Kategorie-Archiv: History

Some Americans Don’t Know Who Washington, D.C. is Named After

As Forrest Gump says in the eponymous 1994 classic film, stupid is as stupid does.

In a YouTube video, media analyst, author and conspiracy theorist Mark Dice took to the beaches of San Diego to ask passersby who our nation’s capital is named after

Spoiler: The capital is Washington, D.C., and it’s named after George Washington, the first president of the United States.

Several of those who appear in the video can’t name the capital city. Those who can are still stymied by the namesake.

„Our nation’s capital is Washington, D.C.,“ one young man says with conviction, „and I don’t know who it’s named after!“

The icing on this deeply disappointing cake: An Italian tourist knew the answer immediately and was shocked that some Americans did not.


Feb 14, 278 – St. Valentine beheaded

Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong

(…) What we did not learn about Woodrow Wilson is even more remarkable. When I ask my college students to tell me what they recall about President Wilson, they respond with enthusiasm. They say that Wilson led our country reluctantly into World War I and after the war led the struggle nationally and internationally to establish the League of Nations. They associate Wilson with progressive causes like women’s suffrage. A handful of students recall the Wilson administration’s Palmer raids against left-wing unions. But my students seldom know or speak about two antidemocratic policies that Wilson carried out: his racial segregation of the federal government and his military interventions in foreign countries.

Among the progressive-era reforms with which students often credit Woodrow Wilson is women’s suffrage. Although women did receive the right to vote during Wilson’s administration, the president was at first unsympathetic. He had suffragists arrested; his wife detested them. Public pressure, aroused by hunger strikes and other actions of the movement, convinced Wilson that to oppose women’s suffrage was politically unwise. Textbooks typically fail to show the interrelationship between the hero and the people. By giving the credit to the hero, authors tell less than half of the story.

Under Wilson, the United States intervened in Latin America more often than at any other time in our history. We landed troops in Mexico in 1914, Haiti in 1915, the Dominican Republic in 1916, Mexico again in 1916 (and nine more times before the end of Wilson’s presidency), Cuba in 1917, and Panama in 1918. Throughout his administration Wilson maintained forces in Nicaragua, using them to determine Nicaragua’s president and to force passage of a treaty preferential to the United States.

In 1917 Woodrow Wilson took on a major power when he started sending secret monetary aid to the “White” side of the Russian civil war. In the summer of 1918 he authorized a naval blockade of the Soviet Union and sent expeditionary forces to Murmansk, Archangel, and Vladivostok to help overthrow the Russian Revolution. With the blessing of Britain and France, and in a joint command with Japanese soldiers, American forces penetrated westward from Vladivostok to Lake Baikal, supporting Czech and White Russian forces that had declared an anticommunist government headquartered at Omsk. After briefly maintaining front lines as far west as the Volga, the White Russian forces disintegrated by the end of 1919, and our troops finally left Vladivostok on April 1, 1920.

Few Americans who were not alive at the time know anything about our “unknown war with Russia,” to quote the title of Robert Maddox’s book on this fiasco. Not one of the twelve American history textbooks in my original sample even mentioned it. Two of the six new books do; Boorstin and Kelley, for example, write: “The United States, hoping to keep stores of munitions from falling into German hands when Bolshevik Russia quit fighting, contributed some 5,000 troops to an Allied invasion of northern Russia at Archangel. Wilson likewise sent nearly 10,000 troops to Siberia as part of an Allied expedition.” It is possible, although surely difficult, for an American student to infer from that passage that Wilson was intervening in Russia’s civil war.

Russian textbooks, on the other hand, give the episode considerable coverage. According to Maddox: “The immediate effect of the intervention was to prolong a bloody civil war, thereby costing thousands of additional lives and wreaking enormous destruction on an already battered society. And there were longer-range implications. Bolshevik leaders had clear proof . . . that the Western powers meant to destroy the Soviet government if given the chance.”

This aggression fueled the suspicions that motivated the Soviets during the Cold War, and until its breakup the Soviet Union continued to claim damages for the invasion.

Wilson’s invasions of Latin America are better known than his Russian adventure. Textbooks do cover some of them, and it is fascinating to watch textbook authors attempt to justify these episodes. Any accurate portrayal of the invasions could not possibly show Wilson or the United States in a favorable light. With hindsight we know that Wilson’s interventions in Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and Nicaragua set the stage for the dictators Batista, Trujillo, the Duvaliers, and the Somozas, whose legacies still reverberate. Even in the 1910s, most of the invasions were unpopular in this country and provoked a torrent of criticism abroad. By the mid-1920s, Wilson’s successors reversed his policies in Latin America. The authors of history textbooks know this, for a chapter or two after Wilson they laud our “Good Neighbor Policy,” the renunciation of force in Latin America by Presidents Coolidge and Hoover, which was extended by Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Textbooks might (but don’t) call Wilson’s Latin American actions a “Bad Neighbor Policy” by comparison. Instead, faced with unpleasantries, textbooks—old and new—wriggle to get the hero off the hook, as in this example from the old Challenge of Freedom: “President Wilson wanted the United States to build friendships with the countries of Latin America. However, he found this difficult. . . .” Several textbooks blame the invasions on the countries invaded: “Wilson recoiled from an aggressive foreign policy,” states the new American Pageant. “Political turmoil in Haiti soon forced Wilson to eat some of his anti-imperialist words. . . . Wilson reluctantly dispatched marines to protect American lives and property.” This passage is sheer invention. Unlike his secretary of the navy, who later complained that what Wilson “forced [me] to do in Haiti was a bitter pill for me,” no documentary evidence suggests that Wilson suffered any such qualms about dispatching troops to the Caribbean.

