The Transsexual Emperor: Elagabalus, Topoi and Gender in Rome

A contemporary depiction of Elegabalus. Kind of weird to see a Roman Emperor look younger than you, right?

A contemporary depiction of Elegabalus. Kind of weird to see a Roman Emperor look younger than you, right?

The history of marginalised people can be pretty difficult to write. More often than not, it’s a challenge just to prove they existed: you’d be forgiven for thinking there were no black people in Europe before mass immigration in the 1950s, no homosexual love before the gay subculture of the 1900s, no desire for men and women to change the sex they were born with until…well, that’s something that a lot of people need persuading of today. But that kind of thinking can be pretty dangerous. The stereotypical image of traditional, parochial, white Europe has been central to the campaigns of the European Far Right and the dismissal of gay and lesbian figures in history only encourages those who think that homosexuality is an invention of some ‘permissive society’. It’s a poisonous way of thinking, and one that can only really be counteracted by paying attention to those marginalised people whenever they make it into the history books – be it as a black field marshal under Napoleon, a lesbian poet in 600BC, or a cross-dressing Chinese girl in the 640s who defeats the Hu…wait, that’s the plot of Mulan, but to be fair that’s a fantastic Chinese legend anyway. And so, in this spirit, we get to the life of Elagabalus. A teenaged Roman Emperor of the 3rd century AD, Elagabalus – or Heliogabalus, if you’re feeling Greek about it, or Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, if you’re feeling official – is probably one of the most interesting characters of his era. The young princeps was a foreign ruler in control of the Roman Empire at its height, and as politically divisive as the lovechild of Thatcher and Chavez. He was a devout sun-worshipper, openly denying the existence of the Roman gods. But most unusually for a Roman Emperor, Elagabalus was also transsexual – biologically male but identifying and behaving as a young woman. That alone carries amazingly important implications for the history of gender and our modern ideas about transsexuality. But the truth is always…complicated. The sources on Elagabalus’ life are far from perfect and Elagabalus’ gender has become the subject of hot debate. But the life of Elagabalus is undoubtedly an important one in understanding how we approach gender and historical fact in the ancient world. And in any case – the story of Rome’s teenage, foreign, sun-worshipping, lion-taming head of state is far too interesting to miss.


We’re talking LATE Principate here. This is an artists’s impression of Canterbury, which was basically the sticks at that point.

It would probably help to start with some context on the world into which Elagabalus came to power. The princeps was head of a Roman Empire pretty far removed from the relative peace and prosperity of the swords-and-sandals affair you might associate with Augustus, Antoninus and Asterix – by the beginning of the 3rd century AD, the empire was in turmoil, and it would remain so for Elagabalus’ entire reign. One of the key reasons for this was the sort of vicious circle of economic and military disasters: the army wants better pay, so it installs a new emperor, but the violent civil war stops people working on the fields and in the mines so there’s not enough money to even pay off the army, which, don’t you know, wants better pay. I’m sure you get the idea, but it got to the point that, through civil wars and backstabbing bodyguards, entire families were discredited and killed off (Sidenote: for the love of god, Roman Emperors, pay your bodyguards – the Romans assassinated a higher proportion of their rulers than any other polity to date). This extraordinary turnover, for want of a better term, may help to explain how, in the summer of AD 218, control of the empire was given to a fourteen-year old Syrian: the supposed son of the former emperor Caracalla. Elagabalus was one of the only surviving legitimate heirs. Then again, I suppose having a huge, loyal army and one of the era’s best politicians for a grandmother didn’t hurt. Despite this apparent support, though, Elagabalus wasn’t exactly typical Imperial stock. He wasn’t the first emperor from outside Italy – that’s either Claudius, Roman but born in Lyons, or El’s ancestor Septimius Severus, from a family of Italian-African nobles – but Syria was seen as distinctly foreign to the Roman elite. He was also a devotee and High Priest of El-Gabal – which is how he got his distinctive name. This association can’t have helped Elagabalus’ ‘foreigner’ image: for a start, it led him to reject all of the traditional Roman gods and his traditional duties as head of the Imperial Cult. On top of that, ‘El’ is such a generic Middle Eastern word for God you see it in not only Aramaic (hence Isra-el), but also Hebrew (hence el-ohim) and Arabic (hence Allah, or el-lah – kind of messy, but to be fair ancient Arabic didn’t have vowels). Admittedly, Rome would later be won over by monotheism from the East – by 274, the more West-friendly cult of Sol Incivtus and by 313, Christianity – but El’s open devotion to his god went down a lot worse than, say, Constantine’s more approachable henotheism. Elagabalus was also…well, just young. It was his grandmother Julia Maesa, who went to the Senate in his place and in a lot of ways ruled for him, which to a group of old men (because let’s not forget, America, that the word Senate literally means ‘Old Men’) was highly controversial. And like countless other young emperors, from Nero to Domitian to Joffrey Baratheon, Elagabalus seems to have developed a particularly cruel streak: his favourite prank was supposedly to move guests at his parties into bedrooms filled with tame lions and watch them freak out before they realised they were actually safe. This outrage, however, would scarcely match that which surrounded Elagabalus’ gender.

Another image of Elagabalus - but this one from 1888. Spot the Orientalism in 3..2.1..

Another image of Elagabalus – but this one from 1888. Spot the Orientalism in 3..2.1..

