins says, because there are no heroes to simplify our memory, and above all because it is too complicated:

Alexander’s conquest did not change the pattern of succession crises. As soon as he died, at least 10 contenders came forward to take control of the Empire, including the older generals Alexander inherited from Philip, plus his own important commanders. This produced a volatile situation of multisided conflict that took over 20 years to settle down.

The first three years after Alexander’s death were a shifting kaleidoscope of alliances, side-switches, and deals. The senior commander of the infantry phalanx proposed as successor Alexander’s half-brother, a feeble-minded illegitimate son of Philip (under his guardianship, of course); rivals proposed Alexander’s infant son by Roxane. Perdiccus, the senior cavalry commander, proposed as a compromise that both should rule jointly, then had the phalanx commander murdered, leaving himself as sole guardian. Perdiccus then alienated Antipater, the Macedonian viceroy, by jilting his daughter to marry Alexander’s sister Cleopatra.* Perdiccus in turn was betrayed by his own troops to Antigonus, a one-eyed general whose lineage would eventually get the Macedonian part of the empire. It wasn’t just family members who killed each other in this atmosphere of betrayal.

*Not the famous Cleopatra who ruled Egypt 51–30 BC, had affairs with both Julius Caesar and Mark Anthony, and ordered the murder of her own brother Ptolemy, her adolescent co-ruler. Cleopatra and Ptolemy were both popular Macedonian names.

Eventually the 10 contenders winnowed down to 4 or 5. After the initial free-for-all, the strongest concentrated on hunting down and eliminating Philip and Alexander’s relatives, all the contenders and pretenders. Alexander’s son by Roxane, who should have been the legitimate heir, was killed at age 13. The Empire began to settle into a pattern of 3 states: Egypt; an Asian state in the heart of the old Persian Empire (Iran, Mesopotamia, Syria); and Macedon/Asia Minor. But they kept trying to take each other’s territory — general Ptolemy in Egypt for instance used his fleet to control the Greek cities around the Aegean Sea — and wars and betrayals kept on happening. In Macedon, a surviving son of the monarchy, now called Philip III, was manipulated by his wife into allying with the son of the viceroy Antipater; they were opposed by Alexander’s mother, Queen Olympias, who engineered the death of yet another of her stepsons, until she herself was executed.

Forty years after Alexander’s death all his relatives were dead, but the sons and daughters of his generals were still at it. The current ruler of Macedon, Lysimachus, was persuaded by his third wife, Arsinoe, to put his own son to death, in favor of her own children. Lysandra, the widow of the slain man, allied with her brother Ptolemy II and the Asian forces of Seleucus to invade Macedon and kill Lysimachus; at which point Ptolemy II had his ally killed so as not to share the spoils with him. And this was another sibling quarrel, since Arsinoe, Lysandra and Ptolemy II were all half-brothers and half-sisters, all children of the many wives of Ptolemy I. It was a chain of revenges and murderous ambitions such as the Greek dramatists described as divine powers of the Furies, or Nemesis.

The Role of Individuals in History

Friday, April 11th, 2014

Both politicians and the general public overestimate the role of individuals in history, Peter Turchin suggests:

Presumably that’s why, when Russia annexed Crimea, much of the debate in the US press revolved around the personal motivations of Putin. In reality, however, individual statesmen have a limited ability to affect international relations, which are primarily driven by geopolitical and sociocultural forces. Putin is an important player, no doubt, but only insofar as he reflects the values and goals of his support groups in Russia: his inner circle, a broader coalition of the elites that back him, and, no less importantly, the general population.

All parties represented in the Duma (Russian Parliament) are solidly behind Putin. In the Duma vote, 445 votes were for the annexation with only one against. It was hardly surprising that Putin’s party, United Russia, supported him. But the other three parties, Just Russia, the Liberal Democrats and even the Communists, were also solidly behind him. That is less usual.

