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Alexander Post Mortem: How His Empire was Divided

August 16, 2010

Alexander the Great, Μέγας Ἀλέξανδρος (Alexander III of Macedon, 356-323 BCE), was one of the most successful commanders in military history, and is still one of the most discussed historical figures today. Just look at the thousands of books written, and many movies made about the Macedonian man who marched his soldiers east to India. There are some that dislike him as well, and call him a tyrant who lost his ‘Western ways,’ but no historian can deny that he changed world history forever by introducing Western culture to the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent. Everything from art (Buddha is sometimes sculpted in a Greek toga after the arrival of Alexander), to martial arts (pankration, the Greek version of the martial arts influenced Asia, within their brands of martial arts) are seen as modern evidence that Western civilization had an influence on Eastern civilization after the conquest of Alexander thousands of years ago.

Alexander the Great, thought to be one of the most realistic depictions of him

As I mentioned, Alexander is one of the most iconic historical figures within Western culture, but there are few people who know what happened after he died in Babylon in June of 323 BCE at the young age of 32. I will not go into too much detail of his life since it will be nothing new, but I will start with the basics.

Alexander was born in the town of Pella (Northern Greece, which was then called Macedon) in 356 BCE, and his father was Philip II of Macedon, and his mother was Olympias of Epirus (a territory on the coast of the Adriatic Sea). Philip had other wives and children, but many assumed Alexander would take his father’s place as king after his death because of his natural leadership abilities that were evident even when he was a child. One of the tutors of his youth was the philosopher Aristotle. His father was later assassinated (some say by Olympias, some say Alexander, some say both), but there is also a more solid theory out there by who actually assassinated Philip. I will let you look up that mystery yourself if you are interested.

So, Alexander takes over as the king (or basileus) of the Macedonian Argead Dynasty in 336 BCE. Alexander also inherits his father’s great army that had successfully been expanding their territory.

Alexander went on to dominate most of Greece, and built up his forces to complete his most ambitious mission yet, and that was the invasion of the Persian Empire. Alexander crossed into Asia Minor in the year 334 BCE, and started his long march towards immortality. He was usually outnumbered by the Persians and their allies, but Alexander won many large-scale conflicts like the battles of Granicus, Issus, and Gaugamela.

Alexander's Empire & route across Asia

For a decade, Alexander spread Hellenic culture for thousands of miles until he reached the shores of the Indian Ocean. Alexander’s original Macedonian and Greek men were battle weary, and Alexander turned his force around until they reached the ancient city of Babylon. Not long after reaching Babylon, Alexander became ill (under mysterious circumstances) and died.

This created a problem for the surviving diadochi (successors) of Alexander. Alexander did marry and have a son (Alexander IV of Macedon), but his child was not born yet when he died, and it was unclear if the child would be a boy or girl. According to the historian Diodorus, Alexander’s generals asked him who would lead the new empire and he said, “to the strongest.” This caused a series of conflicts between the diadochi, and the empire was forever broken into pieces.

Ptolemy I Soter, Alexander's former bodyguard and ruler of Egypt

The day that Alexander died, started the Hellenistic period of history. Basically, it describes the culture that flourished in the eastern Mediterranean, which was inspired by Greek culture, and thought. It lasted roughly until the Roman’s conquered much of Alexander’s former empire. Many of the more secluded areas of Asia have kept some Hellenistic influences to this day.

Some of the more popular names that hacked off their own chunks of the empire to survive are men  like Ptolemy I Soter, and Philotas, who were former commanders in Alexander’s army. Ptolemy I, was a childhood friend of Alexander, and later became one of his personal bodyguards. Philotas took part of Asia Minor called Cilicia. After the death of Alexander, Ptolemy took his body to Egypt and established an empire for himself and placed Alexander in a tomb in (of course) Alexandria. Ptolemy became a ‘Pharoah,’ and started the Ptolemaic Dynasty. A more famous member of his family line is Cleopatra VII Philopater, or more commonly known as ‘Cleopatra.’

All together there were four ‘Wars of the Diadochi,’ which lasted from 322 to 301 BCE. This finalized the carved up pieces of the empire, and made former Greek generals into emperors. As soon as the news of Alexander’s death reached Greece, many of the former city-states revolted against Macedonian rule, and this conflict was called the Lamian War. The Macedonian leader in Greece, Antipater, was responsible for quelling the revolt, and was initially outnumbered. Many of Antipater’s former allies soon became enemies, since a majority of the Macedonian forces were still in Asia. Eventually Antipater gained control of the situation, and won the first struggle for the control of Greece after Alexander’s death.

Another prosperous empire that resulted from the Diadochi wars was the Seleucid Empire. Seleucus had been a commander in Alexander’s army, and eventually gained a sizeable empire. The Seleucid Empire stretched from Western Turkey to India. But, because the empire was so vast, it was unmanageable and eventually fell apart after the death of Seleucus. The ancestors of Seleucus ran a smaller and more manageable sized empire.

