Paganism describes the old religions of the world – before Christianity and Islam came to dominate. We generally use the term in a historical context, especially in areas that are Christian, Muslim or non-religious today. A follower of paganism is a pagan; a modern revivalist is a neopagan.

Pagans did not consider themselves members of a particular ‘religion’ – belief in gods and spirits was simply a part of life. To ancient people, denying the existence of Jupiter or Ra was like denying lightning. There was no concept of ‘religion’ either; religion, society and government were one and the same. 

Paganism was not one creed or set of beliefs but a variety of practices and ideas about the natural world. Pagans did, however, have some ideas in common:

  • polytheism – belief in many gods
  • myths and legends
  • animal sacrifice
  • sacred places like temples, groves and shrines
  • belief in magic

Pagans believed supernatural forces influenced everyday life; these included spirits, ancestors and all-powerful gods. Such forces decided fortune, weather and the elements; everything mortals could not control. Deities could be common across whole cultures or specific to a single region, household, lake or tree.

One could appease a deity by praying to them or offering the life of an animal or (in some cultures) a person. Belief in one god was not exclusive, nor did pagans strictly adhere to gods from their culture. Ancient Rome, for example, had temples to not only its native gods but deities from Greece, Egypt and Persia. Gods represented everything from the sea and sky to abstract concepts like victory or love.

Pagans told stories about their gods but did not treat these stories as gospel truth. Their purpose was less to dictate the origins of the universe than to explain natural phenomena, justify rituals and entertain. It did not matter if narratives contradicted one another.

Most important to pagans were their rituals, for keeping on the good side of the gods was essential to a healthy society. For pagans, what one did was more important than what one believed. In Greece and Rome, in particular, ethics was not the domain of the gods but philosophers.

Many pagans believed in an afterlife. In the Egyptian and Norse traditions, dying and living the right way was immensely important. For others, the afterlife was either dreary, irrelevant, or non-existent. Worshipping gods and spirits were less about benefits in this world than in the next.

The word pagan likely comes from the Latin word paganus, which means ‘country dweller’. When Christianity spread across the Roman Empire, it spread first amongst the urban poor, and then the elite. By the 4th century BC, only the rural population – the pagani­- still worshipped the old gods. The name stuck. As pagans did not consider themselves as belonging to a particular religion; the term is best used when distinguishing old believers from the newer faiths which did.

Sources: Bart D. Ehrman – The Triumph of Christianity

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The Sarmatians

Sarmatia: Poland’s Mythic Golden Age? – Crazy Polish Guy

The Sarmatians were a nomadic people who lived in the Black Sea steppe (modern-day Ukraine) at the time of the Roman Empire. They spoke an East Iranian language and lived on horseback and in covered wagons. Renowned warriors, the Sarmatians inspired legends as far as England and Greece.

Sarmatians and their predecessors the Scythians shared a similar culture. Both smoked cannabis, scalped their enemies and drank horse milk from human skulls. They were taller than their settled neighbours, and allegedly had red hair and light eyes.  Herodotus claimed women held equal social status to men and fought in battle alongside them. Modern historians denied his claims as fanciful until 20th century grave discoveries revealed Sarmatian women buried with armour and weapons.

According to legend, the Sarmatians were born of Scythian fathers and Amazon mothers. Herodotus claimed when the Greeks defeated the Amazons – a mythical nation of warrior women – they loaded prisoners onto a ship in the Black Sea. The captives mutinied and escaped into the marshes of Crimea. Here they met the Scythians, the land’s nomadic inhabitants. A group of Scythian men interloped with the escaped Amazons and their children became the Sarmatians.

According to the archaeological record, the Sarmatians originally lived east of the Scythians in modern-day Kazakhstan. Around the 3rd century BC, they migrated west and absorbed the Scythians, now ‘softened’ by sedentary Greek culture.

