History of Literature









E. H. Gombrich




"World History for Children"




 


Part III
 

 

15 Rulers of the Western World

Roman provinces - Roads and aqueducts - Legions - The two Gracchi - Bread and circuses - Marius - The Cimbri and the Teutones - Sulla - Gladiators - Julius Caesar - The Gallic Wars -Victory in the civil war - Cleopatra - The reform of the calendar -Caesar's murder - Augustus and the empire - The arts

 


Legionaries kept watch along all the frontiers of the vast Roman empire.
They also built a palisade that stretched from the Rhine to the Danube.
 

It would never have occurred to the Romans to do what Alexander the Great had done. They had no wish to turn the lands they conquered into a single, vast empire in which everyone was treated equally. Certainly not. All the lands the Roman legions conquered - and their conquests came thick and fast - became Roman provinces, their towns occupied by Roman troops and Roman officials. These occupiers looked down on the native inhabitants, even when they were Phoenicians, Jews and Greeks - all peoples of very ancient culture. In the eyes of the Romans they were good for just one thing: paying up. They were subject to crushing taxes and had to keep sending grain to Rome - as much and as often as possible.

Provided they did so, they were left more or less in peace. They could practise their own religion and speak their own language, and in many ways they benefited from all the good things the Romans brought, such as roads. Many of these, splendidly paved, led out from Rome across the plains and over distant mountain passes to remote and inaccessible parts of the empire. It must be
said that the Romans didn't build these roads out of consideration for the people living there. On the contrary, their aim was to send news and troops to all parts of the empire in the shortest possible time. The Romans were superb engineers.

Most impressive of all their works were their magnificent aqueducts. These brought water from distant mountains and carried it down through valleys and into the towns - clear, fresh water to fill innumerable fountains and bathhouses - so that Rome's provincial officials could enjoy all the comforts they were used to having at home.

A Roman citizen living abroad always retained his separate status, for he lived according to Roman law. Wherever he happened to be in that vast empire, he could turn to a Roman official and say: 'I am a citizen of Rome!' These words had the effect of a magic formula. If until then no one had paid him much attention, everyone would instantly become polite and obliging.

In those days, however, the true rulers of the world were the Roman soldiers. It was they who held the gigantic empire together, suppressing revolts where necessary and ferociously punishing all who dared oppose them. Courageous, experienced and ambitious, they conquered a new land - to the north, to the south or to the east - almost every decade.

People who saw the tight columns of well-drilled soldiers, marching slowly in their metal-plated tunics, with their shields and javelins, their slings and swords and their catapults for hurling rocks and arrows, knew that it was useless to resist. War was their favourite pastime. After each victory they returned in triumph to Rome, led by their generals, with all their captives and their loot. To the sound of trumpets they would march past the cheering crowds, through gates of honour and triumphal arches. Above their heads they held pictures and placards, like billboards to advertise their victories. The general would stand tall in his chariot, a crown of laurel on his head and wearing the sacred cape worn by the statue of Jupiter, God of Gods, in his temple. Like a second Jupiter, he would climb the steep path to the Capitol, the citadel of Rome. And there in the temple, high above the city, he would make his solemn sacrifice of thanksgiving to God, while below him the leaders of the vanquished were put to death.

A general who had many such victories, with plenty of booty for his troops and land for them to cultivate when they grew old and were retired from service, was loved by his men like a father. They would give their all for him. Not just on foreign soil but at home as well. For, in their eyes, a great hero of the battlefield was just what was needed to keep order at home, where there was often trouble brewing. For Rome had become a huge city with large numbers of destitute people who had no work and no money. If the provinces failed to send grain it meant famine in Rome.
Two brothers, living in about 130 вс (that is, sixteen years after the destruction of Carthage), thought up a plan to encourage this multitude of poor and starving people to move to Africa and settle there as farmers. These brothers were the Gracchi. But they were both killed in the course of political struggles.

The same blind devotion that the soldiers gave their general went to any man who gave grain to the multitudes and put on splendid festivals. For Romans loved festivals. But these were not at all like those of the Greeks, where leading citizens took part in sporting contests and sang hymns in honour of the Father of the Gods. These would have seemed ridiculous to any Roman. What serious, self-respecting man would sing in public, or take off his formal, many-pleated toga to throw javelins before an audience? Such things were best left to captives. It was they who had to wrestle and fight, confront wild beasts and stage whole battles in the arena under the eyes of thousands - sometimes tens of thousands - of spectators. It all got very serious and bloody, but that was just what made it so exciting for the Romans. Especially when, instead of trained professionals, men who had been condemned to death were thrown into the arena to grapple with lions, bears, tigers and even elephants.
Anyone who put on shows like these, with generous handouts of grain, was loved by the crowd and could do what he pleased. As you can imagine, many tried. If two rivals fought for power, one might have the army and the patricians on his side while the other had the support of the plebeians and poor peasants. And in a long drawn-out struggle, now one and now the other would be uppermost. There were two such famous enemies called Marius and Sulla. Marius had been fighting in Africa and, several years later, took his army to rescue the Roman empire when it was in peril. In 113 вс, barbarians from the north had invaded Italy (as the Dorians had Greece or, seven hundred years later, the Gauls had Rome). These invaders were the Cimbri and the Teutones, ancestors of today's Germans. They had fought so bravely that they had actually succeeded in putting the Roman legions to flight. But Marius and his army had been able to halt and defeat them.

This made him the most celebrated man in Rome. But in the meantime, Sulla had fought on in Africa, and he too had returned triumphant. Both men got ready to fight it out. Marius had all Sulla's friends killed. Sulla in his turn made a long list of the Romans who supported Marius and had them murdered. He then generously presented all their property to the state. After which he and his soldiers ruled the Roman empire till 79 вс.

In the course of these turbulent times, Romans had changed a great deal. All the peasants had gone. A handful of rich people had bought up the smaller farms and brought in slaves to run their vast estates. Romans had, in fact, grown used to leaving everything to be managed by slaves. Not only those who worked in the mines and quarries, but even the tutors of patrician children were mostly slaves, prisoners of war or their descendants. They were treated as goods, bought and sold like cattle. Slave owners could do what they liked with their slaves - even kill them. Slaves had no rights at all. Some masters sold them to fight with wild beasts in the arena, where they were known as gladiators. On one occasion the gladiators rebelled against this treatment. They were urged on by a slave called Spartacus, and many slaves from the country estates rallied to him. They fought with a ferocity born of desperation and the Romans were hard put to suppress the revolt, for which the slaves paid a terrible price. That was in 71 вс.


Cleopatra Before Caesar by the artist Jean-Léon Gérôme, 1866.


By this time new generals had become the darlings of the Roman populace. The most popular of them all was Gaius Julius Caesar. He too knew how to win the hearts of the masses, and had raised colossal sums of money for magnificent festivals and gifts of grain. But more than that, he was a truly great general, one of the greatest there has ever been. One day he went to war. A few days later, Rome received a letter from him with just these three Latin words: vent, vidi, vici - meaning I came, I saw, I conquered.' That is how fast he worked!

