I hear with my little ear: Podcasts 25-31 August 2022

History of Rome. I’ve done it! I finished!! Episode 177 The Burning Ships sees the last attempt to tackle the Vandals in North Africa. Between 465 and 467 there was no emperor at all in the Western Empire after Severus died. Leo over in the East was too busy dealing with the Huns to pay much attention, and General Ricimer who was the real power behind the Western throne was happy for it to stay vacant. Once he turned his mind to it, Leo wanted Anthemius (who was a bit of a rival, and better off out of the way) while Genseric the Hun (over in North Africa) wanted Olybrius, probably as a way of using family connections to embed himself into the imperial family. Genseric recommenced pirate raids on Sicily and Italy, as a way of throwing his weight around. In response, Leo named Anthemius and sent him off to wage a big war of both the Western and Eastern empires against Genseric on three fronts. At first the Romans were victorious but then Genseric sent empty ships in amongst the Roman fleet and set them on fire. The Romans lost 600 ships in the resulting tumult. In 469CE Anthemius tried to retake Gaul, where the Goths were expanding their territory under King Euric. The Romano-British leader Riothamus was encouraged to invade from the Brittany Coast as part of the attack on the Goths- he may have been the legendary King Arthur (or not). Ricimer and Anthemius were on the brink of civil war, but they had a 12 month truce to fight the Goths unsuccessfully. When Civil War threatened again, Leo sent Olybrius to mediate between Athemius and Ricimer but, secretly, Leo was backing Anthemius and the letter exists to prove it.

Episode 178 Not with a Bang But a Whimper takes up when Leo’s secret letter was discovered. Finding that Leo was on Anthemius’ side, Ricimer and Olybrius killed Anthemius and Olybrius took his place. This made the Italian nobles and Genseric happy. But then Ricimer died, followed soon after by Olybrius. They were succeeded by Ricimer’s nephew Gundobad, King of the Burgundians, who killed Anthemius. Gundobad elevated Glycerius to the position of Western Roman Emperor, but he was not recognized by Emperor Leo in the East, who supported Julius Nepos as replacement instead. By now the Visigoths (Western Goths) and Ostrogoths (i.e. Eastern Goths) were getting restless. Then in 474 Emperor Leo, Julius Nepos’ backer, died and was succeeded by Leo II who was only six years old, with his father Zeno as the real power behind the throne. But then Leo II died too (was he murdered?) but Zeno was happy for Nepos to continue in his position. Glycerius surrendered in the face of overwhelming power and was made a Bishop (a favourite go-away measure). In 475CE came the rise of Orestes, a former Hun, who arranged a revolt against Nepos. Orestes’ son 14 year old son Romulus Augustulus was elevated but of course, he was a puppet too. There was a soldier uprising against Orestes, led by Odoacer. Orestes ended up dead with Romulus Augustulus deposed. And at that point it all got too hard and the Western Empire just faded away. So, in effect, we have gone full circle from Romulus (of Romulus and Remus fame) and ending with Romulus Augustulus.

Episode 179 The End! I got there! Or more to the point, Mike Duncan got there after recording an episode every Sunday for five years, generating 74 hours of content, after nearly faltering at Episode 33 (where he dealt with Marius and Sulla). The whole way through the series, he joked about ‘256 reasons why the Roman Empire fell’ but here he actually does give his summary of the reasons, under 6 (not 256) headings:

  1. Political factors. The Empire ended up a brittle farce, with poor emperors and a corrupt bureaucracy
  2. Economic factors. Inflation destroyed the middle class, and the poor began to see the State as a predator.
  3. Military factors. The Legions were in effect dead. Romans avoided military duty which means that the army was dependent on Germanic mercenaries
  4. Social factors (Mike Duncan’s personal favourite). Failure to integrate Germanic people, and the prejudice of the Italian aristocracy
  5. Religious factors. Duncan doesn’t accept Gibbons’ argument that Christianity led to the fall of the empire, but certainly there was increasing religious intolerance.
  6. Environmental factors. Between 250 and 550 CE there were fluctuations in the climate, with more famines and plagues.

So why didn’t the Eastern empire fall as well, instead surviving as the Byzantine Empire for the next 1000 years? Partially it was geography, with the Western Empire having to grapple with long Rhine and Danube frontiers. The East, on the other hand, dealt with the Sassanids who were at least a stable force. Second, the Eastern empire was wealthier because of its ties with India and China in the East. Third, there was the imperial apparatus itself. The East middle-class thrived, and imperial service was still seen as prestigious.

And there it ends. I can’t believe I’ve done it.