A HISTORY OF UKRAINE. EPISODE 10. THE SARMATIANSThe Sarmatians were not a single nation but a collection of nomadic tribes sharing a common culture. These included the Roxolani, Iazeges and Alans. Sarmatian warriors often raided the Roman Empire and were later part of the migrations which brought Rome to her knees.

Unlike other steppe nations such as the Scythians and Huns, Sarmatians favoured armoured lancers over mobile horse archers.  Their cavalry dominated ancient battlefields. Hippocrates, a Roman doctor, claimed Sarmatian women could not marry until they killed three men in battle.

In the winter of AD 171, Emperor Marcus Aurelius defeated a Sarmatian army on the frozen Danube. As tribute, 5,500 Sarmatian horsemen joined the Roman army. The emperor resettled the Sarmatian recruits to the frontier of Roman Britain to hold back the Celts beyond Hadrian’s Wall. These mounted warriors may have inspired the legend of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table.

Scythians and Sarmatians – Renegade Tribune

When the Huns invaded the Sarmatian homeland, only the Alan tribe survived. One group headed west, the other south. The first group joined Goths, Huns and Vandals as they moved into the Roman Empire, with some travelling as far as North Africa. Sarmatian cavalry were critical in the defeat of Attila the Hun at the Battle of Catalaunian Plains in AD 451.

Some Sarmatians forged a small kingdom in Central Europe, ruling over Slavic peasants. Their descendants are the Sorbs (or Wends), a West Slavic minority who still live in Germany today. The old Polish aristocracy also claimed descent from Sarmatian conquerors. Ultimately, the western Sarmatians assimilated into the developing Slavic and western European nations. The Spanish region of Catalonia is named after the Alans, as is the English name Alan.

The second group settled in the defensible Caucasus Mountains, where they became the Ossetians, an ethnic group who still speak an East Iranian language today.

Sources:, Herodotus – The Histories, Iranica Online, John Man – Amazons: the Warrior Women of the Ancient World

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Second Temple Judaism

Second Temple Judaism, Christianity, and the Emergence of ...Second Temple Judaism is the period of Jewish history between the reconstruction of their temple by Cyrus and its destruction by the Romans in AD 71. Rabbinic Judaism took shape in this time.

In 515 BC, King Cyrus of Persia allowed the Jewish elite to return from their 70-year exile in Babylon. Under Persian rule, they rebuilt the temple the Babylonians had destroyed and resumed their religious practices. In exile, the Jewish religion changed. New writings joined their holy book and new beliefs developed:

  • Only one God. Before the Babylonian Exile Jews believed other deities existed but only worshipped one.
  • Individuals, not entire nations, are held accountable for their sins.
  • There is an evil angel who rules in Hell.

Some of these ideas may have come from Zoroastrianism, the religion of the Persians which worships one god.

Jews accepted and tolerated Persian rule but not the Seleucids or Romans who followed. They rebelled many times and refused to recognise kings who called themselves gods. Judea became notoriously difficult to control.

In 160 BC, fundamentalist Jews gained independence after a long guerrilla war and cleansed the country of Greek and pagan influences.

Why the Maccabees Aren't in the Bible | My Jewish Learning

The Book of Maccabees describes this war and the origin of Hannukah. Whilst a part of Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Bibles, it is seldom included by Protestants. The Romans annexed Judea in 63 BC.

By the first century AD there were six Jewish political movements:

  • The Pharisees were the largest and most popular among the common people. They believed in the Exile teachings and followed not priests but ‘teachers of the Law’ or rabbis. Pharisees believed everyone should follow Jewish dietary restrictions, not only priests. Saint Paul was originally a Pharisee.
  • Sadducees belonged to the Greek-speaking elite that supported foreign rule. The high priesthood and puppet kings like Herod were of this sect. They rejected most of the Exile teachings and did not believe in life after death.
  • Essenes lived in remote rural areas and were obsessed with cleanliness and ritual purity. We know of them mainly through the Dead Sea Scrolls. John the Baptist may have been one.
  • Zealots violently resisted Roman rule. They believed the Kingdom of God was imminent. Their Sicarii (dagger-men) murdered Roman officials, tax collectors and collaborators.
  • Nazarenes followed Jesus of Nazareth, a 1st-century preacher. By the 2nd century, they would break with Jewish tradition.