Every textbook I surveyed mentions Wilson’s 1914 invasion of Mexico, but they posit that the interventions were not Wilson’s fault. “Cries for intervention burst from the lips of American jingoes,” according to Pageant in 2006. “Yet President Wilson stood firm against demands to step in.” Soon Wilson did order troops to Mexico, of course, even before Congress gave him authority to do so. Walter Karp has shown that this view of a reluctant Wilson again contradicts the facts—the invasion was Wilson’s idea from the start, and it upset Congress as well as the American people. Wilson’s intervention was so outrageous that leaders of both sides of Mexico’s ongoing civil war demanded that the U.S. forces leave; the pressure of public opinion in the United States and around the world finally influenced Wilson to recall the troops.

Textbook authors commonly use another device when describing our Mexican adventures: they identify Wilson as ordering our forces to withdraw, but nobody is specified as having ordered them in! Imparting information in a passive voice helps to insulate historical figures from their own unheroic or unethical deeds.

Some books go beyond omitting the actor and leave out the act itself. Half of the textbooks do not even mention Wilson’s takeover of Haiti. After U.S. marines invaded the country in 1915, they forced the Haitian legislature to select our preferred candidate as president. When Haiti refused to declare war on Germany after the United States did, we dissolved the Haitian legislature. Then the United States supervised a pseudo-referendum to approve a new Haitian constitution, less democratic than the constitution it replaced; the referendum passed by a hilarious 98,225 to 768. As Piero Gleijesus has noted, “It is not that Wilson failed in his earnest efforts to bring democracy to these little countries. He never tried. He intervened to impose hegemony, not democracy.” The United States also attacked Haiti’s proud tradition of individual ownership of small tracts of land, which dated back to the Haitian Revolution, in favor of the establishment of large plantations. American troops forced peasants in shackles to work on road construction crews. In 1919 Haitian citizens rose up and resisted U.S. occupation troops in a guerrilla war that cost more than three thousand lives, most of them Haitian. Students who read Pathways to the Present learn this about Wilson’s intervention in Haiti: “In Haiti, the United States stepped in to restore stability after a series of revolutions left the country weak and unstable. Wilson . . . sent in American troops in 1915. United States marines occupied Haiti until 1934.” These bland sentences veil what we did, about which George Barnett, a U.S. marine general, complained to his commander in Haiti: “Practically indiscriminate killing of natives has gone on for some time.” Barnett termed this violent episode “the most startling thing of its kind that has ever taken place in the Marine Corps.”

During the first two decades of this century, the United States effectively made colonies of Nicaragua, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and several other countries. Nor, as we have seen, did Wilson limit his interventions to our hemisphere. His reaction to the Russian Revolution solidified the alignment of the United States with Europe’s colonial powers. His was the first administration to be obsessed with the specter of communism, abroad and at home. Wilson was blunt about it. In Billings, Montana, stumping the West to seek support for the League of Nations, he warned, “There are apostles of Lenin in our own midst. I can not imagine what it means to be an apostle of Lenin. It means to be an apostle of the night, of chaos, of disorder.” Even after the White Russian alternative collapsed, Wilson refused to extend diplomatic recognition to the Soviet Union. He participated in barring Russia from the peace negotiations after World War I and helped oust Béla Kun, the communist leader who had risen to power in Hungary. Wilson’s sentiment for self-determination and democracy never had a chance against his three bedrock “ism”s: colonialism, racism, and anticommunism. A young Ho Chi Minh appealed to Woodrow Wilson at Versailles for self-determination for Vietnam, but Ho had all three strikes against him. Wilson refused to listen, and France retained control of Indochina.19 It seems that Wilson regarded self-determination as all right for, say, Belgium, but not for the likes of Latin America or Southeast Asia.

At home, Wilson’s racial policies disgraced the office he held. His Republican predecessors had routinely appointed blacks to important offices, including those of port collector for New Orleans and the District of Columbia and register of the treasury. Presidents sometimes appointed African Americans as postmasters, particularly in southern towns with large black populations. African Americans took part in the Republican Party’s national conventions and enjoyed some access to the White House. Woodrow Wilson, for whom many African Americans voted in 1912, changed all that. A Southerner, Wilson had been president of Princeton, the only major northern university that flatly refused to admit blacks. He was an outspoken white supremacist—his wife was even worse—and told “darky” stories in cabinet meetings. His administration submitted an extensive legislative program intended to curtail the civil rights of African Americans, but Congress would not pass it. Unfazed, Wilson used his power as chief executive to segregate the federal government. He appointed Southern whites to offices traditionally reserved for blacks. His administration used the excuse of anticommunism to surveil and undermine black newspapers, organizations, and union leaders. He segregated the navy, which had not previously been segregated, relegating African Americans to kitchen and boiler work. Wilson personally vetoed a clause on racial equality in the Covenant of the League of Nations. The one occasion on which Wilson met with African American leaders in the White House ended in a fiasco as the president virtually threw the visitors out of his office. Wilson’s legacy was extensive: he effectively closed the Democratic Party to African Americans for another two decades, and parts of the federal government remained segregated into the

1950s and beyond. In 1916 the Colored Advisory Committee of the Republican National Committee issued a statement on Wilson that, though partisan, was accurate: “No sooner had the Democratic Administration come into power than Mr. Wilson and his advisors entered upon a policy to eliminate all colored citizens from representation in the Federal Government.”

