I want to share an essay today, one of the most personal things I’ve ever written, and one of those I’m proudest of. It’s about how I sold my first novel.
I’ve been stunned since I learned Too Like the Lightning is a finalist for the Best Novel Hugo. This really is the highest honor I can imagine, my work being recognized as one of the most valuable contributions to the community of conversation which drives us forward through speculation about other worlds to touching and creating them, both here on Earth and out among the stars. The community where the Great Conversation thrives. While I always intended to contribute to that conversation, I never expected this kind of reception for a very difficult and intentionally uncomfortable book, one which I had imagined as finding an excited but niche audience, never a large one. I haven’t known what to say other than “Thank you!” but a common “Thank you!” feels mismatched, like paying the same 50¢ at a rock shop for a shiny hematite one week and the Philosopher’s Stone the next. And I’ve also been swamped with final exams, colliding deadlines, three European conferences, research travel, illness, editing book 3, preparing a new project on the History of Censorship (more on that later), all the usual time-eating co-conspirators that make it easy to put off anything difficult. And it is difficult to figure out how to write a world-sized thank-you to match this world-sized joy.
But I think one appropriate thank-you is to share this essay. I wrote it for Shannon Page for her brilliant collection The Usual Path to Publication (Book View Café, 2016), which contains 27 different authors’ stories about how we sold our first novels. The volume’s variety succeeds in showing what it set out to, that there is no “usual path,” no consistent method, no one piece of advice that always helps on the path that no two people ever walk the same way. I suspect I’m not the only contributor to the collection who found that the story that came out, when I tried to tell it, was so personal, so saturated with the most intense emotion, that I was more than a little nervous sharing it at first. But I also think telling the story means even more now that it has a Hugo nomination at the end of it, and a Campbell nomination, and the Tiptree Honors List, and the Compton Crook Award. Because I grew up in Maryland, so I’ve seen the Compton Crook Award given out to a Best First Novel in the genre every year at since I was a little girl, every time thinking “Maybe someday it will be me?” So this is how I got to Someday.
The Key to the Kingdom, or, How I Sold Too Like the Lightning.
by Ada Palmer, 2016
Some people say revenge is living well – I’ve found it sometimes works to go away And be more awesome. Let him sit alone, To watch your wildfires leaping as you play.
-Jo Walton, “Advice to Loki” 2013.
The midpoint first, then the primordial darkness, then the ever after.
It was 2011 (remember, this is the creation myth of a book that won’t come out until 2016). I was in Florence, sitting in the top of a 13th century tower between Dante’s house and my favorite gelato place (extra relevant in an un-air-conditioned August!), and talking to Jo Walton about whether or not I should start a blog. It was the beginning of a year in Florence, a postdoctoral research fellowship at the Villa I Tatti, Harvard’s institute for Italian Renaissance studies. Life as a Renaissance historian had granted me long stays in Florence twice before, once on a student Fulbright, and once taking a shift as I Tatti’s resident grad student mascot (#1 duty, be introduced to rich donors and look bright-eyed and promising). During my earlier stays I had written a series of e-mails describing my Italian experiences, and sent them to a list of friends and family. The list grew over time as the recipients recommended them to more distant cousins and acquaintances, until I had nearly a hundred people on my list. In fact, those e-mails were how I knew Jo. One of my then-roommates, Lila Garrott (a poet, author, book reviewer, and now editor at Strange Horizons) had posted a few of what, in neoclassical style, I called my “Ex Urbe” e-mails on LiveJournal, where Jo had enjoyed them. In 2008 Jo had invited Lila and the rest of our eclectic household to visit her for Farthing Party in Montreal. Jo was with me in Italy that August because the question “Do you want to come stay in my apartment in a 13th century tower in Florence?” has one correct answer. “I wonder if it would be less work to just post them on a blog,” I said, overwhelmed by trying to assemble the new list of people who had asked to receive my e-mails. Jo looked at me very seriously. “If you make a blog, I’ll send the link to Patrick Nielsen Hayden.”
In six months, Patrick asked Jo if the author of this ExUrbe blog had written any fiction.
In two years (almost to the day, August 2013) Patrick bought Too Like the Lightning.
My appetite to see my fiction in print had been overwhelming since elementary school, and I vividly remember the thrill of standing on tiptoe to watch my first typed story (a single paragraph, about blue-and-silver alien raccoons) crawl its way out of the astounding new dot matrix printer at Dad’s office. I had begun a novel by fourth grade, three by tenth, and I devoured summer writing courses, of which the courses on essay writing (Johns Hopkins) and prose poetry (Interlochen) proved far more valuable than the fiction ones. I remember once thinking to myself at fifteen, bored during a school convocation, that if I hadn’t published a novel by twenty-five then… the end is vague. Then I should give up? Then I was a failure? Then I should curse the heavens? It was my first serious college writing mentor Hal Holiday who helped me understand how absurd that was. He made me cry in his office, with my first-ever B on a paper. I didn’t understand what I’d done wrong. “Writing is a long apprenticeship,” he said. I hadn’t done anything wrong, but writing well—not well for your age group, but well in an absolute sense—was hard to achieve. It took real time. Spending every childhood summer and weekend writing, taking every summer writing course, those were good steps, they helped, but they were a beginning. I finished my first novel draft that year, flipped back to page one, and started writing it all over again.
In 2002, at twenty-one and with Mom to stuff the envelopes, I sent my (totally-rewritten) first novel-length manuscript winging its optimistic way to slush piles at agencies and publishers. I sometimes think, if we could harvest the emotional energy in all the fat manila query envelopes aspiring writers entrust to the post office every day, we could move planets. I have a folder of rejection letters from that first volley, and, looking over them now, I can see the good signs in them, the peppering of personalized notes, praise and encouragement among the form letters. I didn’t understand then how many queries editors, agents and interns read, how generous it was for them to sacrifice precious seconds to write these extra lines (thank you!), but it did a lot to keep me going. And in the back of the folder I always kept a printout of Ursula Le Guin sharing a very grim rejection letter she received for The Left Hand of Darkness, with her note “This is included to cheer up anybody who just got a rejection letter. Hang in there!” Thank you. After eight months of agonizing suspense, and the sporadic gut-punch of rejections, that first volley got me an agent. She was not an F&SF specialist, but was game to try, and spent the next years doggedly marketing what neither of us realized was an unsaleably long fantasy novel.
I don’t remember where I received the wisdom that it’s better to go on and write Book 1 of a new series rather than write Book 2 of a series when you haven’t sold Book 1 yet. Wherever I got it from, I obeyed it, and soon my plucky agent was shopping two series, then three. Despite loving to sleep in, I followed the old advice and wrote in the morning, every day, an hour or two, giving my best hours to fiction and the rest of the day to the demands of grad school, and thereby wrote close to a million words of fiction over seven years. Looking over those practice projects now, I can see my writing improve with each, the sentences, the pace, the plot. Every paragraph was a step in that long apprenticeship. The wait stretched on—three years, four—and it hurt—the growing, gnawing appetite. Sometimes I would lie awake at night just from the pain of wanting something so much. But I had an agent, and that gave me confidence, and comfort.
Meanwhile I was working on my Ph.D. The single best thing that ever happened to my writing—looking at the novel I was working on at the time you can see the very chapter break where it happened, like lightning struck and *ZAP!* the prose was finally good—was in 2005, when I had to cut down my 20,000 word dissertation prospectus into a 7,000 word conference paper. Without knowing it, I had stumbled on “Half and Half Again,” as it’s called by people I know in journalism, a training exercise in which you go through the agony of cutting an old work down to half length, then half of that, learning to spot the chaff and bloat in your own work, and how to make it tight and powerful. Lightning. I published other things—my first academic article, blog pieces for Tokyopop about manga & cosplay, a Random Superpower Generator for Maple Leaf Games, but none of them eased the wanting. I also learned more about the world of genre publishing, from going to conventions and chatting with author friends made through Lila, and through my science fiction clubs, HRSFA (the Harvard-Radcliffe Science Fiction Society), and Double Star (at Bryn Mawr College). F&SF specialist agent Donald Maass spoke to us at Vericon, a great little con HRSFA runs at Harvard every year, and I learned from his talk about the field, the extreme oversupply of submissions, the challenges of length and salability. I had queried Donald Maass (unsuccessfully) way back in 2002, but in 2006, with my writing much improved, preparing to begin a new series which I felt in my gut was leap above the others (and eventually became the Terra Ignota series), I decided to break off my relationship with my first agent (with much gratitude and good will) and to try fresh to get a new agent at a major F&SF specialist agency.
I finished the first draft of Too Like the Lightning (Book 1 of Terra Ignota) in 2008, my penultimate year of graduate school. Between 2002 and 2008, plump manila envelopes had evolved into instantaneous e-queries, and my generic cover letters had acquired the varnish of name-dropping. I had recommendations from random people in the publishing world (Walter Isaacson, Priscilla Painton) whom I had met through Harvard. And, while my first 2002 volley had showered queries on dozens of doorsteps (many quite inappropriate), I sent Too Like the Lightning to only one press in 2008, my great hope: Tor. The more I learned about the world of genre publishing, the clearer it became that Tor was one of the only (if not the only) press that had the stability and resources to gamble on a big, fat science fiction series (four long books!) by a first time author, books which were dense and highbrow, and totally not similar to anything—trends are a safe investment; oddities are a gamble. Plus, I had an ‘in’. There were people at Tor who were friends of friends, alumni and associates of both Bryn Mawr and Harvard, some of whom knew my Double Star and HRSFA connections. (Yes, I tried nepotism for all it was worth, anyone would—I still lay awake at nights, just wanting.)
After another year of lying awake and wanting (and finishing my Ph.D., and facing the academic job market, which in 2009 had just entered its sudden death spiral), a Tor contact told me (I think at Readercon?) that the book had advanced from the “slush” pile to the “shows promise” pile. This was good news, but an un-agented manuscript, which the editor knows has been sent to no other press, can stew in that pile forever. That November I queried Donald Maass, hoping a kind word from Tor would help me get an agent, and that a good agent might prod along the literary glacier. I even got a Harvard-made mainstream publishing contact to e-mail Donald Maass with his endorsement to accompany my query. (Roll for nepotism! Did it achieve anything? Not really!) On December 31st, I received an e-mail from Donald apologizing for losing my query and getting back to me so late (apologizing for a delay of only 2 months! Such professionalism! Such sanity!) and saying he loved the beginning of the book, and was eager to read the whole thing. I sent it right away. I waited. I shopped other, older projects with a YA agent recommended by a friend (no luck). I published other things—more academic articles, critical essays, introductions to manga and anime releases. I stayed up nights. Sometimes it was so bad I couldn’t go into a bookstore without feeling sick to my stomach. In November 2010 (a full year after Donald had asked for the book) Amy Boggs, then a fairly new member of the Donald Maass Agency, wrote to say that Donald—swamped by unspecified and mysterious stuff—had passed the book on to her, and she loved it. We finalized the contract by early December, and Amy started shopping the book around in the beginning of 2011.
That spring I received my I Tatti Fellowship, and that summer I sat in a tower in Florence with Jo Walton, contemplating a blog. Jo had talked to me about Patrick Nielsen Hayden, though I also knew of him from other sources; legends of such titans echo far through our little magic kingdom.
There is a fresco by Perugino in the Sistine Chapel, which shows St. Peter, in a beautiful neoclassical square, receiving the Keys to Heaven from Christ, with a group of apostles and others gathered around to watch. It’s a deeply tender moment, Peter’s awe at the sight of the divinity which is also the friend he loves so much. But I can never see it without imagining the next panel of the comic book, where Christ has gone back to Heaven, and Peter is left in the square holding these enormous gold and silver keys, and everyone is standing around awkwardly, trying not to stare, and someone sidles up saying, “So… can I get you a cup of coffee?” You can’t put them down, that’s the thing, once you have the keys to Heaven, no one on Earth can forget it, not for an instant. And that’s very much what it’s like being an acquiring editor (I’ve described this to Patrick, he agrees), because you have the Keys to the Kingdom, and people around you—at conventions, at talks, online—want it so much. So much they lie awake at night. There are infinite horror stories about editors being harassed and chased at cons, having manuscripts shoved under bathroom stall doors, repeated e-mails which get weirder and more desperate. So, from childhood (picture me scrawny and eleven, following Dad and Uncle Bill to a Doctor Who convention, with my boy-short bright blonde hair, dressed as the Peter Davison Doctor) I had it drilled into me that you should never approach and bother an editor (or published author) about your manuscript. Q&A when they were on panels was OK, but outside that sphere verboten! In fact, I had met Patrick at Farthing Party back in 2008, but, knowing who he was, I was an emotional wreck just being near him, racked between the Scylla of my desire and the Charybdis of the taboo, so I spent much of the weekend actively hiding around corners and behind pillars to avoid looking at him. But Jo knew I had a manuscript, and passed it on to Patrick for me in spring of 2012 when he asked her if the author of ExUrbe had written any fiction.
And I waited. And I lay awake at night. On a trip to New Orleans, an editor friend of Jo’s told a story about a query which had taken twelve years to be accepted, which actually made me throw up. I tried to start another novel series, but I couldn’t. Terra Ignota meant too much to me, so I broke my own law and wrote Book 2. And Book 3. So many heartfelt eggs in that basket. Amy had occasional non-news for me, and I was overseeing the publication of my first nonfiction book, the academic history Reading Lucretius in the Renaissance, which will hopefully (knock all the wood you can!) get me tenure here at the magnificent I-dare-you-to-prove-it’s-not-Hogwarts University of Chicago. (Where I teach history of magic. Really.) I had submitted the monograph proposal to Harvard University Press way back in 2009. Given the infamous snail’s pace of academic publishing, I often thought of Reading Lucretius in the Renaissance and Too Like the Lightning as twins fighting to see which would be the first to make it out. But Tor, wonderful, infuriating, experimental, ambitious, field-shaping Tor, is slower.
In March 2013, Jo reported to me that Patrick had said positive things to her about the first page of Too Like the Lightning. One page down, 333 to go.That spring and summer were the madness of producing and recording my two hour close harmony a cappella Viking stage musical Sundown: Whispers of Ragnarok, and its demands were exhaustion enough to let me mostly sleep. As August came along, Patrick told Jo to tell me (in our surrealist game of telephone) that he and Teresa wanted to have dinner with me at Worldcon in San Antonio, and I should have my answer then. This was more than a year after Patrick had asked for the manuscript, and five years after I had first submitted it to Tor.
I was working a booth at that Worldcon, an outreach display for the Texas A&M University Cushing Memorial Library and Archives, which has one of the world’s great science fiction collections, an impregnable treasure vault full of rare pulps, fanzines, first editions, and the archived papers of authors from Star Trek scriptwriters, to George R.R. Martin, to (now) me. (Are you a writer? Do you have random papers and notes from old projects cluttering your house? Cushing’s awesome librarians totally want to take your clutter, index it, and preserve it for posterity! Win-win!). The first morning of Worldcon, I was walking through the dealer’s room on my way to our booth, when Jo Walton gestured me over to the table where she was doing a signing. I gestured back that I didn’t want to interrupt the people who were waiting patiently in line, but she flailed emphatically, so I came. She told me that Patrick told her to tell me “Yes.” I remember hugging, and crying, and intense crying, and gasping out a vague apology to the guy who was in the front of the line, but he said “It’s OK, it’s clearly important.” Jo smiled at him and said, “She’s just sold her first novel!” A keen, satisfied, brightness entered his face, like when you taste an unexpectedly excellent sour candy, and he said, “So, it does happen.”
Most of the rest of the San Antonio Worldcon is lost in the mists of bliss amnesia. I remember staggering back to the Cushing booth all puffy and red-faced, and struggling to communicate to my colleague Todd Samuelson that I was OK, just overhappy from yes! Yes! YES! I remember I couldn’t find my phone to text my dear friend Carl Engle-Laird (a HRSFA alum, who was then a new editorial assistant Tor.com, and sharing my suspense) so I borrowed a phone from Lauren Schiller (my singing partner and roommate of 10+ years), only I couldn’t see through my tears, so the message came out all garbled and full of typos and r5and0m nuMB4rs. I was on a panel right after that, with Lila Garrott (whose online connections had been so instrumental in all this), and I had no time to break the news before the panel, so I just typed it on my then-recovered cell phone and set it on the table in front of us: “Patrick said yes.” Lila glowed.
After Jo’s signing, we found Patrick in the concessions area, and there ensued perhaps the most absurd conversation I shall ever have. I was still paralyzed by the aftereffects of Scylla and Charybdis, so shy and overwhelmed that I could barely force myself to look directly at the legendary Patrick. But Patrick is himself a naturally shy person, and skittish after so many years carrying the Keys to Heaven, so he couldn’t look at me either. And there we were, both trying to hide behind Jo (who is a head shorter than both of us), unable to make eye contact while trying to talk about how we wanted to work together for the rest of our careers. That was when I started to see the absurd flip side of it: all the while that I had been terrified of approaching this incredibly important editor who had power over everything I ever wanted, in his world I had been the intimidating one, this distant Harvard Ph.D., with all these impressive publications, this learned and authoritative tone on my blog, and I had everything he wanted, great science fiction that it would be a pleasure to publish. In Settlers of Catan terms, I had bricks, he had wood, but we were so mutually overwhelmed neither of us could get the words out: “Shall we make this road?” We had dinner with Jo and Teresa at one of those Brazilian Barbeque places, where they hunt the great beasts of the plains and serve them to you on spits carried by excessively statuesque young men—at least that’s what Jo says, because bliss amnesia has erased everything except a vague memory of asparagus and a beige tablecloth. I remember Patrick said he and Teresa wanted to audition to edit and shape my career. Audition? I would have begged!
Patrick took me to the Tor party that weekend. I know he introduced me to Tom Doherty and fifty other genre VIPs, but I genuinely don’t remember a thing except recognizing Liz Gorinsky from a distance by her hair. Patrick forgot to give me his business card, so I almost left without the ability to contact him. It took three weeks to stop feeling like a dream. No, that’s not true—it still feels like a dream. I signed the four book contract by crackling firelight, huddling over the hearthstone during the power outage caused by a New Year’s blizzard, which absolutely feels like a dream. I have a release date now (that took two years), and cover art (same), and the Advanced Bound Manuscript in front of me (well, a defective ABM missing the last three chapters—oops!), and I have a fantastic recording of Patrick—the Patrick—playing guitar with me while I sing my ode to fandom’s support of space exploration “Somebody Will” (super ultra win condition!). But I still feel prepared to wake up tomorrow, back in my old bedroom, and discover it was all a dream. Maybe there will always be that edge of doubt, the scar of how intensely I worried that the door might never open. Sometimes it doesn’t. But if it did open for me, it wasn’t because I kept pounding on the gate with the same desperate query. And it wasn’t the favor-trading, or the Harvard connections, or my attempts at nepotism, or even (honestly) my agent (though she’s done so many great things for me then and since). It was that I set forth to be more awesome. I kept honing my craft, starting new projects better than the last, producing other works, articles, music, essays, research, the blog. I made my fire burn bright in the dark. People do see.
Is progress inevitable? Is it natural? Is it fragile? Is it possible? Is it a problematic concept in the first place? Many people are reexamining these kinds of questions as 2016 draws to a close, so I thought this would be a good moment to share the sort-of “zoomed out” discussions the subject that historians like myself are always having.
There is a strange doubleness to experiencing an historic moment while being a historian one’s self. I feel the same shock, fear, overload, emotional exhaustion that so many are, but at the same time another me is analyzing, dredging up historical examples, bigger crises, smaller crises, elections that set the fuse to powder-kegs, elections that changed nothing. I keep thinking about what it felt like during the Wars of the Roses, or the French Wars of Religion, during those little blips of peace, a decade long or so, that we, centuries later, call mere pauses, but which were long enough for a person to be born and grow to political maturity in seeming-peace, which only hindsight would label ‘dormant war.’ But then eventually the last flare ended and then the peace was real. But on the ground it must have felt exactly the same, the real peace and those blips. That’s why I don’t presume to predict — history is a lesson in complexity not predictability — but what I do feel I’ve learned to understand, thanks to my studies, are the mechanisms of historical change, the how of history’s dynamism rather than the what next. So, in the middle of so many discussions of the causes of this year’s events (economics, backlash, media, the not-so-sleeping dragon bigotry), and of how to respond to them (petitions, debate, fundraising, art, despair) I hope people will find it useful to zoom out with me, to talk about the causes of historical events and change in general.
Two threads, which I will later bring together. Thread one: progress. Thread two: historical agency.