Many of these empires lasted until the new upstarts from the west, the Romans, became the new superpower in the Mediterranean world. The Hellenistic empires filled the void from the time of Alexander to the succession of the Romans, but remains a little known time period today. We all know Alexander, and we are familiar with the Roman’s because of leaders like Julius Caesar, and Octavian (Augustus Caesar), but maybe the Hellenistic period needed an ‘Alexander’ type leader to be remembered? Although there was no leader that significantly stood out, the Hellenistic era was noted for the great scientific and philosophical accomplishments of the time. The Hellenistic period is pretty interesting if you ever get the time to look into it! Thanks!

Trajan’s Campaign in Dacia

July 30, 2010

Trajan (Marcus Ulpius Traianus), was an unlikely Roman Emperor. He was born in the Roman province of Hispania (modern Spain) in 53 CE, to a father who had a successful military and political career. The Iberian peninsula was far from Italy where the past Roman leaders were raised, and far from the influences of the Imperial city.

The Roman Emperor Trajan

Trajan went on to become one of the greatest leaders in Roman history. Some historians actually consider him the ‘Roman Alexander,’ since he marched his men in the footsteps of Alexander the Great across the Middle East to the Persian Gulf. He did not make it to India, but he died on campaign much like his Macedonian idol.

Trajan had the education of a Roman aristocrat, which included the art of warfare. Trajan joined his father (he had the same name as Trajan) who had been serving in Syria in 75 CE. His father was serving under Titus Flavius Vespasianus (later known as the Roman Emperor Titus), most likely witnessed the siege and destruction of Jerusalem. The young Trajan helped his father conquer the restless Parthians, and gained valuable combat experience. War in the eastern provinces was brutal, and very violent. Just read about the campaign in Judea, or the siege of Masada that happened only a few years before he arrived in the area. The Middle East is where Trajan learned that to be victorious also means to show the enemy as much brutality as possible.

Trajan was later transferred to the border with Germania on the Rhine River to secure the northern border of the Empire in Germania Inferior and Superior. Military service must have agreed with Trajan, since he spent 10 years serving in various posts throughout the legions when most young aristocrats only did a few years military service maximum. After his many years of service on the Rhine fighting barbarians, he was elected to an administrative position as a praetor of Rome in 86 CE. He fulfilled his year in Rome as an elected official, and was commissioned by the Emperor Domitian to command Legio VII Gemina that was stationed in Legio, Hispania (Leon, Spain). It is most likely that Trajan suggested this unit, and it may be because he wanted to return home to Spain for a quieter life after his many years on the borders of the empire.

Bust of the Emperor Nerva

Trajan did not get to stay in Spain for long, as he was summoned by the Emperor Domitian to take care of a rebellious commander named Lucius Antoninus Saturninus, who was a legate in Germania. Trajan was loyal to Domitian and marched his troops to Germania in lightning speed to destroy Saturninus and his new German allies. Trajan was successful, and stayed on the Rhine to take care of German tribes that had become friendly with the Roman traitors.

Trajan gained a reputation as a great military commander, and earned more accolades by defeating the Suebic tribes along the Danube, while he was the legate of Germania Superior and Pannonia. Everything was going fine for Trajan, until tragedy struck in Rome.

Domitian was assassinated, and the childless and elderly Nerva became the emperor of Rome. Domitian’s death ended the Flavian Dynasty, and the citizens of Rome embraced for impact. Usually, when an emperor was assassinated (especially at the end of a dynasty), there were years of bloodshed and instability until a new ‘strong man’ was established to rule the Empire. Luckily for Nerva, this did not happen after he was named emperor.

There was one good reason why Domitian’s death did not start a new civil war, and that reason was Trajan. Under threat (probably of death) the Praetorian Guard (the emperor’s body guards) told Nerva to make Trajan his heir if ‘something’ were to happen to him. Nerva had no choice but to adopt Trajan as his son, and therefore the rightful heir of the imperial purple robe when Nerva died. Nerva was old, so the citizens knew that it would not be long until Trajan was on the throne. It only took a little more than a year. Trajan was on the border with Germania when he found out he was the new emperor of Rome, and toured his border forts on his way back to Rome to make everything official.

Trajan was a very level-headed commander and emperor, so he knew that fractious political quarrels were not good for the people or the economy. Trajan needed money to fund the improvements he wanted to make on the empire, and he knew how to get it without raising taxes on the citizens. The Dacians had always been a thorn in the side of the Romans since the time of Julius Caesar and had recently broken several treaties by attacking Roman provinces along the Danube. Trajan wanted to start his rule out with a nice victory, topped off by the tons of gold and silver that were in Dacian mines throughout the Carpathian Mountains. A campaign against the Dacians would make him popular and very wealthy!

