On the wall of my study is an 1829 map that I bought in a book store in Boulder, Colorado a few years back showing north America. Mexico, newly independent from Spain, still ruled Texas and California. But what a modern viewer might find shocking is that Alaska is part of Russia. And not just the Alaska you know today. But a territory ruled by the Russian tsar that extended right down to Oregon.
You may be familiar with the Louisiana Purchase that saw the United States buy a huge chunk of territory from Montana to Louisiana from the French government in 1803 that doubled the size of the U.S. But less well known is the Alaska Purchase of 1867. That saw what we now call Alaska bought from the Russian Empire.
In the previous decade, Russia had lost the Crimean War against France, Britain and the Ottoman Empire (ruled from what is now Istanbul). That had been a war provoked by Russian imperial aggression. But having been defeated, Tsar Alexander II decided he couldn’t commit resources to defending this far off province. At the same time, he didn’t want Britain to grab it – as they already ruled Canada. So – he sold Alaska to the United States. Hence that strange part of the U.S. detached from the rest of the nation.
The price was crazily cheap at way less than a dollar a mile. Thirty years later the Russians would kick themselves as the Klondike Gold Rush overwhelmed the state in the 1890s. Over a hundred thousand prospectors would descend to get rich quick. Russia had to watch helplessly wondering why it had let that mineral-rich land go at a rock bottom price.
They’re still sore today. And there have been concerns voiced in recent years about growing Russian encroachment. As the ice cap melts and new waterways are created, Arctic and Native American communities have noted an increasing Russian naval presence. If you spin the globe northwards and look down at the balance of power in the Arctic as a region, it is massively tilted towards Putin and Russia. That’s in terms of deep water ports, airfields and ice breakers.
Maybe Putin has the same 1829 map on his study wall and every so often glances at it with a malevolent leer. Worryingly, it doesn’t seem improbable!
It may seem implausible but there was a group of ancient Greeks who became Buddhist. So how did this happen? Well, you have to go back to Alexander the Great’s conquest of just about everything from Macedonia to the river Indus. His Greek phalanxes proved unstoppable as they bulldozed their way through the Persian Empire and into India.
Ancient Greeks in modern Afghanistan and Pakistan
It’s tempting to think that once Alexander died and his empire fragmented, anything left in India would have fizzled away pretty quickly. So isolated from the beating heart of Hellenism thousands of miles away, how would a Greek polity have survived? The answer is that over the centuries that followed Alexander’s death, the faraway Greeks evolved a culture that blended ancient Greece and ancient India.
Alexander’s empire fragments
Once the huge Macedonian empire had lost its charismatic leader, Alexander, it broke up into several empires. The Seleucid Empire covered modern Iran and the Levant. the Ptolemaic empire was centred on Egypt and would last for three hundred years until Cleopatra committed suicide and the Romans took over. Out in what is now Afghanistan, Pakistan and western India – the Greco-Indian kingdom of Bactria emerged.
Soon-to-be Buddhist Ancient Greeks get cut off from Europe
Bactria was linked to the Greek world by the neighbouring Seleucid empire for a while until that was forced into a westwards retreat after defeats by Indian armies to the right and Ptolemaic forces to the left. So, the ancient Greeks out east effectively found themselves detached from the Hellenic world. And a man called Diodotus, who had previously ruled on behalf of the Seleucids as a “satrap”, declared Bactria to be an independent Greek kingdom.
And the Bactrians weren’t living in fear of their lives – as I used to assume. Quite the contrary, at times they extended their kingdom back deep into India. In fact, they got further than Alexander. And two important things happened during the second and third centuries BC. The Bactrians influenced Indian art and they adopted Buddhism. Plus the Hellenic influence reached its high point in the region. For example, representations of the Indian gods and of the Buddha point to heavy Greek cultural input.
Greeks made the Chinese terracotta army?
The Bactrians also extended their reach towards China. It’s possible that the first contact between Europeans and the Chinese was facilitated by these Indo-Greeks. It’s certainly not beyond the realms of feasibility. Look at a map and you’ll see what I mean. What is however open to question is the claim that Bactrian sculptors and artists could have helped the first Chinese emperor create the famous Terracotta army.
Could have happened….but needless to say, modern China thinks otherwise.
It’s been conjectured that the philosophy of the Cynics exercised a huge influence on Christianity in the Levant. But the Cynics and other branches of Greek philosophy could also have helped shape Buddhist theology. And of course Greek thinkers might have absorbed Buddhist precepts so the intellectual traffic went in both directions.