Part 1: The Question of Progress As Historians Ask It
“How do you discuss progress without getting snared in teleology?” a colleague asked during a teaching discussion. This is a historian’s succinct if somewhat technical way of asking a question which lies at the back of a lot of the questions people are wrestling with now. Progress — change for the better over historical time. The word has many uses (social progress, technological progress), but the reason it raises red flags for historians is the legacy of Whig history, a school of historical thought whose influence still percolates through many of our models of history. Wikipedia has an excellent opening definition of Whig history:
Whig history… presents the past as an inevitable progression towards ever greater liberty and enlightenment, culminating in modern forms of liberal democracy and constitutional monarchy. In general, Whig historians emphasize the rise of constitutional government, personal freedoms, and scientific progress. The term is often applied generally (and pejoratively) to histories that present the past as the inexorable march of progress towards enlightenment… Whig history has many similarities with the Marxist-Leninist theory of history, which presupposes that humanity is moving through historical stages to the classless, egalitarian society to which communism aspires… Whig history is a form of liberalism, putting its faith in the power of human reason to reshape society for the better, regardless of past history and tradition. It proposes the inevitable progress of mankind.
In other words, this approach presumes a teleology to history, that human societies have always been developing toward some pre-set end state: apple seeds into apple trees, humans into enlightened humans, human societies into liberal democratic paradises.
Some of the problems with this approach are transparent, others familiar to those of my readers who have been engaging with current discourse about the problems/failures/weaknesses of liberalism. But let me unpack some of the other problems, the ones historians in particular worry about.
Developed in the earlier the 20th century, Whig history presents a particular set of values and political and social outcomes as the (A) inevitable and (B) superior end-points of all historical change — political and social outcomes that arise from the Western European tradition. The Eurocentric distortions this introduces are obvious, devaluing all other cultures. But even for a Europeanist like myself, who’s already studying Europe, this approach has a distorting effect by focusing our attentions onto historical moments or changes or people that were “right” or “correct,” that took a step “forward.” When one attempts to write a history using this kind of reasoning, the heroes of this process (the statesman who founded a more liberal-democratic-ish state, the scientist whose invention we still use today, the poet whose pamphlet forwards the cause) loom overlarge in history, receiving too much attention. On the one hand, yes, we need to understand those past figures who are keystones of our present — I teach Plato, and Descartes, and Machiavelli with good reason — but if we study only the keystones, and not the other less conspicuous bricks, we wind up with a very distorted idea of the whole edifice.
Whig history also makes it dangerously easy to stray into placing moral value on those things which advanced the teleologicaly-predetermined future. Such things seem to be “correct” thus “good” thus “better” while those whose elements which did not contribute to this teleological development were “dead ends” or “mistakes” or “wrong” which quickly becomes “bad.” In such a history whole eras can be dismissed as unworthy of study for failing to forward progress (The Middle Ages did great stuff, guys!) while other eras can be disproportionately celebrated for advancing it (The Renaissance did a lot of dumb stuff too!). And, of course, whole regions can be dismissed for “failing” to progress (Africa, Asia) as can sub-regions (Poland, Spain).
To give an example within the realm of intellectual history, teleological intellectual histories very often create the false impression that the only figures involved in a period’s intellectual world were heroes and villains, i.e. thinkers we venerate today, or their nasty bad backwards-looking enemies. This makes it seem as if the time period in question was already just previewing the big debates we have today. Such histories don’t know what to do with thinkers whose ideas were orthogonal to such debates, and if one characterizes the Renaissance as “Faith!” vs. “Reason!” and Marsilio Ficino comes along and says “Let’s use Platonic Reason to heal the soul!” a Whig history doesn’t know what to do with that, and reads it as a “dead end” or “detour.” Only heroes or villains fit the narrative, so Ficino must either become one or the other, or be left out. Teleological intellectual histories also tend to give the false impression that the figures we think are important now were always considered important, and if you bring up the fact that Aristotle was hardly read at all in antiquity and only revived in the Middle Ages, or that the most widely owned author in the Enlightenment was the now-obscure fideist encyclopedist Pierre Bayle, the narrative has to scramble to adopt.
Teleological history is also prone to “presentism” <= a bad thing, but a very useful term! Presentism is when one’s reading of history is distorted by one’s modern perspective, often through projecting modern values onto past events, and especially past people. An essay about the Magna Carta which projects Enlightenment values onto its Medieval authors would be presentist. So are histories of the Renaissance which want to portray it as a battle between Reason and religion, or say that only Florence and/or Venice had the real Renaissance because they were republics, and only the democratic spirit of republics could foster fruitful, modern, forward-thinking people. Presentism is also rearing its head when, in the opening episodes of the new Medici: Masters of Florence TV series, Cosimo de Medici talks about bankers as the masterminds of society, and describes himself as a job-creator, not the conceptual space banking was in in 1420. Presentism is sometimes conscious, but often unconscious, so mindful historians will pause whenever we see something that feels revolutionary, or progressive, or proto-modern, or too comfortable, to check for other readings, and make triple sure we have real evidence. Sometimes things in the past really were more modern than what surrounded them. I spent many dissertation years assembling vast grids of data which eventually painstakingly proved that Machaivelli’s interest in radical Epicurean materialism was exceptional for his day, and more similar to the interests of peers seventy years in his future than his own generation — that Machiavelli was exceptional and forward-thinking may be the least surprising conclusion a Renaissance historian can come to, but we have to prove such things very, very meticulously, to avoid spawning yet another distorted biography which says that Galileo was fundamentally an oppressed Bill Nye. Hint: Galileo was not Bill Nye; he was Galileo.
These problems, in brief, are why discussions of progress, and of teleology, are red flags now for any historian.
Unfortunately, the bathwater here is very difficult to separate from an important baby. Teleological thinking distorts our understanding of the past, but the Whig approach was developed for a reason. (A) It is important to have ways to discuss historical change over time, to talk about the question of progress as a component of that change. (B) It is important to retain some way to compare societies, or at least to assess when people try to compare societies, so we can talk about how different institutions, laws, or social mores might be better or worse than others on various metrics, and how some historical changes might be positive or negative. While avoiding dangerous narratives of triumphant [insert Western phenomenon here] sweeping through and bringing light to a superstitious and backwards [era/people/place], we also want to be able to talk about things like the eradication of smallpox, and our efforts against malaria and HIV, which are undeniably interconnected steps in a process of change over time — a process which is difficult to call by any name but progress.
So how do historians discuss progress without getting snared in teleology?
And how do I, as a science fiction writer, as a science fiction reader, as someone who tears up every time NASA or ESA posts a new picture of our baby space probes preparing to take the next step in our journey to the stars, how do I discuss progress without getting snared in teleology?
I, at least, begin by being a historian, and talking about the history of progress itself.
Part 2: A Brief History of Progress
In the early seventeenth century, Francis Bacon invented progress.
Let me unpack that.
Ideas of social change over time had existed in European thought since antiquity. Early Greek sources talk about a Golden Age of peaceful, pastoral abundance, followed by a Silver Age, when jewels and luxuries made life more opulent but also more complicated. There followed a Bronze Age, when weapons and guards appeared, and also the hierarchy of have and have-nots, and finally an Iron Age of blood and war and Troy. Some ancients added more detail to this narrative, notably Lucretius in his Epicurean epic On the Nature of Things. In his version the transition from simple, rural living to luxury-hungry urbanized hierarchy was explicitly developmental, caused, not by divine planning or celestial influences, but by human invention: as people invented more luxuries they then needed more equipment–technological and social — to produce, defend, control, and war over said luxuries, and so, step-by-step, tranquil simplicity degenerated into sophistication and its discontents.
Lucretius’s developmental model of society has several important components of the concept of progress, but not all of them. It has the state of things vary over the course of human history. It also has humanity as the agent of that change, primarily through technological innovation and social changes which arise in reaction to said innovation. It does not have (A) intentionality behind this change, (B) a positive arc to this change, (C) an infinite or unlimited arc to this change, or–perhaps most critically–(D) the expectation that any more change will occur in the future. Lucretius accounts for how society reached its present, and the mythological eras of Gold, Silver, Bronze and Iron do the same. None of these ancient thinkers speculate — as we do every day — about how the experiences of future generations might continue to change and be fundamentally different from their own. Quantitatively things might be different — Rome’s empire might grow or shrink, or fall entirely to be replaced by another — but fundamentally cities will be cities, plows will be plows, empires will be empires, and in a thousand years bread will still be bread. Even if Lucan or Lucretius speculate, they do not live in our world where bread is already poptarts, and will be something even more outlandish in the next generation.
Medieval Europe came to the realization — and if you grant their starting premises they’re absolutely right — that if the entire world is a temporary construct designed by an omnipotent, omniscient Creator God for the purpose of leading humans through their many trials toward eternal salvation or damnation, then it’s madness to look to Earth history for any cause-to-effect chains, there is one Cause of all effects. Medieval thought is no more monolithic than modern, but many excellent examples discuss the material world as a sort of pageant play being performed for us by God to communicate his moral lessons, and if one stage of history flows into another — an empire rises, prospers, falls — that is because God had a moral message to relate through its progression. Take Dante’s obsession with the Emperor Tiberius, for example. According to Dante, God planned the Crucifixion and wanted His Son to be lawfully executed by all humanity, so the sin and guilt and salvation would be universal, so He created the Roman Empire in order to have there be one government large enough to rule and represent the whole world (remember Dante’s maps have nothing south of Egypt except the Mountain of Purgatory). The empire didn’t develop, it was crafted for God’s purposes, Act II scene iii the Roman Empire Rises, scene v it fulfills its purpose, scene vi it falls. Applause.
Did the Renaissance have progress? No. Not conceptually, though, as in all eras of history, constant change was happening. But the Renaissance did suddenly get closer to the concept too. The Renaissance invented the Dark Ages. Specifically the Florentine Leonardo Bruni invented the Dark Ages in the 1420s-1430s. Following on Petrarch’s idea that Italy was in a dark and fallen age and could rise from it again by reviving the lost arts that had made Rome glorious, Bruni divided history into three sections, good Antiquity, bad Dark Ages, and good Renaissance, when the good things lost in antiquity returned. Humans and God were both agents in this, God who planned it and humans who actually translated the Greek, and measured the aqueducts, and memorized the speeches, and built the new golden age. Renaissance thinkers, fusing ideas from Greece and Rome with those of the Middle Ages, added to old ideas of development the first suggestion of a positive trajectory, but not an infinite one, and not a fundamental one. The change the Renaissance believed in lay in reacquiring excellent things the past had already had and lost, climbing out of a pit back to ground level. That change would be fundamental, but finite, and when Renaissance people talk about “surpassing the ancients” (which they do) they talk about painting more realistic paintings, sculpting more elaborate sculptures, perhaps building more stunning temples/cathedrals, or inventing new clever devices like Leonardo’s heated underground pipes to let you keep your potted lemon tree roots warm in winter (just like ancient Roman underfloor heating!) But cities would be cities, plows would be maybe slightly better plows, and empires would be empires. Surpassing the ancients lay in skill, art, artistry, not fundamentals.
Then in the early seventeenth century, Francis Bacon invented progress.
If we work together — said he — if we observe the world around us, study, share our findings, collaborate, uncover as a human team the secret causes of things hidden in nature, we can base new inventions on our new knowledge which will, in small ways, little by little, make human life just a little easier, just a little better, warm us in winter, shield us in storm, make our crops fail a little less, give us some way to heal the child on his bed. We can make every generation’s experience on this Earth a little better than our own. There are — he said — three kinds of scholar. There is the ant, who ranges the Earth and gathers crumbs of knowledge and piles them, raising his ant-mound, higher and higher, competing to have the greatest pile to sit and gloat upon–he is the encyclopedist, who gathers but adds nothing. There is the spider, who spins elaborate webs of theory from the stuff of his own mind, spinning beautiful, intricate patterns in which it is so easy to become entwined — he is the theorist, the system-weaver. And then there is the honeybee, who gathers from the fruits of nature and, processing them through the organ of his own being, produces something good and useful for the world. Let us be honeybees, give to the world, learning and learning’s fruits. Let us found a new method — the Scientific Method — and with it dedicate ourselves to the advancement of knowledge of the secret causes of things, and the expansion of the bounds of human empire to the achievement of all things possible.
Bacon is a gifted wordsmith, and he knows how to make you ache to be the noble thing he paints you as.
“How, Chancellor Bacon, do we know that we can change the world with this new scientific method thing, since no one has ever tried it before so you have no evidence that knowledge will yield anything good and useful, or that each generation’s experience might be better than the previous?”
It is not an easy thing to prove science works when you have no examples of science working yet.
Bacon’s answer — the answer which made kingdom and crown stream passionate support and birthed the Academy of Sciences–may surprise the 21st-century reader, accustomed as we are to hearing science and religion framed as enemies. We know science will work–Bacon replied–because of God. There are a hundred thousand things in this world which cause us pain and suffering, but God is Good. He gave the cheetah speed, the lion claws. He would not have sent humanity out into this wilderness without some way to meet our needs. He would not have given us the desire for a better world without the means to make it so. He gave us Reason. So, from His Goodness, we know that Reason must be able to achieve all He has us desire. God gave us science, and it is an act of Christian charity, an infinite charity toward all posterity, to use it.
They believed him.
And that is the first thing which, in my view, fits every modern definition of progress. Francis Bacon died from pneumonia contracted while experimenting with using snow to preserve chickens, attempting to give us refrigeration, by which food could be stored and spread across a hungry world. Bacon envisioned technological progress, medical progress, but also the small social progresses those would create, not just Renaissance glories for the prince and the cathedral, but food for the shepherd, rest for the farmer, little by little, progress. As Bacon’s followers reexamined medicine from the ground up, throwing out old theories and developing…
I’m going to tangent for a moment. It really took two hundred years for Bacon’s academy to develop anything useful. There was a lot of dissecting animals, and exploding metal spheres, and refracting light, and describing gravity, and it was very, very exciting, and a lot of it was correct, but–as the eloquent James Hankins put it–it was actually the nineteenth century that finally paid Francis Bacon’s I.O.U., his promise that, if you channel an unfathomable research budget, and feed the smartest youths of your society into science, someday we’ll be able to do things we can’t do now, like refrigerate chickens, or cure rabies, or anesthetize. There were a few useful advances (better navigational instruments, Franklin’s lightning rod) but for two hundred years most of science’s fruits were devices with no function beyond demonstrating scientific principles. Two hundred years is a long time for a vastly-complex society-wide project to keep getting support and enthusiasm, fed by nothing but pure confidence that these discoveries streaming out of the Royal Society papers will eventually someday actually do something. I just think… I just think that keeping it up for two hundred years before it paid off, that’s… that’s really cool.
…okay, I was in the middle of a sentence: As Bacon’s followers reexamined science from the ground up, throwing out old theories and developing new correct ones which would eventually enable effective advances, it didn’t take long for his followers to apply his principle (that we should attack everything with Reason’s razor and keep only what stands) to social questions: legal systems, laws, judicial practices, customs, social mores, social classes, religion, government… treason, heresy… hello, Thomas Hobbes. In fact the scientific method that Bacon pitched, the idea of progress, proved effective in causing social change a lot faster than genuinely useful technology. Effectively the call was: “Hey, science will improve our technology! It’s… it’s not doing anything yet, so… let’s try it out on society? Yeah, that’s doing… something… and — Oh! — now the technology’s doing stuff too!” Except that sentence took three hundred years.
We know now, as Bacon’s successors learned, with harsher and harsher vividness in successive generations, that attempts at progress can also cause negative effects, atrocious ones. Like Thomas Hobbes. And the Terror phase of the French Revolution. And the life-expectancy in cities plummeting as industrialization spread soot, and pollutants, and cholera, and mercury-impregnated wallpaper, and lead-whitened bread, Mmmmm lead-whitened bread… And just as technological discoveries had their monstrous offspring, like lead-whitened bread, the horrors of colonization were some of the monstrous offspring of the social applications of Reason. Monstrous offspring we are still wrestling with today.
Part 3: Progresses
We now use the word “progress” in many senses, many more than Bacon and his peers did. There is “technological progress.” There is “social progress.” There is “economic progress.” We sometimes lump these together, and sometimes separate them.
Thus the general question “Has progress failed?” can mean several things. It can mean, “Have our collective efforts toward the improvement of the human condition failed to achieve their desired results?” This is being asked frequently these days in the context of social progress, as efforts toward equality and tolerance are facing backlash.
But “Has progress failed?” can also mean “Has the development of science and technology, our application of Reason to things, failed to make the lived experience of people better/ happier/ less painful? Have the changes been bad or neutral instead of good?” In other words, was Bacon right that human’s using Reason and science can change our world, but wrong that we can make it better?
I want to stress that it is no small intellectual transformation that “progress” can now be used in a negative sense as well as a positive one. The concept as Bacon crystallized it, and as the Enlightenment spread it, was inherently positive, and to use it in a negative sense would be nonsensical, like using “healing” in a negative sense. But look at how we actually use “progress” in speech today. Sometimes it is positive (“Great progress this year!”) and sometimes negative (“Swallowed up by progress…”). This is a revolutionary change from Bacon’s day, enabled by two differences between ourselves and Bacon.
First we have watched the last several centuries. For us, progress is sometimes the first heart transplant and the footprints on the Moon, and sometimes it’s the Belgian Congo with its Heart of Darkness. Sometimes it’s the annihilation of smallpox and sometimes it’s polio becoming worse as a result of sanitation instead of better. Sometimes it’s Geraldine Roman, the Phillipines’ first transgender congresswoman, and sometimes it’s Cristina Calderón, the last living speaker of the Yaghan language. Progress has yielded fruits much more complex than honey, which makes sentences like “The prison of progress” sensical to us.
We have also broadened progress. For Bacon, progress was the honey and the honeybees, hard, systematic, intentional human action creating something sweet and useful for mankind. It was good. It was new. And it was intentional. In its nascent form, Bacon’s progress did not differentiate between progress the phenomenon and progress the concept. If you asked Bacon “Was there progress in the Middle Ages?” he would have answered, “No. We’re starting to have progress right now.” And he’s correct about the concept being new, about intentional or self-aware progress, progress as a conscious effort, being new. But if we turn to Wikipedia it defines “Progress (historical)” as “the idea that the world can become increasingly better in terms of science, technology, modernization, liberty, democracy, quality of life, etc.” Notice how agency and intentionality are absent from this. Because there was technological and social change before 1600, there were even technological and social changes that undeniably made things better, even if they came less frequently than they do in the modern world. So the phenomenon we study through the whole of history, far before the maturation of the concept.
As “progress” broadened to include unsystematic progress as well as the modern project of progress, that was the moment we acquired the questions “Is progress natural?” and “Is progress inevitable?” Because those questions require progress to be something that happens whether people intend it or not. In a sense, Bacon’s notion of progress wasn’t as teleological as Whig history. Bacon believed that human action could begin the process of progress, and that God gave Reason to humanity with this end in mind, but Bacon thought humans had to use a system, act intentionally, gather the pollen to make the honey, he didn’t think they honey just flowed. Not until progress is broadened to include pre-modern progress, and non-systematic, non-intentional modern progress, can the fully teleological idea of an inescapable momentum, an inevitability, join the manifold implications of the word “progress.”
Now I’m going to show you two maps.
This is map of global population, rendered to look like a terrain. It shows the jagged mountain ranges of south and east Asia, the vast, sweeping valleys of forest and wilderness. The most jagged spikes may be a little jarring, the intensity of India and China, but even those are rich brown mountains, while the whole thing has the mood of a semi-untouched world, much more pastoral wilderness than city, and almost everywhere a healthy green. This makes progress, or at least the spread of population, feel like a natural phenomenon, a neutral phenomenon.
This is the Human Ooze Map. This map shows exactly the same data, reoriented to drip down instead of spiking up, and to be a pus-like yellow against an ominous black background. Instantly the human metropolises are not natural spikes within a healthy terrain, but an infection clinging to every oozing coastline, with the densest mega-cities seeming to bleed out amidst the goop, like open pustules.
Both these maps show one aspect of ‘progress’. Whether the teeming cities of our modern day are an apocalyptic infection, or a force as natural as the meandering of shores and tree-lines, depends on how we present the narrative, and the moral assumptions that underlie that presentation. Presentism and the progress narrative in general have very similar distorting effects. When we examine past phenomena, institutions, events, people, ideas, some feel viscerally good or viscerally bad, right or wrong, forward-moving or backward-moving, values they acquire from narratives which we ourselves have created, and which orient how we analyze history, just as these mapmakers have oriented population up, or down, resulting in radically different feelings. Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s model of the Noble Savage, happier the rural simplicity of Lucretius’s Golden Age rather than in the stressful ever-changing urban world of progress, is itself an image progress presented like the Human Ooze Map, reversing the moral presentation of the same facts.
