Plutarch’s life of Crassus

Marcus Licinius Crassus (115 to 53 BC)

Marcus Licinius Crassus was reputed to be the richest man in Rome due to astute property development and loan making. In 73 BC he was given command of the army charged with putting down the Spartacus rebellion. In 70 he served as consul. Well into middle age, he formed the triumvirate with Caesar and Pompey in 60 BC, an uneasy alliance which dominated the 50s. In 54 BC he was tempted to assume leadership of an army sent against the Parthian Empire way out East, where his army was defeated and he met a miserable death.

This is one of the shorter lives, at a mere 33 chapters because we in fact know remarkably little about Crassus and Plutarch, apparently, didn’t either. The account of the Spartacus campaign is far longer than really necessary and a good half of the text deals with his final doomed campaign in Parthia. Of the precise origin of Crassus’s business empire and the complex wheeler-dealing which surrounded the triumvirate, there is disappointingly little. Then again, his grim ending was what Crassus became most famous for and also provided a peg for an orgy of the kind of superstitious omens and finger-wagging moralising that the ancients loved so much. So maybe Plutarch knew his audience.

The life

(Chapter 1) Crassus’s father had been censor and was awarded a triumph for military sucess, giddy heights in Roman society. Yet Marcus was raised in a small house where the family ate meals together. Plutarch thinks this may account for his temperate and moderate behaviour in later life. When one of his older brothers died, Marcus married the widow.

(2) Contrasting with his moderation in all other respects was his greed. Starting with a modest legacy he worked it up into an outrageous fortune: during his consulship he sacrificed the tenth of his goods to Hercules but still had enough left over to feasted the people and then give every Roman enough cash to live on for three months! In 54 BC, before he set out on his ill-fated expedition to Parthia (modern-day Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan), Crassus made an inventory of his property and valued it at 7,100 talents. Compare this with the fine of 20,000 talents which Lucius Cornelius Sulla imposed on all the cities and towns of Asia combined and which they found impossible to pay off.

One of Crassus’s business strategies was to hear about fires in the city, rush to the blaze and make the owners of threatened or burning properties offers they couldn’t refuse. If they sold him their property he promptly deployed his private fire service to save it. ‘In this most of Rome came into his possession’!

Crassus had a number of sayings which have been preserved. He said that people who build houses have no need of enemies since they will ruin themselves by their own efforts. He is also supposed to have said that no-one should be thought rich who couldn’t support an entire army out of their own wealth – a handy definition.

Crassus owned silver mines and much land and the labourers to work it. He owned a huge number of slaves but took care to educate and manage them well.

(3) Crassus’s house was open to all. He gave good dinner parties, not showy, His guests were often ordinary people, not the elite. He lent money without interest, which sounds nice, but demanded it be repaid back at exactly the allotted time. Crassus studied the art of public speaking and was always prepared. Sometimes he was ready to speak when Pompey, Caesar or Cicero were reluctant. He had an open approachable manner and would talk to anyone freely. In this way he cultivated great popularity.

(4) When Lucius Cornelius Cinna and Gaius Marius seized power in 87 BC it quickly became obvious they weren’t seeking what was best for the state but to exterminate their enemies. Among these were Crassus’s father and brother who were both murdered in the Marian purges. Young Marcus fled to Spain with some servants. He found shelter in a cave which Plutarch describes at length, making it sound like a boy’s adventure. A friend living locally, Vibius, tasked a slave with taking Crassus meals every day and leaving them a little distance from the cave.

(5) After a while it occurred to Vibius that young Marcus might want more than just food and so he sent his two prettiest slave women to keep him company.

(6) Marius died soon after regaining power in 87 BC and Rome was ruled for three years by Cinna. When Crassus heard that Cinna was dead (84 BC) he headed back to Italy to join Sulla in his march on Rome. Crassus became jealous of Sulla’s open partiality for young Pompey. This was because the latter had more military experience and also because Sulla disliked Crassus’s obvious greed.

(7) Deciding he couldn’t compete with Pompey, Crassus opted to focus on politics. He ingratiated himself with everyone, had a hand in all business affairs, made himself open and available and friendly and helpful to large numbers of people. It was said that Pompey was most powerful when he was out of Rome on campaign whereas back in Rome he was in Crassus’s shade, because he was aloof and selfish. Pompey was powerful because he had so many contacts, friends and money; but he was inconsistent in his alliances, shifting and switching to whatever suited him.

(8) Description of the Spartacus rebellion. How the gladiators escaped from the training school of Lentulus Batiatus at Capua. 78 gladiators escaped, came across a wagon carrying weapons, raided it and elected three leaders.

(9) How the gladiators defeated the praetor Marcus Claudius Glabur by escaping from a hill top using vine ropes then attacking the Romans from the rear. Local shepherds and peasants joined them. Subsequent victories against Publius Varinus, Lucius Furius and Lucius Cossinius. Spartacus tries to persuade his men to march north and cross the Alps but many prefer ravaging and looting Italy. The Senate sent both that year’s consuls against them, and Gellius massacred a group of Germans, but then Spartacus’s main force defeated the other consul, Lentulus, and went on to destroy the arms of Cassius, the governor of Cisalpine Gaul.

(10) It was at this point that Crassus was appointed to supreme command of the war. I am puzzled by this as we had established that Crassus forebore the military and had chosen to concentrate on civilian power. Crassus deputed Mummius to tail Spartacus but on no account to engage. Instead Mummius seized an opportunity to attack and was repelled and beaten by the insurgents, the legions turning tail and running. When they had reported back to Crassus he had 500 of the first to run away and had them decimated: every tenth man was chosen by lot and publicly humiliated and executed.

Spartacus marched to the Straits and made a deal with Cilician pirates to carry them to Sicily, where they hoped to revive the recently quelled slave rising, but the pirates took their money and abandoned them. Then they turned for the heel of Italy where Crassus had his men erect a ditch and wall forty miles long.

(11) Crassus fell upon a contingent resting by a lake in Lucania but Spartacus came to their rescue. Then there was a battle near a hill where Crassus massacred 12,500 of the rebels. Spartacus retired to the mountains of Petelia, trailed by Roman forces. Then he turned and engaged them, routing them and nearly killing the quaestor.

But this made the rebels over-confident and they turned to confront Crassus’s main army as it was making camp for the night. This developed into a full battle in which the rebels were comprehensively defeated.

Pompey was approaching with a second army and this engaged the stragglers from Spartacus’s force and wiped them out. To Crassus’s immense chagrin Pompey was awarded a magnificent triumph for his victory in Spain against Sertorius while Crassus was given the much more modest ‘ovation’ for a war which all the nobles thought had been dishonourable from start to finish.

(12) Crassus and Pompey were made consuls for the next year but publicly disagreed about everything. However, at one of their last appearances before the people a man leapt onstage and claimed that Jupiter had appeared to him in a dream and told him the consuls mustn’t part without being friends. Characteristically it was Crassus who made the first move and seized Pompey by the hand and praised him.

(13) In 63 Crassus was elected censor but made none of the reforms expected of the post. His colleague in the post strongly objected to Crassus’s policy that Egypt should be annexed by Rome and so the two men resigned their posts.

At the time of the Cataline conspiracy in 63 BC Crassus was accused of being party to the plot, not least by Cicero. This resulted in Crassus’s enmity towards the latter, until his own son, Publius, a devoted follower of the orator, persuaded him to forgive and forget.

(14) In 60 BC Caesar returned from service in Spain and was lobbying to be elected consul for the following year. He persuaded Crassus and Pompey that their enmity was weakening both and letting the party of Cicero and Cato triumph. He proposed they form an alliance, telling each man they’d be stronger together. In reality the person who benefited most was Caesar who was not only elected consult but awarded command in Gaul.