In modern terms, Elagabalus’ behaviour would probably be interpreted as transsexual, or at least genderfluid. El dressed like an emperor in public but assumed a completely female persona in private: demanding to be addressed as ‘Lady’ and not ‘Lord’, wearing make-up and women’s clothing, even perfecting a traditional ‘womanly’ manner of speaking. He arranged to marry his male lover Heirocles, and in the ceremony was referred to as Heirocles’ wife. When excused from imperial duty, El took up traditionally female tasks – like spinning wool, in particular, was typical Roman ‘good virtuous woman’ fare – and spent a good deal of his time around other women in the imperial court. Most interestingly of all, the majority of the sources on the life of Elagabalus state that the princeps wished he could have a procedure closely resembling a modern sex-change. (Cassius Dio 80.16.7, if you’re interested) He is even accused of castrating himself in one of the sources on account of his femininity, although this is denied by others. But here we reach the issue with an otherwise convincing argument for Elegabalus’ transsexuality. It’s this disagreement and bias in the only literary sources we have on Elagabalus’ life which makes it so hard to know anything for certain. It’s all too easy to cherry-pick evidence for historical facts based on our own modern ideas – but there’s as much conclusive evidence that the emperor asked to be referred to as ‘Lady’, for example, as there is that he sacrificed children or chose ministers based on the size of their cock. It’s only our modern perspective that makes one of those believable and two unlikely. The sources are hardly reliable in any case, coming mainly from one writer (Cassius Dio) who worked for Elagabalus’ rival and one source (the Historia Augusta) which many consider to be an exaggeration or even a parody of other writers’ work. There are other sources, from coins and from other writers, but too often they fall into the trap of topoi – the stereotypical traits that historians assign to ‘bad’ emperors. Effeminacy is one of the topoi, and one particularly associated with Syrians like Elagabalus. So are dangerous pranks and letting women rule in your place – Nero was accused of both of those. An emperor from another country in an empire on the brink of civil war? No points awarded for guessing that that gets you a lot of rivals. But the story of Elagabalus is still undoubtedly valuable. Lukas de Blois writes that behind all of the topoi lies at least an element of truth. Elagabalus may have been transsexual, but may not have been, but the fact that so much was written about it strongly suggests that writers were aware of transsexuality as a concept, albeit a hated one, some 1,800 years ago. Ultimately, there can be no definitive answer about Elagabalus’ gender. But in a way, it doesn’t matter. The fact that there’s a story alone offers some interesting evidence for the existence of transsexuality going back millennia. It’s certainly enough, for me at least, to dismiss those people who say it’s a modern invention. In the end, Elagabalus met the sort of sticky end that faced many 3rd century emperors, but also countless marginalised people throughout history – he was removed from society by his rivals, and ignominiously assassinated. He reigned for only four years, and he died when he was eighteen. Since then, his story has been reassessed and retold countless different ways, and often in ways that reflect the society which was telling the story more than his own. In the nineteenth century, during the era of empire and race theory, the focus was on his ethnicity. In the twentieth, particularly during the ‘moral panics’ of the 1920s and 1960s, the focus was on his sexuality. Now, in the twenty-first, the focus has been shifting to gender. It’s a testament to the life of Elagabalus – whether he was a tyrant, whether he was an activist, and even whether he was a she – that nearly two millennia later his experience can help us make sense of gender identity and its place in both history and the modern world. The history of the marginalised might be difficult to write, but it’s extremely important that we try.


Bromance of Two Kingdoms: Rome, China and and the Great Silk Road

Throughout the Age of Discovery – that awkward bit of history between the first Portuguese expeditions into the Atlantic in the 1420s and the last expeditions into unmapped Africa in the 1890s – Europe made a hell of a lot of debatable claims. Christopher Columbus discovered the Americas. James Cook discovered Hawaii. Willem Janzoon discovered Australia (sorry, Janzoon, I mean New Holland). One enthusiastic French explorer even claimed to have discovered Moscow, by that time a city of some 100,000 people.  You don’t need an obscure history blog to tell you not to take those claims at face value, but they’ve still managed to distort the way we see the world before the men with beards and boats did the exploring thing. They’ve still managed to create an image of a pretty much isolated world where each region was ignorant of everyone but its closest neighbours, where continents were never ever crossed and you could go on holiday to the next village and be amazed that the dirt was a slightly different shade of brown. This isn’t true. This couldn’t really be much further from true. Not only have fantastic, globe-spanning relationships existed for thousands of years, but they’ve also been really important in shaping the cultures and traditions at either end. We just weren’t always aware of the connections at the time, and modern historians are beginning to fill the gaps. So this post is about a new trend of real-life Holistic History – undeniable evidence of trade and even tourism stretching back for over two millennia. This is the story of the Silk Road (not the drugs one) and of the ancient Romano-Chinese Bromance.

Not pictured: Hopelessly lost vikings and camels.

Not pictured: Hopelessly lost vikings and camels.

The Silk Road is one of those brilliant historical names that has nothing to do with what it describes so I’m going to start by clearing a few things up. Even calling it The Silk Road could give you the wrong impression – it was actually a lumping together of unmarked trade routes, stretching as far north as The Black Sea and as far south as Indonesia. It provided the West with more than just silk, although as we’ll see that was one of the more controversial products, and it definitely wasn’t anything like a road – more like a rough route through mountains, valleys and miles of open sea. It was, with the Mediterranean at one end and the South China Sea at the other, the definitive route from East to West for at least 2300 years. Very few people would have travelled the route entirely – or, at least, not compared to the numbers that would travel on Silk Road successors like the Trans-Siberian Railway – but with a system that would remain nearly unchanged till the days of the Pony Express, particular traders and nomads would act like a relay team: a continent-spanning conveyor belt for swapping stories, silks and gradually more exotic treasure. The distances objects could travel are extraordinary: a Kashmiri metalworker, for example, could find their work sold to Turkish nomads, taken through to Arabic Syria and then onto Roman Greece before being plundered by Volga Vikings and taken up through Russia to end up somewhere near Stockholm. Oh, wait, did I say “could”? Because that totally did happen. But the Silk Road did more than move objects around – trade always seems to. It made the Middle East rich, both culturally and economically, and when Islam expanded out into the world, it followed the lines of the Silk Road almost exactly: West into the Mediterranean, East into Persia and India, South to Indonesia and East Africa. Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan tried to do the same 1600 years apart. And as I’ve talked about before, the Silk Road spread ideas and faiths as much as people and materials – that’s why there are medieval Christian churches in China; ancient Persian influences in Catholicism; statues of an East Indian prince and supposed acquaintance of Jesus Christ dotted around the landscape of China. And, to turn to a sour note before this gets very Crash Course trade also spreads pestilence and poverty like nobody’s business. It was along the routes of the Silk Road that the East Asian Ko-Ta-Wen disease spread to Europe and the Middle East. Europe called it the Black Death.

A luxury product made by Chinese slave was really the iPhone of its day.

A luxury product made by Chinese slave workers…silk was really the iPhone of its day.