Realizing that the ways we present data about progress are themselves morally charged can help us clarify questions that are being asked right now about liberalism, and nationalism, and social change, and opposition to social change. Because when we ask whether the world is experiencing a “failure” or a “revolution” or a “regression” or a “backlash” or a “last gasp” or a “pendulum swing” or a “prelude to triumph” etc., all these characterizations reorient data around different facets of the concept of progress, positive or negative, natural or intentional, just as these two maps reorient population around different morally-charged visualizations.
In sum: post colonialism, post industrialization, post Hobbes, we can no longer talk about progress as a unilateral, uncomplicated, good, not without distorting history, and ignoring the terrible facets of the last several centuries. Bacon thought there would be only honey, he was wrong. But we can’t not discuss progress because, during these same centuries, each generation’s experience has been increasingly different from the last generation, and science and human action are propelling this change. And there has been some honey. We need ways to talk about that.
But not without bearing in mind how we invest progress with different kinds of moral weight (the terrain or the ooze…)
And not without a question Bacon never thought to ask, because he did not realize (as we do) that technological and social change had been going on for many centuries before he made the action conscious. So Bacon never thought to ask: Do we have any power over progress?
Part 4: Do Individuals Have the Power to Change History?
Feelings of helplessness and despair have also been big parts of the shock of 2016. Helplessness and despair are questions, as well as feelings. They ask: Am I powerless? Can I personally do anything to change this? Do individuals have any power to shape history? Are we just swept along by the vast tides of social forces? Are we just cogs in the machine? What changes history?
Within a history department this divide often manifests methodologically.
Economic historians, and social historians, write masterful examinations of how vast social and economic forces, and their changes, whether incremental or rapid, have shaped history. Let’s call that Great Forces history. Whenever you hear people comparing our current wealth gap to the eve of the French Revolution, that is Great Forces history. When a Marxist talks about the inevitable interactions of proletariat and bourgeoisie, or when a Whig historian talks about the inevitable march of progress, those are also kinds of Great Forces history.
Great Forces history is wonderful, invaluable. It lets us draw illuminating comparisons, and helps us predict, not what will happen but what could happen, by looking at what has happened in similar circumstances. I mentioned earlier the French Wars of Religion, with their intermittent blips of peace. My excellent colleague Brian Sandberg of NIU (a brilliant historian of violence) recently pointed out to me that France during the Catholic-Protestant religious wars was about 10% Protestant, somewhat comparable to the African American population of the USA today which is around 13%. A striking comparison, though with stark differences. In particular, France’s Protestant/Calvinist population fell disproportionately in the wealthy, politically-empowered aristocratic class (comprising 30% of the ruling class), in contrast with African Americans today who fall disproportionately in the poorer, politically-disempowered classes. These similarities and differences make it very fruitful to look at the mechanisms of civil violence in 16th and 17th century France (how outbreaks of violence started, how they ended, who against whom) to help us understand the similar-yet-different ways civil violence might operate around us now. That kind of comparison is, in my view, Great Forces history at its most fruitful. (You can read more by Brian Sandberg on this issue in his book, on his blog, and on the Center for the Study of Religious Violence blog; more citations at the end of this article.)
But are we all, then, helpless water droplets, with no power beyond our infinitesimal contribution to the tidal forces of our history? Is there room for human agency?
History departments also have biographers, and intellectual historians, and micro-historians, who churn out brilliant histories of how one town, one woman, one invention, one idea reshaped our world. Readers have seen me do this here on Ex Urbe, describing how Beccaria persuaded Europe to discontinue torture, how Petrarch sparked the Renaissance, how Machiavelli gave us so much. Histories of agents, of people who changed the world. Such histories are absolutely true — just as the Great Forces histories are — but if Great Forces histories tell us we are helpless droplets in a great wave, these histories give us hope that human agency, our power to act meaningfully upon our world, is real. I am quite certain that one of the causes of the explosive response to the Hamilton musical right now is its firm, optimistic message that, yes, individuals can, and in fact did, reshape this world — and so can we.
This kind of history, inspiring as it is, is also dangerous. The antiquated/old-fashioned/bad version of this kind of history is Great Man history, the model epitomized by Thomas Carlyle’s Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History (a gorgeous read) which presents humanity as a kind of inert but rich medium, like agar ready for a bacterial culture. Onto this great and ready stage, Nature (or God or Providence) periodically sends a Great Man, a leader, inventor, revolutionary, firebrand, who makes empires rise, or fall, or leads us out of the black of ignorance. Great Man history is very prone to erasing everyone outside a narrow elite, erasing women, erasing the negative consequences of the actions of Great Men, justifying atrocities as the collateral damage of greatness, and other problems which I hope are familiar to my readers.
But when done well, histories of human agency are valuable. Are true. Are hope.
So if Great Forces history is correct, and useful, and Human Agency history is also correct, and useful… how do we balance that? They are, after all, contradictory.
Part 5: The Papal Election of 2016
Every year in my Italian Renaissance class, here at the University of Chicago, I run a simulation of a Renaissance papal election, circa 1490-1500. Each student is a different participant in the process, and they negotiate, form coalitions, and, eventually, elect a pope. And then they have a war, and destroy some chunk of Europe. Each student receives a packet describing that students’ character’s goals, background, personality, allies and enemies, and a packet of resources, cards representing money, titles, treasures, armies, nieces and nephews one can marry off, contracts one can sign, artists or scholars one can use to boost one’s influence, or trade to others as commodities: “I’ll give you Leonardo if you send three armies to guard my city from the French.”
Some students in the simulation play powerful Cardinals wielding vast economic resources and power networks, with clients and subordinates, complicated political agendas, and a strong shot at the papacy. Others are minor Cardinals, with debts, vulnerabilities, short-term needs to some personal crisis in their home cities, or long-term hopes of rising on the coattails of others and perhaps being elected three or four popes from now. Others, locked in a secret chamber in the basement, are the Crowned Heads of Europe — the King of France, the Queen of Castile, the Holy Roman Emperor — who smuggle secret orders (text messages) to their agents in the conclave, attempting to forge alliances with Italian powers, and gain influence over the papacy so they can use Church power to strengthen their plans to launch invasions or lay claim to distant thrones. And others are not Cardinals at all but functionaries who count the votes, distribute the food, the guard who keeps watch, the choir director who entertains the churchmen locked in the Sistine, who have no votes but can hear, and watch, and whisper.
There are many aspects to this simulation, which I may someday to discuss here at greater length (for now you can read a bit about it on our History Department blog), but for the moment I just want to talk about the outcomes, and what structures the outcomes. I designed this simulation not to have any pre-set outcome. I looked into the period as best I could, and gave each historical figure the resources and goals that I felt accurately reflected that person’s real historical resources and actions. I also intentionally moved some characters in time, including some Cardinals and political issues which do not quite overlap with each other, in order to make this an alternate history, not a mechanical reconstruction, so that students who already knew what happened to Italy in this period would know they couldn’t have the “correct” outcome even if they tried, which frees everyone to pursue goals, not “correct” choices, and to genuinely explore the range of what could happen without being too locked in to what did. I set up the tensions and the actors to simulate what I felt the situation was when the election begin, then left it free to flow.
I have now run the simulation four times. Each time some outcomes are similar, similar enough that they are clearly locked in by the greater political webs and economic forces. The same few powerful Cardinals are always leading candidates for the throne. There is usually also a wildcard candidate, someone who has never before been one of the top contenders, but circumstances bring a coalition together. And, usually, perhaps inevitably, a juggernaut wins, one of the Cardinals who began with a strong power-base, but it’s usually very, very close. And the efforts of the wildcard candidate, and the coalition that formed around that wildcard, always have a powerful effect on the new pope’s policies and first actions, who’s in the inner circle and who’s out, what opposition parties form, and that determines which city-states rise and which city-states burn as Italy erupts in war.
And the war is Always. Totally. Different.
Because as the monarchies race to make alliances and team up against their enemies, they get pulled back-and-forth by the ricocheting consequences of small actions: a marriage, an insult, a bribe traded for a whisper, someone paying off someone else’s debts, someone taking a shine to a bright young thing. Sometimes France invades Spain. Sometimes France and Spain unite to invade the Holy Roman Empire. Sometimes England and Spain unite to keep the French out of Italy. Sometimes France and the Empire unite to keep Spain out of Italy. Once they made a giant pan-European peace treaty, with a set of marriage alliances which looked likely to permanently unify all four great Crowns, but it was shattered by the sudden assassination of a crown prince.
So when I tell people about this election, and they ask me “Does it always have the same outcome?” the answer is yes and no. Because the Great Forces always push the same way. The strong factions are strong. Money is power. Blood is thicker than promises. Virtue is manipulable. In the end, a bad man will be pope. And he will do bad things. The war is coming, and the land — some land somewhere — will burn. But the details are always different. A Cardinal needs to gather fourteen votes to get the throne, but it’s never the same fourteen votes, so it’s never the same fourteen people who get papal favor, whose agendas are strengthened, whose homelands prosper while their enemies fall. And I have never once seen a pope elected in this simulation who did not owe his victory, not only to those who voted, but to one or more of the humble functionaries, who repeated just the right whisper at just the right moment, and genuinely handed the throne to Monster A instead of Monster B. And from that functionary flow the consequences. There are always several kingmakers in the election, who often do more than the candidate himself to get him on the throne, but what they do, who they help, and which kingmaker ends up most favored, most influential, can change a small war in Genoa into a huge war in Burgundy, a union of thrones between France and England into another century of guns and steel, or determine which decrees the new pope signs. That sometimes matters more than whether war is in Burgundy or Genoa, since papal signatures resolve questions such as: Who gets the New World? Will there be another crusade? Will the Inquisition grow more tolerant or less toward new philosophies? Who gets to be King of Naples? These things are different every time, though shaped by the same forces.
Frequently the most explosive action is right after the pope is elected, after the Great Forces have thrust a bad man onto Saint Peter’s throne, and set the great and somber stage for war, often that’s the moment that I see human action do most. That’s when I get the after-midnight message on the day before the war begins: “Secret meeting. 9AM. Economics cafe. Make sure no one sees you. Sforza, Medici, D’Este, Dominicans. Borgia has the throne but he will not be master of Italy.” And together, these brave and haste-born allies, they… faicceed? Fail and succeed? They give it all they have: diplomacy, force, wealth, guile, all woven together. They strike. The bad pope rages, sends forces out to smite these enemies. The kings and great thrones take advantage, launch invasions. The armies clash. One of the rebel cities burns, but the other five survive, and Borgia (that year at least) is not Master of Italy.
We feel it, the students as myself, coming out of the simulation. The Great Forces were real, and were unstoppable. The dam was about to break. No one could stop it. But the human agents — even the tiniest junior clerk who does the paperwork — the human agents shaped what happened, and every action had its consequences, imperfect, entwined, but real. The dam was about to break, but every person there got to dig a channel to try to direct the waters once they flowed, and that is what determined the real shape of the flood, its path, its damage. No one controlled what happened, and no one could predict what happened, but those who worked hard and dug their channels, most of them succeeded in diverting most of the damage, achieving many of their goals, preventing the worst. Not all, but most.
And what I see in the simulation I also see over and over in real historical sources.
This is how both kinds of history are true. There are Great Forces. Economics, class, wealth gaps, prosperity, stagnation, these Great Forces make particular historical moments ripe for change, ripe for war, ripe for wealth, ripe for crisis, ripe for healing, ripe for peace. But individuals also have real agency, and our actions determine the actual consequences of these Great Forces as they reshape our world. We have to understand both, and study both, and act on the world now remembering that both are real.
So, can human beings control progress? Yes and no.
Part 6: Ways to Talk About Progress in the 21st Century
Few things have taught me more about the world than keeping a fish tank.
You get some new fish, put them in your fish tank, everything’s fine. You get some more new fish, the next morning one of them has killed almost all the others. Another time you get a new fish and it’s all gaspy and pumping its gills desperately, because it’s from alkeline waters and your tank is too acidic for it. So you put in a little pH adjusting powder and… all the other fish get sick from the Ammonia that releases and die. Another time you get a new fish and it’s sick! So you put fish antibiotics in the water, aaaand… they kill all the symbiotic bacteria in your filter system and the water gets filled with rotting bacteria, and the fish die. Another time you do absolutely nothing, and the fish die.
What’s happening? The same thing that happened in the first two centuries after Francis Bacon, when the science was learning tons, but achieving little that actually improved daily life. The system is more complex than it seems. A change which achieves its intended purpose also throws out-of-whack vital forces you did not realize were connected to it. The acidity buffer in the fish tank increases the nutrients in the water, which causes an algae bloom, which uses up the oxygen and suffocates the catfish. The marriage alliance between Milan and Ferrara makes Venice friends with Milan, which makes Venice’s rival Genoa side with Spain, which makes Spain reluctant to anger Portugal, which makes them agree to a marriage alliance, and then Spain is out of princesses and can’t marry the Prince of Wales, and the next thing you know there are soldiers from Scotland attacking Bologna. A seventeenth-century surgeon realizes that cataracts are caused by something white and opaque appearing at the front of the eye so removes it, not yet understanding that it’s the lens and you really need it.
So when I hear people ask “Has social progress has failed?” or “Has liberalism failed?” or “Has the Civil Rights Movement failed?” my zoomed-in self, my scared self, the self living in this crisis feels afraid and uncertain, but my zoomed-out self, my historian self answers very easily. No. These movements have done wonders, achieved tons! But they have also done what all movements do in a dynamic historical system: they have had large, complicated consequences. They have added something to the fish tank. Because the same Enlightenment impulse to make a better, more rational world, where everyone would have education and equal political empowerment BOTH caused the brutalities of the Belgian Congo AND gave me the vote. And that’s the sort of thing historians look at, all day.
But if the consequences of our actions are completely unpredictable, would it be better to say that change is real but progress controlled by humans is just an idea which turned out to be wrong? No. I say no. Because I gradually got better at understanding the fish tank. Because the doctors gradually figured out how the eye really does function. Because some of our civil rights have come by blood and war, and others have come through negotiation and agreement. Because we as humans are gradually learning more about how our world is interconnected, and how we can take action within that interconnected system. And by doing so we really have achieve some of what Francis Bacon and his followers waited for through those long centuries: we have made the next generation’s experience on this Earth a little better than our own. Not smoothly, and not quickly, but actually. Because, in my mock papal election, the dam did break, but those students who worked hard to dig their channels did direct the flood, and most of them managed to achieve some of what they aimed at, though they always caused some other effects too.
Is it still blowing up in our faces?
Is it going to keep blowing up in our faces, over and over?
Is it going to blow up so much, sometimes, that it doesn’t seem like it’s actually any better?
Is that still progress?
Because there was a baby in the bathwater of Whig history. If we work hard at it, we can find metrics for comparing times and places which don’t privilege particular ideologies. Metrics like infant mortality. Metrics like malnutrition. Metrics like the frequency of massacres. We can even find metrics for social progress which don’t irrevocably privilege a particular Western value system. One of my favorite social progress metrics is: “What portion of the population of this society can be murdered by a different portion of the population and have the murderer suffer no meaningful consequences?” The answer, for America in 2017, is not 0%. But it’s also not 90%. That number has gone down, and is now far below the geohistorical norm. That is progress. That, and infant mortality, and the conquest of smallpox. These are genuine improvements to the human condition, of the sort that Bacon and his followers believed would come if they kept working to learn the causes and secret motions of things. And they were right. While Whig history privileges a very narrow set of values, metrics which track things like infant mortality, or murder with impunity, still privilege particular values — life, justice, equality — but aim to be compatible with as many different cultures, and even time periods, as possible. They are metrics which stranded time travelers would find it fairly easy to explain, no matter where they were dumped in Earth’s broad timeline. At least that’s our aim. And such metrics are the best tool we have at present to make the comparisons, and have the discussions about progress, that we need to have to grapple with our changing world.
Because progress is both a concept and a phenomenon.
The concept is the hope that collective human effort can make every generation’s experience on this Earth a little better than the previous generation’s. That concept has itself become a mighty force shaping the human experience, like communism, iron, or the wheel. It is valuable thing to look at the effects that concept has had, to talk about how some have been destructive and others constructive, and to study, from a zoomed-out perspective, the consequences, successes, and failures of different movements or individuals who have acted in the name of progress.
The phenomenon is also real. My own personal assessment of it is just that, a personal assessment, with no authority beyond some years spent studying history. I hope to keep reexamining and improving this assessment all the days of my life. But here at the beginning of 2017 I would say this:
Progress is not inevitable, but it is happening.
It is not transparent, but it is visible.
It is not safe, but it is beneficial.
It is not linear, but it is directional.
It is not controllable, but it is us. In fact, it is nothing but us.
Progress is also natural, in my view, not in the sense that it will inevitably triumph over its doomed opposition, but in the sense that the human animal is part of nature, so the Declaration of the Rights of Man is as natural as a bird’s nest or a beaver dam. There is no teleology, no inevitable correct ending locked in from time immemorial. But I personally think there is a certain outcome to progress, gradual but certain: the decrease of pain in the human condition over time. Because there is so much desire in this world to make a better one. Bacon was right that we ache for it. And the real measurable changes we have made show that he was also right that we can use Reason and collective effort to meet our desires, even if the process is agonizingly slow, imperfect, and dangerous. But we know now how to go about learning the causes and secret motions of things. And how to use that knowledge.
We are also learning to understand the accidental negative consequences of progress, looking out for them, mitigating them, preventing them, creating safety nets. We’re getting better at it. Slowly, but we are.
Zooming back in hurts. It’s easy to say “the French Wars of Religion” and erase the little blips of peace, but it’s hard to feel fear and pain, or watch a friend feel fear and pain. Sometimes I hear people say they think that things today are worse than they’ve ever been, especially the hate, or the race relations in the USA, that they’re worse now than ever. That we’ve made no progress, quite the opposite. Similarly, I think a person who grew up during one of the peaceful pauses in the French Wars of Religion might say, when the violence restarted, that the wars were worse now than they had ever been, and farther than ever from real peace. They aren’t actually worse now. They genuinely were worse before. But they are really, really bad right now, and it does really, really hurt.
The slowness of social progress is painful, I think especially because it’s the aspect of progress that seemed it would come fastest. During that first century, when Bacon’s followers were waiting in maddening impatience for their better medical knowledge to result in any actual increase in their ability to save lives, social progress was already working wonders. The Enlightenment did extend franchise, end torture on an entire continent, achieved much, and had this great, heady, explosive feeling of victory and momentum. It seemed like social progress was already half-way-done before tech even got started. But Charles Babbage kicked off programmable computing in 1833 and now my pocket contains 100x the computing power needed to get Apollo XI to the Moon, so why, if Olympe de Gouges wrote the Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Citizen in 1791, do we still not have equal pay?
Because society is a very complicated fish tank. Because we still have a lot to learn about the causes and secret motions of society.
But if there is a dam right now, ready to break and usher in a change, Great Forces are still shaped by human action. Our action.
Studying history has proved to me, over and over, that things used to be worse. That they are better now. Progress is real. That’s a consolation, but a hollow one while we’re still here facing the pain. What fills its hollowness, for me at least, is remembering that secret meeting in the Economics cafe, that hasty plan, diplomacy, quick action — not a second chance after the disaster, but a next chance. And a next. And a next, to take actions that really did achieve things, even if not everything. Human action combining with the flood is not powerlessness. And that’s how I think progress really works.
“Make everyone read Beccaria!” is one of many sentiments I share with François-Marie Arouet, better known as Voltaire.
This post was prompted by two things.
The first was this comment responding my post about the two recent Borgia TV series, which mentioned TV depictions of horrific pre-modern executions.
Jen: “I am watching the final episode of The Borgias, Season 2, in which Savonarola is tortured and burnt at the stake, and again I find myself wondering – what was the supposed justification and thinking behind these acts? What did the church think burning people achieved? I know it was meant to be symbolic in some way, but of what I don’t know. I just do not understand why people were capable of such hideous acts of evil and why they did not realise that it was evil? How on earth could they reconcile this acts with their supposed devout religious beliefs??? Why was torture used without a second thought? So many questions about humanity and religion. Why did it take so long for us humans to develop a moral compass, and to value compassion?”
Addressing all these questions would take me deep into fraught realms of psychology, speculation, and accusation, and also deep into unhappy contemporary controversies over torture and capital punishment, none of which I want to stick my foot in. I do believe I can respond in one useful way with an historical portrait of one important moment in the history of this question. This is also one of those great undersung moments of real history which is so unilaterally good that it can all make us feel that much more proud to be human.
