The Mystery of The Minoan Civilization

The Mystery of The Minoan Civilization
Minoan Frescoe

Minoan Frescoe


The beginnings of Cretan history are locked in the darkness of the Neolothic period which ended around 2600BC. About this time, during the Aegean Bronze Age, there emerged on Crete a civilisation that became known as the Minoan Civilization. It  has been described as the earliest of its kind in Europe, a so called “the first link in the European chain”.

The Minoans represented the first advanced civilization in Europe, leaving behind massive building complexes, tools, artwork, writing systems, and a wide trading network.

The civilization was rediscovered at the beginning of the 20th century through the work of British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans. The name “Minoan” derives from the mythical King Minos and was coined by Evans, who identified the site ruins at Knossos with the legend of the labyrinth and the Minotaur.


In Greek mythology, Minos was a King of Crete, son of Zeus and Europa. Every seven years, he made King Aegeus pick seven young boys and seven young girls to be sent to the labyrinth, to be eaten by the Minotaur. After his death, Minos became a judge of the dead in the underworld.

The many rooms of the palace at Knossos were so oddly shaped and disordered to Evans that they reminded him of the labyrinth of the Minotaur. According to myth, Minos’ wife had an illicit union with a white bull, which lead to the birth of a half bull and half man, known as the Minotaur. King Minos had his court artist and inventor, Daedalus, build an inescapable labyrinth for the Minotaur to live in.

The Minoan civilization flourished on Crete and other Aegean islands such as Santorini from c. 3000 BC to c. 1450 BC until a late period of decline, finally ending around 1100 BC.

Minoan Palaces

Minoan palaces were divided into numerous zones for civic, storage, and production purposes; they also had a central, ceremonial courtyard.

The most well known and excavated architectural buildings of the Minoans were these palaces that acted as administrative centres.

Ancient Phaestos

Ancient Phaestos

When Sir Arthur Evans first excavated at Knossos, not only did he mistakenly believe he was looking at the legendary labyrinth of King Minos, he also thought he was excavating a palace. However, the small rooms and large storage vessels, and archives led researchers to believe that these palaces were administrative centers. Even so, the name became ingrained, and these large, communal buildings across Crete are known as palaces.

Although each one is unique, they share similar features and functions. The largest and oldest palace centers are at Knossos, Malia, Phaistos, and Kato Zakro.

These large and elaborate palaces were up to four stories high, featuring elaborate plumbing systems and decorated with frescoes. The most notable Minoan palace is that at Knossis, followed by that at Phaistos.

The complex at Knossos provides an example of the monumental architecture built by the Minoans. The most prominent feature on the plan is the palace’s large, central courtyard. This courtyard may have been the location of large ritual events, including bull leaping, and a similar courtyard is found in every Minoan palace centre.

Several small tripartite shrines surround the courtyard. The numerous corridors and rooms of the palace center create multiple areas for storage, meeting rooms, shrines, and workshops.

The absence of a central room and living chambers suggest the absence of a king and, instead, the presence and rule of a strong, centralized government.

The palaces also have multiple entrances that often take long paths to reach the central courtyard or a set of rooms. There are no fortification walls, although the multitude of rooms creates a protective, continuous façade. While this provides some level of fortification, it also provides structural stability for earthquakes.

Wells for light and air provide ventilation and light. The Minoans also created careful drainage systems and wells for collecting and storing water, as well as sanitation.

Their architectural columns are uniquely constructed and easily identified as Minoan. They are constructed from wood, as opposed to stone, and are tapered at the bottom. They stood on stone bases and had large, bulbous tops, now known as cushion capitals. The Minoans painted their columns bright red and the capitals were often painted black.


Minoan Frescoe

Minoan Frescoe

Because the Minoan alphabet, known as Linear A , has yet to be deciphered, scholars must rely on the culture’s visual art to provide insights into Minoan life.

The visual art – known as frescoes – discovered in locations such as Knossos and Akrotiri ,on the island of Santorini, inform us of the plant and animal life of the islands of Crete and Thera (Santorini), the common styles of clothing, and the activities the people practiced. For example, men wore kilts and loincloths. Women wore short-sleeve dresses with flounced skirts whose bodices were open to the navel, allowing their breasts to be exposed.

Vase Painting

Minoan ceramics and vase painting are uniquely stylized and are similar in artistic style to Minoan wall painting. As with Minoan frescoes, themes from nature and marine life are often depicted on their pottery. Similar earth-tone colors are used, including black, white, brown, red, and blue.