Of all the history textbooks I reviewed, eight never even mention this “black mark” on Wilson’s presidency. Only four accurately describe Wilson’s racial policies. Land of Promise, back in 1983, did the best job:

Woodrow Wilson’s administration was openly hostile to black people. Wilson was an outspoken white supremacist who believed that black people were inferior. During his campaign for the presidency, Wilson promised to press for civil rights. But once in office he forgot his promises. Instead, Wilson ordered that white and black workers in federal government jobs be segregated from one another. This was the first time such segregation had existed since Reconstruction! When black federal employees in Southern cities protested the order, Wilson had the protesters fired. In November, 1914, a black delegation asked the President to reverse his policies. Wilson was rude and hostile and refused their demands.

Most of the textbooks that do treat Wilson’s racism give it only a sentence or two. Some take pains to separate Wilson from the practice: “Wilson allowed his Cabinet officers to extend the Jim Crow practice of separating the races in federal offices” is the entire treatment in Pathways to the Present. Omitting or absolving Wilson’s racism goes beyond concealing a character blemish. It is overtly racist. No black person could ever consider Woodrow Wilson a hero. Textbooks that present him as a hero are written from a white perspective. The cover-up denies all students the chance to learn something important about the interrelationship between the leader and the led. White Americans engaged in a new burst of racial violence during and immediately after Wilson’s presidency. The tone set by the administration was one cause. Another was the release of America’s first epic motion picture.

The filmmaker D. W. Griffith quoted Wilson’s two-volume history of the United States, now notorious for its racist view of Reconstruction, in his infamous masterpiece The Clansman, a paean to the Ku Klux Klan for its role in putting down “black-dominated” Republican state governments during Reconstruction. Griffith based the movie on a book by Wilson’s former classmate, Thomas Dixon, whose obsession with race was “unrivaled until Mein Kampf,” according to historian Wyn Wade. At a private White House showing, Wilson saw the movie, now retitled Birth of a Nation, and returned Griffith’s compliment: “It is like writing history with lightning, and my only regret is that it is all so true.” Griffith would go on to use this quotation in successfully defending his film against NAACP charges that it was racially inflammatory.23

This landmark of American cinema was not only the best technical production of its time but also probably the most racist major movie of all time. Dixon intended “to revolutionize northern sentiment by a presentation of history that would transform every man in my audience into a good Democrat! . . . And make no mistake about it—we are doing just that.”24 Dixon did not overstate by much. Spurred by Birth of a Nation, William Simmons of Georgia reestablished the Ku Klux Klan. The racism seeping down from the White House encouraged this Klan, distinguishing it from its Reconstruction predecessor, which President Grant had succeeded in virtually eliminating in one state (South Carolina) and discouraging nationally for a time. The new KKK quickly became a national phenomenon. It grew to dominate the Democratic Party in many Southern states, as well as in Indiana, Oklahoma, and Oregon. Klan spectacles in the 1920s in towns from Montpelier, Vermont, to West Frankfort, Illinois, to Medford, Oregon, were the largest public gatherings in their history, before or since. During Wilson’s second term, a wave of antiblack race riots swept the country. Whites lynched blacks as far north as Duluth.

Americans need to learn from the Wilson era, that there is a connection between racist presidential leadership and like-minded public response. To accomplish such education, however, textbooks would have to make plain the relationship between cause and effect, between hero and followers. Instead, they reflexively ascribe noble intentions to the hero and invoke “the people” to excuse questionable actions and policies. According to Triumph of the American Nation: “As President, Wilson seemed to agree with most white Americans that segregation was in the best interests of black as well as white Americans.”

Wilson was not only antiblack; he was also far and away our most nativist president, repeatedly questioning the loyalty of those he called “hyphenated Americans.” “Any man who carries a hyphen about with him,” said Wilson, “carries a dagger that he is ready to plunge into the vitals of this Republic whenever he gets ready.” The American people responded to Wilson’s lead with a wave of repression of white ethnic groups; again, most textbooks blame the people, not Wilson. The American Tradition admits that “President Wilson set up” the Creel Committee on Public Information, which saturated the United States with propaganda linking Germans to barbarism. But Tradition hastens to shield Wilson from the ensuing domestic fallout: “Although President Wilson had been careful in his war message to state that most Americans of German descent were ‘true and loyal citizens,’ the anti-German propaganda often caused them suffering.”

Wilson displayed little regard for the rights of anyone whose opinions differed from his own. But textbooks take pains to insulate him from wrongdoing. “Congress,” not Wilson, is credited with having passed the Espionage Act of June 1917 and the Sedition Act of the following year, probably the most serious attacks on the civil liberties of Americans since the short-lived Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. In fact, Wilson tried to strengthen the Espionage Act with a provision giving broad censorship powers directly to the president. Moreover, with Wilson’s approval, his postmaster general used his new censorship powers to suppress all mail that was socialist, anti-British, pro-Irish, or that in any other way might, in his view, have threatened the war effort. Robert Goldstein served ten years in prison for producing The Spirit of ’76, a film about the Revolutionary War that depicted the British, who were now our allies, unfavorably.  Textbook authors suggest that wartime pressures excuse Wilson’s suppression of civil liberties, but in 1920, when World War I was long over, Wilson vetoed a bill that would have abolished the Espionage and Sedition acts. Textbook authors blame the anticommunist and anti-labor union witch hunts of Wilson’s second term on his illness and on an attorney general run amok. No evidence supports this view. Indeed, Attorney General Palmer asked Wilson in his last days as president to pardon Eugene V. Debs, who was serving time for a speech attributing World War I to economic interests and denouncing the Espionage Act as undemocratic. The president replied, “Never!” and Debs languished in prison until Warren Harding pardoned him. The American Way adopts perhaps the most innovative approach to absolving Wilson of wrongdoing: Way simply moves the “red scare” to the 1920s, after Wilson had left office!