He conquered France - in those days known as Gaul - and made it a province of Rome. This was no small feat, for the peoples who lived there were exceptionally brave and warlike, and not easily intimidated. The conquest took seven years, from 58 to 51 вс. Не fought against the Helvetii (who lived in what is now Switzerland), the Gauls and the Germans. Twice he crossed the Rhine into land that is now part of Germany and twice he crossed the sea to England, known to the Romans as Britannia. He did this to teach the neighbouring tribes a proper fear and respect for Rome. Although the Gauls continued to fight desperately, for years on end, he attacked them repeatedly, and everywhere he went he left troops in control behind him. Once Gaul had become a Roman province the inhabitants soon learnt to speak Latin, just as they had in Spain. And this is why French and Spanish, which come from the language of the Romans, are known as Romance languages.
After the conquest of Gaul, Caesar turned his army towards Italy. He was now the most powerful man in the world. Other generals who had previously been his allies he attacked and defeated. And after he had seduced Cleopatra, the beautiful queen of Egypt, he was able to add Egypt to the Roman empire. Then he set about putting it in order. For this he was ideally suited, for he had an exceptionally orderly mind. He was able to dictate two letters at the same time without getting his thoughts in a tangle. Imagine that!

He didn't just put the whole empire in order, he put time in order too. He put time in order? Whatever does that mean? He reformed the calendar, so that it ended up being more or less like ours, with twelve months and leap years. It is called after him, the Julian Calendar. And, because he was such a great man, one of the months is also named after him: the month of July. So July takes its
name from a thin-faced bald-headed man, who liked to wear a laurel wreath made of gold on his head, a man whose weak and sickly body hid a shining intellect and a will of iron.
Since Caesar was now the mightiest man on earth, he could have become king of the Roman empire, and he might not have objected to that. But the Romans were jealous of him - even his best friend, Brutus - and they didn't want to be ruled by him. Fearing that Caesar would get the better of them, they decided to murder him. During a meeting in the Senate they surrounded him and raised their daggers to stab him. Caesar defended himself. But when, among his assailants, he caught sight of Brutus, he is reported to have said: 'You too, Brutus, my son?' and then let them strike him down, without making any further attempts to resist. This happened in 44 вс.

After July comes August. Caesar Octavianus Augustus was Caesar's adoptive son. Having fought for a long time against a number of generals on land and at sea, he finally succeeded in becoming the sole ruler of the empire in 31 вс, and so became the first to hold the title of Roman Emperor.

Since one month had been named after Julius Caesar, Augustus was given one too. He had certainly earned it. He may not have been extraordinary like Caesar, but he was a fair and prudent man who controlled himself at all times and so had earned the right to control others. It is said that he never gave an order or made a decision in anger. Whenever he felt his temper rising, he slowly recited the alphabet in his head, and by the time he had reached the end he had calmed down. This tells you what he was like: cool-headed, a man who ruled the empire fairly and wisely. He wasn't only a warrior and he didn't only enjoy going to gladiator fights. He lived simply and appreciated fine sculpture and fine poetry. And because the Romans were less gifted than the Greeks at such things, he had copies made of all the finest Greek statues and placed them in his palaces and gardens. The Roman poets of his time - and they are the most famous of all the Roman poets - also took the poems of the Greeks as their models. For even in those days people thought that all the most beautiful things came from Greece. And for the same reason it was considered a sign of distinction for a Roman to speak Greek, to read the ancient Greek poets and to collect Greek works of art. This was lucky for us, for if they hadn't, we might never have heard about any of it.

 

 

16 The Good News

Jesus Christ - The teachings of the Apostle Paul - The Cross - Paul preaching to the Corinthians - The cult of the emperor - Nero - Rome burns - The first Christian persecutions - The catacombs -Titus destroys Jerusalem - The dispersal of the Jews

 


Baptism of Christ, by Guido Reni

 

Augustus ruled from 31 вс until ad 14, which tells you that Jesus Christ was born during his reign. He was born in Palestine, which was then a Roman province. You can read about the life and teachings of Jesus Christ in the Bible. You probably know the essentials of what he taught: that it doesn't matter if a person is rich or poor, of noble or of humble birth, a master or a slave, a great thinker or a child. That all men are God's children. And that the love of this father is infinite. That before him no man is without sin, but that God has pity on sinners. That what matters is not judgement but mercy.
You know what mercy is: the great giving and forgiving love of God. And that we should treat others as we hope God, our Father, will treat us. That is why Jesus said: 'Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also. If someone takes your cloak, do not stop him from taking your tunic. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back.'

And you know that Jesus spent just a short time travelling all over the country, preaching and teaching, healing the sick and comforting the poor. That he was accused of wanting to be king of the Jews. And that, as a rebellious Jew, he was sentenced by a Roman official called Pontius Pilate to be nailed to a cross. This terrible punishment was only given to slaves, robbers and members of subject peoples, not to citizens of Rome. It was also seen as a dreadful humiliation. But Christ had taught that the world's worst sorrows had a meaning, that beggars, those in torment, the persecuted, the sick and the suffering were blessed in their misfortune. And so it was that the Son of God, martyred and in agony, became for the first Christians the very symbol of his teaching. Today we can hardly imagine what that meant. The cross was even worse than the gallows. And this cross of shame became the symbol of the new teaching. Just imagine what a Roman official or soldier, or a Roman teacher steeped in Greek culture, proud of his wisdom, his rhetoric and his knowledge of philosophy, would have thought when he heard Christ's teaching from one of the great preachers -perhaps the Apostle Paul in Athens or in Rome. We can read what he preached there today, in his First Letter to the Corinthians:

I will show you a more excellent way: If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am but a sounding gong or a tinkling cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can see into all mysteries and have all knowledge and have all faith so that I can move mountains, but have not love, then I am nothing. If I give away everything that is mine, and offer up my body to be burnt, but have not love, I gain nothing. Love is long-suffering and kind, love does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud, it does not behave improperly, it does not seek its own advantage, it is not easily provoked, it bears no grudge, delights not in evil but rejoices only in the truth. It shelters all, trusts all, always hopes, always endures. Love is everlasting.

When they heard Paul's sermons the Roman patricians must have shaken their heads in disapproval, for this was hardly the language of the law. But the poor and downtrodden heard in Paul's words something that was entirely new, something that had never been heard before: the extraordinary announcement of Divine Grace which was far greater than any law, and was called the Gospel, or the Good News. (Good news - or glad tidings - is a translation of the Greek eu-angelion, from which we get the word evangelical.) And this good and happy news of the mercy of God the Father -the unique and invisible God in whom the Jews had believed long before Christ had lived and preached among them - soon spread throughout the Roman empire.

Roman officials began to pay attention. As you know they hadn't previously involved themselves in matters of religion. But this was something new. The Christians, who believed in just one God, were refusing to scatter incense before images of the emperor, which had been the custom since Rome had had an emperor. Like the rulers of the Egyptians, the Chinese, the Babylonians and the Persians, Roman emperors allowed themselves to be worshipped as gods. Their statues were everywhere, and every good citizen was expected to place a few perfumed grains in front of these images as an offering. But the Christians were refusing to do so. And people wanted to make them.

Now about thirty years after Christ's death on the cross (that is, around sixty years after his birth - in ad 60), a cruel emperor was ruling over the Roman empire. He was called Nero. People still shudder when they hear the name of this monster. But what is truly repellent about him is that he didn't start out as a monster ruthless and wicked through and through. He was simply weak, vain, suspicious and lazy. Nero fancied himself as a poet and composed songs which he performed himself. He ate - or, rather, gorged himself on -the rarest delicacies and was utterly devoid of decency or dignity. He was not unattractive, but there was something cruel and self-satisfied about his smile. He had his own mother murdered, and his wife and his tutor, along with a number of other relations and friends. He lived in constant fear of assassination, for he was a coward too.