Dacia is roughly where the modern state of Romania is today, and many may know the area where some of the heaviest fighting was fought as Transylvania, because of the Dracula novels and movies. But, the leader of the Dacian’s was not named Vlad; his name was Decebalus. The Dacian’s were not run of the mill dirty ‘barbarians,’ these people were skilled artisans that built great stone fortresses and were wealthy traders in gold and silver. Many Roman deserters worked for Decebalus as advisers, and even made Roman siege and offensive weapons for his army. Decebalus was a very experienced commander that had defeated the Romans in the past, so the new untested emperor was not such a threat to the confident Dacian leader.

Decebalus, leader of the Dacians

Trajan was not in a hurry, and amassed a huge army on the southern bank of the Danube in preparation for the coming campaign. This did not shake the confidence of Decebalus. The high Carpathian Mountains, deep gorges, and fast flowing rivers were not suitable for military maneuvers. The Dacians were also dispersed amongst a rural population that did not rely on a central city as a focal point or center of gravity. Therefore, a war against the Dacians would have to be one of extermination. So far, no Roman emperor was able to conduct a successful operation in Dacia.

Trajan had 9 out of the available 30 legions in the army on the Dacian border along with numerous auxiliary infantry and cavalry units. Trajan wanted to saturate the area with Roman soldiers, so that being outnumbered was never a problem. Deceblaus may have had his mountain forts, but Trajan had his thousands of soldiers and engineers to combat the Dacians and the terrain.

One of the best primary resources for Trajan’s campaign is Trajan’s Column that is in Rome. Trajan’s column is a bas-relief that describes the campaigns against the Dacians from beginning to end. On the column, Roman soldiers are shown constantly building bridges and forts when they are not fighting the barbarians. He had his legionnaires build paved roads, bridges, and fortified encampments in a slow and deliberate move along the border with Dacia in preparation for invasion. Trajan wanted to avoid a Teutoburg Forest type disaster at all costs.

Trajan viewing his soldiers ghoulish trophies (Trajan's Column)

The first clash in Trajan’s offensive happened at the Dacian town of Tapae, which was the capital of Dacia during the reign of Domitian. Decebalus later moved the capital to Sarmizegethusa, which was further back from the border with the Roman Empire. When Trajan’s army got close to Tapae, he had his army formed in a curious manner. The professional Roman legions were in the rear as reserves and the auxiliary and foreign soldiers were doing a majority of the fighting against the Dacians. There are several reasons why Trajan would have had his army fight in this way. By having the legions in the rear, this would have saved the lives of Roman citizens by having a majority of the casualties be that of the foreign soldiers. The fewer Roman casualties the better, when the reports of the battle got back to the capital. Also, this would have made the battle more bloodthirsty by having the auxiliaries fighting in the front of the battle lines. For example, Roman legionaries in many cases were not allowed to decapitate their foes in battle for rewards because it was seen as ‘uncivilized.’ The auxiliary and foreign soldiers had no such rules and were allowed to be much more brutal in combat than the citizen soldiers. Trajan may have used this fighting technique when he was fighting the Germanic tribes on the northern frontier. Much of the brutality displayed by Trajan’s forces is on Trajan’s column.

Although Trajan was fighting a war of brutality, he still showed some forms of compassion when it came to Dacian noble families. This would show that Trajan could show clemency as was appropriate to the Roman upper classes, and he was not a barbarian like those he was fighting. Dacian noblewomen and children were captured at one point in the campaign, and he had theme safely escorted out of the combat zone like any decent Roman gentleman would have done. This may be an attempt for Trajan to show that even though he was cruel on campaign, he did have the ability to show clemency when he wanted. Trajan was on the right path to make sure he had a successful rule, unlike the past few emperors. Decebalus was eventually tracked down by Roman cavalry and surrounded. Instead of surrendering to the Romans, Decebalus, like many other Dacians, preferred to take his own life so that he would not be paraded through the streets of Rome as a trophy of war.

Trajan was a successful organizational commander that could maximize his forces effectiveness with ease, but his brutality on campaign was the key to his success in Dacia. As mentioned earlier, Trajan placed his auxiliary troops and barbarian allies in the front of formations while fighting the Dacians so he could fight fire with fire. Trajan’s barbarians were much more disciplined than the average Dacian warrior, but still had the brutality of a barbarian horde. They would decapitate their foes for trophies, burn down villages, torment the civilian populace, and make a whole fortified town prefer to commit suicide rather than fight Trajan’s legions. Dacia had been a nuisance to the Roman Empire, since the time of Julius Caesar, but it took over one hundred years to make them kneel to Roman dominance. The last emperor, before Trajan, to confront the Dacians was Domitian, and his campaign ended in a mediocre truce at best. Trajan made the Dacian Empire his priority after he became the emperor, not because he had a royal bloodline, but because he was a successful and loyal military commander. Trajan made a ‘desert’ out of Dacia so he could make into a ‘civilized’ province and recovers the honor of Rome that had been lost during Domitian’s campaign. Trajan spread the borders of Rome to its furthest reaches because of his ability to organize a force, maximize his forces, and most importantly focus his troops’ brutality against the enemy and so successfully conquered one of Rome’s most powerful enemies.