The First Jewish-Roman War (AD 70 – 74) began when the Jews rebelled over heavy taxes. In AD 71 Romans captured Jerusalem and burned the Second Temple to the ground. The Zealots made their final stand at the fortress of Masada. Using earthen ramps and siege ladders the Romans scaled the desert fortress until its 960 defenders killed themselves rather than surrender.

"Masada" The Most Popular Tourist Attractions in IsraelMost of the Judean sects died out by the 200s. Pharisee beliefs became the basis of modern Judaism while the Nazarenes evolved into a new religion altogether – the Christians.

The last Jewish revolt was in 132-136 under Simon bar Khokba, who claimed to be the messiah. By this point, the Romans had had enough. In its aftermath, Emperor Hadrian slaughtered the rebels, renamed both Judea and Jerusalem and expelled the Jewish people from its borders. They did not return en masse until the 19th century.

Sources: Ancient History Encyclopedia, Live Science, Livius

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The Sassanian Empire

simorgh banner
The Sassanian Empire (224-651) was the last pre-Islamic dynasty to rule Iran.
They called their dominion ‘Iranshahr’, meaning ‘Empire of Iran’. The Sassanians reinstated native Persian rule after centuries of foreign dominion and codified Zoroastrianism as their state religion. They were nemeses of the Roman Empire, and the two powers fought incessantly. The Sassanians ruled modern Iran, Iraq, the Persian Gulf, Caucasus and the Stans of Central Asia (except Kazakhstan).sassanian coin

  • Capital: Ctesiphon (near modern Baghdad)
  • Official language: Middle Persian (Pahlavi)
  • State religion: Zoroastrianism
  • Government: Absolute monarchy
  • Dynasty: The House of Sasan

The Sassanians were an old Persian family claiming descent from Cyrus the Great. Having conquered Persia in 330 BC, the Macedonians ruled three centuries. The Parthians who followed were of north-east Iranian stock but adopted Greek customs. In the third century AD, Ardashir of the House of Sasan overthrew his Parthian overlords and was crowned ‘Shahanshah’ – king of kings. His dynasty turned the feudal Parthian Empire into a centralised, urban state and restored the Persian Empire of old.

sassanian empire map

Zoroastrianism was the Sassanian state religion. The high priest Kartir put its oral traditions to paper and pushed an orthodox Zoroastrianism that left no room for differing interpretations. The clergy became a privileged and influential caste alongside the seven noble families of Iran.

Two heresies threatened the Sassanian order.  Early in the Sassanian Empire, the Manichaeans accepted a new prophet and threatened the clergy’s hold on power. The followers of Mazdak (Mazdakites) arose in the 6th century. They were a proto-communist cult advocating social revolution. Spurred by the clergy, the Sassanian rulers uprooted both and killed their prophets.

sassanian cataphract 3The backbone of the Sassanian army was its cataphracts – armoured men on armoured horses fighting with mace and lance. The Romans copied their design and it later influenced European knighthood. The Sassanians also used Indian elephants in war. 

The Sassanian Empire was one of five world powers alongside Rome, Ethiopia, India and Tang China. Their tug-of-war with the Romans over Armenia and Mesopotamia lasted four centuries. In 260, Shapur I annihilated a Roman army at Edessa and inflicted one of Rome’s worst-ever defeats. Emperor Valerian was taken captive and made Shapur’s footstool until he died. In the west, the Sassanians defended Iran against migrating Hunnish and Turkic tribes.

khosrauKhosrow I (reigned 531-539) gave the empire a second wind. He reformed the inefficient tax system and eased persecution of Christians and Jews while crushing the Mazdakites. His occupation of Egypt, Anatolia and Yemen brought Sassanian Persia to its greatest extent. When the Romans closed the Athenian Academy in 529, Khosrow welcomed its scholars to his court. An admirer of Plato, he sought to emulate the ideal philosopher-king.

