A surprising aspect of human nature during warfare is its immutability over the millennia, as classical scholar and Hoover Institution fellow Victor Davis Hanson shows in our discussion about the Peloponnesian War and the Roman Empire. He illustrates what 5th Century BC Greece can tell us about invasions, charismatic leadership, national honor and courageous resistance today.
To view the full transcript of this episode, read below:
Andrew Roberts: In the third century AD, Philistratas said, "For the wise man, Greece is everywhere." That's certainly been true in the career of Victor Davis Hanson, Emeritus Professor of Classics at California State University at Fresno, and the Martin and Ilie Anderson Senior Fellow in Classics and Military History at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, and author of many books, the latest of which is The Dying Citizen. Victor, Thucydides boasted in his History of the Peloponnesian War, that it was not an essay, which is to win the applause of the moment, but as a possession for all time. And you clearly agree with him, calling it an intense, riveting and timeless story of strong and weak men of heroes and scoundrels, and innocents, too, all caught in a fateful circumstance of revolution, plague and war that always strip away the veneer of culture, and show us for what we really are. How does he do that, and who are we really?
Victor Davis Hanson: Very good question, Andrew. And that very famous phrase, [foreign language] A possession for all time, has made people curious for the last 2,500 years, but we know the war lasted 27 and a half years. And we know from other sources that not all of the events that took place in the war are recorded by Thucydides, who was a personal observer, at least for a large part, both as an Athenian commander and as an exiled outsider.
Victor Davis Hanson: And we know, in addition, that some of the things that he stresses or emphasize or fixates were not the most important events in the war. So, then, that raises the obvious question and answer to yours. Why does he give us such a long, long... We can understand the plague, but why such a long mention of cities that are annihilated like Skione or Toryne or Plataea, the Siege of Plataea. Or the dialogue, the debate at Milos, or the stasus at Corcyra.
Victor Davis Hanson: And what, apparently, he's trying to do is he is true to the narrative of trying to give an inclusive view of the war, but he sees certain things, of the plague at Athens, what a plague can do, and we can relate to that during our own plague today, or a revolution or civil disunion, that's Corcyra, can relate to that, too, given what's going on in the United States. Or a complete annihilation.
Victor Davis Hanson: And in those cases, he's saying to us that civilization is no protector against human nature, and that human nature is a veneer. Excuse me, it's the essence, and civilization is the thin veneer. When it scrapes off, then people throw the bodies of others off funeral pyres, so they can put their own dead on them, as it happened at Athens. Or brothers kill brothers, or fathers kill sons of Corcyra. Or at Milos, the Athenians, supposedly the exemplars of democratic humanity, and this is just the way it is. We inherited this code of brutality, and if you don't accept it and realize that you're going to be annihilated, then we can't really help you. So, he's part philosopher and part historian.
Andrew Roberts: We're going to go into several of those later, but can we concentrate on democracy and the concepts of democracy, which were destroyed, in a sense, in Athens, in 404 BC, when the Spartans admiral Lysander pulled down the long walls of Athens to the sound of pipers. Yet, although writers and thinkers, such as Plato and Xenophon and others, preferred the Spartan to the Athenian constitution, democracy somehow survived as a concept and, of course, is a strong one in the present day. How important was it, that brief flowering in fifth century, BC Athens, helped its reemergence? I mean, could we have had democracy today if there were no such things as democracy in Perecle and Athens?
Victor Davis Hanson: I don't think so. I think the way to look at Athens is that, although it had a lot of Jacobin tendencies, because what 51% of the people who voted, the first 7,000 that got inside the [inaudible] voted, that was the law. There were no constitutional checks and balances. But it served as a radical fuel, or accelerant, to constitutional government. So, there was a tendency at Sparta and Crete, the ideal separation of powers did not include, in many cases, 50% of the resident population. And Athens, because there was no property qualification by the late fifth century, everybody participated who was a free male.
Victor Davis Hanson: And the result was that its success, that dynamism of the Athenian empire, whether we look at the Acropolis or the great tragedians or the size of the population. That tended to make people think, "Whatever this thing is, it's volatile, it's dangerous. It will execute Socrates. It'll annihilate the Malians or the middlenians. It does have a certain appeal and inclusiveness. And so, that stays.