Kamares ware, a distinctive type of pottery painted in white, red, and blue over a black backdrop, is created from a fine clay. The paintings depict marine scenes, as well as abstract floral shapes, and they often include abstract lines and shapes, including spirals and waves.

Minoan Pottery

Minoan Pottery

These stylized, floral shapes include lilies, palms, papyrus , and leaves that fill the entire surface of the pot with bold designs. The pottery is named for the location where it was first found in the late nineteenth century — a cave sanctuary at Kamares, on Mount Ida. This style of pottery is found throughout the island of Crete as well in a variety of locations on the Mediterranean.

Read: The Handmade Delights of Crete

Minoan Symbols

The Double Axe

Whilst the double axe continued to retain its practical use as a forestry and hewing tool in Minoan culture, it became imbued with a special religious significance from an early stage, which can also be seen in Thracian and mainland Greek art.

For the Minoans on Crete, the symbol was especially associated with female divinities and priestesses and thus became a synonym for matriarchy. To find such an axe in the hands of a Minoan woman would therefore indicate that she held a powerful position within Minoan society.

The Minoan Double Axe

The Minoan Double Axe

Bull Leaping

Although the specifics of bull leaping remain a matter of debate, it is commonly interpreted as a ritualistic activity performed in connection with bull worship. In most cases, the leaper would literally grab a bull by his horns, which caused the bull to jerk his neck upwardly. This jerking motion gave the leaper the momentum necessary to perform somersaults and other acrobatic tricks or stunts.

Bull Leaping Frescoe

Bull Leaping Frescoe

Traders And Foreign Influence

The Minoans were primarily a mercantile people who engaged in overseas trade. After 1700 BC, their culture indicates a high degree of organization. Minoan-manufactured goods.

The Minoan period saw extensive trade between Crete, Aegean, and Mediterranean settlements, particularly the Near East. Through their traders and their artists, the Minoans’ cultural influence reached beyond Crete to the nearby Cyclades group of Greek islands, and to Egypt, Cyprus and the coasts of Turkey, Lebanon and Israel


The Minoans settled on other islands besides Crete, including the volcanic, Cycladic island of Thera (present-day Santorini). The volcano on Thera erupted in mid-second millennium BCE and destroyed the Minoan city of Akrotiri. Akrotiri was entombed by pumice and ash and since its rediscovery has been referred to as the Minoan Pompeii. The frescoes on Akrotiri were preserved by the blanketing volcanic ash.

Minoan Frescoe

Minoan Frescoe

Some of the best Minoan art is preserved here. A fresco of saffron-gatherers is well-known. The Minoans traded in saffron, which originated in the Aegean basin. According to Evans, saffron was a substantial Minoan industry and was used for dye. Other archaeologists emphasize durable trade items: ceramics, copper, tin, gold and silver. The saffron may have also had a religious significance. The saffron trade, which predated Minoan civilization, was comparable in value to that of frankincense and black pepper.

The influence of Minoan civilization is seen in Minoan handicrafts on the Greek mainland. And Connections between Egypt and Crete are prominent; Minoan ceramics are found in Egyptian cities, and the Minoans imported items, such as  papyrus ,and architectural and artistic ideas from Egypt. Egyptian hieroglyphs might even have been models for the Cretan hieroglyphs from which the Linear A and Linear B writing systems developed.

Knossos palace recreation

Knossos palace recreation


Minoan religion apparently focused on female deities, with women officiants. While historians and archaeologists are unsure of an outright matriarchy, the predominance of female figures in authoritative roles over male ones seems to indicate that Minoan society was matriarchal.


Because their language has yet to be deciphered, it is unknown what kind of government was practiced by the Minoans, though the palaces and throne rooms indicate a form of hierarchy.


Minoan men wore loincloths and kilts. Women wore robeswith short sleeves and layered, flounced skirts. The robes were open to the navel, exposing their breasts. Women could also wear a strapless, fitted bodice, and clothing patterns had symmetrical geometric designs.

Other Minoan sites

The ruins of Minoan sites are scattered across Crete. The most notable if these are at Phaistos and Agia Triada. Gortyn was also inhabitated by the Minoans but when the Romans conquered Crete they made it their capital.

Language and writing

Several writing systems dating from the Minoan period have been unearthed in Crete, the majority of which are currently undeciphered.The most well-known script is Linear A dated to between 2500 BC and 1450 BC.Linear A is the parent of the related Linear B , which encodes the earliest known forms of Greek. Several attempts to translate Linear A have been made, but consensus is lacking and Linear A is currently considered undeciphered. The language encoded by Linear A is tentatively dubbed “Minoan”. When the values of the symbols in Linear B are used in Linear A, they produce unintelligible words, and would make Minoan unrelated to any other known language. There is a belief that the Minoans used their written language primarily as an accounting tool and that even if deciphered, may offer little insight other than detailed descriptions of quantities.

