In 410 AD, (to the surprise of many readers) Rome was no longer the capital of the Western division of the Roman Empire. That had moved twice and was now in Ravenna. However Rome still stood as a historical figure head of greatness and its citizens lived in comparative luxury. But the Roman empire, though diminished, existed at that time because of a failed bargain the empire made with its neighbors the Visigoths. Beset by a number of enemies wanting to pick its bones, and not having sufficient trained Roman soldiers for its legions, Rome made a deal with the Visigoths. If they would join the Roman army to defend the empire, they would be paid in land where they could live in peace and return to their agrarian ways.
The problem was, the empire was in no position to actually keep such promises. Today we euphemistically refer to vaporware promises from the government as “unfunded liabilities” and do not even count them in our debt or deficit columns because we know we can never really repay them. But the Visigoths, under their King Alaric, was not so sanguine about such broken promises – he had an increasingly restless people to feed and lead. And if the Romans would not keep their word then the solution was simple, go and take what you were promised and destroy Rome to let the world know the cost of lying to them.
So on August 24, 410 Alaric broke through the meager defenses, ransacked the city for every sort of goodies from food to gold, killed as many Romans of all ages as possible, and left the city in shambles , smoke, and blood. And then, like a good little barbarian, he had done as he said he would, destroyed Rome, so took his warriors and people and loot and went away leaving Rome in a completely unrecoverable state.
Now you would think that we modern, educated humans, after 1600 years to absorb and learn the lessons about Rome’s degeneration and fall, would have committed ourselves to not repeating that. Apparently we have not or we would not have the debt and deficit (what we admit we owe and cannot pay), not to mention the unfunded liabilities, that face us today in a time of crisis when we cannot afford to buy many of the medical materials our pandemic is needing.
But history, seems to have understood that such lessons are difficult for humans and their short attention spans, and so the fall of Rome, was not the end of the story; there is more to it… more lessons to take from which we might learn something, and it involves the remainder of the Roman Empire, the eastern branch with its capital in Constantinople, renamed (from Byzantium) by the first Christian emperor, Constantine.
The city became a fitting follow up to Rome with its luxury and wealth of goods and goodies for its people. But across the Adriatic Sea, in what is now modern Turkey, attention was increasingly focused on them as the gateway to the riches of Europe for traders from the far east. They had already captured lands further west, but this pesky critical port city was REALLY in the way.
So, 1,040 years after Alaric, in the 1450s, the Ottoman Sultan, Mehmed (Mehmet) II, known as “the Conqueror,” determined to capture the city and make it an Islamic capital. Equally determined not to let that happen, was the then current emperor, Constantine XI. After all, his incredible fortifications with 60 foot wide walls and terraces was considered by virtually everyone (with the exception of Mehmed) to be impregnable. He only had about 7,000 defenders but in most minds, even those were considered superfluous due to the strength of the walls. So, “Relax” the people were told, no one can breach these defenses.
Mehmed was only 21 but a scholar of warfare. He had relied on gunpower to take walled cities in the past by way of his large collection of bronze field pieces. He knew however, that his existing cannon arsenal would not put a dent in the fortifications around Constantinople, so he decided, in a somewhat logical fashion, that what he actually needed was simple – not more cannons but bigger cannons. A LOT bigger.
So at his direction, a Hungarian cannon maker named Orban, created a giant cannon. Named “Basilic” this cannon was about 25 feet long and could hurl a 1,200 pound ball of stone or marble, over a mile. It took 60 oxen and 400 men to move it into place and then reposition it after every shot since the recoil was astonishing. The bad news was that the cannon balls were scarce and hard to make, plus the heat was so great it had to be cooled with olive oil between shots and though it could be reloaded in about three hours once cool enough to not crack or ignite the gunpowder charge during loading, it could not safely be fired more than three times in a day. The cannon ball, as you might imagine, did some considerable damage, but it was so long between shots that repair work could be done between volleys which could restore most but not all of the damage. However, over time, it was indeed chipping away at the fortifications and being anywhere near it when it fired would have to be a sobering, possibly terrifying experience. Combined with other cannonade being poured onto the city, the defenders had to be starting to worry.
But here is where the story gets fascinating from our perspective. As Mehmed gathered his vastly superior forces for an assault on the weakened fortification, several chroniclers of the siege tell a strange tale of the city leaders’ response. A number of myths and legends grew up around the improbable fall of this impregnable city. Many were apocryphal, some metaphorical in spinning a yarn that “Stood in” for actual events, but given the religious fervor of the day and competing religious schools of thought (as the Roman Catholic Church and Greek Orthodox Church were vying for supremacy, all vying to be the single source for approved dogma), this one makes some sense.