Even more importantly, the general population overwhelmingly supports Putin on this issue. In a large sociological study that polled almost 50,000 Russians, more than 90 per cent said that they wanted Crimea to become part of Russia. Only 5 per cent were opposed. Putin’s policy of ‘reunification with Crimea’ is extremely popular. His approval ratings soared from an already high 60 per cent to 76 per cent. Sociologists such as Alexander Oslon, of the Public Opinion Foundation, and Olga Kryshtanovskaya, who studies Russian elites, say they have never before seen such a degree of unity on any issue in Russia.

I grew up in Russia, and I was very struck – in a way that no US commentator appears to have been – at how insistently Putin’s annexation speech of March 18 drew upon Russia’s systems of shared meaning. Early in his speech, Putin reminded his audience that Crimea was where Saint Vladimir was baptised in the 10th century. It was he, as Grand Prince Vladimir, who converted Russia to Christianity, thus laying the foundations of the Russian civilisation. Putin also referred to the bones of Russian soldiers, buried all across the peninsula. ‘All these places are sacred to us,’ he said.

In another little-noticed part of his address, Putin evoked the image of NATO establishing a naval base in Sevastopol should Crimea slip out of Russian control. There is a suspicion among Russian policymakers that the real motive of the US in detaching Ukraine from Russia is to expel the Black Sea Fleet from Sevastopol and replace it with a NATO military base. It doesn’t matter whether this is really the US goal; what matters is that the thought of NATO boots on Sevastopol’s hallowed soil is intolerable to many Russians. As Putin remarked: ‘I simply cannot imagine that we would travel to Sevastopol to visit NATO sailors.’

Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel is said to have claimed that Putin ‘lives in another world’. She is right. Putin’s world is the Russian cultural space, which is quite different from the western Europe in which Merkel now operates. ‘Putin has done what our hearts were longing for,’ a Crimean pensioner told the news agency Reuters. ‘This finally brings things back to what they should be after all those years. For me, for my family, there can be no bigger joy, for us this is sacred.’

Family Murders in the Persian Ruling Class

Friday, April 11th, 2014

Family murders were a recurring feature of top-level politics for centuries both before and after Alexander the Great’s time:

Consider the Persian Empire. The founder, Cyrus (reigned 559-530 BC, two hundred years before Alexander) unified the tribal chiefs in the highlands of Iran; conquered the major nearby states (Media, Babylon), then expanded west (into the Greek kingdoms and city-states of Asia Minor) and east (into the tribal zone of Central Asia). His methods sowed the seeds for the troubles that would come later. Where he conquered by force, he always legitimated himself as successor to the local kings or restorer of the local gods. Many of his accessions were peaceful, since his reputation preceded him and smaller chiefs welcomed him as a “friend”– which is to say, a political friend, involving obligations of military support and material or monetary tribute. In cities which had strong internal politics– such as the Greek city-states– Cyrus operated more by subsidy/bribery, resulting in takeovers that the losing faction regarded as treachery. Superficial political friendships were the prevailing manner; underneath was an atmosphere of side-switching and distrust.

When Cyrus the Great King died, the regions of the empire took the opportunity to revolt. Violence broke out in the royal family; the first son inherited and killed his brother, who ruled the eastern provinces, to eliminate opposition. This pattern would repeat itself, with a succession crisis after each death of a King. Sometimes the new King that emerged was weak, sometimes the process filtered out the weak and created someone strong.

The third King, Darius, rose from being son of a provincial satrap. He got his chance when the previous King, Cambyses, was away putting down a revolt in Egypt, whereupon an impersonator of the King’s brother was placed on the Persian throne. Cambyses died of a wound during the struggle to regain the throne; Darius joined the conspiracy to assassinate the pretender and emerged on top. Darius reigned 522-486 BC, spending his first two years traveling around the Empire with a mobile army putting down revolts, and started the first Persian invasion of the Greek mainland, which was turned back at the battle of Marathon (490 BC). After Darius died came the usual round of revolts, temporarily derailing the Greek enterprise, while his son Xerxes had to deal with revolts in the major provinces of Egypt and Babylon. Xerxes put together a huge army for another invasion of Greece, which eventually petered out through problems of logistics and maintaining connection via a mercenary fleet. Xerxes was assassinated in a palace plot in 465. His son Artaxerxes I ascended the throne, but his brother revolted (with the support of Athens– both sides could play the game of interfering in internal affairs of the enemy); eventually all the royal brothers were assassinated. Next came Darius II (reigned 424-405), an illegitimate son, who killed his illegitimate brother, who had killed his legitimate brother, Xerxes II, a murderous game of tag. Darius II married his half-sister, a cruel woman who controlled him and ruthlessly suppressed all enemies.

