It is rather surprising to me that the anniversary of the Dalai Lama’s escape from Chinese controlled Tibet slipped by with little more than a murmur this spring. It’s been 60 years since 17-31 March 1959. A significant moment in world history.
During a year that should have been celebrating a landmark event, the central figure has come under fire not only by his traditional enemy but former allies as well. And with politics in such a mess in Europe, a pitiless mob; eager for blood online & an all-you-can-eat feeding frenzy on all things Trump, few major editorials & fewer world leaders seem to have tested China’s rhetoric defences.
Over half a century has passed since Tibetan Exile began. And though the event will have been marked in Dharamsala, around the world, the conversation is subdued. There seems little interest in looking at how India & China’s Tibetan policies began, have gone & where they might go.
At the beginning of the year Beijing seemed to be expecting trouble. From what is online I can see that the Chinese were so worried about foreign tourism surrounding the anniversary that they closed the border of Tibet. 
In an effort to head off bad press & contend with critics in the thorny question of who has the right to appoint the 15th Dalai Lama, the China Daily openly criticised HH & his comments on his successor & praised Beijing’s enlightened stance towards Tibet 
Indeed they’ve been laying down a counter narrative minefield since 2018 in anticipation of large scale press & popular backlash. 
It would seem that Beijing beat everyone to the punch. Creating a story centred upon their accusations of rabble rousing in Dharamsala & a hypocritical Dalai Lama. Adding to their relentless bombardment of anti Dalai Lama rhetoric and mockery and niftily sidestepping the historical events of 60 years ago. 
A whole generation has grown up with only a passive intellectual connection to Tibetan Exile. The web eagerly turned on HH this summer over a misstep, in a news storm that drowned the coverage of his fight for freedom & lifetime of good works. 
Unfortunately HH’a message of compassion just isn’t cutting the ice like it used to and doesn’t seem to be resonating with people the way it did before. Though still a respected religious leader, his political clout seems increasingly on the wane.
No 60 years of dedicated humanitarian service is protection against a single slip of a 84 year old 2nd language tongue. More worryingly it shows us again how time erodes the meaning of history through generations.
In a geopolitical sense as well, China’s push to become the inherited caretakers of an international Bhuddist community is not being countered as stolidly by an increasingly exclusive India as it once was. 
Ironically the rise of Hindu nationalism in India is at odds with the support of Tibetan nationalism and breeds a disinterest in competing with China for the support of Asian Bhuddists. In March 2018 Indian officials were instructed to keep clear of a Tibetan nationalist rally, a sure sign that Beijing’s threats are being taken seriously.
With the current Dalai Lama in his 84th year, the rise of global nationalism, an India that wishes closer ties with China & a harsher press & social media climate, perhaps it’s no surprise that very few outside the old-guard hurried to cheer his historic escape to freedom in exile. 
Interestingly enough I was born within the reach of what northerners simply call ‘the roman wall.’ As a kid I was taken to some of the forts, Vindolanda, Housteads, Chesters, etc and though he memories are now a little blurred, I do know that these trips never failed to inspire me.
Even though my home, for a time, was miles to the south of it, Hadrian’s wall was a presence. It was on brown signs stencilled next to a stylised crested helmet on most main roads, parts of it emerged from the grass outside bland pedestrian walkways over busy motorways and rows of semi detached Council houses.
Though the wilds of the border reaches were out of sight, Hadrian’s wall was always there, ruined, inscrutable and yet unmistakeable.
Encyclopaedic and engaging, this book belongs on the shelf of every Roman Britain Reader. That’s the sum of it. Now what to do with the rest of the review?
Well, now that everything else is partially redundant, I can assure you the author is a competent and concise writer, that meaning, this is less of a narrative as it is a lively discussion and as well as keeping a reader interested, does not spare them the process she used to arrive at a particular opinion, and likewise fails not to guide them through a debate that has no satisfactory answer.
The blurb tells us this will give us a look at everyday life on Hadrian’s Wall. Now allot of books promise to do this and whenever I read his I figure; oh, so they are trying to do what Ian Mortimer does with his time traveller books.
This one however, I must admit, offered the picture of daily life on the wall without attempting to play tour guide.Instead by it’s end you will have read about roughly every facet of life on the roman frontier, and therefore have a fairly comprehensive idea of the Rhythms of existence on Rome’s most famous boundary.
Everything from the building of the structure, to how it was manned and organised, the comings and goings, running and the many elements of civilian life and the examination of sources and evidence is included.
Life, death and everything in between that pertains to the centuries of the wall’s existence is covered. Although with all ancient history there are gaps, the author is a sensible and scrupulous manager of the records and whenever it comes to informed guesswork the book is always thought provoking.
Twain said that History Rhymes and one can only wonder if the construction of this great barrier had the same impact in it’s time as the discussion of modern frontier walls does today. With that in mind, and with the understanding that history is weaponised for political advancement a thorough knowledge of key aspects of it is vital for negotiating modern news and media.
Hadrian’s wall, as the most famous example of internal security in the ancient world can be argued as either a remarkably successful achievement or an ultimately flawed one.
From Donald trump to, Immigration crises, national security and even pop culture, (fun fact that everyone knows, Hadrian’s wall inspired Martin for a piece of Game of Thrones) This book will help those who read it to understand what it really was and what it did within the prism of it’s own time and our understanding of that time. Josh.
What can have been going through the mind of General Dyer that day in Amritsar 100 years ago? What perverted sense of justice and duty led him to order his troops to open fire on an unarmed and unthreatening crowd in the Jallianwalah Bagh?
He said himself that he came to the decision in under a minute and that he did so to preserve the British empire. In less than 60 seconds thousands of lives were changed for ever and between three and five hundred lives would end altogether. History itself changed that day.
Lauded even to his death as the man who saved India, ironically no enemy of the empire struck a more deadly blow against it than Dyer did that dark day in Amritsar.This is the timely story of a massacre in words and pictures, brilliantly and sensitively presented by Kashi House and handled expertly by it’s two authors.
Before you even open this book you get almost a sense of intruding on a hallowed but tragic scene. The cover image is devoid of frills, a narrow alley leading to a wide dusty inner-city space. Empty and haunting, one can almost imagine oneself standing there, peering through, and trying to make sense of the insanity of it all.
That is the brilliance of this book. It is transportive and breaks down the walls of time and place and takes you on a journey, that is as visual as a documentary and as informative as an interview.
Kashi House produces books that I love to read and this one I must be counted amongst those that are totally original in how they present their subject. I’ll be quite plain with you all, I help prove the stigma that the British don’t know about the Jallianwalah massacre.
I’d heard of it, I’d seen it recreated in the movie, Ghandi but I knew nothing about it and was absolutely ignorant of what happened before and after. When I received ‘Eyewitness’ I confess to worrying if I would be up to reviewing it with such pitiful knowledge of the subject.