One day a terrible fire broke out in Rome which, burning day and night, consumed house after house, district after district, and made hundreds of thousands of people homeless - for by then Rome was a huge city with more than a million inhabitants. And what do you think Nero did?

He stood on the balcony of his sumptuous palace with his lyre and sang a song he had composed about the burning of Troy. To him this seemed perfect for the occasion. The people, however, were enraged. Until then they had not hated him much because he had always given them splendid festivals and had only been cruel to close friends and acquaintances. Now the rumour spread that Nero himself had set Rome on fire. We do not know if it is true. But in any case Nero knew that people thought he was responsible. So he looked around for a scapegoat and found one in the Christians. The Christians had often said that this world must end so that a better, purer world might take its place. Of course, you and I know that they meant Heaven. But because people tend not to listen very carefully, soon they were saying: 'The Christians want the world to end because they hale mankind.' An extraordinary accusation, don I you think?

Nero had them arrested wherever he found them, and they were brutally put lo death. Some were torn to pieces by wild beasts in the arena, while others were burnt alive as torches at a grand nocturnal banquet in his garden. But the Christians bore all these tortures and those of later persecutions with unbelievable courage. They were proud to testify lo the power of their new faith. And these testifiers - or 'martyrs', to use the Greek word - later became the first saints. Christians used to pray at the tombs of their martyrs, whom they buried in a whole network of underground passages and burial chambers called catacombs, outside the city gates. The walls were painted with simple pictures inspired by Bible stories: pictures of Daniel in the Lion's Den, of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in the Burning Fiery Furnace, or Moses Striking Water from the Rock, which were there to remind Christians of the power of God and the Life Everlasting.

In these underground passages Christians gathered together at night to discuss Christ's teachings, to share the Lord's Supper and give each other encouragement when a new persecution
threatened. And in the course of the next century, despite all the persecution, more and more men and women throughout the empire came to believe in the Good News and were ready to bear, for its sake, the suffering Christ had endured.

Christians were not the only ones to experience the severity of Roman rule for things were no better for the Jews. A few years after Nero's reign a revolt against the Romans broke out in Jerusalem. The Jews wanted their freedom. They fought with extraordinary determination and courage against the legions who were forced to lay siege to each Jewish town in turn to defeat them. Jerusalem itself was reduced to famine during two long years of siege by Titus, son of the ruling Roman emperor, Vespasian. Those who lied were caught and crucified by the Romans outside the city. When the Romans finally succeeded in forcing their way into the city in ad 70, Titus is said to have commanded that the sanctuary of the One God be spared, but the soldiers sacked and looted the temple all the same. The sacred vessels were carried home in triumph to Rome, as we can see today from the pictures carved on the arch which Titus erected in Rome to commemorate his triumph. Jerusalem was destroyed and the Jews scattered to the four winds. Long established as traders in many cities, the Jews had now lost their homeland. From now on they huddled together in their prayer schools, in cities like Alexandria and Rome and other foreign towns, scorned and derided by all because, even in the midst of heathens, they still clung to their ancient customs, reading the Bible and waiting for their Messiah who was to save them.

 

 

17 Life in the Empire and at its Frontiers

Tenements and villas - Therms - The Colosseum - The Germans -Arminius and the battle in Teutoburg forest - The Limes - Soldiers and their gods - Trajan's expeditions in Dacia - Marcus Aurelius's battles near Vienna - Warrior-emperors - The decline of Italy - The spread of Christianity - Diocletian's reforms - The last Christian persecution - Constantine - The founding of Constantinople - The division of the empire - Christianity becomes the religion of the state

 


Marcus Aurelius distributing bread to the people , by Joseph-Marie Vien

 

If you weren't a Christian, a Jew or a close relative of the emperor, life in the Roman empire could be peaceful and pleasant. You could travel from Spain to the Euphrates, from the Danube to the Nile on wonderful Roman roads. The Roman postal service made regular visits to settlements at the empire's frontiers, carrying news back and forth. In all the great cities like Alexandria or Rome you could find everything you needed for a comfortable life. Of course, in Rome there were whole districts of barrack-like buildings, crudely built and many storeys high, where poor people lived. The private houses and villas of the well-to-do, in contrast, were luxuriously furnished with beautiful Greek works of art, and had delightful small gardens with cooling fountains. In winter months, rooms were warmed by a form of central heating in which hot air circulated through hollow bricks under the floor. Every rich Roman had several country houses, usually near the sea, with many slaves to run them, and fine libraries in which the works of all the best Greek and Latin poets were to be found. The villas of the rich even had their own sports grounds and cellars stocked with the best wines. If a Roman felt bored at home he would take himself to the marketplace, the law-courts or to the baths. The bath houses, or therms, were monumental buildings supplied by aqueducts with water from distant mountains. They were magnificently furnished and decorated and had halls for hot baths, cold baths and steam baths, and others for practising sports. Ruins of these colossal therms can still be seen. With their high vaulted ceilings, their brightly coloured marble pillars and their pools tiled with rare and precious stones, they look more like fairy-tale palaces.

Bigger still, and even more impressive were the theatres. The great amphitheatre in Rome known as the Colosseum held Lip to fifty thousand spectators - few of our modern stadiums hold more. They were mainly used for gladiatorial contests and animal-baiting, and, as you remember, many Christians died there. The tiers of seats for the spectators rose high above the arena, like a giant oval funnel. Imagine the noise fifty thousand people must have made when they were all in there together! The emperor sat below in the royal box beneath a magnificent awning to protect him from the sun. When he dropped his handkerchief into the arena, it was the signal for the games to begin. The gladiators would appear and, standing in front of the imperial box, cry: Hail Caesar! We who are about to die salute you!'

But you mustn't imagine that emperors did nothing but sit in amphitheatres, or that they were all layabouts and raving lunatics like Nero. On the contrary, they spent most of their time maintaining peace in the empire. Beyond the distant frontiers all around were fierce, barbarian tribes waiting to raid and pillage the rich provinces. The Germans, who lived in the north at the other side of the Danube and the Rhine, were especially troublesome -Caesar had already clashed with them during his conquest of Gaul. Tall and powerfully built, they towered over the Romans and frightened the life out of them. Not only that, but their country (now Germany) was in those days a land of swamps and dark forests in which Roman legions were forever losing their way. But, above all, the Germans simply weren't used to living in fine, centrally heated villas. They were peasants and herdsmen, as the Romans themselves had once been, and they preferred to live as they always had, in isolated wooden farmsteads.

Educated Romans from the cities liked to write about the great simplicity of the Germanic way of life, the plainness and austerity of their traditions, their love of warfare and their loyalty to their chieftains. By drawing attention to this seemingly simple, uncorrupted and natural way of life in the freedom of the forest, the authors of the accounts which have come down to us warned their fellow countrymen against what they saw as the Romans' own dangerously refined and self-indulgent way of life.

The German warriors really were dangerous enemies. The Romans had already learnt this to their cost during Augustus's rule. At that time the leader of a Germanic tribe called the Cherusci was a man called Arminius. Brought up in Rome, he knew all about Roman military tactics and, one day, when a Roman army was marching through Teutoburg Forest he ambushed it and annihilated it completely. After that, the Romans kept out of that region. But it was all the more vital for them to secure their frontiers against the Germans. Accordingly, during the first century ad, they did what the emperor Shih Huang-ti had done in China. They built a wall, known as the Limes, along the length of the frontier from the Rhine to the Danube. This wall, made of palisades with watchtowers and ditches, was intended to protect the empire from the nomadic Germanic tribes. For what worried the Romans most was that, instead of staying quietly on their farmsteads, cultivating the land, the tribes were always on the move looking for new hunting grounds or new pastures. They simply loaded their wives and children onto ox-carts and set off in search of somewhere else to live.