But all this has been fairly well-known throughout the history of…well, history. The interesting question – and the one that we’ve been unable to answer until recently – is how much the people at each end of the road knew about each other. The relay system was great, especially for the Arabic and Parthian middle men, but it did mean there was no need for direct contact between distant places like Ancient China and Rome. But now there’s evidence to change that idea. While we’re not talking Julius Caesar and Wu of Han meeting in Isfahan for coffee, their empires – the far East and West of the Silk Road – were definitely aware of each other. Moreover, they were both fascinated by the possibility of an equally expansive empire halfway around the world. Of course, the information they received about each other wasn’t always accurate: The Silk Road was quick to turn into a very literal game of Chinese Whispers. What each civilisation got wrong, however, is interesting in itself – sometimes funny, sometimes fascinating – and if there’s a better example of connection and communication in the ancient world, I don’t know where to find it.

The Roman name for Western China was Serica, the “land of Silk”, and that name makes a lot of sense: China’s most luxurious export to Rome was silk, because China fiercely protected the secret of where it came from for about 3,000 years in a copyright battle that would put even Youtube to shame. The new material fascinated the Romans – it became a craze in women’s clothing and there are still hilarious accounts of flustered old Roman men complaining that almost see-through dresses were bringing on the downfall of civilisation. During the reign of Aurelian, the price of silk reached its peak – almost the silk’s weight in gold. This fuelled a lot of interest in the semi-mythical Serica, and Roman scholars were sometimes surprisingly right when describing China. Ptolemy, 1st century author of the enormous work Geographia,  more or less correctly describes the locations of trading cities like Chang’an and Guangzhou from Parthian accounts, and guesses that Serica controls the furthest East coast of the Asian continent. Pliny the Elder, despite being one of the most prolific bullshitters in history, knew that silk was combed out of trees and that the region was all one huge kingdom and even describes a typical Serican as “mild in character” compared to the Romans, setting up 2,000 years of “hot-headed Italian” jokes in the process. More interesting, though, are the assumptions the Romans made about their Eastern trading partners. They assumed, for one, that the Indian Ocean was almost entirely surrounded by land like the Mediterranean, and that Serica controlled that southern coast, pretty much projecting the geography of the Roman Empire onto another more distant model. They also assumed the Seres were tall and blond thanks to their experiences with Caucasian barbarians like the Scythians and Germans. But they never took into account that China might be any larger or more powerful than they were. Rome’s central position in the Mediterranean, the general consensus was that the Mediterranean must be the centre of the world, with the Romans controlling all but the kingdoms to the East and the sea to the West. Serica couldn’t be as large as Rome because there simply wasn’t room on the edge of the world. In fact, China was, for as long as Rome existed, larger and more populous. But they were just as fascinated with Romans as Romans were with them.

That's an...odd looking Roman you've got there, China.

That’s an…odd looking Roman you’ve got there, China.

If Rome’s obsession with was mostly economic, China’s obsession with Rome was very different, and surprisingly spiritual. They called the empire “Da Qin” – Great China – and believed it to be a sort of Tao-style counterbalance at the other end of the world – an empire just as great, powerful and virtuous as that of the Han, if not more so. To put it another way, Rome’s China was an exotic and foreign land whereas China’s Rome was like a better version of China. As such, accounts of Da Qin should be taken with a pinch of salt, because they’re part history and part Imperial propaganda made to inspire China to improve itself, but still they get a lot of things right. Yu Huan, 3rd century author of The Peoples of the West, describes a detailed and a journey from Parthia to the city of Rome with accurate travelling times, and describes the precarious Roman custom of getting rid of crap emperors by force. He describes the “minor kings” who rule the provinces, the empire’s walled capital at the mouth of a river, even the curious western script they write in. He describes the unique Roman goods that are traded in place of silk – pure glass, which could not be made in China, as well as more exotic things like rhinoceros horn, “fire-washed cloth” (early asbestos) and the “poison-proof rat” (mongoose). There is evidence of utopian propaganda getting into the work, of course – Yu Huan describes the roads as devoid of bandits and criminals, emphasises the similarities between the Romans and Chinese above all else, and even reports that the westerners claim to be Chinese people who left to make a better society. He also lists one of Rome’s primary exports as dragons. But it’s still a piece of compelling evidence of China’s knowledge of Rome, alongside countless others like the travelogues of Gan Ying and the drawings of Da Qin-ese leaders in authentic Roman mitres. There are even stories of Roman envoys to China, but that seems to be as far as the legend spreads. For all the accounts of Roman ambassadors arriving in China, there are none of them being sent by Rome.

Holistic History’s all-time favourite historian Fernand Braudel once called Europe “an Asian peninsula”, and it’s easy to see why. For all the arguments that globalisation and international trade are modern ideas, huge swaths of the world’s largest landmass have been thoroughly connected for the most part of human civilisation (Don’t worry, Africa, I haven’t forgotten you, you were totally connected too). It’s a connection that’s affected everyone involved, whether it made your ancestors rich or cultured or inspired them to be a better person or just annoyed the hell out of their stodgy Roman sensibilities. Not only have we always been a little bit globalised, we’ve often been immediately aware of the world around us and totally fascinated by the cultures and history that surrounds us. I, for one, hope that never changes.

All Roads Lead to Roma: A Very Gypsy History


Romantic Art: Making stereotypes look good.

There are few groups who have been so romanticised and so reviled over the course of history as those travellers of Europe and the Near East, the Gypsies. The Romani – to use the more accurate and polite term, because they’re not actually from Egypt – have been the subject of so many stereotypes and stories counting them would be impossible. They have also been alienated and persecuted to within an inch of their existence: even now, there are people who see them as nothing more than thieves, cons and scroungers. It is a belief that has existed as long as they have lived in Europe. But underneath that Daily Mail surface exists a monolithic, ancient culture. Their coming to be in Europe isn’t simple, but it’s interesting. Their story isn’t wholly happy, but it’s important. And it starts with a question.