Yet as I turned the pages I saw that the authors had crafted a book that was designed to engage a blithe readership without scrimping on depth or detail. I devoured it in a day.
Eyewitness is separated into sections, beginning with an introduction that gives an overview, it then turns the story over to quotes by contemporary witnesses, victims, perpetrators and commenters all aided by some of the most evocative photographs and images I’ve seen collected in binding.
We first learn about Amritsar, about it’s cantons, holy places and narrow, teeming, streets that spider through the city with labyrinthine complexity. In some photos I swear I could hear the noise of the crowd. The text and photos are so well synced that it is as if we are taken through them, right down to the entrance to the Bagh.
Historical context comes next, India and the Raj in the aftermath of the Great War. It was a volatile time of loud discourse and angry passions but also great movements and leaders who dared to stage a rebellion in a way that no one had done before. It was a strategy that the British had no answer to, armed rebellion could be crushed with a certain legality, but not non-violent demonstrations. Nevertheless simmering tensions were building in Amristar.
The narrative proper starts after that showing the riots that preceded the massacre, and then the inconceivable horror of the event itself as told by the participants. The plight of the victims loved ones being especially moving and the marble-cold outlook of General Dyer being more than infuriating.
What follows, as Ghandi said, was, at least from a philosophical/intellectual point of view almost worse. The humiliating repression that the increasingly tyrannical Dyer unleashed on Amritsar, again for scant legitimate cause, left me quite stunned.
Well might some of the quotes damn these actions as the point where India realised it could not depend on British justice and where faith in the system of imperial government was broken once and for all.
I cannot praise the ingenuity and hard work that went into this book enough. I’m not just crafting pleasing blurbs here when I say it is perfect for serious scholar and newcomer alike.
This is how History should be popularly presented, it is how I’ve always hoped it could be presented and how I’ve often tried to present it. By using a preponderance of authentic voices and materials crafted together with a minimum of handling the reader can see, rather than be told, what happened.
Eyewitness to Amritsar is a poignant, immersive, book that is both fair and incisive. A visual testament that allows readers to connect with the very fabric of history, giving a thrilling and eye opening glimpse into how events are recorded and how they played out.
From the Great to the small, this book is an all encompassing, respectful, tribute to a tragedy that changed history.
For 200 years the Gurkhas have never let Britain down, as soldiers or as allies, so let’s make sure Britain never let’s them down.
If you have ever wanted to do me a good turn for what I do online, please consider giving at least £1 to ensure that the Gurkha Welfare Trust can continue to care and look after veterans of this remarkable regiment.
Even if you don’t care about the history and traditions of the British army, I would ask that you please consider thinking about the people involved as there is more to every soldier than his uniform.
If not that then as a personal favour to me, please donate. If all of my followers gave just £1 this modest goal of £150 would easily be realised. So on my birthday please do me the honour of honouring the Gurkhas.
‘The country lies groaning under the Anarchy’ wrote the Compte de Modave of the country of Bengal in 1762. His use of the word anarchy was echoed by its use in the work of Mughal historians, and 20 years later by Maratha ones to describe the period of the decline and fall of their respective empires.
So too does William Dalrymple’s Anarchy, which chronicles, in a robust, fluid, style, the ‘relentless rise of the east India company.’ As the story of the fall of one is the story of the rise of the other, the author is therefore at pains to show how what he calls the world’s most magnificent Empire was replaced by a ‘dangerously unregulated private company.’ The significance of this took a while to resonate with me.
At face value this is not an unheard story, many historians have written the antique and modern records of the East India Company, this version is, however, is endowed with a new significance which has not been focused on, and certainly not with the same amount of force.
Unlike other works on the infamous conglomerate, this book is not another history of the British Company in India. It is the pursuit of an echo, which strives to examine the relationship between big business and government. It is in fact a record of the first ‘corporatocracy,’ the new imperium. We need not look to far to see an example, because that was what made the USA a superpower after WW2. And it is also what is now driving China.
If you have ever noticed how industrial countries will invest in underdeveloped ones, exchanging various advancements for material assets, then deploy military force to secure the investment after provoking confrontation, ‘The Anarchy’ will start ringing bells. As mentioned, the East India Company was truly the first recognisable corperatocracy, and it’s record shows that it all but patented the system of wealth and territorial acquisition through commerce.
The claim that the Mughal empire was the most magnificent empire in the world is crucial to the juxtaposed history at hand. Based principally on the estimated revenue for the empire during the peak of it’s success during the early to mid 17th century, this is an undoubtedly correct assertion. Perhaps Dalrymple goes a touch far to say that Elizabethan England was a cash strapped, impoverished, realm, but there was no real comparison between the Mughals and Tudors at the time when the East India Company was founded.
The EIC was remarkable because unlike other corporatocracy’s (which rely on their government to do the back-breaking) they took it upon themselves to create a military and civil service. As a result they could operate much more directly against a given target and did so with shocking success.
The mad idea that a private company such as today’s Walmart, Disney or Google could deploy it’s security forces (or even have security forces comparable to a modern state army) could grow not only in profits but indeed to actually replace a nation state and come to govern a huge chunk of the earth’s population is just that, mad.
The Imperial Accident?
And yet it happened, and it is not just Dalrymple or modern historians who have noticed the absurdity. A great swathe or intelligent thinkers wrote or voiced their befuddlement at the idea that the EIC, a private stock enterprise, answerable to it’s own shareholders, could have an army of over 100,000 men by the end of the century and be actually governing land. That number is more than twice the that available to the United Kingdom in 1793 when the war with Republican France broke out.
During Burke’s epic oration condemning Warren Hastings, he cut to the heart of the argument against this form of British rule in India. All the previous empires that had conquered it had contributed something culturally to the land as a nation, these empire’s had been or in time became Indian empires. But the company was only interested in taking from India rather than putting anything into it.
When viewed in this light it is interesting to look at the often used argument that the British brought order and law to India, stuff and nonsense to be sure, but the philanthropic bent of the later British (as opposed to Company) Raj was that it had something to prove. As if shamed by the words of it’s 18th century critics, it all but broke it’s back trying to make their presence be seen as beneficial and philanthropic.
Beginning with the formation of the company, by ‘merchants and pirates,’ and running through its measured and bumpy rise to the careers of Clive, Hastings, Cornwallis and Wellesley, the Anarchy is a sweeping and insightful history of events that many will find eerily familiar from the wars and politics of the mid 20th century.
Despite the blurb, Dalrymple is not pointing at the White House, rather the corporate driven world we live in as being a legacy of the East India Company. These businesses are pinnacles of organisation. The EIC was so effective in it’s hoarding of commodities that it reversed the flow of wealth that had been running east since roman times.