Linear A is preceded by about a century by the Cretan hieroglyphs It is unknown whether the language is Minoan, and its origin is debated. Although the hieroglyphs are often associated with the Egyptians, they also indicate a relationship to Mesopotamian writings. They came into use about a century before Linear A, and were used at the same time as Linear A (18th century BC; MM II). The hieroglyphs disappeared during the 17th century BC (MM III).

The Phaistos Disc

Phaistos Disc, Rachel Blackman, Flickr Creative Commons

Phaistos Disc, Rachel Blackman, Flickr Creative Commons

The Phaistos Disc, discovered in the ruins of Phaistos in southern Crete, features a unique pictorial script. Because it is the only find of its kind, the script on the Phaistos disc remains undeciphered.

Because the Minoans primarily wrote in the undeciphered Linear A and also in undeciphered Cretan hieroglyphs, encoding a language, hypothetically labelled Minoan, has been unsuccessful. The reasons for the slow decline of the Minoan civilization, beginning around 1550 BC, are therefore unclear. Theories include Mycenaean  invasions from mainland Greece and the major volcanic eruption of the the volcano on Santorini.

Decline and The Mycenaeans

Minoan palace sites were occupied by the Mycenaeans around 1420–1375 BC. Mycenaean Greek, was written in Linear B, so we know more about the Mycenaeans who tended to adapt (rather than supplant) Minoan culture, religion and art, continuing the Minoan economic system and bureaucracy.

By Ian Cross

A Short History of Rubber

A Short History of Rubber

Tyres, Sally Butcher, Flickr Creative Commons

Originating from a tree found in the jungles of the Amazon, rubber was used in its raw form by indigenous tribes for centuries. But it wasn’t until “vulcanisation” was achieved by British and American scientists, that the commodity became truly useful. In the process it triggered a gold rush, changing the fortunes and lives of millions and the fate of nations.


In May of 1526 Andrea Navagero, the Venetian ambassador to Spain, attended an entertainment in Seville staged for the royal court. Seven years earlier, Hernán Cortés, acting without the authorization of the Spanish throne, had invaded Mexico and toppled the Triple Alliance (Aztec Empire). The king and the queen had to decide what to do with their millions of new subjects. To demonstrate the intelligence, skills, and noble demeanour of the peoples of the Triple Alliance, the antislavery faction of the Spanish church had imported a group of them from Seville. The Indians divided into teams and played a showcase version of the Mesoamerican sport of ullamaliztli, which the Venetian ambassador attended.

He was mesmerized by ullamaliztli, which he seems to have thought was a performance akin to juggling act. In ullamaliztli, two squads vied to drive a ball through hoops on the opposite ends of a field – an early version of soccer, one might say, except that the ball was never supposed to touch the ground and the players could hit it only with their hips, chests and thighs.

As fascinating to Navagero as the ball game was the ball itself. European balls were typically made of leather and stuffed with wool or feathers. These were something different. They “bounded copiously”, Navagero said, ricocheting in a headlong way unlike anything he had seen before. “I do not understand how these heavy balls are so elastic”. Navagero, d’Anghiera and Oviedo had a right to be confounded: they were encountering a novel form of matter. The balls were made of rubber. In chemical terms, rubber is an elastomer, so named because many elastomers can stretch and bounce. No Europeans had ever seen one before.

Rubber Fever

Brazil Rubber Tree, Dennis Jarvis, Flickr Creative Commons

Brazil Rubber Tree, Dennis Jarvis, Flickr Creative Commons

The first simple laboratory experiments, in 1805, gave little hint that rubber might be useful – although the scientist, John Gough, did discover the fact, key to later understanding, that rubber heats up when stretched. Only in the 1820’s did rubber take off, with the invention of the rubber galoshes. ‘Take off’ for Europeans and Americans, that is; South American Indians had been using rubber for centuries. They milked rubber trees by slushing thin, V-shaped cuts on the trunk, latex dripped from the point of the V into a cup, usually a hollowed-out gourd, mounted on the bark. In a process reminiscent of making taffy, Indians extracted rubber from the latex by slowly boiling and stretching out over than intensely smoky fire of palm nuts. When the rubber was ready, they worked into stiff pipes, dishes, and other implements.