“Where the hell did the Romani come from?!?” is, like all the best questions on Holistic History, almost impossible to answer. The Romani, like a lot of travelling cultures, have a distinct lack of written history until they get to Europe, which is not entirely hard to understand: before paper and the widespread use of vellum the only option was to write things on metal or stone. For travellers like the Romani, unless you want to go carving your messages on rocks and then leaving them behind like it’s prehistoric Twitter, this makes it difficult to take your past with you. Nevertheless, we do know some things about the origins of the Romani: recent genetic evidence suggests that they’re from Rajasthan in India, for start, so the current theory is that they migrated up through Persia to avoid…well, you know, the foreign guys who happened to be conquering Rajasthan in India at the time. So far, so much common sense. On their journeys around the Middle East, they split into three groups named Dom, Lom and Rom based on…well, based on which was the more convenient to pronounce in the places they settled, and the Romani made their first marks on western history. Reaching Europe in the 11th century, the Rom started to settle in the declining Roman Empire (they clearly liked the similar sounding name) and then Romania (see what I mean?) and by the 16th they had reached as far as Britain and Scandinavia – although they remained in the highest proportions in south-eastern Europe for minor reasons like slavery and oppression. But we’ll get to that. By the full height of the Renaissance, there were Romani in most of the kingdoms of Europe, and even further – Columbus brought three Roms with him to the New World, the first few of another continental migration. By the Enlightenment, their origin didn’t really matter – they had spread through almost every country in Europe. The burning question, then, became how to keep a consistent cultural identity across a whole continent.


The Romani get expelled from Spain in 1554. In the same decade, a law passes in England making being a Gypsy an actual crime.

I’m not saying that there’s one, completely unified Romani culture – there are several million Sinti, Kale, Roma and Romanichal who might have something to say about that and I am desperate to not offend the Sinti when they have names as awesome as Django Reinhardt. However, there is a sort of cultural consistency amongst Romani groups – it’s called Romanipen, in case you feel this article needed a few more words beginning in Rom. Like those other famous exiles in Europe, the Jews, Romani culture was upheld through the Middle Ages by observing a series of laws and codes instead of a shared language and land. It still has influence today. The general theme is purity – virginity is traditionally upheld as the greatest virtue, and some Roms will not take baths to avoid stagnant water, only washing in showers or natural running water. Ever the communitarians, the Romani also traditionally use shunning and shame to uphold customs, which manifests itself today in fantastic phrases like “May shame eat your face”. Tradition and even religion vary massively over Europe – the northern Romani are generally more influenced by Evangelical Christianity, the southern by Islam and Catholicism, but the so-called Romani Code influences all. In the end, it’s that success at keeping a culture going that can make the Romani remain a distinct culture while so many other immigrants of their time seem to have assimilated completely. Unfortunately, that outsider aspect came at a cost. Europe was a dangerous place for exiles, and none seemed more dangerous to the rulers of Europe than the dark-skinned and mysterious Romani.  In the end, it would cost them over a million lives.

You can say the Romani got off to a bad start in Europe because enslavement by Romanians is generally considered as a bad start as you can get. Tied to the land in a status even below serfs, the Romani were kept in large numbers in Eastern Europe as farm labourers. Elsewhere, they were forced into an almost nomadic lifestyle by Western European leaders who frequently banished them (banishing being apparently a thing they could do on a whim – Elizabeth I of England banished all the black people from London in 1601 only to give up when no-one turned themselves in). That constant travelling eventually became an important part of Romani culture, but it also made them newcomers and strangers wherever they went. The Enlightenment, based on principles of “tolerance” and humanitarianism, saw a change in attitudes. The Romani were suddenly seen as poor backwards immigrants in need of naturalisation, to the extent that the Austrian Empress Maria Therese decreed that they should be renamed “New Hungarians” and forced to fit the Hungarians’ nomad-to-settler mould. Communism, when it reached Eastern Europe, did much the same, offering jobs to Romani people that had previously been denied at the cost of abandoning their traditional communities, but in non-Communist Europe they retained the role they had always had on the outskirts of society. It’s then that they fell foul of a theme of history. Every action has its reaction, each enlightenment its reactionaries. Many were led to believe that the Romani were going to be outsiders forever, and a drain on society for just as long. In 1933, some of those people came into power.


Gypsies gathered in a concentration camp.

It’s difficult to translate “Porajmos” into English. It’s a Romani word that means something like “The Devouring”, but even that doesn’t quite cover it – the best would probably just be “The Romani Holocaust”. Labelled by the Nazis as “asocials”, the people who didn’t quite fit the Nazi vision of society, the Romani were taken to concentration camps and then death camps and systematically murdered: first those from Germany, then France and Italy and Romania  and Bulgaria. Let me list some of the countries with the highest Romani populations. Germany. France. Italy, Romania, Bulgaria. The death toll was between 200,000 and 1,200,000, and probably to the higher end – destroyed records mean only 200,000 can be confirmed. If you can find a way to visualise that, tell me.


Real sign; real attitudes.

Today, safe from the genocide of the past but not entirely healed by it, the Romani are undergoing a social revolution. Record numbers now live in permanent residences, and secular education is improving alongside assimilation. But the struggle to retain a cultural identity within that, while definitely possible, seems more difficult year on year, and Maria Theresa’s dream of getting rid of all that is Gypsy through assimilation could one day come true. The persecution of the Romani, at the risk of getting too political, is far from over.  Forced relocations are still common in Romania, France and Italy; segregated classrooms for Romani students mean that 75% of Romani girls cannot read. Infant mortality is on average ten times higher just for being in a Rom community, and the issue of employers refusing Romani workers from the UK to Greece is currently being reviewed by the EU.

About 1,000 years ago, the first Romani arrived in Europe.

At what point will they stop seeming like outcasts?




The Greatest Gap Year Ever: The Travels of Ibn Battuta

A Hajj – you got to look good when you’re this holy.