The final Roman-Persian war of 602-628 bled the empire dry. Four years later, the Arabs, now united under Islam, invaded and destroyed the Sassanians within twenty years. In focusing so much on the Romans, the Sassanians had neglected their neighbours to the south. The last Shahanshah, Yazdegerd III, fled east and was murdered for his purse.

Today Persians consider the Sassanians the most authentically ‘Iranian’ Empire. The older Achaemenid Persian Empire belongs to an ancient, almost mythical past. By contrast, the Sassanians left ample records. They created truly Persian literature, practised a Persian religion and wrote in a Persian script. Chess was popularised and backgammon invented in the Sassanian court. Stories that would later make Ferdowsi’s ‘Shahnameh’, the Iranian national epic, were first collated in Sassanian times. The academy at Gundeshapur translated hundreds of philosophical and medical texts from Greek and Sanskrit into Persian which in turn laid the foundations of the Islamic Golden Age.

Nestorius | borderlessbloggerCtesiphon today

Sources: Encyclopedia Iranica, Richard N Frye – The Heritage of Persia (1962)

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Mani of Babylonia

mani 3Mani (216 – 277) was a painter and theologian who preached in 3rd century Persia. His teachings became Manichaeism, a religion that peaked in the 9th century and rivalled early Christianity. Mani envisioned a global faith that combined the teachings of Christianity, Gnosticism, Buddhism and Zoroastrianism and could breach cultural and linguistic divisions. Persecuted in Persia and Rome, Mani’s teachings spread as far as China and North Africa.

Mani was born to a Jewish-Christian sect near modern-day Baghdad. He was of Parthian descent and lived under the Sassanian Dynasty, who were staunch Zoroastrians. At age 20, Mani heard the voice of his ‘divine twin’ urging him to leave home and preach the word of God. Mani travelled the Silk Road to India, where he learned from Hindu and Buddhist sages. In his lifetime he gained more followers than Jesus. He detailed his teachings in six known books that he wrote and illustrated:

  • Shapuragan
  • Book of Giants
  • Fundamental Epistle
  • Living Gospel
  • Mani Codex
  • Arzhang

Mani wrote the Shapurangan for Emperor Shapur of Persia. It failed to convert him, though Shapur tolerated and protected Mani’s followers. As none of the originals survive in full, what we know comes from fragments, quotations and discussions by other authors.

Manichaeans believe in a dualistic universe. Good and Evil are separate and equally powerful forces. Both are uncreated and eternal. Originally the worlds of Light and Darkness were separate and the Earth was born from their collision. Humans are essentially (Good) spiritual beings trapped in (Evil) material bodies. The battle between Good and Evil takes place in the human soul. The Divine Father sent prophets to guide humanity back to him. These included Zoroaster, Buddha, Jesus and Mani. Only through prayer, fasting and the and rejection of evil can one’s soul escape the cycle of reincarnation and reunite with the World of Light. The truly evil join the World of Darkness when they die.

mani 4

The faith combines Zoroastrian dualism with Biblical revelation and Buddhist enlightenment. In his books, Mani detailed his cosmology with coloured illustrations. He sought to reform Zoroastrianism and turn it from its ethnocentric origins as a religion for Persians and Medes to a universal missionary faith for all mankind as the early Christians did with Judaism. As a painter, he believed the arts in all their forms were sacred and divine.

After years abroad, Mani returned to Persia in AD 272. The Zoroastrian clergy considered his teachings a dangerous heresy. In 273 the new king, Bahram I, imprisoned Mani and ordained his execution. Mani was flayed alive, his body stuffed with straw and crucified over the gates of Gundeshapur. Bahram banned Manichaeism and expelled its followers from Persia.

