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History essay questions

1. Discuss the concept of “contemporary history” proposed by Geoffrey Barraclough’s An Introduction to Contemporary History.

2. Discuss Mark Mazower’s analysis of the challenge to democracy in the 20th century in his Dark Continent.

3. Discuss the impact of Eric Hobsbawm’s marxist views in his history of the 20th century, Age of Extremes.

4. Discuss the role of “conterfactual history” in Joe Lee’s The Shifting Balance of Power.

TV tonight

Timewatch looks good tonight, BBC2, 9pm.

We follow in the footsteps of Julius Caesar’s bloody eight-year campaign that saw a million die, a million held hostage and 800 cities destroyed.

There will also be a preview of ‘Rome’ just after, the highly successful series that has been shown on HBO in the US. I think it starts on BBC on November 1st. I caught a glimpse of the series when I was in New York, with HBO On Demand – and it looked really good.

King David's fabled palace: Is this it?

Very interesting archaeology:

An Israeli archaeologist says she has uncovered in East Jerusalem what she believes may be the fabled palace of the biblical King David. Her work has been sponsored by the Shalem Center, a neoconservative think tank in Jerusalem, and funded by an American Jewish investment banker who would like to help provide scientific support for the Bible as a reflection of Jewish history.

The uses and abuses of history

Death toll, WW2

I meant to post about this last week, but it’s been a busy one. It always fascinates me how so much of what we learn in school about the Second World War is entirely devoted to how the US and Britain fought it. The battle of Stalingrad was an afterthought in the syllabus I was taught in school. Maybe its partly Hollywood’s fault, what ratio of war films portray the Western battles versus the Eastern ones? What films show the sheer loss to the Soviet Union?

The graph from the Economist this week clearly says it – the sacrifice of the Soviet Union was enormous. Many say that the Soviets were crap soldiers, and their generals were worse, not having issue with cannon fodder – or losing thousands of soldiers in major battles. But surely this is just the Western propaganda I was brought up with, always believeng the Soviets to be inferior – while in fact they are alot better than the West at alot of things. The figures are stark:

…fighting in the east accounted for over three-quarters of all German military casualties

Whenever I discuss this subject with people from former Soviet countries, they always say the same thing. If it was not for Russia we would all be speaking German now. And they go further, like him or loathe him, they believe were it not for the Iron man Stalin himself, I would be in the Hitler Youth now, eating a bratwurst.

Reading Irish history

I see Matthew Yglesias has taken to reading Irish history.

I’d been envisioning a pretty two-sided British/Protestant versus Irish/Catholic kind of history. But no! You’ve got your Anglo-Irish, your Old English, your Dissenters, etc., etc., etc. Quite the mess. Lee is perhaps the funniest historical writer I’ve encountered in a good long time (perhaps ever). Can’t quite decide if Foster’s footnote capsule biographies of notable figures are charming or annoying.

Feckin’ sure its complicated Matthew. In fact I think if anyone can study and remember Irish history it pretty much prepares them for just about any subject in any field whatsoever.

De demon drink smuggling

A couple of hours out to sea from Tel Aviv, on a hot Mediterranean night in the 1980’s, I carefully picked my way towards the armoured personnel carrier secured on the afterdeck. My job was to remove a HiFi and a 12-bottle box of spirits hidden beneath the troop seating section of the vehicle

The items had been placed there by a friend serving with the United Nations in the Lebanon (UNIFIL). It was my task to take them to my cabin and deliver them to certain persons on my return to Ireland. On gaining access to the vehicle, which was being returned to Ireland for repair, I was dismayed to find that someone had the bright idea of storing a large number of engine parts, also for repair, around the seating area. After a number of sweaty hours I finally managed to extract the HiFi and by literally tearing the cardboard box to pieces, the 12 bottles of spirits.

This kind of petty smuggling was common on the regular trips that the Irish navy made to Israel to re-supply the troops in Lebanon during the 80’s and 90’s. Customs always met the ship on return to the naval base at Haulbowline, made a cursory check of selected areas much as they do at civilian ports and airports and that was that. This time, however, it was different.

Waiting on the quay wall to meet us was a large team of very determined looking customs officers with full equipment, including cutting gear. To my astonishment, they discovered and removed crate after crate of spirits from every nook and cranny of the armoured car and was even more astonished when they cut open the fuel tank and it too was full to the ‘gills’ with spirits. Obviously, and without the knowledge of the crew, someone in the Lebanon had gone to a great deal of trouble to organise this smuggling operation.

The naval authorities were, as you can imagine, not too happy with this huge embarrassment to the good name of the Navy. It ‘became known’ that I had taken some items from the vehicle and I was brought before the Captain. There wasn’t much he could do really as everybody had a few bottles secreted away in their cabins, including officers. So, I was told to either slip the bottles over the side or drink them on board, but under no circumstances were they to be brought ashore.

I donated some of them to the NCOs mess and gave away the rest. A week later I got a phone call from the person who ‘owned’ the haul, but to this day he doesn’t believe that I didn’t keep the drink for myself.

The big question was – who squealed to customs? The general consensus was that somebody, angered by being excluded, made a quick phone call. There was little sympathy for those who lost out as it was believed officers, who had become too greedy, were the organisers of the operation.

Anthony Sheridan

Viriathus vs Rome

Viriathus is a name I had not come across before, but reading about him in The Enemies of Rome by Philip Matyzsak, he is certainly someone I won’t forget.