To oppose America’s participation in World War I, or even to be pessimistic about it, was dangerous. The Creel Committee asked all Americans to “report the man who . . . cries for peace, or belittles our efforts to win the war.” Send their names to the Justice Department in Washington, it exhorted. After World War I, the Wilson administration’s attacks on civil liberties increased, now with anticommunism as the excuse. Neither before nor since these campaigns has the United States come closer to being a police state.

Because heroification prevents textbooks from showing Wilson’s shortcomings, textbooks are hard-pressed to explain the results of the 1920 election. James Cox, the Democratic candidate who was Wilson’s would-be successor, was crushed by the nonentity Warren G. Harding, who never even campaigned. In the biggest landslide in the history of American presidential politics, Harding got almost 64 percent of the major-party votes. The people were “tired,” textbooks suggest, and just wanted a “return to normalcy.” The possibility that the electorate knew what it was doing in rejecting Wilson never occurs to our authors. It occurred to Helen Keller, however. She called Wilson “the greatest individual disappointment the world has ever known!”

It isn’t only high school history courses that heroify Wilson. Those few textbooks that do discuss Wilson’s racism and other shortcomings, such as Land of Promise, have to battle uphill, for they struggle against the archetypal Woodrow Wilson commemorated in so many history museums, public television documentaries, and historical novels. (…)


Reconquest of Spain – Jan 02, 1492 – When the Moors (Muslims) Ruled Europe


Reconquest of Spain – Jan 02, 1492


When the Moors (Muslims) Ruled Europe: Documentary (full)


The kingdom of Granada falls to the Christian forces of King Ferdinand V and Queen Isabella I, and the Moors lose their last foothold in Spain.Located at the confluence of the Darro and Genil rivers in southern Spain, the city of Granada was a Moorish fortress that rose to prominence during the reign of Sultan Almoravid in the 11th century. In 1238, the Christian Reconquest forced Spanish Muslims south, and the kingdom of Granada was established as the last refuge of the Moorish civilization.

Granada flourished culturally and economically for the next 200 years, but in the late 15th century internal feuds and a strengthened Spanish monarchy under Ferdinand and Isabella signaled the end of Moorish civilization in Spain. On January 2, 1492, King Boabdil surrendered Granada to the Spanish forces, and in 1502 the Spanish crown ordered all Muslims forcibly converted to Christianity. The next century saw a number of persecutions, and in 1609 the last Moors still adhering to Islam were expelled from Spain.


8 Things You Should Know About the Bill of Rights


The first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution, known collectively as the Bill of Rights, became law on December 15, 1791. Celebrate its birthday with eight facts about its roots, ratification and legacy.

Why was the Bill of Rights tacked onto the Constitution just three years after its ratification in June 1788? Essentially, anti-Federalist delegates objected to the proposed draft, arguing that it provided a framework for a new centralized government but failed to safeguard individual liberties and states’ rights. They finally agreed to ratify the Constitution on the condition that Congress amend the document to include these protections.

While drafting the Bill of Rights, James Madison drew heavily on the Virginia Declaration of Rights, written by George Mason and ratified shortly before the Constitution of Virginia in June 1776. Considered the first constitutional protection of individual rights, it also provided a blueprint for the U.S. Declaration of Independence and France’s Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.

Since America’s founding fathers had just spent years fighting for independence from Britain, it might seem ironic that an English law—the Bill of Rights of 1689—served as another inspiration for the U.S. Bill of Rights. The two documents share a number of guarantees, including the right to petition and protection again “cruel and unusual punishments.”

James Madison was an unlikely author of the proposed amendments that eventually became the Bill of Rights. He initially argued that the Constitution itself sufficiently restricted the federal government and that Americans inherently enjoyed natural rights even in the absence of laws ensuring them. Madison’s mentor Thomas Jefferson, who was then serving as ambassador to France, helped convince him of their necessity in 1789.

Despite its seemingly inclusive wording, the Bill of Rights did not apply to all Americans—and it wouldn’t for more than 130 years. At the time of its ratification, the “people” referenced in the amendments were understood to be land-owning white men only. Blacks only received equal protection under the law in 1868, and even then it was purely on paper. Women couldn’t vote in all states before 1920, and Native Americans did not achieve full citizenship until 1924.

The original Bill of Rights included 12 amendments, but only 10 became law in 1791. One of the omitted articles, which deals with the size of electoral districts, has yet to be ratified. The other, which prohibits pay raises for Congress members until the next election takes place, was ratified in 1992 as the 27th Amendment.

George Washington commissioned 14 handwritten copies of the Bill of Rights—one for each of the original 13 colonies and one for Congress. Twelve of the originals survive to this day. North Carolina’s copy disappeared during the Civil War when a Union soldier took it home as a souvenir; it resurfaced in 2003 thanks to the efforts of an undercover FBI agent.

One hundred fifty years after the Bill of Rights became law, President Franklin D. Roosevelt called on the American people to observe December 15 as Bill of Rights Day. Just days after he made his speech, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and celebrations were cancelled. Though relatively obscure, it remains a federal holiday.

Why Rome fell and Europe will fall


Invasions by Barbarian tribes

The most straightforward theory for Western Rome’s collapse pins the fall on a string of military losses sustained against outside forces. Rome had tangled with Germanic tribes for centuries, but by the 300s “barbarian” groups like the Goths had encroached beyond the Empire’s borders. The Romans weathered a Germanic uprising in the late fourth century, but in 410 the Visigoth King Alaric successfully sacked the city of Rome. The Empire spent the next several decades under constant threat before “the Eternal City” was raided again in 455, this time by the Vandals. Finally, in 476, the Germanic leader Odoacer staged a revolt and deposed the Emperor Romulus Augustulus. From then on, no Roman emperor would ever again rule from a post in Italy, leading many to cite 476 as the year the Western Empire suffered its deathblow.