In the spring of 56 arguments threatened to break the triumvirate but Caesar called Pompey, Crassus and a good number of senators to a conference at Luca in north Italy where agreement was reached and the triumvirate reconfirmed. Caesar’s rule in Gaul was extended and the other two were allotted provinces and armies.

(15) On their return to the capital many opponents, led by Cato, interpreted the deal as establishing a tyranny based on armies not on elected office. Cato persuaded Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus to stand for the consulship but this led to growing violence at the hustings, with Pompey’s supporters attacking Ahenobarbus’s entourage, killing some of them, and then attacking the assembly, manhandling Cato out of the forum and so on.

(16) So all their opponents were intimidated into staying at home and Crassus and Pompey were elected consuls. They drew lots for their spheres of influence and Crassus won the East. He was thrilled as he openly boasted of superseding Lucullus and Pompey’s achievements against the enemy kings, Mithridates and Tigranes, and was desperate to take on the Parthian Empire. Critics tried to talk him out of it and then block his path as he departed Rome.

(17) Crassus sailed with a large army to Galatia and overland to the Euphrates, crossing into Parthian territory. When he discovered old King Deiotarus founding a new city, he joked that he was late in life to do such a thing, but the king joked back that Crassus was pretty long in the tooth to be taking on a massive military mission. He was 60 but looked older.

Another bad omen came. Most of the cities of Mesopotamia went over to him when they saw his army. But at one, Zenodotia, ruled by Apollonius the tyrant, a hundred of his soldiers were slain so Crassus let his forces seize and plunder it and sold its inhabitants into slavery. For this his soldiers hailed him ‘Imperator’ but this wasn’t any kind of military triumph, it was massacring civilians, and the fact Crassus let his soldiers call him Imperator, and was pleased by it, was a worrying indication of his lack of experience or of seriousness, of what Plutarch’s calls ‘a paltry spirit’.

Worse, instead of reaching out to Babylon and Seleucia for alliance against Parthia, he spent all his time in the cities which had come over to him in Syria in mercenary not military activity. Thus instead of reviewing his troops and setting up athletic contests for them, he spent his time counting the money and weighing the treasure he’d acquired. He demanded soldiers and supplies from ‘districts and dynasts’ only to change his mind if they paid him off, thus losing their respect.

As they were leaving the temple of Venus, Crassus’s son (who accompanied him on the campaign) stumbled and fell at the gate, and then his father fell over him.

(18) Men come to the camp from the occupied cities and bring eye witness accounts of the strong armour and warlike temper of the Parthians. Word spreads among the troops who become demoralised. Many, including Caius Cassius Longinus, advise calling a halt and reconsidering the entire campaign. The seers keep seeing bad omens.

(19) Artabazes the king of Armenia arrived to ally with Crassus, bringing 6,000 horsemen and promising an additional 10,000 mail-clad horsemen and 30,000 footmen. He advised Crassus to approach Parthia from Armenia, which is hilly so the cavalry, which were Parthia’s sole military strength, would be disadvantaged. But Crassus preferred to march across flat Mesopotamia. Then Plutarch gives an impressive list of bad omens:

  • as the army crossed the Euphrates at Zeugma it was daunted by peals of thunder and flashes of lightning; a strong wind destroyed the raft Crassus was crossing on
  • the place he intended to camp was hit by two thunderbolts
  • one of the general’s horses violently dragged its groom down to the river and disappeared beneath the waves
  • the first eagle which was raised aloft, faced about of its own accord
  • when the rations were distributed after the crossing of the river, lentils and salt came first, which are traditional Roman signs of mourning
  • while addressing his men Crassus made a bad slip, telling them he would destroy the bridge over the river so that none of could return, when he meant there would be no going back – instead of inspiring it demoralised his men
  • when he was making the customary sacrifice of purification for the army, and the seer placed the viscera in his hands, Crassus clumsily let them fall to the ground, at which all the bystanders were appalled

It’s impossible to tell whether any of this actually happened or whether, as in Cicero’s definition of inventio as explained in the introduction to Sallust, this is the kind of thing which ought to have happened. In other words, these incidents which read to us like fairy stories and folk tales and tend to undermine Plutarch’s veracity, to the ancient mind did just the opposite, piling up all kinds of appropriate details and omens which made the events more plausible.

(20) Crassus advanced with seven legions of men-at‑arms, nearly 4,000 horsemen and about as many light-armed troops. Scouts reported the land was empty of men but they’d seen the tracks of horsemen who had approached the army but wheeled about and left. Cassius advised caution and recuperating the men in one of the garrison cities while he found out more about the enemy.

You can see how the cumulative effect of the bad omens and the persistent advice Crassus receives, from both Romans and allies, creates a very ominous and dramatic tension in the narrative.

(21) Now aan Osroene chieftain named Ariamnes arrived in the Roman camp who set about deceiving Crassus. He had helped Pompey in his campaigns and now tried to persuade Crassus to abandon the river and venture into the flat plain (best fighting ground for the Parthian cavalry). And encourages him to do it soon before the king’s forces are united.

This was all a lie for the king was at that moment ravaging Armenia for its offers of friendship to Crassus, while he sent Surena forward to make trial of the enemy in battle and to distract them. There follows a brief and preposterously inflated description of Surena, presumably to big him up into a worthy opponent of Crassus. ‘He used to travel on private business with a baggage train of a thousand camels, and was followed by two hundred wagons for his concubine’. 200 wagons for his concubines!

(22) Thus Plutarch claims it was Ariamnes who persuaded Crassus to abandon the river and led him out into a plain which was flat at first but then turned into undulating sand, no trees, no water. Messengers came from Artavasdes II, king of Armenia, saying a) he is being attacked by Hyrodes the Parthian b) for Crassus to come and join him in a united war or c) to make sure he stuck near mountains and hills where the feared cavalry couldn’t operate. [The name Hyrodes is nowadays given as Orodes and he was the second Parthian king of that name, Orodes II.]

Cassius has given up trying to warn Crassus, who was angry with him, and reserved his scorn for the joking joshing Arab who led the army into the wilderness.

(23) In keeping with the steady ratcheting up of tension, Plutarch says that on the fateful day of the disastrous battle, Crassus by mistake didn’t dress in a purple robe but in a black one (which seems wildly unlikely) and that the standard-bearers had great difficulty raising their standards, which seemed to be embedded in the earth. Scouts return to announce that the enemy is coming up in great numbers.

Crassus assembles his men in one long line but then changes his mind and makes them form squares, accompanied by a cavalry squad. The army came to a stream but instead of letting them rest and refresh, Crassus insisted on making them continue on a forced march. They come upon Surena’s advance guard who appear to be surprisingly small, until the war drums of the main force behind them boomed out, disheartening the Romans.

(24) Plutarch describes the battle in detail. The Parthians initially planned to charge until they saw the solidity of the Roman squares. Then they sent cavalry to surround the squares. When light troops ran out to skirmish with them, everyone saw how effective the Parthian arrows were at penetrating armour and the army first started to be scared. Then the Parthians started to fire into the densely packed squares of Romans.

(25) At first Crassus thought they would run out of arrows till he realised they had a camel train carrying bags of extra arrows. He lost heart. He ordered his son on the left wing to attack. Publius Crassus led his wing in pursuit of the Parthians who broke and ran, but only to lure them into an ambush where they were surrounded by Parthian horsemen circling round them and stirring up dust.

Publius roused his cavalry to charge again but their spears could do little against the Parthian breastplates of hide and steel whereas the long Parthian pikes did great damage. Publius’s Gauls put up a good fight, crawling under the Parthian horses to stab them and perishing when horse and rider fell on them. They seized Publius who had been injured and took him to a sandy hill to make a last stand but they were surrounded and annihilated by arrows.

