Tuesday, October 31, 2006

The Iberian falcata

"It cuts off arms from the shoulder, heads from necks with a single hit, leaves the entrails out and produces all kinds of horrible wounds".

So told Pliny the Elder, in his Naturalis Historia, about the charms of the most feared weapon in the pre-Roman era. In the 2nd century BC, after the Second Punic War, the Roman Empire had expelled Carthage from the Iberian Peninsula. Now this territory was on a plate, and with it, its iron and copper mines, the richest of the Known World. However, a general uprising of Iberian and Celtiberian tribes against the invaders prolonged their conquest for almost two hundred years, and became hell for the Roman Legions.

The fierce resistence the natives opposed was influenced by their better knowledge of the terrain and their guerrilla war, but the use of the falcata, a sword clearly superior to Roman weapons, hit hard in the legions' moral. Augustus even orderd to renforce with iron the shields of the armies that left for Hispania, to try to mitigate its cutting effect.

The falcata's probable origin is the Greek kopis, a type of saber that Greek merchants brought in their colonial missions. From 5th century BC, Iberians gradually transformed it, decreased its curvature, added a double edge at the end (so that it could also operate as a thrust weapon, and especially improved its method of fabrication by using very pure iron and a three-plates structure. This lead to a very flexible weapon which was virtually impossible to break by other weapons of the time.

Its cutting power was most effective when used from high, such as in cavalries or at the defense of city walls. That is why, because of its characteristic shape, the hit came in a direction tangent to the target, and not perpendicular such as in the Roman gladius, so the cut was deeper. This technique has been later used, drom the scimitars to the modern sabers that Napolean dragoons used.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

The true Robespierre

Robespierre is one of the main characteres in the French Revolution, but also that sanguinary tyrant who sent thousands of people to guillotine during the Terror era. However, the ones who write History are usually the winners of the moment, which in this particular moment were the enemies that provoked his downfall. Let's try to be more critical.

A respectable citizen

Maximilien Robespierre was born in Arras, in the French Picardie. From a middle-class family, he could follow Law courses as his grandfather, where he stood out as a particularly brilliant student. While working as a lawyer, he wrote several law books that gave him a good reputation in the town. Being known as an inconditional supporter of Rousseau's revolutionary theories, he was one of the most respectable citizens of the region, being especially known for his correction, honesty and absolute sincerity.
In 1788 revolutionary ideas became more popular, and Robespierre started influencing political ambiances in the town, where he was chosen for several political jobs in Arras and later in Paris, where his position in defense of poor peasants granted him the support of the people while his brilliant speeches. He entered the Jacobins Club, the radical left-wing group, of which he eventually became the spiritual leader after the disappearing of its founding leaders (Barnave, Mirabeau). The attitude Robespierre took during the events that followed, and especially the speeches in which he exposed it, gave him an increasing popularity within the Revolutionary Government, which eventually lead him to be elected as a member of the Public Security Commitee. He had opposed the war with Austria, and had supported the execution of King Louis XVI, by pronouncing his popular sentence "Louis must die, so that the country can live". The failure that the contrary position Girondins took meant their destruction, and the consolidation of Robespierre as the leader of the National Convention, new era of the Revolution.
From 1792 to his downfall two years later, more than 30000 people were guilotined in Paris, denounced by the Convention as traitors to the Revolution. Robespierre and his little buddies increased progressively repressive actions, also among the members of the Government. Danton and Hébert, supporters of Robespierre but from different factions, were executed, and the Government was increasingly pointed out as a dictatorship. Finally, a raising of the people provoked the Convention overthrown and the execution of its tyrant, in July 1794.

A cruel tyrant?

