“When the booty had been gathered together, a tenth of the whole was set apart for the Delphian god, and, from this, was made the golden tripod which stands on the three-headed bronze serpent nearest the altar.” Herodotus
It’s early afternoon and the square is crowded. An insatiable horde of tourists takes possession of Istanbul. After Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, five minutes are now dutifully allocated to immortalize the instant when they walk over the Hippodrome of Constantinople. The impossibly old Egyptian obelisks are the undisputed stars of the relentless ritual but today, the heretic in me prefers the solitude and the shade.
I make a tactical retreat but before leaving the square, I notice the broken column. Avoided by the cloud of tourists and under siege by a sea of cigarette butts and plastic bottles, it casts a simple but dignified silhouette. My curiosity takes over and I read the inscription that identifies it as the Serpent Column (Greek Τρικάρηνος Όφις (trans. Trikarenos Ophis), part of an ancient Greek sacrificial tripod built to commemorate the victory over the Persian Empire at the Battle of Plataea (479 BC). Continue reading
Since the time of Herodotus, some historians have followed that rule usually attributed to journalists: ”Don’t let the truth get in the way of a good story”. The danger behind that principle is that tends to cover up reality and is likely to lead us astray.
The history of political institutions provides a perfect example of such a tendency. The story of how the idea of the state emerged first in Europe and then spread to the rest of the world is still told. Yet, if, following Max Weber, we understand a state as a “centralized, uniform system of bureaucratic administration that governs a large population and territory”; the historical evidence indicates that we should look for its origins somewhere else. That other place is China and the time was the period between the eighth and the third century B.C.
“Never give in–never, never, never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy”.
Sir Winston Churchill, Speech, 1941, Harrow School
If someone were to prepare a recipe to acquire political power, I cannot think of a more powerful one than the following: add a big dose of an emotionally explosive component, that can stir the basest human instincts of your fellow humans and spice it up with distorted representations of another community that can be used as a target for violent attacks. The most successful example of the first ingredient is dogmatic religious belief and the most efficient choice for the second one continues to be a different nation or ethnic group. One will provide you with unquestionable authority, impervious to rational argument, and the other with a target to focus your followers’ fears and frustrations.
Most of the Western European countries have excelled at delivering countless varieties of this lethal dish over centuries. Thankfully, the heroic efforts of enlightened thinkers and the sacrifice of many in violent conflict has led to the acknowledgement of political methods, values and legislation to mitigate the proliferation of that poisonous combination. Yet, the recent establishment of democracies in countries like Libya and Egypt has created the perfect environment for ruthless manipulators that are keen to try their hands at recreating that recipe for disaster. After the excitement and hope brought about by the Arab Spring, the murder of the US ambassador in Libya and the tide of violence unleashed across the Middle East have reminded us that democracy and freedom are difficult to achieve and harder to preserve.
“All men having power ought to be mistrusted.” James Madison
A few days ago, a major announcement was made by Mario Draghi, current president of the European Central Bank (ECB), intended to exorcise the spectre of the Euro disintegration. On September 6th, he announced the ECB would resume buying the bonds of troubled countries but upon the condition that those same countries submit to formal and externally monitored reform programmes. Mr. Draghi justified the ECB’s action with the argument that high yields faced by certain European governments are not only the product of a higher credit risk, but also the result of markets’ “unfounded fear that the euro would break up”. My intention is not to assess the decision in technical terms but rather, the extremely worrying political assumptions and contradictions that can be detected in some aspects of the announcement and related press commentary. Continue reading
A spectre is haunting Europe — the spectre of the Euro disintegration…. first issued as a physical currency almost thirteen years ago, the Euro quickly became more than anything else, the embodiment of the European Union dream. That same currency, full of symbolic value, is now on the brink of collapse. The financial crisis has washed away the appeal of the notion of closer integration in Europe and old national rivalries and grudges are quickly resurfacing. If the Euro breaks apart, it is hard to see how the European Union will be able to survive.
At this time of crisis, the European politicians would do well to look back into European history and see what they can learn from the past. In particular, the history of Rome provides extremely valuable principles to guide us through the present turmoil. Let us not forget that Rome, first as a republic and then as an empire, lies at the very foundation of Europe and lasted, at least in the west of the continent, for over a thousand years. What made Rome so successful? Continue reading