My second prompt was a recent experience with jury duty. There was some excitement among my friends when I was summoned for jury duty, speculating about how exactly I would get myself disqualified, since they were confident no attorney in the land would want me. I did rather want to be on the jury, in the name of interesting life experiences, so I started out trying to be inert and quiet, but eventually the defense attorney brought up that he saw from the sheet that I was a professor and asked me what I taught, and it was clear from that that I was pre-disqualified whatever I did, so decided thereafter to be honest. The jury selection scene was so stereotypical as to be almost a parody of itself, with a clean-cut young city slicker prosecutor with a distinctively stylish haircut, black pinstripe suit, rimless glasses who had such a boyish face he might have passed for an undergrad, facing off against a gray-haired defense attorney in a corduroy jacket and jeans with a southern drawl and a giant belt buckle shaped like Texas.
In his slow, meandering style (and with a gratuitous, emotionally manipulative photo of a mother cradling a baby on his Powerpoint, which was absolutely unrelated to any aspect of the case at hand) the defense attorney proceeded to go along the line and ask each potential juror what they thought the purpose of judicial punishment was: deterrence or rehabilitation. When asked to define “deterrence,” he explained it as “punishment, let’s get ’em, eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth.” He went along getting a ratio of about two rehabilitations to one deterrence until he got to me. I froze a moment, pursed my lips, then delivered what was honestly absolutely the most restrained impassioned speech I could manage. “You’re conflating two different types of justice,” I said (rough reconstruction). “Eye for an eye justice isn’t deterrence, it’s retributive justice, and the two are radically different. Retributive justice selects punishments with the goal of inflicting some punishment on the guilty party in order to achieve some kind of justice, balance, repentance, or fairness. Deterrence-based justice instead selects punishments based on what effect the punishment will have on the general population as a disincentive discouraging the crime in question. The two are not only different but, from an historical perspective, directly opposed, and their opposition is at the heart of all post-Enlightenment judicial codes including our own, thanks to the influence of Voltaire and Cesare Beccaria.” By this point the court stenographer declared me her eternal enemy and halted the proceedings so I could spell Cesare Beccaria for her, slowly, twice. Both the lawyers gave that special sort of “And this is why we don’t put people with Ph.D.s on juries” smiles at me, but I was satisfied to find that two other prospective jurors after me did speak up and say, “I agree with the professor, retribution isn’t deterrence.”
It is the moment of the birth of this distinction that I want to visit today. This moment addresses Jen’s questions about why medieval governments and the Church used so much violent torture, not by analyzing the Middle Ages, but by revisiting the first moment that the very questions Jen asked were asked by someone else, and thereby entered the central conversation of European thought, with real and wonderful consequences.
Some other day I will sing the praises of the Enlightenment in their full glory. For now suffice to say that the Age of Reason deserved its title. In the seventeenth century, the new philosophers, especially Descartes and Francis Bacon, had birthed the new and exciting idea that, by applying Reason and systematic analysis to things, human beings could find ways to alter them to make them more rational and better, for the good of all humankind. They saw Reason as a tool supplied by Nature and/or God to let human beings govern themselves and improve their condition, with the power to achieve anything humanity could dream of if we work carefully enough and long enough. In this spirit, intellectuals investigated engines, spinning methods, the circulation of the blood, birthing procedures, baking chemistry, light, optics, physics, and refrigeration, and discovered many new things which promised greatness, and some which were already delivering. As the eighteenth century approached, the methods which had been being applied primarily to what we might call hard sciences (with the terrifying exception of the shadowy “Beast of Malmesbury” a.k.a. Thomas Hobbes, whose fascinating infamy I hope someday to treat as I have Machiavelli’s) began with increasing frequency to be applied to other matters: government, law, justice (see Montesquieu and Locke), religion (Rousseau, Paine), and eventually crimes and punishments. If human institutions are held up for examination before the Light of Reason, claims the Method, they can be revised to be more rational and better, also better in line with Nature – with these improvements we will make a better world. It was this effort which was spearheaded by the great lights we remember: the Encyclopedia Project, Voltaire, Diderot, d’Holbach, d’Alambert, Franklin, Jefferson, and taken even further by other more chilling figures like La Mettrie and Sade.
Cesare Beccaria was from Milan, a nobleman and jurist under the Hapsburgs. He and other excited young intellectuals were enthusiastic readers of the firebrand treatises of Voltaire and others which trickled down from France. In that spirit, they set up their own intellectual circle jokingly named “L’Accademia dei pugni” (the Academy of Fists). Beccaria was interested in applying Reason’s razor to the ancient law codes he was now empowered to enforce (in the name of foreign but theoretically enlightened rulers in a conquered but civilized land). The young Beccaria, who was only 26 at the time, collaborated with Pietro and Alessandro Verri and produced, in 1764, a tiny little treatise On Crimes and Punishments. It was released anonymously, to protect its radical authors. It was thereafter translated into French where it became an immediate sensation, particularly since Voltaire, The Pen Mightier than Any Sword, embraced the treatise like a long-lost child, wrote a commentary on it, and shoved it at everyone. Though there were three minds behind the treatise, Beccaria was chosen to author it because of his flare for rhetoric. You can see it in the opening lines, which precisely express the first time someone asked Jen’s big question “Why did Europe of that era use such gruesome punishments?”:
Some remains of the laws of an ancient conquering people, compiled on the authority of a prince who reigned twelve centuries ago in Constantinople, later mingled with Lombard customs and collected in hodge-podge volumes by unofficial and obscure commentators–this is what forms the traditional opinions that in a large part of Europe are nonetheless called “law.” Moreover, it is today as pernicious as it is common that an opinion of Carpzov, an ancient custom cited by Claro, or a torture suggested with irate complacency by Farinacci, should be the laws unhesitatingly followed by those who ought to dispose of the lives and fortunes of men only with diffidence. (Young translation, Hackett, 1986)
In On Crimes and Punishments Beccaria examined the purpose of extreme punishments, thereby exposing, certainly not the only answer, but a set of answers which he then used to propose a shocking new way to think about punishment: deterrence.
Beccaria begins from the extremely Enlightenment position of considering the pleasure-pain principle the natural core of human (and animal) life. Animals, people among them, pursue happiness and flee unhappiness: pleasures including food and love but also virtue and success; pains including physical pain, deprivation, shame, and death. The purpose of a legal system is to ensure and protect a situation which will secure the most happiness for the most people. Just as a farmer must examine his methods to choose the techniques that will produce the most wheat of the best quality, so must the jurist examine his laws and punishments and choose those which will best protect and cultivate the common happiness of the people.
Beccaria follows Montesquieu, following Locke, in his political fundamentals. He believes in Laws of Nature, among them the rights to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. He believes that governments are instituted by a Social Contract, created by humans for mutual protection and benefit. Fearing their defenselessness in the State of Nature, early humans united together, sacrificing a small portion of their liberty to create the sovereignty of the state so it could protect them “against the private usurpations against each individual.” In this system, governments were not created by God with divine right, as was the traditional view, but they do have divine sources in that Reason and Nature are divine creations, and Reason is God’s gift to humanity to let humans protect and govern themselves. He therefore will not accept arguments that invoke religious justification against Reason, because in the dominantly Deist spirit of the Enlightenment, even an Italian Catholic believes that God is Light and Reason and therefore that if Reason and divine edicts seem to contradict there must be a mistake somewhere. Reason and religion, if both true, will always, the age believed, align. In his treatise on the small topic of crime and punishment, therefore, Beccaria sees himself contributing a footnote to preceding treatises on rational government, rational law and rational religion, Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws foremost among them. And by “he sees himself contributing a small footnote,” I mean in the most sweet and adorable way, as this passage sums up:
The immortal President de Montesquieu touched hastily upon this matter. Indivisible truth has compelled me to follow the shining footsteps of this great man… I shall count myself fortunate if I, as did he, can earn the secret gratitude of the little-known and peace-loving followers of reason and if I can inspire the sweet thrill with which sensitive souls respond to whoever upholds the interests of humanity! (Introduction)
And he took up this great topic with the overt intention of beginning an international dialog, inviting replies thus:
Whoever would wish to honor me with his criticisms, I repeat, should not begin, then, by supposing that I hold principles which are subversive either of virtue or of religion… But anyone who will write with the decency that becomes honorable men and with enough intelligence to free me from proving elementary principles, of whatever character he may be, will find me not so much a man eager to reply in his own defense as a peaceful friend of the truth. (Address to the Reader)
In all this, it is important to remember that, in Beccaria’s examinations of “Why do we use torture?” and “Why do we execute people?”, he does not have modern psychology in his analytic repertoire. He cannot, as we would, suggest that public executions were social catharsis, venting aggression in a controlled way, as sports would later. He cannot discuss the psychological relationship between the authority and the condemned, or talk about how sentences reinforce personal power or vent subconscious drives. He acts, as all pre-Freud thinkers do, on the belief that all human behavior is based on active, conscious decision-making. Some actions may be unexamined, i.e. based on bad logic and false conclusions, and actions based on imperfect information lead to error, but they are still based on some form of mental calculation, and the better examined they are, the more likely they are to be right. The judges enforcing the old mongrel legal code, part Roman, part Lombard, which Beccaria asks us to question, do so, in his view, in an unexamined way, falsely believing that that code is good and right in itself, or at least serves their ends. They have not examined it under the light of reason and asked what the utility is of each law and punishment. But they still decide to enforce this law code rationally, consciously, knowingly, not for hidden reasons deep in the root of the inaccessible mind.
What, Beccaria asks, is the purpose of legal punishment?
By Beccaria’s metric, all activities of the state must serve its primary function, that is, to provide the most happiness to the greatest number of citizens. This follows from the principle that the state is founded on the basis of reason for the protection and happiness of the people. Any aspect of the government, and within that of the legal system, which does not help serve this mandate to protect and distribute happiness will be rejected as irrational. All punishments, then, must serve to increase human happiness. He agrees with Montesquieu that “every punishment which does not derive from absolute necessity is tyrannical.” (ch. 2) From this he concludes three principles: (1) That only law, and not individuals with some kind of special authority, can justly impose punishments, (2) that if punishments derive from a social contract which binds all people equally, then all people equivalently bind the state equally and are entitled to the same treatment and the same punishment under the law, and (3) that excessively cruel punishments which have no benefit to public happiness have no justification and are tyrannical, and contrary to the virtue of reasoning people.
How do we determine the appropriate severity for a punishment? It should, he argues, be measured based on the harm done to the nation by the crime, and the punishment should be proportional, and focused on preventing the crime. In other words, deterrence. Ever the Enlightenment scientist, Beccaria likens self-interest to gravity, a powerful and universal force driving people toward action which can only be stopped by an opposing force. Thus when self-interest directs toward crime, that drive must be countered by an opposing one: fear of punishment. Prevention of crime, then, is the sole justification for judicial punishment in Beccaria’s analysis, not retribution, nor the at-this-point-largely-undreamed-of idea of rehabilitation.
Can the cries of a poor wretch turn back time and undo actions which have already been done?… The purpose of punishment, then, is nothing other than to dissuade the criminal from doing fresh harm… punishments and the method of inflicting them should be chosen that, mindful of the proportion between crime and punishment, will make the most effective and lasting impression on men’s minds and inflict the least torment on the body of the criminal. (ch. 12)
He does, however, review (in ch. 7) what he sees as other traditional justifications for proposing punishments, and it is here that his treatise gives us a snapshot of what one legal expert saw as the logic underlying the mass of gradually-accumulated law.
Some people, he says, have measured crimes on the basis of the dignity of the injured party (an interesting metric, and one the modern world has left far behind). Here he would be thinking of how a crime of a commoner against a nobleman is far more harshly dealt with than one against another commoner. If this is the system of logic, we can see why offenses against the Crown or against a lawful feudal lord could be punished with great severity, if they are read as injuring the Dignity, Grace, or Person of the sovereign. To use the Robin Hood example, if one hunts the king’s deer this seems like a minor injury if we see it as harming the deer, forest, or warden, but if the offense is seen as being one against the dignity and rights of the king then, by rank proportion logic, a punishment sufficient to avenge an offense against such great dignity must indeed be extreme. Yet, Beccaria argues, this type of reasoning cannot be the true metric people are using, because if so then crimes against God, i.e. blasphemy or irreverence, would be punished far more gruesomely and severely than the assassination of a monarch. Crimes against God were indeed punished very severely in his era (see the extreme examples of burning at the stake), but the assassin of a king was certainly regarded with more hatred, and executed with more gruesome creativity. In addition, actual burning at the stake for heresy or blasphemy or even witchcraft was, in the era of the Inquisition Beccaria was familiar with, exceptionally rare. Extreme cases like that of our dear Giordano Bruno did indeed end with blood and fire (a particularly visceral reality for me since he was burned alive a few paces from the apartment where I used to live in Rome). But in the Italian Inquisition such cases were rare, exceptions, usually examples brought on by some special political circumstance, and the usual sentence for blasphemy or even devil worship was being forced to sit through a bunch of boring religious re-education seminars and recite a lot of prayers (see the work of Nicholas Davidson on the Inquisition in Venice). Clearly, Beccaria concludes, the logic of the current law cannot always be that the punishment is chosen to be proportional to the dignity of the victim, but that type of thinking does seem, to him, to be an inconsistent but present factor in the thought behind the gore.
Other people, Beccaria says, have proposed that the punishment should be in proportion to the crime, i.e. “that the gravity of sin should play some part in the measurement of crimes.” In other words, that the purpose of punishment could be to achieve some kind of abstract balance or justice, righting wrongs, giving criminals their just deserts, etc. This reasoning he sees behind some aspects of the current law, and certainly it fits an eye for an eye and a life for a life, though doesn’t quite help us understand the practices of hacking off a hand for theft, or sawing a man in half from crotch to head for committing murder on a day that irritated the pope. But choosing punishments to balance the gravity of sin Beccaria says is also contrary to Reason. His argument? He asks us to look at “the relationships between men and men, and between men and God.” The former, he says, are relations of equality in which issues of common utility are primary, since those are what form the relationships between people. Thus utility, not abstract justice, should govern such relationships, and thus if punishments are to be based on relations between people, then utility, i.e. deterrence, should be the deciding factor. As for relations “between men and God,” it is here that Beccaria puts the idea of abstract, cosmic, or universal justness demanding that a crime be punished. He then argues that it is not humanity’s task to pursue universal justice.
If [God] has established eternal punishments for anyone who disobeys His omnipotence, what insect will dare to supplement divine justice? What insect will wish to avenge [wrongs against] the Being Who is sufficient unto Himself, Who cannot receive impressions of pleasure or pain from objects, and Who alone among all beings acts without being acted upon? The seriousness of sin depends upon the unfathomable malice of the human heart, and finite beings cannot know this without revelation. How, then, can a standard for punishing crimes be drawn from this? In such a case, men might punish when God forgives and forgive when God punishes. If men can be in conflict with the Almighty by offending Him, they can also be so by punishing.
It is interesting for the modern observer to note how directly Beccaria equates notions of abstract justice or balance with the idea that crimes are offenses against God. At no point in his treatise does Beccaria undertake to argue against any concept of secular universal justice. Justice is, for him, either a question of balancing individual relations between people, where utility should reign, or it is a matter of religion. Sin, with all its religious weight, is the word he chooses when discussing the idea of proportional punishment–people, he says, think punishment should balance sin, not evil, or wrong. It does not occur to Beccaria that anyone might propose a secular moral code demanding that killers get their just deserts, etc. The only secular principles he would accept are those of Nature and Reason, though for him, as for so many Enlightenment figures, these factors are far from secular in his understanding. Despite Pierre Bayle’s comparatively recent but (in)famous argument to the contrary, Beccaria is still very much thinking in the era when even such a radical as Thomas Paine believed that an atheist could not be a citizen, would not respect the law, and would never have any reason to refrain from crime.
These, then, are Beccaria’s notions of what logic lay buried under the accumulated traditions and contradictions of pre-modern European law: avenging the dignity of the injured party, and proportioning punishment to sin. He rejects both of these as irrational, saying we may justly assign punishment only when it secures public happiness. For those who have read my Machiavelli entry on the three branches of Ethics, note here how Beccaria is arguing that human relations must be analyzed using utilitarianism, confining deontology to divine questions, though one can certainly make the case that he is applying a kind of deontology of his own, using his understanding of Nature and Reason as his abstract internal laws. This kind of Reason-based deontology, closely aligned to utilitarianism, is common among those Enlightenment figures who invoke Laws of Nature, or so-called self-evident principles.
Deterrence reigns, for Beccaria, as the keyword of the day. The purpose of punishment is to discourage crime, not to achieve balance or to avenge the dignity of the injured party. From this conclusion, Beccaria then derives a set of new and original guidelines for how punishments should be selected. Among them we find the following ideas:
Preventing crime is more valuable than punishing it.
Punishments for crimes should be proportional to the harm done to society by the crime.
Punishments should be as mild as they can be while still being an effective deterrent.
Every crime offends society, but only some crimes threaten the state with destruction, and it is on the latter that laws and punishments should focus.
Honor (the “despotism of opinion”) is not a clear and consistent moral code but a vague and blurry accumulation, hard for us to articulate and understand because it is so personal, much as an object too close to the eye is blurry and hard to focus on. Conflicts between honor, society’s self-interest, and the law have long caused strife.
Dueling is destructive, and in punishing those who cause strife by dueling the party who caused the offense should be held culpable, not the party who challenged him to the duel who “through no fault of his own, has been constrained to defend something that the laws on the books do not assure him, that is, the opinion which others hold of him.” (ch. 10)
Secret denunciations are more tools of calumny than justice and cause more harm than good (it was a widespread practice at the time to have boxes wherein citizens could deposit secret denunciations accusing each other of crimes, especially sodomy and blasphemy, and this was widely abused).
The more promptly punishment follows crime, the more powerful a deterrent it will be.
Since the criminal is doing pleasure-pain calculus, it is less important that the punishment be gruesome than that it be inescapable. The certainty of a mild punishment which is still bad enough to more than counter the benefit of the crime is more effective than a severe punishment which the criminal has a realistic hope of evading.
Crimes against property can be punished with fines, but crimes against persons must be punished with corporal punishment (which includes imprisonment/unfreedom) because otherwise people are reduced in dignity to objects bought and sold. He targets this sentiment particularly against the wealthy, who, in his era, generally paid a fine for crimes including murder, instead of suffering personal punishment.
Banishment is appropriate for those who have been accused of an atrocious crime which is not certain, and who cannot therefore be tolerated to remain. But the property of the banished person should not be confiscated by the state, since that is too powerful an incentive to corruption.
Punishments should be visited on individuals, not whole families, because punishing families as a unit encourages a spirit which thinks of the family as a political unit, rather than individual citizens, and this spirit is opposed to republican sentiment. Such a system would have people think of the paterfamilias as a monarch, and make the nation see itself as ten thousand tiny monarchies instead of fifty thousand free-thinking citizens. (From modern eyes, this is a great example of a sentiment widely agreed with in the modern era, that the individual and not the family should suffer for a crime, but justified by wholly period logic not present in modern legal discourse.)
Crimes are best prevented by combining enlightenment with liberty. The best possible preventative is perfect education.
Crimes can also be prevented by the state awarding rewards for virtue.
And, of course, at the heart of the new ground he intends to break, ground not treated by Montesquieu in whose footsteps Beccaria so reverently treads, lies torture:
What is the purpose of torture?
One proposed purpose, he begins, again trying to puzzle out what logic lies behind the present laws so he can point out its flaws, is that torture helps secure confession and extract truth. Torture’s usefulness as a method of extracting truth had long been a key assumption of the law, so much so that under some legal systems confessions were only admissible if they were extracted under torture, since that was considered the most reliable system (see Roman policies on interrogating slaves, where torture was a necessity before the court would listen). Beccaria then makes the argument (new in his day) that pain breaks innocent people too, so torture will force false confessions from the innocent. Thus, he concludes, torture is not a reliable path to truth, so the goal of extracting information does not rationally justify the use of torture. If torture has any real utility, it must therefore be as a punishment, rather than an interrogation tool. This leads to a very novel and yet, to us, very familiar argument:
A man cannot be called ‘guilty’ before the judge has passed sentence, and society cannot withdraw its protection except when it has been determined that he has violated the contracts on the basis of which that protection was granted to him. What right, then, other than the right of force, gives a judge the power to inflict punishment on a citizen while the question of his guilt or innocence is still in doubt?