Economic troubles and overreliance on slave labor

Even as Rome was under attack from outside forces, it was also crumbling from within thanks to a severe financial crisis. Constant wars and overspending had significantly lightened imperial coffers, and oppressive taxation and inflation had widened the gap between rich and poor. In the hope of avoiding the taxman, many members of the wealthy classes had even fled to the countryside and set up independent fiefdoms. At the same time, the empire was rocked by a labor deficit. Rome’s economy depended on slaves to till its fields and work as craftsmen, and its military might had traditionally provided a fresh influx of conquered peoples to put to work. But when expansion ground to a halt in the second century, Rome’s supply of slaves and other war treasures began to dry up. A further blow came in the fifth century, when the Vandals claimed North Africa and began disrupting the empire’s trade by prowling the Mediterranean as pirates. With its economy faltering and its commercial and agricultural production in decline, the Empire began to lose its grip on Europe.

The rise of the Eastern Empire

The fate of Western Rome was partially sealed in the late third century, when the Emperor Diocletian divided the Empire into two halves—the Western Empire seated in the city of Milan, and the Eastern Empire in Byzantium, later known as Constantinople. The division made the empire more easily governable in the short term, but over time the two halves drifted apart. East and West failed to adequately work together to combat outside threats, and the two often squabbled over resources and military aid. As the gulf widened, the largely Greek-speaking Eastern Empire grew in wealth while the Latin-speaking West descended into economic crisis. Most importantly, the strength of the Eastern Empire served to divert Barbarian invasions to the West. Emperors like Constantine ensured that the city of Constantinople was fortified and well guarded, but Italy and the city of Rome—which only had symbolic value for many in the East—were left vulnerable. The Western political structure would finally disintegrate in the fifth century, but the Eastern Empire endured in some form for another thousand years before being overwhelmed by the Ottoman Empire in the 1400s.

Overexpansion and military overspending

At its height, the Roman Empire stretched from the Atlantic Ocean all the way to the Euphrates River in the Middle East, but its grandeur may have also been its downfall. With such a vast territory to govern, the empire faced an administrative and logistical nightmare. Even with their excellent road systems, the Romans were unable to communicate quickly or effectively enough to manage their holdings. Rome struggled to marshal enough troops and resources to defend its frontiers from local rebellions and outside attacks, and by the second century the Emperor Hadrian was forced to build his famous wall in Britain just to keep the enemy at bay. As more and more funds were funneled into the military upkeep of the empire, technological advancement slowed and Rome’s civil infrastructure fell into disrepair.

Government corruption and political instability

If Rome’s sheer size made it difficult to govern, ineffective and inconsistent leadership only served to magnify the problem. Being the Roman emperor had always been a particularly dangerous job, but during the tumultuous second and third centuries it nearly became a death sentence. Civil war thrust the empire into chaos, and more than 20 men took the throne in the span of only 75 years, usually after the murder of their predecessor. The Praetorian Guard—the emperor’s personal bodyguards—assassinated and installed new sovereigns at will, and once even auctioned the spot off to the highest bidder. The political rot also extended to the Roman Senate, which failed to temper the excesses of the emperors due to its own widespread corruption and incompetence. As the situation worsened, civic pride waned and many Roman citizens lost trust in their leadership.

The arrival of the Huns and the migration of the Barbarian tribes

The Barbarian attacks on Rome partially stemmed from a mass migration caused by the Huns’ invasion of Europe in the late fourth century. When these Eurasian warriors rampaged through northern Europe, they drove many Germanic tribes to the borders of the Roman Empire. The Romans grudgingly allowed members of the Visigoth tribe to cross south of the Danube and into the safety of Roman territory, but they treated them with extreme cruelty. According to the historian Ammianus Marcellinus, Roman officials even forced the starving Goths to trade their children into slavery in exchange for dog meat. In brutalizing the Goths, the Romans created a dangerous enemy within their own borders. When the oppression became too much to bear, the Goths rose up in revolt and eventually routed a Roman army and killed the Eastern Emperor Valens during the Battle of Adrianople in A.D. 378. The shocked Romans negotiated a flimsy peace with the barbarians, but the truce unraveled in 410, when the Goth King Alaric moved west and sacked Rome. With the Western Empire weakened, Germanic tribes like the Vandals and the Saxons were able to surge across its borders and occupy Britain, Spain and North Africa.

Christianity and the loss of traditional values

The decline of Rome dovetailed with the spread of Christianity, and some have argued that the rise of a new faith helped contribute to the empire’s fall. The Edict of Milan legalized Christianity in 313, and it later became the state religion in 380. These decrees ended centuries of persecution, but they may have also eroded the traditional Roman values system. Christianity displaced the polytheistic Roman religion, which viewed the emperor as having a divine status, and also shifted focus away from the glory of the state and onto a sole deity. Meanwhile, popes and other church eladers took an increased role in political affairs, further complicating governance. The 18th-century historian Edward Gibbon was the most famous proponent of this theory, but his take has since been widely criticized. While the spread of Christianity may have played a small role in curbing Roman civic virtue, most scholars now argue that its influence paled in comparison to military, economic and administrative factors.