You get a lot of talk nowadays about living a connected world. We’re connected by social networking and connected by globalisation and connected by a shared fear of how exactly how much of our Internet history the American government can find out. Connectivity is a good thing (I’d say “We’re better connected” but I’m not really a fan of shameless advertising unless it gets me free texts) but everyone bands it about like it’s a totally new thing. As if the people 100, even 500 years before us wouldn’t go as far as to leave their little villages to see if the beer really was sweeter over in the next hamlet. In this post, I’m going to try and disprove that idea by foraying into one of my rare (but fun!) articles about one person’s life. It’s usually difficult to get a sense of the holistic with a biography, but with this guy…well, you’ll see. Because the person I’m going to talk about was, for about 400 years, the most well-travelled man in existence. In fact, would be right up until the 1800s, when steamships and railroads made his journeys possible in less than a lifetime. This is a guy who crossed three continents and four seas, saw the Mongol Empire at its peak and Constantinople in its final days.  He saw every great holy site of Islam and met everyone who was anyone in an extraordinary world of sultans, khans and imams. His name, to use the heavily shortened version, was Muhammad Ibn Battuta. And his story is the best testament to a connected, global history that you’re ever going to find.

To concur: One lifetime. One freaking lifetime.

Ibn Battuta was born in Tangier in 1304 – Tangier’s that pointy northern bit of Morocco and pretty much as far west as you can get without crossing the Atlantic. He was a devout Sunni Muslim and a trained judge of Sharia (two misconceptions here: it’s not Sharia Law, because Sharia is Arabic for…well, law. It’s also not as evil and bigoted as the Daily Mail might have you believe and for most of the medieval era it was much fairer to women, peasants and nonbelievers than anything the Christians came up with. As ever, it’s the way it’s interpreted that can lead to the ridiculous Taliban stuff and its application to the modern world). So, at some point in 1326, Ibn Battuta began his Hajj – his obligatory pilgrimage to Mecca, which would take him all across Northern Africa and along Arabia. Travelling was slow and so he stopped at famous towns, settlements, and sights along the way. But something in that awoke a travelling bug in young Muhammad, and he promised to spend the rest of his life travelling through the rest of the Muslim world – and some countries beyond it, too. In fact, he was to travel three times the distance of his contemporary Marco Polo, seeing Greece, Iran, Egypt, Arabia, even India and China, and some of Indonesia. He would go on to record stories, memories of people and places in his literary masterpiece, “A Gift to Those Who Appreciate the Wonders of Cities and the Joys of Travelling”, or, for short, “The Travels”. It’s a book that – translated and shortened, admittedly – I own myself, and it’s that which I’m going to talk about (with geeky joy, naturally) from here on.

Islamic Turkestan? Been there, done that, played the newfangled horse game.

There’s a lot to love in The Travels. It’s perfectly balanced between Ibn Battuta’s boundless enthusiasm for new things and his endless bigotry that only the Muslim things are really the best things. He’s essentially a massive geek about his religion – he goes to Egypt but states that he didn’t have time to visit the Pyramids or the Great Library of Alexandria because he was too busy looking as mosques. He goes to Jerusalem, where the Dome on the Rock is, in his words, “endowed with a plentiful share of loveliness”, while the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus (the one partially ruined in the Syrian Civil War earlier this year) is “the most exquisite in beauty, grace and consummate achievement” in the world. It’s not just the architecture he finds extraordinary – his travels through India introduce him to the rhinoceros, which he thinks has a hilariously large head but is basically, when it comes down to it, just a new sort of elephant. In Uzbekistan, he is introduced to watermelons, which in his words “have no equal in any country of the world”, and he proceeds to order melons wherever he goes. Of course, as a conservative Muslim scholar, he also looks down on the practice of everywhere and anywhere “pagan” – he can’t pass through a village in India without making reference to “idol worshippers” and in Mali, he’s shocked to fainting by the women with their chests uncovered and – even worse – without veils on their heads. By far the most adorable part (if that’s really possible for a 700-year old man) is when he finds one of his heroes, a great ascetic holy man. The man tells him that he will bless Battuta and pray to God for his one strongest wish. By this point, Ibn Battuta has been lost, robbed, abandoned and mistreated countless times across the globe. But all he can wish for is more travel. It’s that passion, that enthusiasm to see and do and feel every continent known to man, that makes The Travels such a good read. It’s not, however, the only reason to study Ibn Battuta.

Medieval Islam: Generous doesn’t even cover it.

Ibn Battuta also manages – intentionally or not – to stumble across some of the most important figures of his day. He flits between the courts of Sultans, Khans and Emperors, impressing them all with stories of travel in exchange for food and board. He finds a job working for the Sultan of Dehli, who calls himself slightly presumptuously “King of All the World”. He meets the Byzantine Emperor in his home and travels with his daughter to marry her to the Khan of the Mongols. He also meets the Emperor of freaking China. He gives one of the best impressions of the world as it was at that time – from his point of view, a huge Muslim expanse of bazaars, mosques and traders, covering a route called the Silk Road that ran all the way from Constantinople to China. The Silk Road was for about 1000 years the most important road in the world. He sees Indian Ocean trading at its height and how the same spices can be grown in the Maldives to be sold in markets in Mecca. He sees the devastating effect of the Black Death as it crosses the steppes of Asia to infect Europe and the Middle East, returning at one point to his home town to see it ruined and half-empty from the plague. But everywhere he goes, he sees faith and goods and kings and peasants who wouldn’t look that out of place in his home in Morocco. He goes to China and meets Muslim families willing to take him in. He goes to Indonesia and sees the same dried fish and nuts that he saw sold 10,000 miles away across the Indian Ocean and the same silk he saw in the Silk Road. To paraphrase the man himself, he went to the land of the Christians, but the girls were still pretty. That is the legacy of Ibn Battuta – of connectivity all across the world centuries before the telephone and the internet. And, of course, of travelling for the love of it, without knowing where to go but liking where you end up. So there you have it – Ibn Battuta, proprietor of possibly the best gap year in history and one of the few people who might actually have had a girl in every port (seriously…90 wives, following an odd custom to marry your daughters to important-sounding guests). He’s not likeable but he’s loveable, a slightly stuffy old cleric with an admirable taste for travel in a world that’s all at once varied and familiar. You don’t have to like him but his legacy – of travel, and of interconnectivity – is one you should never forget.

Istanbul (not Constantinople): The Rise and Fall of Europe’s First Metropolis

west anatolia

In West Anatolia, born and raised, in an empire was where it spent most of its days.

