Tag Archives: history
It is easy to see why Herodotus’ Histories may seem overwhelming. Too much is going on, right from the start. We have only just embarked on the Histories’ central theme – the origins of the conflict between Greeks and barbarians in the fifth century BCE – when the narrative suddenly changes tack and we find ourselves in a boudoir tale of nudity, intrigue and murder, only to veer off again when a dolphin saves the singer Arion from drowning. A wild ride!
Herodotus, a Greek from the city of Halicarnassus in Asia Minor (today’s Bodrum in Turkey), published his Histories sometime between 426 and 415 BCE. His principal aim was to explain the unlikely Greek victory against the much stronger Persian army in the so-called Persian Wars that ravaged the Greek world between 500 and 449 BCE.
For his pioneering critical enquiry into the past he was named “father of history” by Cicero. His love of stories and storytelling, however, was notorious already in antiquity: Plutarch called him the “father of lies”.
Most of the tales have no clear link to the main story. They seem peripheral, if not entirely unrelated, to the account of the Persian Wars and their pre-history. Many characters appear only once, never to be seen again. To the reader accustomed to a stable cast of characters and a straightforward plot with a clear beginning, middle and end, Herodotus’ Histories read like a digression from a digression from a digression.
Yet as soon as one pauses and appreciates the stories for what they are one cannot but marvel at the events Herodotus relates. There is the conversation between King Croesus of Lydia and the Athenian statesman, reformer and poet Solon, on the true nature of human happiness. The moral is, in a nutshell: call no man happy until he is dead.
That same king consults the Delphic oracle and learns to his delight that he will bring down a great empire. Certain of victory, he wages war against the Persians; as the oracle foretells, Croesus duly ends up destroying an empire – his own.
Herodotus’ ingenuity emerges most clearly when considered in relation to Homer, who had set the benchmark and provided all writers to follow with a model for talking about the past.
Consider for example his opening statement in the beginning of the book:
Herodotus of Halicarnassus here displays his inquiry, so that human achievements may not become forgotten in time, and great and marvellous deeds – some displayed by Greeks, some by barbarians – may not be without their glory.
Unlike Homer, Herodotus no longer claims to be inspired by the Muses. Yet his opening lines still pay homage to the world of the Homeric hero and his perpetual striving for kleos (“glory”). After all, Homer, too, reported great deeds by Greeks and non-Greeks alike and preserved them for posterity.
Herodotus combined the two major themes of Homeric epic – travel and warfare – into a single whole. Travel and the insights they yield are as dominant a theme in the ethnographic sections of the Histories as expansion, warfare and conflict are in the historical sections. Herodotus uses the gradual expansion of the Persian Empire to delve deeply into the cultures of those who came under its influence in the century preceding the war. In his account the historical and the cultural influence each other.
While Herodotus does not dismiss the Iliad and the Odyssey, he openly takes a swipe at Homer at least once. Helen, he claims, never made it to Troy: she was diverted to Egypt due to bad weather. Homer – so runs Herodotus’ accusation – simply changed the course of the story to make it fit the genre of epic poetry. This shows an awareness of the particular demands of the kind of account Herodotus hoped to write as being different from Homeric epic.
The father of history
What specifically sets Herodotus and his enquiry apart, then, is the proto-scientific way he explores the inner workings of the world. The question “why” drives this inquiry in all its aspects. It brings together the different strands of Herodotean investigation: Why did the Greeks and the barbarians go to war with each other? Why does the Nile flood? Why do the women of Cyrene abstain from eating beef?
Herodotus frequently finds the answer to these questions by looking at origins and beginnings. He takes the military conflict between Greeks and barbarians back to its roots in mythical times. In a similar vein he enquires into the source of the river Nile and traces the names of the twelve Olympians – the major deities of the Greek pantheon – back to their origins in ancient Egypt.
The quest for origins and beginnings runs deep in the Histories. It introduces a form of explanation which links the disparate strands of Herodotean enquiry by presenting them as part of an ordered cosmos. The world Herodotus outlines in the Histories ultimately and profoundly makes sense.
His efforts to establish himself as a credible researcher and narrator are tangible throughout. He is careful to tell his reader from where he derived his information on foreign lands, whether he witnessed personally or learnt from a reliable source:
As far as Elephantine I speak as an eye-witness, but further south from hearsay.