And so on. Artaxerxes III (reigned 358-338 BC) came in with the usual round of violence, in which several dozen brothers and sisters, nephews and nieces, and cousins of both sexes were killed. Now we hear of killing royal women; apparently connections on the female side were becoming increasingly important. Artaxerxes III was poisoned by his favorite court eunuch in 338 BC, followed by several years of royal family plots and assassinations; so many were murdered that the succession had to turn to a distant cousin. In the same year Artaxerxes III was murdered, Philip of Macedon won a great battle over the Athenian alliance (with his 18-year-old son Alexander leading the cavalry), making Macedon hegemonic in Greece, and setting the stage for the invasion of Persia. It was precisely the bloody succession crises that made Persia look like an easy target.

The atmosphere of betrayal and revolt spread into the administrative structure, even beyond the royal family. In the struggles and revolts under Artaxerxes II around 390 BC, a rebel satrap was betrayed by his son, who switched sides to line up with the victorious ruler, and had his father crucified. This sort of thing goes beyond family rivalry; it was a cruel public display of family hatred. Artaxerxes II is remembered mainly because his brother, Cyrus, with the support of his mother the former Queen, recruited the famous Ten Thousand mercenaries from Greece for an expedition to capture the Persian throne. This Cyrus died trying to cut through the bodyguards to reach his hated brother.

Sacred Crimea

Thursday, April 10th, 2014

Crimea wasn’t always sacred land — but it has been for a while:

Consider the Crimean city of Sevastopol, home to the Russian Black Sea Fleet. Initially this port was just a convenient naval base that allowed Russia to project power into the surrounding region. Because of this geopolitical value, the city played a key role during the Crimean War of 1853-1856, when Russia fought Britain and France for the right to expand into the waning Ottoman Empire. This first ‘heroic defence’ of Sevastopol left a significant imprint on Russia’s collective psyche; not least Leo Tolstoy’s important early work, Sevastopol Sketches (1855).

The second ‘heroic defence’ of the port came in 1941-42, during the war against Nazi Germany. Indeed, the siege of Sevastopol remains only slightly less resonant for Russians than the more famous Siege of Leningrad. But it is climbing the rankings. In the midst of the present conflict, Russia designated Sevastopol a city of federal significance, a status it shares only with Moscow and St Petersburg, the city formerly known as Leningrad. As we watch, Sevastopol is being woven ever more tightly into Russia’s national mythology.

If Crimea is so precious, one might wonder why Russia ever let it go. The simple answer is that it didn’t mean to. In 1954, the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev transferred it to Ukraine as an essentially symbolic gesture. Ukraine was then a Soviet imperial possession, so this seemed an innocuous arrangement. Then, when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Russia itself started fragmenting. Chechnya achieved de facto independence. In a more peaceful fashion, Tatarstan was acquiring greater autonomy. There was talk of the Far East seceding. Crimea, in short, was not the priority.

Such periods of disintegration generally end in one of two ways. Russia rallied. During the 1990s and 2000s, it gradually squeezed out its pro-Western liberal elite, though not before they had almost halved GDP, created extreme differentials of wealth, and lost Russia its Great Power status. With the liberals in disgrace, a new, nationalistic cadre seized the moment. Under Vladimir Putin’s leadership, Russia began to claw back its lost lands, beginning, in 1999, with the reconquest of Chechnya. And now here we are.