Weakening of the Roman legions

For most of its history, Rome’s military was the envy of the ancient world. But during the decline, the makeup of the once mighty legions began to change. Unable to recruit enough soldiers from the Roman citizenry, emperors like Diocletian and Constantine began hiring foreign mercenaries to prop up their armies. The ranks of the legions eventually swelled with Germanic Goths and other barbarians, so much so that Romans began using the Latin word “barbarus” in place of “soldier.” While these Germanic soldiers of fortune proved to be fierce warriors, they also had little or no loyalty to the empire, and their power-hungry officers often turned against their Roman employers. In fact, many of the barbarians who sacked the city of Rome and brought down the Western Empire had earned their military stripes while serving in the Roman legions.

9 Things You May Not Know About the Ancient Sumerians

Sometime around 4000 B.C., ancient Sumerian culture emerged on a sun-scorched floodplain along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in what is now southern Iraq. These enigmatic Mesopotamians are best known for inventing cuneiform script—the world’s oldest extant writing system—but they also forged a vibrant religious and literary tradition and made massive leaps forward in government, mathematics, urban planning and agriculture. Here are nine fascinating facts about one of the earliest sophisticated civilizations known to history.

One of the larger Sumerian cities may have had 80,000 residents.
A picture shows the archaeological site of Uruk (Warka). (Credit: ESSAM AL-SUDANI/AFP/Getty Images)
A picture shows the archaeological site of Uruk (Warka). (Credit: ESSAM AL-SUDANI/AFP/Getty Images)

The origins of Sumerian civilization in Mesopotamia are still debated today, but archaeological evidence indicates that they established roughly a dozen city-states by the fourth millennium B.C. These usually consisted of a walled metropolis dominated by a ziggurat—the tiered, pyramid-like temples associated with the Sumerian religion. Homes were constructed from bundled marsh reeds or mud bricks, and complex irrigation canals were dug to harness the silt-laden waters of the Tigris and Euphrates for farming. Major Sumerian city-states included Eridu, Ur, Nippur, Lagash and Kish, but one of the oldest and most sprawling was Uruk, a thriving trading hub that boasted six miles of defensive walls and a population of between 40,000 and 80,000. At its peak around 2800 B.C., it was most likely the largest city in the world.

The list of Sumerian rulers includes one woman.
Ruins of the city of Kish, which Kubaba supposedly ruled. (Credit: DeAgostini/Getty Images)
Ruins of the city of Kish, which Kubaba supposedly ruled. (Credit: DeAgostini/Getty Images)

One of the greatest sources of information on ancient Mesopotamia is the so-called “King List,” a clay tablet that documents the names of most of the ancient rulers of Sumer as well as the lengths of their reigns. The list is a strange blend of historical fact and myth—one early king is said to have lived for 43,200 years—but it also includes Sumer’s lone female monarch in the form of Kubaba, a “woman tavern-keeper” who supposedly took the throne in the city-state of Kish sometime around 2500 B.C. Very little is known about Kubaba’s reign or how she came to power, but the list credits her with making “firm the foundations of Kish” and forging a dynasty that lasted 100 years.

The Sumerian city-states were often at war with one another.
Stele of the Vultures, portraying Eannatum sovereign troops in the conquest of Umma. (Credit: DEA/G. DAGLI ORTI/De Agostini/Getty Images)
Stele of the Vultures, portraying Eannatum sovereign troops in the conquest of Umma. (Credit: DEA/G. DAGLI ORTI/De Agostini/Getty Images)

Even though they shared a common language and cultural traditions, the Sumerian city-states engaged in near-constant wars that resulted in several different dynasties and kingships. The first of these conflicts known to history concerns King Eannatum of Lagash, who defeated the rival city-state of Umma in a border dispute sometime around 2450 B.C. To commemorate his victory, Eannatum constructed the so-called “Stele of the Vultures,” a grisly limestone monument that depicts birds feasting on the flesh of his fallen enemies. Under Eannatum, Lagash went on to conquer the whole of Sumer, but it was just one of several city-states that held sway over Mesopotamia during its history.
The infighting led to several military advancements—the Sumerians may have invented the phalanx formation and siege warfare—but it also left them vulnerable to invasions by outside forces. During the latter stages of their history, they were attacked or conquered by the Elamites, Akkadians and Gutians.

The Sumerians were famously fond of beer.
A clay seal depicting beer drinking in a banquet scene dating from 2600-2350 B.C. (Credit: E. Jason Wambsgans/Getty Images)
A clay seal depicting beer drinking in a banquet scene dating from 2600-2350 B.C. (Credit: E. Jason Wambsgans/Getty Images)

Along with inventing writing, the wheel, the plow, law codes and literature, the Sumerians are also remembered as some of history’s original brewers. Archaeologists have found evidence of Mesopotamian beer-making dating back to the fourth millennium B.C. The brewing techniques they used are still a mystery, but their preferred ale seems to have been a barley-based concoction so thick that it had to be sipped through a special kind of filtration straw. The Sumerians prized their beer for its nutrient-rich ingredients and hailed it as the key to a “joyful heart and a contented liver.” There was even a Sumerian goddess of brewing called “Ninkasi,” who is celebrated in a famous hymn as the “one who waters the malt set on the ground.”

Cuneiform writing was used for over 3,000 years.
Bill of sale written in cuneiform.
Bill of sale written in cuneiform.

The Sumerian invention of cuneiform—a Latin term literally meaning “wedge-shaped”— dates to sometime around 3400 B.C. In its most sophisticated form, it consisted of several hundred characters that ancient scribes used to write words or syllables on wet clay tablets with a reed stylus. The tablets were then baked or left in the sun to harden. The Sumerians seem to have first developed cuneiform for the mundane purposes of keeping accounts and records of business transactions, but over time it blossomed into a full-fledged writing system used for everything from poetry and history to law codes and literature. Since the script could be adapted to multiple languages, it was later used over the course of several millennia by more than a dozen different cultures. In fact, archaeologists have found evidence that Near East astronomical texts were still being written in cuneiform as recently as the first century A.D.