In more familiar words, innocent until proven guilty. The argument is more utilitarian than moral: techniques which secure false confession are injurious to justice and society. He further argues that torture is better for the criminal than for the innocent man, a weird but interesting argument. Torture provides the criminal the chance to say “Hey, I deserve this pain, but if I endure it they’ll acquit me and I’ll be spared worse pain,” helping him bear it, while the innocent man suffers not only torture but the despair-inducing knowledge of knowing that he suffers unjustifiably, so if he is found guilty he suffers an injustice, and if he is acquitted he still suffers unjust torture. And on the practice, common in his day, of torturing the guilty to try to force him to confess to other crimes in addition to the one he is accused of, here Beccaria dips into some of his most biting rhetoric, writing: “This is equivalent to the following line of reasoning: ‘You are guilty of one crime; hence it is possible that you are guilty of a hundred others. This doubt weighs on me, and I want to reassure myself by using my criterion of truth. The law torments you because you are guilty, because you may be guilty, because I want you to be guilty’.”
Torture cannot therefore, Beccaria concludes, be useful before conviction, and must used only after conviction, as a punishment, not a tool. But what function does it serve then? The purpose of torture could be to purge or cleanse the soul with pain. This idea is closely tied to religion, not just to Christianity but to a much broader palette of belief systems which hold that pain can discipline the body, clarify the mind, and cleanse the soul. In a broader sense (placing Beccaria’s discussion in context) Christian ideas of Purgatory and Plato’s depiction of the soul’s cleansing before reincarnation both use this idea that fire and pain can burn away past sin and also past bad moral/intellectual development, removing the weight of sin and past dark thoughts, making the soul pure, light, and open to truth. This is also reflected in monastic practices of mortification of the flesh, in the West and East. In this model, the idea is that the pain of an excruciating death is actually good for the convict by helping cleanse the soul and increasing the chances that the criminal will reform, either mending wicked ways and leading a good life thereafter, or, in the case of lethal tortures, paying for the crime before death, increasing the chance of getting into Heaven. Beccaria is so concise and articulate that it keeps being most efficient to just quote him directly:
Another ridiculous reason for torture is the purgation of infamy; that is, a man judged infamous by law must confirm his deposition with the dislocation of his bones. This abuse should not be tolerated in the eighteenth century. The underlying belief is that pain, which is a sensation, purges infamy, which is simply a moral relationship… It is not difficult to go back to the origin of this ridiculous law… This custom seems to be taken from religious and spiritual ideas which have so much influence on the thoughts of men, nations and ages. An infallible dogma assures us that the blemishes which result from human weakness and which yet have not deserved the eternal wrath of the Great Being must be purged with an incomprehensible fire. Now infamy is a civil blemish, and, since pain and fire remove spiritual and disembodied stains, will the spasms of torture not remove a civil stain, namely infamy? (Ch. 16)
In other words, he believes that the concept of Purgatory, and related beliefs that spiritual suffering purges sin and cleans the soul, led people to presume that physical suffering could purge the worldly equivalent of sin, “infamy” or criminality.
This is linked to the idea of certain crimes–mainly intellectual crimes such as heresy, blasphemy, or witchcraft–being somehow contagious, or harming the community of people who contact the criminal, either by spreading, or by inviting divine wrath which might, when punishing one sinner, withhold blessings from neighbors as well, so the plague or famine affects the whole city, doing public harm. Thus the purpose of torture could be to cleanse, not the convict, but the city or society. Here we turn naturally to the questions of heresy, blasphemy, atheism and other crimes of thought which loom ever over the populace, especially over the intellectual. This question Beccaria… evades… for now.
What is the purpose of gruesome execution? Here again torture fails Beccaria’s utility test. Beccaria argues that death is a sufficiently ultimate punishment that anyone who would not be deterred from a crime by death would not be deterred from it by death plus agony. If the sole purpose of punishment is to deter crime, heaping extra punishment on top of death counts nothing. In fact, he goes further. Over time, he argues, as gruesome executions are repeated, and seen as spectacles, the hearts of people are hardened and the torture loses its edge as a deterrent. Since fear is at the heart of deterrence, Beccaria argues that what really matters in cases of Ultimate Punishment is not the actual severity of the punishment but the fact that it be Ultimate. Whatever the severest punishment of a society is, that will command the most fear from the would-be criminal. He posits two imaginary civilizations, one having as its Ultimate Punishment some brutal and protracted death, and the other perpetual slavery. He argues that the two will be equal in how successfully they deter crime, since in both the punishment will loom in the imagination as Ultimate Punishment, instilling the same fear. An interesting theory. As for making a public spectacle of executions, he argues that this trains people to think of execution with a mixture of fear, scorn, pity and perverse enthusiasm. With moderate punishments, though, fear is the only reaction, making them more effective deterrents. “The limit that the legislator should assign to the rigor of punishment, then, seems to be the point at which the feeling of compassion begins to outweigh every other emotion in the hearts of those who witness a chastisement…” (ch. 28). One flaw in the death penalty, he says, is that it means one crime supplies only one example of punishment to the nation, while a lifetime’s hard labor may let the nation continue to see and remember the crime, criminal, and punishment, and so be deterred lifelong. This, of course, posits a system in which the populace has the opportunity to see the “enslaved” prisoner at work, and thereby be constantly reminded of the fruits of crime – Beccaria’s world is one of rock pits and chain gangs, not closed prisons which keep the imprisoned populace out of the public eye and memory.
Beccaria therefore advocates mildness of punishments, and argues against the death penalty, not because he thinks it is immoral, but because he thinks it is less useful than lifelong punishments. He also argues that it might make people suspect the law of hypocrisy, when those employed to punish homicide commit it, and that this confusion could undermine public respect for the law. Executions, he says, encourage bloodlust in the populace, and decreases, he thinks, rather than increasing, deterrance. But his argument against it is not entrenched – he is far more interested in arguing against gruesome punishments than against death, which he presents simply as a reasonable option which is not to be preferred while others are more effective. He does throw the full flower of his rhetoric into his argument against the death penalty, but not in order to move the reader’s passions to horror at how terrible it is to execute people. Instead he stresses how much everyone would rejoice and love their monarchs if the monarchs discarded the old laws and instituted new laws based on the Light of Reason. “How happy humanity would be if laws were being given to it for the first time, now that we see beneficent monarchs seated on the thrones of Europe!” (ch. 29). Today’s enlightened princes, he argues, genuinely want to make good and better laws, and in this Age of Reason they could finally strike down the old and muddled law and replace it with something rational and good, saving all humanity from the tyranny of archaic and defective law codes. He finishes this section with a sentiment very alien and unexpected to the modern reader: “If such monarchs, I say, allow ancient laws to remain, it is the result of the infinite difficulty of stripping errors of the venerable rust of many centuries. This is a reason for enlightened citizens to desire more ardently the continued increase of their authority.” In other words, he believes that the best way to eliminate torture and gruesome executions is to have an absolute authoritarian monarch, who, moved by the spirit of the Enlightenment, and empowered to rewrite law and government as he will, will make a better, more rational government. Here modern readers, raised to associate “innocent until proven guilty” and bans on “cruel and unusual punishment” with democratic anti-authoritarian sentiments, experience a moment of healthy historical whiplash.
Toward the very end, after his outline of a new ethic of punishment and his declaration of confidence in enlightened monarchy, Beccaria at last turns, timidly, to that most dangerous of issues, that is the punishment of heresy, blasphemy, atheism, etc. I say most dangerous because this is the arena which could get our author in very deep and potentially lethal political trouble. At this moment, the violence of the Wars of Religion continues to flare, fresh religious persecutions and burnings are constantly in the news, and Beccaria must be a good Catholic or risk paying a lethal price which had become more and more common as Reformation concerns spread. If the pre-Reformation Inquisition’s most common punishment for heresy was a tedious course of lectures, this deep into the age of heavily politicized religious violence it was rarely the slow and methodical inquisitors and more often the swift secular magistrates, or the mob, who burned or massacred. Beccaria is a proud, free-thinking optimist who wants to reform and improve the human condition. His heart has thrilled at Voltaire’s calls for religious tolerance, at the pro-peace “Irenist” movement that had finally let England stop massacring its citizens over the differences between transubstantiation and consubstantiation. But he is also a Milanese Catholic and knows what fate awaits he who dares wake the barely-sleeping dragon. He does not even dare name the issue he addresses in “Chapter 39: On a Particular Type of Crime“. It is single brave paragraph, which I will quote almost in its entirety, so as to give you a full taste of the artful irony and quiet grief of this intellectual forced to bridle himself, to make the mandatory profession of support for religious persecution. Yet, through the coat of lies he must paint across his message, the passion of his objection shines, clear as a star:
The reader of this work will notice that I have omitted a kind of crime which covered Europe with human blood and raised those terrible pyres where living human bodies fed the fire. It was a pleasing entertainment and an agreeable concert of the blind mob to hear the muffled, confused groans of poor wretches issuing out of vortices of black smoke–the smoke of human limbs–amid the crackling of charred bones and the sizzling of palpitating entrails. But rational men will see that the place where I live, the present age, and the matter at hand do not permit me to examine the nature of such a crime. It would take me too long and too far from my subject to prove how a perfect uniformity of thought is necessary in a state, the example of many nations to the contrary not withstanding; how opinions that differ only in a few subtle and obscure points altogether beyond human comprehension can nonetheless disturb public order if one of them is not authorized to the exclusion of the others… It would take me too long to prove that, however odious the triumph of force over human minds may seem, since the only fruits of its conquest are dissembling and, consequently, degradation; however contrary it may seem to the spirit of gentleness and brotherly love enjoined by reason and the authority we most revere; it is still necessary and indispensable… [In this treatise] I speak only of crimes that arise from human nature and from the social contract. I do not address myself to sins; their punishment, even in this world, should be governed by principles other than those of a narrow philosophy.
A sad self-portrait peeks through here. Odious force has triumphed over human minds and degraded Beccaria. He, and his partners, must dissemble. Yet the conquest is not full. He has hope still that his little treatise will be read by kindred spirits, by those “sensitive souls [who] respond to whoever upholds the interests of humanity,” by those fellow readers of Locke and Montesquieu who will read between the lines and recognize him as a “peaceful friend of the truth.” His hope is not in vain.
What were the consequences of young Beccaria’s little treatise On Crimes and Punishments?
It spread like wildfire. There it penetrated the salon culture whose radical intellectual experiments had inspired Beccaria’s Accademia dei pugni. And it reached Voltaire. Voltaire, who exercised literally unprecedented influence, as a new age saturated with printing houses made it possible for the first time for an independent intellectual to support himself, and see that his ideas reached every corner of literate Europe with unheard-of speed. Voltaire, whose wit and incisiveness made everyone who could sit up and listen, not only intellectuals but the great public he entertained. Voltaire, who had just come through the terrible crisis of the Lisbon Earthquake, the death of his beloved Emilie, and in Candide (1759) proclaimed his conviction that it is the duty of a thinking person to cultivate the human garden. This moment began the latter stage of Voltaire’s career, when he moved from popularizing Enlightenment ideals to direct political activism. He campaigned against religious violence and judicial murder. He spoke out against particular cases and trials and fired France with outrage and calls for reform. And he made sure everyone read Beccaria.
And it worked.
Rarely in the history of thought do I have a chance to say the outcome was so simply good, but it worked. Within their lifetimes, Voltaire and Beccaria saw real reform, a sincere and solid transformation of the legal codes of most of Europe, the spread of deterrence-based justicial thought. Within decades, judicial torture virtually vanished from European law. The laws of America, and of the other new constitutions drafted in the latter 18th century, all show the touch of Beccaria’s call. It worked. The change was not absolute, of course. Torture, the primary target, retreated, as did the notions of retributive justice, avenging dignity, and purging sin. But prisons were still squalid, punishments severe, and other things Beccaria had campaigned against remained, capital punishment primary among them. But even here there was what Beccaria would call progress. The guillotine lives in infamy, but it too was a consequence of this call for enlightened justice: a quick, egalitarian execution, death with the least possible suffering, and equal for all, giving no advantage to the noble, who had long been able to hire an expert and humane headsman while the poor man suffered the clumsy hackings of an amateur who might take many blows to sever a writhing neck. Most states judged death still necessary, but agreed that law and punishment should bind all men equally, and that unnecessary pain did not serve the public good. It is strange to call the guillotine a happy ending, but it was in a small way, and even more victorious was the dialog that birthed it. The first country to ever abolish the death penalty was the Duchy of Tuscany, which did so on Beccaria’s utilitarian grounds rather than principle (Hey, look, Machiavelli! Your new branch of ethics, flourishing in Florence!).
Between them, Beccaria and Voltaire made people think seriously and critically about the tortures which had been employed so long without consideration of their purpose. Beccaria asked people to ask themselves why we use torture, and the reading public did just that. Judges examined the questions, jurists, even kings. And they did change things. Even the sad and careful chapter about “a particular type of crime” had its impact. After all, in the eighteenth century so many carried the torches of reform that even among the magistrates and priests and censors whose job it was to suppress threats to the status quo, many were secret sympathizers, in favor of the changes they were employed to slow, and willing to read Beccaria’s chapter “on a particular type of crime” and realize (as we can’t fail to) his true meaning, but give it the stamp of approval anyway, and hope wholeheartedly that it would do some good. It did. Not universal good, not perfect. It needed a next step, and there were many atrocities it did not manage to prevent, especially in the colonial world. But it did real good nonetheless. The days of European governments and Churches sawing men in half gave way. And when later on there were movements to reduce violence against slaves and conquered peoples, these too owe some thanks to the 26-year-old jurist from Milan who turned his friends’ idealistic ambition into such potent prose.
The target of Beccaria’s treatise was not torture itself, nor the death penalty, nor even the concept of retributive justice. His target was the unquestioning acceptance with which his age enforced the mass of traditional opinions which was then called “law.” We have not eliminated torture from the world, but, in the nations touched by the Enlightenment at least, that unquestioning acceptance of old laws has been conquered. We still have much to fix, many more steps to take in the footsteps of Voltaire and Montesquieu, but if, when I turn up for small town jury duty, the defense attorney begins by asking the jurors our opinions about the purpose of punishment, then, even if he blurs deterrence and retribution, even if the court stenographer doesn’t know how to spell Beccaria’s name, Beccaria is present in the conversation, and the fact that there is a conversation is his victory. And ours.
The new Mayor of the city of Rome, Ignazio Marino, just announced his intention to destroy one of the city’s central roads, the Via dei Fori Imperiali, and turn the area around the old Roman Forum into the world’s largest archaeological park. Reactions have ranged from commuters’ groans to declarations from classicists that this single act proves the nobility of the human species.
This curious range of reactions seems the perfect moment for me to discuss something I have intended to talk about for some time: the shape of the City of Rome itself. We all know the long, rich history of the Roman people, and the city’s importance as the center of an empire, and thereafter as the center of the memory of that empire, whose echo, long after its end, still so defines Western concepts of power, authority and peace. What I intend to discuss instead is the geographic city, and how its shape and layers grew gradually and constantly, shaped by famous events, but also by the centuries you won’t hear much about in a traditional history of the city. The different parts of Rome’s past left their fingerprints on the city’s shape in far more direct ways than one tends to realize, even from visiting and walking through the city. Rome’s past shows not only in her monuments and ruins, but in the very layout of the streets themselves. Going age by age, I will attempt to show how the city’s history and structure are one and the same, and how this real ancient city shows her past in a far more organic and structural way than what we tend invent when we concoct fictitious ancient capitals to populate fantasy worlds or imagined futures. (As a bonus to anyone who’s been to Rome, this will also tell you why it’s a particularly physically grueling city to visit, compared to, say, Florence or Paris.)
Sigmund Freud had a phobia of Rome. You can see it in his letters, and the many times he uses Rome as a simile or metaphor for psychological issues, both broadly and his own. He fretted for decades before finally making the visit. Part of it was a cultural inferiority complex. Europe’s never-fading memory of the greatness of the Roman empire was intentionally magnified in the Renaissance by Italian humanists who set out to convince the world that Roman culture was the best culture, and that the only way to achieve true greatness was to slavishly imitate the noble Romans. Italians did this as a power play to try to overcome the political weakness of Italy, but as a result, in the 19th and 18th centuries, many intellectuals in many nations were brought up in a mindset of constantly measuring their own nations only by how far they fell short of the imagined perfection of Rome. Freud was one of many young intellectuals in Germany, Poland, and other parts of Europe who were terribly intimidated by the Idea of Rome, and the sense that their own nations could never approach its greatness.
But Freud had a second fear: a fear of Rome’s layers. In formal treatises, he compared the psyche to an ancient city, with many layers of architecture built one on top of another, each replacing the last, but with the old structures still present underneath. In private writings he phrased this more personally, that he was terrified of ever visiting Rome because he was terrified of the idea of all the layers and layers and layers of destroyed structures hidden under the surface, at the same time present and absent, visible and invisible. He was, in a very deep way, absolutely right. Rome is a mass of layers, the physical form of different time periods still present in the walls and streets, and when you study them enough to know what you are really looking at, they reach back so staggeringly far, through so many lifetimes, that if you let yourself think seriously about them it is easy to be overwhelmed by the enormity of it all.
I will begin by discussing a single building as an example, and then the broader structure of the city.
The Basilica of San Clemente:
San Clemente is a modestly-sized church a couple blocks East of the Colosseum, one of many hundreds of churches in Rome, and, in my mind, the most Roman. It was built in honor of Pope Clement I (d. 99 AD), an important early cleric who traveled East and returned, making him one of the most important linking figures between the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox worlds. One enters the church from a plain, hot street populated by closed doors plus an antique shop and a mediocre pizzeria. Outside the door is a beggar disguised as someone who works for the Church trying to extort money from tourists by convincing them that they have to pay him to enter. Within, a lovely, lofty church with marble columns, frescoed chapels, a beautiful stone floor, stunning gold mosaics in the nave, and a gilded wood ceiling. It is populated by milling tourists, and perhaps a couple of the Irish Dominicans who are now its custodians. It is reasonably impressive, but when we pause and look more closely, we realize the decoration is not as simple as it seems. Nothing matches, for a simple reason: No two pieces of this church are from the same time.
The basic structure of the church, the actual edifice, is from the twelfth century. But nothing else.
Look at the columns first: beautiful colored marble columns with delightful translucent swirls of stone. But they don’t match: they’re different colors, even different heights, and have non-matching capitals and different size bases to try to make them fit. These columns weren’t made for this building, they are looted columns, carried off from Roman buildings all around the city and repurposed for this Church. These columns, therefore, were cut about 1,000 years before the construction of this church.
The floor too is Roman mosaic tile, inlaid with pieces of porphyry and serpentine, materials unachievable after the empire’s fall. If they are here, they were carried here after the 12th-century Church was built and re-used.
What else? There is the stunning mosaic. It looks like nothing else we’ve seen in Rome, and with good reason. It looks Russian or byzantine, a totally different style. Foreign artists must have come in to create this, not in a Roman style of decoration at all but one more Eastern. Our Eastern Church devotees of Saint Clement have been here.
We turn around next, and spot a lovely side chapel with frescoes of a saint’s life, in a familiar Renaissance style. We might have seen this on the walls of Florence, produced in the late 1400s or earlier 1500s, and can immediately start playing Spot the Saint.
But next we make the mistake of looking up, and realize that this massive hanging gilded wood ceiling is entirely wrong, with overflowing ribbons and a dominant central painting of a much more flowy, ornamented, emotional, voluptuous Baroque style than everything else. The artist who painted those modest Spot the Saint frescoes would never drown a scene in little cherubs and clouds like this, nor would that ceiling ever have been near these Roman columns.
The upper walls too have Baroque decoration. Even an untrained eye is aware something is wrong. The practiced eye can tell instantly that the ceiling must be late sixteenth century at the very earliest and is more likely seventeenth or eighteenth, three hundred years newer than the Spot the Saint frescoes, which were two hundred years after the mosaics, which are two hundred years after the church was built using stolen Roman materials that were already 1,000 years old. Freud, exploring the church with us, has vertigo.
Next we look down.
What’s this? What are these arches in the wall next to the floor? Why would there be arches there? It makes no sense. Even in a building that used secondary supporting arches in the brickwork there would be a reason for it, a window above, a junction, and they would end at floor level. Our architecture-sense is tingling.
So we go down stairs…
Welcome to the 4th century Roman basilica which the 12th century upper church was built on top of. Here we see characteristic dense, flat Roman bricks, and late classical curved-corner ceiling structures laying out what used to be an early Christian church. This church was 800 years old when it was buried to build the larger one above it. The walls are studded with shards of Roman sculpture, uncovered during the excavations, bits of broken tombs, halves of portrait faces and the middle of an Apollo, and a slab with a Roman pagan funerary inscription on one side which was re-used and has an early Christian inscription on the other side, in much cruder lettering.
