A Murder Mystery in Roman Egypt: an entertaining exploration of legal trials during Roman imperial rule

Dr Garrett Ryan, “A Murder Mystery in Roman Egypt” (Told In Stone, 24 November 2021)

This entertaining little documentary is actually less a whodunnit tale and more an exploration of an aspect of Roman rule over Egypt during the Classical Era. As narrator Dr Ryan drily notes, Egypt was Roman for 600 years yet in many ways this region was distinct from the rest of the Roman Empire due to (as Ryan adds) its isolation from other Roman-ruled areas, its huge wealth and its unique history and cultural legacy at the time. For us moderns, another distinct aspect of Roman Egypt is that, compared to other parts of the Roman Empire, the province bequeathed an enormous wealth of papyrus documents ranging from literary works to taxation receipts thanks in no small part to its physical geography which favours the preservation of papyrus and thus the preservation of archived documents. Not to mention of course, Roman Egyptian citizens’ propensity to safeguard items and documents they considered valuable from the eyes and hands of thieves and robbers!

Many of the preserved documents from Roman Egypt feature court cases dealing with the resolution of crimes. The documents show that theft was the most common crime, and that much theft was opportunistic or the result of ongoing personal or family conflicts between the thief and the victim. In one case, a man attended a funeral and when he later went home, he found his house had been stripped bare of all its belongings. Occasionally organised crimes are mentioned and in some cases of organised crime, the local authorities who would have responsible for investigating crime have been paid off by the defendants. Skirmishes between rival villages – perhaps the ancient equivalent of Mafia-style vendettas – are reported. Interestingly, murders seem to be seldom mentioned – but when they are mentioned, they are quite dramatic, even sensational. Among the murder cases Dr Ryan mentions, a powerful Alexandrian city councillor is brought to trial for the murder of a prostitute despite his efforts to intimidate city authorities with his cronies: he comes face to face with the prostitute’s mother in a confrontation and (presumably in an outburst) gives himself away. The man is later executed for his crime. In another case, in the 2nd century CE a man called Artemidorus was mummified and buried: recent CT scanning shows the back of his head was crushed in a way consistent with being hit repeatedly by a blunt instrument.

The eponymous murder mystery is sourced from the transcript of a trial that took place in 6th-century Byzantine Egypt: the transcript itself was pieced together from fragments of papyri found in a pit in 1905 beneath an Egyptian villager’s house when the man was renovating it. Archaeologists investigating the trove of papyrus documents in the pit discovered it had belonged to a lawyer / landowner called Dioskuros. The documents include part of the transcript of the trial. As the rest of the transcript is lost, we cannot know the details of what exactly transpired but the trial revolved around a conspiracy that included bribery and two savage murders of a priest and a villager in the village of Aphrodito. A soldier and an aristocrat were brought to trial over the murders. The soldier apparently denied any involvement in the death of the priest. What transpired later in the trial remains unknown and Ryan speculates that the priest and villager may have been killed because they knew too much about a scheme, possibly of embezzlement, being hatched by people who may have been the defendants in the trial.

Illustrated with vivid stills and photographs of Roman and Byzantine-era mosaics, statues and portraits – one portrait being that of a Greek diviner called Artemidorus, though likely not the Artemidorus subjected to being bashed – the mini-documentary runs at a brisk pace, gossipy in some ways with quite droll commentary from Ryan. Though the murder mystery is never solved, it is told in a very captivating if perhaps rather speedy (and actually dry) way by the historian. The documentary gives an insight into an aspect of Roman rule and administration in Egypt, and how perhaps Roman institutions and the individual representatives of those institutions came up against and treated (or mistreated) local Egyptian people, and dealt with their conflicts and spats.

The 1964 Coup in Brazil: how Brazil and South America were set back for 21 years by US regime change action

Carlton Meyer, “The 1964 Coup in Brazil” (Tales of the American Empire, 12 November 2021)

This instalment in Meyer’s ongoing series investigating the long history of US imperialism across the globe focuses on the overthrow of Brazilian President João Goulart by his nation’s military in 1964 and the role the US government under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson played in that coup. Goulart came to power in Brazil in September 1961 on a platform of educational, taxation, electoral and land reforms aimed at benefiting the poor and stimulating the national economy. He was friendly towards the Castro government in Cuba during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis and his belief in Cuban independence and self-determination led the Kennedy government to consider overthrowing Goulart’s government. The plan to get rid of Goulart became Operation Brother Sam. After Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963, US President Lyndon B Johnson then authorised a US naval task force and aircraft to travel to Brazil, ostensibly to conduct a military exercise, to support the March 1964 coup. The coup was organised by the CIA together with the Brazilian military.