My own observation bears out the statement made to me by the priests…
Of the Pelasgian language I cannot speak with certainty…
Frequently, he gives us all the different explanations sourced from others. In the case of the flooding of the Nile he adds why he favours one (incidentally, the wrong one) over all others. By presenting views other than his own, Herodotus gives his readers the chance to form their own opinion.
The same striving for precision, exactness and authority also explains his diligence when it comes to numbers, distances and measurements.
From Heliopolis to Thebes is a nine days’ voyage up the Nile, a distance of eighty-one schoeni or 4860 states. Putting together the various measurements I have given, one finds that the Egyptian coastline is, as I have said, about 420 miles in length, and the distance from the sea inland to Thebes about 714 miles. It is another 210 miles from Thebes to Elephantine.
Why does this level of detail matter, and do we really need to know it? We do! This kind of accuracy and precision bolsters Herodotus’ authority as a credible source of information (even though some of his data verge on the fanciful).
To Herodotus, at least, measuring the world, mapping new territory, noting the features of distant lands and territories are all part of the process of “sense-making”, in which the new and unknown is related to the well-known and familiar:
The difference in size between the young and the full-grown crocodile is greater than in any other known creature; for a crocodile’s egg is hardly bigger than a goose’s, and the young when hatched is small in proportion yet it grows to a size of some twenty-three feet long or even more.
At the same time, Herodotus shows a profound interest in names and naming and the translation of words and concepts from one language into another. He tells us that the name Egypt applied first to Thebes, and that the name of the Asmach people of Egypt means those who stand on the left hand of the king.
Being able to name things in the world is part of being able to explain them. Herodotus was not just pioneering critical enquiry; along with the world he discovered, he had to invent a method and a language.
Figuring out the fantastic
Occasionally the strive for authority and exactness falters and the reader is left wondering whether the narrator has been unreliable all along, such as when Herodotus’ observations truly defy credulity.
Take the gold-digging ants of India, “bigger than a fox, though not so big as a dog”; the winged snakes of Arabia that interfere with the frankincense harvest; the Arabian sheep with tails so long they need little wooden carts attached to their hindquarters, preventing the tails from dragging on the ground.
All these are instances in which Herodotean inquiry – despite his own claims to the contrary – slip beyond the realm of the authentic, credible and real.
But it would be a mistake to make too much of these examples. They are memorable only because they stand in such marked contrast to the accurate pictures Herodotus sketches elsewhere of the world.
And who can say for sure that the gold-digging ants, the long-tailed sheep and the flying snakes did not, in fact, exist? Some have argued that the gold-digging ants of India were actually marmots and Herodotus applied a Greek word for ant to a creature unknown to him but reminiscent (albeit faintly) of an ant.
Other creatures, however, take the reader fully into the realm of the fantastic. In his description of Libya, Herodotus says emphatically:
There are enormous snakes there, and also lions, elephants, bears, asps, donkeys with horns, dog-headed creatures, headless creatures with eyes in their chests (at least, this is what the Libyans say) wild men and wild women and a large number of other creatures whose existence is not merely the stuff of fables.
Some of these beings belong to a different, more archaic world, where the boundary between man and beast was fluid and uncertain. We can see a whole spectrum of more or less fantastic creatures, whose ranks included the Cyclops and Sirens of the Odyssey.
Herodotus accommodates such creatures in the absence of better information, but at the very least he feels the need to explicitly confirm their place in the new world of critical inquiry.
A special category is reserved for the most startling aspects of the world. In the Histories, the concept of the wondrous (thaumastos/thaumasios) is applied to those aspects of the world which at first defy explanation and seem to fall outside the laws of nature.
A floating island is a wonder; lions who attack camels but no other creature in Xerxes’ entourage – another wonder; the complete absence of mules in Elis – again a wonder. Ultimately, many of the phenomena Herodotus considers wondrous ultimately have a rational explanation of cause and effect. Others turn out to be divinely inspired.
Eternal themes of power, greed and fate
Beyond the question of whether any (let alone all) of the Histories’ events occurred as Herodotus relates, his stories share a common humanity. The examples of all-too-human foibles and traits like overconfidence, greed and envy but also of fate, luck and fortune reverberate down the ages. Through these stories the Histories still speak to us, 2500 years later.
Traditionally, the Histories were dismissed as anecdotal. Herodotus was seen as lacking gravitas and not on par with Homer, Euripides, Thucydides, Cicero and their like. Consequently, the Histories were not considered central to the humanist canon. Over the last three decades, however, this has changed; Herodotus’ Histories are now widely regarded as a foundational text in the Western historiographic tradition.