The money flow has now returned to the east and Dalrymple is hearing the echoes of the past resonating, the world he says has returned to a place it was when the EIC first came to India. There is an argument that the British empire started accidentally. Yet with the idea of commercially driven expansion, can this be supported?
Dalrymple admits that the EIC had no long range plan to conquer the whole of South Asia, their seizure of the commerce of Bengal was purely driven by a desire for trade and developed into something both surprising and concerning as they discovered their increasing strength and abilities. Truly it was a sinister and dexterous runaway. It took almost a century for the British government to actually bring the company to heel.
Yet, like all the other colonial commercial ventures that birthed colonies, they did bring it to heel and they did take over. It was in the vested interest of the British state to see the EIC remain a successful enterprise.
Vaunted as Dalrymple’s most ambitious project yet I must admit that before I realised what the author was trying to connect with, the book seemed little more than a continuation of a pet subject. I was forced to reflect on it in a new light when realisation struck about a week later.
Dalrymple said this year that it’s scale was the ambitious part, having confined himself in previous books to reconstructing snapshots that connect a moment in time with the greater sphere of history. By comparison this is a sweeping history, of a faceless nonentity of boards, committees and armies. But that is it’s subtlety, and why it is brilliant.
Though in great part lacking any one central figure to follow, this does not mean that the characters and vignettes are now well drawn. Dalrymple’s description of Lord Wellesley as an empire building cuckoo in the Company next was priceless, and the impeachment of Warren Hastings is another example. Dalrymple, likewise, gets Clive solidly within his sights and gives no quarter.
Worryingly the book reveals that the British state did not conquer India, instead it sanctioned the actions of a private mercantile company to do so in its stead, much as it had with other ‘company’s’ during the 15th and 16th century’s.
Acting essentially as an addict does to a powerful drug, the flow of cash from the company’s clearing houses at the ports of Great Britain overwhelmed all good sense and moral imperative. As the old adage goes, the money trail is also the way to the truth of most human mysteries, and how even governments are at the mercy of big business.
It shows that the oft repeated curiosity of India being ruled by only a few civil servants is actually a legacy of the ruthlessly efficient organisation of the company, which after a century of operating still had only 35 permanent employees at head office.
At the end Dalrymple returns to his roots as a travel author and paints a languid picture of a boat sailing down the Yamuna at dusk, when the sky and water are contrasting and vivid and the land is dark, save for the blushing walls of the Red Fort. He ponders how a single private cooperation could have conquered the builders of this wondrous building.
In truth, as the book reveals, that the company did not actually conquer it in the traditional way, least of all the British government, a new kind of blueprint for empire building was founded. The company was the richest of the scavengers that came to pick at it’s carcass. Knocking aside those that had done the heavy lifting.
The Anarchy is worthy of it’s author’s ambition as a brilliantly realised and enjoyably written history which looks out at it’s subject with an eye to both the past and the future. It challenges the nostalgia and nationalism which is prevalent in India and Britain. It corrects perceptions of how and why the British conquered their jewel of great price and asks us to take a look at the word today as a comparison. Reading this it is hard not to admit that we are blithely and perilously close to the Anarchy that consumed the Mughals.
Tom Holland has had this date from the beginning. It has been a long time coming but what was once just a distant call, echoing from the beyond in Rubicon became inevitable by the time Shadow of the Sword hit the shelves and the Twitter-debates led into death threats. In his history of the fall of the Roman republic, Holland referenced the execution of an itinerate street preacher that grow to have more meaning than many of the deaths suffered by the emperors of Rome. Indeed, his new book carries on the theme of narrating a Rubicon moment, for the history of western Christianity is at it’s heart a tale of revolution. At some point around 2017 or so his tweets, a sure thermoriter of whatever he is writing about, began to take on a eclectically biblical sheen as he polled his followers about the prophets and regaled them with the semi-heretical thoughts of century’s of thinkers from ‘pro’ and ‘con’ camps.
Reading this book it struck me that though we tend to think of France and Russia when we talk of Revolutions, one of the greatest in world history occurred when over the course of many century’s a densely populated swathe of the world chose to believe in a common promise of an afterlife that came out of a dangerous backwater of the Roman Empire and grew to shape, in some way or another, everything that happened thereafter. Tom Holland’s new book is revolutionary in every sense.
Underpinning the fabric of western thought is Christianity, Holland argues, keeping up his revolutionary theme. The reason for this can be found in what Holland sees as the labour pains of the church. The initial idea of Christianity, which championed the poor and downcast turned everything that the western world had taken for granted on its head and it proved a rigorously subversive doctrine.
The teachings of Jesus offered a new kind of salvation and a new way to look at the world. Periodic bouts of persecution followed, which although never sustained, was what we would today call repression, as varying roman emperors championed, purged, and dismissed Christianity by turns. Persecution and repression was mixed with a great deal of confusion when the Romans embraced the faith as a state religion. The theological hierarchy of the church found themselves at odds, arguing about such topics as how Christians could remain true to their origins? How there could be such a thing as charity if there were no more poor? Could slavery really be an acceptable institution for a follower of Christ to be complicit in? Down to trying to rationalise and communicate the teachings and very divinity of Jesus and the Trinity for a international audience. The writers of the Torah, he writes, ‘formulated’ a divine covenant that would make sense to a geopolitical ancient audience much as the founding fathers of the USA would formulate a constitution to do the same.
These labour pains birthed the church and they were so acute and cut so deep into the very fibre of what it meant to be human; to seek purpose and to fear death, that with each successive convulsion layers of imperative significance began to be unconsciously dyed into the fabric of western society. No matter how rigorous the criticism, nor how indifferent the world has become, the more stringent the debate the more ingrained Christianity became. This is not only because it’s message speaks to a desperate need within the mass of humanity to be seen, but because unlike other major religions it has been made communicable and has bent and adapted to the culture that it in itself created. Rather than lose it, the western world has always sought to fit the message of Jesus into the changing world view of succeeding generations.
Christianity’s simple presence in society provoked the development of western thought. What is the nature of secularism and its place in the fabric of religion? What is it’s place in the world? What is sin in a world not of gentiles & Christians but of believers? In Dominion the rise of Christendom as a concept and the establishment of the church as an entity apart and separate from royalty and imperium was in itself the first revolution to rock the west.
It must be admitted that at times I wondered if what I was reading could truly find a ledge of continuity to swing from into the final summing up, or wether it would just end up as a good anecdote. Certainly within it all there is plenty to intrigue, such as how the Bible came to be and the strong Greek roots visible in the very contents of the old and new testaments.