The mini-documentary shows how supposedly progressive US governments like those of Kennedy and Johnson actually supported right-wing forces in Latin American nations and thwarted those nations’ drive for self-determination so as to safeguard US corporate interests. Archived film interviews and Brazilian television news reports help demonstrate how the Brazilian Chief of Army General Staff Castelo Branco was persuaded to support the coup by US military attaché Vernon A Walters who told him that the US naval force and aircraft would assist in regime change (to the extent of openly invading the country) if the coup were to falter. The film does not note that Castelo Branco later benefited from supporting the coup – he became President in April 1964 – which would have been rich irony.

As a result of the coup Brazil suffered repressive military rule for 21 years during which time the country served as the model and template for US-assisted overthrow of other South American leaders and governments deemed undesirable by Washington DC: this 21-year period includes the 1973 overthrow of Chilean President Salvador Allende by the Chilean military. Many consequences of the 1964 coup against Goulart were to follow and are still working their effects through Brazilian society and the rest of South America. Unfortunately Meyer’s video, concentrating on the details of Goulart’s overthrow and the US role in it, does not have the time or the scope to cover the full significance of the coup for Brazil and the entire Latin American region.

The Destruction of Laos: casting light on a shameful aspect of the Vietnam War

Carlton Meyer, “The Destruction of Laos” (Tales of the American Empire, 15 October 2021)

Many people know that the Vietnam War dragged Cambodia into its horrors – or rather, US State Secretary Henry Kissinger saw fit to drag Cambodia into the Vietnam War – but I confess to being unaware that Laos had also been dragged into the Vietnam War even though the fact that Cambodia was an unwilling participant made so by the US should have suggested to me that the US would treat Laos similarly. Here comes Carlton Meyer with his latest TofAE episode to cast light on a relatively little-known front of the Vietnam War: the US bombing of Laos. As Meyer notes, Laos in the early 1970s was a small country of some 3million yet the US saw fit to drop over 2 million tons of bombs in 580,000 bombing raids over 9 years from 1964 to 1973: that works out to one planeload of bombs being dropped onto Laos every 8 minutes! At the same time this was happening the US government denied it was bombing Laos or had US combat forces in the country.

After describing the scale of the bombing of Laos, Meyer goes on to detail how US forces and the CIA operated in the country. Combat forces worked as contractors for the CIA and trained and led Laotian and Chinese mercenaries in Laos. Many of these Americans supplemented their incomes by engaging in the opium trade. US denial of involvement in Laos meant that finding lost or missing US soldiers or pilots in the country was difficult or impossible, since that would force Washington to admit that the US did indeed have forces there.

Meyer rounds off his short documentary by explaining why the US invaded and brought the Vietnam War to Laos: the reason was to shut down the Ho Chi Minh supply trail that passed from North Vietnam through Laos and Cambodia to South Vietnam. Meyer explains how the US attempt to cut off the supply trail was bound to fail as the Vietcong in South Vietnam had support from the general public there and could obtain supplies from myriad, mostly local sources, not just from North Vietnam. Ultimately it was the determination of the Vietnamese to reunite as an independent nation, free from Western domination (whether in the form of French colonialism or US neocolonialism), that was the major factor in Vietnam’s victory.

Meyer enlivens his short video documentary with archived film, maps and snippets of old 1970s interviews including one with a US refugee worker dealing with displaced Laotians who relays what the refugees told him about the relentless nature of the bombing and the total destruction it caused. This interview with the refugee worker, which concludes the film, conveys the absolute horror of what amounted to virtual firebombing of the country. What Meyer details is indeed an absolutely shameful episode in US military history.

Meyer probably could have noted the continuing legacy of the US bombing campaign in Laos: about 30% of the bombs dropped on Laos did not explode on impact but remain in many parts of the country and continue to maim and kill Laotians, children in particular.

A Day in the Life of an Untouchable Sweeper: a snapshot of discrimination against Dalit people in India

Amudhan R P, “A Day in the Life of an Untouchable Sweeper” (2003)

Known as “manual scavenging”, manually cleaning public and private toilets, open drains and streets of human excrement is still being done by thousands of men and women across India. Much of this work is traditionally done by people from the Dalit (untouchable) communities that are at the bottom of the caste social system. Dalit women sweep and clean dry waste in streets, collect it in cane or metal vessels, and carry these vessels on their heads to dispose of the shit at central disposal points in their communities. Men and women clean faeces from public and private toilets, gutters and drains, and men usually clean sewers and septic tanks.

