Thursday, November 27, 2008

The Age of Justinian Part II

Hagia Sophia

In a past posting I talked about the Age of Justinian and his wife Theodora. This is a second look at Justinian and his age.

I mentioned before that the age of Justinian seems in many respects one of futility despite the glory. Has Gibbon says:

But the wars, the conquests, and the triumphs of Justinian are the feeble, and pernicious efforts of old age, which exhaust the remains of strength, and accelerate the decay of the power of life. He exulted in the glorious act of restoring Africa and Italy to the republic; but the calamities which followed... betrayed the impotence of the conqueror and accomplished the ruin of those unfortunate countries.


The triple scourge of war, pestilence, and famine, afflicted the subjects of Justinian, and his reign is disgraced by a visible decrease of the human species, which has never been repaired in some of the fairest countries of the globe.1

I could quote other authors who write the same sort of thing. A response to this is to state that the reason why Justinian failed, and that his empire proved incapable of retaining his conquests was the effects of the great plague.2

Well this is dubious. If your going to make such a supposition your going to have to back it up. The best comparison would be with the Black Death in Europe of the mid 14th century and reoccurring afterwards for centuries. Do we see the same ebbing of effort, the same cultural and permanent economic decline. In other words do we see the same decay of civilization? Well the answer is that we don't. The Black Death certainly inaugurated a long period of change, and was a catastrophic event. But it did not destroy the culture or vitality of European Christianity. A case in point is the plague did not stop the Hundred Years War between Britain and France. In fact its effect on their war making was amazingly minimal, at least immediately.3

I have severe doubts that the plague was the only or even the main cause for the moribund character of the late classical culture, society and economy. After all it is generally recognized that the Black Death fell upon a Europe that was very vunerable to this type of disaster and one that was already in crisis.4

After all The Western Roman Empire had already fallen, large areas of the west, for example Britain, had experienced significant decline, even collapse earlier.5 But the argument that it was the plague does serve one very useful purpose it helps get Justinian and Theodora off the hook of responsibility.

The argument that loss of people and revenue adversely effected the ability of the Roman Empire to hold onto and maintain the re-conquests of Justinian, ignores one thing above all others. The plague also affected the enemies of the empire, reducing the costs of conquest and maintaining the conquests. To say nothing of defence. If the plague seriously reduced revenue by eliminating taxpayers and reducing output it would also have reduced costs by having fewer people to administer over.

That the Empire went into a long term decline was not simply the effects of plague but of long term serious structural problems. After all if Europe showed significant powers of regeneration and recovery after the Black Death, despite repeated outbreaks that lasted for centuries. Why the malaise that spread across the Empire and Europe. Certainly plague is a insufficient explanation for collapse of Byzantine authority in Italy when the Lombards invaded in 568 C.E. The lack of virtually any sort of coordinated resistance is remarkable. Roman / Byzantine authority seems to simply evaporate.6 Narses the great Eunuch general of Justinian, who finally conquered Italy seems to have unable to do much of anything to oppose the Lombards. This speaks of exhaustion and devastation not simply the effects of plague.

And besides if the plague had catastrophic effects on revenue etc., then Justinian's persistence in his grandiose schemes despite the drastic reduction in the ability to pay for them is a serious blunder which is his responsibility. Such a refusal to face facts is simply foolish.

The argument can be made that the four Barbarian monarchies of the west, (Visigothic Spain, Frankish France, Ostrogothic Italy, Vandal North Africa), were attempts, with varying degrees of success to preserve has much of Classical culture has possible in the Frame work of Germanic monarchies. The destruction of two of them, (Vandal North Africa, Ostrogothic Italy), and weakening of the other two through war, (Visigothic Spain, Frankish France), if anything made thing much worst.7

The fact is the picture given by the writers of the time period is a melancholy one. There is simply no reason to dispute that.8

It is simply not up for discussion that Justinian's activities exhausted the empire and helped pave the way for the Muslim conquests, after the empire came within whisker of being destroyed by the Persian Empire.9

The French Historian Ferdinand Lot long ago gave the following considered verdicts on the reign of Justinian.