Oliver Cromwell: Tyrant or Patriot?

July 20, 2010

Oliver Cromwell in 1649

Oliver Cromwell is one of the most controversial figures in history, but a majority of the stories out there are based on myth and not in reality. Especially from his campaign in Ireland, which is about all that most people know about him. If one mentions the name Cromwell today, a majority of the time people will have a negative opinion of the man, even though they most likely know nothing about him or his career. This is due from hundreds of years of negative propaganda that was started by Charles II after he ascended the English throne after Cromwell’s death. Since the Royalists were unable to defeat Cromwell during his lifetime, they staged a cowardly posthumous ‘execution’ where they exhumed Cromwell’s corpse, and decapitated it as a retribution for the execution of the English monarch, Charles I. The Royalists later displayed Cromwell’s rotting corpse and head in public for some time to discourage rebellion. Why did this man rouse so much passion that they would desecrate his body?

Oliver Cromwell was born in Huntingdon, England in April of 1599, which is just north of London and east of Birmingham. His parents were considered lower class gentry, about one famine or bad harvest away from becoming peasants. Thomas Cromwell, a Tudor statesman who served under Henry VIII, was a distant relative of Oliver Cromwell, but the family had little wealth or land to show for their former glory. Oliver Cromwell did have the fortune to attend college, and he went to Sidney Sussex College in Cambridge, not far from his home. He was unable to finish his degree, and had to find work after the death of his father. Although he did not finish his degree, Cromwell was heavily influenced by the religion of the Puritan college. He returned home to his widowed mother and seven unmarried sisters in Huntingdon. Cromwell was soon married to Elizabeth Bourchier, whose father was a wealthy London merchant and leader within the Puritan religion. Luckily for Elizabeth, her husband actually loved her and their marriage produced nine children. There are  love letters that have survived between the two, and she was not ugly as portrayed in Hollywood films. In the 2003 movie To Kill A King, it portrays the relationship between Cromwell and his wife as cold, and Cromwell jealous of his friend, Thomas Fairfax, who had a hot wife (played by Olivia Williams). There is no evidence to back up these claims, as Cromwell’s wife had vicious rumors spread about her after the death of her husband (i.e. she was an alcoholic, and she was an adulteress). But, we rely on Hollywood for entertainment, and not historical accuracy. Much like the many news channels out there today.

King Charles I

Cromwell started his political career as the MP (Member of Parliament) for his hometown of  Huntingdon in 1628, and later became the MP for Cambridge in 1640. The English Civil War was about to get started, and there is no one decisive reason for the war to start as far as historians are concerned. There were just a series of small and larger problems that snowballed into an all out war between those that supported the Parliament (Parliamentarians) and those that supported the monarchy (Royalists). The civil war was actually a series of three wars that were fought between 1642-1651. It is called a civil war, but I believe it could also be classified as a revolution if the issue was really pushed. But, who am I to rename historical events?

Charles Ist believed he had the “Divine Right of Kings,” and the Parliament had other ideas. Basically, Charles believed that because he was the king, he was personally chosen by God, and ‘commoners’ should never question his supreme authority. The English Parliament was not permanent at that time, and they were only assembled when the king wanted more taxes or to fight a war (or both). The king wanted to get more heavily involved in the Thirty Years War that was happening across Europe, but the Parliament would not give Charles the funds to pay for the war and other expenditures. Charles wanted to relax some of the restrictions on the British monarchy that were established within the Magna Carta, and have overall rule over Ireland, Scotland, England, and Wales. This would give Charles unlimited rights to raise taxes as much as he wanted by right, without the consent of Parliament, which he needed before. Also, the monopoly of the Church of England over Christianity did not please many in other denominations, like the influential Puritans. Many Puritans viewed the Church of England as the lap dog to the king, since it established his ‘divine right’ to rule as he pleased. Also, Charles was married to a Catholic named Henrietta-Marie de Bourbon, and many of the Protestants in England (which were a majority of the population) were worried that his heirs would become Catholic, and revert their country back to “Popery.”