Two Greeks tried to persuade Publius to abandon his troops and come with them to a nearby Greek city but he bade them leave, remaining with his troops. Then he turned his side to his shield bearer and told him to stab him to death. Other nobles also committed suicide. The redoubt was massacred and the victorious Parthians cut off Publius’s head.

(26) Meanwhile Crassus initially thought his son’s charge was successful and the main army weakened as some left to deal with it. But then he received messages begging for help. Conflicted, Crassus ordered the whole army to advance. But the enemy rallied and strengthened, started beating their damn war drums and then rode up with Publius’s head on a pike to taunt him. The army is daunted but this is Crassus’s finest hour, and Plutarch has him delivering a stirring speech invoking Rome’s glorious history of victory whatever the cost.

(27) The slaughter continued until night fell and the Parthians backed away and made camp. Crassus lies on the ground in black despair so his lieutenants decide to retreat, rouse the army and back west despite the lamentations of the wounded they leave to die in the desert. An advance guard under Ignatius reached Carrhae at midnight and told the garrison commander, Coponius, to send out reinforcements to help the stricken army, and so the survivors are all brought within the walls of Carrhae.

(28) At daybreak the Parthians slaughtered all the wounded lying about the plain to the number of 4,000, then surrounded and massacred four cohorts who had got separated from the main body of the Roman army.

Surena isn’t sure whether Crassus is in Carrhae or whether his army has fled further west so he sends attendants up to the wall calling for Crassus or Cassius. Crassus comes to the city walls and the ambassadors propose Crassus accept an honourable truce, sign a peace treaty and leave Mesopotamia. They invite him to a conference with Surena. Crassus agrees.

(29) But having confirmed that Crassus was in the city, Surena changed his tune and surrounded it, with men deputed to mock the Romans and telling them to send Crassus and Cassius out in chains.

Morale collapses and his lieutenants suggest Crassus flee the city abandoning his army. But his closest Greek adviser, Andromachus, is a double agent and reports this to Surena. And when this escape party sets out that night in secret from the city Andromachus treacherously leads them a zigzag route through marshes. Cassius left with 500 cavalry by a different route and made it to Syria. Octavius led 5,000 to a hill country named Sinnaca.

[Only now does it become clear that when Plutarch said Crassus left Carrhae, he meant with a significant armed force (four cohorts of men-at‑arms, a few horsemen all told, and five lictors). Add in Octavius’s forces and you can see that a lot of the army got away. This suggests that Surena wasn’t mounting a very effective siege and throws into doubt the whole story about the Roman army taking refuge in the city.]

Anyway, up come the Parthians and surround Crassus’s force on a hill but Octavius fights his way through to join him.

(30) Surena realised that, with night coming on, the Romans were likely to escape into the hills. So he changed his approach and a) released prisoners who had overheard staged conversations between Surena and lieutenants saying it was time for peace, which softened Crassus up for when b) Surena and lieutenants made their way up the hill under truce, symbolically unstrung his bow and held out his hand, offering peace.

Crassus hesitates to accept but the army rebelled, clashed their shields and insist they will fight no longer. So much against his better judgement Crassus is more or less forced to go down the hill to meet with Surena.

(31) Octavius insists on joining him with his entourage. Then Plutarch gives a detailed description of the scuffle which leads to the fray in which Crassus is killed. Crassus had walked down on foot while Surena had advanced on horseback. He said it ill befitted his opponent to be on foot and offered a fine horse with gold-studded bridle. Surena’s lifted Crassus onto it then ran alongside slapping it to make it ride faster. But Octavius and a tribune seized the bridle to slow it down and keep Crassus in their protection. A scuffled developed and blows were exchanged. Octavius drew his sword and killed one of the grooms but was himself killed. Crassus was killed by a Parthian named Pomaxathres.

Rumour has it that the Parthians cut off Crassus’s head and right hand. Some of the Roman embassy made it back to the hilltop redoubt. That night they tried to sneak away but very few made it out of the desert alive. Most were hunted down and cut to pieces. ‘In the whole campaign, twenty thousand are said to have been killed, and ten thousand to have been taken alive’ – as usual with ancient accounts, these are suspiciously round figures.

(32) Surena sent the head and hand of Crassus to King Hyrodes in Armenia. Then he organised a mock triumph in the city of Seleucia, with a Roman noble forced to wear a dress being set on a horse backwards and mockingly saluted as ‘Crassus’, with lictors on camels and troupes of actors and musicians mocking the fallen Romans.

Plutarch makes a big deal out of the fact that the Parthians discovered in Crassus’s baggage train a copy of the ‘Milesiaca’ by Aristides, a collection of love stories. These are read out and mocked as inappropriate to take on a military campaign, but Plutarch acidly points out that this was rich coming from a leader (Surena) who himself led wagon-loads of concubines and whose train trailed off in the rear into dances, cymbals, lutes, and nocturnal revels with women. Plutarch quotes Aesop’s fable of the two wallets. He is more interested in literary allusions than history per se.

(33) Meanwhile, in faraway Armenia, King Hyrodes was at last reconciled with king Artavasdes II and agreed to receive the latter’s sister as wife for his son Pacorus. Both kings were (supposedly) well educated in Greek literature and when the head of Crassus arrived at the palace, as part of the wedding feast a performance of Euripides’ Bacchae was underway. The messenger threw Crassus’s head on the stage and the lead actor picked it up and addressed it with Euripides’ lines.

Then the man who had actually killed Crassus, Pomaxathres, stepped forward and claimed the head. King Hyrodes was delighted and gave both men rewards. Plutarch moralises: thus was the tragedy of Crassus, as is traditional, followed by farce.

[The later historian, Cassius Dio, claimed that the Parthians poured molten gold into Crassus’s mouth in symbolic mockery of his thirst for wealth. Thus grotesque gossip and macabre stories accrue around famous men.]

The text contains one last afterthought, presumably designed to ram home the perfidious treachery of the wicked orientals: soon afterwards Hyrodes became jealous of Surena’s fine reputation and had him put to death. Then Hyrodes lost his son Pacorus, defeated in battle by the Romans,​ and became ill, so that another of his sons, Phraates, had his father strangled.

All lives end in death, but this short life feels particularly grim and depressing.

Plutarch’s summary

For Plutarch, Crassus’s fate was:

to the multitude an illustration of the ways of fortune, but to the wise an example of foolish ambition, which would not let him rest satisfied to be first and greatest among many myriads of men, but made him think, because he was judged inferior to two men only, that he lacked everything. (27)

I.e. he was driven to his death because of rivalry with his two partners in the triumvirate, Pompey and Caesar.

Superstitions and omens

It is said that when he was first brought to Rome to be sold, a serpent was seen coiled about his face as he slept, and his wife, who was of the same tribe as Spartacus, a prophetess, and subject to visitations of the Dionysiac frenzy, declared it the sign of a great and formidable power which would attend him to a fortunate issue. (8)

When Crassus is marching out of Rome for the East his way is blocked by a critic, Ateius:

Ateius ran on ahead to the city gate, placed there a blazing brazier, and when Crassus came up, cast incense and libations upon it, and invoked curses which were dreadful and terrifying in themselves, and were reinforced by sundry strange and dreadful gods whom he summoned and called by name. The Romans say that these mysterious and ancient curses have such power that no one involved in them ever escapes, and misfortune falls also upon the one who utters them, wherefore they are not employed at random nor by many. And accordingly at this time they found fault with Ateius because it was for the city’s sake that he was angered at Crassus, and yet he had involved the city in curses which awakened much superstitious terror.