Ask someone today about the best city in the world, and you’ll get a real mixed bag of responses. “Tokyo – it’s so massive” “Paris – it’s so romantic” “New York – it’s so famous” “The City of London – it’s so poorly defined, autonomous and confusing”. But ask anyone from between the years of 330AD and 1600AD – that’s 1300 years, for God’s sake – and I promise you you’d only get one answer: “Constantinople” Well, OK, more like one answer with a thousand different names: “Constantinopolis” “Byzantion” “Qostantiniyye” “Istanbul” and that’s just the people who actually lived there. My point is that there’s never been a place that’s been as important to world history for as long as that metropolis on the Bosphorous, never been a city that’s seen quite as much variety, influence, prestige and…well, life. It was the last bastion of the Roman Empire; it was the last house of the last Caliph. It was the centre of a xenophobic and violent Empire, it was the centre of culture and trade and tolerance for the best part of two millennia. It spans two continents and 6,500 square miles. This is the story of Istanbul.

I know I always seem to start these by saying that “there have been people in [place] longer than there’s been [thing] in [place where thing has been for a long time]”, but there’s no better way of describing Istanbul’s early history than saying that there have been people in Istanbul longer than there has been a freaking RIVER in Istanbul. Ice Age, Stone Age, Bronze Age, Iron Age, Istanbul survived it all by using the tried-and-tested technique of “If we don’t do anything notable, maybe nobody will notice us”.  It was as good a mantra as any, but not nearly interesting enough for the first group of invaders to roll in, the Ancient Greeks. Their mantra was more “Live fast, die young, invent western civilisation, but go down in history as gay philosophers” and they brought with them their shiny new invention: The City.


Constantine – not so Great that he could pick up a whole castle, but pretty Great nonetheless.

The Greeks weren’t really a civilisation as much as an alliance – a collection of independent city states who only pretended to be one country to scare off the Persians – and that seemed to suit Byzantion (the first incarnation of Istanbul) quite well. It could be the wild northern colony to the sunshine-and-democracy southern Greeks, famed for its rapey kings and impressive citadel. It allied with the southerners when it needed to, became independent when it needed to, and slowly became an important city. But even then, no-one would have guessed how great it would eventually become to its next invaders. The Romans were so powerful by the time they got to Greece that Byzantion’s response to a Roman request for subjugation was along the lines of “Yeah, go on then, it’s not like we wanted a thriving metropolis anyway”. The next 400 years saw the Roman Empire rise and fall around them – something about a system where poison is easily accessible and marriage councillors are not made imperial politics chaotic and ever-changing – as its central position in the empire made it a trading hub for the whole Mediterranean. It was then, in 330AD, that it was thrust into the centre of Roman politics. It was then that a Roman Emperor finally calmed the chaos that had filled his nation and, in a rush of reforms that did everything from punish traitors to change the Empire’s official religion to Christianity, he had decided to make Byzantion his capital. The Emperor’s name was Constantine the Great. He was the man who put the Constantine into Constantinople.

Roman luck seemed to get worse after Constantine but the newly-Christened Constantinople’s didn’t. A schism with the Pope left Christianity in turmoil but created a new form of the religion with its base in Constantinople – the Orthodoxy.  The fall of the Western Roman Empire allowed “Barbarians” to take control of everything from Britain to Lombardy, but the Empire’s survival in the East (which was now being called Byzantium, much to the annoyance of the people who lived there – as you might expect, the people who lived there just called it the Roman Empire) left Constantinople with a flood of refugees, salvaged texts, military equipment. The Eastern Roman Empire was powerful, huge and…I can tell already that you’re bracing yourself for a fall. I know this bit, you’re thinking, the Roman Empire falls and the Dark Ages engulfs Europe. So tough luck. No dark ages in Greece, no Saxons and Vikings (OK, some vikings, but not the normal sort), no poverty and illiteracy in Constantine’s neighborhood. No, the Eastern Roman Empire survived until 1453.

silk road

This Silk Road, of course, only sold *some* drugs.

While you’re pondering the weird fact that Henry VIII almost coincided with the Ancient Romans, I should probably explain that the ERE wasn’t exactly Ancient roman by that point. They spoke Medieval Greek, they were completely and devoutly Christian and they had past 500 years getting progressively smaller and more backward. Less togas, more goats. Less Caesar, more salad. By 1453, in fact, the Roman Empire was nothing more than Constantinople itself, having been eaten away by some Muslims, originally from Turkmenistan, who were calling themselves the Turkmen or Turks. The city took a long, long time to fall – it had become pretty much the centre of all European trade, not to mention the most prestigious stop on the Silk Road, a transcontinental trade route that did more for European wealth than Adam Smith, Christopher Columbus and the EU put together. But when it did, it went straight from one empire to another – straight into the hands of the Ottoman Turks who would go on to conquer the entire Middle East and give their rulers over the ridiculous nicknames like “Suleiman the Magnificent” “Mehmed the Affable” and, my personal favourite, “Abdulmecid the Advocate of Reorganization”. The city began to be known by its Turkish name, Qostantinyye, but in true local style everyone referred to it by another name. This time, it became Istanbul.

west anatolia

The city today. Ish. Everything’s relative on Holistic History.

Istanbul grew massively under the Ottomans because…well, everywhere did, because the world was inventing medicines and better ways to produce food and tactics to avoid going to war every five minutes because your brother wants the a go on the throne. But with that Istanbul began to fall behind – the Ottoman empire’s weird system of government (probably worth a Holistic History entry in itself) didn’t value the future, the progress that cities like London and Brussels and New York saw in the Industrial Revolution. The Ottoman Empire’s decision to side with the Axis Powers in World War One (“Allies…Axis…no, Allies definitely sounds more evil, right Sultan?”) was the last straw for the Empire and left the city in the unstable hands of republican Turkey. Turkey quickly brushed itself off, became a minor 20th century power and even made friends with some of the countries that they used to own, but the glory days of Istanbul were long gone. It was no longer the international city and, to quote the Jimmy Kennedy/They Might Be Giants song that the title was taken from, it became “nobody’s business but the Turks”.