Spread of manichaeism

In the West, Manichaeism spread across Roman Italy and North Africa. Saint Augustine was a Manichaean before converting to Christianity. Through him, dualistic tendencies seeped into Catholic thought, particularly regarding Heaven and Hell. Manichaean teachings strongly influenced medieval heretics like the Cathars, whom French crusaders exterminated in the 14th century.

The Uighurs adopted Manichaeism and it spread through western China. Their empire collapsed in the 840s, however, and they later converted to Islam. Manichaeism thrived in China until purges drove it underground. Today only a few sects still practice the faith, and only one temple remains – a remote shrine in Ca’oan, China that was long disguised as a Buddhist temple.

manichaean temple

Sources: Encyclopedia Iranica, Iran Chamber, Kaveh Farrokh

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Attila the Hun

Meaning, origin and history of the name Attila - Behind ...

Attila the Hun (400 – 453) is the most famous of the barbarian conquerors who destroyed the Roman Empire. He was the last and greatest leader of the Huns and built an empire covering Germany and most of Eastern Europe. Known as the ‘Scourge of God’, the name of Attila stirs fear to this day.

The Huns arrived in Ukraine in AD 370. Steppe nomads from the Eurasian interior, Huns practised cranial deformation and scarred the cheeks of their boys so they could not grow beards. Masters of mounted archery and psychological warfare, they terrified the peoples of Europe.

Rome, at the time, was still rich but split between east and west, ruled by weak men and overly reliant on barbarians to fight its wars. In the early 400s Germanic peoples like the Goths and Vandals, whose very names were bywords for terror and destruction, flooded the empire’s borders by force. The migrations shook Rome to its core. The Huns were behind it all.

5 greatest empires in ancient, medieval period, modern ...

The Hunnic Empire in AD 450

Attila was born in modern-day Hungary in 406. He shared the Hunnic crown with his brother Bleda until he murdered him and took over. Attila threw his armies against the Eastern Empire until they paid him off. His army included not only Huns but Skirians, Gepids, Sarmatians, Lombards and Ostrogoths – any peoples willing to join. By AD 450 he ruled Rome’s barbarian frontier.

Priscus was the only writer to have met Attila in person. He describes him as short but fierce, humble but ambitious, kind to his friends but ruthless to his foes. While his commanders lavished in Roman silver, Attila ate with wooden plates and utensils and dressed in a humble nomad’s robes. Like Dracula, he impaled his enemies on wooden stakes.

In 451, Attila went west.  Honoria, a Roman princess cloistered to an older man wrote to the king, offering herself as his bride, and all Gaul as her dowry.  Attila’s army crossed the Rhine. As he marched on Orleans, Aetius, a Roman commander who had spent his boyhood a hostage amongst the Huns, forged an unlikely alliance with Rome’s old enemies the Visigoths. They defeated Attila’s army at the Catalaunian Plains, near modern-day Chalons.  Attila withdrew to Germany and licked his wounds.

Next, he invaded Italy. Attila razed the city of Aquileia and marched on Rome. Pope Leo met Attila and persuaded him not to go further. Legend has it he reminded him of Alaric the Goth, who died shortly after sacking the eternal city in 410. God would punish Attila with the same fate were he to follow in Alaric’s footsteps. Attila did retreat, though it was less likely Leo’s words and more an outbreak of malaria in the ranks.

Attila the Hun’s mistake was never building a legacy. Centuries later Genghis Khan recognised that for steppe conquerors to survive, they had to adapt. He named an heir and adopted the customs of the conquered. Attila did not. He was content to remain a marauder for life, moving from place to place, burning cities and taking loot. When he died, the vassal tribes broke away and his sons and generals destroyed the empire fighting over the scraps. The last of the Huns were defeated by the Ostrogoths in 466. The rest joined other tribes or vanished eastward.