There are times, I suspect, when in the ardour of narrative creation Holland sinks into the proverbial sand. There is a whiff of contextual dismissal as well in the force of some arguments. As an example, we may use his suggestion that God was once worshiped by the Jews as a bull. An interesting and academically attractive thought. To support it he cites 1 Kings 12.28 and Hosea 8.6 as inpirical evidence of that resolution. While no one would argue that a certain bovine sanctity is prescient within the early scriptures, it may be said that some of the footnotes are a little self conscious of the weak shoulders upon which this assertion is held up. The theory mentioned above ignores a great deal of the more logical explanation for the raising of the two golden calves by Jeroboam, but maybe that is the point. After all in its 30th verse does it not make clear that this was a sin, and did not the psalmist openly mock the re-enactment of Aaron’s folly at mount Sinai? The passage in Hosea is a passage which damns apostasy with gleeful vigour, for in the preceding verses the prophet begs for mercy as ‘with their silver and gold they made idols for their own destruction. Your calf is rejected O Samaria … an artisan made it; it is not God the Calf of Samaria shall be broken in pieces.’
If anything all this should have gone towards his argument that the Jews saw life as one long trail of sin, from the Apple in the garden to the Calf on the mountain. True, the Jews may well have once worshiped a graven image of God, but it was called sin and counted against them. Yet Holland, captured by the fancy that God existed to the ancient Jews in multiple forms, both benign and cruel, hammers and crafts his own image of a murky past where the God of Israel was legitimately idolised as a beast.
Another early theme is to offer a theology that God once fought for control of the heavens with other supernatural beings. Certainly the Jews of the Old Testament entertained household deities as is seen in the story of Jacob. God might well also be translated from old texts in the sense of all gods but such a linguistic ambiguity might merely further the idea of that long, wide, road from apostasy.
Sometimes the revelations which are meant to surprise, come as no surprise. For instance Holland hints strongly that God had once been one of many ‘gods’ in the eyes of his chosen people who came to dispose of the others. The scriptures tend to be quite suggestive of the many spiritual powers at work in the world and the heavens. argument for God as the one and only is that of coming to accept him as the one and only sovereign, it is not to the exception of the existence of other ‘gods of men’. It seems clear that while the Jews proffered allegiance to one God as their own, their rejection of the others was not based on a lack of knowledge of the existence of other spiritual powers, but of the supremacy of their own over the others. It is generally accepted that whenever Jewish scripture refers to God over all, the ‘all’ represents heaven, earth and the children of Israel, the chosen all, not ‘gentiles’. Thus when a psalm speaks of God and gods, it is essentially placing those lesser beings under the feet of the Almighty.
Yet Holland keeps mostly to the argument, prevalent, it must be said amongst zealots, of the existence of a single divine being without exception. It occurred to me that the Jews, (or perhaps this is a more Christian outlook, forming part of the said revolution) were capable of recognising a spiritual universe at work, that in itself was under the influence of personally unknown spirits, worshiped as gods by unclean foreigners. The argument becomes somewhat more circular when he semi-concludes that in some distant theology, God made himself master of the heavens and all the beings in it, both good and evil. By which means he concludes his roving discourse on the clash of the idea of a merciful and avenging God, without quite saying it; that God is a testing God.
The ambiguity of the author’s graceful prose is useful for such an emotionally charged subject. Some of it will be outright provoking, though not in an obvious way. Holland, being an artful fellow, rarely outright challenges something, he massages it into flexibility. Thus Moses, whose grave cannot be found and whose deeds are recorded only in one place, is suggested, though never declared, to never to have existed.
He strives to find a new interpretation of how the scriptures have been interpreted, and wonders at what they were before. A lead objective being to try and lay out the character of God, on a purely intellectual basis, and what made him different and indeed more special, more attractive to an ancient mind than any of the others. He begins this quest by examining why it was such a big deal to be crucified, and it emerges very quickly that he wishes to trace back from the indelible stains of the Christian experience, to see why the passage of centuries have left them patched and remade but unfaded. The blood of Christ, he might be prone to say, hasn’t blotted easily.
Moving with method the book rolls through the centuries, and layers of significance build and build. By it’s end we can reflect on it and for me I drew a few conclusions. One being that surely one of the greatest strengths that Christians can claim is the knowledge that the Dominion of God is still potent. Though many might declare that God is dead and that nothing is now sacred because we have science, though many philosophers, writers, and historians, Holland included, say that at some point or another they grew to prefer the gods of Greece and Rome, it is a sentiment that everyone knows to be glib. The gods of the classical past are amusing, sterile things of fable, fertile in the realm of story but little else, save for the vertiginous potency of distant imagination. But neither they, nor anyone else believes in them any more than they believe in a work of theatre. Yet on a daily basis a vast index of western humanity will stub their toe, break a plate, or communicate surprise by invoking the name of God, Jesus or Mary. Truly, the name of God still weighs both light and heavy in the everyday life of the Dominion once called Christendom.
What can be argued is alive. And Holland proves, above everything else, perhaps, that one of the great legacies of Christendom is the ancient love of debate. Dominion is by turns awed, horrified, reverential and irreverent towards it’s subject. It is a fascinating journey from the Cross to the iPhone. An eye opening and thought provoking read about the revolution at the heart of western thought.
Viewing the faintly yellow square of Apsley house rising above the east end of South Carriage Drive, which runs along the lower edge of Hyde Park from the corner, I was reminded that Wellington had a famous eye for choosing commanding position. His London home has excellent access to the royal palaces and is on more or less of a direct line to Whitehall up Piccadilly. From here he could reach Windsor without, at first, having to ride through the city and likewise it was close to the great west road which led to his country house at Stratfield Saye, a mere jaunt of 8 or 9 hours with fast horses.
You enter Apsley House as guests have done for hundreds of years. Across the cobbled forecourt, mounting the steps, and twisting the well-used knob on the grand old brown wooden door. Walking inside, the light dims and the traffic noise is audibly reduced. Accommodating English Heritage staff members direct you to the ticket counter and close the door behind you. To one side of the desk a psychedelic line drawing of Lawrence’s Wellington stares questioningly from a marble table as you pay your admission fee. He asks a question the Great Duke would never have thought to ask: ‘Why so matte and conventional?’
The art on the walls and the tables of gifts, which took a few casualties by the time I left, demand your attention. Here you can buy a book, postcards, pins and novelty mugs. Here you can peruse the great and rare works of biography and question why a Bernard Cornwell book is numbered amongst them. While upon the walls, famous artwork is already telling a story, the paint keeping vivid the faces of soldiers long faded, but just remember although this is the gift area, you can’t take those home, no matter how high your budget.
