History This Week Convert or Leave goes back to July 31, 1492 when the Alhambra decree came into effect, requiring all Spanish Jews to either convert to Catholicism or leave Spain. The process actually started 100 years earlier when a program of ‘conversion’ began, whereby Jews were singled out for specific tax treatment unless they converted to Christianity. In a way, it was a victim of its own success, as huge numbers did convert, but they often continued to follow family practices that, while Jewish in origin, were not recognized as such- as far as they were concerned, it wasn’t religious: it was just the way they did things in their family. People were suspicious over whether they really had converted, and the tax base shrank because there were fewer Jews. The Inquisition had been around for a long time, but in the 1470s Ferdinand and Isabella put it under the control of the crown – literally, the ‘Spanish’ inquisition, rather than the papal one. In 1491 Torquemada went to Ferdinand and Isabella and suggested expulsion of the remaining Jews to solve the problem. The Alhambra decree was framed as a way of protecting the conversos (i.e. converted Jews) from the bad influence of continuing Jews- huh! The program finished off by talking about immigration and the way that fear is engendered whenever you have a large group of people who continue to congregate together, and doubts are cast on the authenticity of their new status.
Adelaide Writers Festival. The Ivanhoe Reading Circle read Gideon Haigh’s The Brilliant Boy this month. I read it only a few months ago, and I didn’t have time to re-read it. So I listened to Gideon Haigh instead, talking at the Adelaide Writers Festival. I was a bit disappointed, though, that so much time was spent chatting about cricket and Shane Warne. Still, a good way of reminding myself about the book without re-reading it.
Afternoon Light (Menzies Research Centre) I can hardly believe that I went to this website for this second podcast by Gideon Haigh The Brilliant Boy: Remembering the Achievements of Dr H. V. Evatt. True to its name, the Menzies Research Centre is a Liberal/Conservative centre, whose self-proclaimed mission is to “uphold and promote Sir Robert’s legacy and vision for Australia as a country of freedom, opportunity, enterprise, and individual dignity.” Menzies and Evatt were contemporaries in many ways: both of fairly humble origins, both scholarship boys, both lawyers, both politicians. But for many years, Evatt was Menzies’ punching-bag in Parliament, never becoming Prime Minister (as he expected he would do) let alone PM for a total of 19 years as Menzies did. Here Gideon Haigh is interviewed by Georgina Downer in an intelligent but rather gloating interview.
History of Rome Episode 168 The Rise of Aetius This is all getting terribly confusing, but let’s just take stock. In 425 the six-year old Valentinian III became the Western Emperor, a position he shared with the Eastern Emperor, his cousin Theodosius II. This looked united, but it wasn’t really- instead it was a series of different rival power centres. The Eastern empire based in Constantinople seemed more stable, but it still had the Sassanids to the East and the Huns to the north. The Western Empire was a mess, with the Franks in North East Gaul, the Goths in South West Gaul, the Vandals in Hispania, and Bonifatius acting like an independent warlord in North Africa. Valentinian and Theodosius were emperors, but the real power lay in the hands of two women, Valentinian’s mother Placidia in the west, and Theodosius’ sister Pulcheria in the east. Meanwhile, Aetius controlled tens of thousands of troops, and his loyalty was suspect. Aetius was a Roman general, who had an an ‘interesting’ start to his military career. Born in 391, between 405 and 408 he was kept as hostage at the court of Alaric I, king of the Visigoths, then after that was sent to the court of Uldin, king of the Huns. He seemed to swap sides a bit, and seemed to be rather devious in seeding false rumours to Valentinian’s mother and regent Galla Placidia, at the expense of another Roman general Bonifatius, who was based in North Africa, and a rival power with access to Galla Placidia’s ear. Bonifatius was busy dealing with the Vandals in North Africa (they used to say that he invited them in, but there’s doubt about that now) and the Vandals laid siege to Hippo, during which St Augustine, who was living there, died. Then Aetius and Bonfatius ended up fighting each other: Aetius was beaten and ran away to the Huns where he plotted his revenge with Rua, the King of the Huns. Bonifacius died of his injuries, and Aetius returned to Ravenna with his Hun army and took over all of Bonifacius’ lands, and married his widow (!). So now he was the most powerful soldier in the Western Empire – and one of the most important men in Roman history, at the last phase of its history.