Attila the Hun bears a mixed legacy. He is loved in Germany and Hungary but hated in Italy and France. The Hungarians, despite arriving 800 years later, see him as an ancestral spirit.

The Western Roman Empire outlived Attila but fell in 476 when the Germanic general Odoacer deposed Emperor Romulus Augustulus. Both their fathers had ridden with Attila the Hun.

Sources: John Man – Attila, the Barbarian King who Challenged Rome

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Why Did Europe Take Over the World?

November | 2013 | Abagond | Page 2In 1750, China, India and the Middle East led the world in technology, power and sophistication, as they had for most of history.  In 1775 India and China controlled 66% of the world’s economy. Less than a century later the British ruled India and China accounted for only 5%. By 1900 all the Americas spoke European languages, and Britain, a formerly insignificant island, ruled a quarter of the world. How was that possible?

The crucible of ‘western civilization’, my classics professor once told me, was not the Greek victories over Persia but the Roman conquest of Gaul. Civilization arose in Egypt and Mesopotamia, spread to Greece, and from there Italy. When the Romans conquered the Mediterranean, their contribution was a thin layer over millennia of development. Western Europe, however, was not so civilized – so Roman laws, language, architecture and government provided cultural bedrock. At the cost of thousands of Gallic lives, Caesar’s conquest brought Western Europe into civilization’s fold.

Western Europe adopted the Roman model wholesale with limited contribution from the invading Germanic tribes. From then on Western Europe largely bore one legal and cultural heritage with a single script, all preserved by the Catholic Church and rediscovered in the Renaissance. Islam may have accomplished such unity in the Middle East but, like China and Eastern Europe, the region was beset by invasions from Central Asia. Arab civilization arguably never recovered from the Mongols’ sack of Baghdad.

Jared Diamond attributes Europe’s rise to guns, germs and steel. That is, being in the right place at the right time. Europe had the environment and the resources for state-building and, through ancient trade routes, was connected to other civilizations, their ideas, resources and diseases. More isolated parts of the world lacking the crops, animals or geographic conditions, did not develop so. The Roman script and a common religion helped spread ideas while, unlike imperial China, fragmented political boundaries fostered competition and innovation.

Yuval Harari credits ‘values, myths, judicial apparatus and sociopolitical structures that took centuries to form and mature’ – crucially capitalism and western science. While the ideologies of the Ottomans, Ming China and Mughal India promoted continuity and stability, those of England, France and Spain favoured ambition and greed.

Before 1492, the world’s civilizations were sure they knew the world.  Christianity, Islam, Confucianism or Buddhism provided answers to all the world’s mysteries with little room for the unknown. The Medieval worldview was strict and stagnant. Then, Colombus discovered the New World. A generation later, Amerigo Vespucci suggested the discovery was not Asia, as Colombus believed, but a new continent altogether.

Vespucci’s realisation taught Europeans a valuable lesson; admission of ignorance. For the first time, cartographers now printed maps with blank spaces – an open invitation for the intrepid. While the more advanced empires of India and China dismissed these discoveries and remained convinced they were the respective centres of the universe, states like Spain and Portugal embarked on an Age of Discovery. Hunger for knowledge, as much as land and wealth, drove the explorers of that age.

Capitalism was significant, for economies based on credit, not gold, can multiply wealth. Journeys across the world, colonies and railroads would not have been possible without investment banking, loans, interest and shares. Nor would the transatlantic slave trade.

A feedback loop resulted: science brings better technology, technology brings conquest, conquest brings wealth, wealth invests in science and so on. By extracting wealth from the rest of the world, European empires only increased their power. The more they developed, the more the technology gap, and their hubris, grew.

The factors involved in springing that feedback loop are too variant to attribute to simple determinism – geography, environment, economics,  accident and circumstance all played their part.