Tsars and Strikes, Part 2: Cossacks to Comrades

So, where we last left off (about 1584, if you’re interested), Russia was looking successful, if a little oppressed. Powerful, expansive, but under the iron rule of an oppressive autocrat (oh god, feel like I’m talking about the USSR already), the Russian Empire was fully prepared to stretch east into the steppes of Asia and create the largest land empire since…well, since the empire of their Mongol oppressors. The Renaissance had arrived in full force and culture was flourishing across the brand new nation as huge, holy onion-things were built alongside grand imperial palaces and the ruins of everywhere that stood in the Empire’s way. Things were looking good, for the emperor at least…until the Poles got involved.


Congratulations! Your POLAND evolved into POLAND-LITHUANIA!

Poland and Russia have never been on good terms, but their relationship is perhaps a little less one-sided than you’d think. For years before they got involved in Russia, the Polish had dominated everything East of the Holy Roman Empire – bashing pagans in the Baltic, inheriting duchies around Belarus, actually resisting the Mongols unlike so many of their neighbours – and were often called an empire in their own right. And because of their myriad disagreements with Russia – Catholic vs. Orthodox, Feudal vs. Autocratic, Poland should own Russia vs. Russia should own Russia – they were constantly looking for ways to bring down their eastern cousin. The death of Ivan the Terrible and the crowning of Feodor I, a Tsar whose mental disabilities made him much more interested in ringing church bells and playing with clowns than ruling, they saw their perfect chance to strike. The result was the Time of Troubles, an era that cost Russia a third of its population through famine, chaos and war with Poland. Eastern European nobles launched almost constant campaigns against the Tsardom, each claiming to be Ivan IV’s long lost son and each bringing with them huge hired armies that tore up and oppressed the country like the lovechild of the Mongols and the Oprichnina. This would have killed many a nation. But Russia found its salvation in its mercantile past.


The main benefit of the Russian Enlightenment for the serfs was, of course, looking at the elite class being all fancy in their new coats.

For a nation built from trade routes, it seems fitting that it should be saved by a group of merchants. Under the leadership of a butcher and a prince (surely the first mismatched crime fighting duo in history) the Russian monarchy reasserted themselves, this time under the control of the Romanov family, who would be the second and last ruling dynasty of the empire. This time around, things were a little different in the empire – in came the Enlightenment, scientific Northern European sister to the Renaissance, which brought with it a wave of science, technology and philosophy that would change next-to everything about European life. And just as the Renaissance was embraced by Ivan the Terrible, the Enlightenment was embraced by Peter the Great, first of the Romanovs, rationalist and reformer extraordinaire. While a great deal of his “progressive” actions look strange in hindsight – he had a vendetta against that so old-fashioned of institutions, the beard, and so enforced shaving across the empire – he brought the technology Russia needed to remain a world power, from military technology that would win Russia yet more land in Europe to the administrative system that could keep it there. 40 years later, Russia (under Catherine the Great, who is unfortunately more famous for having sex with the original Casanova than the extraordinary feat of being a successful and mostly benevolent autocrat in a world of imperious men) would swallow its old enemy Poland in the West, even colonise Alaska in the East. Things were clearly good in Russia. But a new storm was coming, and this one would create more social change than the Renaissance and the Enlightenment put together.

The Industrial Revolution was made for some countries. The British Empire had huge amounts of coal to power factories, and a strong democratic and capitalist system that encouraged profitable new technology. France had an upper class of revolutionary thinkers and philosophers and a working class of urban, literate craftsmen. But Russia still had an absolute regime based on a tiny enlightened elite and a huge peasant class of rural and illiterate workers, one that even still operated under the serf system that had been created by everyone’s favourite despot some two centuries before. Industrial Revolution did not come and class unrest rose as more people questioned Russia’s status – huge but backwards, it still seemed like the Renaissance remnant of a 15th century reshuffle, with a bit more Siberia and a few less beards. It goes without saying that this unrest, this resistance to move with the times, would lead to…well, not nice things in the long term. Russia made progress, of course, and by abolishing serfdom in 1861 it almost started the Russian Industrial Revolution overnight, but the tensions of an increasingly urban working class only increased. They had only gone from slaves to wage slaves, in their eyes, and now they weren’t even guaranteed land to work on. To them, Russia needed an end to the class system that had been established in the old Grand Duchies, and in a world without any elected officials, any working or middle class representation, the seeds of revolution were already sewn.


The one thing that united the revolutionary groups was an appreciation of how freaking terrible the Tsar was.

In 1917, it all sort of happened at once. Three movements emerged at once in opposition to the incompetence of the Tsar and his outdated system: peasant revolts, parliamentary opposition and worker’s revolts. They all wanted the system that would work best for them – the peasants generally wanted a system of very, very local government where land belonged to everyone; parliament wanted an intensely liberal and tolerant society with parliament in charge, the workers wanted something weird and Western called Communism. You can guess who won. That’s right, parliament. Seriously. For a few short months after the Tsar abdicated, Russia was run by an amazingly liberal, free-press-and-free-speech loving parliament. But Russia hasn’t got a good record on liberal movements. The army still wanted peace, the workers still wanted bread, the peasants still wanted land. Eventually, a small communist party, once discredited for their anti-war, autocratic views, made promises that appealed to all three parties. Their motto was “Peace, Bread, Land”. And their leader was Vladimir Lenin.  The new Soviet Republic – so named for the districts called Soviets or self-governing communes that it divided the country into – survived, Lenin (somewhat ironically) using all the same techniques Ivan the Terrible had used to create his empire 500 years previously – secret policemen; brutal treatment of political enemies; terrible, terrible choice of heir. For all the progress of the Russian Enlightenment, it was returned to a system of autocracy and corruption. The main difference was that anyone in Russia could rise through the ranks do do the oppressing. For many, that wad the best that they could hope for.

Communist RussiaIn the end, Russia was left – along with the other states in the USSR – in the same rut it was in under the Ivans: oppressed by an autocrat, at constant war, and, most ironically of all, with laws that tied the peasants to their farmland. It’s definitely worth a Holistic History of its own someday. Now, of course, communism has fallen, but the transition has led millions into poverty with little to no financial assistance and there’s talk of whether the new system is democratic at all. Even now, it seems Ivan, Peter, Katerina’s legacy of control and aristocracy lives on. Maybe it always will.