There follows a steadily increasing crescendo of bad omens as Crassus’s army advanced into the badlands. Surely these are classic examples of Cicero’s inventio. This is what ought to have happened for the gods are just and send us omens and prophecies and so every fraught event must be accompanied by heavenly signs. Precisely what makes this aspect of these ancient texts ludicrous to us, made them plausible and convincing to most of their readers.


Related links

Roman reviews

The Ottoman Endgame: War, Revolution, and the Making of the Modern Middle East, 1908–1923 by Sean McMeekin (2015)

This is a very good book, maybe the definitive one-volume account of the subject currently available.

McMeekin’s earlier volume, The Berlin-Baghdad Express: The Ottoman Empire and Germany’s Bid for World Power, 1898-1918, although full of solid history, was conceived and structured as an entertainment, using the erratic history of the Berlin to Baghdad railway project as a thread on which to hang an account of the German High Command’s attempt to raise a Muslim Holy War against her enemies, Britain and France, across the entire territory of the Ottoman Empire and beyond, into Persia and Afghanistan.

It had a chapter apiece devoted to the quixotic missions which the Germans sent out to try and recruit various Muslim leaders to their side, very much dwelling on the colourful characters who led them and the quirky and sometimes comic details of the missions – which, without exception, failed.

In Berlin to Baghdad book McMeekin had a habit of burying references to key historic events in asides or subordinate clauses, which had a cumulatively frustrating effect. I felt I was learning a lot about Max von Oppenheim, the archaeological expert on the ancient Middle East who was put in charge of Germany’s Middle East Bureau – but a lot less about the key events of the war in Turkey.

Similarly, as McMeekin recounted each different mission, as well as the various aspects of German policy in Turkey, he tended to go back and recap events as they related to this or that mission or development, repeatedly going back as far as the 1870s to explain the origin of each thread. I found this repeated going over the same timeframe a number of times also rather confusing.

This book is the opposite. This is the book to read first. This is the definitive account.

In 500 solid pages, with lots of very good maps and no messing about, following a strict chronological order, McMeekin gives us the political, military and diplomatic background to the Ottoman Empire’s involvement in the First World War, a thorough, authoritative account of those disastrous years, and of their sprawling aftermath through the disastrous Greco-Turkish War (1919-23) ending with the Treaty of Lausanne, signed in July 1923, which established the modern republic of Turkey and brought that troubled country’s decade of tribulations to an end.

McMeekin suggests that the bloody decade which stretched from the first of the two Balkan Wars in 1912/13 through to the final peace of the Greco-Turkish War as, taken together, constituting The War of The Ottoman Succession.

Gallipoli

This is the first detailed account of the Gallipoli disaster I’ve read, which clearly sets it in the wider context of a) the broader Ottoman theatre of war b) the First World War as a whole. I was a little shocked to learn that the entire Gallipoli campaign was in response to a request from Russian High Command to draw Ottoman troops away from the Caucasus, where the Russian High Command thought they were being beaten.

One among many bitter ironies is that the Russians were not, in fact, being defeated in the Caucasus, that in fact the Battle of Sarikamish (December 1914 to January 1915), which the Russian leadership panicked and took to be a rout, eventually turned into the worst Ottoman defeat of the war.

But the Russians’ panicky request to the British at Christmas 1914 was enough to crystallise and jog forward British ideas about opening a second front somewhere in Turkey. From a raft of often more practical options, the idea attacking and opening up the Dardanelles (so British ships could sail up to and take Constantinople, and gain access to the Black Sea) soon acquired an unstoppable momentum of its own.

Armenian genocide

As with Gallipoli, so McMeekin also presents the Armenian Genocide in the context of the bigger picture, showing, for example, how the Christian Armenians did rise up against their Ottoman masters in the eastern city of Van, and did co-operate with the attacking Russians to expel the Ottomans and hand the city over, and so did justify the paranoia of the Ottoman High Command that they had a sizeable population of fifth columnists living in potentially vital strategic areas.

For it was not only in the far East of the Empire, in Armenia, a fair proportion of the Armenian population of Cilicia, over on the Mediterranean coast, was also prepared to rise up against the Ottomans, if provided with guns and leadership from the British (pp.223-245).

So McMeekin’s measured and factual account makes it much more understandable why the Ottoman High Command – under pressure from the ongoing British attack at Gallipoli, and terrified by the swift advances by the Russians through the Caucasus – took the sweeping decision to expel all Armenians from all strategically sensitive locations.

None of this excuses the inefficiency they then demonstrated in rounding up huge numbers of people and sending them into the Syrian desert where hundreds of thousands perished, or the gathering mood of violent paranoia which seized local authorities and commanders who took the opportunity to vent their fear and anxiety about the war on helpless civilians, which led to localised pogroms, execution squads and so on. But it does help to explain the paranoid atmosphere in which such things are allowed to happen.

McMeekin emphasises that, once it saw what was happening on the ground, the Ottoman leadership then tried to moderate the expulsion policy and explicitly forbade the punishment of Armenians, but it was too late: at the local level thousands of administrators and soldiers had absorbed the simple message that all Armenians were ‘traitors’ and should be shown no mercy. The net result was the violent killing, or the starving and exhausting to death, of up to one and a half million people, mostly defenceless civilians, an event which was used by Allied propaganda at the time, and has been held against the Turks ever since.

Siege at Kut

Again, I was vaguely aware of the British army’s catastrophe at Kut, a mud-walled town a few hundred miles (230 miles, to be precise) up the Tigris river, where an entire British army was surrounded and besieged by a Turkish army, in a situation reminiscent of the Boer War sieges of Mafeking and Ladysmith (pp.263-270, 290-293).

But McMeekin’s account helps you see how the Kut disaster was a climax of the up-to-that-point successful campaign to seize the estuary of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, the Shatt al-Harab, and to win towns as far north as Basra, Qurna and Amara.

He takes you into the British thinking strategic thinking behind the ill-advised decision to push on towards Baghdad, and explains why the Turks turned out to be better dug-in and better led around that city than we expected (p.269). There’s a fascinating thread running alongside the slowly building catastrophe, which was the extreme reluctance of the Russian commander in the field, General N.N. Baratov to come to our aid (pp.290-292).

In fact Russian tardiness / perfidy is a recurrent theme. We only mounted the Gallipoli offensive to help the bloody Russians, but when it ran into trouble and British leaders begged Russia to mount a diversionary attack on the Black Sea environs of Constantinople to help us, the Russians said the right thing, made a few desultory naval preparations but – basically – did nothing.

British take Jerusalem

Similarly, I vaguely knew that the British Army ‘took’ Jerusalem, but it makes a big difference to have it set in context so as to see it as the climax of about three years of on-again, off-again conflict in the Suez and Sinai theatre of war.

Early on, this area had seen several attempts by Germans leading Turkish armies, accompanied by Arab tribesmen, to capture or damage parts of the Suez Canal, which McMeekin had described in the earlier book and now tells again, much more thoroughly and factually. The capture of Jerusalem was the result of a new, far more aggressive British policy  of not just defending the canal, but of attacking far beyond it – known as the Southern Palestine Offensive of November to December 1917, carried out by the Egypt Expeditionary Force led by General Edmund Allenby.

Balfour Declaration

Similarly, the Balfour Declaration of November 1917. I knew about this but hadn’t realised how it was related to the Russian Revolution. Apparently, world Jewish opinion was split for the first three years of the war about who to support because:

  1. Zionism, as a movement, was actually an Austro-German invention, the brainchild of Austrian journalist Theodor Herzl
  2. the World Zionist Executive was based throughout the war in Berlin
  3. most powerfully, the Western democracies were allied with Russia which had, from time immemorial, been the traditional enemy of Jews and Judaism

But the overthrow of the Tsarist government, and the transition to what everyone hoped would be more liberal democratic rule, tipped the balance of world Jewish opinion, especially in America, where the money came from (pp.352-3), against the Central Powers. The Balfour Declaration was a pretty cynical attempt to take advantage of this shift in Jewish opinion.