The Parliament would not bend and give Charles his tax money, and a member of his cabinet was being impeached for a botched invasion to relieve the French Huguenots, which was a total disaster. So, Charles did what any good unelected monarch would do, and disbanded the Parliament. This may have relieved some of his political pressures, but Charles still needed money that the Parliament would not give him. Eventually Charles had to reestablish the Parliament, and they wrote a document called the Petition of Right, that spelled out specific boundaries for the king, and they would not relinquish any tax money without his signature on the document. Charles capitulated to get his much-needed tax revenue, but the next decade was called by many a ‘tyranny’ or ‘Charles’ Personal Rule,’ since he did not convene a Parliament for ten years. Charles tried to get around Parliament by instituting a series of new taxes, like charging inland communities for the Royal Navy, and kept the money for himself. Charles was digging a deeper hole for his cause and Parliament was getting tired of his childish antics.

Many considered the taxes invented by the king illegal, and refused to pay them. Charles also started to reform the Church of England, and made the church interiors look more elaborate (and expensive). Many Protestants in England believed the king had converted to Catholicism, and began a public relations campaign calling these changes a heresy on the church. So, Charles, in his infinite wisdom, decided to make Church of England services a requirement, which required the Puritans and other denominations to pay a fine for not attending Anglican services. Charles was only fanning the flames of his own demise. The king’s dream for a unified Anglican church across the British Isles failed when churches across Scotland decided to rebel, which caused Charles to call the Parliament together for the much-needed tax dollars he would need to squash the rebellion. Charles did not do so well in the field, and after two separate rebellions, the Scottish won their right to have religious freedom, and made the king pay war taxes for the cost of the war to Scotland. So, Charles had to pay for his war, and that of the Scottish forces. He was forced to go back to Parliament with his hat in his hand.

The first Parliament was called the ‘short Parliament,’ since the MP’s went after the king for his invasion of Scotland, which they deemed illegal in the fist place. Charles quickly dissolved this Parliament after a few weeks, and invaded Scotland again. This time, the defeat was even worse, and the Scottish invaded and occupied northern England. Charles was forced to pay a steep ransom every day to keep the Scots from advancing. This caused Charles to call Parliament again, and they were even more belligerent the second time around. The Parliament ended when Charles wanted five members arrested for treason, and they refused to give over the members, basically telling the king that he had no authority within Parliament. Charles knew that he had lost authority and the popular support of the people, and he soon left London with his family and supporters. These were the causes of the first English Civil War.

The Battle of Marston Moor 1644

Cromwell was a member of Parliament, and decided the time to fight had come. He did not start out the war as a great general, but he had a rise in power by merit. He was kind of like the English version of the American Civil War general, U.S. Grant. They both started their wars in lower ranking positions gathering soldiers, and became the darlings of the public by the end of the war.

Cromwell started gathering forces for Parliament in 1642, and within a year became a Colonel in the Eastern Association Army. By 1644 Cromwell was a Lieutenant General of the Eastern Association Army and had fought in his first major battle called the Battle of Marston Moor. There is a long list of battles that Cromwell participated in, but I will fast forward to 1649 after Cromwell became a general in the New Model Army and defeated the Royalists across England and Wales.

By 1649, Cromwell was one of the most important men within the Parliamentarian movement, and an important decision had to be made. There was a decision whether the king, Charles I, was to be executed or not. After a kangaroo court, the decision was made, and Charles was decapitated in public on 30 January, 1649. Cromwell and his compatriots committed regicide, they had killed a king.

The execution of King Charles I

Not long after the death of the king, Cromwell sailed to Ireland to quell the rebellion that had begun after the civil war started in England. The Irish Catholics had sided with the Royalists because of false promises of religious equality, and had killed thousands of English Protestants that lived in Ireland. After England became tame under the will of Cromwell’s army, it was time to go to Ireland to take care of the rest of the Royalist threat.

Yes, Cromwell did very nasty things in Ireland, like killing those that surrendered after a siege. Rank did not protect anyone once they took up arms against Cromwell’s army. When it came to cold-blooded murder, he believed in equal opportunity. Despite rumors, Cromwell’s army did not intentionally kill unarmed civilians, but they did kill soldiers, officers, and clergy after a town would fall. If a civilian was to be unfortunate enough to get caught with a weapon in his hand, he would also be summarily executed. Cromwell expected no quarter, and gave no quarter, and that is why he spent less than a year in Ireland. Only a few cities remained in the hands of the Royalists in Western Ireland when Cromwell left the island, and they were left for Cromwell’s underlings in the mop-up operations. Yes, Cromwell did kill thousands of people in Ireland, but he was a man of his times and should not be judged by modern standards. The Royalists killed many Parliamentarians, and by the end of the English Civil War, there was no quarter given on either side.

The death mask of Oliver Cromwell

The death mask of Oliver Cromwell

What ever crimes Cromwell committed in Ireland, he also did some things that were quite noble. For example, Jews had been banned from England since the 13th century, during the time of King Edward Ist. In 1655, Menasseh ben Israel, a Jewish merchant, came to London with a delegation of Jewish leaders to meet with Cromwell. Cromwell eventually allowed Jews to return to England, and soon there was a synagogue and Jewish cemetery in London. Cromwell did not decide to do this out of the kindness of his heart, but he allowed them back nevertheless.

