Tuesday, September 27, 2016

The Brothers Gracchi by Extra History

A few weeks back I gushed about how much great history stuff there is on the Internet nowadays, and how great this is for all us amateur history buffs.

The Extra History Youtube series is a perfect example of this.  Since I stumbled across it a couple months back, I have been loving this series.

If you haven't come across Extra History yet, you're in for a real treat:

For example, their animated history on Early Christian Schisms--absolutely fascinating.  (If you're wondering why a history series is diving into Christian schisms, it's because they take the same view that Paul Freedman takes in his history lectures on the later Roman Empire--it is impossible to understand the history of this period without understanding the religious quarrels that people were constantly fighting over during this time.)

Likewise, their history on Justinian and Theodora is also absolutely fascinating.  (History nerd that I am, I only recently learned that there was a time when Eastern Roman Empire had briefly reconquered Italy after the fall of Rome.  Again, I found this out through Paul Freedman's lectures.  But Paul Freedman didn't go into a lot of detail.  These Extra History youtube episodes give you a lot more interesting details about what the situation in Italy was like after the fall of Rome.)
And their series on the Crusades--again, absolutely fascinating.  (Every school child knows that the Crusades happened, but I never realized how bizarre the whole thing was until watching these videos.  These videos do an excellent job of breaking down step by step exactly how the crusades went down.)

And their video on the England South Sea Bubble is superb and so eerily modern.  The tale of corrupt bankers knowingly selling junk bonds and getting so greedy that they caused the whole national economy to crash is something that sounds a lot like recent events.  (I had known something about the South Sea Company crisis from This Sceptred Isle, but I had never known about it in so much detail, and these folks at Extra History take the time to go into the delicious detail.)

And their series on the first Opium War was also fascinating.

And I also loved the series on the beginning of World War I.  These guys go into such great detail on breaking down exactly all the bad decisions that lead to the War.

Their series on World War II is also really interesting.  (In my review of The World at War, I made the observation that I was struck by how much of World War II was a war for the control of oil.  From this I reasoned that we shouldn't out of hand dismiss the idea that modern wars are also motivated by the control of oil.  The folks at Extra History also emphasize how much of World War II was a fight over natural resources such as oil.)

So all of those series are great, and I recommend all of them.

But when the folks at Extra History did a series on the Gracchi Brothers, I thought I'd dedicate a whole blog post to how interesting I thought it was.

Purely the sake of self-indulgence of course.  I don't have anything new or intelligent to say about the video, or the Gracchi Brothers themselves.  I just want to talk about how I've always been interested in this period of Roman History

I'm going to do this in the form of bullet points--just listing of stray observations and stray reminisces:

stray observations and stray reminisces

* One of the reasons I'm dedicating a whole blog post to this is that the last 100 years of the Roman Republic has always been one of my pet interests.  (I've - mentioned  - this  - several  - times before on this blog).  The turmoil of the Gracchi Brothers is commonly seen as the beginning of this period.

* I hate to admit it, but most of my historical knowledge about this period comes from historical fiction.  Specifically Colleen McCullough's excellent The Masters of Rome series.
Colleen McCullough doesn't cover the Gracchi brothers--she starts her series just after the Gracchi Brothers, with the rise of Gaius Marius.
I've always thought it was a shame Colleen McCullough didn't start her series 50 years earlier with the Gracchi Brothers (as I've said before on this blog).  Nevertheless, her characters make frequent references back to the Gracchi Brothers throughout the series.  It is very apparent in the first couple books that all the turmoil that is happening is going on in the shadow of the Gracchi Brothers legacy.  And in the later books the granddaughter of Tiberius Gracchus, Fulvia (W), becomes a major character.
Robert Harris also refers back to the Gracchi legacy in his fictional novel about Cicero--Imperium.  (There's a scene where Cicero and his colleagues use the precedent created by Tiberius Gracchus to vote a political opponent out of office).

* I was chatting about this youtube series with a co-worker, and he recommended to me Dan Carlin's podcast series Death Throes of the Republic.  I had never heard of Dan Carlin before, but apparently I'm behind the times, because a bit of googling reveals he's extremely popular with history nerds everywhere.
My friend loaned me his copy of the Death Throes of the Republic series, and I'm loving it.  I'll be coming back with a separate review of that.