Classical scholars have discovered that the work has a coherence after all. Unity between the digressions and the main narrative emerges on a level other than plot: by theme. Many stories in the Histories are case studies in the nature of power.
It is not Everyman who makes history in the Histories: the focus is squarely on those at the top of the game. Yet in most instances the rise to power is followed by a sudden and catastrophic fall.
The reasons are always similar: power leads to excess. Blindness to the limitations of human action incurs the downfall of mighty kings like Candaules, Croesus, Cambyses and Xerxes. The condition they suffer from – the Greek word is hybris – is depressingly modern and familiar.
The Histories are a compilation of stories packed into each other like nesting Russian dolls. Successive stories share with each other – and the larger historical narrative of which they are part – the same insights, themes and patterns.
Once you can read one, you can read them all. New insights emerge from the way individual stories play with the formula, highlighting different aspects of the theme.
As tales of the nature of human power, the “digressions” speak directly to Herodotus’ core theme: the rise and fall of all empires, in particular the Persian Empire and its spectacular defeat by the much smaller Greek contingents in the Persian Wars.
Yet the Histories are not merely a historical source for the Persian Wars. Herodotus dwells extensively on the pre-history of the conflict and touches on the cultural and ideological issues at stake.
All this is set on the broader stage of the ancient world and includes geographical references, climatic observations, flora and fauna as well as notes on differences in the customs and lifestyle of Greeks, Persians and other peoples.
Thanks to this broad focus, it is not hyperbole to say that, in a profound sense, the Histories are about the entire world as it came to be understood and mapped out towards the end of the fifth century BCE.
Wonder and discovery
The Histories stand at the transition from an older, mythical worldview – that of the heroic or archaic age as represented in Homeric epic – to a new, classical outlook that manifested in the exacting mode of enquiry into the workings of the world.
The name for this form of investigation – historia – did not yet mean “history” as we know it; it simply meant, in a general sense, “critical enquiry”. Herodotus occasionally mentions consulting written sources, but he does so mainly to distance himself, his method, and information from other authors, notably Homer and the poets.
The most subtle feature of the Histories, perhaps, is the profound sense of balance that pervades all aspects of the cosmos. In the world of Herodotus, any excess is ultimately corrected: what goes up must come down. This applies to individuals, to empires and to peoples.
The divine is central to Herodotus’ view of the world: the gods guarantee a perpetual historical cycle. This dynamic ensures that imbalances of power or greed – the too-much and the too-little – ultimately level each other out.
The traditional gods of the ancient Greek pantheon are still very much alive in the Histories. Yet in contrast to Homeric poetry, they no longer intervene directly in the world. They have receded to a transcendental distance from which they oversee and steer the workings of the world.
We may no longer share Herodotus’ view of the past, yet we delight in the richness of the world he sketched. Its stories, landscapes, characters, and insights into human nature linger long after the reading. What makes the work stand out above all is the Histories’ sense of wonder and discovery. Herodotus’ Histories remain a classic testament to the pleasures of researching and learning.
All translations are from: Marincola, J. (1996) Herodotus: The Histories. Revised edition. London. Penguin Books.
To mark the 100th anniversary of the Sykes-Picot Agreement, we’ve got a package with an explanatory article about the secret accord (below), an argument the accord still underlies the discontent in the Middle East and the counter-view that its influence is overstated.
The Sykes-Picot accord was conceived at a high point in Britain and France’s imperial power. Hammered out in the midst of the first world war in anticipation of an Entente victory (the Russian Empire, France and the United Kingdom) over the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria), it was concerned with distributing the territorial spoils of Ottoman defeat.
France and Britain, along with most other European powers, had been convinced of the inevitable demise of the Ottoman Empire for decades. The image of the Ottomans as the “sick man of Europe” was one of the defining images of 19th-century diplomacy.
The accord was also a product of France and Britain’s newfound friendship. In their respective bids for global supremacy during the 1881-1914 Scramble for Africa, the two powers had nearly come to war in the Sudan in 1898, in a military standoff that became known as the Fashoda Incident.
Calmer heads in London and Paris saw that accommodation was preferable to open conflict and sought alliance. The 1902 Entente Cordiale provided for precisely the kind of gentlemanly negotiation over respective “spheres of interest” as embodied in Sykes-Picot.