This video, scripted and filmed by Amudhan R P, follows Mariyammal, a sanitary worker with the Madurai Municipal Corporation as she cleans a street near a temple in Madurai. Mariyammal describes her daily routine to Amudhan as she goes about her work – her employer does not give her proper protective clothing or equipment like a mask, gloves or appropriate footwear so she goes barefoot to avoid soiling her shoes – and vents her anger and frustration about the work she has to do, the lack of proper equipment she is given to do her job, and the discrimination she is forced to put up with from the people around her because she is a Dalit and a sanitary worker.

Featuring close-up shots, and with a jerky style due to Amudhan having to carry the camera on his shoulder, the film can be very confronting for viewers as they see the amount of back-breaking work Mariyammal must do every early morning: scattering ash or sanitary powder over piles of faeces, and sweeping the shit into her vessel with scoops she must obtain or buy herself. She makes three trips to a central disposal area in Madurai. She tells Amudhan that she herself is in bad health (in the opening credits, the film notes that sanitary workers are at risk for asthma, malaria and cancer from their work) but despite requesting a transfer to other work, her employer refuses to move her. She cannot give up working despite her meagre pay and demeaning job as she is a widow with a large family of boys (some of whom must work as labourers) and a huge debt with high interest to pay moneylenders after taking a loan to pay for a son’s wedding. Amudhan passes no judgement on how Mariyammal does her work or on her frustration but patiently asks questions and absorbs some of the anger she vents. Mariyammal turns out to be a feisty lady especially when she takes a break and orders morning tea for herself from a tea vendor. She is not afraid to boss local children for shitting in the street she has to clean and local people appear to tiptoe gingerly past her as she strolls through the streets like a queen.

Since the film was made, it has won awards at film festivals in Tamil Nadu and New Delhi and was even shown at a film festival in China. The street where Mariyammal worked was shut down and Mariyammal was shifted to different work. The working conditions of other Madurai sanitary workers have improved somewhat with better equipment given them as well. Providing the poor people of Madurai and elsewhere in India with better living and working conditions that might include better public sanitation infrastructure – when one sees the dreadful public toilets in Madurai, one understands why poor people prefer to poop in back lanes and alleys – and which turn the faeces into a useful asset such as fertiliser or fuel, seems to be beyond the scope of government at local, regional and national level though: the legislation to provide proper public and private sanitation, making manual scavenging unnecessary, may exist but enforcement is something else altogether.

Mren Cathedral and the Last World War of Antiquity: a building’s connection to the end of an era and the beginning of another

Garrett Ryan, “Mren Cathedral and the Last World War of Antiquity” (Toldinstone, 2018)

Part of a series about ten Roman / Byzantine-era buildings built in the territory of modern Turkey, this video initially focuses on Mren Cathedral, a 7th-century Armenian church in the abandoned site of Mren, once a town in the region of Kars in far north-eastern Turkey, and in particular on a stone at the cathedral’s entrance celebrating the return of the True Cross of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre by the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius (reigned 610 – 641 CE). This stone not only establishes the age of Mren Cathedral – it was built during the 630s CE – but also tells us something about the involvement of Armenia as a state in the long border wars between the Roman Empire and its Byzantine imperial successor on the one hand and the Persians (whether Parthians or Sassanids) over several hundreds of years to the 630s CE. The stone and its inscription become the basis for an interesting story told by Ryan in voiceover narration of the war between the Byzantine Empire (which Ryan calls “Roman”) under Heraclius and the Sassanid Empire under Khosrau II (reigned 590 – 626 CE): as the title of the video bluntly states, this war was the last major war fought by two imperial powers of the Classical World just before the eruption of Arab armies inspired by Islam out of the Arabian Peninsula in the same decade that Mren Cathedral was built in Armenia.

Ryan sets the scene by explaining the role Armenia played as a buffer state between the Romans / Byzantines and the Parthians / Sassanids since Classical times. Both superpowers wooed and bribed Armenian princes and rulers to their side and the western and eastern borders of Armenia seem to have changed quite frequently over the centuries. Some time in 590 CE, in a fortress town in Armenia, the young Khosrau II, newly acceded to the Sassanid throne but usurped by rebels, sought refuge with the Byzantine commander; the Byzantines agree to help him regain his throne in Persia. For a decade afterwards, the Byzantines and Sassanids were on friendly terms and respected one another’s territories but with the assassination of Byzantine Emperor Maurice Tiberius in 602 CE, Khosrau II seized the opportunity to overrun Byzantine territories in Anatolia, the Levant and Egypt. The Byzantines under Emperor Phocas were unable to stop Khosrau II’s forces as their own armies were tied up battling Avars and Slavs coming into their European territories. Among the booty that the Persians captured in their conquests was the True Cross of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, reputedly the cross on which Jesus Christ died.