This meant that the Romans had to keep troops permanently stationed at the frontiers to defend the empire. Along the Rhine and the Danube there were soldiers from every country under the sun. Near Vienna there was an encampment of Egyptians, who even built themselves a temple beside the Danube which they dedicated to their goddess Isis. On that spot there is a town today called Ybbs, and Isis lives on in that name. Among the frontier guards any number of gods were worshipped - the Persian sun god Mithras, for example, and not long after, the unique and invisible god of the Christians. However, life in these outposts was not very different from life in Rome. Today we can still find Roman theatres and bath houses in Germany (in Cologne, Trier, Augsburg and Regensburg), in Austria (in Salzburg and Vienna), in France (in Aries and Nimes), and in England (in Bath), together with villas for imperial officials and barracks for the soldiers. Older soldiers often bought themselves land in the district, married a local girl and settled near the camp. As a result, the populations within the provinces gradually became accustomed to the Roman presence, while those who lived beyond the Rhine and the Danube became increasingly restless as the years went by. It wasn't long before Roman emperors were spending more time in frontier towns than in their palaces in Rome. Among them were some remarkable men, one of whom was the Emperor Trajan. He lived about a hundred years after Christ and, long after his death, people were still talking about his justice and his gentleness.

Trajan's troops had crossed the Danube once again, into what is now Hungary and Romania. Making that land a Roman province would also make the empire safer. The country they conquered was known as Dacia. Once it had become Roman and its inhabitants began to speak Latin, Dacia became Romania. But Trajan didn't only lead military expeditions. He made Rome beautiful with glorious squares. Whole hills were levelled to make room for them. Then he commissioned a Greek architect to build temples and shops, law-courts, colonnades and monuments. You can still see their ruins in Rome today.

The emperors who followed Trajan also took good care of their empire and defended its frontiers, especially the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, who reigned between 161 and 180, and spent much of his time in garrisons on the Danube - at Carnuntum, and at Vindobona, which is what Vienna used to be called. And yet Marcus Aurelius hated war. He was a gentle, quiet man, a philosopher, who loved nothing better than reading or writing. We still have the diary he kept, much of which was written during his campaigns. Almost everything he wrote in it was about self-control and tolerance, about enduring pain and hardship, and about the silent heroism of the thinker. They are thoughts that would have pleased the Buddha.

But Marcus Aurelius couldn't retire into the forest to meditate. He had to wage war in the countryside near Vienna against the Germanic tribes, who were particularly restless at that time. The Romans are said to have taken lions with them to scare off the enemy from across the Danube. But since the Germans had never seen any lions before, they weren't frightened at all. They just killed what they thought were large dogs. While these battles were going on, Marcus Aurelius died suddenly at his headquarters in Vindobona, in ad 180.

The emperors who succeeded him spent even more time at the frontiers and even less in Rome. They were true soldiers, elected by their troops and often dismissed or even killed by them too. Many of these emperors weren't Romans, but foreigners, for by now the legions had only a very small number of Romans in them. The Italian peasants who, in earlier times, had gone out to conquer the world as soldiers, had virtually disappeared, while their farms had been absorbed into the huge estates owned by the rich and managed by foreign slaves, and the army was also made up of foreigners - you remember the Egyptians by the Danube. Most of these soldiers were Germans who, as you know, were excellent warriors. And it was these foreign troops, stationed at all four corners of the vast empire - at the frontiers of Germania and Persia and in Spain, Britain, North Africa, Egypt, Asia Minor and Romania - who now chose their favourite generals to be their emperors. Then they all fought for power and had each other murdered, just as at the time of Marius and Sulla.

Confusion and misery reigned in the years after ad 200. In the Roman empire there was almost no one to keep order but slaves or foreign troops who couldn't understand one another. The peasants in the provinces were unable to pay their taxes and rose up against their landowners. In those desperate times, when the land was in the grip of pestilence and lawlessness, many found consolation in the good news of the Gospel. More and more free men and slaves became Christians and refused to make sacrifices to the emperor.

At the height of the crisis a man from a poor family succeeded in wresting control of the empire. This was the Emperor Diocletian. He came to power in 284 and set about trying to rebuild the empire, which was by now in ruins. Famine was everywhere, so he fixed a limit on the price of all foods. Realising that the empire could no longer be governed from a single place, he chose four towns as his new imperial capitals and placed a deputy - or prefect - in each. To restore respect and dignity to the role of emperor, he introduced new rituals and court ceremony, and magnificent, richly embroidered robes for his courtiers and officials. He was particularly insistent that people should make sacrifices to the emperor, and so ruthlessly persecuted Christians throughout the empire. This was the last and most violent of all the persecutions. After a reign of more than twenty years, Diocletian renounced his imperial title and retired, a sick man, to his palace in Dalmatia. There he lived long enough to see the futility of his battle against Christianity.


The Baptism of Constantine, as imagined by students of Raphael

It is said that his successor, the Emperor Constantine, abandoned this struggle on the eve of a battle against his rival, Maxentius. He had a dream in which he saw the Cross, and heard the words: 'Beneath this sign you will be victorious.' Victorious in that battle, he issued a decree in 313 that Christians should no longer be persecuted. He himself remained a pagan for a long time, and was only baptised on his death-bed. Constantine no longer ruled the empire from Rome. In those days the chief threat came from the east, the Persians having once again become powerful. So he chose as his seat the ancient Greek colony of Byzantium on the Black Sea, upon which it was renamed Constantine's City, or Constantinople. Today we know it as Istanbul.

By 395, the Roman empire didn't only have two capitals, it had two states: the Western Empire, consisting of Italy, Gaul, Britannia, Spain and North Africa, where people spoke Latin, and the Eastern Empire, consisting of Egypt, Palestine, Asia Minor, Greece and Macedonia, where they spoke Greek. In both states Christianity became the official religion from 380 onwards. This meant that
bishops and archbishops became important dignitaries who wielded great influence in the affairs of state. Christians no longer met in underground passages, but in grand churches with fine pillars. And the Cross, symbol of the deliverance from suffering, now became the legions' battle emblem.

 

 

18 The Storm

The Huns - The Visigoths - The Migrations - Attila - Leo the Great - Romulus Augustulus - Odoacer and the end of antiquity - The Ostrogoths and Theodoric - Ravenna - Justinian - The Pandects of Justinian and the Agia Sophia - The end of the Goths - The Lombards

 


Attila faces defeat

 

Have you ever watched a storm approaching on a hot summer's day? It's especially spectacular in the mountains. At first there's nothing to see, but you feel a sort of weariness that tells you something is in the air. Then you hear thunder - just a rumble here and there - you can't quite tell where it is coming from. All of a sudden, the mountains seem strangely near. There isn't a breath of wind, yet dense clouds pile up in the sky. And now the mountains have almost vanished behind a wall of haze. Clouds rush in from all sides, but still there's no wind. There's more thunder now, and everything around looks eerie and menacing. You wait and wait. And then, suddenly, it erupts. At first it is almost a release. The storm descends into the valley. There's thunder and lightning everywhere. The rain clatters down in huge drops. The storm is trapped in the narrow cleft of the valley and thunderclaps echo and reverberate off the steep mountain sides. The wind buffets you from every angle. And when the storm finally moves away, leaving in its place a clear, still, starlit night, you can hardly remember where those thunderclouds were, let alone which thunderclap belonged to which flash of lightning.