There are some stately homes that have an unmistakable air of dereliction but despite the patented stately home scent and echoing entrance hall Apsley is not one of them. It is the residence of an important man, it was where Wellington came when he had to fulfil his role as the ‘great man,’ and pillar of state. It was Number 1 London, the first house after the tollgates at Hyde Park Corner, a coordinate of London’s rich map that is resonant with history.
The house has a vibrancy to it and a wonderful thing about Apsley is that you can feel the personality of the Duke of Wellington imprinted throughout. The layout and decor are still very close to how he would remember it. Make no mistake that the houses of the Wellesley family depend on the lingering aura of the victor of Waterloo to draw the crowds and it is incumbent on those who manage them to maintain these ancestral holdings as closely as possible to what they would have been in Great Duke’s time.
The private rooms are not open to the public but the grand reception suite that covers the 1st floor is a remarkable window into his achievements. It is the house of a public figure, a place for ostentation and ceremony, used for entertaining and formal engagements. Yet despite the opulence of the Waterloo Banquet Hall, the imperial style mouldings that curl and gleam across the ceilings and the rich yellow golds, ivory whites and plum reds that pervade the colour palette of the rooms, there is an underlying reserve and a simplicity which when compared to other mansions and palaces is almost restrained.
The house does not shout about its great owner, rather, with force and persuasion it directs attention. It is more refined than triumphant, more gracious that showy, much like the first Duke it makes practical use of grandeur. It is one of the only houses that I have visited that allows the mind to clearly picture the social and official round that once played out in these chambers, the bygone age to be imagined from the pages of Jane Austin, Makepeace Thackery and Leo Tolstoy.
To those who know nothing about Wellington and his legacy, Apsley House is the best place to start, but should you have no interest in the Great Duke this building has another attraction. It is one of London’s best, yet often most overlooked galleries of classical painting. While holding nothing, in terms of scale, as the large national institutions in the City of Westminster, every wall of Apsley nonetheless is covered with portraits and paintings dating from the renaissance to the baroque and onwards. The exceedingly fine collection is not only important to the military and political legacy of the Great Duke but are incalculably significant to the history of western art.
It is also quite a thought for an admirer of Wellington to look at a painting that was already century’s old when it was originally brought to Apsley, and to say with 100% certainty that the Duke saw this right here. Should you care to view the vast painting of the Waterloo Banquet you can see in the background that the artworks in that chamber have remained where they have rested for over one hundred years. This is a wonderful personal touch to a gallery, as it forms a remarkable sense of contact with the past. An immediacy, derived from the presence of an object in the place where it was originally curated, and from which, time alone separates from the past.
It will come as no surprise to British ears, used to the demands of other countries to give up the treasures held in their national museums, that the bulk of this collection was looted, but interestingly, it was not looted by the British. The collection was ‘acquired’ by King Joseph Bonaparte of Napoleonic Spain and then briefly by British and allied soldiers rummaging around the King’s baggage train after the Battle of Vitoria in 1813. The Duke, had the collection rescued and packed up in crates and then sorted, identified and catalogued. When it was compiled the list included names like Titian and Caravaggio, but also Velasquez and Morello, names that were almost unknown to wider Europe at the time. Wellington then offered to return the treasures to the restored rightful King of Spain, who declined them, saying that what the Duke had come by honestly, he must retain.
Since then the Dukes of Wellington have proved very generous in attempting to return artefacts in their possession. There would be many more items from the Duke’s India campaigns on view today had not one of his descendants returned the majority to the nation from whence they came. When Apsley House was gifted to the nation the art collection became accessible to the public and one could spend hours in the various chambers gazing into the endless, sombre, stare of Velasquez’s water seller, or the subtle chiaroscuro flamboyance of Caravaggio’s cheerful Musician.
Principally though, Apsley is resonant to the public life of one of Britain’s greatest public servants, whose international standing can be glimpsed by the rows of plates that gently gleam and glisten on their shelves in the subdued light of the Museum room’s many cabinets. There is so much of it that it seems as if in the years after the defeat of Napoleon, the royal porcelain factories of Europe were principally employed in making dinner Services for the Duke of Wellington.
My visit took a small party and myself through the echoing entrance hall, which is dark and cool, down a similarly recumbent flight of steps to the exhibition room. This part of the house must once have been part of servant’s quarters but now leads to a modest room which holds about four tall glass cases set into the walls which have been painted in midnight blue, gold and white, and serve as information boards explaining the course of the Mysore and Maratha campaigns.
Running until 3 November 2019 it is a repository of artefacts pertaining to the Duke’s time in India. He was of the opinion that he knew as much about soldiering as he ever did after returning from India. For a period of about eight years, beginning in 1797 and ending in 1805, Wellesley, as he then was, grew from a competent battalion commander to an uncommonly skilled general and administrator. ITV’s recent (mostly) historical drama, Beecham House is set in this period of Indian history. The British empire in India was growing at an alarming rate during this time due to Wellington’s elder brother, Governor General Richard Wellesley’s, ‘forward policy,’ which would establish the British as the major power in South Asia.
It was also the setting for the formation of a brilliant military mind which even reached the ear of Napoleon who, typically, derided Wellington as a mere general of Sepoys (a derivation of a Persian word that simply meant ‘soldiers’ in India). Wellington was thinking of himself in these terms on the very day of Waterloo when for the first and last time he faced the great disturber, it is said he remarked that Napoleon would now see how a general of Sepoys could defend a position and proceeded to do so. Though the apocryphal idea that the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton, I have never doubted that in reality the pillars of victory were established on the wide, dusty, famine haunted, plains of the Deccan in central India. It is by no accident that Wellington considered Assaye, fought in September 1803 as one of his most impressive military achievements. This was one of two battle honours which appeared embossed on the front of his funeral carriage, the other was Waterloo.
In the exterior hallway leading in, the gloom of the stairwell is banished. A gleaming cabinet containing plates illustrating events and battles of Wellington’s time in India is set into the right-hand wall. The cabinets are filled with interesting objects, some of which have been loaned from the Wellington estate at Stratfield Saye in Hampshire. A selection of aged books, that can be found listed as part of the famous library, quoted by Guedella stand in one. In another, two highly decorated drums silently fill their case, next to which are arrayed a brace of swords. One hefty blade belonged to Tipu of Mysore, while another appears to be the one General Wellesley is holding in several portraits and therefore is a contender as one of the few sabres he ever drew in anger. Opposite this is an intriguing display, including a brooch, clustered with gemstones, and a collection of carved and painted figurines showing the dress and daily activities of people in India.
An engraving of the dynamic Hopner painting of the then Major General Wellesley can be compared with a full colour reproduction of the original on the entrance wall. As you walk through the rooms on the first floor, the blue and white panels will continue, drawing your attention to other aspects of the Duke’s time in the east. The portrait of what Lady Longford described as a ‘dark eyed beauty’ of the porcelain skinned persuasion is prominent amongst a surrounding gallery of men in uniform. The delicate looks of Mrs. Freese, the wife of an officer who was in Srirangapatna (then Seringapatam) and who Wellesley was reputedly enamoured of, are a welcome feminine contrast and might be said to be among the first of the legion of ladies people imagine became his mistresses.