In 610 CE, Heraclius became Byzantine Emperor and spent the next decade rebuilding his treasury and army. In 622 CE, he set out to reconquer the territories lost to the Sassanids with the help of the Khazars (Turkic-speaking tribes who would later establish their kingdom on the northern shores of the Caspian Sea and convert to Judaism) and of Armenian and Georgian princes. Basing his army in Armenia itself, Heraclius achieved a series of stunning successes against three Persian field armies and entered Persia itself. Finally in 626 CE, at the Battle of Nineveh, Heraclius smashed Khosrau II’s army and Khosrau II ended up being executed by his own nobles.

As a result of Heraclius’s victory against Persia, the Sassanids gave up all the territories conquered by Khosrau II and Heraclius was able to return the True Cross to its Jerusalem home. On his way to Jerusalem from Persia, Heraclius passed through Armenia and one of the Armenian princes who had accompanied Heraclius on his campaigns in western Asia commissioned the Mren Cathedral to be built with the commemoration of the Byzantine Emperor’s restoration of the True Cross.

Ryan does not say very much about the fortunes of Mren Cathedral or of Armenia itself after Heraclius’s victory over the Sassanians, except to observe that with the passing of time and the shifting of trade routes through Armenia, the town of Mren became insignificant and was eventually abandoned. The few photos of the cathedral shown in the video, which is otherwise illustrated with colourful maps showing the campaigns of Heraclius and Khosrau II, show the building to be in a parlous state, neglected by the Turkish government. Grant might have said something about post-Ottoman Turkish government attitudes (especially those of the current government under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan) toward the Armenians and their buildings and monuments in eastern Turkey but then I guess he’d never be allowed back in Turkey.

The video concludes by observing that, while Mren Cathedral was being built in Armenia, Arab armies began conquering the Arabian Peninsula and spread into western Asia (claiming Syria) and thence into Persia, destroying what remained of Sassanian power. Under the Umayyads and Abbasids, and then later under the Seljuk and Ottoman Turks, Islam would come to threaten the Byzantine Empire’s eastern territories just as the Zoroastrian Sassanians had done before them. Although Ryan does not say so, Heraclius’s victory over Khosrau II and Khosrau II’s execution surely created a vacuum within Sassanian politics that could be exploited by a new dynasty or by foreigners. Just as the World Wars of the West in the 20th century restructured Europe and changed the course and nature of Western civilisation, so too did the Last World War of Antiquity as Ryan calls it ended up changing civilisation in the Middle East and Persia – and would change the course of the Byzantine Empire in its later centuries.

The video is very entertaining if rather rushed in its narration with facts being thrown at viewers continuously right up to the end. Viewers may need to see it at least twice to absorb all the riveting information about Mren Cathedral’s connection to one of the most significant wars in the history of the world, one that would close off the Classical Era of Greek and Roman civilisation, and lead to the Mediaeval Era of Byzantine and early Islamic civilisation. There were some things though, that stayed the same: among them, Armenia would continue to be a buffer state between the Byzantines (and later the Ottomans) and the Persians, on whom the Armenians would end up relying for protection and much of their culture.

A Historical Tour of Hagia Sophia: a visually sumptuous guide and introduction to a famous building and Byzantine civilisation

Garrett Ryan, “A Historical Tour of Hagia Sophia” (Told in Stone, 2020 / 2021)

Even as a short film, this video tour of Hagia Sophia / Aya Sofya, the most famous site in Istanbul (the former Constantinople before 1453) and the pinnacle of Byzantine imperial civilisation as a place of religious worship, political life and artistic achievement, is a visually sumptuous affair. As usual with Dr Ryan’s short videos for his Told in Stone Youtube channel, he gives running commentary on the building’s history and the reason for its construction, and points out the most important parts of the building, its mosaics and the figures they portray, and the messages those mosaics may convey which demonstrate aspects of Byzantine belief and values.