Victor Davis Hanson: So, everybody worked in the context of how can we harness that, but not avoid its excesses. And they came up at Sparta in response or contemporaneously with two Kings, and that would be two consoles in Rome and the Effors, which will be the Tribute eight, or the judicial branch in Rome, or the girusea, that would become the Senate, or the assembly of all citizens, which would become the tribal assembly.
Victor Davis Hanson: So, the model that we in the West found the most successful was the Roman model, that went on in the Enlightenment, under the refinements of people like Montesquieu, et cetera. But the idea that we have plebecites and referenda and all of that comes from Athens. And we're seeing that tension, Andrew, play out today in the United States, when we look at the left today, wants to get rid of the filibuster, the electoral college, a 9 person Supreme Court. That's the Athenian urge to at least let 51% of the people, without any checks and balances, decide what they want.
Andrew Roberts: And Plato's ideal Republic wasn't a democracy. It was more government by a board of virtuous elders, isn't it? And many thinkers of the ancient world thought that democracy was too often the rule of the mob, the 51%. But some people, Frederick Raphael, for example, argue that Athens was the ideal place for Plato to found his academy because individuality and argument and comedy were at a premium there, despite Aristophanes' satire of Plato in the clouds. Were democracy and freedom of speech intimately linked in the ancient world? Can you for very long have one without the other?
Victor Davis Hanson: I don't think so. And there was this idea, isonomia, isogoria, the idea that a person had the freedom to get up in front of the assembly and say whatever they pleased. That was unique, really, to Athens. And we should also remember, there's 1500 city states, and we don't hear about all of the democracies at Mantine and other places. But there was a gradation between the Athenian left extreme, and the Spartan right wing. But within those parameters, there were constitutional states that had property qualifications. Well, you could speak in the assembly.
Victor Davis Hanson: But you touched on a really good point about the philosophers. I would go even further and say that I can't think of a major philosopher, whether it's Aristotle or Plato or philosophical thinkers that worked in other genres, like Thucydides and Herodotus that were entirely supportive of Athenian democracy. And yet, they all seemed to, whether it's Aristotle, who is a resident alien come to Athens, and the philosophical schools, whether it's the Academy or the Lyceum, or the Garden of Epicurus or the Stoa. They all are centered at Athens. So, they're very critical of the so-called mob. I think Plato, at one point, said they won't be happy until the dogs and the donkeys vote. But they found that the larger dynamism of that democratic culture was something that favored what they were doing.
Andrew Roberts: And occasionally, it can throw up a genius, granted in the shape, obviously, of Pericles. And in Robert Strassler's brilliant 1996 edition of the landmark Thucydides that you contributed to, you described the funeral oration as majestic. Tell us about that, and whether you think it has anything to tell us today.
Victor Davis Hanson: It was very influential. So, in the second year of the war, there was a tradition at Athens that the leader, the first citizen of the head of the Archon, and that was Pericles, and although it was a democracy, Thucydides said the democracy worked because it really wasn't a democracy. It was sort of [inaudible] or FDR magnetism, gave him power year after year. Moral, spiritual, intellectual power to run the country in a way that was not anti-democratic. It was a democracy led by a first citizen.
Victor Davis Hanson: And in these speeches, and we only have one, we had one supposedly every year, but in the second year, he has juxtaposed this speech, this majestic description of what Athens is right next to the plague. So, he gets done with the speech and then the plague rolls out. And you think, "Well, if it's so majestic, what happened? These people are acting like barbarians."
Victor Davis Hanson: So that's Thucydides, and he always does that. But what he's trying to do in the speech is not just commemorate the dead, but explain why Athens is a free society, and Sparta is not. It's directly aimed at Sparta, the antithesis. And then, second, why people in democratic society will go off to far places and die for the idea of Athens. And then, third, it's the classical argument that, whatever damage is done by a free society, and you're transparent, your secrets can be stolen, you can have agents, you more than gain by the process of encouraging people to be free and to speak their ideas.
Victor Davis Hanson: And so, a lot of the strategies of that speech were incorporated later on when he says the first [inaudible] he says, "I can't really do justice to this. Your assessment of Athens, your assessment of the dead should not hinge on my ability to speak." That was exactly what Lincoln did in the Gettysburg Address. And Lincoln's Gettysburg Address is the same type of military oration over the dead, shorter, but it's an encapsulation of what the American experience was like. And he emulated Pericles. And a lot of people have since.