The Russian Revolution

God knows how many histories of the Russian Revolution I’ve read, but it was fascinating to view the whole thing from the point of view of the Ottoman Empire.

1916 was actually a good year for the Russians in the Ottoman theatre of war. They won a series of sweeping victories which saw them storm out of the Caucasus and into Anatolia, seizing Van and then the huge military stronghold at Erzerum.

And McMeekin shows how, even as the central government in faraway Petrograd collapsed in early 1917, the Russian Black Sea navy under Admiral Kolchak, chalked up a series of aggressive victories, climaxing with a sizeable naval attack force which steamed right up to the Bosphorus in June 1917.

But the collapse of the Tsarist regime in February 1917 had led to slowly ramifying chaos throughout the army and administration, and the the arrival of Lenin in the capital in April 1917, with his simple and unequivocal policy of ending the war, sowed the seeds of the complete collapse of Russian forces.

McMeekin leaves you with one of those huge historical what-ifs: What if the Russian revolution hadn’t broken out when it did – maybe the Russians would have taken Constantinople, thus ending the war over a year early and permanently changing the face of the Middle East.

The best history is empowering

As these examples show, this is the very best kind of history, the kind which:

  1. lays out very clearly what happened, in a straightforward chronological way so that you experience the sequence of events just as the participants did, and sympathise with the pressures and constraints they were under
  2. and places events in a thoroughly explained context so that you understand exactly what was at stake and so why the participants behaved as they did

McMeekin is slow to judge but, when he does, he has explained enough of the events and the context that you, the reader, feel empowered to either agree or disagree.

Empowerment – and this is what good history is about. 1. It explains what happened, it puts it in the widest possible context, and it empowers you to understand what happened and why, so you can reach your own assessments and conclusions.

2. And it has another, deeper, empowering affect which is to help you understand why things are the way they are in the modern world, our world.

McMeekin explains that, on one level, the entire history of the later Ottoman Empire is about Russia’s relationship with Turkey and the simple facts that the Russians wanted:

  1. to seize all of European Turkey, most of all Constantinople, to reclaim it as a Christian city to be renamed Tsargrad
  2. to make big inroads into eastern Turkey, creating semi-independent states of Armenia and Kurdistan which would be Russian protectorates
  3. the net affects of 1 and 2 being to give Russia complete dominance of the Black Sea and easy access to the Mediterranean

This is the fundamental geopolitical conflict which underlies the entire region. The intrusion into bits of the Empire by the British (in Egypt, Palestine and Iraq) or the French wish to colonise Lebanon and Syria, are in a sense secondary to the fundamental Russo-Turkish conflict whose roots stretch back centuries.

Competition for the Caucasus

McMeekin covers the ‘scramble for the Caucasus’ in the Berlin-Baghdad book but, as with the rest of the subject, it feels much more clear and comprehensible in this version.

It’s the story of how, following the unilateral declaration of peace by the Bolsheviks, the Germans not only stormed across Eastern Europe, sweeping into the Baltic nations in the north and Ukraine in the south – they also got involved in a competition with the Turks for the Caucasus and Transcaucasus.

In other words the Ottoman Army and the German Army found themselves competing to seize Armenia, Georgia, Kurdistan and, above all, racing to seize Baku on the Caspian Sea, important not only for its strategic position, but because of the extensive oil fields in its hinterland.

The story is fascinatingly complex, involving a British force (led by General Dunster) which at one point held the city for 6 weeks (the British got everywhere!) but was forced to withdraw by boat across the Caspian as the hugely outnumbering Turks moved in – and a great deal of ethnic conflict between rival groups on the spot, specifically the native Azeri Muslims and the Christian Armenians.

Events moved very quickly. Local political leaders across the region declared the Transcaucasian Democratic Federative Republic which included the present-day republics of Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Armenia which existed from just April to May 1918, but the area around Baku was engulfed in ethnic violence – the so-called March Days massacres from March to April 1918 – and then in May 1918, the leading party in Baku declared independence as the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic.

Nice for them but irrelevant as the Ottoman Army then routed the British and seized the city in September 1918. And only a few years later, most of these countries were reinvented by the Bolsheviks as Socialist Soviet Republics strongly under the control of Moscow, as they would remain for the next 70 years till the collapse of the Soviet Union (so in this region, the Russians won).

The end of the Great War…

The race for Baku was just one example of the chaos which was unleashed over an enormous area by the collapse of the Russian state.

But for McMeekin, it was also an example of the foolishness of the main military ruler of the Ottoman Empire during the entire Great War, Enver Pasha, who over-extended the (by now) under-manned and under-armed Turkish army, by dragging it all the way to the shores of the Caspian in what McMeekin calls ‘a mad gamble’ (p.400) ‘foolish push’ (p.409).

This left the Anatolian heartland under-defended when it suffered attacks by the British from the north in Thrace, from the south up through Palestine, and in Iraq – not to mention the French landings in Cilicia and Lebanon on the Mediterranean coast.

The Empire was forced to sign the Armistice of Mudros with Great Britain on 30 October and Ottoman troops were obliged to withdraw from the whole region in the Caucasus which they’d spent the summer fighting for.

… was not the end of the fighting

The war between France and Britain and the Ottoman Empire theoretically ended with the Armistice of Mudros on 30 October 1918. But McMeekin’s book is fascinating because it shows how invasions, landings, fighting and massacres continued almost unabated at locations across the Empire.

Specifically, it was a revelation to me that the Allied decision to allow the Greeks to land troops in the city of Smyrna on the Aegean coast turned out to be the flashpoint which triggered the end of the Ottoman Empire.

Disgruntled Ottoman officers had been gathering in central Anatolia, away from Constantinople, now occupied by the Allies, who bitterly resented the way the civilian politicians were handing over huge tranches of the Empire to the Allies. These men rallied in Eastern Anatolia under Mustafa Kemal, who became the leader of the hastily assembled Turkish National Movement.

And thus began, as McMeekin puts it, one of the most remarkable and successful political careers of the twentieth century, the transformation of Mustafa Kemal from successful general into Father of his Nation, who was awarded the honorific Atatürk (‘Father of the Turks’) in 1934.

Big ideas

As always, when reading a history on this scale, some events or issues leap out as new (to me) or particularly striking. Maybe not the ones the author intended, but the ones which made me stop and think.

1. The First World War ended in Bulgaria

Brought up on the story of the trenches, I tend to think of the war ending because the German Spring offensive of 1918 broke the Allied lines and advanced 25 miles or so before running out of steam, at which point the Allies counter-attacked, pushing the Germans back to their original lines and then ever-backwards as more and more German soldiers deserted and their military machine collapsed. That’s how it ended.

I knew that Bulgaria had surrendered to the Allies as early 24 September and that that event had had some impact on German High Command, but it is fascinating to read McMeekin’s account which makes the end of the First World War all about the Balkans and Bulgaria.

The British had had a large force (250,000) defending Macedonia and the approach to Greece from Bulgaria, which was allied with Austria and Germany. But the Bulgarians were fed up. In the peace treaties imposed on the new Bolshevik Russian government in May 1918 the Bulgarians got hardly any territory. When the Germans advanced into Ukraine the Bulgarians received hardly any of the grain which was seized. The Bulgarians are Slavs and so there was widespread sympathy for Russia while many ordinary people wondered why their young men were fighting and dying for Germany. And there was abiding antagonism against the Ottomans, their supposed ally, who Bulgaria had had to fight to free itself from and had fought against in the Balkan Wars of 1912-13.