Structural Conditions for Family Jealousies and Strife

Thursday, April 10th, 2014

If we cast a sociological eye at the bad family values of the ruling classes of ancient Greece and Persia, we must realize, Randall Collins says, that these are not just really bad people:

The structural conditions in which they live are conducive, not to love and family solidarity, but to family jealousies and strife. To briefly list the conditions:

Marriages are typically arranged as political and diplomatic alliances. The women have no choice in who they marry; rulers regularly offer a daughter, or sister, to gain an ally or buy off a foe. This is an attractive deal on the receiving side, since the children of such a marriage have a claim to the succession of the family state they came from– not that they will automatically succeed to the throne, since there are probably other candidates, but it is a good investment. And sons too sometimes are used by their fathers in the same fashion, or pawned as hostages. This means young persons of high rank normally expect they will go to live among people they do not really trust; on the other hand, people don’t trust each other that much where they grew up (among other reasons because most people are married to someone they didn’t choose), and there are good opportunities for personalities who develop the skills to plot and manipulate. Some women (for instance, Queen Olympias, Alexander’s mother, who plays a major political role when he is away and after his death) can become quite powerful by playing the game. If women are pawns, they also have close access to the networks of power, and network opportunity is more important than abstract cultural definition of status.

Love has nothing to do with marriage. But the term love does exist; we read in the ancient sources that Philip fell in love with the daughter of his general Attalus, and decided to throw off his political-alliance wife in her favor. Later Alexander will choose a wife, Roxane, who he finds captivating beautiful and falls in love with her during his conquests in central Asia; it doesn’t hurt that her father is an important chieftan and the marriage cements an alliance. On the other hand, it does not prevent Alexander, after returning to the Persian capital at the end of his conquests, from arranging a mass wedding of thousands of his soldiers to Persian wives, he himself taking a daughter of the conquered Persian King. (Roxane is still around, and she is still considered mother of the legitimate heir.) Falling in love had more or less the superficial meaning it has today, being smitten by someone’s beauty or sexual charm. We hear about Alexander’s soldiers who want leave to go back to Greece because they are in love with a courtesan; and one of Alexander’s most important generals, Ptolemy, sends for a famous courtesan from Athens to entertain them in Persia; she becomes his mistress and bears him several children, while he becomes King of Egypt.

This shows a way that ordinary women could rise in social rank. Although only women from royal families could play marriage politics, women who were beautiful and accomplished could make themselves so attractive that powerful men would fall in love with them, and even marry them. They were courtesans– prostitutes; but exclusive enough so that they had to be courted. It was not a pathway that would be open to middle-class women of respectable families, who were closely guarded, even locked up at home; but courtesans who learned the arts of allurement had an arena where they could meet men of the highest rank– they were famous entertainers at their banquets and drinking parties, and thus they too got a network connection with the elite. Once again, network closeness trumps mere abstract status.

One gets the impression that courtesans, although obviously gold-diggers, were not as cynical as the upper-class women in arranged marriages. We do not hear of courtesans murdering anyone, although they would have had plenty of opportunities. Their lack of family connections made them too vulnerable to risk it.

Geopolitics takes the form of multi-sided unstable conflicts. There are more than two great powers; there are three, four, five of them. And there are a lot of smaller players who can maneuver on the margins or in the interstices of the major conflicts, building little local empires without much notice, then intruding into the major conflicts, just as Macedon blindsided the bigger Greek players Athens, Sparta, Thebes, the Boeotian League, and their Asian opponent Persia. Weakening one of the major powers did not mean reducing the number of players, since others’ gains were only temporary. This was not the balance-of-power strategy employed by the British in the 19th and 20th centuries, where they would intervene on the Continent on the side of whichever coalition was weaker; that was a strong third party intervening into a two-sided conflict, whereas the Greek situation was more highly multi-sided. Geopolitical theory of conflict needs to recognize that conflicts among 4 or more are inherently more unstable than conflicts among 3 or less.

Combine this multi-sided geopolitical instability with external support for internal rivalries, and the ingredients are present for murderous family conflict. Exiles sheltered by a foreign power; hostages who become acclimated to a foreign point-of-view; these create the danger of “pretenders” to the throne awaiting the opportunity to return. Notice the mixture of altruism and calculated strategy: sympathy for exiles in hard times was also a device for expanding one’s power. (Similar in this respect is the modern practice of humanitarian interventions.) The result is a network of states who are used to receiving and sending well-known persons among each other, and have an interest in each other’s internal affairs. Interfering in the internal affairs of another state became an habitual practice. Rich states, who had a lot of gold, would send funds to the faction they wanted to support in another state, whether a rival state, an ally or one that could swing either way. These could be called bribes (usually by the opposing faction), gifts, subsidies, or even tribute (if the recipient construed the money as a sign of the giver’s inferiority). Today’s equivalent would be foreign aid (in the altruistic language of American foreign policy), or subsidies (like those sent by Saudi Arabia and Qatar to rebel factions in Syria, thereby prolonging its interminably multi-sided civil war.)