This exhibition serves as an excellent and insightful introduction to the formation of one of the most formidable military brains in history and will greatly inform the rest of what you see in the house. Take special note of the many portraits of Wellington as you go for a look at his evolving character. Compare the Robert Home portraits to the Hopner’s and fit them into a narrative. You can see through these the ambitious, promising, face of a younger brother to a great man; an unknown colonel of the 33rd just at the start of the Indian adventure and the increasingly confident, downright heroic in his own right, General by its end. In these sequences you can see a transformation of the image of a hero, with these in your mind fix your eyes on the Lawrence portraits of the victorious Marquess, Duke and Field Marshal of 1814 and 15, the face of the man who lived at Apsley.
Screened behind a near-impenetrable mask of command, Wellington the man is elusive, he is to be glimpsed not in portraits or artefacts but in the rooms themselves and the house and contents as a whole, the portraits of his friends and associates are as telling as any of the great man. The humour and taste, not least the remarkable reputation and personality of probably the greatest British public figure of the first part of the 19th century is indelibly stamped in luxuriant and gracious entertaining spaces of Apsley House.
In finishing I would like to thank English Heritage and the manager of Apsley House; Marcus Cribb, I am very grateful to you for arranging my visit. Thanks to Josephine Oxley, the able curator, for help with the images. Also to Robin who could not have been more helpful on my arrival and to the rest of the staff at Apsley who run and maintain this property for the nation.
Should anyone wish more information on visiting house and nearby Wellington arch, please visit https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/apsley-house/ . Remember that a joint ticket is available for Apsley House and Wellington Arch (which is located opposite) which houses a exhibition on the Battle of Waterloo along with the Duke of Wellington’s sword and famous Boots.
See you again for another Adventure in Historyland, Josh.
In October 1854 when the Russians had drubbed the Light Brigade at Balaclava, Sir Richard Airey was heard to shrug off the disaster by saying, ‘This is nothing to what we had at Chillianwala.’
His words would have been equally apt had he referenced any of the Battles of the 1st Sikh War, such as Ferozeshah. Few knew much about this obscurely named place in a far away country, where a decade before Balaclava a poorly understood enemy had almost destroyed a British army. Fewer in the UK know about it today.
Although a proud moment in Punjabi history the Sikh Wars hold no resonance to the British. It is just another embarrassing colonial conflict to be quietly avoided. It was embarrassing at the time as well because of the offhand way in which it was prosecuted.
The first was a curious War, as many authors, including the present one; David Smith have commented, because the war aims in the first conflict of both the British and the Sikh’s were ultimately the same; the destruction of the Sikh army.
Multiple campaign books covering each battle of the 1st Sikh War could have been done, but this general survey is nonetheless precise and detailed. It’s prominent citation of Amarpal Singh Sidhu’s work is enough in itself for me offer it as a recommendation.
It quickly emerges that the war was fixed from the start, though no one knows exactly how. The author is quite sure that the inexplicable performance of senior and talented Sikh officers can only be explained by self interest and treachery.
Even so, with overconfident fire-eaters commanding the British Army of the Sutlej, the tide could easily have been turned as British battalions were decimated in hasty & unscientific frontal assaults.
The Sikh army is described accurately as an efficient and effective military force with every modern advantage. But it had become unwieldy & it had lost the commander it had been created for. The British are not super humans in this book, they are only slightly worse led, marginally more dogged and in the end victorious due to a long tested regimental system & loyal officers.
The book falls down only in the sense that it crams so much into less than 100 pages. As such there is little by way of explanation or discussion and some elements of the fighting are just ignored. When dealing with Aliwal for instance the author fails to explain how the 16th lancers broke the Sikh ‘square,’ and leaves out that the Gurkha battalion present almost lost it’s colours during the battle.
Luck & treachery would coincide to hand the British government in India & certain factions in Lahore their long hoped for wish. The Sikh army of Ranjit Singh was broken, though not in any true sense destroyed. The crippled remnant would rally again but the blow had served it’s purpose. A second war followed, as difficult as the first and referenced by Airey, but by the time the Light Brigade rode into the valley of death, the Sikh Empire had disappeared.
The book covers the ferocious fighting at Mudki, Ferozeshah, Smith’s masterly victory at Aliwal and Sobraon. As usual there are helpful maps & an interesting selection of images in the title.
Steve Noon’s colour plates are masterful examples of illustration, packed with colour and detail, imagining scenes with realistic yet cinematic grandeur. It is always a joy to look at them and pick out the details and stories they hold.
This title is a detailed overview of the war that will prove very useful for enthusiast and student alike.
The long war of Mexican independence had left the country in a greatly fragile state. Teetering on the verge of bankruptcy, with a large army to pay, her once lucrative trade revenues dropped dramatically in the years that followed the expulsion of the Spanish. Sinking into an economic depression, rife with faction, alone and vulnerable with no allies to ensure her independence, Mexico decided to attempt to gain European interest by applying to one of the great powers for a loan. They, in response, were pleased to open the account.
Unfortunately, this did not take into account Mexico’s instability. The country had no taxation system to speak of and despite successive regimes promising reparation, continual strife meant that what money could be gathered got spent on internal matters. Mexico’s debts rose and foreign merchants and Mexican Citizens lost property and money as opposing forces sought cash to pay their troops. It got so bad that repayment of the Mexican debt proved to be a political topic of great discussion in Britain, France and Spain during 1861.
British representatives in Mexico had been working hard to try and achieve some kind of workable plan with multiple treaties being signed between 1842 and 1851 but to no avail. Mexico was consistently unable to raise the money. Calls for troops to be deployed to intervene in Mexico’s domestic problems and restore order were ignored. Although the British government was interested in the welfare of the country and wanted to see a stable government implemented, which was in the best interests of everyone. No one in parliament wished to make Mexico a protectorate or fight a costly war of intervention.
Britain’s Western relations were tense in the 1860s. There had been two war scares with the United States between 1859 and 1861. Once during a boundary dispute on the Canadian border, known as the “Pig War” and another when the U.S. Navy illegally seized Confederate diplomats sailing on RMS Trent. Both times cool heads had prevailed but on the wider stage Whitehall was disinterested in further large scale colonial adventures. Britain had only just got out of a conflict in China, and there were similar calls to protect British interests in Japan and New Zealand. A war without a firm goal in a country as destabilised as Mexico was not on the cards.