Dividing the spoils
Both powers had existing interests in the region that they wished to protect and expand.
On the French side, the arms of finance capital were heavily invested in Beirut and Mt Lebanon, alongside a battery of francophone religious and cultural institutions. French railway companies also had substantive interests in the Syrian cities of the interior, as well as in the Cilicia region of southern Anatolia (also known as Asia Minor and now the Republic of Turkey).
In an era when empires were still built on maritime power, the French foreign ministry coveted the coastal strip of the Eastern Mediterranean because of the area’s proximity to France’s North African possessions in Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia.
Britain, for its part, was determined to have its own coastal access – both to the Mediterranean, through the port of Haifa in Palestine, as well as to the Gulf, through Basra in Iraq. The promise of recently explored oilfields also dictated British interest in Mesopotamia (roughly, modern-day Iraq).
France’s original territorial claim extended across to Mosul in northern Iraq, so as to take in some of these promised oilfields.
At the moment Mark Sykes of the British War Office and François Georges-Picot, French consul in Beirut, were negotiating, Commonwealth forces had occupied Basra and the surrounding Shatt Al-Arab region since November 1914. So, the extension of British control northward seemed logical.
Tsarist Russia, the oft-forgotten third signatory to Sykes-Picot, was promised control of Istanbul, the Turkish Straits and the territories of eastern Anatolia.
Sykes-Picot should be seen in the context of a series of secret discussions over the postwar political settlement of the Middle East.
On the Entente side, the game of territorial bartering had begun a year earlier, in March-April 1915, as the Gallipoli landing was being planned. The so-called Constantinople Agreement between the three parties rehearsed the divisions that would be formalised in Sykes-Picot.
The Entente powers were not alone in planning for victory. The Ottoman government had itself concluded a secret treaty with Germany upon entering the war in August 1914, dealing with the eventuality of a Central Powers victory.
Ottoman territorial ambitions were far more modest: Istanbul sought the return of three provinces relinquished to the Russians in 1878, along with the territories in the Balkans that had been lost to nationalist secession over the previous decades.
Local leaders were also secretly devising plans for the postwar period. Although the Arab provinces had remained mostly loyal to Istanbul throughout the nationalist turmoil that shook the empire during the 19th century, by the beginning of the 20th there were stirrings for greater autonomy or even secession among certain segments of the Arab military, civilian and religious elite.
Leaders of secret societies in Syria and Iraq, along with the influential Hashemite family of Mecca, which held the position of guardians of the holy cities, had begun in early 1915 to set out a vision of a post-Ottoman Arab state. The Damascus Protocol of May 1915 imagined all of Syria, Iraq and the Gulf – with the exception of the British enclave in Aden – forming an independent Arab state.
In November 1914, the British had began courting the Hashemites in an attempt to orchestrate an Arab revolt against the Ottoman state. In a series of letters exchanged the following year between Sharif Hussein and the high commissioner of Egypt, Henry McMahon, the British appear to give generous – if highly ambiguous – support to the establishment of an Arab state.
Another group with designs on postwar Middle East was the fledgling Zionist movement, which had begun to sponsor Jewish migration to Ottoman Palestine, but remained numerically small on the ground and had as yet no formal support from any major power.
The notion that Sykes-Picot was a direct blueprint for the post-Ottoman outline of the political map of the Middle East has a seductive simplicity. But it’s not quite the full story.
The nation states of the Middle East we know today were decided on at the 1920 San Remo conference, and their borders were finalised in piecemeal fashion across the following decade.
The shifting territorial claims reflected a number of changing realities in the four years following Sykes-Picot, such as the success of Turkish nationalist troops in reclaiming most of Cilicia under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal, the Ottoman general who led the beleaguered remainder of the empire’s forces to an honourable settlement. He would be dubbed Ataturk, or “father of the Turks”, upon assuming presidency of the new Turkish republic.
Another major shift in realpolitik between 1916 and 1920 was Britain’s position on the Palestine question.
Whereas Sykes-Picot had envisaged an international status given to Jerusalem (in expectation of problems between the nascent Zionist movement and the indigenous Palestinian population, as well as to head off inter-imperialist rivalry over access to the Christian Holy City), the 1917 Balfour Declaration effectively turned the tide of British support toward the Zionists.
When the Ottoman state finally lost control of its Middle Eastern territories – symbolised in the fall of Damascus to Australian troops on October 18, 1918 – control was transferred to Britain’s Hashemite allies, seemingly honouring the undertakings articulated in the Hussein-McMahon correspondence.