To sum up: combine hereditary monarchy, arranged political marriages, unstable multi-sided geopolitics, networks of exiles and pretenders, and foreign intrusion in domestic affairs: the result is violence in the heart of the family, uninhibited by love or loyalty.

Why One Episode Of Game Of Thrones Is Worth A Thousand History Lessons

Wednesday, April 9th, 2014

It’s about time we introduced Game of Thrones to the school curriculum, Ed West suggests, because it would teach kids more about the realities of the past than they learn in their dumbed-down, politically correct history classes:

Although fantasy, George R.R. Martin’s books and the television adaption borrow heavily from English history, most especially the extremely violent 14th and 15th centuries. It’s Shakespeare with boobs and arterial spray.

For example, the premise at the end of series one, of an adolescent pretender taking on the Queen and her psychotic young son after his father has been beheaded, while his mother seeks to protect her two younger boys — that was the actual state of affairs in 1461. After the beheading of his father Richard, Duke of York, the 18-year-old Edward of March claimed the throne as Edward IV and destroyed the army of the Queen, Margaret of Anjou, while his mother Cecily Neville sent her young sons George and Richard to France for safety.

Like Robb Stark, Edward had the blood of the old kings of the north, through his mother’s family who claimed descent from the ruling house of Northumbria, one of the seven Anglo-Saxon kingdoms that was united under King Athelstan in the 10th century.

Game of Thrones also borrows from the Byzantines (the Greeks really did know how to set fire to water, and used the trick several times), the Spartans, the Crusades and various obscure eastern religions. But the core is the realm of England, and the real game of thrones in which a large proportion of the country’s aristocrats were slaughtered in a 30-year period of madness from 1455 to 1485.

Like Robb Stark, Edward IV came unstuck when he chose to marry for love, thereby alienating his powerful cousin Warwick Kingmaker who was arranging a marriage alliance with France. According to the romanticised chronicles of the time Edward set eyes on Elizabeth Woodville when the Lancastrian widow turned up at his hunting lodge to beg for her dead husband’s lands and he was so entranced by her beauty that he tried to rape her. I say ‘romantic’ — clearly ideals of romance in the 15th century were rather different to ours, but this is something that Thrones captures so much better than most historical fiction.

The moral structures we have today, based around the idea of the freedom of the individual and the universal rights of all men, were developing in the Christian West throughout the later medieval period but would not truly flourish until the 18th century. Today in much of the world western ideas about the individual are still alien because people think in terms of the clan, which is why it is so hard to export liberal democracy to countries like Somalia or Afghanistan. Foreign policy experts could do worse than watch Thrones and ask themselves: are the Dothraki ready for democracy? What do you reckon?

Most historical fiction basically features a protagonist with 21st century values wearing a codpiece; I gave up on the Tudors when Cardinal Wolsey started giving a lecture on why we needed a ‘European community’. Most people in Britain think the EU is a pretty stupid idea today; in the 16th century it would have been inconceivable, even if Wolsey’s Treaty of London talked about ‘perpetual peace’ in Europe (a peace that was broken almost immediately, because that’s how things were).

Even the most sympathetic characters in Thrones, and I won’t give any spoilers for season four, end up doing some appalling things in the later books, not because they’re villains but because that’s the way the world was then, and how it is for much of humanity today. Bloody awful.

History classes have changed over the years:

Whereas my father’s generation would have learned about the kings of England at school, the bloody battles and usurpations, the poisonings, the tortures and the love affairs, and King Harold getting shot in the eye, by the time I was taught the subject the sort of questions we were asked went along the lines of ‘How would the social changes experienced during the 15th century have impacted on a female weaver living in Norfolk?’ Or ‘Look at Source A and Source B; what differences can you spot and why might that have been? Anyway, children, next term we’ll be reading about the Nazis. Again.’