And here too there are frescoes. Legend has that Saint Clement’s remains were carried from the East back to Rome in 869 AD, and this lower church is the place they would have been carried to, as we see now in a fresco depicting the scene, painted probably shortly thereafter.
Other 9th century frescoes (300 years older than the church above) show the lives of other now-obscure figures who were important in the 800s. One features a portrait of an early pope (Leo IV), the only known image of this largely-forgotten figure. Another features Christ freeing Adam from Limbo, and to their left a man in a very Eastern-looking hat, another relic of the importance of this church as a center for Rome’s contact with the east.
Another wonderful fresco, of the life of a popular hermit, features a story in which a pagan demands that his servants carry the saint out of his house, but he goes mad and believes a column is the saint, and flogs and curses his slaves as he forces them to carry the column. In this fresco we find inscriptions in Latin, but also a phrase coming out of the man’s mouth (a very crude one cursing his slaves as bastards and sons of prostitutes) which is the oldest known inscription in a language identifiable as, not Latin, but Italian. The Italian language has come to exist between the construction of this church and the construction of the one above. (The inscription is at the bottom in the white area above the column, hard to make out.)
You can see it better in this reconstruction:
One more fresco is worth visiting: the Madonna of the funny-looking hat.
When archaeologists opened up the under layer, they found a Madonna, probably 8th century, which then decayed before their eyes (horror!) due to exposure to the air. Underneath they found another Madonna (delight!) wearing this extremely strange hat. They looked more closely: the Christ child in her lap is not original, but was painted on after the Madonna. This is not a Madonna at all, it is a portrait, and that hat belongs to none other than the Byzantine Empress Theodora. Someone painted a portrait of the empress here (who used to be a prostitute, I might add), then someone else redid her as a Madonna, then, a century or two later, someone else painted over that Madonna with another Madonna, now lost, who presumably had a more reasonable hat.
Wandering a bit we find more modern additions, post-excavation. One of the most beloved 20th century heads of the Vatican Library has been buried here, just below the now-restored old altar of the lower church. And the tomb of St. Cyril [or possiby it contains Cyril and his brother Methodius – there is debate] is here. They are the creators of the Glagolitic alphabet (ancestor of the Cyrillic), surrounded by plaques and donations and tokens of thanksgiving from many Slavic countries who use that alphabet. Below is a modern mosaic, thanking them for their work:
And nearby there are stairs down… Freud needs to stop and breathe into a paper bag.
There are stairs down because this is not the bottom layer, not yet. The 4th century church was built on top of something else. We descend another floor and find ourselves in older, pre-Christian Roman brickwork. We find high vaults, frescoed with simple colorful decoration, as was popular in villas and public buildings. Hallways and rooms extend off, a large, complex building. Very complex. Experts on Roman building layout can tell us this was once a fine Roman villa of the first century AD. In that period it had sprawling rooms, a courtyard, storerooms… but its foundations aren’t quite the right shape. If we look at the walls, the layout, it seems that before the villa there was an industrial building, the Mint of the Roman Republic (you heard me, Republic! Before the Empire!), but it was destroyed by a fire (the Great Fire of 64 AD) and then rebuilt as a Roman villa. Before it was a church… before it was another church.
Except… there are tunnels. There are narrow, meandering tunnels twining out from the walls of this villa, leading in strange, unpredictable directions, and far too tight to be proper Roman architecture. This villa was on a slope, and some of these rooms are dug into the rocky slope so they would have been underground even when it was a residence. Romans didn’t do that.
Houston, we have a labyrinth, a genuine, intentional underground labyrinth, and with a bit more digging we find out why. This was a Mithraeum, a secret cult site of the Mithraic mystery cult, which worshipped the resurrection god Mithras. Here initiates dwelled in dormitories for their years of apprenticeship, waiting their turn to enter the clandestine curved vault, sprawl on its stone couches, and participate in the cult orgy in which they take hallucinogens, play mind-bending music, and ritually sacrifice a bull and drink its blood in order to achieve resurrection.
We wander still farther, daring the labyrinth, much of which has not yet been excavated, and come upon another room in which we hear the bubbling of a spring. A natural spring, miraculously bubbling up from nowhere in the depths of Rome. Very probably a sacred spring.
While Freud sits down to put his head between his legs for a while (on a 1st century AD built-in bench, I should add) we can finally piece this muddle of contradictory and mismatched objects together into a probable chronology:
Once upon a time there was a natural spring bubbling up at this spot in what was then the grassy outskirts of early Rome. It is reasonable to guess that a modest cult site might have sprung up around this spring, honoring its nymph or some such, as was quite common. In time, the city expanded and this once-abandoned area became desirable for industrial use as the Republic gained an empire. The Republic’s Mint was built here, making use of the convenient ice cold water, and likely continuing to honor its associated spirit. Decades pass, a century, two, Rome expands still further, and chaos raises an Emperor. After the Great Fire of 64 AD, it becomes convenient to move the Mint out of what is now a desirable central district of the expanding city, so the site is purchased by a wealthy Roman who builds his house here. Decades pass and the builder, or his son, is converted to the exciting cult of this new god Mithras who promises his followers, not the gray mists of Hades, but resurrection and eternity. Since he is wealthy, he converts his home to the use of the cult, and digs tunnels and creates the underground Mithraeum. For a generation or two this villa hosts the cult, but then Constantine comes to power and a new cult promising an even more inclusive form of salvation comes into vogue. The villa, which is now three hundred years old, is buried, a convenient architectural choice since the ground level of the city has risen several times due to regular Tiber floods, so the old house was in a low spot. A new church is built on top, and serves the Roman Christians of the local community for a few generations. The fall of Rome is usually marked at the first sack by they Visigoths in 410 or the sack by the Vandals in 455, but the conquerors are also Christian so the church stands and still serves the neighborhood, though its population is much smaller. Now the main Emperor moves to the East, and in the 500s, when the church is about 200 years old, someone paints a portrait of the empress on the wall, then a generation later someone else decides a Madonna is more appropriate, and puts a baby in her lap. Two or three more generations go by and Cyril and Methodius bring the bones of Clement from the East, and they are buried here, a great day for the neighborhood! Commemorated with more frescoes.
Another century, two, we are well into the Middle Ages, and this old Roman building is old-fashioned and very low since the ground level has risen further. The local community, and devotees of St. Clement, decide to build a new church. They loot columns and flooring from other Roman sites, and bury the old church, producing the 12th century structure above, but using the walls of the older one as the foundation, so the arches still show in the walls. The new church is very plain, but is soon decorated using mosaics provided by Eastern artists who come to visit Clement and Cyril. After a few generations the Renaissance begins, and we call in a fashionable Florentine-style artist to fresco one chapel. A few centuries later Pope Clement VIII comes to power and decides to spiff up San Clemente, initiating the internal redecoration which will end with the ornate baroque ceiling.
Oh, and somewhere in there someone slapped on a courtyard on the outside in a Neoclassical style, because it became vogue for buildings to look classical, so we may as well add a faux-classical facade onto this medieval building which we no longer remember has a real classical building hidden underneath. Not long after the Baroque redecoration is begun, the nineteenth-century interest in archaeology notices those arches in the walls, and starts digging, re-exposing the lower layers. Devotees of St. Cyril and lovers of history, like the head of the Vatican Library, begin to flock to San Clemente as an example of Rome’s long and layered history, and so it gains more layers in the 20th century as donations and burials are added to it. Every century from the Republican Roman construction of the Mint to the 20th century tombs is physically present, actually physically represented by an artifact which is still part of this building which has been being built and rebuilt for over 2,000 years. Not a single century passed in which this spot was not being used and transformed, and every transformation is still here. And all that time, from the first sacred spring, to the Mithraism, to today’s Irish Dominicans, this spot has been sacred.
This is Freud’s metaphor for the psyche: structure after structure built in the same space, superimposing new functions over the old ones, never really losing anything.
This is Rome.
San Clemente is exceptional in that it has been largely excavated and is accessible, but every single building in Rome is like this, built on medieval foundations which are built on classical ones. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone into a random pizzeria and found a Renaissance fresco, or a medieval beam, or Roman marble. I’ve gone into a cafe restroom and discovered the back wall was curved because this was built on the foundations of Pompey’s theater (where Caesar was assassinated). I’ve gone into churches to discover their restrooms used to be part of different churches. Friends have this experience too. During my Fulbright year in Italy I had a colleague who was studying Roman altars, half of which you could only get at by ringing the bell of strangers’ apartments and saying: “Hello! I’m an archaeologist, and according to this list there’s a Roman sacrificial altar here?” to which the standard response is, “Oh, yes, come on in, it’s in the basement next to the washing machine.” I have another friend who thinks he’s found a lost chapel frescoed by a major Renaissance artist hidden in an elevator shaft. Another friend once told me of a pizza place with a trap door down to not-yet-tallied catacombs. I believe it.
As with San Clemente, so for Rome: layers on layers on layers:
If San Clemente’s narrative starts with a sacred spring and the Roman Mint, Rome’s narrative starts with scared people on a hill.
Welcome to the archaic period. You are a settler. Your goals are securing enough food to stay alive, and avoiding deadly threats. The major threats are (A) lions, (B) wolves, (C) wild boar, (D) other humans, who travel in raiding parties, killing and taking. You are looking for a safe, defensible spot to settle down. You find one. The Tiber river, which floods regularly producing a fertile tidal basin rich with crops and game, takes a bend and has a small island in it. At that same spot there are several extremely steep, rocky hills, almost like mesas, with practically cliff-like faces. In such a place you can live on top of the hill but hunt, farm, and gather on the fertile stretch below. And you can even sail up and down the river, making trade and travel easy. Perfect.
The very first settlement at Rome, in the archaic period, was a small settlement on the Capitoline hill, one of the smallest hills but closest to the river. (Are you, perchance, from a country? With a government that meets in a “capitol” building? If so, your “capitol” is named after the Capitoline hill, because that’s how frikkin’ important this hill is!) The valleys around are used mainly for farming, but also for burials, and the first tombs are very simple ones, just a hole with dirt, or sometimes a ceramic tile lid. The buildings in this era are brick decorated with terra cotta. Eventually the first major temple is built on the Capitoline hill, with a stone foundation but still terra cotta decoration, and is dedicated to Jupiter. Its foundations remain, and you can see them, in situ, in the Capitoline museum which will be built on the same spot a few millenia later.
This hill turns out to be a great place to live, and the population thrives. In time the hill is too crowded. People spread to the neighboring hills, and start building in the little valley in between. As the population booms and spreads to cover all seven hills, the space between the first few becomes the desirable downtown, the most important commercial center, where the best shops and markets are. This is the Forum, and here more temples and law courts and the Senate House are built.
In time, defensive walls go up around the area around the hills, to make a greater chunk of land defensible. In time, the walls are too constrained, so another set goes up around them.
As the population booms and Rome becomes a serious city, serious enough to start thinking about conquering her neighbors and maybe having a war with someone (Carthage anyone?), this area is now the super desirable downtown. The commercial centers migrate outward to give way to monuments and temples, the Mint is built out on a grassy spot past where there is not yet a Colosseum, and the hills near the Forum become reserved for sacred spaces, state buildings, and the houses of the super rich. On one, the Palatine hill, a certain Octavian of the Julii builds his house, and when Caesar is assassinated and the first and second triumvirates result in an Emperor, it becomes the imperial palace. (Does your capital contain a palace? If so it’s named after the Palatine hill, because Augustus was so powerful that all rulers’ grand houses are forever named after his house).
Rome again spills over her walls and builds even farther out. The great fire of 64 AD destroys many districts, but she rebuilds quickly, and what was the Mint is replaced by a villa which soon becomes a Mithraeum. Rome reaches its imperial heights, a sprawling city of a million souls, and the seven hills that were once defensive are now sparkling pillars of all-marble high-class real estate, and also very tiring to climb.
With Constantine, Christianity now becomes a centerpiece of Roman life, and of the city’s architecture. Major Christian sites are built: St. Peter’s, St. John Lateran, St. Paul’s Outside the Walls, etc. These sites become pilgrimage centers, and economic centers. They are scattered in far corners all around Rome, but all the sites have something in common: they are in corners. The major Christian centers of Rome are all on its periphery, not in the center. There are two reasons for this.
First, and simplest, the center of Rome was, by this time, already full. Sometimes you could find an old villa that used to be a mint to build a small church on, but the center was full of mid-sized temples, which could be rededicated but not replaced, and huge imperial function spaces and government buildings, plus valuable real estate. If you want to build a big new temple to a big new God, you need to do it in the not-yet-developed areas around the city’s edge.
Second, many of these sites were built on tombs, like St. Peter’s, built across the river in the cheap land no one wanted. Roman law banned burying the dead within the city limits, because disturbing a tomb could bring the wrath of the dead upon the city, but if you build immovable tombs in the middle of your city it makes city redevelopment impossible, so they have to be outside. This is the origin of the necropolis or “city of the dead”, the cluster of tombs right outside the gates of a Roman city, where the residents bury their dead. Some major Roman Roads, like the Via Appia, are still lined with rows of tombs stretching along the street for miles out from where the city limits used to be defined. Thus early Christian martyrs were buried outside the city, and their cult sites developed at the edges of the city. The land which became the Vatican, for example, was across the river, full of wild beasts and scary Etruscan tribesmen in archaic Rome, then was used for a necropolis in Imperial Rome, had enough empty cheap land to build a big circus (where much of the throwing of Christians to the lions happened, since only in such cheap real estate could you build a stadium big enough to hold the huge audiences who wanted to come see lions eat Christians), and finally Constantine demolished the circus and necropolis to build St. Peter’s to honor St. Peter who had been martyred in that circus and buried in the necropolis in secret 300 years before (when San Clemente was still a Mint). St. Peter’s, and the other Christian sites, bring new importance to Rome’s outskirts. We now have a bull’s-eye-shaped city, in which imperial government Rome is the center, and Christian Rome is a ring around the outside, with rings of thriving, happy commercial and residential districts in between.
410 and 455 AD: outsiders arrive and plunder the city. Many thousands are killed, and the beautiful center of Rome is ransacked, temples toppled, looted, burned. In the Forum, the raiders throw chains around the columns of one of my favorite layered Roman buildings, the temple of Antoninus and Faustina. The Visigoths try to pull the columns down with their chains, and fail, but slice gouges deep into the stone which you can still see today. To re-check time, the Temple of Antoninus and Faustina was built in 141 AD, when San Clemente was a villa with an active Mithraeum in it. When it received these scars in the Visigothic raid, the Mithraeum had been buried, and the church built on top was just starting to be decorated. And underneath the Temple of Antoninus and Faustina we have found archaic grave sites which were 1,000 years old when the temple was built 2,000 years ago–the people buried in those graves very likely drank water from the spring that still burbles up under San Clemente. As for the Temple of Antoninus and Faustina, a few centuries after its near-miss, the temple will be rededicated as the major Roman church of San Lorenzo, due to a legend that it was on these temple steps that Saint Lawrence was sentenced to be grilled alive. And not far from it, the Lapis Niger was excavated which contains a language which has not yet become Latin, much as San Clemente’s frescoes preserve one which is becoming Italian. One language evolved into another, then into a third, but this spot was still being used, just like today.
Rome was sacked, but afterwards Rome was still there. The Goths didn’t just take everything and leave – the Ostragoths who followed the Visigoths decided to become the new Roman Emperors and rule Italy. The surviving Roman patrician families started working for the new Gothic king, but still had a Senate, taxes, processions, traffic cops, and did all the early Medieval equivalents of keeping the trains running on time. A century later, in the 540s, the Plague of Justinian hits and Rome loses another huge hunk of its population. But it still ticks on, and there is still a Senate, and a people of Rome.
So what was different? From a city-planning sense, the key is that the population was much smaller. In a sprawling metropolis designed to hold a million people, we now had maybe twenty thousand. Thus, as always happens when a city’s population shrinks, real estate was abandoned. But instead of abandoning the outskirts, people abandoned the middle. Rome was important mostly as a Christian center now, with the pope, and pilgrims coming to major temples, so they occupied the edges, and that’s where the money was. Rome becomes a hollow city, a doughnut, with an abandoned center surrounded by a populated ring. We have reached Medieval Rome. The city population lives mainly over by the Vatican, in the once empty district across the river, and a few other Christian sites around the edge. The middle of the city has been abandoned so long that the Tiber has buried the ruins, and people graze sheep in what used to be the Forum. The old buildings are now little more than quarries, big piles of stone and brick which we can steal from if, for example, we happen to need some nice columns to build a new church on top of this old church of San Clemente.
Enter the Renaissance, Petrarch, and humanism. Petrarch writes of the glory that was Rome, and convinces Italy that, if they can reconstruct that, they can be great again, just as when they conquered the Goths and Germans. Popes and lords become hungry for the symbols of power which Rome once was. Petrarch reads his Cicero and his Sallust, and visits the empty center of the city. This is the Capitoline Hill, he says, where once stood the Temple of Jupiter, and where the Romans crowned their poets and triumphant generals. Wanting to be great again, the popes volunteer to rebuild the Capitoline, as do the wealthy Roman families, who sincerely believe they are descended from the same Roman Senators who kept the bread and circuses running on time through Visigoths and more. Michelangelo and Raphael crack their knuckles. New palaces are built on the Capitoline Hill, neoclassical inventions based on what artists thought ancient authors like Vitruvius were talking about. In time the population grows, and Rome’s wealth increases thanks to the Church and to the PR campaign of Petrarch and his followers. The empty parts of the inner city are re-colonized, by Cardinals building grand palaces, and poorer people building what they can to live near the Cardinals who give them employment. But it is all built out of the convenient stone that’s lying around, and on top of convenient foundations that used to be the buildings of Constantinian Rome when she boasted 1,000,000 souls.
Rome grows and refills and grows and refills from the outside in, with the Capitoline as a new center artificially reconstructed by Renaissance ambition. As the 18th and 19th centuries arrive, the city is full again, but the middle ring, between outside and center, is all the newest stuff, to the historian and tourist the least interesting. This is why everything that tourists come to see in Rome is a long bus ride from everything else, and why you have to go up and down a million exhausting hills to get anywhere. Rome has a belt of cultural no-man’s-land in and around it, separating the center from the Christian outskirts, and making it forever inconvenient.
In the 18th and 19th centuries we also start to have archaeology, and dig up the Forum, and begin to protect and reconstruct the ancient monuments, and recognize that this largely abandoned patch of valley behind the Capitoline Hill is, arguably, the most important couple blocks of real estate that has ever existed in the history of the world. We paint Romantic paintings of it, and sketch what it must have looked like once, and it becomes part of the coming-of-age of every elite young European to make the pilgrimage to it (that Freud so fears!) and see the relics of what once was Rome. Everywhere else the classical layer is under a pile of palaces and churches and pizzerias, but here in the precious Forum valley, between those hills that sheltered the first Romans, we have lifted the upper layers and exposed Rome’s ancient heart.
HELLO! I AM MUSSOLINI! I AM THE NEW ROME! MY EMPIRE WILL LAST 1000 YEARS! MY STUFF IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN THIS ANCIENT STUFF! WHEN I AM DONE, NO ONE WILL CARE ABOUT CLASSICAL RELICS ANYMORE! I AM GOING TO KNOCK DOWN ALL THE ANCIENT STUFF AND BUILD MY STUFF ON TOP!
Specifically Mussolini built a road straight through the middle of the Forum. Fascism was a strange moment in human history, and Rome’s, and left a lot of scars. One of them is the Via dei Fori Imperiali, a grand boulevard running along the Forum and around the Capitoline, which Mussolini built so he could have processions, and to declare to the world how sure he was that no one would care about the Roman relics he was paving over. They would not care about the Temple of Jupiter, or the Renaissance palace on top of it, but about the new monuments he carved into the city’s heart. Those, and he, would be remembered, Caesar and Augustus forgotten.
To quote my favorite column by the old Anime Answerman: “Dear kid, please tell your friend that no one has ever been more wrong in the entire history of time.”