Sharif Hussein’s son Faisal seized the opportunity to fill the political vacuum, gathering around him former Ottoman functionaries sympathetic to the Arab nationalist cause. The brief period of Faisal’s Arab Kingdom in Damascus from late 1918 to early 1920 – despite being characterised by significant discord – contained the real hope that the Arabic-speaking populations of the Middle East might at last be masters of their own destiny.
France, unsurprisingly, protested at this turn of events and insisted that Britain honour the principles of Sykes-Picot. Britain acceded to France’s request, Faisal found himself outmanoeuvred and, at a final standoff outside Damascus in the Battle of Maysaloun, his experiment in Arab independence was quashed.
Sykes-Picot had delivered the spoils of war to Britain and France, and deferred the dreams of Arab nationalists.
The accord was arguably the last gasp of unrestrained Western imperialism, or at least of the classical imperialism of the 19th century. Twentieth-century imperialism would take less direct, more pernicious forms.
This article is part of a package marking the 100th anniversary of the Sykes-Picot Agreement. Read the argument that the influence of the accord is overstated or the counter-view that it still underlies the discontent in the Middle East.
How do we account for forces and events that paved the way for the emergence of Islamic State? Our series on the jihadist group’s origins tries to address this question by looking at the interplay of historical and social forces that led to its advent.
Today, professor of religious studies Carole Cusack considers the Crusades: can we really understand anything about Islamic State by looking at its rise as the latest incarnation of a centuries-old struggle between Islam and Christianity?
In 1996, late US political scientist Samuel P. Huntington published the book The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. Following the collapse of communism in 1989, he argued, conflicts would increasingly involve religion.
Islam, which Huntington claimed had been the opponent of Christianity since the seventh century, would increasingly feature in geopolitical conflict.
So, it wasn’t particularly shocking when, after the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon, the then-US president, George W. Bush, used the term “crusade” to describe the American military response.
Framing the subsequent “war on terror” as a crusade acted as a red flag to journalists and political commentators, who could treat the events as simply the most recent stoush in a centuries-old conflict.
The actual Crusades (1096-1487) themselves evoke a romantic image of medieval knights, chivalry, romance and religious high-mindedness. But representing them as wars between Christians and Muslims is a gross oversimplification and a misreading of history.
Early Islamic conquests
That there were wars between Muslims and Christians is certainly true. After the death of Abu Bakr (573-634), the Prophet Muhammad’s father-in-law and first caliph, the second Caliph Umar (583-644) sent the Islamic armies in three divisions to conquer and spread the religion of Islam.
Whole regions that were Christian fell to Islam. The Holy Land, which comprised modern-day Palestinian territories, Israel, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan, for instance, was defeated. And Egypt was conquered without even a battle in 640.
Muslim armies marched across north Africa and crossed the Straits of Gibraltar into modern Spain, eventually securing a large territory in the Iberian Peninsula, which was known as Al-Andalus (also known as Muslim Spain or Islamic Iberia).
They also marched across the Pyrenees and into France in 732, the centenary of Muhammad’s death. But they were decisively defeated at the Battle of Poitiers (also known as Battle of Tours and, by Arab sources, as Battle of the Palace of the Martyrs) by the Frankish general, Charles Martel (686-741), grandfather of the great Emperor Charlemagne.
This was seen as a Christian victory and, after Poitiers, there were no further attacks on Western Europe. The Crusades came much later.
The causes of the Crusades
The proximate causes of the First Crusade (1096-1099) include the defeat of the Byzantine Emperor Alexius Comnenus (1056-1118), who was crowned in 1081 and ruled until his death. His armies met the Muslim Seljuk Turks at the Battle of Manzikert in 1071 and were defeated.
This placed the city of Constantinople at risk of conquest. So, the emperor requested that the West send knights to assist him – and he was prepared to pay.
Pope Urban II (1044-1099) preached the Crusade at the Council of Clermont in 1095. He argued that the Turks and Arabs attacked Christian territories and had “killed and captured many, and have destroyed the churches and devastated the empire”.
All who die by the way, whether by land or by sea, or in battle against the pagans, shall have immediate remission of sins. This I grant them through the power of God with which I am invested.
This was recorded by a monk called Fulcher of Chartres, who wrote a chronicle of the First Crusade.