Tsars and Strikes, Part 1: Russian History, from Kiev to the Stroganoffs

Russian history is all about the big, the expansive and the powerful. The Russian Federation – modern Russia, that is – could fit 180 United Kingdoms within its borders, or almost two USAs, and before you dismiss that statistic as “mostly freezing wasteland”, bear in mind that Russia’s population is the 8th largest in the world (143 million, if you’re interested) and you sure as hell can’t support that on snow cones and fir tree bark. You have to admit that Russia is a bit of a behemoth and the history of how it reached that size and gravity – picking up their own alphabet, branch of Christianity, language and culture along the way – is going to be pretty damn important. It’s the story of an infighting city-state-come-transcontinental empire-come-eastern-bloc-superpower-come-whatever-the-hell-it-is-today, a country that survived not only the harsh weather of inland Europe and Asia, but invasions from the largest empires and the smallest microbes that killed off many lesser nations. And it all starts in the surprisingly Russian town of Kiev.

Vladimir Rurikovich, desperately trying to look like a Roman Emperor like so many of his successors.

Vladimir Rurikovich, desperately trying to look like a Roman Emperor.


Let’s get this straight before we begin– Kiev isn’t actually in Russia. It’s in Ukraine, so it might strike you as odd that it’s the hometown of the Russian language and its very first ever-so-slightly-mental royal family, the Rurikoviches. The Rurikoviches weren’t Kievan themselves – no-one really knows where they were from, because they claimed to be Slovenian, Kievan and – just for good measure – Vikings, but they were good fighters who made a home in Kiev and created (through war, obviously, because peace was about as common in 9th century Russia as a McDonalds in their 20th century counterpart) the first incarnation of Russia as we know it – The Kievan Rus. The Rus soon became a real trading power, sending boats down the Dnieper and Volga rivers to the Black Sea and, eventually, the Mediterranean, so it’s probably no surprise that the main influences on their culture came from the south – the Cyrillic alphabet, for example, from sunny Bulgaria, and the Orthodox Christian Faith from the Greeks. At the same time,  all the trade gave the various Rurikovich princes the power and means to stretch their shiny new ideas through the pagan north, founding cities like Moscow and Novgorod, which are going to get pretty damn important. But, like a compass near a bored kid and a magnet, North and South were in for a drastic change. Because racing across the steppes was their greatest enemy to date.

The Rus continued with reasonable success for 500 years. Then it was destroyed almost completely in 7. Their crime was nothing more than being in the way of the mighty Golden Horde, a group of Mongols from the Asian steppes intent on carving a continuous land empire from Finland to Korea (hint: they did, and it was bloody amazing). You might think you’ve heard that story before: Huge Empire conquers foreign land, huge empire forces religion and culture onto land, land valiantly resists and eventually topples new regime/gets crushed and forgotten forever. If you did think that, you’ve never heard of the Mongols before – for a start, they were nomads, and about as interested in cities as the city-dwelling Russians were in sleeping in a yak-skin tent. They were perfectly content to live on the outskirts and accept taxes from the Russians. Secondly, they converted to Islam, which has a pretty interesting clause saying that religion is “not an act of compulsion” – in short, you can’t forcibly convert people to your beliefs. They allowed the Russian Orthodox Church to continue practicing in the cities and towns, and a religion that would otherwise of died down was permitted to continue with all the power (and most of the wealth) it had seen before.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t perfect.


For the Mongols, “hitting the town” usually meant “hitting the town with arrows and then burning it to the ground”

The Mongols were, at heart, raiders and in areas where their presence was heaviest (modern-day Ukraine, where the Rus was founded) the raids were worst. Only city states which completely sucked up to the Mongols were safe, and that boiled down to pretty much two: Moscow and Novgorod. This changed the shape of Russia forever, as people who figured they didn’t like the sound of pillage and rape (there’s a reason Genghis Khan had so many descendants. This is way after his time though) moved to the northern cities for safety. Once the Golden Horde crumbled into fractured Khanagates intent on reclaiming their cultural hegemony and also burning each other’s stuff, it only accelerated. By the late 1400s, only our two favourite northern metropolises had any chance of taking Russia back. That’s when things get interesting.

Ivan III, “the Great” became Grand Duke of Moscow (a little grandiose, but just run with it) at a time when the Khanagates really needed the Grand Duke to be meek, boring and unambitious. The nickname alone should show you how well that worked out. Ivan managed to  unite the northern Russian lands under Muscovite (that’s fancy wording for Moscow-ish) control in a series of wars that can be summarised as “Beat up Novgorod” and “Kill the other Rurikoviches”. Once that had been done, he allied himself with every goddamn enemy the Mongols had and managed to free the southern Rus too. As if that wasn’t enough, because his reign coincided with the fall of the Eastern Roman Empire (1453 and yes, the Romans did last that long…sort of), he decided it was his duty to become the new Roman Emperor, and named himself Caesar (well, the Russian version: Tsar) of all Russia and Moscow the “Third Rome”. Congratulations, Ivan the Great. Military success extraordinary. But your modesty needs work.


Ivan the Terrible. Thank god Russia avoided any more angry despots with an all-powerful secret police…

A few years later, his grandson Ivan IV came to power. And you might be a little more aware of his nickname. He was called “The Terrible”. See, Ivan set himself a simple task – amass the military strength and money needed to destroy literally all the Khanagates, cement his power as Emperor of Russia, ensure that the throne passed to his descendants only and set up a secret cavalry police force to destroy anyone who tried to stop him. Oh, and the police force have to carry around dog’s heads and brooms everywhere. Because…well, why the fuck shouldn’t they? He was actually pretty successful, and Russia grew massively. His taste for Renaissance splendour (furs, fine timber and venison) even encouraged enterprising families like the Stroganoffs to take their first steps east into Siberia. Here’s a spoiler. They got pretty far east.  But it came at a price. See, armies need food and supplies, but food and supplies can’t be provided in bulk by free peasants growing what sells for the most money. So Ivan brought in a system that lived up to his name. He tied the peasants to their land, creating serfs who were executed if they ran even to the next rural settlement. Serfdom would dominate the next 200 years, creating a perpetually poor, unhappy rural working class. The descendants of those farmers would become the driving force behind social change in Russia and, eventually, the backbone of its revolution.