world history

If You Find “The West” A Confusing Term There Are Good Reasons

a set of hardcover books bound in celuloid on a wooden bookshelf
The circle of book life! This copy of Will and Arial Durant’s “Story of Civilization” was in Russell Books, Victoria BC, in February 2020.

Will and Ariel Durant’s The Story of Civilization (eleven volumes 1935-1975, original planned length five volumes, at the authors’ deaths thirteen volumes were planned) was as famous in its day as Sapiens, Sex at Dawn, or Twelve Rules for Life but represents much more work. It is an ambitious attempt to cover the story of “the west” and if you can find a copy it has some beautiful prose. But when they planned their project, they fell into a trap that people are still throwing themselves into today.

That first volume covers the Near East (Ur III to the Achaemenids), South Asia (to the establishment of the Raj), China (to 1935), and Japan (to 1935). Greece (volume II) ends with the Sack of Corinth by the Romans, Rome (III) ends with Constantine, then a single big volume for a thousand years of Latin Christendom (IV), Italy (V) ends in 1576, Germany (VI) gets the reformation, then its on to the Northern Renaissance (which the Durants call the Age of Reason, volume VII), three on the Enlightenment and one on the age of Napoleon (XI). That is a fine List of Places and Times that We Think Were Pretty Cool, but what determines who is in this list and who is out? And I know of at least three contradictory theories, each of which includes people most people who use this term don’t want to include.[1]
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Too Many People for the Land, or Too Much Land for the King?

Herodotus’ Cyrus (9.122.3) said that soft lands birth softies. I don’t think he was thinking of Tirol! Looking west at the Alps south of Innsbruck, September 2019.

A very popular story today explains that when people learn agriculture, they quickly breed to fill the landscape and got hungrier and hungrier until a war or a plague came. In this view, peasant life was a zero-sum game and shaped by the scarcity of land and the ability of those who claimed it to squeeze resources from those who worked it: there just was not enough land for everyone to have enough to eat, and if a village cleared woods or turned hillsides into rice paddies and harvested four bushels where they used to harvest three, before too long there would be four villagers where there used to be three and they would all be hungry again. This has been strengthened by archaeologists studying the first farmers and people working in poor countries since 1945, but the core idea goes back to the Reverend Thomas Malthus in 1834 and to early population historians who saw that every 200 years the population of England was high and wages were low until disaster drastically reduced the population and a period of low population and high wages began. This story is a good match for part of the historical record, but people who look at other parts tell other stories.
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Be Careful with Rein Taagepera’s Lists of Largest Empires

A map of Eurasia and Africa with biomes and ancient and medieval states marked
Isn’t this a cool map? The places where states which controlled at least a million square kilometers before 1800 were founded, from Turchin, “A Theory for the Formation of Large Empires.” Look how many there are in North China and Southwest Asia, and how few in Southeast Asia or Europe! (Although part of that is the fact that we treat the long history of the Byzantine and Roman empires as one thing, but each Mongol or Chinese dynasty as different)

After a chat with T. Greer of The Scholar’s Stage, I read an interesting article by Peter Turchin called “A theory for formation of large empires” (2009). He is curious whether other world regions show the same pattern as China of empires beginning in the steppe or in the neighbouring farmland not the richest and safest agricultural districts. As he says, a lot of research focuses on the decline and disintegration of empires, not so much how a single king can come to rule millions or tens of millions of people in the first place: why do some empires last centuries when most fall to pieces within decades?

Turchin catalogued 64 states until the year 1800 CE with an area of at least a million square kilometers, and found that “over 90% of historical mega-empires were located next to or within the Old World arid zone extending from the Sahara desert to the Gobi desert” (which is a slightly different claim than the one about steppe frontiers, but never mind). When I read his list, one line popped out at me:

A table with statistics on empires including Assyria, Media, Achaemenid Persian, Alexander's (Hellenistic), Seleucid, and Parthia

The table lists a Median empire with 2.8 million square kilometers in -585 (which is 586 BCE in Julian astronomical years with a year 0, but I think he means 585 BCE). That would have been as large as Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan combined. And the trouble is that such an empire probably did not exist, and if it did exist we don’t know its area.

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Big Data in World History: Seshat vs. DRH

Ancient historians have been in the big open data business for almost 200 years, with Mommsen’s establishment of the Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum to publish all surviving ancient Latin inscriptions in 1853. Right now there are two competing projects to create an encyclopedia of quantitative data on world religious history which could be subjected to statistical tests: the Database of Religious History at UBC, and Peter Turchin’s Seshat project in the USA. Turchin belongs to a Russian tradition of social scientists such as Andrey Vitalievich Korotayev who want to find predictive, mathematical laws of history, often in the forms of cycles. A recent paper based on Seshat data has provoked not one but two responses only six weeks after publication.

  • Harvey Whitehouse et al., “Complex Societies Precede Moralizing Gods Throughout World History,” Nature 568 (20 March 2019) pp. 226-229
  • Edward Slingerland et al., “Historians Respond to Whitehouse et al. (2019), ‘Complex Societies Precede Moralizing Gods Throughout World History'”, PsyArXiv Preprints, 2 May 2019
  • Bret Beheim, Quentin Atkinson (yes, that Atkinson), et al., “Corrected analyses show that moralizing gods precede complex societies but serious data concerns remain,” PsyArXiv Preprints, 2 May 2019

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The Rise and Fall and Rise and Fall of Cities

My visits to Heuneburg and Haithabu/Hedeby reminded me that I don’t know enough about one of the great puzzles in world history: why cities spread so slowly, with frequent retreats and abandonments. There were towns in the Balkans before the Indo-Europeans came, but it was almost the year 1,000 before there was a single town on the Baltic, and that was burned and abandoned. Why did it take 5,000 years for cities to spread from Mesopotamia to Denmark, when other innovations spread in a few centuries? And why did many societies which once had prosperous cities give them up?
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