Thousands answered the pope’s call and the First Crusade conquered Jerusalem in 1099. But the Crusaders’ presence in the Middle East was short-lived and the port city of Ruad, the last Christian possession, was lost in 1302/3.
Many later conflicts that were called Crusades were not actions against Muslim armies at all. The Fourth Crusade (1202-1204), for instance, was a Venetian Catholic army, which besieged Constantinople. Catholic Christians attacked Orthodox Christians, then looted the city, taking its treasures back to Venice.
Islam was not a factor in the Albigensian Crusade of 1209-1229, either. In that instance, Pope Innocent III (1160/1-1216) used the language of war against the infidel (literally “unfaithful”, meaning those without true religion) against heretics in the south of France. So, “right-thinking” Christians killed “deviant” Christians.
The end of the Middle Ages
It wasn’t all intermittent fighting. There were also periods of peace and productive relationships between Christian and Muslim rulers in the Middle Ages.
For instance, Charlemagne (742-814) (also know as Charles the Great or Charles I), who united most of Western Europe during the early part of the Middle Ages, sent gifts to Harun al-Rashid (763-809), the Caliph of Baghdad. In return, he received diplomatic presents such as a chess set, an elaborate clepsydra (water clock) and an elephant.
In Spain, the culture from the early eighth century to the late 15th was known as “la Convicencia” (the co-existence), as Jews, Christians and Muslims lived in relative peace (though the level of harmony has been exaggerated). And there was an exchange of ideas in fields including mathematics, medicine and philosophy.
The Christian kingdoms of the north gradually reconquered Al-Andalus. And, in 1492, King Ferdinand (1452-1516) and Queen Isabella (1451-1504) reclaimed Granada and expelled the Jews and Muslims from Spain, or forced them to convert to Christianity.
A clumsy view
Clearly, to speak of an “us versus them” mentality, or to frame current geopolitical conflicts as “crusades” of Christians against Muslims, or vice versa, is to misunderstand – and misuse – history.
Modern Westerners would find medieval Crusader knights as unappealing as they do Islamic State.
And it’s impossible to miss the fact that the immediate entry into heaven Pope Urban promised to Christian soldiers who died in battle against the infidel Muslims is conceptually identical to the martyrdom ideology of contemporary jihadists.
Reality is more complex – and more interesting – than the simple continuation of a historical struggle against the same enemy. Muslims conquered Christian territories, yes, but Christians engaged in reconquest.
There were forced conversions to both Islam and Christianity, and – very importantly – actual governments and monarchs were involved. It’s a simplistic thing to say that “Islamic State is neither Islamic nor a state”, but there’s an element of truth in it.
The most important reason we should resist the lure of the crusade tag to any fight against jihadists is that groups like Islamic State want the West to think like that.
It justified the Paris bomb attacks of November 2015 as attacks against “the Crusader nation of France”. Osama bin Laden used the same reasoning after the September 11 attacks.
By adopting the role of Crusaders, Western nations play into Islamic State’s hands. It’s how these jihadists want the West to understand itself – as implacably opposed to Islam. But it’s not, and it never has been.
This is the sixth article in our series on the historical roots of Islamic State. Look out for more stories on the theme in the coming days.
Throughout history, the horse has occupied a powerful place in the emotional, spiritual and daily lives of human beings.
It is said that one day in 1889 when the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche witnessed a horse, harnessed to a hansom cab, being cruelly whipped in the streets of Turin, Italy, he ran across the road and threw his arms around the animal’s neck, sobbing.
He suffered a severe mental breakdown and spent the remainder of his life in an asylum, refusing to speak again.
Horses appear in our art, myth, religion, poetry, song, philosophy, literature and film; often in a philosophical context.
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
In the magnificent exhibition The Horse, at the National Gallery of Victoria, curators Laurie Benson and Ted Gott present works that not only reveal the incredible beauty and grace of the horse, but also explore all aspects of the lives of horses — particularly Tarr’s theme of the heaviness of existence.
Organised in five sections — Myth, Legend, Miracle, Pageant, Conflict, Labour and Pleasure — the exhibition is a celebration of the horse. It also offers a fascinating social history of the horse.
The exhibition displays art works drawn exclusively from the NGV’s own vast collection, which covers the Ancient World, Europe, the Middle East, India and Australia.