Cromwell eventually became the Lord Protector of the Commonwealth and became the first ‘commoner’ to command Britain and establish a republic in England. The Parliament later offered him the crown and he declined. Not long after Cromwell’s death, the Royalists took control from the Parliamentarians and re-established a monarchy that still remains over Britain today. The roots of Cromwell’s republic would later take hold in the American colonies, since they were remembered by Puritans and others that fled to the colonies after the English Civil Wars. It is strange that a Western country would still have a medieval monarch in the 21st century, but maybe one day aristocracy will only be in the history books where they belong.

Cromwell died quietly in bed in 1658 (probably from complications of malaria, which he contracted in Ireland–the Irish got their revenge!), but his life was not quiet at all. His influence can be seen throughout the world to this day. Thanks for reading my Blog!

Muhammad: Prophet or General?

July 8, 2010

One of the most haunting and beautiful sounds on earth is the adhan, or the Muslim call to prayer. This sound is heard across the Middle East five times a day, since Islam was spread throughout the Arabian peninsula during the 7th century C.E. The self-proclaimed prophet and founder of the religion, Muhammad, started a monotheistic religion when polytheistic religions were the norm in his geographic area. There were Jews and Christians that lived in Arabia, but they were not a majority of the population.

Muhammad and his army destroying idols in Mecca

Muhammad was born in the year 570 in the town of Mecca in western Arabia, near the coast of the Red Sea. Both of his parents were dead by the age of 5, and he was given to his grandfather in Mecca. In 578, his grandfather died, and he was brought to his uncle, Abu Talib who raised him to be a shepherd and follow him on caravan trips to Syria. During these trips, Muhammad was exposed to the different monotheistic religions of Judaism and Christianity. Muhammad would have heard the stories of Moses, David, and Jesus while traveling not far from the important city of Jerusalem. These men from the Jewish and Christian faiths would later be mentioned in the Muslim holy book, the Qu’ran (Koran).

In the year 594, Muhammad went to work for a wealthy female merchant named Khadija bint Khawalayd. She was a widow and distant cousin of Muhammad that lived in Mecca. Muhammad worked for her by taking caravans to the area where the modern states of Israel, Syria, and Jordan are located today. Again, he would have mingled with those that were of the Abrahamic religions. Khadija found Muhammad to be a very honest employee, and decided to propose marriage to him, which he accepted.  The couple had several children, and their business prospered, as did the town of Mecca. Mecca became a very important center of trade and it was also an important religious site for pilgrims of different polytheistic faiths. The focal point of Mecca’s faith was the kaaba, which house hundreds of statues of different gods from many different faiths. Muhammad did not like the idolatry that was going on in his town, and decided to retreat to the mountains that surrounded Mecca to meditate on what should be done. Around the year 610, Muhammad claimed to have a series of visionary experiences where he was given a series of revelations by God. He later recited his revelations, and they were recorded and became the Qu’ran.

Muhammad eventually started to preach in public, which made many in the town very angry since they made a lot of money from religious pilgrims. Muhammad had many followers, but they were persecuted by the Quraysh, which was the dominant tribe of Mecca. Muhammad was protected by the influence of his uncle and wife, but when they both died, the Quraysh attempted to assassinate Muhammad to stop his following.

In 622, Muhammad and his followers went to Yathrib to settle a civil war, which was later called Medina. Muhammad was there for six years and gathered a number of followers that became the foundation of his army. There was a large Jewish community in Yathrib when Muhammad arrived, and Muhammad was amicable to them. Later, the Jews and Muhammad’s followers had several conflicts and the Yathrib Jews either left or were killed by the Muslims. This is one of the first recorded conflicts between the Muslims and Jews.

The leaders of Mecca did not like Muhammad’s success, and the Muslims began attacking unarmed caravans that were going to and from Mecca. There were three major battles between the two sides, and Muhammad commanded the Muslims during the battles. One of the best known battles is the Battle of Badr, where Muhammad’s army attacked and looted Mecca’s largest caravan of the year. For a man with little to no military training, he was apparently an inspirational leader. The two sides later signed a truce, but the agreement was broken within  a year, and the two sides fought again.

Map of Muslim Conquests

Muhammad had many tribes join him and his cause against the city of Mecca. The two towns clashed several times, and eventually Muhammad was able to enter Mecca without a battle, since the Meccan’s were heavily outnumbered. When Muhammad’s army entered Mecca, they went to the kaaba and destroyed the idols of the other religions. As it is written in the Qu’ran: “Slay them wherever you find them…Idolatry is worse than carnage…Fight against them until idolatry is no more and God’s religion reigns supreme.” (Surah 2:190-). After the conquest of Mecca, Muhammad used the city as his base and eventually conquered the rest of the Arabian peninsula. Muhammad was the commanding general of the Muslim forces until his death in the year 632.