All this meant that when an aggressive new French general, Louis Félix Marie François Franchet d’Espèrey, arrived to take command of Allied army in Macedonia, and sent exploratory probes against the Bulgarian line, discovered it was weak, and then unleashed a full frontal assault in the Vardar Offensive of September 1918, that the Bulgarian army and state collapsed.

The Bulgarian army surrendered, mutinied, part even declared an independent mini-republic, and the Bulgarian government was forced to sue for peace on 24 September 1918. When he heard of the Bulgarian surrender, the supreme leader of the German Army, Ludendorff, said they were done for. The Turkish generalissimo, Enver Pasha, said we’re screwed.

The collapse of Bulgaria gave the Allies command of the Balkans, allowing the channeling of armies south-east, the short distance to capture Constantinople, or north against the vulnerable southern flank of Austro-German territory.

In McMeekin’s account, the collapse of Tsarist Russia was certainly a seismic event but it didn’t, of itself, end the war.

The trigger for that event was the surrender of Bulgaria.

2. East and West

Another of the Big Ideas to really dwell on is the difference between the First World War on the Western Front and on the other theatres of war – the Eastern Front in Europe, but also all the warzones in Ottoman territory, namely Gallipoli, the Black Sea, Suez, Mesopotamia, Persia and the Caucasus.

Any English person brought up, like me, on the history and iconography of the Western Front, with its four-year-long stalemate and gruelling trench warfare, will be astonished at the dynamism and tremendously changing fortunes of the combatants on all the other fronts I’ve just listed.

Not only that, but events in the East were intricately interlinked, like a vast clock.

Thus it is one thing to learn that Serbia, the cause of the whole war, which Austria-Hungary had threatened to demolish in the first weeks of the war, was not in fact conquered until over a year later, in November 1915. So far, so vaguely interesting.

But it took my understanding to a whole new level to learn that the fall of Serbia to the Central Powers was the decisive event for Gallipoli. Because, while Serbia was holding out, she had prevented the Germans from shipping men and material easily down through the Balkans to their Ottoman ally. Once Serbia fell, however, the transport routes to Turkey were open, and this was the last straw for strategists in London, who realised the bad situation of the Allied troops stuck on the beaches of the Dardanelles could only deteriorate.

And so the decision to abandon the Gallipoli campaign and remove the troops from the beaches.

This is just one example from the many ways in which McMeekin’s account helps you see how all of these events were not isolated incidents, but how, all across the region from Libya in the West to the Punjab in the East, from the Balkans via Palestine to Suez, across Syria, down into Arabia, or up into the snowy Caucasus mountains, events in one theatre were intricately connected with events in all the others – and how the entire complex machinery was also influenced by events on the immense Eastern Front to their north, which ran from the Baltic to the Black Sea.

Basically, the First World War in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, was vastly more complicated, dynamic and interesting than the war in the West. And also pregnant with all kinds of long-running consequences.

3. The ends of wars are incalculably more complex than the beginnings

Real peace didn’t come to Turkey till 1923. In this regard it was not unlike Germany which saw coups and revolutions through 1919, or the vast Russian Civil War which dragged on till 1922 and included an attempt to invade and conquer Poland in 1920, or the political violence which marred Italy until Mussolini’s black shirts seized power in 1922.

Across huge parts of the world, violence, ethnic cleansing and actual wars continued long after the Armistice of November 1918. In fact McMeekin goes so far as to describe the Battle of Sakarya (23 August to 12 September 1921) as ‘the last real battle of the First World War (p.456).

Thus the book’s final hundred pages describe the long, complex, violent and tortuous transformation of the Ottoman Empire into the Turkish Republic, a story which is riveting, not least because of the terrible decisions taken by Prime Minister David Lloyd George, often against the advice of his entire cabinet, namely:

  1. to allow the Greek Army to occupy Smyrna, which led to riots, massacres, and outrage right across Turkey
  2. to occupy Constantinople on March 20 1920 – I had no idea British warships docked in the harbour, and British soldiers backed by armoured cars set up control points at every junction, erecting machine-gun posts in central squares – God, we got everywhere, didn’t we?

And bigger than both of these, the folly of the Allies’ approach of imposing a humiliating peace without providing the means to enforce it.

That said, America also played a key role. Much is always made of the Sykes-Picot Plan to divide the Ottoman Empire up between Britain and France, but McMeekin goes to great pains to emphasise several massive caveats:

1. Sazonov That, when it was drawn up, in June 1916, the Sykes-Picot Plan was largely at the behest of the pre-revolutionary Russian government which had more interest in seizing Ottoman territory than the other two combatants, so the plan ought, in McMeekin’s view, to be called the Sazonov-Sykes-Picto Plan because of the dominant influence of Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Sazonov.

2. Sèvres I was astonished to see that the Treaty of Sèvres (imposed on the new Turkish government in May 1920, reluctantly signed in August 1920) handed a huge amount of territory, the bottom half of present-day Turkey, to Italy – in fact pretty much all the contents of the Treaty of Sèvres are mind-boggling, it enacted ‘a policy of forcefully dismembering Turkey’ (p.447). As McMeekin brings out, a document better designed to humiliate the Turks and force them into justified rebellion could barely be imagined.

Map showing how the Ottoman Empire was carved up by the Treaty of Sèvres, not only between the French and British, but the Italians, Greeks and Russians as well (Source: Wikipedia, author: Thomas Steiner)

3. States That the key player in the final year of the war and the crucial few years after it, was the United States, with some plans being drawn up for America to hold ‘mandates’ over large parts of the Ottoman Empire, namely Palestine, Syria, Mesopotamia. Given a choice the native populations wanted the Americans in charge because they thought they would be genuinely disinterested unlike the colonial powers.

Here, as across Central Europe, it was a great blow when, first of all Woodrow Wilson had a stroke which disabled him (October 1919), and then the American Congress refused to ratify the Treaty of Versailles or join the League of Nations.

As the chaos continued, and as David Lloyd George listened to his influential Greek friends and supported a Greek army invasion of Smyrna on the Turkish coast (with its large Greek population), and then its pushing inland to secure their base, only slowly did I realise McMeekin was describing events which are nowadays, with hindsight, referred to as the Greco-Turkish War of 1919–1922.

I had no idea the Greeks penetrated so far into Anatolia.

Map of the Greco-Turkish War, blue arrows showing the advance of the Greek Army into undefended Anatolia and coming within 50 miles of the new Turkish capital at Ankara before being halted at the Battle of Sakarya (source: Wikipedia, author: Andrei Nacu)

And no idea that the Greeks were encouraged to the hilt by David Lloyd George right up until it began to look like they would lose after their advance was halted by the vital Battle of Sakarya just 50 miles from Ankara.

Nor that the Greeks then forfeited the backing of the French and British and world opinion generally, by the brutality with which they pursued a scorched earth policy in retreat, torching every town and village and railway and facility in their path, also committing atrocities against Muslim Turkish civilians. It’s gruelling reading the eye-witness descriptions of destroyed villages, raped women, and murdered populations. What bastards.

Mustafa Kemal’s impact on Britain

It was a revelation to me to learn that, once Kemal’s Turkish army had driven the Greeks back into the sea and forced the evacuation of Smyrna, and with his eastern border protected by a rock-solid treaty he had signed with Soviet Russia, Kemal now turned his attention to the Bosphorus, to Constantinople, and to Thrace (the thin strip of formerly Turkish territory on the northern, European side of the Straits), all occupied by (relatively small) British forces.