As viewers might expect, Dr Ryan’s voiceover narration, while speedy, starts with a general survey of the building’s importance to the Byzantine Empire and the context in which Hagia Sophia was first conceived by Emperor Justinian I. The building replaced a church, itself a replacement for the original Hagia Sophia built in 360 CE, when that church was destroyed during the Nika revolts that started in the Hippodrome and quickly spread to the rest of Constantinople, burning or destroying most of the city and leaving 30,000 dead in the space of a week in early January, 532 CE. The building was completed in 537 CE.

From there, the video focuses on particular aspects of Hagia Sophia’s architecture. The building complex features a massive dome built on four spherical triangular pendentives (construction devices that allow a circular dome to be built over a square room) which curve into and support the dome, and spread its weight down into the rest of the building. Other features of interest are the exonarthex which houses the sarcophagus of Empress Irene; the narthex; the Vestibule of Warriors; the Imperial Gate which features a mosaic of Emperor Leo VI doing penance before Christ for marrying more than three times in his quest for a male heir; the galleries where the Empress and her court sat to observe Masses and participate in public life; and the Tomb of Henricus Dandolo, a Venetian doge who led the Fourth Crusade (which never went near the Holy Land but instead concentrated on pillaging Constantinople). Mosaics of interest include those of Empress Zoe (reigned 1028 – 1050 CE) and her third husband Constantine IX (reigned 1042 – 1050 CE) whose face appears to have been changed at least once, perhaps to replace the face of one of Zoe’s former husbands: this juicy piece of information is one of many that Ryan spices his commentary with in his usual disingenuously neutral tone.

Brimming with photos and film of Hagia Sophia’s interiors, all done from as many angles as possible, this video is incredibly immersive and viewers can feel something of the long, deep and rich history of the building complex, its architecture, paintings and mosaics. At the same time, details such as the mosaics of the penitent Leo VI and Constantine IX with his cosmetic surgery, and the graffiti left behind by a fellow called Halfdan, most likely a member of the Varangian bodyguard corps employed by Byzantine Emperors after Swedish Varangians began appearing in Constantinople, help to bring a very human and humorous dimension to Hagia Sophia’s long history.

There are some references to Hagia Sophia’s history after Constantinople’s downfall in 1453 when Mehmet II entered the building and declared it a mosque. After hundreds of years doing sterling duty, the mosque was declared a museum by Turkish President Kemal Ataturk in 1935. Beginning in the early 1990s, parts of Hagia Sophia were repurposed for use in Muslim religious worship and after the new millennium began, there came increasing calls for the building to be reconverted into a mosque. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared Hagia Sophia a mosque in 2018.

The video serves as a good introduction to Hagia Sophia and the Byzantine civilisation it represents for tourists and students of classical Greek and Roman history. Those wanting more detail or information about Hagia Sophia’s post-Byzantine history will be disappointed with the sketchy details provided in the video and need to investigate other Youtube videos on the building complex.

Treachery by US Army Generals in World War II: how incompetence and bad decisions led to US defeat and Japanese occupation of the Philippines

Carlton Meyer, “Treachery by US Army Generals in World War II” (Tales of the American Empire, 1 October 2021)

While many people know that Japan dealt the British Empire its worst defeat in Singapore in February 1942, not many know that a few months afterwards in May 1942, Japan also defeated the United States in the Philippines after a five-month campaign (it began on 8 December 1941, just after Japan’s bombing of Pearl Harbour in Hawaii) that led to 23,000 US soldiers and 100,000 Filipino soldiers dead or captured. Those captured ended up being shipped off to Japan in infamous “hell ships” (where they were crammed into cargo holds with little air, ventilation, food or water) to work as slave labour in factories or mines for as long as three years. Much of the blame for the disastrous US defeat can be laid upon the US Army generals in charge of the combined US / Filipino forces for their incompetent – and at times inexplicable – decisions that allowed much smaller Japanese forces to attack and lay waste US airfields and destroy valuable US aircraft and ships.

In this episode of his “Tales of the American Empire” series, Carlton Meyer concentrates on three examples of incompetent actions by US Army generals in the Philippines. In the early months of Japanese invasion of the Philippines after December 1941, General Douglas MacArthur withdrew US forces to Bataan Peninsula, allowing the Japanese to seize Manila which forced the colonial US government to retreat to the island of Corregidor. MacArthur’s withdrawal included the abandonment of Fort Wint on Grande Island at the entrance of Subic Bay. Japanese forces bombed Corregidor and after a long siege, starved and still waiting for reinforcements, US defenders surrendered to Japan. While Macarthur, Filipino leader Manuel Quezon and other high-ranking military officers and diplomats escaped capture and left the Philippines, others were not so lucky: at least 17 US Army generals became POWs.