Episode 169 Huns and Vandals and Goths, Oh My. For a number of years now the Huns had been a destabilizing force, but they pretty much stayed where they were. However, in the mid 420s under the new leadership of Attila and his brother Bleda, the Huns began issuing threats to invade Constantinople unless they received go-away money. It wasn’t just the Romans who were subject to this extortion: they threatened the Sassanids as well. In 431 Theodosius II sent his troops to North Africa to pacify the Vandals (which was really Valentinian’s problem) and then used them to kill the Burgundians. While they were off fighting, Theodosian issued the Theodosian Code, which codified all the laws since 331 AD (i.e. since Christian times), and this was to later form the basis of the Justinian Code. Meanwhile, the Goth king Theodoric wanted a Mediterranean port, and so he embarked on war again. In 439 the Vandals invaded Africa again and took over Carthage. Genseric (a Vandal) was accepted by the North Africans because the Romans had pretty much neglected North Africa anyway. The Vandals formed a navy and conquered the Mediterranean, and meanwhile the Huns were arising again.
Episode 179 Attila Cometh. Up until now, most of the pressure had been on the Western Empire, but now the Eastern Empire faced the rise of Attila the Hun. Theodosius had sent most of his troops off to Africa, and the Sassanids (briefly) and Huns took advantage of their absence. In 441 the Huns invaded as a way of extorting more money from the empire. Led by Attila and Bleda, their troops were good at besieging cities, and walls were now barrier. But the brothers fought, and Bleda ended up dead (at Attila’s hand??) and so, counting on Hun disunity, the Romans refused to pay the go-away money. In 447 Attila decided to march on Constantinople, where the Theodosian Walls had been damaged by an earthquake. The walls were rebuilt in an amazing two months, and they held and Constaninople avoided being invaded- but all the other Roman troops were just blown away. Meanwhile, Aetius was forced to recognize the Vandals in North Africa. Genseric continued to provide food for the empire (which was the main reason that the Romans wanted North Africa) but did not pay taxes. There were rebel bands everywhere, and Aetius did well to hold it all together as much as he did.
The Documentary (BBC) My Granny the Slave. British journalist Claire Hynes travelled to Antigua to learn more about an Antiguan foremother, who is thought to be one of the first women to flee a slave plantation in the Caribbean island of Antigua. Claire grew up learning a 200 year-old story passed down through generations about her enslaved ancestor known as Missy Williams. As a young woman Missy risked her life to escape the physical and sexual brutality of plantation life, hiding out in a cave. Although she had been told that her family “The Williams” were important, she found that only the white Williams’ were documented, and that there were virtually no records of enslaved Africans. She learned more about the hard life on a sugar plantation, and the use of violence to prevent escape. She reflects at the end on the importance of the search for identity not for the people who have always lived in Barbados, but more for those who emigrated to Britain and have lost all connection
Tides of History and Al Franken Podcast With all this History of Rome listening, I’m finding myself increasingly interested in Alaric the Goth, and especially a recent biography written by Douglas Boin. I’ve found that the ‘New Books Network’ podcasts have been a good way of getting the flavour of a book without actually having to read it, so I thought I might be able to do the same with Boin’s Alaric the Goth: An Outsider’s History of the Fall of Rome. Not so- and it made me realize how carefully the New Books Network podcasts trace out the argument of the book for someone who hasn’t read it while at the same time engaging with the debate. I listened to Tides of History, which had a good discussion about the problems of writing with a thin and one-side historiography but assumed too much familiarity with the book. But even worse was the interview on The Al Franken podcast, where the host spent far too long making partisan links to today’s politics (the connections are there, to be sure, but let’s take the history on its own terms) and really didn’t seem to know much. Really, I don’t know how Boin could be bothered.
The Daily (NYT) It was possible to take some comfort from the recent rejection in Kansas of a referendum that would have added a constitutional prohibition to seeking abortion in Kansas. In How to Interpret the Kansas Referendum on Abortion, the presenters point out that Kansas, where abortions can still be carried out, is surrounded by states where it will now be illegal. Some of their interviewees opposed abortion personally, but did not feel that they could impose that on others. If only more people felt that way.