It was news to me that Lloyd George, backed by Winston Churchill, was determined that Kemal would not have either Constantinople or the Straits back again, and so a) wrote to the premiers of Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa asking them to contribute forces to a second defence of Gallipoli – they all said No – and b) the British public were by now so sick of the war in Turkey, and war generally, that they, and all the newspapers, roundly called for an end to British involvement – STOP THIS NEW WAR! shouted the Daily Mail.

And that it was this crisis which caused the collapse of the coalition government which had ruled Britain and the Empire since 1916.

The Conservatives abandoned the coalition, it collapsed, the Liberals split into two factions and the election of October 1922 resulted in not only a Conservative victory (344 seats) but the Labour Party emerging for the first time as the largest opposition party (142 seats), with the two factions of the Liberal party knocked into third and fourth place. The Liberals, even when they finally recombined, were never to regain the power and influence they enjoyed throughout the nineteenth century.

Thus, McMeekin points out with a flourish, Mustafa Kemal had not only divided the wartime Alliance (the French wanted nothing to do with Lloyd George’s foolish support for the Greeks) and atomised the Commonwealth (all those white Commonwealth countries refusing to help the Old Country) but ended the long history of the Liberal Party as a party of power.

Fascinating new perspectives and insights

Conclusion

Nowadays, it is easy to blame the usual imperialist suspects Britain and France for all the wrongs which were to beset the Middle East for the 100 years since the Treaty of Lausanne finally finalised Turkey’s borders and gave the rest of the area as ‘mandates’ to the victorious powers.

But McMeekin, in his final summing up, is at pains to point out the problems already existing in the troubled periphery – there had already been two Balkan Wars, Zionist immigration was set to be a problem in Palestine no matter who took over, Brits, Russians or Germans – Arabia was already restless with the Arab tribes jostling for power – Mesopotamia had been a hornet’s nest even during Ottoman rule, with the Ottoman authorities telling non-Muslims never to visit it. All this before you get to the smouldering cause of Armenian independence.

All these problems already existed under the last years of Ottoman rule, the British and French didn’t invent them, they just managed them really badly.

Ataturk’s achievement was to surgically remove all these problems from Ottoman control and delegate them to the imperial powers. He was clever, they were dumb, inheriting insoluble problems. He created an ethnically homogenous and ‘exclusionary state’ whose borders have endured to this day.

As a very specific example, McMeekin cites Kemal’s readiness to hand over the area around Mosul to British control, even though he was well aware of its huge oil deposits. He made the very wise assessment that the benefit of the oil would be outweighed by the disruptive issues he would inherit around managing the ethnic and religious conflicts in the region (between Kurds and Arabs, between Sunni and Shia Muslims). And indeed, the low-level conflicts of the region are alive and kicking to this day.

The Allies for 25 years struggled to rule Palestine, Arabia, Syria, Iraq and eventually withdrew in various states of failure. McMeekin’s mordant conclusion is that the ‘the War of the Ottoman Succession rages on, with no end in sight’ (p.495, final sentence).

For the clear and authoritative way it lays out its amazing story, and for the measured, deep insights it offers into the period it describes and the consequences of these events right up to the present day, this is a brilliant book.


Related reviews

Other blog posts about the First World War

Books

Histories

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The Byzantine Empire

Which describe the first arrival of the Seljuk Turks in the region, their conquest of Anatolia, Byzantine territory and, finally, Constantinople itself.

I am Ashurbanipal king of the world, king of Assyria @ the British Museum

Ashurbanipal

Ashurbanipal was ruler of the Assyrian Empire from 669 to about 630 BC. From his capital at Nineveh on the edge of present-day city of Mosul in northern Iraq, Ashurbanipal ruled a vast and diverse empire, reaching from upper Egypt, via the eastern shore of the Mediterranean (modern Cyprus, Israel Lebanon and Syria) and along a corridor either side of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers down to the Persian Gulf. During his reign he was probably the most powerful person on earth.

Map showing the fullest extent of the Assyrian empire (in pink) by Paul Goodhead

Map showing the fullest extent of the Assyrian empire (in pink) by Paul Goodhead

This blockbuster exhibition examines the life and times and cultural achievements and social context of Ashurbanipal’s rule alongside detailed profiles of the different kingdoms and cultures which he ruled over and exhaustive accounts of his numerous military campaigns.

Topics

The quickest way to give you a sense of the scope might be to list some of the headings which introduce different areas of the exhibition and displays:

  • Nineveh, a city without rival
  • The royal family
  • Ashurbanipal’s palace in Nineveh
  • Aqueducts and canals (agriculture and pleasure gardens)
  • Training to be a king (featuring numerous lions hunts in which the king displays his mastery of the natural world)
  • The scholar king (in inscriptions he boasts of being able to read numerous languages)
  • Knowledge is power (his surprisingly large library)
  • Coronation
  • Assyria’s world domination (introducing the various kingdoms and people the empire ruled over)
    • The southern Levant
    • Babylonia
    • Elam
    • The kingdoms of Cyprus
    • The kingdom of Urartu
    • Western Iran
    • Aramaean kingdoms
    • Ashurbanipal at war
    • Ashurbanipal conquers Egypt
    • Trouble in the East (Urtak, king of Elam, invades Babylonia)
    • Sibling rivalry (with his older brother Shamash-shumu-ukin)
  • Retaliation (against Elam for its rebellion)
  • Order restored
  • The empire falls apart (after Ashurbanipal’s death)
  • Ashurbanipal’s fate (a mystery to this day)
  • Legend, discovery and revival (Victorian archaeologists uncover the key sites and ship statues and carvings back to the British Museum in London)
Discovery of Nimrud by Frederick Charles Cooper (1810 – 1880) mid-19th century, watercolour on paper © The Trustees of the British Museum

Discovery of Nimrud by Frederick Charles Cooper (1810 – 1880) mid-19th century, watercolour on paper © The Trustees of the British Museum

Highlights

This is the first ever major exhibition to explore the life of Ashurbanipal in such depth and a dream come true for anyone interested in this period. Anyone familiar with the Assyrians knows that they were a strongly militaristic culture characterised, above all, by the immense statues of lions with the heads of bearded men. These tend to covered in cuneiform inscriptions which, when deciphered, amount to world class bragging about the emperor’s might and strength, king of kings, and then go on to give a long list of the emperor’s achievements.

Maybe even more famous are the numerous enormous friezes we have depicting the emperor on one of his countless lion hunts. Elsewhere in the British Museum (rooms 6, 7 and 8) you can walk along a corridor entirely lined by stone friezes depicting the lion hunt which was a central icon and symbol of Assyrian kingship. Why? Because the emperor’s role was to impose order on the world. The lion was the fiercest beast in the world. By beating it, by killing lions single handed (although surrounded by scores of courtiers and warriors) the emperor showed his fitness to rule and, symbolically, enacted the ordering of the world.

Both these types of imagery are familiar to anyone who knows a bit about the ancient Middle East.

Social history What is new and striking about the exhibition was a lot of the non-military social history. For example, the section on the immense library which Ashurbanipal assembled, and which led him to boast about his learning.  His library at Nineveh may have contained as many as 10,000 texts and the exhibition powerfully conveys this by displaying them in a massive glass wall divided into grids, each containing a cuneiform text, carved into a clay tablet, covering a wide range of subjects – astrology, medicine, legends and so on. Ashurbanipal claimed to be unlike his predecessors in that he could read, write and debate with expert scholars.

The canals of Nineveh Nearby is a section devoted to the orderly agriculture and watering of the capital city, conveyed via a big carving showing canals, tilled fields and a path leading to a gazebo with a happy looking emperor standing in it. Apparently it was Asurbanipal’s grandfather, Sennacherib (mentioned in the Bible) who built the canals which watered Nineveh.