From 535 to 548 Africa enjoyed scarcely a moments rest. The best generals of the empire, Belisarius, Germanus, the eunuch Solomon and Johannes Troglita exhausted themselves for nearly fifteen years in fruitless attempts to restore peace. When they succeeded, in the middle of the sixth century, the provinces were depopulated and ruined.10


In 554, when all was finished, Italy was ruined, depopulated and at her last gasp, in a worst position than Germany's after the Thirty Years War. To crown her suffering, she had to taste the pristinium gaudium mentioned by the continuator of Prosper and the inscription of the Aino bridge. This "joy of yore" presented itself to the people become once more "Roman" under the form of crushing taxation.11

The East:

Even in the East, if Justinian's was a great reign, it was so only by comparison with is contemporaries. It is certain that our Frankish and Visgothic sovereigns were kinglets in comparison. But what shadows are in the picture!12.

Famine, war, pestilence, combined with fiscal and religious oppression characterized the reign of Justinian for all its glory the reign exhausted the empire.13.

In the book The Ruin of the Roman Empire, James J. O'Donnell, pictures a Rome and Italy that under Theodoric the Great, (493-526 C.E.) was still vital and in many ways still classical. With the "barbarian" King trying to preserve has much as possible. With Rome still the greatest city in the west and possibly still greater than Constantinople.14.

Justinian's wars and the reconquest, devastated Italy and reduced Rome to largely empty ruins with a population only a small fraction of what it was before. The Senate vanishes by the end of the 6th century and the last Consul mentioned is in 541 C.E.15

The melancholy and almost apocalyptic vision of ruined Rome in the writings of Pope Gregory the Great, (c.600 C.E.), are the epitaph on the reign of Justinian not just Hagia Sophia.16

Some more books I consulted.

Plague and the End of Antiquity, Editor Lester K. Little, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2007.

Justinian and His Age, Percy Neville Ure, Penguin Books, London, 1951.

The Age of Justinian, Editor Michael Maas, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2005.

Barbarians, Terry Jones, BBC Books, London, 2006.

History of the Later Roman Empire, v. 2, J. B. Bury, Dover Publications Inc., New York, 1958.

1. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, v. 4, Edward Gibbon, p. 415.

2. For example: A History of the Byzantine State and Society, Warren Treadgold, Stanford University Press, Sanford CA, 1997, pp. 216-217. Justinian's Flea, William Rosen, Penguin Books, London, 2007.

3. See A Distant Mirror, Barbara W. Tuchman, Ballantine Books, New York, 1978.

4. Ibid. pp. 24-48.

5. The Decline and Fall of Roman Britain, Neil Faulkner, Tempus Pub. Ltd., London, 2000, pp. 169-220.

6. History of the Lombards, Paul the Deacon, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1907, pp. 62-81.

7, See The Ruin of the Roman Empire, James J. O'Donnell, HarperCollins Pub., New York, 2008. The Military History of the Western World, v. 1, J. F. C. Fuller, Da Capo Press, New York, 1954, Ch. 11, pp. 307-329.

8. See for example The Secret History, Procopius, Penguin Books, London, 2007.

9. See The Great Arab Conquests, Hugh Kennedy, Phoenix, London, 2007.

10. The End of the Ancient World and the Beginnings of the Middle Ages, Ferdinand Lot, Harper & Row, New York, 1931, p, 267.

11. Ibid. p. 268. The "pristinium" were the benefits of Roman rule. The Inscription referred to celebrated Narses restoring liberty to Rome and Italy. (p. 263).