Andrew Roberts: Well, I was about to come onto that. And there are also, of course, 141 speeches in Thucydides' history. And when you write of the sophist and rhetorical movements that were spawned by the bounty of this Athenian century, do you think it's possible to trace elements? I mean, you've already just done it with the Gettysburg Address. But trace elements of ancients or rhetorical devices, as opposed to not what they're saying, but the way they say.
Victor Davis Hanson: Yes, absolutely.
Andrew Roberts: In modern political oratory.
Victor Davis Hanson: Yes. And so, a couple of things. One of them is they're brilliant in what we call pretoradio. I won't mention this about my opponent. Or, I won't mention this about Sparta, then you go ahead and mention it.
Andrew Roberts: Like Chappaquidick.
Victor Davis Hanson: Yes.
Andrew Roberts: Didn't somebody, Jimmy Carter, make a speech about not mentioning Chappaquidick when Ted Kennedy was standing against him?
Victor Davis Hanson: Yes.
Andrew Roberts: Absolutely. But that was pure Ancient Greece.
Victor Davis Hanson: That would be as if I said, "I don't want to mention Hunter Biden, and I won't mention Hunter Biden," and then mention him when praising Joe Biden. And then another trait that's very common. They, unlike us, who believe that stereotyping is racist or unfair or culturally exclusionist or something, in that famous series of speeches at the end of book one, they talk about natural character, and the Spartans, you are slow to rile, you are suspicious. The Athenians, when they grab something, they're disappointed that they didn't grab more. When you grab something, you're worried that you grab too much.
Victor Davis Hanson: So, they have this tendency throughout to express what's going and in this history is the collective impulses at which are predictable for particular people. And that's something that was very influential. What national character, until recently, at least, it was very common. The other thing that he does is that he has a tendency to put a rhetorical speech. And you don't know whether it's going to be effective or not, in terms of policy, but it's very effective in winning over a majority support. But then, as I said earlier, he juxtaposed something that makes you think that it was a disaster.
Victor Davis Hanson: So, I'll give you another example, besides the play. When Pericles is explaining all of these things, and he has it earlier about the strategy to come into the walls. And then you say to yourself, "Well, wait a minute. Going into the walls caused the plague." And he put the plague right after this monumental speech.
Victor Davis Hanson: Same thing on the decision to go to Sicily. There's Alcibiades and then there's the sober judicious speeches of Nicias and Nicias has the better argument, but Alcibiades basically was bombastic. We can't mark out where we're going to stop, and we can do this. And it just overreach. And it persuades everybody. And then, almost immediately, you have book six and seven, which is a chronicle of the horrendous disaster of the Sicilian Alcibiadian project. So, you get the impression he thinks that one of the weaknesses of democracy is the ability of a speaker to persuade people to do something, with majority of support, that's disastrous.
Victor Davis Hanson: And he's very, very explicit about in Mytilene, when [Dioctus] has an idea. "Don't execute the Mytilenians." And then [inaudible] he gives a speech that's terrifying and it wins. And then they decide, "Wow, that was a bad idea. We voted to execute him. Now we better get another trireme, row all night and contradict what we voted yesterday because of Cleon. And so, he's very worried that clever speakers or even good men that speak well can result in disastrous policy for the people.
Andrew Roberts: And modern academia is obsessed, isn't it, with the objective versus the subjective truths.
Victor Davis Hanson: They are.
Andrew Roberts: And the way that the speeches in Thucydides seem to reflect what was actually said and others, what Thucydides thought ought to have been said speaks to that dichotomy, doesn't it?
Victor Davis Hanson: It does. And remember that for years, not as much as we used to think, but Herodotus has speeches in his history of the Persian War. He's only writing perhaps 10 to 20 years, at most, earlier than through Thucydides. So, it was a technique in ancient historiography that any historian could put words into the mouth if they thought that there was a speech given, and if they thought the circumstances would justify a rendition of that speech, even though they didn't hear it.
Victor Davis Hanson: Because they had no paper and pencil, and journalistic recording. However, what makes his speeches different is the number of them, 141. And more importantly, he deliberately confuses students of Thucydides for the next 2500 years when he says, "I tried to write down as much as I could by lengthy investigation of what was said." Or, "I put words into the mouth of people, which the circumstances probably demanded that they say." And that's contradictory.