The question remains; was Muhammad a religious prophet or a successful military leader? Muhammad did start one of the largest religions in the world, but did he just take parts of Christianity and Judaism, which he would have known a lot about from his travels, and create his own monotheistic religion? Muhammad’s converts took the Arabian peninsula in a very short time period, so we know that he was a good commander. Eventually Islam spread from the Iberian peninsula in Spain to the Indian subcontinent by the 8th century C.E. This did not happen by passing out pamphlets and knocking on doors. Although many modern Muslims like to believe that their religion was not ‘spread by the sword,’ it is hard to contend with the evidence. Muhammad served as the military commander for the Muslim army for twenty years, and took over Arabia. Many Muslims claim that Muhammad’s wars were in self-defense, but after they eliminated their main rivals in Mecca, there was no need to expand militarily. Within a few years of Muhammad’s death, the Muslims were taking Alexandria, Egypt and Antioch, Syria. The Muslim armies were eventually halted from spreading by European forces in France and Eastern Europe, but the constant conflicts between the cultures eventually led to a European offensive action called the Crusades. I will write more about that in the future. I will let you make up your own mind whether Muhammad was a bit of a charlatan military commander who wanted to conquer his own theocratic empire, or a prophet of God. Thank you for reading my Blog!

Muhammad at the Battle of Badr

1066: A Tale of Two Invasions

July 6, 2010

Harold Godwinson or Harold II

Many of us know of the famous invasion of England by William “the Bastard,” the Duke of Normandy in the year 1066. But, many do not realize that William’s invasion was the second one of the year. In fact, Harold Godwinson (Harold II), the King of England, had just defeated the Viking King of Norway and Denmark, Harald Sigurdsson at the Battle of Stamford Bridge. The Viking King was also known as Harald ‘Hardrada,’ which roughly translates to “Harald the Hard Ruler.” Harald was accompanied by the King of England’s brother, Tostig Godwinson, because Tostig and the King of Norway made a deal to split England up, once they defeated Harold II of course. The King of England had a different idea, and changed the course of history.

The Battle of Stamford Bridge in Northern England

The English King was expecting an invasion that year, but from a different direction. William of Normandy thought he was the rightful heir of the English crown when the former ruler, Edward the Confessor, died earlier that year. Harold II even made overtures to William, before Edward’s death, confirming that he would support William for the throne when Edward died. So, William considered Harold’s succession to the throne as an act of treason, and he would invade and defeat the new King of England to prove his point. Once Edward died, Harold II decided he did not want to have a King from Normandy, and would be the next Anglo-Saxon (and last ) king of England.

William I, Duke of Normandy

Harold II prepared and had soldiers waiting along the southern coast of England for William’s invasion, but it never materialized. William’s invasion fleet was stuck in a port because of poor winds. Meanwhile, the Vikings were raiding northern England (around Yorkshire), and terrorizing the English countryside. Harold II heard of this, and gathered his army for a forced march north to confront the Vikings and his traitorous brother. Harold’s army was in sight of the Viking army after his men marched over 100 miles in four days, and surprised the Vikings who were trapped on the wrong side of a bridge without their armor. Harold’s men slaughtered the Vikings and sent the few survivors back to Scandinavia.

There was no time to celebrate their great victory, since word had just reached Harold that William had landed his invasion force on the southern coast of England. Harold’s tired, but motivated men, marched again towards the south to confront William’s invasion force. By the time Harold and his men reached the village of Hastings in southern England, they were very tired and wore out from their many days of marching and battle.

William and his men were on the bottom of a hill, and Harold chose good ground on the top of the hill. I will not go into the details of the battle since you can find that anywhere, but I will wrap this story up by telling you the aftermath of the battle. In one day, William went from “bastard” to “conqueror.” William’s army defeated the Anglo-Saxons in a very hard fought victory. Harold II, King of England, was killed during the battle by an arrow to the eye. He was the last Anglo-Saxon king of England, which started a new Norman dynasty of occupation throughout the British Isles. That day on a small hill in southern England changed not only English history, but the history of the Western world. Who knows what would have happened if William was killed and his army was forced back into the sea. Would England have ever been invaded again? We will never know, but I hope this sparks an interest in the topic and you will read more about that momentous and historic year: 1066.

Martin Luther’s Theological War with Henry VIII

July 3, 2010

Martin Luther

During the Reformation, there were many instances of rebellion where ‘commoners’ openly disputed with kings and called them either a “pig” or a “dolt” as Martin Luther had done in his essay, Contra Henricum Regem. This essay was in response to a piece that Henry VIII wrote in 1521 titled, Assertio, which defended the Catholic Church against ‘heretics’ like Luther. Yes, Henry VIII is the king that brought Protestantism to England, but until his divorce to Catherine of Aragon, he was a devout Catholic. Pope Leo X was so impressed with Henry’s defense of the Church, he gave him the title, Fidei Defensor (Defender of the Faith).