12. Ibid. p. 269.

13. See Procopius.

14. O'Donnell, pp. 107-174.

15. Ibid. p. 364.

16. Ibid. pp. 370-374.

Pierre Cloutier

Sunday, November 23, 2008


Guderian, von Rundstedt, Manstein

One of the curses of the historiography of World War II, is the prevalence of the use of the German memoir literature. It is amazing how much our understanding of the period is dependent on this literature. To quote one author:

The single most difficult task all those working on World War II in Europe and North Africa face is the need to penetrate the fog of distortion and confusion generated by the vast German Memoir literature, especially that of generals like Heinz Guderian and Erich Von Manstein. Long the basic staple on which the secondary literature was based, closer examination of these works with reference to contemporary evidence has shown the memoirs to be almost invariably inaccurate, distorted, and in some instances, simply faked.1
Here I will merely go into two areas very little discussed in the literature - bribery and oaths.The image many German Generals after the war liked to provide of themselves was of "Honourable Men" who fought a clean war untainted by the crimes of the regime, honour bound to observe their oath of loyalty to the regime and Hitler sworn in 1934 to the bitter end.2 A little story not told in this copious literature about "honour" is one of simple bribery. It is not mentioned that Hitler bribed his Generals on a massive and systematic basis in return for their loyalty otherwise the cash would dry up. The payments were secret and not subject to tax. To quote:
Since bribery has been seen as a dirty practice since antiquity, and since Nazi Germany practiced the most horrific of human crimes. It is not surprising that those involved in bribery in Nazi Germany have offered no confessions, particularly because German military officers worked especially hard to recoup the image of honourable, apolitical professionals after the war.3

These tax exempt amounts were quite generous. Field Marshals and Grand Admirals received 4000 RM, (Reich Marks), per month. Generals and General Admirals received 2000 RM per month. Civilians also benefited from these very generous "gifts".4 Further it was made very clear that these "gifts" were in return for services too and loyalty too the regime.5

Other "gifts" came in the form of "bequests" which came sometime in the form of "bequests" for individual soldiers birthdays. Thus Grand Admiral Raeder got 250.000 RM, Field Marshall Milch the same amount and so did so many others although some got less.6

Hitler also gave to his officers extensive landed property. Heinz Guderian was allowed to make a selection of a estate in occupied Poland, (c. 4000 acres), the fact that someones else, (Poles), owned these estates was deemed irrelevant. In effect a estate was to be stolen for Guderian. Guderian made numerous visits to narrow down his choice. He eventually selected an estate that was not on the Nazi short list. Eventually Guderian was given a estate, although not the one he wanted, and the Polish officer owning it evicted.7 Guderian complained quite heatedly that what he got wasn't good enough.8 Afterwards many of Hitler's generals tried with state support to create or expand their landed properties.9

To quote:

Those who are interested in the cohesion of the German army into the last weeks of World War II will want to reexamine the impact of large-scale bribery. They will also want to consider the effect of the terror exercised by the so-called "military justice" system of the German armed forces which by latest estimates had well over 25,000 German soldiers, sailors, and airman shot! Huge bribes for many at the top and bullets for thousands at the bottom; not the picture of the German army projected by much of the literature.10

The next area is oaths. Since many of German military men swore that their oath of loyalty to Hitler "Honour" bound them to be loyal to the end it is important to see what they think of oaths in general.

During the Weimer republic These soldiers swore oaths to uphold, support the Weimer republic and its laws which included various treaties under taken by the state. Lets just say they broke these oaths right and left, repeatedly and often, and under the Nazis described such oath breaking in positive tones.11

When for example The government of Prussia was overthrown in 1932, by von Papen, General Rundstedt complied with the request, although it broke his oath. After the war von Rundstedt swore under oath that he had not seen a notorious order explaining the mass murder of Jews and calling for German soldiers to support it. The reality is that Rundstedt gave it his endorsement and signed directives to other commanders suggesting similar directives.12

Manstein in his own trial for war crimes similarly, and outrageously lied. Violating his oath to the court.13

To conclude:

Both Before and after his oath to Hitler, von Rundstedt, like so many others, did not take his oaths particularly seriously. Why just that one?14

The conclusion is obvious The Generals picked what oaths to obey.

No doubt the massive bribery engaged by Hitler "helped" the Generals in feeling bound by their oath to Hitler. Perhaps we would have all been better off if Weimer politicians had done something similar. So much for "Honour".