Mussolini, like the Visigoths, came but did not entirely go. One of his remnants is a system of large boulevards scarred into the face of the city, intended for his grand Fascist processions. Many of these are now difficult to eliminate, since car traffic in Rome is already a special kind of hell (fitting as a subsection of Circle 7 Part 2, I’d say, violence against ourselves and our creations, though it could be 4, hoarding/wasting, or yet another pouch of 8). The worst offender, though, is this road which is currently still covering up about a quarter of the ancient Forum, and also separates a quarter of the remaining Forum from the other half. It is this road that the new Mayor proposes to eliminate. The extra Fascist decoration which Mussolini added to the “wedding cake” will stay, the right call in my opinion, since Fascism is now one of Rome’s layers, just as much as the Visigothic scars on the Temple of Antoninus and Faustina. But lifting the road away will give us the true breadth of the Forum back in a way no pocket diagram can replicate. The transition will be painful for the FIATs and Vespas that now swarm where long ago the early Romans fought Etruscans and wild boar, but it is also an important validation of the Forum’s status as Rome’s most special spot. Everywhere else is layers. Everywhere else, when there’s Baroque on top of Renaissance on top of medieval, we leave it there. The altar stays behind the washing machine, and the need to open yet another catacomb is smaller than the need to have a working pizzeria. But in the Forum the layers have been lifted away. This one heart of one moment in Rome’s history, or at least one patch of about seven active centuries, we expose and preserve in honor of the importance that little spot has had as the definition of power, empire, war, and peace for Europe for 2,000 years. Thus, I hope you will all join me saying thank you to Mayor Marino.
The Forum is our relic of Rome’s antiquity, but it is not, for one who knows the city, the true proof that this is a great ancient capital. That would be clear even if not an inch of Roman marble remained in situ. The proof of Rome’s antiquity is its layout, the organic development of a wildly inconvenient but rich city plan, with those impassable hills at the center, the Tiber dividing the main city from the across-the-river part which is still the “new” part and still politically distinct, with its own soccer team, even after thousands of years. Antiquity is the nonsensical distribution of city mini-centers, the secondary hubs around the Vatican and St. John Lateran, the crowded shops clinging to the cliff-like faces of the hills, the Spanish Steps which are there because you have to go up that ridiculous hill and it’s really tall. Antiquity is not the Colosseum, it’s the fact that the Colosseum is smack inconveniently in the middle of a terrible traffic circle, definitely not where anyone would put a Colosseum on purpose if the modern city planners had a choice. Antiquity is structure, the presence of layers, unlike young, planned cities where everything is still in a place that makes sense because that city has only had one or two purposes throughout its history. Rome has had many purposes: shelter, commerce, conquest, post-conquest/plague refugee camp, religious capital, center of cultural rebirth, new capital, finally tourist pilgrimage site. All those Romes are in a pile, and the chaos that pile creates is the authentic ancient city. Rome is that cafe bathroom with a curved wall that proves it is where Caesar was assassinated. In another thousand years I don’t know what will be there, a space-ship docking station or a food cube kiosk, but whatever it is I know it will still have that curved back wall.
FOOTNOTE: For those who care, the context of that Anime Answerman quotation:
Kid writing in: “Dear Anime Answerman, my friend tells me that Inuyasha is a more violent show than Elfen Leid, and I don’t believe them, but I can’t tell them they’re wrong because my Mom won’t let me watch Elfen Leid.”
Answerman: “Dear kid, please tell your friend that no one has ever been more wrong in the entire history of time.”
There was a Borgia boom in 2011 when, aiming to capitalize on the commercial success of The Tudors, the television world realized there was one obvious way to up the ante. Not one but two completely unrelated Borgia TV series were made in 2011. Many have run across the American Showtime series The Borgias, but fewer people know about Borgia, also called Borgia: Faith and Fear, a French-German-Czech production released (in English) in the Anglophone world via Netflix. I am watching both and enjoying both. This unique phenomenon, two TV series made in the same year, modeled on the same earlier series and treating the same historical characters and events, is an amazing chance to look at different ways history can be used in fiction.
I am not evaluating these shows for their historical accuracy. I have been fortunate in that becoming an historian hasn’t stopped me from enjoying historical television. It’s a professional risk, and I know plenty of people whose ability to enjoy a scene is completely shattered if Emperor Augustus is eating a New World species of melon, or Anne Boleyn walks on screen wearing the wrong shade of green. I sympathize with the inability to ignore niggling errors, and I know any expert suffers from it, whether a physicist watching attempting-to-be-hard SF, or a doctor watching a medical show, or any sane person watching the Timeline movie. But over the years as my historical knowledge has increased so has my recognition of just how hard it is to make a historically accurate show, and how often historical accuracy comes into conflict with entertainment. More on that later...
As for the Borgias and the other Borgias:
The Borgias (Showtime) Borgia: Faith and Fear (International & Netflix)
Bigger budget (gorgeous!) Smaller budget
Shorter series/seasons Longer seasons, enabling slower pacing, more detail
Bigger name actors Extremely international cast (accents sometimes strong)
More glossing over details More historical details (can be more confusing as a result)
Makes Cesare older than Giovanni/Juan Makes Giovanni/Juan older than Cesare (<= historians debate)
Focus on Cesare as mature and grim Focus on Cesare as young and seeking his path
Lots of typical TV sex and violence More period-feeling sex and violence
Generally less historicity Generally more historicity
What do I mean by “more historicity”? While I enjoy both shows–both will pass the basic TV test of making you enjoy yourself for the 50 minutes you spend in a chair watching them–the international series consistently succeeded in making the people and their behavior feel more period. Here are two sample scenes that demonstrate what I mean:
Borgia: Faith and Fear, episode 1. One of the heads of the Orsini family bursts into his bedroom and catches Juan (Giovanni) Borgia in flagrante with his wife. Juan grabs his pants and flees out the window as quickly as he can. Now here is Orsini alone with his wife. [The audience knows what to expect. He will shout, she will try to explain, he will hit her, there will be tears and begging, and, depending on how bad a character the writers are setting up, he might beat her really badly and we’ll see her in the rest of this episode all puffy and bruised, or if they want him to be really bad he’ll slam her against something hard enough to break her neck, and he’ll stare at her corpse with that brutish ambiguity where we’re not sure if he regrets it.] Orsini grabs the iron fire poker and hits his wife over the head, full force, wham, wham, dead. He drops the fire poker on her corpse and walks briskly out of the room, leaving it for the servants to clean up. Yes. That is the right thing, because this is the Renaissance, and these people are terrible. When word gets out there is concern over a possible feud, but no one ever comments that Orsini killing his wife was anything but the appropriate course. That is historicity, and the modern audience is left in genuine shock.
The Borgias, episode 1. We are facing the papal election of 1492. Another Cardinal confronts Rodrigo Borgia in a hallway. It has just come out that Borgia has been committing simony, i.e. taking bribes. Our modern audience is shocked! Shocked, I say! That a candidate for the papacy would be corrupt and take bribes! Our daring Cardinal confronts Borgia, saying he too is shocked! Shocked! This is no longer a matter of politics but principle! He will oppose Borgia with all his power, because Borgia is a bad person and should not sit on the Throne of St. Peter! See, audience! Now is the time to be shocked! No. This is not the Renaissance, this is modern sensibilities about what we think should’ve been shocking in the Renaissance. After the election this same Cardinal will be equally shocked that the Holy Father has a mistress, and bastards. Ooooh. Because that would be shocking in 2001, but in 1492 this had been true of every pope for the past century. In fact, Cardinal Shocked-all-the-time, according to the writers you are supposed to be none other than Giuliano della Rovere. Giuliano “Battle-Pope” della Rovere! You have a mistress! And a daughter! And a brothel! And an elephant! And take your elephant to your brothel! And you’re stalking Michelangelo! And foreign powers lent you 300,000 ducats to spend bribing other people to vote for you in this election! And we’re supposed to believe you are shocked by simony? That is not historicity. It is applying some historical names to some made-up dudes and having them lecture us on why be should be shocked.
These are just two examples, but typify the two series. The Borgias toned it down: consistently throughout the series, everyone is simply less violent and corrupt than they actually historically, documentably were. Why would sex-&-violence Showtime tone things down? I think because they were afraid of alienating their audience with the sheer implausibility of what the Renaissance was actually like. Rome in 1492 was so corrupt, and so violent, that I think they don’t believe the audience will believe them if they go full-on. Almost all the Cardinals are taking bribes? Lots, possibly the majority of influential clerics in Rome overtly live with mistresses? Every single one of these people has committed homicide, or had goons do it? Wait, they all have goons? Even the monks have goons? It feels exaggerated. Showtime toned it down to a level that matches what the typical modern imagination might expect.
Borgia: Faith and Fear did not tone it down. A bar brawl doesn’t go from insult to heated words to slamming chairs to eventually drawing steel, it goes straight from insult to hacking off a body part. Rodrigo and Cesare don’t feel guilty about killing people, they feel guilty the first time they kill someone dishonorably. Rodrigo is not being seduced by Julia Farnese and trying to hide his shocking affair; Rodrigo and Julia live in the papal palace like a married couple, and she’s the head of his household and the partner of his political labors, and if the audience is squigged out that she’s 18 and he’s 61 then that’s a fact, not something to try to SHOCK the audience with because it’s so SHOCKING shock shock. Even in other details, Showtime kept letting modern sensibilities leak in. Showtime’s 14-year-old Lucrezia is shocked (as a modern girl would be) that her father wants her to have an arranged marriage, while B:F&F‘s 14-year-old Lucrezia is constantly demanding marriage and convinced she’s going to be an old maid if she doesn’t marry soon, but is simultaneously obviously totally not ready for adult decisions and utterly ignorant of what marriage will really mean for her. It communicates what was terrible about the Renaissance but doesn’t have anyone on-camera objecting to it, whereas Showtime seemed to feel that the modern audience needed someone to relate to who agreed with us. And, for a broad part of the modern TV-watching audience, they may well be correct. I wouldn’t be surprised if many viewers find The Borgias a lot more approachable and comfortable than its more period-feeling rival.
Borgia: Faith and Fear also didn’t tone down the complexity, or rather toned it down much less than The Borgias. This means that it is much harder to follow. There are many more characters, more members of every family, the complex family structures are there, the side-switching. I had to pause two or three times an episode to explain to those watching with me who Giodobaldo da Montefeltro was, or whatever. There’s so much going on that the Previously On recap gives up and just says: “The College of Cardinals is controlled by the sons of Rome’s powerful Italian families. They all hate each other. The most feared is the Borgias.” They wisely realized you couldn’t possibly follow everything that’s going on in Florence as well as Rome, so they just periodically have someone receive a letter summarizing wacky Florentine hijinx, as we watch adorable little Giovanni “Leo” de Medici (played by the actor who is Samwell Tarly in Game of Thrones) get more and more overwhelmed and tired. Showtime’s series oversimplifies more, but that is both good and bad, in its way. The audience needs to follow the politics, after all, and we can only take so much summary. The Tudors got away with a lot by having lectures on what it means to be Holy Roman Emperor delivered by shirtless John Rhys Meyers as he stalked back and forth screaming in front of beautiful upholstery, and he’s a good enough actor that he could scream recipes for shepherd’s pie and we’d still sit through about a minute of it. The Borgia shows have even more complicated politics for us to choke down.
Now, historians aren’t certain of Cesare’s birth date. He may be the eldest of his full siblings, or second.
The difference between Cesare as elder brother and Cesare as younger brother in the shows is fascinating. Showtime’s Big Brother Cesare is grim, disillusioned, making hard decisions to further the family’s interests even if the rest of the family isn’t yet ready to embrace such means. B:F&F‘s Little Brother Cesare is starved for affection, uncertain about his path, torn about his religion, and slowly growing up in a baby-snake-that-hasn’t-yet-found-its-venom kind of way.
Both are fascinating, utterly unrelated characters, and all the subsequent character dynamics are completely different too. Giovanni/Juan is utterly different in each, since Big Brother Cesare requires a playful and endearing younger brother, whose death is already being foreshadowed in episode 1 with lines like “It’s the elder brother’s duty to protect the younger,” while Little Brother Cesare requires a conceited, bullying Giovanni/Juan undeserving of the affection which Rodrigo ought to be giving to smarter, better Cesare. Elder Brother Cesare also requires different close friends, giving him natural close relationships with figures like the Borgias’ famous family assassin Michelotto Corella, who can empathize with him about using dark means in a world that isn’t quite OK with it.
There are other age-heirarchy-related differences as well.
Younger Brother Cesare gets chummy classmate buddies Alessandro Farnese and Giovanni “Leo” de Medici, who must balance their own precarious political careers with the terrifying privilege of being the best friends of young Cesare as he grows into his powers and toward the season 1 finale “The Serpent Rises.” All this makes the two series taken together a fascinating example of how squeezing historical events into the requirements of narrative tropes makes one simple change–older brother trope vs. younger brother trope–lead logically to two completely different stories. I think both versions are very powerful, and the person they made out of the historical Cesare is different and original in each, and worth exploring.
The great writing test is how to do Giovanni/Juan’s murder. Since some people do and some don’t know their gory Borgia history, part of the audience knows it’s coming, and part doesn’t. Historians still aren’t sure who did it, whether it was Cesare or someone else, and what the motive was. Thus the writers get to decide how heavily to foreshadow the death, how to do the reveal, what character(s) to make the perpetrator(s), and what motives to stress. I will not spoil what either series chose, but I will say that it is very challenging writing a murder when you know some audience members have radically different knowledge from others, and that I think Borgia: Faith and Fear used that fact brilliantly, and tapped the tropes of murder mystery very cleverly, when scripting the critical episode. The Borgias was less creative in its presentation.
But what about historical accuracy?
I said before that I am not evaluating these shows for their historical accuracy. Shows ignoring history or changing it around does bother me sometimes, especially if a show is very good and ought to know better. The superb HBO series Rome, which does an absolutely unparalleled job presenting Roman social class, slavery, and religion, nonetheless left me baffled as to why a studio making a series about the Julio-Claudians would feel driven to ignore the famous historical allegations of orgies and bizarre sex preserved in classical sources and substitute different orgies and bizarre sex. The original orgies and bizarre sex were perfectly sufficient! But in general I tend to be extremely patient with historically inacurate elements within my history shows, moreso than many non-historians I know, who are bothered by our acute modern anachronism-radar (on the history of the senes of anachronism and its absence in pre-modern psychology, see Michael Wood: Forgery, Replica, Fiction). For me, though, I have learned to relax and let it go.
I remember the turning point moment. I was watching an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer with my roommates, and it went into a backstory flashback set in high medieval Germany. “Why are you sighing?” one asked, noticing that I’d laid back and deflated rather gloomily. I answered: “She’s not of sufficiently high social status to have domesticated rabbits in Northern Europe in that century. But I guess it’s not fair to press a point since the research on that hasn’t been published yet.” It made me laugh, also made me think about how much I don’t know, since I hadn’t known that a week before. For all the visible mistakes in these shows, there are even more invisible mistakes that I make myself because of infinite details historians haven’t figured out yet, and possibly never will. There are thousands of artifacts in museums whose purposes we don’t know. There are bits of period clothing whose functions are utter mysteries. There are entire professions that used to exist that we now barely understand. No history is accurate, not even the very best we have.
Envision a scene in which two Renaissance men are hanging out in a bar in Bologna with a prostitute. Watching this scene, I, with my professional knowledge of the place and period, notice that there are implausibly too many candles burning, way more than this pub could afford, plus what they paid for that meal is about what the landlord probably earns in a month, and the prostitute isn’t wearing the mandatory blue veil required for prostitutes by Bologna’s sumptuary laws. But if I showed it to twenty other historians they would notice other things: that style of candlestick wasn’t possible with Italian metalwork of the day, that fabric pattern was Flemish, that window wouldn’t have had curtains, that dish they’re eating is a period dish but from Genoa, not Bologna, and no Genoese cook would be in Bologna because feud bla bla bla. So much we know. But a person from the period would notice a thousand other things: that nobody made candles in that exact diameter, or they butchered animals differently so that cut of steak is the wrong shape, or no bar of the era would have been without the indispensable who-knows-what: a hat-cleaning lady, a box of kittens, a special shape of bread. All historical scenes are wrong, as wrong as a scene set now would be which had a classy couple go to a formal steakhouse with paper menus and an all-you-can-eat steak buffet. All the details are right, but the mix is wrong.
In a real historical piece, if they tried to make everything slavishly right any show would be unwatchable, because there would be too much that the audience couldn’t understand. The audience would be constantly distracted by details like un-filmably dark building interiors, ugly missing teeth, infants being given broken-winged songbirds as disposable toys to play with, crush, and throw away, and Marie Antoinette relieving herself on the floor at Versailles. Despite its hundreds of bathrooms, one of Versailles’ marks of luxury was that the staff removed human feces from the hallways regularly, sometimes as often as twice a day, and always more than once a week.We cannot make an accurate movie of this – it will please no one. The makers of the TV series Mad Men recognized how much an accurate depiction of the past freaks viewers out – the sexual politics, the lack of seat belts and eco-consciousness, the way grown-ups treat kids. They focused just enough on this discomfort to make it the heart of a powerful and successful show, but there even an accurate depiction of attitudes from a few decades ago makes all the characters feel like scary aliens. Go back further and you will have complete incomprehensibility.
Even costuming accuracy can be a communications problem, since modern viewers have certain associations that are hard to unlearn. Want to costume a princess to feel sweet and feminine? The modern eye demands pink or light blue, though the historian knows pale colors coded poverty. Want to costume a woman to communicate the fact that she’s a sexy seductress? The audience needs the bodice and sleeves to expose the bits of her modern audiences associate with sexy, regardless of which bits would plausibly have been exposed at the time. I recently had to costume some Vikings, and was lent a pair of extremely nice period Viking pants which had bold white and orange stripes about two inches wide. I know enough to realize how perfect they were, and that both the expense of the dye and the purity of the white would mark them as the pants of an important man, but that if someone walked on stage in them the whole audience would think: “Why is that Viking wearing clown pants?” Which do you want, to communicate with the audience, or to be accurate? I choose A.
Thus, rather than by accuracy, I judge this type of show by how successfully the creators of an historical piece have chosen wisely from what history offered them in order to make a good story. The product needs to communicate to the audience, use the material in a lively way, change what has to be changed, and keep what’s awesome. If some events are changed or simplified to help the audience follow it, that’s the right choice. If some characters are twisted a bit, made into heroes or villains to make the melodrama work, that too can be the right choice. If you want to make King Arthur a woman, or have Mary Shelley sleep with time-traveling John Hurt, even that can work if it serves a good story. Or it can fail spectacularly, but in order to see what people are trying to do I will give the show the benefit of the doubt, and be patient even if poor Merlin is in the stocks being pelted with tomatoes. (By the way, if you’re trying to watchthe BBC’s Merlin and decide it’s not set in the past but on a terraformed asteroid populated by vat-cultured artificial people who have been given a 20th century moral education and then a book on medieval society and told to follow its advice, everything suddenly makes perfect sense!)
I am not meaning to pick a fight here with people who care deeply about accuracy in historical fiction. I respect that it bothers some people, and also that there is great merit in getting things right. Research and thoroughness are admirable, and, just as it requires impressive virtuosity to cook a great meal within strict diet constraints, like gluten free or vegan, so it takes great virtuosity to tell a great story without cheating on the history. I am simply saying that, while accuracy is a merit, it is not more important to me than other merits, especially entertainment value in something which is intended as entertainment.
This is also why I praise Borgia: Faith and Fear for what I call its “historicity” rather than its “accuracy”. It takes its fair share of liberties, as well it should if it wants a modern person to sit through it. But it also succeeds in making the characters feel un-modern in a way many period pieces don’t try to do. It is a bit alienating but much more powerful. It is more accurate, yes, but it isn’t the accuracy alone that makes it good, it’s the way that accuracy serves the narrative and makes it exceptional, as truffle raises a common cream sauce to perfection. Richer characters, more powerful situations, newer, stranger ideas that challenge the viewers, these are the produce of B:F&F‘s historicity, and bring a lot more power to it than details like accurately-colored dresses or perfectly period utensils, which are admirable, but not enriching.
In the end, both these shows are successfully entertaining, and were popular enough to get second and third seasons in which we can enjoy such treats as Machiavelli and Savonarola (Showtime’s planned 4th season has been cancelled, though there are motions to fight that). Showtime’s series is more approachable and easier to understand, but Borgia: Faith and Fear much more interesting, in my opinion, and also more valuable. The Borgias thrills and entertains, but Borgia: Faith and Fear also succeeds in showing the audience how terrible things were in the Renaissance, and how much progress we’ve made. It de-romanticizes. It feels period. It has guts. It has things the audience is not comfortable with. It has people being nasty to animals. It has disfigurement. It has male rape. When it’s time for a public execution, the mandatory cheap thrill of this genre, it goes straight for just about the nastiest Renaissance method I know of, sawing a man in half lengthwise starting at the crotch and moving along the spine. The scene leaves the audience less titillated than appalled, and glad that we don’t do that anymore.