The National Gallery of Victoria, Author provided
The first painting the viewer encounters is Lucy Kemp-Welch’s (main image) Horses bathing in the sea (1900). Their riders, military men, sit bareback as the mighty horses dip and plunge in the waves. Although horsemen over the centuries have disparagingly talked about the need to “break-in” a horse, to “tame its spirit”, these horses appear strong powerful and muscular — their spirit is not for breaking.
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Nearby, the earthenware statue, Female Equestrian, from the Tang dynasty depicts horse and rider unified in quiet repose. They share a common bond. Horse is a beautiful, thoughtful, and at times, confronting celebration of the relationship between humans and horses over the last three thousand years and the crucial role that horses have played in the evolution of civilisation.
While celebrating the noble achievements of the horse, the exhibition does not shirk from pointing out the great cost to horses of their relationship with human beings. This is emphasised in the section on Conflict and the crucial role played by horses in war from classical times to the modern period.
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, CC BY
Septimus Power’s stirring Cavalry charge at Cambrai (c. 1919) depicts horses and soldiers in a frenzy of movement as they gallop towards the enemy. Obedient to their riders, the horses charge forward united in purpose and fate. The curators note that during World War 1, 130,000 Waler horses were shipped from Australia to Egypt, the Middle East and Europe and only one returned. The majority were either sold or shot as it was too costly to bring them home.
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
One of the most emotionally confronting works, on the theme of Labour, is Pierre-Marie Beyle’s The Last Resting Place of Coco (1878). Deliberately appealing directly to the viewer’s emotions, it illustrates an important topic of discussion in the late 19th century. Lying on the snow-covered ground, and still harnessed to the caravan, Coco has simply died from exhaustion.
Husband, wife and son look on as the family dog sits in the snow beside Coco, staring intently into the horse’s face as if willing him to stand up and keep going.
The viewer is forced to wonder why the family pushed the horse so hard that it collapsed and died from overwork. Were they completely lacking in empathy?
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
It is Septimus Power’s Toilers (1940) that captures the great strength and muscular beauty of living, working horses as they pull a plough through the hard soil, obedient to the farmer with his raised switch. Dorothea Lange’s stunning photograph, Spring Ploughing (1937), with its focus on man as the workhorse is worth a visit on its own.
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Two standout works both explore the role of myth in our lives: Odilon Redon’s Pegasus (1900-1905) and Michael Cook’s Civilized #1 (2012). Redon’s mysterious Pegasus, the winged stallion of Greek mythology (born of Poseidon and the Medusa), stands with his head arched, wings aloft, and one foot raised according to the legend whereby the white stallion struck his hoof to the ground and a spring then gushed forth.
The naked man at his side is the hero, Bellerophon, whom Pegasus allowed to ride him in order to slay the Chimera. Man and horse are united by line and colour, but it is Pegasus who, in his graceful and fragile beauty, draws the eye. Why did the proud horse allow himself to be “tamed”?
Cook’s Civilized #1 is even more enigmatic. The photograph depicts a man standing by the sea; his body is muscular and lithe, while his head is a mask of a horse’s head. Waves crash at his feet, grey clouds swirl in the background.
Cook’s half-man, half-horse is the opposite of the mythical centaur. The white colonialists of course introduced the horse to Australia. The creature appears to be reading lines of script in the sky. These are the well-known words of Captain Cook:
They are human creatures … more entitled to his favour [they] may appear to some to be the most wretched upon the earth; but in reality they are far happier than … we Europeans.
Civilized #1 belongs to the artist’s “What-If” series in which he reworks Australian history from an Indigenous perspective. A surreal, dreamlike work, Civilized #1 offers only questions. What-If the white settlers had listened to Cook’s words? What-If the colonialists had nurtured, rather than destroyed, their bond with nature?
By imaginatively re-staging the past, Cook liberates history from itself and creates a space to ask new questions.
There is so much to think about in this exhibition: how essential the horse is to the evolution of civilization; the sacrifice of the horse to human progress; the bond between human and horse; human cruelty to the horse; the relationship of women and horses; and human worship of the horse.
In this sense, it also tells us a great deal about ourselves – our passions, desires, betrayals and loyalties.
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
The section on the horse in contemporary times explores the theme of pleasure. The works, artefacts and costumes on the history of horse-racing and the Melbourne Cup are fascinating. These point to the main use of the horse today in the western world.
The reduction of the horse’s contemporary significance to a racing carnival, however, makes one yearn for a more ethical relationship between human and animal — perhaps the one that Cook’s creature is pondering as he looks out across the churning waves.
The Horse is at the National Gallery of Victoria until November 8, details here.