(Hat tip to HBD Chick.)

TrackingPoint AR Series

Wednesday, April 9th, 2014

I’ve been wondering when TrackingPoint would introduce an AR series:

Sacred Land

Wednesday, April 9th, 2014

States typically fight over territory:

Land supports a population, which provides the state with taxes and army recruits. It can also have strategic value, if it allows the state to project power or control a choke point. And, of course, states are essentially territorial entities: without land, they are nothing.

States often behave in an opportunistic manner, grabbing real estate when they can and giving it up when the cost of holding it becomes too great. In 1732, Russia returned a large chunk of Persian territory that Peter the Great had conquered in the previous decade. In return, the Persians entered an alliance with the Russians against the Ottoman Empire. This kind of behaviour is well-described by realism. However, most states, historical and modern, also put some territory into a special category, one that is not subject to rational geopolitical calculation. Such land is ‘sacred’. It must be held at all costs.

Here we find an obvious manifestation of the bourgeois strategy in the hawk-dove game. States and populations that are willing to escalate conflict as far as necessary in defence of their sacred lands are more likely to persist in the international arena. Those that treat their core territory in a rational manner — forfeiting it in accordance with strategic imperatives, as, for example, several Germanic tribes did repeatedly during the Migration Period — get wiped out. As a result, we observe the coevolution of geopolitics and what the anthropologist Scott Atran has identified as ‘sacred values’. Geopolitical assets acquire an aura of sanctity.

Israeli Sniper Rules of Engagement

Wednesday, April 9th, 2014

An Israeli sniper describes the rules of engagement along the Israel–Gaza border:

The Shamen [the "fat guy"] is a confirmed leader of a group of Palestinian men who, disguised as bird catchers, bring their cages into the no man’s land by the border fence and loiter, gathering intelligence on Israel, planting explosives by the fence or participating in efforts to dig tunnels for attacks into Israel. The IDF policy is that these non-uniformed militants are given warning shots in the air to remind them, as they already know, that they cannot come up to the fence. After the men ignore warning shots or return to the fence, snipers are sent to shoot them in the leg, a nonlethal shot meant to wound but not kill, and prevent them from continuing their militant activity. Only if a person is a direct threat will officers give permission to shoot to kill.

[...]

It is 10 times harder to shoot someone in the leg than to simply kill him. The leg is narrow, easily concealed by the land, and always moving. And I could have always shot above the leg and claimed it was an accident. No one would have known. It’s ironic how much effort we put into not killing these men.

Hawk, Dove, Bourgeois

Tuesday, April 8th, 2014

Game theorists have long turned to the classic hawk-dove game to study conflict:

‘Doves’ are individuals who never fight. If attacked, they run away. ‘Hawks’, on the other hand, are always ready for violence and will attack anybody who has something that they want. In a country populated by meek doves, the hawk strategy does very well. But as hawks become more numerous at the expense of doves, they spend more and more time fighting and killing each other.

There is, however, a simple modification of the hawk strategy that is superior to both hawks and doves: playing ‘bourgeois’. First, you declare a resource item — a herd, a piece of cropland — as your private property (hence the ‘bourgeois’ designation). Then you signal that you are willing to defend it no matter what it takes. Again, this is not rational in the narrow sense. You must be willing to escalate conflicts to the point where your life is at stake, even though your life is worth incomparably more than the disputed property. But again, in evolutionary terms, the strategy is a winner. While the hawks overreach, getting embroiled in self-destructive conflict, the bourgeois steadily divide the spoils among themselves, fighting only to defend their property against hawks. In the long run, the bourgeois always replace the hawks.

I’m no ornithologist, but there has to be a notoriously territorial bird we could use to extend the metaphor, doesn’t there?