The Sumerians were well-traveled trade merchants.
A detail from the so called Standard of Ur, side B. This panel shows a banquet, perhaps after a victory and men driving cattle and sheep. (Credit: Werner Forman/Universal Images Group/Getty Images)
A detail from the so called Standard of Ur, side B. This panel shows a banquet, perhaps after a victory and men driving cattle and sheep. (Credit: Werner Forman/Universal Images Group/Getty Images)

Since their homeland was largely devoid of timber, stone and minerals, the Sumerians were forced to create one of history’s earliest trade networks over both land and sea. Their most important commercial partner may have been the island of Dilmun (present day Bahrain), which held a monopoly on the copper trade, but their merchants also undertook months-long journeys to Anatolia and Lebanon to gather cedar wood and to Oman and the Indus Valley for gold and gemstones. The Sumerians were particularly fond of lapis lazuli—a blue-colored precious stone used in art and jewelry—and there is evidence that they may have roamed as far as Afghanistan to get it. Historians have also suggested that Sumerian references to two ancient trading lands known as “Magan” and “Meluhha” may refer to Egypt and Ethiopia.

The hero of the Epic of Gilgamesh was probably a real Sumerian historical figure.
Chalky alabaster statue of Gilgamesh, king of Uruk. (Credit: DEA/Getty Images)
Chalky alabaster statue of Gilgamesh, king of Uruk. (Credit: DEA/Getty Images)

One of the crowning achievements of Mesopotamian literature is the “Epic of Gilgamesh,” a 3,000-line poem that follows the adventures of a Sumerian king as he battles a forest monster and quests after the secret of eternal life. While the poem’s hero is a demigod with Hercules-like strength, most scholars believe he is based on an actual king who served as the fifth ruler of the city of Uruk. The historical Gilgamesh appears on the Sumerian “King List” and is thought to have lived sometime around 2700 B.C. Few contemporary accounts of his reign have survived to today, but archeologists have found inscriptions that credit him with building Uruk’s massive defensive walls and restoring a temple to the goddess Ninhil, which suggests he may have been a real ruler whose deeds were later repurposed as myth.

Sumerian mathematics and measurements are still used today.
(Credit: boocaphoto/http://www.istockphoto.com)
(Credit: boocaphoto/http://www.istockphoto.com)

The origins of the sixty-second minute and sixty-minute hour can be traced all the way back to ancient Mesopotamia. In the same way that modern mathematics is a decimal system based on the number ten, the Sumerians mainly used a sexigesimal structure that was based around groupings of 60. This easily divisible number system was later adopted by the ancient Babylonians, who used it make astronomical calculations on the lengths of the months and the year. Base-60 eventually fell out of use, but its legacy still lives on in the measurements of the both hour and the minute. Other remnants of the Sumerian sexigesimal system have survived in the form of spatial measurements such as the 360 degrees in a circle and the 12 inches in a foot.

Sumerian culture was lost to history until the 19th century.
Detail of the fragment from a steatite vase. (Credit: DEA/A. DE GREGORIO/Getty Images)
Detail of the fragment from a steatite vase. (Credit: DEA/A. DE GREGORIO/Getty Images)

After Mesopotamia was occupied by the Amorites and Babylonians in the early second millennium B.C., the Sumerians gradually lost their cultural identity and ceased to exist as a political force. All knowledge of their history, language and technology—even their name—was eventually forgotten. Their secrets remained buried in the deserts of Iraq until the 19th century, when French and British archaeologists finally stumbled upon Sumerian artifacts while hunting for evidence of the ancient Assyrians. Scholars such as Henry Rawlinson, Edward Hincks, Julius Oppert and Paul Haupt later took the lead in deciphering the Sumerian language and cuneiform, providing historians with their first ever glimpse of the long lost history and literature of early Mesopotamia. Since then, archaeologists have recovered numerous pieces of Sumerian art, pottery and sculpture as well as some 500,0000 clay tablets, the vast majority of which have still yet to be translated.

8 Things You May Not Know About the Spanish Armada


In May 1588, King Philip II dispatched the 130-ship Spanish Armada on a mission to guide an invasion force to the coast of England and topple the regime of Queen Elizabeth I. This “Great and Most Fortunate Navy” was one of the mightiest fleets ever assembled, but a combination of poor tactics, robust English resistance and dismal weather ultimately doomed it to failure. By the time Philip’s “Invincible Armada” finally limped back to Spain later that autumn, at least a third of its ships were lost and some 15,000 sailors had been killed. Below, explore eight surprising facts about one of the most ambitious—and disastrous—campaigns in military history.

Before attacking Elizabeth I, Philip II tried to marry her.

The Armada was the culmination of years of hostility between King Philip II of Spain and Elizabeth I, but the two weren’t always sworn enemies. Philip had once been married to Elizabeth’s half-sister, Mary I, and he later threw his support behind Elizabeth’s ascension to the throne. Shortly after Mary’s death in 1558, he even sent an ambassador to Elizabeth with a proposal of marriage, only to be humiliated when she declined. Relations between Spain and England deteriorated in the decades that followed. Much of the friction centered on religion. Philip was a devout Roman Catholic, and he considered Elizabeth a Protestant heretic. The Spanish were also enraged by English pirate raids on their treasure fleets, but the breaking point came in 1585, when Elizabeth pledged military support to Protestant rebels in the Spanish Netherlands. Convinced the agreement was an act of war, Philip began planning an “Enterprise of England” to remove her from the throne.