Even the physical depiction of the Buddha shows the Greek love of the human form. Something that was avoided by many pious people in the east. Like the Romans, the Greeks also had a syncretic approach to religion – they mixed their Gods with local deities. So, the Buddha may have taken a de-personalised entity and given it a human body, possibly modelled on Apollo or one of the deified Bactrian kings.
I love this kind of historical mash-up of cultures.
Mainly because it blows apart the lazy assumption that ‘cultures’ develop in some kind of pure, hermetically sealed bubble. The idea that ancient Greeks and Mauryan Indians were not just warring against each other but exchanging ideas should be a lesson to our own time.
This melding of cultures is evidenced by my own collection of Bactrian coins with the one depicted below showing the Bactrian king with a Greek wording on one side and then the local Indian dialect on the other side of the coin.
Hollywood has tackled many historical themes over the last hundred years with mixed results. From the Oscar laden 1959 classic Ben Hur to the almost unwatchable Enemy at the Gates. Let’s have a look at the movies that got it terribly wrong – the history movie turkeys!
HISTORY MOVIE TURKEYS: Alexander (2004)
Gosh, how can you make the story of a young Greek king who conquered the world utterly tedious? Well, take about US$155m and bore your audience to tears.
The worst thing about this movie was the total lack of empathy that Alexander exuded. I couldn’t give a damn about poor old Colin Farrell and his peroxide-blonde locks charging round the Middle East.
Unsurprisingly, this turkey was nominated for six Golden Raspberry Awards in 2005. The notorious Razzies! Poor Oliver Stone set about a Director’s Cut and a “Final Unrated Cut”. But in the end of the day, when the source material is as unwatchable as this – just stop cutting.
One critic called it an “excruciating disaster for the ages”. Quite!
HISTORY MOVIE TURKEYS: Enemy at the Gates (2001)
Seriously, let the enemy in!
Anything to put this movie out of its misery. I remember going to see this at a west London cinema in 2001 and I was just so furious. The Battle of Stalingrad is truly one of the most gripping and appalling conflicts of World War Two. How can you wrong with this?
The casting for me was the big no-no. Jude Law as Soviet farm worker turned Red Army super-sniper Vasily Zaytsev – I didn’t buy it. And I like Jude Law normally. But this was not his part. Thankfully he went on to showcase his undoubted talent in better movies.
HISTORY MOVIE TURKEYS: Braveheart (1995)
OK – here’s the thing. I have to make a confession. When it came out, like most people, I enjoyed this movie. Unlike Alexander or Enemy at the Gates, which I detested from five minutes after the opening credits, Braveheart was a good romp.
But over the years, the varnish has worn off. The historical inaccuracies and the heavy-handed and cartoonish portrayal of the English. And I’m half-Irish (which is part of the reason I did like it to start with). It’s now completely unwatchable.
HISTORY MOVIE TURKEYS: King Arthur(2004)
When I was a teenager, I saw the amazing John Boorman directed movie Excalibur – released in 1981. It was a slightly trippy, hallucinogenic take on the Arthurian legend. But then if you read the medieval tales, they are pretty out there.
Then along clunks this turkey proclaiming that it’s a “realistic” version of the story. I went with nothing except trepidation to view this movie. All my worst fears were realised in a film that plods drearily to a leaden conclusion.
By the way – King Arthur was a Roman soldier. Yeah – it’s a fact apparently…
HISTORY MOVIE TURKEYS: Gone with the Wind (1939)
OK – I’m being a bit provocative now. 1939 has been called the greatest year in Hollywood history. The studios churned out some of the great movies ever that year. And Gone with the Wind was, for many decades, in real terms the biggest grossing movie of all time.
But – it’s overlong, ponderous and a bit racist. It’s based on a book that glorified the Confederacy presenting it as some kind of long lost chivalrous civilisation. And I’m afraid it’s symptomatic of a long Hollywood tradition of getting it wrong on race.
More than anything though – rather like Liz Taylor in the 1963 mega-turkey Cleopatra – it’s just too much and not satisfying enough. I know 99% of you will heartily disagree. But I’ve never been able to sit through this to the bitter end. And I’m a big fan of vintage movies.
Women have had a tough time breaking through in history. Up against societies where men were told they ruled the roots – women had had to exercise power against all odds. Sometimes behind the scenes and other times up front.