Really Bad Family Values

Tuesday, April 8th, 2014

Family values may be on the decline, but if you want to see some really bad family values, Randall Collins says, look at the ruling classes of ancient Greece, Persia, and the Middle-East:

Specifically, the court of Philip II, King of Macedon, and father of Alexander the Great. It is 338 BC; Alexander is 18 years old, and his father is about to marry another wife, relegating Alexander’s mother Olympias to the background. At the nuptial celebration, the uncle of the new bride, one of Philip’s generals, invites the guests to drink in honor of a new legitimate heir. Alexander shouts: “What do you take me for, a bastard?” and throws a drinking cup in his face. Philip drew a sword to cut down his son, but staggered from all the heavy drinking and fell. Alexander jeered: “This is the man who would pass from Europe to Asia, and he trips passing from couch to couch!” Alexander and his mother went into hiding, she back to the kingdom of Epirus where she was sister of the King. Since Epirus was a politically important ally, advisors patched up the quarrel, and Alexander was allowed back into court.

That was not the end of it. On the eve of Philip’s departure with his army to conquer the Persian empire, while the royal procession paraded the streets with pomp and circumstance, an assassin broke in and killed Philip with a dagger. Olympias and Alexander were suspected, but Philip’s other generals supported Alexander– who already had a reputation as a soldier. Once her son was installed as King, Olympias had her rival’s baby killed, and forced the mother to hang herself; the uncle was sent off with the advance guard to Asia and murdered. Alexander took over the Persian expedition and conquered his way to fame far eclipsing his father.

Father tries to kill son; son and mother are implicated in a plot that kills the father; mother has her rival wife (step-wife? we need a term for these relationships) killed along with her son’s half-brother. No one expressed remorse about any of this, implying that what they did was not considered sinful or immoral. No one was prosecuted, since there was no judiciary other than the King, and under these circumstances possession of power was ten-tenths of the law.

These kinds of events were not unusual in that period. Philip’s predecessor as King of Macedon killed his own step-father, who was his guardian, in order to take sole rule in 365 BC. When he in turn was killed in battle in 359 BC, his son and rightful heir was a child; so Philip, an uncle, was appointed guardian. Soon after, he deposed his nephew and became King in his own right. The child was lucky to be left alive (as far as we know). There was not a lot of sentimental attachment in these families. Philip probably never had seen the boy, since he had been dispatched as a youth to be a hostage in another Greek state (Thebes), a typical procedure when alliances and treaties were made between states that didn’t trust each other. Philip’s take-over did not go uncontested; another pretender to the Macedonian throne– i.e. another relative of these convoluted royal families– had been living in exile, and the foreign power that hosted him (Athens) sent a fleet to try to put a friendly ruler on the throne, but failed. All quite normal; Philip took advantage of yet another pretender, his own half-brother who was sheltered by a nearby state, to declare war on it and enlarge his conquests.

Notice that no one disputes the importance of the family. Legitimate rule is passed along as family inheritance: family members fight over the inheritance (sounds familiar today?) Matters are exacerbated because these states are unstable; borders are changing, conquests are made and lost; alliances and federations are created and torn apart. In this situation, in most states there are factions who are in and others who have been thrown out. Prominent members of the outs go into exile, where they are happily received by some other state ready to use them as pawns in the struggle to make favorable alliances, or indeed conquests, of their neighbours.

Uncle Leland

Monday, April 7th, 2014

Uncle Leland is quite a character:

Yee emigrated from China’s Guangdong province as a toddler, grew up in San Francisco and earned a doctorate in child psychology. His political career began in 1986, first on the San Francisco school board, then the city’s board of supervisors, the state Assembly and, in 2006, the Senate.

Over the years, he burnished an image of a good-government advocate, crusading for gun control, government transparency and campaign finance reform. In 2012, the California Clean Money Action Fund named him a Clean Money Champion. His penchant for biting, no-B.S. quotes made him a media darling. Less than a week before his arrest, the Society of Professional Journalists honored him for confronting the governor and his own party on behalf of open public records.

Yet Yee also had a reputation for pushing some ethical boundaries.

While on the school board, he was caught registering his children under a fake address so they could be enrolled in better public schools. On a Hawaii vacation, he was arrested for shoplifting suntan lotion. Twice, San Francisco police stopped him on suspicion of soliciting prostitutes in the city’s Mission District. In each case, he denied wrongdoing.