Victor Davis Hanson: One is an argument that it's not subjective. Subjective, that it actually happened, and he took great pains. And then the other argument, that he also makes, is sometimes it's just what I think they should have said. And then we have to find tools as historians to find out when a speech is subjective or actual. And we do have some. One of them is, were there a lot of people around, like a funeral oration? They would say, "That didn't happen. I was there. You made that up Thucydides." When they heard somebody recite Thucydides.
Victor Davis Hanson: Or is it have a level of vocabulary, grammar, and syntax that you don't think the popular audience would follow? For example, there are grammatical examples or syntactical complexities in the funeral that would be analogous for, let's say, a colonial audience around 1786 that has become American. Listen to somebody recite the Federalist papers. And I don't think they could follow that.
Andrew Roberts: And he's also been criticized, certainly, for making his leading figures too black and white. The Pericles good, Cleon bad, Brasidas and [inaudible] good, Alcibiades and Nicias, as you mentioned earlier, bad. Is that a fair criticism of him?
Victor Davis Hanson: I don't think it is quite, because he has a unique ability to show you that certain people that he does not like are dynamic. He obviously does not like Cleon. He puts him into the mouth of Cleon, an argument that is so much more sophisticated than Diodotus that it is much more persuasive. Or, to give example, when there's a question of going down to the Pelapanes and defeating Sparta, it's bacteria and Pilos. He says that Cleon just hammers everybody and hammers Nicias and hammers everybody. "You don't do this. You don't do that." And then they vote to say, "Well, if you're so smart, you go down." And then he adds [inaudible] And people were actually thinking that two good things could happen. He'd either win or he'd get killed. Either one was acceptable.
Victor Davis Hanson: But the fact is, he's very fair. And he shows you how Cleon's dash and his audacity win the day. And so, Nicias is a complete incompetent. And he is very careful, chronically, whether he had a kidney stone or not, how he destroys the expedition of the Sicily. But then, when he dies, he says that there was no man that lived a better life than Nicias. And so, that's raises an even more difficult question about the layers of composition, because at times he will give you a summary or a culminating opinion that's not justified by the previous evidence that he's induced.
Victor Davis Hanson: And I wrote a thesis on agricultural devastation, because he will say it. So, they destroyed all the agriculture of Attica. And yet, he will show you that there were areas that they didn't destroy. And that has led to this question of composition and methodology. In other words, that he was writing the history as an observer, and then, at particular points, he summarized. And at some points, he found out that his summary had changed because the conditions of the war in Athens.
Victor Davis Hanson: A good example is that, it's supposed to be a tragedy that Athens is going to be destroyed at the end of the war. They're done, the democracy. And he may have lived all the way until 395, even though the history ends in 411. Nobody can figure that out because he did not die in 411.
Andrew Roberts: One of the books ends in midsentence doesn't it?
Victor Davis Hanson: Yes, it does. It does. In book eight. So, the question is, maybe he got frustrated as he had this huge amounts of notes and dispatches, and he was forming his history leading to this tragedy that Athens was destroyed itself. Then he looks all of a sudden around the 390s, and all of a sudden it's resurgent. And now, it's more or less working with Sparta, in some cases, against Thebes.
Victor Davis Hanson: And he thinks, "Well, wait a minute." Maybe he got frustrated because he apparently didn't just die in mid-sentence in 411, as the 19th century. I thought we found it. Epigraphic evidence of people referred to in the history that we know were alive at certain times. So, we know from a variety of good conjectures he lived into the 390.
Andrew Roberts: You've written about the inevitable tension in fifth century Athens, between democracy at home and imperialism abroad. Can you tell us a bit about that? You mentioned the median dialogue just then, and maybe in the context of the median dialogue. Talk about what you've called the Athenians' butchery of the hapless medians, and the extent to which this is, obviously, a might is right debate. The extent to which Thucydides is on one side or the other of that.
Victor Davis Hanson: Well, there was this Cold War, from 431 to 421, there was what we call the Archidamian War with certain auxiliary theaters. And then they'd had the Peace of Nicias, roughly from 421 to to the Expedition to Sicily in 415. But in that period, it was a cold war, so each side is trying to gain advantage without breaking the peace. The battle of Mantinea and 418. But one of them is the Athenians decide they've got to clean up their backyard and the Aegean, and as a sea power, they can do it.