The story is that the elders of the City, including statesmen, priests from all faiths, general political, military, and religious leaders, were locked and totally obsessed with finding an answer to a truly critical and oh-so-relevant-to-the-siege question: “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin (or needle)?”
According to this story, while wall defenders were begging for reinforcements and help, the leaders in a position to help them were totally focused on answering this “reductio ad absurdum” question and had no time for such secular and mundane issues as, oh say, an enemy at the gate.
To be fair, Mehmed had more and better trained troops plus his cannons, and Constantine XI himself was killed defending the walls during the final push by the Ottoman forces. But whether the story is 100% accurate or not it does seem 100% relevant to me for what is happening to us in our country even while I’m writing this.
Why is it relevant? Well, this country has a real enemy at the gates. It’s not a typical enemy dropped in to invade and occupy the country in a real-world “Red Dawn” scenario. There are no real enemy soldiers prowling the streets. There are no hordes of lead and copper projectiles filling the air, each marked “To Whom it May Concern.” Instead there are tiny aerosol droplets from coughs, sneezes, just breathing of infected people, that can linger on things – surfaces, clothing, etc, — for days and still transmit the virus known as Covid-19 to any human that manages to get one of them sucked into the nasal passages or eyes or mouth where it will attach to the mucous lining and happily proliferate, migrating down into the lungs where it will do its dead-level best to kill you. This is an enemy too small to be seen except through a microscope, but if your immune system is not strong, it can kill you as certainly as any well aimed bullet but in a far grimmer manner.
So why is this like the debates in Constantinople when the Ottomans were breaking down the walls? Because our so-called leadership; in fact much of the citizenry as well, is totally focused on an equally idiotic debate over political personalities. Rather than come together to find common ground to deal with this insidious enemy, we are completely high centered in our partisan fiefdoms and tribes, arguing whether the President is a spawn of the devil and probably created and propagated this disease on his own out of rampant uncontrollable evil or whether he is the savior sent to lead us safely through this disaster to the glorious other side. On one side of leadership we have a man who believes himself to be a “stable genius” and by his own claims, knows better about science than scientists, knows more about nuclear issues than physicists, knows more about military strategists than professional military strategists, knows more about medical issues than medical experts who have devoted a life to it, yet was unable to run a school dedicated to the one thing he seems to have any real experience in, and yet who speaks with the skill and vocabulary of a “C” level middle school student. Engaging in that debate, as stupidly as the citizenry, are our erstwhile political leaders trying to use the crisis to, as Senator Clyborn noted, restructure things to their own liking. Opposed to the president, nearly perfectly matched, are those despicably doing everything possible to create dependencies in the people to guarantee their grasp on power. They are better spoken and have at least grasped the essentials of Machiavelli but are as unfit to lead us anywhere as the president they despise.
Need proof? A simple bill to provide relief to individuals and companies who are suffering as our economy is shut down and stalled while we try to isolate people and slow the transmission of the virus, could not sail through without major partisan grandstanding and attempted insertions of such irrelevant expenditures as money for the Lincoln Arts Center, fuel efficiency Standards for airplanes, total amnesty for all illegal aliens, funding for Planned Parenthood, and a revival of the “Obamaphone” give-away.
Any or all of those might be legitimate issues to be debated on their own merit, but to end up stalling the relief effort for over a week with that collection of irrelevant issues is unpardonable and ethically reprehensible. The money involved in just the Lincoln Center demand (which did get added to the tune of $25 million) could have bought a lot of masks for first responders and ventilators for victim or helped with the effects of small businesses across the country.
In my opinion, if the story of the great debate in Constantinople is true, then they deserved to be overrun by the Ottomans and lose their city. Stupidity ought to come at a price. And if we can do no better than continue to haggle over political personalities and labels and partisan narratives while the pandemic continues to spread, then perhaps we too deserve to have it wipe us out. I don’t think that level of stupidity deserves to go on any longer.
We were once the country that put a man on the moon with 60’s vintage technology in under 10 years. We were once the country that asked what we could do for our country not what it could do for us. We were the country that could put petty issues aside and rise to the call both individually and industrially to defeat a truly evil ruler attempting to take over the world.
Now we seem to have degenerated into a pathetic whining mob seeking only what goodies and handouts the country is willing to give us whether we earned them or not. I think our collective reality check has just bounced and perhaps it is time for the bill collector to come collecting.
I hope not; I hope we will take a much-deserved slap in the face, sober up from a drunken spate of self-anointed victim mentalities and get it together. But I’m skeptical. I’m not seeing a single person in the position of leadership that seems ready, willing, or even able to haul us out of this grasp on self-serving dependency or blind worship of a fake genius. Not one. The emperor may have no clothes on. But neither does ANYONE in his court or congress. God help us to wake up while there are still some of us left.