One of the these officers was William F Sharp, in charge of the Visayan-Mandanao Force. Believing that Japan would execute US soldiers and other Americans captured in Corregidor, Sharp surrendered to the Japanese though many Americans and Filipinos under his command refused to give up and became guerrilla fighters. Another officer, Jonathan M Wainwright, had also surrendered in the belief that his action would minimise casualties and save hostages from being executed.

The actions of Wainwright and Sharp, to whom Wainwright transferred his command of all US and Filipino troops (at least until the Japanese insisted that all US and Filipino troops had to surrender, forcing Wainwright to pressure Sharp to surrender also), might be seen as being under duress, both generals perhaps not aware that the Japanese were not planning to execute their Corregidor hostages. The actions of MacArthur though, in following a pre-war plan to compel his troops to retreat to Bataan Peninsula, enabling the Japanese to capture Manila and Luzon Island and to cut off supplies to the Americans, beg for explanations as do also the actions of US President Franklin D Roosevelt in failing to send appropriate reinforcements to US forces in the Philippines. Why did MacArthur defer to a plan and not go on the attack against Japanese invaders? What do MacArthur’s failures and Washington’s disregard for US troops in the Philippines – never mind the Filipinos – say about US attitudes towards Japan, the Philippines and East Asia / Southeast Asia generally that might still be relevant to current US attitudes towards East Asia and China in particular?

Unfortunately Meyer’s narration, sticking to the chronology of the details of the US retreat to Bataan Peninsula and the actions of MacArthur, Wainwright and Sharp, does not dig into the motivations or reasoning of these men for making decisions that do not reflect well on their competence or ability as military leaders. What Meyer does though is tell a very well researched and detailed account of American error and Japanese determination and zeal, with plenty of archived film and photographs to flesh out the story.

The Bombing of Pompeii, 1943: detailed sketch of darkest episode in ancient Roman city’s history

Garrett Ryan, “The Bombing of Pompeii, 1943” (Told in Stone, 25 September 2021)

Not too many popular histories and documentaries on Pompeii and Herculaneum mention that over August and September in 1943 the Allied forces (primarily UK and Canada) dropped about 170 bombs over the archaeological site of Pompeii. Garrett Ryan’s short video gives a quick blow-by-blow sketch of what happened, starting with the reason why the bombing campaign was begun: US, UK and Canadian troops landed at Salerno near Naples, beginning in September 1943, but encountered resistance and counter-attacks from German forces along the coast so Allied bombing missions to cut German supply lines began dropping thousands of bombs. The archaeological site of Pompeii was close to railway yards and important transport links leading to Naples so bombs that were supposed to hit those sites landed in Pompeii instead.

Every part of the Pompeii site was bombed and a number of important historical locations in the site including the amphitheatre arena; the House of Sallust (an important Roman mansion) which held a life-sized fresco detailing the myth of the hunter Actaeon, punished by being turned into a deer and torn apart by his hounds for accidentally seeing the goddess Diana bathing in a pool; the House of the Faun which contains the famous mosaic of Alexander the Great defeating Persian shah Darius III at the Battle of Gaugamela in 331BCE; and the House of Trebius Valens, a modest building with significant graffiti on its walls that were destroyed by the bombing. The Antiquarium Museum, which housed thousands of artefacts from the sites and casts of victims of the Mt Vesuvius volcanic eruption that destroyed Pompeii and Herculaneum in 79 CE, was also bombed and lost nearly 1,400 artefacts as a result. The Museum was restored but many items in its collection remain shattered.

After World War II, many of the destroyed buildings and locations in Pompeii were rebuilt or restored but much damage caused by the bombing is permanent and there are still unexploded bombs at the site.

Ryan passes no judgement on the Allied forces who bombed the Pompeii site. Some online digging by Yours Truly turned up information that the Allies believed that German forces were hiding in the site and storing ammunition there, and even the Allied Military Command fell for this belief. This is confirmed by another, much more detailed video presentation by Dr Ardle MacMahon in July 2021 about the Allied bombing of Pompeii. Both videos agree that British and Canadian forces were responsible for the most of the bombing. Contrary to most current popular opinion about differences between American and British cultures – in which Americans are seen as boorish and ignorant and British as refined and cultured – the British seem to have been much more viciously gung-ho about destroying other people’s cultures and heritage during World War II, as evidenced by the bombing of Dresden in February 1945 by UK-led forces.