Victor Davis Hanson: So, they go into certain places and say, "You're either with us or against us. And no more neutrality." And they go to the Island of Milos, which was a Doric colony, and they say to the Malians, "It's time to quit double game with us. We know what you're doing. You say you're neutral, but you help the Spartans, your kin." And the Malians say, "No, no, we don't want anything." And then the Athenians said, "Sorry."
Victor Davis Hanson: Then we had this wonderful exposition of what you're talking about. The Malians say, "If you kill us and you profess to be democratic and humane, what's going to happen is that all of your empire is going to revolt in revulsion at your crudity because you're no different than, basically, a barbarian. And the Athenians' ambassadors, of which maybe Alcibiades was one answer.
Victor Davis Hanson: We wish that were true because, in a world, that would be very good. But the fact is, we know human nature better than you do. And that is, if we let you live, then you will go brag, as soon as we go away, that you were able to escape the wrath of Athens because it's weak. And then when people see us weak, they will start to revolt. And that's just the way it is. We didn't make the rules. We inherited it.
Victor Davis Hanson: And then the Malians basically say, "But we have hope. At one time, Greeks were much less powerful than Persians. And if we had this logic, we'd always quit. When somebody seemed more powerful, but we don't know what can happen because they're alluding to the Persian wars and the small Greece defeated. We're playing that role. And the obvious implication is the Athenians that become imperialistic Persians.
Victor Davis Hanson: And then they have this great line where they say, "Hope dangers comforter." So, if we can't persuade you to put your faith in the nebulas away and look at the reality, the data, so to speak, then you're going to be annihilated. And that's what happens. They annihilate them and they kill all the males above, I think, 18 or 16. And they enslave the women and children, and they destroy the city and hand it over to their own people.
Andrew Roberts: And that's one of the lessons in human behavior that Thucydides tells. The other one that you mentioned earlier was the Stasis at Corcyra in 47 BC. Can you tell us about what Thucydides says about the way that words change their meanings? Violence becomes manliness, prudence becomes cowardice, and so on. And also, maybe a few words about the Orwellian parallels in modern revolutions. Because when I was rereading that, I was very much thinking of the Maoist cultural revolution in the way that words changed their meaning in that.
Victor Davis Hanson: Well, he lists a series of words that we would consider sober and judicious and moderate. Adjectives, so in Greek, kind or careful or circumspect. And he says, as the violence grew, those were seen increasingly as the words of the weak or the naive, or people who were afraid to express the truth. And the more violent vocabulary came as a mark of admiration, that the person who was going to kill or the person who was going to cut off a potential conspiracy, they were the smarter ones.
Victor Davis Hanson: And then he makes a stunning admission that when societies get in crisis like this, the people who are intellectuals or thinkers or statesmen tend to be arrogant. They tend to think that they can always handle the mob. But I think the word he uses, "the blunter wits." These are the Joseph Stalins, the brawlers. Or the Maoists, who know exactly that, when you get into a situation like this, you've got to kill. They will kill people and they don't care. And they're always going to be underestimated by the Krasinskis or the Chiang Kai-sheks, who think that they can deal with these people.
Andrew Roberts: You mentioned earlier about intellectual arrogance, and isn't there an element of intellectual arrogance, and also national chauvinism, in the Sicilian expedition? There's a warning Thucydides's warning about the dangers of both of those, isn't he, with regard to Alcibiades and so on?
Victor Davis Hanson: I think so. Remember that Alcibiades cooks up this idea that, in the calm of the peace, they can get advantage by not breaking the peace, but going and attacking the largest democracy in the Greek world, as a democracy, 800 miles away. Sort of like, in the middle of the Iraq War, we would've attacked India, a neutral that's democratic and big and distant.
Victor Davis Hanson: So, they go over there, but they don't trust quite Thucydides. They being the Athenian assembly. So they say, "You know what? There's this Lamacus guy. He is not very bright, but he's dependable. And then there's Nicias, who's moral, and he's a wealthy aristocrat. So, it's just contrary to Napoleon's victim, never divide command. So, they have three commanders, and they go there.
Victor Davis Hanson: And what unfolds is that the brilliant, aristocratic, enlightened, military genius, Alcibiades, his idea is, they go there and everything they've been told is a lie. There are no really allies there. Sicily's not open for revolt. Their allies have no money. It was all a sham. So, Alcibiades says, "Let's just go around the island and make a display of our power, so we don't go back empty handed. IE We'll be executed if we go back because we didn't do anything."