The English raided the Armada before it left Spain.

The preparations for the Spanish Armada were one of the worst kept secrets in Europe. Elizabeth’s spies easily gleaned intelligence about the fleet being assembled in Spain, and by the spring of 1587, the English were convinced that an invasion was imminent. To slow the Armada’s progress, the Queen allowed the salty privateer and navigator Sir Francis Drake to make a surprise strike against the Spanish port of Cadiz. After briefly capturing the city’s harbor, Drake and his men torched some 30 Spanish vessels and seized or destroyed several tons of food and supplies intended for the Armada. The Spanish managed to replace most of their losses, but Drake’s “singeing of the king of Spain’s beard” may have delayed the Armada’s launch by as much as a year, allowing the English crucial time to ready themselves for an invasion.

The Armada was not the main Spanish invasion force.

The Armada was one of the largest fleets ever assembled for a single mission, but it was not intended to attack England on its own. The Spanish plan instead called for the Armada, sailing under the command of the Duke of Medina Sidonia, to travel to the Flemish coast and rendezvous with a 30,000-strong land army under the Duke of Parma. It would then act as a defensive escort and supply convoy as Parma’s troops crossed the English Channel on small barges and moved on London. With this auxiliary role in mind, only around 35 or 40 of the Armada’s vessels were purpose-built warships. The rest were mostly armed merchantmen and cargo ships crammed with food and military supplies to support the land invasion.

A system of coastal beacons helped warn the English of the Armada’s approach.

Along with fortifying their southern beaches and marshaling militiamen, the English prepared for the Armada’s arrival by overhauling a centuries-old system of signal beacons. This primitive early warning system consisted of around 1,000 outposts spaced several miles apart along the coastline. Each was manned around the clock by teams of watchmen and equipped with a raised iron basket filled with tar and pitch. When the Spanish fleet was finally sighted off Cornwall on July 30, the spotters lit their signal fires in succession and quickly spread a call to arms around the country. That same night, a 100-ship fleet under Lord High Admiral Charles Howard and Sir Francis Drake gathered outside Plymouth harbor and gave chase to the Armada.

The English used fireships to break the Armada’s formation.

The English fleet harassed the Armada for several days during its charge toward the English Channel, but their ships struggled to penetrate its crescent-shaped defensive formation. The situation grew more urgent on August 6, when Medina Sidonia dropped anchor near Calais, France to rendezvous with the Duke of Parma, who was desperately trying to gather his army in nearby Dunkirk. Knowing they couldn’t allow the Spanish to unite their forces, Drake and Lord Howard devised a scheme to scatter the enemy ships. On the night of August 8, they packed eight empty vessels with timber and pitch, set them ablaze and sent them drifting into the center of the Armada’s formation. Upon sighting the fireships, the Spanish captains fled to the open sea in panic. Most even cut their ships’ anchors in their race to avoid the floating bonfires. While the Armada escaped from Calais without serious damage, the fireship strike succeeded in breaking its defensive line. The next morning, the English engaged the now disorganized Spanish fleet at the Battle of Gravelines, where Howard and Drake used their superior long-range cannons to score a decisive victory.

Sea storms were the main cause of the Armada’s defeat.

While the English prevailed at Gravelines, they only succeeded in destroying or capturing a handful of the Armada’s ships. The true knockout blow would come courtesy of Mother Nature. In mid-August, the battered Spanish fleet was pushed into the North Sea by strong winds, ending its hopes of rendezvousing with Parma’s army. Running low on food and water, Medina Sidonia resolved to return home by rounding the tip of Scotland and sailing south along the western coast of Ireland. The voyage was accompanied by unseasonably violent storms and gales, and dozens of the Armada’s ships eventually sank at sea or were dashed against the Irish coastline, killing some 6,000 sailors. Estimates vary, but most historians believe that only around 75 or 80 of the original 130 ships managed to return to Spain. Upon learning of the state of his once glorious Armada, Philip II supposedly exclaimed, “I sent my fleet against men, not against the wind and the waves.”

England launched a counter Armada the following year—with equally disastrous results.

Almost as soon as the humiliated Armada vanished over the horizon, Elizabeth began planning a counterattack to destroy the last of Philip II’s navy and bring the Spanish Empire to its knees. By April 1859, she had outfitted Sir Francis Drake and Sir John Norris with over 120 ships and dispatched them on a mission to invade Spain. It was a bold plan, but unfortunately for Elizabeth, her “English Armada” fared no better than the Spanish one. Rather than attacking the shipyards at Santander—where the remnants of the Spanish Armada were licking their wounds—Drake and Norris spent several weeks searching for plunder and unsuccessfully besieging the cities of Corunna and Lisbon. Their forces were soon riddled with disease, and Drake’s ship nearly sank after being ravaged by storms during an abortive attempt to raid the Azores. The English fleet later limped home in disgrace in the summer of 1589, having lost a staggering 11,000 men while achieving none of its military goals.

The Armada’s defeat didn’t permanently cripple the Spanish navy.

Contrary to popular belief, the defeat of the Spanish Armada wasn’t the end of Spain’s reign as a world naval power. Phillip II successfully rebuilt his fleet after the 1588 debacle and continued operations against England for several more years. He even launched two more armadas in 1596 and 1597, both of which were scattered by storms. It was not until 1604 that Elizabeth and Philip’s successors finally signed a treaty ending the 19-year Anglo-Spanish War as a stalemate. Spain’s navy continued to dominate the sea-lanes, however, and didn’t go into decline until the mid-17th century during the Thirty Years’ War.

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