* Actually from Dan Carlin's podcast (review coming in the future) I learned something I had never realized before.  The Marcus Livius Drusus (W) who was the conservative opponent of Gaius Gracchus was the father of Marcus Livius Drusus (W) who was the liberal social reformer.  Interesting how different the politics of father and son were.
I know about Marcus Livius Drusus the younger because he was a major character in the first two books of Colleen McCullough's Master of Rome series.  Marcus Livius Drusus the younger was a campaigner to give Roman citizenship to the Italian allies, and he was eventually assassinated because of his work in this cause.
In the Extra History video series above, you can see that his father was the person who thwarted the exact same issue when it was brought up by Gaius Gracchus.
Dan Carlin points out the irony of this in the podcast.
(Update--Through an Internet search, I just realized that Colleen McCullough does address this issue in her books.  I've just come across a passage where the political legacy of Marcus Livius Drusus's father is addressed--LINK HERE.  This is just one of those little details I've forgotten in the 20 plus years since I read those books.  I'm probably long overdue for a re-read of this whole series if I can ever track those books down again.)

* I do have to admit, though, I am somewhat ashamed of how much of my knowledge of this period comes from historical fiction.  What kind of history geek do I think I am?  Inspired both by this series, and by Dan Carlin's podcasts, I've been trying recently to go to some of the original ancient sources for this period.  I've been trying to read The Civil Wars by Appian of Alexandria--if I ever finish it, I'll put up a book review on this blog.

* If you look at the Youtube comments for the video series, there's an interesting little debate going on.
The first video in the series sets the scene for the Gracchi brothers reforms by describing how the Roman rich were gobbling up more and more of the land and squeezing out the Roman middle class. The video further describes how the Roman Republic was in a crisis because the Republican institutions couldn't survive the demolition of its middle class.
Naturally, most of the people in the comments section were writing things like: "Oh wow!  This is so much like America today!"
Then, other people started accusing the video makers of editorializing the history.
Comments like this one:

guys, the parallels here with the usa are clearly done on purpose. It doesn't mean that your a genius if you saw it, it just means your not stupid
I've got to say, however, now that I've been reading Appian of Alexandria, it looks like a lot of the editorializing comes straight from the ancient sources.  In his brilliant account of this period, Appian does clearly lay out how the Roman rich were indeed squeezing the Roman middle class out of existence, and that this was resulting in a crisis.
I encourage everyone to read Appian for themselves and see how he frames the issue--LINK HERE.

* Both Dan Carlin and the Extra History video series above mention the irony of the Italian citizenship issue.  The Gracchi Brothers were champions of the Roman poor people, but they lost the support of the Roman poor when they tried to extend citizenship to the Italians.  (Marcus Livius Drusus the younger would have the same problem 50 years later).
The Roman poor and the disenfranchised Italians should have been natural allies--they were both getting screwed over by the Roman aristocracy.  But the Roman poor, miserable though they were, could at least look down on someone--they had citizenship, and the Italians didn't.  If citizenship were given to the Italians, then the Roman poor would have no one to look down on.
Both Dan Carlin and the Extra History video series hint that the aristocracy encouraged this feeling of resentment to prevent the Roman poor from uniting with the Italians.
It seems very similar to the way some politicians today encourage the American poor to resent the immigrants and ethnic minorities.

* Although the question hasn't come up in years, in my younger days I used to get asked occasionally why I had different views than the conservative community I grew up in.  (For example here).
 When I was in high school, reading about this period in Roman history was a big factor in my own political evolution from conservative to liberal.
I grew up in a community closely associated with the religious right, and during the 80s and 90s the Republican Party complained a lot about lazy poor people on welfare.  When I was 12, 13, 14, 15, 16 I identified with this rhetoric--even though I wasn't a taxpayer at the time, I absorbed the rhetoric, and I resented all the lazy poor people who were taking money away from decent hard working folk.
I started to change my views at about 17 or 18 and reading about Roman history was a big factor in that change.
I began to get the sense that throughout history, the poor were always being screwed over by the rich. This caused me to want to do what little I could to try to make it so future historians wouldn't say the same about our time.
I also started to realize that although the issues always seem very complicated at the time, with the benefit of historical hindsight, historians always seemed to take the side of the poor people.  (Even though the Gracchi Brothers were demonized by their political opponents during their own time, they've been remembered as heroes by the subsequent generations).
This caused me to think that when future historians wrote about our own era, those on the right side of history would be those working on the side of the poor.
I decided that, given the choice between either an overly generous welfare system or an overly harsh system, I wanted to support he overly generous system.  I'd rather have some people abuse the system than have some poor people left in need.
I mention this not to say that this was the correct way to view things, but just to say that this was my thinking at the time--this is what helped to jar me out of a Republican Party view of the world.  I now realize that this was an oversimplification of the issue--young people are probably prone to these type of oversimplifications--but it set me off down a certain course nonetheless.
Some 20 years later, I'm ashamed to say I've done very little to advance the causes that I chose to identify with, but examining my failures as a political activist will have to be another subject for another post.

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