The time I am now going to tell you about was like that. It was then that a storm broke that swept away the whole, vast Roman empire. We have already heard its rumblings: they were the movements of the Germanic tribes at the frontiers, the incursions of the Cimbri and the Teutones, and the campaigns led by Caesar, Augustus, Trajan, Marcus Aurelius and many others in their efforts to keep those tribes out of the empire.

But now the storm had come. It had started at the other end of the world - almost as far away as the wall built by the Chinese emperor Shih Huang-ti, the enemy of history. No longer able to mount their raids on China, Asiatic hordes from the steppes had turned westwards in search of new lands to plunder. This time it was the Huns. People like these had never been seen before in the West: small, yellow men with narrow, slit eyes and terrifying scars on their faces. Half man, half horse they seemed, for they rarely dismounted from their small, fast ponies. They slept on horseback, held meetings on horseback and ate, on horseback, the raw meat they had first made tender under their saddles. With fearful howls and a noise like thunder they charged down on their foes, showering them with arrows, before whirling round and rushing away, as if in headlong retreat. Then, if they were followed, they would twist in their saddles and shoot backwards at their pursuers. They were nimbler, more cunning and more bloodthirsty than any of the other tribes. Even the brave Germans fled before them.

One of these Germanic tribes, the Visigoths, or West Goths, sought refuge in the Roman empire, which agreed to accept them. However, it wasn't long before they were at war with their hosts. They marched as far as Athens, which they sacked. They also marched on Constantinople. Finally, under the leadership of their king, Alaric, they turned towards Italy where they besieged and sacked Rome in 410. When Alaric died they went north, this time to Gaul, and eventually to Spain, where they settled. In order to defend themselves against these armies the Romans were forced to recall large numbers of their troops from frontier garrisons in Gaul and Britannia, and from the Rhine and the Danube. Seizing their chance, other Germanic tribes now burst through into the empire in many places. It was the moment they had been waiting for, all those hundreds of years.

Some had names you can still see reflected on a map of Germany today: Swabians, Franks and Alemanni. Across (he Rhine they came, their creaking ox-carts piled high with wives and children and all their goods and chattels. They fought, and they conquered. For when they fell there were always more behind to lake their place. Thousands were slain, but tens of thousands followed. This period is known as the time of the Migrations. It was the storm that swept up the Roman empire and whirled it to extinction, for the Germanic tribes didn't stop when they reached Gaul and Spain. The Vandals, for instance, captured Carthage in 439 and used it as a base from which they launched their pirate ships to loot and burn the coastal towns. They ravaged Sicily and crossed into Italy, Today we still talk of 'vandalism', even though the Vandals were really no worse than many others.

As for the Huns, they were worse. They now had a new king: Attila. In 444 he was at the height of his power. Can you remember who was in power 444 years before Christ's birth? Pericles, in Athens. Those were the best of times. But Attila was in every way his opposite. People said that wherever he trod, the grass ceased to grow. His hordes burnt and destroyed everything in their path. And yet in spite of all the gold and silver and treasures the Huns looted, and in spite of all the magnificent finery worn by their leaders, Attila himself remained a plain man. He ate off wooden plates and he lived in a simple tent. Gold and silver meant nothing to him. Power was what mattered. It is said that he never laughed. He was a fearsome sovereign who had conquered hall the world, and those he didn't kill had to fight for him. His army was immense. Many of his soldiers were Germans - largely East Goths, or Ostrogoths (for by this time the Visigoths had settled in Spain). From his camp in Hungary he sent an envoy to the emperor of the Roman Empire of the West with the following message: 'My Lord, and your Lord, Attila, bids me tell you that you will give him half of your empire and your daughter to be his wife.' When the emperor refused, Attila set out to punish him with his mighty army, and take by force what had been denied him. The two sides met in a tremendous battle on the Catalaunian plains in Gaul, in 451. All the armies of the Roman empire, assisted by Germanic troops, joined forces to repel the barbarian horde. The outcome being undecided, Attila turned towards Rome. Appalled and panic-stricken, the Romans could only look on as the Huns approached. Nearer and nearer they came, and no army there to save them.

It was at this point that one man dared defy Attila and his host: this was Pope Leo, known as Leo the Great. With priests and holy banners he went out to meet him. Everybody waited for the Huns to strike them down. But Attila was persuaded to turn back. He left Italy, and this time Rome was saved. Only two years later, in 453, Attila married a German princess and died on the same night.
Had the Pope not saved the Roman Empire of the West on that occasion it would have ceased to exist. For by this time the emperors had lost all authority, and such power as remained was in the hands of the soldiers, most of whom were Germans. The day came when the soldiers found that they could do without an emperor, so they decided to depose him. The last Roman emperor had a rather remarkable name: Romulus Augustulus. It is a curious coincidence that Rome's founder and first king was called Romulus and the first Roman emperor was the Emperor Augustus. Romulus Augustulus, the last one, was deposed in 476.

In his place, a German general called Odoacer proclaimed himself king of the Germans in Italy. This marked the end of the Roman Empire of the West and its Latin culture, together with the long period that goes all the way back to prehistoric times, which we call 'antiquity'.

So the date 476 marks the birth of a new era, the Middle Ages, given its name for no other reason than that it falls between antiquity and modern times. But at the time no one noticed that a new era had begun. Everything was just as confusing as before. The Ostrogoths, who had previously fought alongside the army of the Fluns, had settled in the Roman Empire of the East. The Roman Emperor of the East, wishing to be rid of them, suggested that they might do better if they went to the Empire of the West and conquered Italy. So in 493, led by their great king, Theodoric, the Ostrogoths went to Italy. There, the battle-hardened soldiers made short work of a wretched, war-torn land. Theodoric captured Odoacer, but he promised to spare his life. Instead, he invited him to a banquet and stabbed him to death.

It has always puzzled me that Theodoric could have done something so monstrous, because in other ways he was a truly great ruler, a man of real merit and distinction. He made sure that the Goths lived in peace with the Italians and gave his warriors no more than one piece of land each to farm. He chose Ravenna, a harbour town in northern Italy, to be his capital and built beautiful churches decorated with wonderful brightly coloured mosaics.

This was all quite unexpected. That the Ostrogoths might succeed in building themselves a mighty and prosperous kingdom in Italy, one that would one day pose a threat to the imperial rule in Constantinople, is something that would never have occurred to the Emperor of the East, who must have regretted his advice.


Agia Sophia


From 527 onwards Constantinople was ruled by a mighty, luxury-loving and ambitious sovereign, whose name was Justinian. The emperor Justinian was possessed of one great ambition. This was to recover the whole of the old Roman empire and unite it under his rule. His court had all the splendour of the East. His wife, Theodora, was a former circus dancer and they both wore heavy robes of jewel-encrusted silk and great ropes of gold and pearls round their necks, which must have made a tremendous swishing and jangling when they moved.
In Constantinople Justinian built a gigantic church with a huge dome on top called the Hagia Sophia, and did his utmost to revive the lost grandeur of ancient Rome. He began by making a collection of all the laws of ancient Rome, together with the many commentaries made on them by great scholars and legislators. This great book of Roman law is known as the Pandects of Justinian. Even today, anyone who plans to become a lawyer or a judge should read it, as it forms the basis of many of our laws.