It is uncontested that Robespierre created an authoritary and repressive state, almost a dictatorship in the middle of the Revolution. However, which were the reasons for his actions? Actually, a personal dictatorship does not match with the ideas he defended, and maybe he never really liked sending citizens to the guillotine (he dismissed from a judge job at Criminal Court of Arras to avoid pronouncing death sentences). It is imaginable that after the overthrown of the Convention, many members of the Commitee blamed Robespierre, already dead, for all the atrocities that happened, and so saved their lives.
Robespierre was a theorist and a philosopher. During his political career, he formulated laws, wrote essays and gave speeches. The ideas from his idol Rousseau, which defended the people's power especially over individual freedom, were the defining ideas of his Government, that he described as "the despotism of freedom against tyranny". As a theorist, he tried to apply his ideas in an inflexible way, to the point that he did not hesitate to eliminate his detractors. As a politician without pragmatic sense, he never betrayed his ideas, and was "incorruptible" until his death.

Monday, October 16, 2006


We have all learned at school quite well (or not) the History until what is called "nowadays". How ambiguous... What does "nowadays" mean? We cannot stop wondering how will this age be called in the future, when it will not be the Contemporaneous Age anymore, when it will become History.
"Postmodernism" is the term to usually call this age. Not a great name, undoubtely, which just comes from being the successing age to Modernism. Anyway, neither Modernism was so called at its time, so let us hope a better name someday.
But, what are its values of thinking? Is it true that, as our parents say, "current society has not values"? Well, according to the Modernist point of view, maybe yes. But a Postmodernist will answer: "it depends on what you consider a value", leaving the hearer confused and a bit dizzy.

How it happened

Let us see how this mess came out. Year 1945: The World has just realised of the result of Progress, so idealized by Modernist and Positivist philosophies of the last hundred years. This way of thinking believed infinitely in the power of Technology and Reason which, through Scientific method and Experimentation, would eventually lead the Man to absolute Good and Truth, to dominate its surroundings and make him owner of his destiny. But after the Second World War and all the horrors and social injustices it created, all this was seriously argued and, except neo-modernist attempts such as the Structuralist school, progressively unbelieved.
New relativist ways of thinking arise. Sartre, Derrida and Foucault surprise thinkers with their "Existentialist", "Decontructionist" and "Post-structuralist" proposals. The idea of "one way, one truth", is substituted by "everything goes". Communication media carry information to the masses, which start to be critical and create opinion. New generations break down ethic values never argued before.
This trend, however, is ralentised by the Cold War and the division of the World in two oposing blocks, with consequent politizacion of media, which become a tool of mass opinion domination. Finally, at the end of the 80s happens the great victory of Postmodernism, communist regimes in Eastern Europe are progressively overthrown by the growing power of public opinion. The global conception of the World and Relativism compose the thought of our society. The concept of "value", as an idea whose definition exists and is commonly accepted, has disappeared.

What is a postmodernist

All of us who live in this age have postmodern lifestyles. We all are, in a greater or less extent, a product of this trend.
- A postmodern does not believe in doctrines. Knows that thinking, opinion and truth are relative. Utopy does not exist, and Progress is not more than an illusion built by the mistaken idea of "Truth". As it is a relative idea, everything else is.
- Postmoderns believe in Imagination and Creativity. They know that Reason alone is a limited tool, and besides, inhumane.
- A postmodern, however, knows that even if he is creative, he is not original. No idea that comes from his mind has been generated in there, as every idea is a copy, version or mixture of other existing ones. He/she knows, besides, that this idea is not static but fluid, its meaning changes greatly according to the time and place.
- Postmoderns are not humanists. They do not wonder about "why" or "what for" of the Being. Instead, they are humanitarian. They believe that personal experience and friendship are the ways to make individuals more compltee.
- A postmodern being is a product of Globalization. He feels as a member of the World. Has interest and admiration to different cultures, even more than the own.
- Postmoderns communicate in a non-conventional manner, they experiment. Reinvent the language. They also change their concept of art and beauty, they change all the time. They will never achieve to define themselves because they are change indeed.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

The Queen of Sabah

The story of the Queen of Sabah is one of those cases where true is marred by legends. Despite of being mentioned in many ancient writings, the authentic identity of this woman is still unknown.