1. Germany, Hitler & World War II, Gerhard L. Weinberg, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1995, p. 307.

2, See The Other Side of the Hill, Basil Liddell Hart, Pan Books, London, 1999. (Originally published 1948) among many.
3. Black Marks: Hitler's Bribery of his Senior Officers during World War II, Norman J. W. Goda, Journal of Modern History, v. 72 No. 2, June 2000, University of Chicago, Chicago, pp. 413-452, p. 414.
4. Ibid. pp. 421-422.
5.Ibid. pp. 423-428.
6. Ibid. pp. 432-433.
7. Ibid. pp. 437-438.
8. Germany, Hitler & World War II, Weinberg, pp. 308-309.
9. Goda, pp. 439-440.
10. Germany, Hitler & World War II, Weinberg, p. 309.
11. Unexplored Questions about the German Military during World War II, Gerhard L. Weinberg, Journal of Military History, v. 62 Iss. 2, April 1998, pp. 371-380, p. 372.
12. Ibid. pp. 372-373.
13 For a brief overview of the Manstein trial see Blind Eye to Murder, Tom Bower, Warner Books, London, 1995, pp. 292-299.
14. Unexplored Questions about the German Military during World War II, Weinberg, p. 373.
Pierre Cloutier

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Film Physics

In this piece I would like to talk about the above book Insultingly Stupid Movie Physics, Tom Rodgers, Sourcebooks Inc., Naperville ILL.,2007.Now if you watch a lot of films you know that they have a revolting number of absurdities. The above book not only details the absurdities but gives a pretty good lesson in Physics. (The more technical sections are separated from the main text, so you can go back to them later or never, they go into the nitty-gritty of physics equations.)

I can't discuss all the examples from the book but I can give a brief run through of some of them.

1, The infamous person shooting from the hip. (pp. 15-30), Sure it looks real cool, but its damn stupid. You simply can't control the gun that well, shooting from the hip. Yes its in so many Cop films and Westerns, but its plain dumb. if I'm ever in a gun fight I want my enemies to shoot from the hip while I shoot properly, they would be sitting ducks. This section explains why.

2, Downing the space craft in the movie Independence Day, (pp. 164-168), basically its a damn colossally stupid idea. The energy released by them dropping to earth would generate massive winds (several hundred miles per hour at least) and intense heat. The devastation would be hideous. (This ignores what would happen if the power source on the ship blew up, which given the energy need to take such a ship, 15 miles across, into and out of Earth orbit would be huge.

3, Very controversial. A section on the Kennedy assassination which tears apart some of the nonsense about the assassination (pp. 195-211). The idea that if Kennedy had been hit in the back his head would have jerked forward and not to the side, which supposedly indicates that he was hit from a shot from the Grassy Knoll. Well elementary physics indicates that purely has a physical reaction, (ignoring nuro-musculature spasms), such a reaction from a shot from behind is virtually certain. No shot from Grassy Knoll needed. In fact people who think this have been watching to many movies and ignoring real physics.

4, People out running explosions in shafts (pp. 113-114). Well it possible in theory, but given that the explosion moves very fast, (less than a tenth of a second for 50 feet.) outrunning it while hugely entertaining in films is highly unlikely in real life.

5. In the movie Armageddon, a Texas size asteroid is headed towards Earth and a collection of Hollywood misfits is sent to save it. (We are doomed!) They drill a hole, explode a nuclear device, the asteroid divides in two and both sections go around the world and don't hit it. This is of course entertaining but absurd, (Along with character played by Bruce Willis dying-Yeah!) on so many levels. (pp. 167-170) To put it simply doing what happens in the movie is both incredibly stupid, ( it would make the devastation worst if it "worked"), and it almost certainly wouldn't work at all. Why, because assuming the explosion happened when it did,and did in fact split the asteroid, (very big ifs!), it would only have separated the asteroid haves by under 200 feet before impact!

