Magna Carta, the Roman Republic and the Enlightenment: 11 historical concepts explained in minutes
They’re the questions you really ought to know the answers to, but possibly don’t: what happened to the Roman empire? What was the Reformation about? Why did the USSR collapse?
Now, a new book promises the answers in a matter of minutes. Written by Harvard graduate Dorothy Ail and writer Tat Wood, author of the About Time series, which explains science, politics and British social theory to an American readership, World History in Minutes distills 200 major events in human history into bite-sized chunks.
Here, we bring you extracts from the book that tell you everything you need to know about the Black Death, the Space Race and more…
Richard the Lionheart was not an outstanding English king – he seldom visited the country, was thwarted in the Third Crusade and demanded huge sums from his subjects (a ransom of 150,000 marks when he was captured, plus money for wars in his native France). Nevertheless, Richard was rarely present to tax the English directly, so he was more fondly regarded than his brother John. Actual rebellion didn’t break out until after Richard’s death, with a combination of disasters. The Normandy possessions (William the Conqueror’s original lands) broke away, a dispute about selection of a new Archbishop of Canterbury led to King John’s excommunication, and the aristocracy rose up against him.
Magna Carta, signed in 1215 at Runnymede, was the first attempt to legally limit a king’s powers. John shrewdly acceded to clearly defined responsibilities, but the charter was more important as a symbol to future generations than as an actual instrument – the rebellion dragged on until after John’s death.
The foundation of Rome is traditionally dated to 753 BC – in myth, it is attributed to the twins Romulus and Remus, and it is fairly certain that a monarchy did indeed begin around this date. At the time, Etruscan culture flourished in northern Italy – the new kingdom remained relatively minor until 509 BC, when the tyrant Tarquin was overthrown (legendarily due to his rape of Lucrece) and the Republic was founded under two consuls.
The famous Senate was not especially democratic, but began a tradition of non-monarchical rule that, combined with the precedent of the Greeks, would have a great influence on the Enlightenment. Rome became a great military power, with a standing army of legionaries – the attempt of one Greek general to attack Italy gave the world the ‘Pyrrhic victory’, while Rome’s greatest rival, Carthage, was soundly defeated in the Punic Wars. By the time of Julius Caesar, the Republic had control of the Mediterranean Sea, ruled territories from Iberia to Macedon and had taken North Africa.
The Pax Romana
Soon after the Fall of Egypt, Julius Caesar’s heir Octavius was declared Emperor Augustus, transforming the Roman Republic into an empire. For the first two centuries of the modern era, Rome enjoyed an unprecedented period of peace and consolidation. Eventually reaching from Britain to Judea, the empire depended on slaves, but was multicultural, succeeding in large part because it encouraged assimilation of newly subjugated states: a citizen of Rome was a citizen, regardless of origin or posting.
The state religion was flexible enough to accommodate almost any faith (barring the monotheistic Jews and early Christians). The Sassanian empire to the east was its only substantial rival, and despite conflicts, they maintained trading relations. Germanic tribes began pushing at the frontier (the river Rhine) in the third century, but Rome was still dominant when Emperor Diocletian divided the empire in 293; Constantine would temporarily reverse this, but the western half ultimately fell to Alaric and Attila the Hun. Byzantium endured until the Fall of Constantinople.
A brilliant military strategist and statesman (100–44 BC), Gaius Julius Caesar’s first brush with politics came when his uncle lost a civil war to Sulla, Rome’s first dictator since the Punic Wars. Caesar fled Rome, joined the army and, after Sulla’s death, returned to be elected tribune. His political career flourished and in 59 BC he became a consul in the First Triumvirate – a power-sharing arrangement with bitter rivals Pompey and Crassus. He swiftly conquered Gaul and became its governor (mounting an expedition to Britain in 55 BC), before returning to Rome with his army (crossing into Italy at the Rubicon River). Crassus had already been defeated in Parthia, but Pompey fled to Alexandria, prompting the Fall of Egypt.
Caesar became dictator, soon voted into office for life. His enemies, alarmed at his growing power, assassinated him at the Senate on the Ides of March, but the resulting civil war, ironically, led to his heir Octavius becoming emperor, and the name ‘Caesar’ denoting the imperial title for many centuries.
Julius Caesar. © Georgios | Dreamstime.com
Born in ad 272, Constantine rose from humble origins to become one of the last rulers of the unified Roman empire. His influential mother, Helena, was reputedly a concubine, though little is known about her except that she made the first Christian pilgrimage. The empire was already splitting into East and West as he rose to power, and his decision to base imperial operations in Byzantium (renamed Constantinople) enabled a form of Roman rule to continue until the city’s Fall in 1453. He was a strong general, reversing Germanic incursions on Roman territory, but died in 337, before taking on the Sassanians.
Constantine attributed his abrupt success to Christianity, made it the de facto state religion and ordered various church councils. The creed developed at the Council of Nicaea remains the definitive explication of Christian belief (see the Schism). The Arian heresy, with its contentious doubts about the Trinity, was officially repudiated there, but various Germanic tribes, including the Visigoths, adopted Arianism anyway.