Between the loss of Texas and the year 1850 the Mexican nation went through a period of violent turmoil and anarchy. A series of revolutions and counter revolutions had wrecked the already fragile economy. Then in 1846 the disastrous American war, which ended in 1848, saw a chunk of territory comparable to the size of Western Europe, including gold-rich California, lost to the United States. Not unsurprisingly a civil war then followed, between Liberal Republicans and the Church conservatives, known as the “Guerra Reforma”.
On 1 January 1861, (the Liberal side having won the war) Benito Juarez, a 54 year old country bred Zapotec lawyer from Oaxaca became president of Mexico. After removing his enemies from positions of power, including sending the Spanish ambassador packing, his response to the debt crisis was to call a moratorium. The pending payments, now amounted to some $80 Million, parcelled out between Swiss banking houses, Spain, France and Britain. Britain making up the main injured party with unpaid bonds and damages valued in excess of £69 Million.
In September Spain suspended diplomatirelations in response to the ejection of her representative & urged France and Britain to do likewise. Infuriated Anglo-French representatives, Saligny and Wyck wrote angry letters to Juarez warning that if the moratorium wasn’t lifted then they would break off relations with Mexico. The Spanish went so far as to press Britain to form a coalition that would invade Mexico to obtain redress.
In the United States, President Lincoln, was unsurprisingly jumpy about the idea of European powers messing around South of the border with large armies and fleets. American ambassadors in Mexico City and London were empowered to take action. Thomas Corwin told the Mexicans that the USA would take responsibility for the debt, via a large loan, with the understanding that if reparation was not made in 6 years, all public and mineral lands in Baja California, Chihuahua, Sonora and Sinaloa would be forfeit to the United Stares. In London, ambassador Francis Adams informed Prime Minister Earl Russell that if European powers got embroiled in the Americas, the United States would likewise freely embroil itself in Europe. The British tacitly agreed that an intervention was necessary but also played for time, they told the Spanish to wait and see what the French would do.
The French question was soon to resolve itself. As leader of one of the three principle nations tied up in Mexico, Napoleon III was watching events closely. The emperor was an adventurer, and all too happy to go galloping off in search of windmills to joust, especially if they furthered his imperial fantasies. After Juarez suspended the debt payment, Napoleon was eager to get involved in Mexico, not just for the money but to create a Mexican monarchy with a French puppet, Saligny wrote encouragingly that 4-5,000 European troops could take the whole country. Napoleon however felt politically insecure without British involvement, as the nation with the largest grievances.
On 31 October 1861 representatives from the three powers signed the London Convention which laid out their intentions to obtain redress from Mexico but firmly asserted that they would not try to take territory or usurp the government. The plan was to occupy Vera Cruz and from there coerce Juarez to pay up, although a coordinated effort was desired, the Spanish sailed from their nearby bases and took the port on January 17 1862. Spanish troops held it alone with 6,500 men, until the other allies arrived. The Mexican army withdrew from the coast at the arrival of the Europeans, who now in total numbered about 12,200 men.
The British force was small compared to her allies. 4 ships of Dunlop’s Squadron, two armed with heavy Armstrong guns and with between 400 and 700 Marines specially selected from the Plymouth Division aboard, backed up by double that number of sailors, who would form large Naval Brigade battalions if necessary. Dunlop’s numbers swelled briefly once they reached the West Indies in January 1862, and then receded back to their starting number. The navy, as the empire’s main trouble shooters in matters of this sort, had been chosen to undertake the operation alone. Once at Vera Cruz the three powers went about seizing the customs house and threatening to invade the interior of the country. The snag was that Dunlop, in conversation with the French admiral Graviere at Havana, had become aware that they were there on different missions.
Both the Spanish under General Prim and the British wanted to reopen negotiations with the Mexicans as quickly as possible. However Graviere insisted that the first objective was to assist the people of Mexico in forming a monarchy. Prime Minister Lord Palmerston had been aware of Napoleon’s crackpot idea to foist the Austrian Archduke Maximilian on the Mexicans, and had warned his representatives to take no part in the scheme unless the Mexican people wished it, and even then to not advance inland unless specifically ordered.
The French were under the opinion that there was a large monarchical party in Mexico and entertained Conservative party members, even though the British were arresting them, causing tension to rise in the European camp. After meeting with the secretary of war, General Zaragoza, and with no clear idea of how to proceed in one accord, the three powers sent their demands on to Mexico City, but yet again the excessive demands of the French derailed the scheme. Mr. Wyke correctly observing to Lord Russell that they were calculated to render acceptance by the Mexican government unacceptable. France was spoiling for a fight. Juarez tried to plead his country’s woeful financial state, and asked that the three powers return their troops to their ships.
There was however a pressing problem due to the buildup of troops and the advancing season. The climate would soon become unhealthy for the Europeans stuck in Vera Cruz, and negations were opened to allow them to move out to higher ground to avoid being decimated by the diseases that would find them on the low lying coastal plain.
In February the Soledad convention agreed on the various towns in which the Europeans could enter, and the limit to which they could advance. The British were still adamant in not advancing inland, while 3,000 French reinforcements drifted in to augment the 5,000 already there and so outnumber the Spanish. The Mexican flag was raised over Vera Cruz and the customs house handed back over. If negations were to break down the Europeans should “return to Go” at Vera Cruz, and 100 men from each nation were to garrison the city. The British contingent likely stationed at the fort of San Juan de Ulloa. It was hoped that the extraneous forces would be sent back to Europe.
However the treaty of Soledad was more an agreement between the three powers than one between them and Mexico and the problem still remained; how to obtain the money from an almost bankrupt nation without provoking a war. The way forward was marred by France’s belligerence and separate agenda. In an attempt to rein them in, Spain and Britain threatened to pull out if the French did not stop fraternising with the conservatives, as it was contrary to the convention of Soledad. They did not stop.
When exiled conservative Minister General Almonte arrived and proclaimed a monarchy. The bemused Wyke and Prim asked what government he was representing in declaring this. Almonte replied that he had the confidence of France, and the last straw broke.
France broke off negotiations with Juarez, Mexican Minister of Foreign Affairs, General Doblaño warned the French that a move to overthrow the Republic and impose a monarchy would be strongly resisted, and invited the British and Spanish to discuss matters. Unwilling to back down, on April 16 France declared war on Mexico and urged its citizens to rally to the French tricolour in order to form a stable government.
General Prim and Admiral Dunlop condemned the action most strongly, much to Doblaño’s satisfaction and applause. With France in open violation of the treaty of London and the a Convention of Soledad, Britain and Spain could not justify their presence in Mexico any longer and withdrew. British representative Mr. Wyke however had finally found a temporary solution to the debt problem that had kept 700 marines cooped up for 4 months at Vera Cruz.