Clever lighting What brings this all alive is the clever use of lighting which animates bands of blue slowly colouring the canals, and of green, slowly colouring in the fields, and white indicating the path. The information panel tells us that all of these carvings and sculptures would have been brightly coloured. But the use of son et lumiere to animate the colouring was inspired.

Battle scenes The same goes for several of the battle panels. One of them is maybe 30 feet wide and depicts the Battle of Til-Tuba in 653 BC, as Ashurbanipal led an invasion of the kingdom of Elam. As with many of these battle panels, the figures are carved in horizontal bands, each of which tells a story, in this case the Elamites retreating in panic down a hill before triumphant Assyrians who drive them into a river.

There are information panels along the bottom of the long frieze picking out scenes, but there was also another display of lighting effects for a sequence of spotlights picked out a particular scene – not only picked it out but highlighted the silhouettes of the relevant figures – and then text was projected onto a blank part of the frieze explaining what was going on.

Relief detail of Ashurbanipal hunting on horseback from Nineveh, Assyria (645–635 BC) © The Trustees of the British Museum

Relief detail of Ashurbanipal hunting on horseback from Nineveh, Assyria (645–635 BC) © The Trustees of the British Museum

The exhibition contains a number of maps and, in the main area you realise that the entire floor you are walking on is a schematic map of the Assyrian Empire.

There are several timelines, twenty of more large information panels and, of course, hundreds of smaller information panels relating to each of the 200 or so artefacts on display.

Partitions The exhibition is divided into different ‘rooms’ or areas by immense partitions on which are printed patterns and designs found on the tiled rooms of the emperor’s palace, abstract geometric patterns.

In fact these vast decorated partitions dominate the exhibition visually, much bigger than any one object on display, and encourage you to pay attention to the section of the show which focuses on Assyrian tiles and glazed bricks, explaining the evolution of their decorative patterns and styles.

If the central section focuses on Ashurbanipal’s military campaigns, with cases explaining the history and culture of each of the dozen or so areas which made up the empire, and then a series of displays about each of his major campaigns (against Egypt and Elam in particular), there are also plenty of more modest cases highlighting what we know about Assyrian religion, culture, design, even cookery – displaying ‘delicately carved ivories, extravagant metalwork, cosmetic vessels and gold ornaments’ – one case showing an enormous bronze cauldron decorated around the lip with what seem to be dragon heads.

Striding sphinx from ‘Fort Shalmaneser’, Nimrud, Iraq (900 -700 BC) © The Trustees of the British Museum

Striding sphinx from ‘Fort Shalmaneser’, Nimrud, Iraq (900 -700 BC) © The Trustees of the British Museum

Criticism

Overall the exhibition layout is imaginative and over-awing, and the use of the light animations to bring old stone friezes to life is really inspiring.

However the curators make the same mistake they made with the Viking exhibition. A good number of the information labels are at waist height. When I went the exhibition was absolutely crammed. Imagine the crowd at a football stadium. It was impossible to process through it in sequential order because some display cases were simply unapproachable. Early on, there is a display of a characteristic battle relief, maybe 20 feet long by 7 or eight feet high. As usual it shows a series of incidents during a battle and it was accompanied by about ten informative and interesting panels picking out and explaining specific incidents.

But because they were at waist height, they were completely hidden by the crowd of twenty of more people in front of them. Whereas, there was plenty of space above the relief. Why not put the information panels above the objects where anybody can read them, instead of at waist height, where they are inevitably hidden?

The end

The final sections of the show peter out a bit, after the dense concentration of information and huge reliefs depicting his famous victories which dominate the centre.

I was fascinated to learn that we don’t know when Ashurbanipal died. Nobody knows whether he died of natural causes, was murdered or abdicated. The last public inscription about him dates from 638. His kingship may have ended as early as 631 or as late as 627 – there is no written record in the sources of Assyria or its neighbours.

We do know that Ashurbanipal was briefly succeeded by a son, then another one. The significant event was that in 626 a former general, Nabopolassar, claimed the throne of Babylon and started a war of independence which led to the entire empire unravelling. The Iranian Medes led by Cyaxares, joined Nabopolassar and their forces sacked the city of Ashur, home to Assyria’s chief deity. This alliance then marched on Nineveh, the beautiful city of canals and decorated palaces built up by Ashurbanipal’s forebears and himself – and sacked it, burning it to the ground.

The Victorian rediscovery

It was only in the 1840s that Victorian archaeologists began systematically to uncover the site of Nineveh, discovering the massive lions statues, thousands of clay tables covered in writing, and other treasures. Some of these treasures were displayed at the Great Exhibition of 1851 and sparked a short-lived enthusiasm for Assyrian motifs on such things as tankards and dishes, and their use in jewellery and necklaces, a handful of which are on display here.

Until these discoveries, the reputation of the Assyrians and of Nineveh was taken from the Bible, where its rulers are depicted as gross, corrupt, Sybarites, who fully deserved their destruction by the Israelites’ jealous God.

The archaeological discoveries began to overthrow that old view and restore the more rounded view of Assyrian civilisation which, we like to think, we enjoy today.

War and destruction

The final section of the exhibition is staged in a long narrow corridor. It contains a timeline of modern archaeology (i.e. since the 1840s) and two short films.

One uses computer technology to match together aerial photos of the site of Nineveh as it appeared from the 1930s up to the present day, a rough square in a bend of the River Tigris. The camera, or point of view, slowly circles down from the high vantage point of early 20th century photos, spiralling down to show us how the site has changed and developed over the past eighty years or so, until we are at ground level looking up at the rather pitiful remains.

The second film features the head of the British Museum’s Iraq section explaining the scheme whereby archaeologists from Iraq are being brought to London and trained in various techniques, and then supported as they return to Iraq in the task of ongoing digging and preservation of that country’s heritage – the ‘Iraq Emergency Heritage Management Training Scheme’.

(This isn’t exactly the same one, but covers the same scheme)

I couldn’t help noticing the world class irony here.

For the previous half hour I had been reading numerous inscriptions in which Ashurbanipal had his sculptors inscribe words describing how he not only defeated his enemies in Egypt or Elam, but annihilated them and their cities, leaving not a blade of grass standing, how he ransacked the tombs of their royal families, destroyed their monuments, killed their sheep and goats and left not an animal stirring in the barren wastelands he created.

This is the man who is being held up, not exactly for our admiration but for our awe, a man who destroyed and killed wantonly in pursuit of his worldview, namely that the known world should be ruled by a man like him, with his beliefs.

The irony being that two and a half thousand years later, another cohort of warriors seized control of this region, also convinced that they had a God-given right to rule, to impose their beliefs on all the inhabitants, and to destroy anything, any relics or remains of civilisations which they saw as infidel and blasphemous.

Difficult not to see a certain continuity of culture reaching across two and a half millennia.

Relief depicting Ashurbanipal hunting a lion (645 – 635 BC) © The Trustees of the British Museum

Relief depicting Ashurbanipal hunting a lion (645 – 635 BC) © The Trustees of the British Museum

There’s a second final thought. Many bien-pensant liberals, as well as hard core identity politicians and virtue warriors, think the British Museum is a guilt-filled testimony to the wholesale looting carried out by the British Empire, and that all of its artefacts, starting with the Elgin Marbles, should be returned to their countries of origin.

But if all of these objects had been in the Baghdad Museum in 2003 or the Mosul Museum in 2015, they would all have been looted or simply destroyed.

That doesn’t settle the debate about the Marbles or thousands of other objects, but these are the thoughts which the final section, all about the Iraq War and ISIS, leave you pondering.

Video

Here’s an excellent visual overview of the show from Visiting London Guide.


Related links

Reviews of other British Museum exhibitions

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