Luther was already writing voraciously about the Catholic Church for some time with such titles as, The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, and The Execrable Bull of Antichrist. Luther even wrote directly to German aristocrats in his work, To the German Nobility, and encouraged them to break with the Church of Rome, since the Pope had no legal or moral rights over them and their tax dollars were being wasted by the Church on elaborate robes and other nonessential items.

All of this started of course with Luther’s famous 95 Theses, which he nailed to the door of the Wittenberg Church, as was common in that time to challenge someone to a debate. Luther originally wrote it in Latin, so only fellow theologians could read and understand its meaning. Remember, Luther was a Catholic priest and a doctor of theology that taught as an instructor at the Wittenberg cloister. Basically, he was training future Catholic priests. Once Luther started to really read, study, and dissect the Bible, he noticed that scripture was different from many of the Catholic practices, like the Seven Sacraments (Luther believed there were only three). He realized that many of the sacraments and other practices of the Church were merely traditions that were created by men, such as Popes of the past, and were not founded on the teachings of Jesus. Luther proclaimed that he could dispute many practices of the Church (especially the selling of indulgences), by using scripture alone. That was the original purpose of the 95 Theses, only to debate internal Church practices. But, someone translated the work into German, and it became widespread throughout northern Europe and eventually translated into other languages. That started Luther’s career as a reformer of the Church.

A Young, Catholic Henry VIII

After Luther’s theological assaults on the Church, it was time for the young Henry VIII to take a stand and write in defense of the Church. Henry fancied himself as a warrior-philosopher, but he was entering a gladiatorial arena where both Luther and Henry were equals, the arena of ideals. As explained before, Henry’s Assertio was well received by those on his side, but this gave Luther ammunition to attack a monarch that supported the Catholic Church.

In Martin Luther’s essay Contra Henricum Regem, he states, “It is this book [The Bible] that I keep-upon it I rest-in it I make my boast-In it I triumph and exalt over Papists, Aquinases, Henrys, sophists, and all the swine of hell. The King of heaven is on my side-therefore I fear nothing, though even a thousand Augustines, a thousand Cyprians, and a thousand such churches, as that of which this Henry is defender, should rise up against me.”

Henry’s court was enraged of course, and Henry’s friend and confidant, Thomas More, defended his king by writing Responsio ad Lutherum. In this essay, More called Luther an “ape,” “drunkard,” and a “lousy little friar.” Also, John Fisher, the Bishop of Rochester wrote, “…we ought to lay hands on heretics before they grow big. Luther has become a larger fox, so old, so cunning, so mischievous, that it is very difficult to catch him…he [Luther] is a mad dog, a ravening wolf, a cruel she-bear; or rather, all these put together for the monster includes many beasts within.” Clearly this is meant as a threat on Luther’s life, and a warning to ‘heretics’ that were on the British Isles (like William Tyndale who was eventually strangled and burned at the stake) that would be within the reach of Henry and his men. Henry VIII found out that his rank did not protect him when he attempted to be a scholar. Through the efforts of men like Luther, the kings and queens of Europe were put on equal philosophical footing, which eventually led to the demise of the antiquated notions of ‘nobility’ or that some men were better than others, simply because they were born in one bed over another. Luther proclaimed that in the gospels, “All men are equal through Christ.” In Luther’s mind, Henry was nothing more than a lap dog for the Pope.

Ironically, the “Defender of the Faith,” changed his mind when he wanted a divorce from Catherine of Aragon, and turned on his former defenders. Thomas More was sentenced to death for treason on order of Henry, and decapitated. The Bishop of Rochester, John Fisher, was also decapitated by King Henry VIII. Fisher sided with Catherine, and his execution was a bad public relations move for Henry. Many of the peasants made the comparison of John Fisher’s execution with the execution of John the Baptist by Herod. Both executions happened for the same reason…a woman. Eventually, Henry VIII sided with the views of Luther, and Protestantism ruled over England. Henry softened his views for two reasons: he could get divorced and get a male heir, and he could take all of the property of the Church and make himself very wealthy. The two former foes became theological allies in the end.

My First Post

June 30, 2010

Hello,

I am a newly minted military historian that would like to keep busy, so I decided to start a Blog to improve my writing and critical thinking skills. I am going to write about ancient, medieval, and modern history from around the world. If you have any comments or suggestions, I would appreciate it if you would drop me a line. I am from Illinois, and I served in the U.S. Army for several years as an airborne infantryman. I just completed my M.A. degree in military history, and my goal is to be a published ‘popular historian.’ I currently work at a museum, so if you have any questions about getting into the museum biz…feel free to contact me. I will be writing soon!