After Theodoric's death, Justinian tried to drive the Goths out of Italy and conquer the country, but the Goths put up a heroic defence and held out for decades. Given that they were in a foreign land whose inhabitants were also hostile to them, this was no easy task. Moreover, although they were also Christians, their beliefs were unlike those of either of their opponents - for instance, they did not believe in the Trinity (the existence of one God in three persons: the Father, Son and Holy Spirit). So they were attacked and persecuted as unbelievers as well. In the end most of the Goths were killed in these battles. After the last battle, those who were left - an army of less than a thousand men - were allowed to disband without reprisals, and vanished away towards the north. It was the end of that great tribe, the Ostrogoths. Now Justinian ruled over Ravenna as well. He built wonderful churches there which he had decorated with splendid portraits of his wife and himself.
But the rulers of the Empire of the East didn't stay long in Italy. In 586, new Germanic peoples called the Lombards came down from the north. The land was conquered yet again and today part of Italy is still called Lombardy after them. That was the last rumble of the storm. Then, slowly the clouds parted to reveal the starry night of the Middle Ages.

 

 

19 The Starry Night Begins

'The Dark Ages'? - Belief and superstition - Stylites - Benedictines
- Preserving the inheritance of antiquity - The importance of the northern monasteries - Clovis's baptism - The role of the clergy in the Merovingian kingdom - Boniface

 


St Benedict

 

You will probably agree that the peoples' migrations were a sort of thunderstorm. But you may be surprised to hear that the Middle Ages were like a starry night. Let me explain. Have you ever heard people talking about the Dark Ages? This is the name given to the period which followed the collapse of the Roman empire when very few people could read or write and hardly anyone knew what was going on in the world. And because of this, they loved telling each other all sorts of weird and wonderful tales and were generally very superstitious. 'Dark', too, because houses in those days were small and dark, and because the streets and highways that the Romans had built had all fallen into decay and were overgrown and their camps and cities had become grass-covered ruins. The good Roman laws were forgotten and the beautiful Greek statues had been smashed to pieces. All this is true. And it isn't really surprising, given all the dreadful upheavals and war-torn years of the Migrations.

But there was more to it than that. It wasn't all dark. It was more like a starry night. For above all the dread and uncertainty in which ignorant people lived like children in the dark - frightened of witches and wizards, of the Devil and evil spirits - above it all was the bright starlit sky of the new faith, showing them the way. And just as you don't get lost so easily in the woods if you can see stars like the Great Bear or the Pole Star, people no longer lost their way completely, no matter how much they stumbled in the dark. For they were sure of one thing: God had given souls to all men, and they were all equal in his eyes, beggars and kings alike. This meant there must be no more slaves - that human beings must no longer be treated as if they were things. That the one, invisible, God the Creator of the world, who through his mercy saves mankind, asks us to be good. Not that in those days there were only good people. There were just as many cruel, savage, brutal and pitiless warriors in Italy as there were in the lands where the Germans lived, who behaved in a reckless, ruthless and bloodthirsty manner. But now when they did so it was with a worse conscience than in Roman times. They knew they were wicked. And they feared the wrath of God.

Many people wished to live in strict accordance with God's will. They fled the bustling cities and the crowds where the temptation to do wrong is always present and, like the hermits of India, withdrew into the desert for prayer and penitence. These were the earliest Christian monks. They were first seen in the East, in Egypt and in Palestine. To many of them, what was most important was to do penance. They had learnt something about it from those Indian priests who, as you may remember, had special ways of tormenting themselves. Now some of these monks went and sat on the top of tall pillars in the centre of towns, where, barely moving, they spent their lives meditating on the sinfulness of mankind. The little food they needed was pulled up in a basket. There they sat, above all the bustle, and hoped it would bring them nearer to God. People called them Stylites, meaning pillar saints (from stylos, the Greek word for pillar).

But in the West, in Italy, there was a holy man who, like the Buddha, could find no inner calm in the solitary life of a penitent. He was a monk named Benedict, meaning the Blessed One. He was
convinced that penitence wasn't all that Christ wanted. One must not only become good, one must do good. And if you want to do good, it's no use sitting on a pillar. You must work. And so his motto was: Pray and work. With a few like-minded monks he formed a community to put his rule into practice. This sort of monastic community is known as an Order, and his is called after him, the Order of the Benedictines. Monks like these lived in monasteries. Anyone wishing to enter a monastery and become a member of that Order for the rest of his life had to make three vows: to possess nothing; to remain unmarried; and to obey the head of the monastery, the abbot, in all things.

Once consecrated as a monk you didn't just pray - though of course prayer was taken very seriously and Mass was celebrated several times a day - you were also expected to do good. But for this you needed some skill or knowledge. And this is how the Benedictine monks became the only people at that time to concern themselves with the thought and discoveries of antiquity. They gathered together all the ancient scrolls and manuscripts they could find so they could study them. And they made copies for others to read. Year in, year out, they filled the pages of thick parchment volumes with their fine, flowing script, copying not only bibles and the lives of saints but ancient Greek and Latin poems as well. We would know very few of these if it hadn't been for the efforts of those monks. Not only that, but they laboriously copied other ancient works on the natural sciences and agriculture, over and over again, taking infinite care not to make mistakes. For, apart from the Bible, what mattered most to them was to be able to cultivate the land properly so that they could grow cereals and bread, not only for themselves but for the poor. In those lawless times wayside inns had all but disappeared, and anyone bold enough to travel had to look for shelter overnight in a monastery. There they were well received. Silence reigned, together with hard work and contemplation. The monks also took it upon themselves to educate the children who lived near their monasteries. They taught them reading and writing, to speak Latin and how to understand the Bible. Those few scattered monasteries were the only places in those days where learning and the handing down of knowledge went on and all memory of Greek and Roman thought was not extinguished.

But it wasn't only in Italy that there were monasteries like these. Monks wanted to build them in wild and out-of-the-way places where they could preach the Gospel, educate people and clear the useless forest for cultivation. Many of the earliest monasteries were built in Ireland and in England which, being islands, had suffered less from the storm of the Migrations. Germanic tribes had settled there too, among whom were the Angles and the Saxons, and Christianity had taken root there very early.

Monks then began to make their way from the British Isles to the kingdoms of the Gauls and the Germans, preaching and teaching as they went. There were still many Germans to convert, though their most powerful leader was a Christian, if only in name. He was called Clovis, and was a member of the Merovingian family. He had become king of the Franks at the age of fifteen, and by a combination of courage, intrigue and murder had brought half of Germania and much of what we now call France - which takes its name from his tribe - together under his rule.
Clovis had himself and his tribe baptised in 496, probably in the belief that the Christian god was a powerful demon who would help him to victory. For he was not devout. There was still much work for the monks to do in Germania. And indeed, they did a great deal. They founded monasteries and taught the Franks and the Alemanni how to grow fruit and vines, proving to the barbarian warriors that there was more to life than brute force and deeds of valour. They frequently acted as advisers to the Christian kings of the Franks at the Merovingian court. And because they were the best at reading and writing they wrote down the laws and did all the king's written work for him. Now the work of writing was also that of ruling: they composed letters to other kings and kept in touch with the pope in Rome. Which meant, in fact, that beneath their plain hooded cloaks those monks were the real masters of the still very disorderly kingdom of the Franks.