Victor Davis Hanson: And Nicias says, "Aw, we can't do that. Let's just stay here and make a base. And, of course, every day you're there in Sicily, you're going to get weaker. But then Lamacus, the dull witted one, says, "No, just go straight, right now, to the capital at Syracuse, and take it." And in retrospect, you can see that the so-called stupidest and lamest of the three had the best suggestion, and the most sophisticated, Alcibiades, or the most establishment of all, Nicias, had the worst advice. The two of them end up, in different ways, destroying the expedition and Lamacus gets killed. And so, it becomes a tragedy. A Sophoclean tragedy.
Andrew Roberts: In 2018, Graham Allison wrote a book called Destined for War: Can China and America Avoid Thucydides' Trap. Several books, obviously, have been written since that, with this phrase, "Thucydidian trap" in the title, or the subtitle. Firstly, do you think there is such thing as a Thucydidian trap, and if so, can America and China avoid it? Because that's obviously what it's being used to describe in our time.
Victor Davis Hanson: Well, that concept was not new. There had been classicists who had fixated on this one line, I should say, in Thucydides' History, in book one, where he says that the greatest cause of the war was Spartans' fear of the Athenian empire, IE, that it was dynamic and growing and they were static. And so, this was the last chance for preemption.
Victor Davis Hanson: But that said, again, this is one of these cases where the summation is not supported by the evidence he educes. Because he goes to great pains in the funeral oration, and a series of exchanges among Corinthians and Spartans, and Pericles's warnings about the war at the end of book one. In this sense, they say Sparta is a oligarchy. Athens is a democracy. Sparta is a land power. Athens is a sea power. Sparta has no money. It's got no reserve. It's parochial and rural. Athens is cosmopolitan and dynamic. Sparta is Doric. It's got an ethnic division with us. We are ionic.
Victor Davis Hanson: So, they give you so many fundamental fault lines. And there has been so many wars before. There was a first Peloponnesian war, for example, and there had been tensions before, going way back into the 470s, 460s, and then breaking out in war in the 450s. It wasn't just that Sparta was afraid of Athenian power. Britain was afraid of American power. It was very clear that, by 1865, the US GDP was approximating, if not had already passed, Britain's. It had almost passed Germany's.
Victor Davis Hanson: And so, the British had this huge empire and they didn't know quite what to do with the Americans. And there was talk that maybe there would be a war. But there wasn't. And there wasn't a war because they had a lot more affinities than they had differences. There was a war with Germany and Britain because there were these fundamental differences. Britain wasn't just afraid that the German economy and the unification of Germany was threatening. It did. But Britain have not gone to war preemptory on its own, in the way that Kaiser did. So, there were differences that Germany felt were existential.
Victor Davis Hanson: So, I never bought into that because I think there are all sorts of cases in history where a rising power does not cause a preemptory attack from an established power, as if it's the last time you can change it. That happens when there are so many other fundamental differences. And so, his idea that we might have to stop Chinese dynamism before they take us over, that wouldn't occur if China was a democratic free market, a truly free market, democratic people. It's happening because it's a communist thugocracy of 1.4 billion people that are regimented, and it's got this Silk road initiative and things. So, it's a different society than ours. And I think that's far more important than the relative fluidity and fluctuations of power.
Andrew Roberts: Can we move on to Rome? And there've been no fewer than 76 reasons given by historians for the fall of the Roman Empire. Which ones do you think were the most important?
Victor Davis Hanson: I think two are most important. The first is that you can make the argument, by the fifth century, but even the fourth, not only are most of the emperors non-Italian, but the vast majority of the 70 million people in the Roman Empire are non-Italian. Which is fine. It's a multicultural, multiracial empire, but the problem is Caracalla tried to solve it in 212 by giving everybody who had feet on the ground inside Rome citizenship. But there are not enough people. There's not a majority of Roman residents of the 70 million from the Persian Gulf to Gibralter, or from the Danube all the way to the Sahara. There's not enough people who have a commonality. They don't believe they are Roman first, and German or Berber or Arab second. They believe that their national identity is coming to the fore.