He simply managed to get the Mexican Government to agree to sign a convention that promised to begin paying their debt out of the illusionary loan of $11 million offered by the United States. As a result it would be years before the subject of repayment could be once again revisited.
The entire expedition was predicated on the idea that Mexico could pay the debt, or would promise to do so, and would not continue to resist an in the face of an armed intervention. When both of these assumptions proved false the entire thing went belly up, not aided by the less than inspired plan to impose an Austrian archduke, promoted by exiles like Santa Anna, as a resumption of the house of Moctezuma, on a hastily constructed throne propped up by French bayonets.
With the exit of Spain and Britain, Mexico declared war on France. The red trousered French regulars marched into the interior to begin “The Mexican adventure”. A conflict that would see, the early Republican victory at Puebla on Cinco de Mayo 1862, the last stand of the French Foreign Legion at Camerón, Mexico becoming a short lived protectorate of France, and the tragic execution of the reluctant emperor, Maximilian I. But it is nonetheless fascinating to think that in 1861 Britain, of all places, skirted close to an invasion of Mexico.
This post first appeared on the Britannia Magazine Facebook page in 2016.
Who were the most powerful people in Ancient Rome?
How do you define power? That’s a difficult question to answer, certainly within the confines of this short article. So, for my purposes, power is being able to exert your will and have the maximum amount of people follow your instructions. In Ancient Rome then, there are a great many contenders for the title of ‘Most Powerful’.
At its peak, in 117 AD, the Roman Empire was vast, covering a jaw-dropping five-million square kilometres. https://allthatsinteresting.com/height-roman-empire-map Just to put that in perspective; the Roman Empire was the equivalent of 1.4 Billion football pitches. They’d have certainly needed a very well inflated pig’s bladder and a team compromising of giants in order to set up a quick game of five a side. What is so impressive is this empire was ruled with a communication structure no more advanced than a lot of straight, flat roads.
The ruler of the Empire at its peak was the Emperor – in this case Trajan, soon to be handing over to Hadrian on account of a severe case of premature death* – who was responsible for some sixty five million people. https://www.unrv.com/empire/roman-population.php So, The Emperor had near incomputable and incomparable power. His will could, quite literally, change the course of history. Yet, did anyone have power over the Emperor? You could arguethat both the people and the senate had a degree of influence over the Emperor. After all, an Emperor is still only human and a great many of them received their comeuppance for miffing off the wrong people.** They also spent a fortune keeping the people entertained – and pliant – with Gladiatorial contests and other sporting events. However, I would argue that the group of people who had the most influence over the Emperor were the vestal virgins.
The Vestal Virgins were a group of six hand-picked women who were responsible for the maintaining of the perpetual sacred flame kept in the temple of Vesta. This was an incredibly important duty as it was believed that should the flame be snuffed out then Rome would fall. These sacred maidens had an unparalleled position of power amongst women at this point in history; this did not have to marry, they were not the ‘property’ of any man, and their position enabled them to wield significant religious and political influence. They could also, according to Alexandra Turney of Through Eternity Tours (https://www.througheternity.com/en/blog/history/vestal-virgins-in-ancient-rome.html), “own property, vote, and write a will. They had the best seats at public games, and they even had the power to free condemned prisoners and slaves. A condemned man on his way to his execution only had to catch a glimpse of a Vestal Virgin to be freed.”
The extent of their responsibility and influence can be seen by their punishment if something went wrong in Ancient Rome.We can see an example of this in the BBC article ‘Ancient Rome’s Maidens: who were the Vestal Virgins?’ http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/0/18490233
“Despite their elevated position within Roman society, some historians, including Professor Brennan, argue that they were often scapegoated for military defeat. Problems on the battlefield were blamed on a failure to maintain Vesta’s fire.”
Yet, I would argue, that an opposite case could be made. If the failure of a failed military campaign was the fault of the Vestal Virgins, then conversely a military success was due to their divine influence. To go a step further, if the Vestal Virgins were to decree that a military campaign was destined to fail, then could anyone, even an Emperor, disagree? Let’s take a look at a few examples of this. Pliny the Elder – the Roman naturalist, author and philosopher – wrote in Book 28 of his Natural History:
“At the present day, too, it is a general belief, that our Vestal virgins have the power, by uttering a certain prayer, to arrest the flight of runaway slaves, and to rivet them to the spot, provided they have not gone beyond the precincts of the City. If then these opinions be once received as truth, and if it be admitted that the gods do listen to certain prayers, or are influenced by set forms of words, we are bound to conclude in the affirmative upon the whole question.”
The Vestal Virgins had the power to convene with the gods and, even more impressively, the gods would listen to and be influenced by their words. More importantly, the people of Rome believed that they had this divine gift. This isn’t just regular Emperor power, this is super hero level power. If Gegania, one of the first Vestals, were to crop up as an Avenger in the next Marvel film then absolutely no-one should be surprised. The vestals had a power to wield such influence as to change the political landscape. To think that the Vestals wouldn’t take the regular opportunity to put this power to practise would be naïve.
For example, the Vestals interceded and saved Julius Caesar from Sulla’s proscriptions. Sulla was, at the time, the ‘dictator’ of Rome and the most powerful man in the city. He had a list of enemies of the state who, through his proscriptions, would be killed or banished. Julius Caesar’s name was on this list – his demise was certain. That was until the Vestal’s stepped up and saw that he was granted pardon. The Vestals had stood up to the most powerful person in Rome, in the midst of his punishing and pretty psychopathic political pruning, and been victorious.
That’s is not to say the Vestal’s were untouchable however, they, like anyone, could be toppled. This was often done through the aforementioned scapegoating or through besmirching of their character. The punishments for Vestas put into this position were severe. Rules prevented Vesta’s from being killed or harmed but these restrictions were averted by effectively burying them alive.***
Yet, what power comes without severe risk? And what power the Vestal Virgins had. Who else could bend an Emperor, and by proxy 65 million Romans, to their will?
*It really was a severe case of premature death. Trajan died of a suspected stroke in the city of Selinus. His adopted son Hadrian took on the mantle of Emperor who, along with his father, is considered one of the ‘good’ Emperors.
**Emperor Caracalla had it pretty bad. He was killed by one of his bodyguards whilst having a widdle at the side of the road. Worst bodyguard ever.
*** In 114 BC the Vestal Mercia was left to starve to death in a sealed tomb – not a good way to go. Though in the historical records the frequency of such a heinous punishment was rare, most Vestals retired after a thirty year service and enjoyed a rather generous pension.
About Adrian Burrows:
Adrian is the co-owner of Imagining History School Workshops – an organisation dedicated to bringing the very best history workshops to primary schools across the UK. You can find out more at www.imagininghistory.co.uk or follow them on twitter at @imagininghist