Other monks from Britain braved the wild stretches of land and dense forests of northern Germania, and what we know as the Netherlands today. These were very dangerous places to preach the Gospel. The peasants and warriors who lived there weren't even Christian in name and held fast to the beliefs of their ancestors. They prayed to Odin, the god of Battle, whom they worshipped not in temples but in the open air, often beneath ancient trees which they held sacred. One day an English monk and priest called Boniface came and preached under one of these trees. To prove to the northern Germans that Odin was only a fairy-tale figure, he picked up an axe to chop down the sacred tree. Everyone expected him to be struck down on the spot by a bolt of lightning from the heavens. But the tree fell and nothing happened. Lots of people then came to him to be baptised for they no longer believed in the power of Odin or in other gods, but other people were angry and in 754 they killed him.

Nevertheless paganism in Germany was at an end. Before long almost everyone was going to the simple wooden churches which the monks built next to their monasteries, and after the service they would ask the monks' advice on such things as how to cure a sick cow, or how to protect their apple trees against an infestation of caterpillars. The monks were also visited by the mighty, and of these it was often the most brutal and savage who readily gave them large tracts of land, for when they did so they hoped that God would pardon their sins. In this way the monasteries became rich and powerful, but the monks themselves, in their simple, narrow cells, remained poor, praying and working, just as St Benedict had told them.

 

 

20 There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is His Prophet

The Arabian desert - Mecca and the Kaaba - Muhammad's background and life - Persecution and flight - Medina - The battle with Mecca - The last sermon - The conquests of Palestine, Persia and Egypt - The burning of the Alexandrian library - The siege of Constantinople - The conquests of North Africa and Spain - The battles of Tours and Poitiers - Arab culture - Arabic numerals

 

 
Kaaba

 

Can you picture the desert? The real, hot, sandy desert, crossed by long caravans of camels laden with cargoes of rare goods? Sand everywhere. Just occasionally you see one or two palm trees on the skyline. When you get there you find an oasis consisting of a spring with a trickle of greenish water. Then the caravan moves on. Eventually you come to a bigger oasis where there is a whole town of white, cube-shaped houses, inhabited by white-clothed, brown-skinned men with black hair and piercing dark eyes.

You can tell that these men are warriors. On their wonderfully swift horses they gallop across the desert, robbing caravans and fighting each other, oasis against oasis, town against town, tribe against tribe. Arabia probably still looks much as it did thousands of years ago. And yet it was in this strange desert land, with its few, warlike inhabitants, that perhaps the most extraordinary of all the events I have to tell took place.

It happened like this. At the time when the monks were teaching simple peasants and the Merovingian kings were ruling over the Franks - that is to say, around the year 600 - nobody talked about Arabs. They were busy galloping around in the desert, living in tents and fighting each other. They had a simple faith to which they gave little thought. Like the ancient Babylonians, they worshipped the stars, and also a stone which they believed to have fallen from heaven. This stone lay in a shrine called the Shrine of the Kaaba in the oasis town of Mecca, and Arabs often made pilgrimages across the desert to pray there.

Now there was at that time, in Mecca, a man named Muhammad, son of Abdallah. His father was of high birth but not a rich man, a member of a family charged with watching over the Shrine of the Kaaba. He died young, and all he left his son Muhammad were five camels, which didn't amount to much. When Muhammad was six his mother also died, and he had to leave the desert encampment where he lived with the other children of men of high rank and earn his living tending goats for the well-to-do. Later he met a rich widow, much older than himself, and made great journeys in her service as a camel driver leading trading caravans across the desert. He married his employer and they lived happily together and had six children. Muhammad also adopted his young cousin, whose name was Ali.

Strong and vigorous, with black hair and beard, eagle nose and heavy, loping gait, Muhammad was highly respected. He was known as 'the Trustworthy One'. He had shown an early interest in questions of religion and enjoyed talking not just with Arab pilgrims who came to the shrine at Mecca, but also with Christians from nearby Abyssinia, and with Jews, of whom there were large numbers in Arabian oasis towns. In his conversations with Jews and Christians one thing particularly impressed him: both spoke of the doctrine of the One, Invisible and Almighty Cod.

But in the evenings beside the fountain, he also enjoyed hearing about Abraham and Joseph, and about Jesus Christ and Mary. And one day, when he was on a journey, he suddenly had a vision. Do you know what that is? It is a dream you have when you're awake. It seemed to Muhammad that the Archangel Cabriel appeared before him, and addressed him in thunderous tones: 'Read!' cried the angel. 'But I cannot,' stammered Muhammad. 'Read!' cried the angel a second and again a third time, before commanding him, in the name of the Lord, his God, to pray. Profoundly shaken by this vision, Muhammad returned home. He didn't know what had happened to him.

For three long years, as he journeyed back and forth across the desert, he reflected on his experience, turning it over and over in his mind. And when those three years had gone by he had another vision. Once more the Archangel Gabriel appeared before him in a blaze of heavenly light. Beside himself with fear, he ran home and lay trembling and bewildered on his bed. His wife covered him with his cloak. And as he lay there, he heard the voice again: 'Rise and give warning!' was its command, and: 'Honour thy God!' Muhammad knew then that this was God's message, that he must warn mankind about hell and proclaim the greatness of the One Invisible God. From that moment Muhammad knew he was the Prophet through whose mouth God would make known his wishes to mankind. In Mecca he preached the doctrine of the One Almighty God, the Supreme Judge, who had appointed him, Muhammad, to be his messenger. But most people laughed at him. Only his wife and a few friends and relations had faith in him.

However, it was clear to the priests of the Kaaba, the leading tribesmen who were its guardians, that Muhammad was no fool, but a dangerous enemy. They forbade anyone in Mecca to associate with Muhammad's family or do business with his followers. They hung up this proscription in the Kaaba. It was a terrible blow which must have meant years of hunger and hardship for the Prophet's family and friends. However, in Mecca, Muhammad had met some pilgrims from an oasis town which had long been at enmity with Mecca. In that town there were many Jews, which meant that these Arabs already knew about the doctrine of the One and Only God. And they listened keenly to Muhammad's preaching.

The news that Muhammad was preaching to these hostile tribes, and that his popularity with them was growing, roused the tribe's leaders, the guardians of the Kaaba, to a fury. They resolved to execute the Prophet for high treason. Muhammad had already sent his followers out of Mecca to the desert town that had befriended him, and when the assassins who had been sent to kill him entered his house, he climbed out of a back window and fled to join them. This flight is known as the Emigration - the 'Hegira' in Arabic - and it took place on 16 June 622. Muhammad's followers have counted the years from that date, just as the Greeks did after the Olympiads, the Romans after the founding of Rome and the Christians after the birth of Christ.

In this town that would later be named Medina, 'the City of the Prophet', Muhammad was given a warm welcome. Everyone ran out to meet him and offered him hospitality. Not wishing to offend anybody, Muhammad said he would stay wherever his camel chose to go, which he did. In Medina Muhammad now set about instructing his followers, who listened to him attentively. He explained to them how God had revealed himself to Abraham and to Moses, and how, through the mouth of Christ, he had preached to mankind, and how he had now chosen Muhammad to be his prophet.