Are they historically accurate? Somewhat. They’re both quite thorough in their research, but both change things. The difference is what they change, and why. If Borgia: Faith and Fear wants do goofy things with having the Laocoon sculpture be rediscovered early, I sympathize with the authors’ inability to resist the too-perfect metaphor of Rodrigo Borgia looking at this sculpture of a father and his two sons being dragged down by snakes. It adds to the show, even if it’s a bit distracting. But if The Borgias wants to make Giuliano della Rovere into a righteous defender of virtue, they throw away a great and original historical character in exchange for a generic one. It makes the whole set of events more generic, and that is the kind of change I object to, not as an historian, but as someone who loves good fiction, and wants to see it be the best it can be.
(I do get one nitpick. When Michelangelo had a cameo in The Borgias, why did he speak Italian when everyone else was speaking English? What was that supposed to communicate? Is everyone else supposed to be speaking Latin all the time? Is the audience supposed to know he is Italian but not think about it with everyone else? I am confused!)
My year in Florence has flown by, leaving me to face up to a life without battlements and medieval towers, without Botticelli and Verrocchio, without church bells to inform me when it’s noon, or 7 am, or 6 am, or 6:12 am (why?), without squash blossoms as a pizza topping, without good gelato within easy reach, and without looking out my window and realizing that the humungous dome of the cathedral is still shockingly humungous whenever I see it, and the facade so beautiful that it hasn’t started to feel real, not even after so long. Among the cravings I have felt for Florence in the first weeks of separation—cravings for watermelon granita, Cellini’s statue of Perseus and long walks between historic facades—the most acute has been for a view: the view up from the square into the little office in the Palazzo Vecchio where Machiavelli worked.
You may have noticed that I appended the tag “S.P.Q.F.” to every post this year. It has been my title for the year-in-Florence chapter of my activities, and in explaining why I find it such a fitting title I am at last going to answer formally here one of my favorite questions. It’s my habit in Florence to strike up conversation with random passing tourists, and as one thing leads to another (and often to pizza, gelato and the Uffizi) there are various questions I am often asked by people who discover they have a chance to talk to a real live Renaissance scholar. “Why did they make all this art?” is a common one. Also “Does the Vatican Library really look like it does in Dan Brown?” (that’ll be another day’s post), but the one which I am always happiest to get, and which I get delightfully often, is “So, why is Machiavelli really so important?” Now, I read The Prince in school, and remembered ideas including the stock “It is better to be feared than loved,” and “The ends justify the means,” but I also remember having no idea then why Machiavelli was a big name. I’m pretty sure my teacher didn’t really know either. In fact, most introductions to the works of Machiavelli that I’ve read didn’t even manage to make it clear. After ten years as a specialist in the Renaissance, I think I can finally explain why.
I cannot, however, explain everything at once. There’s too much to do it well. I will therefore divide it into three parts. Doing so is easy, because Machiavelli made two big, big breakthroughs. If I treat each in turn, with the proper historical context, I think I can make Machiavelli make sense.
Machiavelli, founder of Modern Political Science and History.
Machiavelli, founder of Utilitarianism/Consequentialist ethics.
The latter issue is where Machiavelli picks up such titles as Arch-Heretic, Anti-Pope, and Destroyer of Italy (also father of modern cultural analysis and religious studies). The former, however, is even more universal in its penetration into modern thought.
Many are familiar with S.P.Q.R. (Senatus Populus que Romanus, i.e. the Senate and the People of Rome). This is the symbol and slogan of the city of Rome, and has been from the ancient Republic to today. One finds it on stone inscriptions, modern storm drains, grand coats of arms, sun-bleached baseball caps, tattoos, always as a symbol of pride in the continuity of the Roman people and their republican heart. For we who learn in middle school to place the fall of the Empire in 410 or 434 AD, and the end of the Roman Republic in 27 BC when Augustus became Emperor, it is hard to remember that the Senate and other offices of the Republic continued to exist. They existed under the Caesars. They existed in strange forms under the Goths who replaced the Caesars. There were some struggles in the 550s, but even after the 600s, when we think the political Senate probably ceased to exist, there were still important families referred to as Senators. New senates were periodically reintroduced (the Republic had a big moment in 1144) but even when there wasn’t a Senate, the popes who ruled Medieval and Renaissance Rome had to maintain a careful, wary balance with the Roman mob and the powerful Roman “senatorial” families, who sincerely believed they were descendants of ancient Roman senators. Thus, while S.P.Q.R. is the symbol of the Roman Republic, in a long-term sense it represents more Roman pride in self-government as an idea, whether that self-government operates as it did in the Republic through popular election of Senators from among the members of a select group of oligarchical ruling families, or as it did in much of Christian Rome; by securing minimal concessions from the popes through the ability of the Roman city populace and its wealthy lead families to riot, prevent riots, stop invaders, aid invaders, supply funds, refuse to supply funds, and in crisis moments generally be of great aid or great harm to the pontiff and his forces.
S.P.Q.R. represents civic pride so deeply that, counter-intuitive as it may seem, many other cities picked it up. London occasionally used to use S.P.Q.L., and one may read S.P.Q.S. on the shield above the door of the civic museum of the miniscule one-gelateria town of Sassoferrato. And so, I have chosen S.P.Q.F. as the slogan for my year in Florence. “But none of those cities have a Senate!” you may object. Neither, sometimes, did Rome, but it always had a Senate in spirit, and so did these other cities who, by adopting S.P.Q.*. proclaim that they love their city as much as Romans love Rome.
Petrarch, father of Renaissance humanism, desperately wanted Florentines to love Florence as much as Romans had loved Rome, the ancient Romans that he read about in mangled copies of copies of copies of the beautiful, alien Latin of a lost world. He read of the Consul Lucius Junius Brutus who ordered the execution of his own sons when they conspired against the Republic, while at the same time Florence was hiring noblemen from other cities to enforce her laws, and equipping these mercenary magistrates with a private fortress within the city walls (the Bargello) so they could endure siege when they arrested members of powerful Florentine families, and the families attacked to try to liberate their own. He read of the golden peace forged by Augustus, even as rival Florentine families used meaningless factions like the Guelphs and Ghibbelines as excuses to make bloody civil war within the city’s walls. He read of hero after hero who sacrificed their lives for Rome, as families took turns coming to power and persecuting or exiling their rivals, mingling grudges with politics in wholly selfish ways. Petrarch himself grew up in France because his father had been exiled in the squabbles between Black Guelphs and White Guelphs, and had gone to seek work in Avignon, where the French king had carried off the papacy because Rome and her neighbors were too weak to defend the capital from what had once been her own colony. He was born in exile, as he put it, an exile in time as well as place, for his home should have been, not fractious Italy, but glorious Rome, and his neighbors Seneca and Cicero.
The solution Petrarch proposed to what he saw as the fallen state of “my Italy” was to reconstruct the education of the ancient Romans. If the next generation of Florentine and, more broadly, Italian leaders grew up reading Cicero and Caesar, the Roman blood within them might become noble again, and they too might be more loyal to the people than to their families, love Truth more than power, and in short love their cities as the Romans loved Rome. Such men would, he hoped, be brave and loyal in strengthening and defending their homelands. Rome started as one city, and did not make itself master of the world without citizens willing to die for it.
(Yes, I am going to talk about Machiavelli, and I hope you see here that the fundamental mistake most introductions to Machiavelli make is that they start by talking about Machiavelli. Context is everything.)
“Petrarch says we can become as great as the ancients by studying their ways! Let’s do it!” Petrarch’s call went out and, with amazing speed, Italy listened. Desperate, war-torn city states like Florence who hungered for stability poured money into assembling the libraries which might make the next generation more reliable. Wealthy families who wanted their sons to be princely and charismatic like Caesar had them read what Caesar read. Italy’s numerous tyrants and newly-risen, not-at-all-legitimate dukes and counts filled their courts and houses and public self-presentation with Roman objects and images, to equate themselves with the authority, stability, competence and legitimacy of the Emperors. No one took this plan more to heart than Petrarch’s beloved Florentine republic, and, within it, the Medici, who crammed their palaces with classical and neoclassical art, and with the education of Lorenzo succeeded in producing a classically-educated scion who was more princely than princes.
And we’re off! Fountains! Busts! Triumphal arches! Equestrian bronzes! Romanesque loggias! Linear perspective! Mythological frescoes! Confusing carnival floats covered with allegorical ladies! Latin! Greek! Plato! Galen! Geometry! Rhetoric! Navigation! Printing! Libraries! Anatomy! Grottoes! Syncretism! Philosopher princes! Ninja Turtles! Neo-Stoic political maxims! Neo-Platonic love letters! Lyre-playing! Theurgic soul projection! Symposia hosted by Lorenzo de Medici where philosophers and theologians lounge about discussing theodicy and the nature of the Highest Good! All that stuff that makes the Renaissance so exciting!
In 1506 the Florentine Captain General Ercole Bentivoglio wrote to Machiavelli encouraging him to finish his aborted History of Florence because, in his words, “without a good history of these times, future generations will never believe how bad it was, and they will never forgive us for losing so much so quickly.”
Yes, this is the same Renaissance.
The flowering peak, as we see it, when Raphael and Michelangelo and Leonardo were working away, when the libraries were multiplying, and cathedrals rising which are still too stunning for the modern eye to believe when we stand in front of them, this was such a dark time to be alive that the primary subject of Machiavelli’s correspondence, just like the subject of Petrarch’s 150 years before, was the desperate struggle for survival.
Let us zoom both in and out, for a moment, and take stock of Florence’s situation in the world of Europe as the 1400s close. Florence is one of the five most populous cities in the European world, well… four, now that Constantinople has fallen (1453). Its population is near 100,000, and it rules a large area of farmland and countryside and several smaller nearby cities. It is also one of the wealthiest cities in the world, thanks to the vast private fortunes of its numerous wealthy merchants and banking families, of whom the Medici are but the wealthiest of many. We live in an era before standing armies, but Florence has a force of soldiers for enforcing law, and some modest mercenary armies which it hires.
Who else exists? There is France, the most populous kingdom in Europe, with vast wealth, a population of millions to sustain enormous armies, and Europe’s most powerful king. There are the Spanish kingdoms of Aragon and Castille, with vast naval resources, entering the final stages of merging their crowns into what will soon be Spain. There is the Holy Roman Empire, a complex confederation of semi-independent sub-kingdoms under an elected-but-traditionally-hereditary Emperor who is also ruler of Italy in name, though not in practical terms. There are other kingdoms with ambitious kings and powerful navies: England, Portugal. There is the mysterious and terrifying Ottoman Empire to the East which has made great inroads in the Balkans and Africa. There are the two peculiar and impregnable powers of Europe: Venice with its modest land empire but huge sea empire of port cities and coastal fortresses which pepper the Eastern Mediterranean much farther out than any other Christian force dares go; and the Swiss who live untouchable between their Alps and base their economy almost entirely on renting out their armies as mercenaries to whoever has the funds to hire what everyone acknowledges are the finest troops on the continent. With the sole exception of the Swiss, all these powers want more territory, and there is no territory juicier than Italy, with its fat, rich little citystates, booming with industry, glittering with banker’s gold, situated on rich agricultural fields, and with tiny, tiny populations capable of mustering only tiny, tiny armies. The southern half of Italy has already fallen to the French… no wait, the Spanish… no, it’s the French again… no, the Spanish. The north is next.
That’s how bad it was. That’s why there was such a great flourishing of art and literature and philosophy and invention; because in desperate times people try desperate things to stay alive, and if art, philosophy and cunning are one’s only weapons, one hones one’s art, philosophy and cunning. And that’s why we needed a good historian.
1492. Lorenzo de Medici, the philosopher quasi-prince, dies, leaving the Medici family resources and effective rule of Florence to his 20-year-old son Piero. Roderigo Borgia is elected Pope Alexander VI, handing control of Rome to the Borgias. Also, some guy called Christopher finds some continent somewhere.
1494. The French invade Italy. This can be partly blamed on Borgias, partly on members of the Sforza family squabbling with each other over who will rule Milan, but France, and every other major power in Europe, had been hungry for Northern Italy for ages.
Now is the moment for young Piero, Lorenzo’s successor, educated by the greatest humanists in the world with the reading list that produced Brutus and Cicero, to marshal his family’s wealth and stand bravely before the enemy. Piero… runs away. Not a high point for Petrarch’s idea of instilling virtue and good leadership through classical education.
In the absence of the Medici, Florence’s republic went through some twists (i.e. Savonarola) and managed to persuade the French not to destroy them through sheer force of argument (again Savonarola), and in 1498 (by removing Savonarola) reverted again to mostly actually being the republic it had consistently insisted it still was all this time. S.P.Q.F.
This, now, was Machiavelli’s job when he worked in that little office in the Palazzo Vecchio:
Goal: Prevent Florence from being conquered by any of 10+ different incredibly enormous foreign powers.
Resources: 100 bags of gold, 4 sheep, 1 wood, lots of books and a bust of Caesar.
“Desperation” does not begin to cover it. There are armies rampaging through Italy expelling dukes and redrawing borders. Machiavelli is an educated man. He has read all the ancients, all the histories, all the moral maxims and manuals of government. He negotiates. He makes alliances. He plays the charisma card. We’re Florence: we have all the art, all the artists, all the books; you don’t want to destroy us, you want to be our ally. When that fails, there is the bribery card. We can’t defeat you, France, but we can give you 100 bags of gold to use to fund your wars against other people if you attack them instead. Machiavelli negotiates alliances with France. He negotiates alliances with Cesare Borgia. He negotiates anything he has to. He tries to create an army of citizen soldiers who will not, as mercenaries do, abandon the field when things are against them because they have no incentive to die for someone else as citizens do for their families and fatherland (the Senate and the People of Florence!)
1503. The Borgias fall (a delightful story, for another day). The bellicose and crafty Pope Julius II comes to power.
1508. The Italian territories destabilized by the Borgias are ripe for conquest. Everyone in Europe wants to go to war with everyone else and Italy will be the biggest battlefield. Machaivelli’s job now is to figure out who to ally with, and who to bribe. If he can’t predict the sides there’s no way to know where Florence should commit its precious resources. How will it fall out? Will Tudor claims on the French throne drive England to ally with Spain against France? Or will French and Spanish rival claims to Southern Italy lead France to recruit England against the houses of Aragon and Habsburg? Will the Holy Roman Emperor try to seize Milan from the French? Will the Ottomans ally with France to seize and divide the Spanish holdings in the Mediterranean? Will the Swiss finally wake up and notice that they have all the best armies in Europe and could conquer whatever the heck they wanted if they tried? (Seriously, Machiavelli spends a lot of time worrying about this possibility.) All the ambassadors from the great kingdoms and empires meet, and Machiavelli spends frantic months exchanging letters with colleagues evaluating the psychology of every prince, what each has to gain, to lose, to prove. He comes up with several probable scenarios and begins preparations. At last a courier rushes in with the news. The day has come. The alliance has formed. It is: everyone joins forces to attack Venice.
Conclusion: must invent Modern Political Science.
I am being only slightly facetious. The War of the League of Cambrai is the least comprehensible war I’ve ever studied. Everyone switches sides at least twice, and what begins with the pope calling on everyone to attack Venice ends with Venice defending the pope against everyone. Between this and the equally bizarre and unpredictable events which had dominated the era of the Borgia papacy and pope Julius’ rise to power (another day, I promise!) Machiavelli was left with the conclusion that the current methods they had for thinking about history and politics were simply not sufficient.
Machiavelli did not, however, stop immediately and start working on the grand treatises and new historical method he would hand down to posterity. He had a job to do, and wasn’t concerned with posterity—or rather he was, but with a very specific posterity: the posterity of Florence. S.P.Q.F.
1512. The Medici family returns, armed with new allies and mercenaries, and takes Florence by force. The Pallazzo Vecchio, seat of the Signoria, heart of the city, is converted into the Ducal palace. Machiavelli is expelled from government and, after a little while, is (falsely) accused of plotting against the Medici, arrested, tortured and banished.
Now, after the grand and fast-paced life of high politics, after being ambassador to France, after walking with princes, Machiavelli finds himself at a farm doing nothing. He describes in a letter his weary days, taking long walks through fields and catching larks, retiring to a pub to listen to the petty babble of his rustic neighbors. At the end of a wasted day, he says, he returns each evening to his little cottage, there strips away the dirt and ragged day clothes of his new existence, and puts on the finery of court. Thus attired, ready to negotiate with kings and popes, he enters his library, there to spend the evenings in commerce with the ancients.
And he starts writing his “little book on princes.”
Now, everyone who’s anyone is banished from Florence at some point. Dante, Petrarch, Cosimo de Medici, Benvenuto Cellini like five times… When one is banished, one is often banished to some spot in the countryside outside Florence, which is what happened in this case. The terms, generally, are that if you’re good and stay there then they’ll think about someday calling you back, but if you run off to some other city they make your banishment a bit more permanent. Machiavelli is expected to run off. He’s a talented and experienced political agent, a great scholar, author and playwright. He could get a job in Rome for the pope or a Cardinal, in Naples, in Paris, in a dozen Italian citystates, in the Empire. He doesn’t. He doesn’t even try.
Machiavelli only works for Florence. S.P.Q.F.
What he does do is everything in his power to get the Medici to hire him. “The Medici? Didn’t they destroy his precious republic? Didn’t they expel him? Didn’t they torture him?” Yes, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is that they rule Florence, and whoever rules Florence must be strong. History shows that, when there is a regime change, there is civil war and people die. When Florence has a regime change, Florentines die, and non-Florentines have a good chance of stepping in for conquest. The Prince is a manual for staying in power. Machiavelli writes it for the Medici, hoping it will secure him a job so he can get back where he should be, working for Florence’s safety from the inside. But it also explains his conclusions from all this dark experience.
History should be studied, NOT as a series of moral maxims intended to rear good statesmen by simply saturating them with stories about past good rulers and hoping they become virtuous by osmosis. History should be studied for what it tells us about the background and origins of our present, and past events should be analyzed as a set of examples, to be compared to present circumstances to help plan actions and predict their consequences. Only this way can disasters like the Borgia papacy, the French invasion and the War of the League of Cambrai be anticipated and avoided. What worked? What didn’t? What special characteristics of different times and places have led to success and failure?
This is modern Political Science. It is how we all think about history now, and the way it is approached in every classroom. We are, in this sense, all Machiavellian.
Of course, that is not what the word Machiavellian means. The new system of ethics Machiavelli introduces in his manual to keep the Medici in power is deservedly recognized as one of the most radical, dangerous and potentially destructive moves in the history of philosophy, and one of the most far-reaching. We are used to the trite summary “the end justifies the means,” and all the terrible, villanous things which that phrase has justified. But Machiavelli’s formula is not in any way villanous, nor was he. I will need another day to fully explain what that phrase means, but in a micro-summary, yes, Machiavelli did argue that the end justifies the means, and yes, he did mean it, but in his formulation “the end” was limited to one and only one very specific thing: the survival of the people under a government’s protection. Or even more specifically, the survival of Florence. That cathedral, those lively alleyways, those sculptures, that poetry, that philosophy, that ambition. S.P.Q.F.
Do you ever play the game where you imagine sending a message back in time to some historical figure to tell him/her one thing you really, really wish they could have known? To tell Galileo everyone agrees that he was right; to tell Schwarzschild that we’ve found Black Holes; to tell Socrates we still have Socratic dialogs even after 2,300 years? I used to find it hard to figure out what to tell Machiavelli. That his name became a synonym for evil across the world? That the Florentine republic never returned? That children in unimagined continents read his works in order to understand the minds of tyrants? That his ideas are now central to the statecraft of a hundred nations which, to him, do not yet even exist?
But now I know what I would say:
“Florence is on the UNESCO international list of places so precious to all the human race that all the powers of the Earth have agreed never to attack or harm them, and to protect them with all the resources at our command.”
He would cry. I know he would. It’s the only thing he ever really wanted. When I think about that, how much it would mean to him, and pass his window in the Pallazzo Vecchio which he spent so many years desperate to return to, I cry too.
Machiavelli definitely loved Florence as much as the Romans loved Rome, and worked to protect it as much as Brutus or Cicero. Florence also deserved to be loved that much. It deserves its S.P.Q.F. I’ve had, not just this year, but several earlier opportunities to get to know Florence in person, and even more years to read deeply into Florentine history and really understand all the invaluable contributions this city has made to the world. I could never call myself a Florentine, but I do believe I am now someone who understands why Florence deserves to be loved that much by her people, why Florence deserved Machiavelli, and his efforts, and all the efforts of the other great figures—Dante, Petrarch, Ficino, Bruni, Brunelleschi, Cosimo and Lorenzo de Medici—who worked so hard to save it—through art, philosophy and guile—from the destruction that always loomed. I know why it deserves UNESCO’s recognition too. It makes it a hard home to leave.