Even in a short video as this, the visual presentation which features archived photographs of pre-WWII Pompeii and informative maps is stunning. Ryan’s rapid-fire voice-over narration packs in fact after fact after fact and the video needs a couple of viewings to be fully savoured. Possibly much more could have been said about the fragile nature of the Pompeii site: Mt Vesuvius is still an ever-present threat to the site’s survival as are also mass tourism and the continuing economic woes of Italy itself and the impact they make on the country’s ability to fund archaeological research and restoration projects.

AUKUS and the danger of war: a persuasive if simplistic argument on the stupidity of the AUKUS pact

Paul Cockshott, “AUKUS and the danger of war” (23 September 2021)

After a Twitter exchange on whether the US was in a fit state militarily to challenge China, and in the wake of the AUKUS naval and defence pact formed by the US, the UK and Australia – it should have been called USUKA but AUKUS flows more mellifluously than “you-suck-ah” – in September 2021, with the pact’s first initiative being to supply nuclear-powered submarines to the Royal Australian Navy (and those submarines to be purportedly built in Adelaide, compelling Australia to break its current contract with France to build 12 diesel submarines), Scottish computer scientist / economist Paul Cockshott created a slideshow explaining how the AUKUS alliance endangers Australia and the US in the event of a war with China in the western Pacific Ocean region. The slideshow demonstrates how dependent Australia will be on the UK and the US in obtaining highly enriched nuclear fuel to power the submarines (and the proliferation risks involved, since enriched nuclear fuel can be used to make bombs) as Australia lacks the know-how and the infrastructure (including nuclear plants) needed to enrich the fuel. From there Cockshott looks at why, after 70 years, Britain has suddenly decided to sell Australia its nuclear technology and expertise, and concludes from examining speeches made by UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Tory MP (and Johnson’s predecessor as Prime Minister) Theresa May that the reason for Australia having nuclear-powered submarines, as they are designed for attack and not defence purposes, is that they ultimately will be part of a US-led naval blockade of China in the event of a conflict over Taiwan based on Western assumptions that China will invade Taiwan – even though over the past 70 years China has respected Taiwan’s physical, political and economic integrity to the extent that China’s hi-tech industries depend on Taiwan for its semiconductors and other raw materials, and tourists, business people and others regularly travel from one country to the other quite freely.

After reaching this conclusion as to the purpose of AUKUS, Cockshott spends the rest of his presentation examining the most likely course of a war between China and AUKUS, and makes his case that a Western blockade of China would be extremely risky and hazardous to AUKUS forces. China would quickly establish air and sea dominance over Taiwan’s territory (including airspace and maritime territory) and US support would be limited to the kind of hurried airlift “rescues” of US citizens seen recently in Kabul when the puppet Ghani government there collapsed in the wake of the Taliban’s peaceful victory in Afghanistan. A possible US attack on China itself, on the assumption that US forces can break through Chinese air and sea defences, is shown to be nigh impossible due to the severe decline in US military capabilities and the advanced age of US bomber planes since 1945. An economic blockade based either on blocking trade routes in Southeast Asia or on sanctions on nations trading with China would disrupt economies all over the world – and encourage even more integration of the Eurasian continent in China’s Belt Road Initiative to circumvent a blockade or sanctions. Cockshott looks at the shipbuilding capabilities of the combatants and finds that China’s shipbuilding capabilities far outstrip those of the US. South Korea would most likely declare neutrality in the war but in the event that Seoul is compelled to side with AUKUS, South Korea would be exposed to attack from North Korea and China.

The result is that the economies of the AUKUS members and any others participating in the war against China will be severely damaged, so much so that their societies and politics will become unstable and the very polities themselves liable to break up. They will lose cultural prestige as well and the very concept of Western liberal democracy – itself hazy and contradictory with its emphasis on free markets unhindered by government oversight and regulation – will be discredited. While China and its allies will also suffer economic damage, they will be in a better position to recover through China’s BRI.

While Cockshott’s presentation is well set out if a bit slow and repetitive, it does appear simplistic to the point where the figures and facts he pulls out look cherry-picked. In a real war, China would have Russian support which could include Russia cutting off natural gas supplies to the UK. An economic blockade initiated by China or Russia of the UK and any European countries allied with that nation and involved in the US war against China could strain relations among them and among other things encourage the British public to turn against London, especially as (with the phasing out of the use of older fossil fuel technologies like coal-dependent technologies) Europe is becoming more and more dependent on importing Russian natural gas. The Taiwanese people themselves, as opposed to their government, might prefer Beijing’s domination to the extent that their forces might pledge to fight on the Chinese side. Australia itself will be a target for attacks and economic blockades and sanctions from China, Russia and their allies, and Australians themselves would have to choose whether remaining part of AUKUS or any alliance with the US is worth risking their future for.