Victor Davis Hanson: And how does that translate? It means if you're a Roman Legionnaire on the banks of the Rhine, you probably are marrying somebody who's German, you may be half German yourself. And if they ask you to go down to Egypt to suppress a revolt, you're not going to do it. They say you're not supposed to be married, you will be. If they say you should know Latin, you don't need to know Latin. So, there was a breakdown, a fragmentation of culture.
Victor Davis Hanson: The second, I think, was monetary. There was a greater investment in consumption than production. And we know that there was an enormous inflation. That the military budgets went up, but also the consumption budgets went up, and there were getting to the point where, and I don't want to weigh in why that was true. There was a lot of people, if you were. The great Marxist historian Jeffrey [inaudible] the British historian, he wrote a great book, The Class Struggle.
Victor Davis Hanson: He argued there was too many land that were not productive, in the sense of the church owned millions of acres that was not being taxed and would not allow people to join the allegiance. I don't quite think that's right, but there were reasons why there was inflation, and they were simply bankrupt.
Victor Davis Hanson: One thing to remember, Andrew, and I think this is really important, this is kind of scary for a liberal westerner, but there was a Eastern empire by the fourth century. That's Constantine's Constantinople, on the old side of Byzantium. And when Rome fell in the 470s, finally collapsed, this alternative paradigm lasted for 1000 years, and we can't figure out why. Well, maybe it's geography. Well, the geography was even more dangerous. It lived in a more dangerous neighborhood. But by the 520s, the Byzantine Romans had recovered half of the Roman empire. They had built Hagia Sophia. They had the Justinian Law Code.
Victor Davis Hanson: And one of the reasons they did it, they insisted on a standard language Greek, and they had a bifurcated Christianity, but it was Orthodox throughout the Byzantine Empire. They didn't have the religious schisms that were in the left, and they had a pretty tough legal code that was uniform. But what I'm getting to is they became less liberal, but more patriotic, nationalistic, uniform and United. And out of that idea, they lasted 1000 years.
Andrew Roberts: There's an old Monte Python line in The Life of Brian, where the leader of the People's Front of Judea, played by John Cleves, complains, "What have the Romans ever done for us?" And then it's pointed out to him, famously, that they brought roads, aqueducts, sanitation, irrigation, meds and education, wine, public baths, law and order, and peace. And if one can assume that all of these public benefits wouldn't have arrived in Judea in the first century AD without the Romans, does ancient history provide an argument in favor of empire?
Victor Davis Hanson: Not all empires, but it certainly does in the way of Rome, I think in a way that the Ottoman or the Mongol Empire doesn't. Because they had this ability to go into a province, like Gaul, what would we call, I guess, in the vernacular, Ancient France, and convince people who were losing their freedom and conquer, even though they took perhaps a million slaves out of it, but nevertheless, they had the ability to assimilate them and say, "You know what? You can wear a purple Toga. You can speak Latin. You can have your own assembly, and you can be a novos homo, and go to Rome and be successful."
Victor Davis Hanson: And so, when you look at people that were very prominent Pilotus the Playwright was a non-Roman, probably African American of North Africa. Justinian came. He was not even Italian. And he came from the Northern Balkans. We had all these emperors that were from Spain. And so, they had an ability to assimilate people and they all could only do that by viewing them as inherently as noble or equal, as possible as a person could, given an innate prejudice as Italians.
Victor Davis Hanson: And for a while, it worked really well. Everybody out, after these bankrupt, inbred Julio-Claudians that would be the end. The year of the four emperors in 69. Then you get these brilliant people, like Vespasian and Titus, and Nerva and Marcus Aurelius and Hadrean and Trajan and Tonius Pius. 100, which given called great. And it's an ability to take the system and to expand it beyond Italy, and to give benefits for people who are not Italian, and make them feel more Roman. And it worked for about 300 years. And when they no longer could do that, then it broke apart. And that has a lot of modern lessons I think, for us.
Andrew Roberts: So, what do you say to the morons who argue that, because Latin's a dead language that nobody speaks, that it therefore oughtn't to be taught?
Victor Davis Hanson: Well, case of Latin or Greek, modern English and most romance languages, they're a highly inflected. Even English is. I mean, you have a plural s or something. And to understand how a language works, if you really want to speak well or write well, you have to have some knowledge of how it works. And the best way I found, and I'm speaking as somebody taught Mexican American and poor white kids, Southeast Asians at a trade school, Cal State Fresno, for 21 years, I found that Latin was absolutely ideal. And that's one thing.