Sources: Jared Diamond – Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fate of Human Societies, Yuval Noah Harari – Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

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spartacus original poster.jpg

Spartacus (1960) is a swords and sandals epic starring Kirk Douglas and Laurence Olivier. Action, adventure, romance and intrigue abound.  The film follows the rise of a Roman gladiator from the lowest rung of society to public enemy number one.

Last week my local cinema was showing classics on the big screen. I’d seen Spartacus only once, when I was a boy. This was back before I could tell when a film was dated. Back when I enjoyed every movie I saw. I remembered the battles and the “I am Spartacus” scene but little else. Naturally the senatorial politics and Crassus’s monologue on liking both ‘snails’ and ‘oysters’ flew over my head. I also didn’t appreciate just how well written and acted this masterpiece was.

Related imageSpartacus is the story of a man who challenges the might of Rome. He is born a slave in the end days of the Roman Republic and forced to fight his fellow men as entertainment.  But Spartacus has other ideas. During a dispute in the kitchens, he kills his trainer and inspires the gladiators to revolt.  They escape and roam the Italian countryside, ravaging Roman estates and freeing slaves as they go. Using the techniques he learnt as a gladiator, Spartacus builds a formidable army and humbles the legions sent his way.

That much is true. Spartacus was a Thracian gladiator who instigated the ‘Third Servile War’ of 73-70 BC, the largest slave rebellion of the ancient world.  When Crassus eventually crushed it, he crucified 6,000 rebels along the Appian Way.

Spartacus’s director, lead actors and screenwriter were among the best in history. They made the film at the tail end of Hollywood’s Golden Age, when technicolor was new and exciting but before television diminished the movie-going audience.

Image result for kubrick trumbo douglasKirk Douglas plays Spartacus. Well-built and charismatic, he fits the role well.  At 45, Douglas was conscious of being upstaged and used his position as executive producer to insist no one younger be cast as a gladiator. His performance makes up for this nonetheless.

Stanley Kubrick was chosen to direct two weeks into filming.  As much Douglas’s vision as his own, Spartacus is the only Kubrick film in which he did not have total creative control. With CGI not yet invented, Kubrick used 10,000 extras from the Spanish infantry for the final battle scene, filmed on a plain outside Madrid.

Dalton TrumboDalton Trumbo wrote the screenplay from behind the Hollywood blacklist. Once Hollywood’s best paid writer, he fell victim to the Red Scare after refusing to ‘name names’ of other Hollywood communists.

Howard Fast, who wrote the book, was also under blacklist. It was only by chance that his self-published work found itself in Kirk Douglas’s hands and was consequently adapted for the big screen.

Though Trumbo wrote Spartacus in exile under a pseudonym, Douglas insisted he take full credit for his work and personally accept its awards. Trumbo did so at risk of arrest and was exonerated only after a newly-elected John F Kennedy defied a conservative embargo to see the film. His endorsement broke the Hollywood blacklist. “Thanks Kirk,” Trumbo said, “for giving me back my name.”

Oscars:Related image

  • Best Supporting Actor (Peter Ustinov)
  • Best Art Direction
  • Best Cinemotography
  • Best Costume Design
  • Best Film Editing (nominated)
  • Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture (nominated)

Pictured right: Peter Ustinov as the slave trader Bataiutus

Good quotes:

“You don’t want to know mine. I don’t want to know your name….. Gladiators don’t make friends. If we’re ever matched in the arena together, I have to kill you.” – Draba

“When a free man dies, he loses the pleasure of life. A slave loses his pain. Death is the only freedom a slave knows. That’s why he’s not afraid of it. That’s why we’ll win.” – Spartacus

“I’m not after glory, I’m after Spartacus!” – Crassus

Image result for crassus laurence olivier

Part of Spartacus’s draw is the universal appeal of his struggle. He is fighting for freedom. Not freedom in a nationalistic, Braveheart sense, but literal emancipation. His army juxtaposes beautifully with the Romans. While they are scheming and factional, his people are fiercely united. While the Romans buy their love with money and force, Spartacus and Varinia are mutual and pure. While the Romans hold the material advantage, Spartacus holds the moral.