The story

Several Holy books, such as Judaic Bible, Islamic Quran and Ethiopian Kebra Nagast tell about a queen who ruled in the southern Kingdom of Sabah (or Sheba in Hebraic) with great kill, as she was loved and feared by her people. It is told that "she lived with luxury, and she had a magnificent throne" (Coran, 27). Personally she was very brune, and beautiful, but also with a strong will.
Even when no name is ever given to her (although Ethiopian tradition calls her Makeda, and Arab calls her Bilqis), Judaic texts mention that the queen heard from the greatness of King Solomon and decided to visit him, carrying with her big amounts of spices, gems and gold as a gift. She could even have been invited by Solomon himself.
Different versions agree that during her 6-months stay in Israel, Solomon made use of his seduction arts towards her, by which he was well known (this charming sir had more than 700 wifes and concubines). According to the Judaic Bible, she was so impressed by his culture that in the end she converted to Judaism and set this religion in her homeland when she returned. Ethiopian tradition affirms that from the union of both a child was born, whose name Menelik, who, at his mother's death, was the first of an extraordinary long dinasty that ruled Ethiopia, lasting to the popular emperor Halie Selassie and his descendents.
However, scarce archaeological evidences make it very hard to know the true story of this queen. How could someone, who takes such an important role in legends and Holy writings, leave so few traces of her existence?

The History

Let us see. What does seem certain is that in the X century BC, as Israel reached the maximum of its cultural and political power under Solomon's rule, there was a kingdom at the gates of the Red Sea which occupied a great part of current Yemen, and probably coastal regions of the Horn of Africa.
Sources different from the already mentioned say that the city of Tyre "traded with the merchants of Sabah and Ramah: first quality spices and every kind of gems and gold they gave for their goods" (Ezechiel, 27), agreeing in what the Bible mentions. Also Assyrian and Persian writings testify its existence. It seems that, despite being a much less refined culture than the Israeli one, its privileged situation confered it quite a great importance at this time.
Recent archaeological findings have shown an urban centre in Marib, currently Yemen, at what is supposedly the heart of the ancient kingdom of Sabah. Findings in Ethiopia have not been so revealing, although the presence of semitic origin languages concentrated in the coastal zones of Ethiopia, Egypt and Somalia suggest that at least these areas probably belonged to this culture.
About the existence of the queen, the absence of a name to give her is something awful (in the historical sense). But actually, it is not really known whether she existed or not. Holy writings, so prone to allegories and myths, could perfectly have told about the queen in a symbolic meaning.
In the findings at Marib there is a temple known as Temple of Bilqis (the name given to the queen by the Arabs). Hence, maybe the queen, as it was a civilization mainly matriarchal, became a godness. It could even be, why not, that writings do not tell about the Queen of Sheba but on the Godness itself, in a symbolic meaning. However, pagan religion in this kingdom was polytheistic, so we could be just reducing the legendary queen to a simple local divinity from the supposedly capital Marib.
The fact of the visit to Solomon is not generally seen as a legendary tale, but it could also admit several meanings. The most widely accepted is the sign of a commercial treaty between the kingdoms of Israel and Sabah. Trading goods carried by the Sabaeans to Israel seem to prove it. However, it is possible instead that the king Solomon, seeing a kingdom with great commercial power but militarly inferior, would have forced a submission treaty by which Sabah would have become a mere vassal of Israel. This could give an explanation to the fact that Judaism expanded over southern Arabia and Ethiopia.
The switch of reality into legend could have happened in a natural way. King Solomon liked to be surrounded by a court of poets and singers that told the deeds of his king. These heroic songs could have become tradition, which 400 years later would have been impressed in Judaic writings, from there passed to Quran, and from there to Legend. Et voilà, the myth is over :)