In recent weeks, Australians have been exposed to an overwhelming amount of content in anticipation of the centenary of the Gallipoli landing. This has ranged from the thoughtful to the near-offensive. Lost in the dust of the ANZAC bandwagon has been another key anniversary of an event far less well known to Australians.
Today marks the 50th anniversary of Robert Menzies’ offer of an Australian battalion to the South Vietnamese government. Prior to the prime minister’s offer, Australia’s commitment to the Vietnamese conflict had been limited to fewer than 100 advisers. Menzies’ pledge significantly increased Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War.
Robert Menzies meets the US defence secretary, Robert McNamara, at the Pentagon in 1964, the year before committing Australia to the escalating war. Wikimedia Commons/PHC/Ralph Seghers
What reasons were given for joining the war?
The circumstances of this offer are shrouded in controversy.
In 1965, Australia was involved in two crises in Southeast Asia, one in Vietnam and the other in Indonesia. The connection between the two was vital to Menzies’ decision to increase our involvement in Vietnam.
Having already committed a battalion to Malaysia to support resistance to the Konfrontasi policy of Indonesia’s Sukarno government, the logical next step for Menzies was to look to Vietnam. He did this with the support of his Cold War warrior and minister for external affairs, Paul Hasluck. They decided to send an Australian battalion to South Vietnam, partly to ensure continued American interest in the region.
A series of negotiations took place between Australian, American and Vietnamese representatives to secure acceptance of the Australian troops. The South Vietnamese government and the American ambassador in Saigon, Maxwell Taylor, were initially reluctant to receive more foreign troops. It seemed that the necessary South Vietnamese invitation wasn’t going to be forthcoming.
Fortunately for Menzies, the South Vietnamese government was persuaded to accept the Australian offer. A formal request was given just before Menzies made his speech in Parliament.
By this time it was late evening on Thursday, April 29. The Labor opposition leader, Arthur Calwell, and his deputy, Gough Whitlam, had already left Canberra for their home electorates. As many members of both sides had departed Canberra, Menzies made his announcement to a near-empty House of Representatives.
The reasons given to the Australian public were equally controversial.
In an oft-quoted part of his speech, Menzies claimed:
The takeover of South Vietnam would be a direct military threat to Australia and all the countries of South and South-East Asia. It must be seen as a part of a thrust by Communist China between the Indian and Pacific Oceans.
Seeking US protection from threats in Asia
The spectre of the mythical yellow hordes had been a constant theme in Australian history and has been used to instil xenophobia and need for a great and powerful protector. In Menzies’ case, it masked the true reasons for the offer: Australia’s fear of Sukarno’s Indonesia and the need for American security.
Around 100 Australian troops were already in Vietnam at the time of Menzies’ announcement. They were generally support and training troops, comprising the Australian Army Training Team Vietnam (AATTV). Within months Australian troop numbers had jumped to over 1000 and would peak at almost 7000 by 1969.
The Menzies government’s announcement threw Australian troops into a military “quagmire” of Washington’s making.
The dangers of forgetting
Though the troops’ commitment to the war is rightfully commemorated each Anzac Day, the circumstances surrounding Australia’s commitment of troops to Vietnam has been forgotten.
This collective forgetfulness is particularly relevant this year. In the current “much ado” about Gallipoli 100 years on, arguably a more significant anniversary has been forgotten. After Vietnam, Australian governments of both persuasions realised it was in the nation’s interest to engage with our “near north”.
After Vietnam, there would be no more racially based legislation and governments began to engage with the region, whether the ruling regime was communist or not. Governments still managed to send troops into more recent Washington quagmires, but the numbers are much smaller than the Vietnam commitment.
Menzies’ decision is the forgotten skeleton in the nation’s closet. This forgetfulness suggests a great deal not only about the current national “besottedness” with Gallipoli, but also concerning our collective unwillingness to confront less honourable aspects of our diplomatic and military history. With some notable exceptions, the nation’s populist commentators and the war pathos industry have used Gallipoli as a vehicle for national self-aggrandisement, despite the efforts of some academic historians to push for a more considered approach.
This country has a short attention span when it comes to its history. Well may we say lest we forget on Anzac Day. Those who served deserve that honour.
But perhaps today we should take time out from the Anzac media romp and begin to remember another, more ignominious moment in our recent history and the part played by Sir Robert Menzies. Lest we forget the lessons of the Vietnam War.