That is just a sample of some of the fun in the book.

Tom Rodgers has a web site at Here.

Other books in this area are.

The Physics of Star Trek, Lawrence M. Krauss, HarperPerennial, New York, 1995.

Beyond Star Trek, Lawrence M. Krauss, HarperPerennial, New York, 1997.

The Physics of Superheroes, James Kakalios, Gotham Books, New York, 2005

Pierre Cloutier

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Mayan Restoration

In 1946 the Murals of Bonampak were discovered in Chiapas Mexico in a rectangular building of three rooms with Murals covering the ceilings & walls of all three rooms, by the American Photographer Giles Healey. Despite the jungle damp the Murals were in excellent shape. The Limestone of the building the Murals were in had been partially dissolved by rain and then deposited on top of the Murals preserving them. Although this preserved the Murals it also obscured them with a coat of whitish glaze, applications of kerosene would briefly clear up the Murals but would leave a bluish haze.

The first picture is a photo of the original Mural. The second is a photo of the reconstruction of the Murals from the Mexican Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City done in the late 1950's. The third is a reconstruction of the Murals done by the National Geographic Society and the University of Mexico done in the early 1990's using computer technology. The purpose of showing three versions is so they can be compared. Three different sets of images will be illustrated here.

The example here is of a scene I call "The Presentation", it depicts captives, who have apparently been tortured, being presented to Chaan Muan, king of Bonampak, who apparently then decides about how to despose of them.

Pierre Cloutier

Friday, November 07, 2008

"Strange Victory"

The above phrase is the title of the above book1, which is about the conquest of France by Hitler's forces in May-June 1940. This achievement was merely the climax of a whole series of spectacular military achievements by German Forces in 1940.

The surprisingly swift conquest of Poland in September 1939 had given a indication of the capacities of German Forces but still the swift overthrow of France in 1940 was a surprise. Since then it has become received wisdom that France's collapse in 1940 was inevitable. A note worthy indication of that is a review essay by Tony Judt2, in which Tony Judt reviews Strange Victory.

What is interesting is that the view that the conquest of France by Hitler's forces was NOT inevitable is actually a common place of the literature. For example:

The dazzling effect of what the new elements achieved has obscured not only their relatively small scale but the narrow margin by which success was gained. Their success could easily have been prevented but for the opportunities presented to them by the allied blunders-blunders that were largely due to the prevalence of out-of-date ideas. Even as it was, with such help from the purblind leaders on the other side, the success of the invasion turned on a lucky series of long-odds-chances-and on readiness of one man, Guderian, to make the most of those that came his way.3

Other examples in the literature can be listed4 which support the view that the fall of France was anything but inevitable. In Strange Victory, there is a list of rather interesting facts. Such has that the German's were outnumbered, that the allies had more tanks, and that unlike the Germans, who had none the allies had almost 600 heavy tanks. In fact c. 60% of German tanks were light, and that in Medium tanks the allies had almost double the number of German, and on top of that the allied tanks were superior.5 Even in aircraft the Germans were overall inferior.6

It is now known that both the Nazi war machine and and the economic power behind it were far more fragile than believed at the time.7 The crash course of massive remiliterization and massive re-structuring the economy had produced many successes but had massively dislocated the economy and had not produced all of the results desired. In other words Germany in 1940 was poorly placed for a long war.8 Even after their great victory over France and the conquest of much of Western Europe, (Denmark, Norway, The Netherlands, Belgium, Luxemberg, France), and the addition of Italy has an ally Germany still had serious economic problems, related to the lack of certain raw materials, blocked off by the British blockade, (Rubber, oil), and a serious looming problem of coal production and distribution for example.9