Though far from the only plague in history, the pandemic that killed about one third of Europe’s population in four years from 1347 (and similar proportions elsewhere) is surely the best known. It spread on the Silk Road; Italian traders brought it from the Crimea (where it may have been carried by Mongols). The original vectors were fleas on black rats, but it may also have been passed by breathing. Famines added to the problem.
Many blamed witches or Jews but others, notably in France, believed people had brought this upon themselves through sin. In the aftermath, art depicting skeletons became common. In Britain, trade guilds (disproportionately spared thanks to their private water supplies) performed Bible stories as thanksgiving: ‘Mystery Plays’ that gave rise to commercial theatre. With labour in short supply and food relatively cheap, true feudalism became untenable, and wages began to be paid directly. Some invested this income in land and consolidated earnings into more land and trade, upsetting centuries of aristocratic privilege.
Reformation in England
Henry VII married off his heir Arthur, to Catherine of Aragon, Infanta of Spain, but his dynastic plans faltered with Arthur’s death. His younger son, Henry, was being groomed as a future archbishop but, on becoming Henry VIII, was granted papal dispensation to wed his brother’s widow. After years of marriage with only a single daughter, he sought to have the possibly blasphemous union annulled, but a new pope refused. Under the influence of advisors swayed by Luther, Henry founded a breakaway Church of England in 1536: he executed Lord Chancellor Thomas More for criticizing his expediency, but paradoxically continued to take Catholic Mass until his death.
Plundering monastic property boosted royal income, while former monks became tutors in schools for a rising bourgeoisie. Henry and Katherine’s daughter, Mary I, returned England to Catholicism, burning 300 ‘martyrs’ in a three-year reign; Henry’s daughter by his second marriage, Elizabeth I, undid this, and England has remained at least nominally Protestant ever since.
This European movement had two poles: the exercise of reason over superstition, and exaltation and humility in the face of the Sublime – beauty, nature and other absolutes. These tended in different directions: the former to reductionism, the latter towards Romanticism (a Platonic, antimaterialist artistic ideal). The movement originated in Paris, Edinburgh and Weimar, spreading to London and New England. In many ways, the Enligtenment completed Renaissance Humanism, which ushered in, yet contradicted, the Lutheran Reformation.
System-building was a defining characteristic: Diderot’s Encyclopèdie, condensing all knowledge into 28 volumes, was an early manifestation. Other key works include Rousseau’s Social Contract and the US Declaration of Independence. Adam Smith, then Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud, attempted to apply scientific laws to human affairs. The Terror, Stalin’s Purges and the Holocaust have all been pinned on Enlightenment values, but so have Civil Rights, Abolitionism and Universal Suffrage.
The Declaration of Independence
Anger over colonial taxes (alongside higher concerns over representation) inspired the Boston Tea Party of 1773, with repercussions that soon led to the Battles of Lexington and Concord. Boston came under siege, and war broke out in earnest. After a year of this, the Continental Congress, governing body of Britain’s American colonies, decided independence was the only answer. Thirteen dependencies formally seceded in a document signed on 2 July 1776.
Thomas Jefferson’s initial draft was amended in committee: English activist Thomas Paine’s bestseller Common Sense had delineated arguments for independence to popular acclaim in both nations, even offering ideas for a permanent congress. The Articles of Confederation that served as a temporary constitution were designed to deal with current problems. The symbolic power of the document, denouncing remote rule and explicitly arguing for the right to create a nation-state, was huge: it served as model for dozens of other countries.
The Space Race
The potential for rocket flight beyond the atmosphere, fostered by Robert Goddard in the USA and hobbyists in Britain and the Soviet Union, was developed in Nazi Germany for military use. Postwar, the new Cold War rivals recruited Hitler’s experts to work on both space travel and long-range missiles, and on 4 October 1957, the Soviets launched the first satellite, Sputnik I. Aside from the propaganda, America feared other payloads, and after Yuri Gagarin orbited Earth on 12 April 1961, President Kennedy vowed to land a man on the Moon by 1970.
Neil Armstrong took the first step onto another world on 20 July 1969. Thereafter, interest in manned expeditions waned: Nixon, beleaguered by Vietnam, curtailed funding and the US space agency NASA concentrated on a reusable shuttle to near-Earth space, and unmanned probes to other planets. Weather, communications and surveillance satellites make space economically significant, though in the West, private enterprise is now leading the way. Russia continues manned launches, while China and India are in a new space race.
Homo neanderthalensis’s close affinity to modern humans and European stronghold meant that it was the first fossil hominid to attract attention (discovered in Germany’s Neander valley in 1857). The Neanderthals seem to have settled after the first wave of hominid migration from Africa and to have persisted until about 40,000 years ago. Homo sapiens, meanwhile, may have arrived from Africa 60,000 years ago, so could have played a major role in Neanderthal extinction. DNA evidence for interbreeding is as yet inconclusive.
Scientists originally surmised that Neanderthals were unintelligent, hunchbacked beings, largely because one of the first skeletons found was of an arthritic man. More recent finds have shown that they were physically powerful, and evidence is increasing of abstract reasoning and large cerebral capacity. Physically capable of limited speech, they had sophisticated flint tools.
World History in Minutes: 200 Key Concepts Explained in an Instant by Tat Wood and Dorothy Ail is on sale now. To find out more, click here.