But when women have managed to get to the top in history – they’ve been demonised or subjected to myth making and invented scandals. In short, women in history have been the subject of fake news. And the image we have of many famous female historical figures is entirely from the poison pens of male historians of the time.
WOMEN IN HISTORY: Catherine the Great
Oh, you must have heard how Catherine the Great of Russia died. The horse. The harness that broke. How it fell on top of her. What she was trying to do at the time with the horse.
I’ve heard that tale for decades going back to university. The myth that one of Russia’s most powerful historical rulers was killed when she attempted to have equine intercourse. The story, folks, is total bunkum – nonsense – 100% tripe.
But myths like this about great women persist. If anything, with social media they are reviving and spreading more than ever. This maliciously amusing lie about Catherine the Great is believed to have originated in France among catty royal courtiers who wanted to mock Russia’s ambition to be a world power. How better to do that than denigrate the late female tsar.
WOMEN IN HISTORY: The Empress Livia – wife of Augustus
Women in history have always been the subject of the most resilient myths. Ambitious, clever females have been systematically rubbished by male chroniclers. The Roman Empire is a good example. Take the wife of the first emperor Augustus. Livia was the mother of the people and brainy consort of her husband the emperor. But she was also cast as a serial poisoner.
The historian Tacitus accused her of framing and being complicit in the murder of some of her rivals. The very bitchy Roman writer Suetonius echoed these claims.
And then Cassius Dio, a very respected Roman source, went as far as to claim that she ended up murdering Augustus by smearing poison on figs she knew he would eat. These accusations were all repeated in the 20th century novel I, Claudiusby Robert Graves, later made into an excellent BBC TV drama in the 1970s.
Why would Livia have poisoned as many people as these historians claimed? Because it’s alleged she was clearing a path for her son Tiberius to become the second emperor. There is no evidence whatsoever to support an association between Livia and about twenty deaths attributed to her. Yet, the crimes have stuck like glue damaging her reputation down the centuries.
WOMEN IN HISTORY: Roman female politicians
Roman women clearly exercised very real power and got trashed for doing so. The mother of Nero, Agrippina the Younger, was accused of poisoning her husband the emperor Claudius (who was also her uncle).
And then there’s the wife of Mark Antony – not Cleopatra, but a lesser known woman called Fulvia. She was hated by the great Roman orator Cicero who spoke out against her on several occasions. One unsubstantiated account has her receiving his head after he was executed for treason and piercing his tongue with her gold hairpins.
WOMEN IN HISTORY: Lucrezia Borgia
Fast forward to Italy during the Renaissance and we have the scandalous history of Lucrezia Borgia. The first shocking fact – true as it happens – is that she was the daughter of Pope Alexander VI. Yes, you read that correctly. The pope had a daughter. And other children. Pope Alexander indeed freely admitted to having fathered several kids from his mistresses.
His reputation has been undermined as a result with his family, the Borgias, painted as corrupt and libertine. But at the time, Pope Alexander was deemed to have been one of the most cultured and successful popes in history.
One of his children, Cesare Borgia, was an ambitious statesman who was the inspiration for Machiavelli’s book The Prince. While Lucrezia was also a very talented political operator but she was cast as …. yet another serial poisoner.
Women who murdered were normally expected to use poison. The idea being that they were too physically weak to resort to something more physical. And drugging also revealed underhand feminine guile and cunning. So, the gossip went, Lucrezia concealed poison in her ring that she slipped into her victims’ drinks.
The stories about the Borgias holding orgies and having incest spread from two very hostile sources. One was the growing Protestant faith, which viewed the early 16th century Vatican as a corrupt Babylon of vice and depravity. The other source was the radical preacher Girolamo Savonarola who accused Pope Alexander of being in league with the devil. His repeated denunciations of the papacy led to him being burned to death in 1498.
WOMEN IN HISTORY: Anne Boleyn
I’ll finish with Anne Boleyn – the second wife of Henry VIII – beheaded when she was unable to bear her king a son. Anne was ambitious but no more so than any other woman of her rank.
She was just better and brighter when it came to getting what she wanted. In the end, she paid with her head with charges trumped up against her that were clearly over the top. Incest with her brother being one calumny thrown at her.
And in addition, Catholic propagandists – who disliked the Protestant Anne – spread the entirely false rumour that she had a sixth finger on her right hand. Obviously a sign of being a witch! Anne’s remains were exhumed in the 19th century and there was no sign of an extra digit!
As you can see, being a woman in history has been tough – let’s hope it’s getting easier from here on in!