Victor Davis Hanson: Number two, it expands your vocabulary. What I mean by that is, once you understand Greek and Latin roots, compound suffixes, prefixes, then you can understand what the word really means. And if you say democracy, democracy. But if you know what croctos means and demos, you see it's the power, not just the rule, the power of the people. Or if you say oligarchy, it's the rule of just a few people, or a plutocracy.
Victor Davis Hanson: And so, you can just think of all these cracy words, and it really enriches your vocabulary. Then, more importantly, it creates a discipline that, when you start to learn the languages and the larger literature and history, knowledge is not just fuzzy out there, like a lot of kids will come in philosophy, history. I don't know what it is, but it's finite. You say, "This is language. Now you're going to go to literature, history, philosophy. And there's also these subcategories of rhetoric." And it's all finite. Science, math, and that's it.
Victor Davis Hanson: And so, when the student says, "Well, I'm going to learn a new thing called psychology or gender studies or peace studies or environmental studies." You say, "No, that's a subdivision of science, or that's a subdivision of philosophy. Or that's anthropology is really a history and science combined." And so, it gives a student confidence against fads and trends. And I found that I could literally take almost any student of any economic background or ethnic background, if I had that student for three or four years as a classics major, and I had a lot of them. I think we sent 50 of them to the Ivy League in professional schools, from very impoverished conditions.
Victor Davis Hanson: My biggest problem was always that, once a student graduated with classical languages, history, philosophy, that they encountered enormous opposition, not from other students, but from faculty members. And this sounds a little preposterous, but you could take somebody who immigrated from Mexico, and if that student had two years of Latin, two years of Greek, two years of ancient history, and that student was in an ethnic studies or a gender studies class, and wrote and spoke, the teacher resented that. Because they were better educated than the person with a PhD in sociology.
Andrew Roberts: We've been talking about tragedy. That really is the definition of it. I think what an appalling situation to have.
Victor Davis Hanson: Yeah. Well, I took it for 21 years and quit an afternoon.
Andrew Roberts: One last question. One last question, which I'm going to ask all of my guests. What's your favorite historical counterfactual? Your what if?
Victor Davis Hanson: Well, everybody says I contributed to three of those by Robert Cowley. What if?
Andrew Roberts: Yeah, I contributed to it. They're fun, aren't they? Because you don't have to research them.
Victor Davis Hanson: Yeah, you don't. I think if the Greeks had lost the battle of Salamis, they wouldn't have been a Battle of Plataea. And they would've lost their freedom. And Ionia, we know, had been the richest, most dynamic early Greek intellectual center, and then it was taken over by autocracy and it became backwater. Melitis, Episis, cetera. [Hellekinarsis].
Victor Davis Hanson: I think the same thing would've happened to Greece. And with that, I'm not sure that Rome or the later Western tradition would've had a birth, or at least when it did. So, I think the battle of Salamis, and they should have lost, they were outnumbered three to one. So, that was mine.
Victor Davis Hanson: One of the things I tried to do in Ripples of Battle was, rather than say what would've happened, what did happen in a battle or a major game that changed things. So, I took things like the Battle of Delia or Shiloh and showed that one hour, three hours, day or two, changed our literature, our philosophy because of the people that were there.
Victor Davis Hanson: And so, a lot of the things in Plato's dialogues or Plato's laws, you can trace to Socrates's heroic behavior at Delium, or Euripides' Supplements. That mythical battle is, really, I think, a blow by blow description, the Battle of Delium, et cetera. And art came out of Delium, as well.
Victor Davis Hanson: So, I think that these critical moments, especially in war, because time is so compressed, they have ripples that go out for centuries and change things, sometimes negative, often negative, but not always. But as far as counterfactual, I think the Battle of Salamis was really crucial.
Andrew Roberts: Victor Davis Hansen. Thank you so much for a totally fascinating conversation.
Victor Davis Hanson: Thank you, Andrew, for having me.
Andrew Roberts: Thanks for listening to this conversation with Victor Davis Hansen, and please join me on my next show, when I'll be discussing an entirely lighter topic, the history of the faux pas, with the novelist and humorist, Christopher Buckley. Best wishes until then.
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