Viriathus was perhaps one of Iberia’a greatest military leaders. He succeeded in defeating the Roman army on several occassions, until he was eventually betrayed. The story of how he came to hate the Romans is an interesting one.

The time is circa 151 BC. The Romans have successfully occupied much of present-day Spain. To the west is a region called Lusitania, between the Guadiana and Douro rivers, taking in much of present day Portugal. The Romans had never succeeded in occupying Lusitania, but the Lusitanians, due in part to lack of good arable land, constantly preyed on neighbouring tribes for food and materials. Rome did manage to take control of these neighbouring tribes, the Vettones and Celtici, but the Lusitanians continued the raids regardless.


After a period of frequent clashes when the Lusitanians repeatedly agreed to and then violated peace accords, Rome lost patience in 151 BC and launched a full-scale attack under Servius Sulpicius Galba.

Again the Lusitanians sued for peace. Galba replied that the poverty of the Lusitanians’ native soil made it impossible for them to desist from raiding for long, so he proposed a whole-scale resettlement on three fertile plains. On an agreed date in 150 BC the Lusitanians gathered in three seperate groups to await resettlement. Galba insisited on disarming them, weapons being superfluous for an agrarian way of life. Then, with the nation in three seperate, unarmed groups, Galba ordered the Roman army to surround each group in turn and massacre everyone there – men, women and children. It was an atrocity that sickened even the brutal Romans. ‘He avenged treachery with treachery – an unworthy Roman imitating barbarians.’ (Appian, Hispania10 [60].)

One of those to escape was a shepherd by the name of Viriathus, and he had something of a grudge againt Rome.

4 years later and Lusitanian guerilla raids on Roman forces were growing more frequent. Eventually in 147 BC they invaded Turdetania, run by the Roman propraertor Vettius. The Lusitanians were no match for the Roman legions and were pushed back to a fortified town where they were besieged. It was here they were given terms for surrender, with terms that looked alot like Galba’s terms 3 years previous. Viriathus suggested a plan for escape, and was duly elected leader. The plan was basic enough, bring out everyone, line up for battle, let the Romans line up for battle, and then run like hell. It worked, the Romans were unable to catch them. His army met at a rendezvous point in Tribola, and the Romans followed. Viriathus set up an ambush and it worked – the Romans got caught between a cliff edge and the Lusitanians. 4,000 of Vettius’ army of 10,000 were killed, including Vettius.

The new Roman commander then bribed the neighbouring Celtibrerians to fight the Lusitanians. But short work was made of the Celti, they were all slaughtered. Viriathus then went on to plunder modern-day Toledo. As you can imagine, all this seriously pissed off the Romans.

There then followed a series of defeats for the Romans.

In 146 BC the Romans sent another army, commanded by C. Plautius. Viriathus ambushed and destroyed this army while they setup camp. He then went on to pillage and then destroy large parts of Segobriga.

In 145 BC the Romans sent another army, 15,000 foot soldiers and 2,000 cavalry, commanded by Quintus Fabius Aemilianus. They also sent an army commanded by Claudius Unimanus, which Viriathus duly slaughtered. On hearing of that army being destroyed, Fabius decided on a different tactic. The Romans refused to face the Lusitanians in open battle. By 144 BC Fabius decided to do battle, and drove the Lusitanians back, but the damage to Roman prestige for not doing battle earlier was done. The Celtibrerians rose against Rome, and thus began the long and bitter Numantine War.

Q. Pompeius was the next general to try againt Viriathus, he failed miserably, returning to camp after losing 1,000 men.

By 142 BC another Roman army had arrived, commanded by Fabius Servilianus. Rome was getting really pissed off, so this time they sent two full legions, 16,000 men, 1,600 cavalry and elephants.

Servilianus was successful, he besieged Viriathus in Erisone and retook several cities that had been under Lusitanian control. But Viriathus managed to smuggle himself and a large number of forces into the city. The following morning they attacked the Romans, and drove them towards a valley that Viriathus had earlier fortified. Servilianus was thus surrounded, and faced annihilation. He duly surrendered unconditionally, but Viriathus accepted, and demanded Roman forces withdraw from Lusitania, and recognise their independence, Viriathus was to be considered a friend and ally of the Roman people. No one knows why Viriathus let them off so lightly, but it is thought that if he had killed the whole army, Rome would never forget, and would keep sending armies until he was destroyed. So the Roman senate ratified the settlement.

The Romans did send a new governer to the region, Servilius Caepio, brother of the defeated general. Caepio was astute, but hated by the men who served under him. He tried to provoke Viriathus into war, but Viriathus resisted. Instead, some hot-headed tribesmen did get provoked, and in 140 BC the war resumed. Viriathus was reluctant to resume war, so he sent 3 trusted advisors to Caepio, Caepio lavished the 3 advisors with luxuries, and told them if they killed Viriathus they would obtain a huge reward. They went back to camp and stabbed Viriathus in the throat, fleeing to Caepio. Caepio then betrayed the deal, saying he had not meant for them to kill their leader. They were escorted from the city without a penny, though some other students of this era say that the three were killed by Caepio.

To end the hostilities, Caepio did as Galba has promised in the beginning, he resettled the Lusitanians to fertile lands. It worked and peace reigned.

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