So what accounts for the victory of the Germans over France if it was far from inevitable? Well it seems to be a combination of the allies mistakes, luck and one of the most brilliant military plans of all time. Certainly the idea that the Germans won because of massive military superiority and modernization compared to their enemies is nonsense. to quote Strange Victory:
But Amouroux and others who write or speak as if the French Defeat of 1940 were inevitable and even foreknown presume that Hitler's Wehrmacht must have been better prepared, better armed, and less dependant on carts, horses, hay, and shoe leater, and that French and British leaders knew this to be so. In fact to say again what has been said more than once, Germany by most quantitative measurements was not nearly so well prepared for a major war as were France and Britain. The Wehrmacht had many fewer vehicles and was much more reliant on horses. Halder estimated that each German infantry division needed forty-four hundred horses and two thousand horse-drawn vehicles. The German army was to commence war in September 1939 with almost six hundred thousand horses and, early in its Western offensive of May-June 1940, was to be suffering a severe shortage of them.10

In fact it appears that Manstein's plan to lure the Allies into Belgium and the Netherlands and then swing around their flank through the ardennes worked amazingly well and achieved what can only be described has one of the most spectacular military victories of all time.11 Certainly it is hard to believe that the original German plan of a head on smash into Belgium would have achieved much of anything aside from probably driving the allies back.

In fact, although Hitler had some ideas similar to Manstein before Manstein brought his ideas to him, the plan was only adopted after a series of accidents and misadventures, (Bad weather forcing a delay of the offensive, loss of documents revealing the plan of attack), with much opposition from many of Hitler's Generals.12

It is of interest that Tony Judt, like so many others who think the fall inevitable, in his article doesn't argue with Ernest R. May's facts he just repeats that despite what the facts are he knows that the fall of France was inevitable because he feels it was inevitable. He simply "knows" the truth. Of course he doesn't say so quite so bluntly but that is what it amounts to. The basis for this opinion seems to be nothing more than gut instinct or some "psychic" power.13

So in the end it was to a large extent through sheer bad luck for the allies and good luck for the Germans that the attack succeeded so spectacularly. Although given the long term consequences for Germany and the World it turned out to be every bodies bad luck that Hitler won.

1, Strange Victory, Ernest R. May, Hill and Wang, New York, 2000.

2,Could the French Have Won?, Tony Judt, New York Review of Books, v. 48, No. 3, February 22, 2001.

3, History of the Second World War, B. H. Liddell Hart, G. P. Putnam's Sons, New York, 1970, p. 66.

4, *To lose a Battle, Alistair Horne, Penguin Books, London, 1969. The Collapse of the Third Republic, William L. Shirer, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1969. The Wages of Destruction, Adam Tooze, Penguin Books, London, 2006. A Military History of the Western World, v. 3, J. F. C. Fuller, Da Capo, New York, 1956.

5. Strange Victory, pp. 476-478.

6, IBID.

7. The Wages of Destruction, Adam Tooze, Penguin Books, London, 2006. Interestingly this book supports the argument that Hitler's victory over France was not inevitable. (pp. 370-372)

8, IBID. pp. 366-367.

9, IBID. pp. 412-418.

10. Strange Victory, pp. 208-209

11. The Wages of Destruction, pp. 368-370.

12, A Military History of the Western World, v. 3, pp. 386-390, The March of Conquest, Telford Taylor, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1958, pp. 155-180.

13. Could the French have Won?

*In his conclusion Alistair Horne veers very strongly towards the inevitability idea without quite embracing it fully. For example:

When the attack came the following May, the preponderance of strength - with all factors taken into account - was immeasurably greater on the German side than at any time during the First World War. (p. 656)

What is fascinating is that Alstair's Horne's narrative and the facts he musters in his narrative DO NOT provide much support for this idea and in fact argue strongly against it. That is why this book is listed has supporting the idea that the fall of France was not inevitable despite what Alstair Horne says in his conclusion. It is of interest that Alstair Horne's statement in the above quote about German preponderance of strength being "immeasurably greater" than at any time during the First World War, is hyperbole to such an extent has to amount to a falsehood. In fact given the facts given in Alstair Horne's own book and the other books listed here it is simply false. To but it bluntly on May 10, 1940 the Germans DID NOT have a huge preponderance of strength if anything the allies had a slight edge over the Germans.

Pierre Cloutier