He taught them that they should fear nothing and no one but God - or Allah, in Arabic. That it was futile either to fear or to look forward to the future with joy, for their fate had already been ordained by God and written down in a great book. What must be must be, and the hour of our death has been appointed from the day of our birth. We must surrender ourselves to the will of God. The word for 'submission to the will of God'is 'Islam' in Arabic, so Muhammad called his teaching Islam. He told his followers that they must fight for this teaching and be victorious, and that to kill an unbeliever who refuses to recognise him as the Prophet is no sin. That a brave warrior who dies fighting for his faith, for Allah and the Prophet, goes straight to Heaven while infidels (unbelievers) and cowards go to Hell. In his preaching Muhammad told his followers of his visions and revelations (these were later written down and are now known as the Koran), and gave them a most wonderful description of Paradise:

On plump cushions, the Faithful lie, facing one another. Immortal youths go round amongst them bearing goblets and ewers filled with a pure liquor, and no one who drinks of it has a headache or is made drunk. All fruits are there, and the flesh of all fowls, as much as they desire, and doe-eyed maidens as beautiful as the hidden pearl. Under thorn-free lotus trees and banana trees laden with fruit, in ample shade and by running streams, the Blessed take their ease ... the fruit hangs low for them to pluck and the silver goblets are ever made to go round about them. Upon them are garments of fine green silk and brocade, adorned with silver clasps.

You can imagine the effect of this promise of Paradise on poor tribespeople living in the scorching desert heat, and how willingly they would fight and die to be admitted.

And so the inhabitants of Medina attacked Mecca, to avenge their prophet and loot caravans. At first they triumphed and carried off rich spoils, then they lost it all again. The people of Mecca advanced on Medina, intending to lay siege to the town, but after only ten days they were forced to withdraw. The day came when Muhammad, accompanied by fifteen hundred armed men, made a pilgrimage to Mecca. The people of Mecca, who had only known Muhammad when he was poor and derided, now recognised him as a mighty prophet. Many of them went over to him. And soon Muhammad and his army had conquered the whole town. But he spared its inhabitants, only emptying the shrine of its idols. His power and prestige were now immense and messengers arrived from encampments and oases far and wide to do him homage. Shortly before his death, he preached before a gathering of forty thousand pilgrims, insisting for the last time that there was no God but Allah and that he, Muhammad, was his Prophet; that the fight against infidels - or unbelievers - must go on. He also urged them to pray five times a day, facing Mecca, to drink no wine and to be brave. Soon afterwards, in 632, he died.

In the Koran it is written: 'Fight the infidel until all resistance is destroyed.' And in another passage: 'Slay the idolatrous wherever you shall find them, capture them, besiege them, seek them out in all places. But if they convert, then let them go in peace.'

The Arabs obeyed their Prophet's words, and when all the infidels in their desert had been either killed or converted they moved on to nearby countries, under the leadership of Muhammad's representatives, or 'caliphs', Abu Bakr and Omar. There, it was as if people were paralysed in the face of such wild religious zeal. Within six years of Muhammad's death the Arab warriors had already made bloody conquests of Palestine and Persia, and amassed vast quantities of loot. Other armies attacked Egypt - still part of the Roman Empire of the East, but by then a worn-out and impoverished land - and in four years it had fallen. The great city of Alexandria met the same fate. It is said that, when asked what should be done with the wonderful library, which at the time held seven hundred thousand scrolls by Greek poets, writers and philosophers, Omar replied: 'If what is in them is already contained in the Koran, they are not needed. And if what is in them is not contained in the Koran, then they are harmful.' Whether this is true or not, we don't know, but certainly there have always been people who think like that. So, in all the fighting and chaos, that most important and precious collection of books was lost to us for ever.

The Arab empire went from strength to strength, the flames, as it were, spreading out from Mecca in all directions. It was as if Muhammad had thrown a glowing spark onto the map. From Persia to India, from Egypt through the whole of North Africa, the fire raged. At this time the Arabs were far from united. Several caliphs were chosen to succeed Omar after his death and they fought bloodily and ferociously against one another. From around the year 670, Arab armies made repeated attempts to conquer Constantinople, the ancient capital of the Roman Empire of the East, but the inhabitants put up a heroic defence, withstanding one siege for seven long years, until the enemy finally withdrew. The Arabs had to content themselves with the islands of Cyprus and Sicily, which they attacked by way of Africa. But they didn't stop there. Returning to Africa, they crossed over into Spain where, as you may remember, the Visigoths had held sway since the time of the Migrations. In a battle that lasted seven days, General Tarik was victorious. Now Spain, too, was under Arab rule.

From there they reached the kingdom of the Franks, ruled by the Merovingians, where they were confronted by bands of Christian-German peasant warriors. The leader of the Franks was Charles Martel, which means Charles the Hammer, because he was so good at knocking people down in battle. And he actually succeeded in defeating the Arabs, in 732, exactly a hundred years after the Prophet's death. If Charles Martel had lost those battles at Tours and Poitiers in the southern kingdom of the Franks, the Arabs would surely have conquered all of what is now France and Germany, and destroyed the monasteries. In which case, we might all be Muslims, like so many of the peoples of the world today.

Not all Arabs continued to be wild desert warriors as they were in Muhammad's time. Far from it! As soon as the heat of battle had reduced a little, they began to learn from the peoples they had defeated and converted in all the conquered lands. From the Persians they learnt about eastern splendour - how to take pleasure in fine rugs and textiles, in sumptuous buildings, wonderful gardens, and precious furnishings and ornaments all beautifully decorated with intricate patterns.

In order to erase all traces of the memory of the worship of idols, Muslims were forbidden to make likenesses of people or animals. So they decorated their palaces and mosques with beautiful, intricate, interlacing patterns of lines of many colours called after the Arabs, 'arabesques'. And from the Greeks who lived in the conquered cities of the Roman Empire of the East, the Arabs learnt even more than they learnt from the Persians. Instead of burning books, they began to collect and read them. They particularly liked the writings of Alexander the Great's famous tutor, Aristotle, and translated them into Arabic. From him they learnt to concern themselves with everything in nature, and to investigate the origins of all things. They took to this readily and with enthusiasm. The names of many of the sciences you learn about at school come from Arabic, names like chemistry and algebra. The book you have in your hand is made of paper, something we also owe to the Arabs, who themselves learnt how to make it from Chinese prisoners of war.

There are two things for which I am especially grateful to the Arabs. First, the wonderful tales they used to tell and then wrote down, which you can read in A Thousand and One Nights. The second is even more fabulous than the tales, although you may not think so. Listen! Here is a number: '12'. Now why do you think we say 'twelve' rather than 'one-two' or 'one and two'? 'Because,' you say, 'the one isn't really a one at all, but a ten.' Do you know how the Romans wrote '12' ? Like this: 'XII'. And 112? 'СХII'. And 1,112? 'МСХII'. Just think of trying to multiply and add up with Roman numbers like these! Whereas with our 'Arabic' numbers it's easy. Not just because they are attractive and easy to write, but because they contain something new: place value - the value given to a number on account of its position. A number placed on the left of two others has to be a hundred number. So we write one hundred with a one followed by two zeros.

Could you have come up with such a useful invention? I certainly couldn't. We owe it to the Arabs, who themselves owe it to the Indians. And in my opinion that invention is even more amazing than all the Thousand and One Nights put together. Perhaps it's just as well that Charles Martel defeated the Arabs in 732. And yet it was not such a bad thing that they founded their great empire, because it was through those conquests that the ideas and discoveries of the Persians, the Greeks, the Indians and even the Chinese were all brought together.

 

 
 
 
 
 

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