January 2015

Nicholas Vajifdar

The Forgotten Twentieth Century

Vanished Walls: On Rome on the Euphrates by Freya Stark

I doubt I'm the only person who reads history mostly to try to draw general lessons about human behavior, rather than to do justice to a particular community or to stock my mental storehouse with specific facts. There's a special attraction to knowing the truth about life, however brutal, an attraction that probably gets stronger with age, and I have a few gray hairs. But generalization has troubles attendant on it too, requiring as it does the discarding of the untidy exceptions to your rule. Midway through reading Freya Stark's exhaustive history of Roman involvement in and colonization of Mesopotamia, Rome on the Euphrates: The Story of a Frontier, I remembered a passage from one of Schopenhauer's essays and went to go look it up:

Does not all history show that whenever a king is firmly planted on a throne, and his people reach some degree of prosperity, he uses it to lead his army, like a band of robbers, against adjoining countries? Are not almost all wars ultimately undertaken for purposes of plunder?

It's thrilling and pleasant to condemn the human race, especially from the comfort of your heated apartment. But, like the physics equation that ignores friction and air resistance, something about Schopenhauer's maxim didn't quite line up when superimposed over Stark's detailed account of the conquest. "Plunder" is, emotionally, what other people do; "intervention" plus "business opportunities" is what we and our allies do. We -- really, I -- have an image of the past as a country populated by conquistadors unencumbered by conscience, a time when there was tribal loyalty and little else to restrain the rapacity besides means. In contrast (continues the falsehood) contemporary people may commit all manner of dastardly deeds but they do so under the weight of immense rationalizations that past conquests never required -- e.g., "spreading democracy," "stopping genocide," and the great gobs of moralism that the chattering classes manage to summon in their support. But perhaps this is all wrong, and perhaps a conquest has always felt logical and fair from the standpoint of its instigator and monstrous and nightmarish from the standpoint of its victims. As Nietzsche pointed out, eagles don't hate the lambs they eat -- in fact, they're pretty fond of them.

Consider Stark's account of how Trajan first established Mesopotamia as an imperial province. In her telling, with its precise details, the conquest seems to unfold by necessity, under the influence of a cloud of various legal and economic forces. Trace the causality backward: Why did Trajan have to take Mesopotamia? Because the integrity of the eastern frontier had been violated when the Romans acquired new eastern territory, which suddenly became a lone outcropping, difficult to defend. And why did they acquire this new eastern territory, namely Armenia? Because Trajan had recently interfered in the Armenian succession, driving out a prince who had been anointed by the Parthians without Roman permission. And why had the Parthians themselves interfered in Armenia, switching out monarchs? Stark chalks it up to "some unknown and probably domestic reason." And why did both the Parthians and the Romans see the need to place Armenia within their respective spheres of influence? Probably to make safe the solidifying trade routes from India and China. And so on, into the intricacies of the Roman economies and the origins of the spice route, those rolling sunburnt caravans.

It's slightly disturbing to learn that such a precise event, Trajan's taking of Mesopotamia, would have such a cloudy origin. It's like the search for a river's source: instead of a bubbling fountainhead in a distinct spot of earth, you discover only patches of marsh, damp earth, meandering ditchwater, whose elements slowly coalesce and gain strength as they flutter down the mountainside. The beginnings are diffuse and troublingly various; some of the causes are obscure and others are obscure only in their relation to each other. The end result seems absurd while every step seems perfectly reasonable.

Some of the most emotional moments of her history occur when Stark pauses to recount a personal memory of a place that served as a stage for Roman or Parthian land snatching:

An eagle on a column still looks out over the restless pastures on the far side of a tumulus where another figure, an ancestor, is talking to his god. When the river is low, a ferry with a crooked pole can punt across Euphrates to where Somosatas clusters a few poor houses of mud and whitewash besides the mound that was its citadel and the slightly raised outline of its vanished walls.

Much of her reminiscences evoke this spirit of vanitas; another theme is her love of the land, its austere and awful beauty, the heat of its ancientness.

Stark writes in the opulent style characteristic of Anglophone travelers in what would turn out to be the last decades of the British empire, la Patrick Leigh Fermor. And like Fermor, her writing was marked by its sense of surface confidence, a Sousa march in prose. Everything seems magically arranged around the traveler to suggest the perfect aesthetic experience. The confidence, in fact, seems sometimes so consistent that it seems calculated to smother doubts, like a weightlifter screaming to complete the rep.

As she writes about the Romans and the Parthians and the various littler tribes and sects crushed in their tectonic bump and grind, it's clear that there are at least two other peoples implicitly present: the English and the Arabs, who engaged in their own colonial and anticolonial push-pull at the time Stark wrote. "An advantage I have had in my work," she said, "is perhaps a knowledge of the geography: I think there cannot be more than half a dozen places mentioned [in this history] that I have not either visited or stayed in." But this is the unspoken discomfort behind her knowledge: the fact that she felt very much at home throughout the Middle East suggests her own imperial spirit. She worked in British intelligence during the Second World War and, according to her, the British lost India due to "a lack of clearness and faith in our own values." (Loss of faith in one's "values" is, I guess, a face-saving way of describing a crisis of conscience.) Like the Orientalists and like Kipling, she learned the local lingo with admirable thoroughness. And like them, she often seemed to prefer the tongue to its progenitors.

Nevertheless, the book doesn't succeed or fail on political grounds. The achievement of the book is its superimposition, like a cinematic dissolve fade, of the Roman times over Stark's British present tense when, as a solitary female traveler, she crisscrossed the Levant and Arabia. There's also her impressive choice to stay in the weeds, naming particular chieftains and towns, and refusing, except on rare occasions, to extrapolate a trend from the great churn of proper nouns.

To read a long register of the names of dead people who once lived, breathed, desired, got confused, the same as you did -- can be nauseating. And this is especially true of the dead who belonged to now-dead cultures and spoke now-dead languages and espoused now-dead creeds -- because nothing survives them except at best a crumbly cenotaph, its inscription indecipherable. Are we absolutely sure that five hundred years from now the Axis versus the Allies will carry any more moral weight in the mind of the average person than the Guelphs versus the Ghibellines do now? Viewed this way, history may be one of the flimsier bases of morals available to us. A person may be on the right side of history for now, but history is littered with champions who are now as obscure as those they overcame. This is maybe the final impression left by Stark's beautiful and disturbing history.