The Real Story. Salman Rushdie and the fatwa. I want to do something on this at our next Unitarian service in September, so I listened to this podcast carefully. Rushdie was born in ‘Bombay’ (which is the way he always refers to it) in 1947 and sent to England for his education. While a student at Cambridge University he first came across the story of the Satanic Verses, a set of verses disputed and later rejected by Islamic scholars. In his book The Satanic Verses he questions the sacred and divine, but he also gives the prophet and two of his wives pejorative names. However, he asks – how could one fictional book threaten Islam? The Prophet in Islam is a man, not a god. The fatwa was announced by a Shia cleric, and in itself is not consistent with Islam, where the only death sentence is for apostasy (i.e. a believer later rejecting the faith). One of the speakers in this program claims that the West has been naive about the proselytizing nature of Islam. In the UK, there was opposition to the book from the start, and the political response was interesting. The Labor Party announced that the book should not be reprinted: Margaret Thatcher, on the other hand, defended him. The speakers end by suggesting that the fatwa has become internalized amongst writers.

The Latin American History Podcast started a series on the conquest of Peru, but the last episode was in August 2021. I even wrote to the presenter (wondering if he was still even alive!) and yes, he is- but he is travelling in South America. So, Episode 3 The Conquest of Peru switched its focus from the Spaniards to the Inca, and here he called upon Nicholas Machinski from the A History of the Inca podcast. Unfortunately, the sound quality of Nicholas’ comments was really poor and hard to hear. Nonetheless, he clearly knows a great deal about Inca history. It was interesting to listen to this after just finishing the History of Rome podcast. In the 1520s, when the Spaniards arrived, the Inca were undergoing their own succession crisis after the death of the Emperor which culminated in a civil war between the claimants. The Inca Empire was at its largest at this time, stretching from parts of Colombia in the north, down to parts of Chile and from the Pacific Ocean to the Andes. As part of its expansion, if the leaders of conquered tribes pledged loyalty to the Inca ruler, they would be left in peace by the Inca authorities, but if they resisted they were forcibly shifted from their ancestral homes to another location. Nonetheless, there was a strong rebellious force underlying this Inca hegemony, and some groups were happy to join the Spaniards against the Inca. Smallpox was already present before the Spanish arrived. The Inca Army was huge (up to 100,000) and mobile because of its road network, but at the time of invasion it was poorly led and undisciplined. There was only one invading European force, so the Inca couldn’t play off European sides against each other as the Iroquois had done in North America with the English and French invaders.

Fifteen Minute History. Despite its name, this podcast from the University of Texas at Austin never quite manages to fit into fifteen minutes- twenty yes, but fifteen no. The Servant Girl Annihilator is a pretty old episode from 2018 where then-Ph D candidate Lauren Henly talks about a series of murders of several young women that occurred between Christmas 1884 and May 1885 in Austin Texas. They didn’t have the vocabulary to talk about a ‘serial murderer’ then, and it took a while for the concept of the same person committing a series of murders to catch on. At first, it was only Afro-American women who were killed, but then two white women were murdered as well. There was speculation that perhaps these were early murders committed by Jack the Ripper, who then migrated to England to continue his spree there (a largely discounted theory). Others have posited that the murderer was a young Afro American man called Nathan Elgin, exposed in a PBS special called “Solved” on account of a missing toe which matched a footprint with a missing toe. In her research, she does not describe the murders herself (instead using reports at the time) and concentrates on the victims and the vibrant African American community in which they lived.

Wikimedia: A refugee special train at Ambala Station

History Hour (BBC) Seventy-Five Years since India’s Partition is a compilation of stories from an earlier series produced by the BBC to mark the seventieth anniversary. I’ve started listening to this earlier series too, called Partition Voices but I’m finding it a bit repetitive and you’re just as well off with the History Hour episode. The History Hour episode also discusses the death of Nehru and the Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore, became the first non-European to win a Nobel Prize for Literature. The stories about Partition are horrifying, on all sides, and although the migrants who fled to England didn’t particularly want to talk about it at the time (largely through shame), their children are more intent on finding out what happened. The attitudes of the British are appalling too, with one radio announcer declaring that both sides needed a “good hard smack on the nose” to stop the pre-Partition violence. Yes, that would do it.

Partition Voices (BBC) Actually, I take that back. I persevered with Partition Voices, and found it well worthwhile. However, I listened to it in the wrong order because that’s how it came out on BBC Sounds. The right order is: Division, Aftermath and Legacy. It’s quite sickening to hear the cossetted and oblivious views of English colonials living in India at the time in Episode 1; the violence is appalling in Episode 2 where both sides engage in ethnic cleansing; and Episode 3 shows the effect on later generations, a phenomenon noted with Holocaust survivor families, but not so much with ‘East Asians’ who, in British society, are lumped together despite this bloodied history.

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