At the same time Cockshott’s presentation is silent on China’s submarine capabilities against future combined AUKUS submarine attacks. One could argue though that there are many ways to fight “hot” wars and not all of them have to be purely military, let alone match one nation’s sub-set of military weapons against another’s exact equivalent. For China, the war AUKUS will wage against it will be a defensive war and defence calls for different strategies and the necessary tactics and hardware those require: the problem is how varied and how deep China’s defensive capabilities are, and if they can withstand the offensive strategies and capabilities of the AUKUS alliance. Cockshott’s presentation suggests that China will have more flexibility and more strategies, tactics and weapons (especially soft non-military weapons) at hand than the AUKUS alliance will.

The issue that remains is why Australian political and defence elites were so stupid and idiotic to sleepwalk into a pact that robs Australia of any sovereignty over its land, sea and air territory, and ultimately puts their own survival in doubt.

Drug Use in Ancient Greece and Rome: a lively video on the use of narcotics and hallucinogens in classical society

Garrett Ryan, “Drug Use in Ancient Greece and Rome” (Told in Stone, 17 September 2021)

An intriguing little video, this episode in Garrett Ryan’s ongoing Told in Stone series that centres on classical civilisation explores what is known – and what is guessed at – about the use of narcotics, hallucinogens and other drugs by the Ancient Greeks and Romans. The video starts with an investigation of a kurgan (burial mound) by archaeologists in Stavropol in southern Russia: among the treasures found were two golden vessels whose insides were coated with the remains of a sticky black residue. Analysis of the residue by a lab revealed the residue to be a mix of opium and marijuana. The kurgan had been built by Ancient Scythians, a nomadic horse-riding people well known to the Ancient Greeks: the golden vessels may have been made by the Greeks themselves and the Greeks may have even supplied the opium-marijuana mix since they knew the Scythians’ predilection for mind-altering substances.

This little story leads the way into a survey of the Greeks and Romans’ use of opium and hemp, and how much these substances were incorporated into their cultures. Not surprisingly, the ancients used opium as a medicine, primarily as a pain-killer, a relaxant and a soporific; mixed with honey, opium could be used to treat a range of health problems from skin infections to coughs. They appear not to have appreciated the addictive properties of opium but did know that overdoses of opium could be fatal. As with opium, cannabis had many medicinal uses though doctors tended to use the hemp seed and cannabis resin as medicines. Some evidence found in the grave of a Roman woman who died in childbirth suggests that the more potent leaves and buds were used to relieve labour pains.

The second half of the video investigates the use of opium and hallucinogenic drugs in Greek and Roman religious ritual. One might assume that opium, marijuana and hallucinogens were used in the Eleusinian mysteries and by the maenad followers of the Greek god Dionysios but no firm evidence that these cults included drug use has been found. Likewise, evidence for the use of opium, marijuana and others as recreational drugs by the Greeks and Romans is scanty. Indeed the use of substances for purely recreational mind-altering purposes seems to have been quite limited in Greek and Roman cultures.

The video limits itself to exploring how the Greeks and Romans used a small range of substances known to be addictive in modern Western societies on the basis of material evidence found so far. It does not say very much about what historians, playwrights and other commentators among the Greeks and Romans thought and wrote about these drugs, and how much. That the Greeks and Romans seem to have used opium and marijuana mainly as medicines and food items may indicate that these peoples put far less emphasis on individual hedonistic or escapist pleasures than modern Western societies do. The Greeks and Romans may have experienced fewer stresses in their lives and had more outlets for the release of individual and communal tensions, through religious festivals and mystery cults, than are allowed in contemporary societies.

Perhaps the fact that not much appears to be known about how the Greeks and Romans used drugs in ways that would be familiar to us says much more about how we Westerners view drugs like opium and marijuana and their use, than about what the Greeks and Romans thought about these substances and how they used them. If we could go back in time and ask these societies what plants, fungi or other foodstuffs they had that they might have used in ways we would recognise recreational drugs to be used, the Greeks and Romans would probably point us to herbs, seeds and other items we might not realise have psychoactive properties.

Illustrated with photographs and stills of Greek and Roman art, this video is lively and straightforward in its presentation.