Despite being old, Spartacus is still worth a watch.

Update 05/02/2020: Kirk Douglas, who played Spartacus has died, age 103.


Image result for empires 1914 map

An Empire is when one sovereign state rules over others: different countries and peoples controlled by one government.  This contrasts with the modern nation state, where a culture and language have a country of their own.  Rome, for example, was an empire, modern Italy is a nation state.

Empires are as old as time and their cycle of creation and destruction drives history. Empires may be ruled by a single monarch such a king or emperor, or a single government. The Athenian Empire consisted of multiple city states governed by the citizens of Athens. It identified as a simple alliance, but historians consider it an empire.

I define empires by one of three categories:

  1. Direct: One sovereign state governs other territories over contiguous land. Upheld by force and rule of law. (Romans, Mongols, Ottomans)
  2. Colonial: A country rules overseas territories, sometimes indirectly, for the purpose of trade and resource extraction. Upheld by force, rule of law and naval power. (British, French, Portuguese)
  3. De Facto: The Empire does not recognise itself as such but exerts influence through indirect means. Upheld by treaties, economic contracts and military bases. (Athens, Venice, China in Southeast Asia, American Empire).

Starting with Sargon of Akkad in ancient times, a series of empires dominated the Near East and China. By the 300s, Alexander the Great had conquered an Empire spreading from Greece to India. Two centuries later, the Romans ruled the Mediterranean.

From the 1500s to the 1900s European colonial empires dominated the world. The British Empire was the largest. Most conflicts today are a legacy of colonialism.

Today the largest empires are American and Chinese, though neither of them identify as such.

Image result for roman empire trajanThe longest lasting Empire belonged to the Romans, who ruled from 275 BC to 1453 AD, over 1600 years when counting the earlier Republican period and its successor the Byzantine Empire. Although not the largest, the Roman Empire was easily the most influential, at least in Europe.

Image result for mongol empireThe largest direct empire, and second largest of all time, was the Mongol Empire (1206-1368). It was founded not by an organised state, as was the case in the other empires listed, but by nomadic tribes from Inner Asia.

british empire 2.pngThe largest of all time was the British Empire (1533-1997), which at its peak ruled a quarter of the world’s people and land.

According to Wikipedia, these are the largest empires of all time. A more accurate way to measure an Empire’s influence would be their population, however this is difficult as most figures would be estimates at best. Being difficult to determine, this list does not include de facto empires like the Warsaw Pact.

Largest ancient empires by landmass:

  1. Han Dynasty (East Asian), 4.36% of the earth’s landmass in 100 AD
  2. Achaemenid Empire (Middle Eastern), 3.69% in 500 BC
  3. Macedonian Empire (European), 3.49% in 323 BC
  4. Roman Empire (European), 3.36 %, 117 AD
  5. Maurya Empire (South Asian), 3.36% 250 BC

Largest medieval empires by landmass:

  1. Mongol Empire (Central Asian), 16% in 1309
  2. Muslim Caliphate (Middle Eastern), 7.45% in 750
  3. Ming Dynasty (East Asian), 4.36% in 1450
  4. Gorturk Khaganate (Central Asian), 4.03% in 557
  5. Tang Dynasty (East Asian), 3.63% in 1715

Largest modern empires by landmass:

  1. British Empire (European), 23.84% in 1920
  2. Russian Empire (European), 15.3% in 1885
  3. Qing Dynasty (East Asian), 9.87% in 1790
  4. Spanish Empire (European), 9.20% in 1810
  5. Second French Empire (European), 7.72% in 1920

When they are forged empires cause war, misery, death and destruction and require violent and authoritarian power structures to uphold their rule. However empires are also unifying forces; through them common languages, religions and legal systems have spread across the world.

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