Native people also waterproofed their hats and cloaks by impregnating the cloth with rubber. European colonists in Amazonia were manufacturing rubberized garments by the late eighteenth century, including boots made by dripping foot-shaped moulds into bubbling pots of latex. A few pairs of boots made their way to the United States. Cities like Boston, Philadelphia and Washington D.C. were built on swamps; their streets were thick with mud and had no sidewalks. Rubber boots there were a big hit.

The Epicentre of what became known as “rubber fever” was Salem, Massachusetts, north of Boston. In 1825, a young Salem entrepreneur imported five hundred pairs of rubber shoes from Brazil. Ten years later, the number of imported shoes had grown to more than 400,000, about one for every forty Americans. Villagers in tiny hamlets at the mouth of the Amazon moulded thousands of shoes to the dictates of Boston merchants. Garments impregnated with rubber were modern, high-tech, exciting- a perfect urban accessory. People flocked to stores.

The crash was inevitable. The idea of impermeable rubber boots and clothes was more exciting than the fact. Rubber simply didn’t work well. In cold weather, the shoes became brittle; in hot weather, they melted. Boots placed in closets at the end of the winter turned into black puddles by fall. The results smelled so bad that people found themselves burying their footgear in the garden. Public opinion swung violently against rubber.


Rubber Charles Goodyear

Charles Goodyear photographed by Southworth and Hawes

Just before the collapse, in 1833, a bankrupt businessman named Charles Goodyear became interested in –and obsessed by – rubber. It was typical of Goodyear’s entrepreneurial acumen that he began to seek financial backing for a rubber venture just at the time investors were planning their exits from the field.

A few weeks after Goodyear announced his intent to produce temperature stable rubber he was thrown into debtor’s prison. In his cell he began work, mashing bits of rubber with rolling a pin. He was untroubled by any knowledge of chemistry but boundlessly determined. All the while he was mixing toxic chemicals, more or less randomly, in the hope that they would make rubber more stable. Goodyear began mixing rubber with sulphur. Nothing happened, he said later, until he accidentally dropped a lump of sulphur-treated rubber onto a wood stove. To his amazement, the rubber didn’t melt.

By a circuitous path two thin, inch-and-a-half-long strips of Goodyear’s processed rubber ended up in the autumn of 1842 at the laboratory of Thomas Hancock, a Manchester engineer who had developed processes for manipulating rubber. Hancock was more organized and knowledgeable than Goodyear and had better equipment. For a year and a half he systematically performed hundreds of small experiments. Eventually he, too, learned that immersing rubber in melted sulphur would transform it into something that would stay stretchy in cold weather and solid in hot weather. Later he called the process “vulcanization”, after the Roman god of fire, Vulcan.

The Great Exhibition 1851, Neil Cummings, Flickr Creative Commons

The Great Exhibition 1851, Neil Cummings, Flickr Creative Commons

The British government granted Hancock a patent on May 21, 1844. Three weeks later, the U.S. government awarded Goodyear his vulcanization patent. Goodyear didn’t understand the recipe of vulcanization, but he did understand that at least he had a business opportunity. Showing a previously unsuspected knack for publicity stunts, he spent $ 30,000 he did not have to create an entire room made of rubber for the Great Exhibition of 1851 at the Crystal Palace in London, the first world’s fair. Four years later he borrowed $ 50,000 more to display an even more lavish rubber room at the second world’s fair, the Exposition Universelle in Paris. Parisians lost their urban hauteur and gawped like rubes at Goodyear’s rubber vanity table. Except for the unpleasant smell, Goodyear’s exhibit was a triumph. “Napoleon III invested him with the Legion of Honour” wrote the diplomat and historian Austin Coates, “and a Paris court sent him to prison for debt”. He received the medal in his cell. Goodyear was forced to sell some of his wife’s possessions to pay for their trip home.

Goodyear, Rool Paap, Flickr Creative Commons

Goodyear, Rool Paap, Flickr Creative Commons

Goodyear died four years later, still awash in debt. Afterward, Americans lionized him as a visionary. Books extolled him to children as an exemplar of the can-do spirit; a major tire company named itself after him. Meanwhile, Coates, noted, “Hancock received English treatment: due respect while living, fading notice when dead, and on some suitable centenary thereafter, a postage stamp”.

Neither Goodyear nor Hancock had any idea why sulphur stabilized rubber – or why, for that matter, unadulterated rubber bounced and stretched. Nineteenth-century scientists found bouncing balls exactly as mystifying as sixteenth-century Spaniards.

The last half of the nineteenth century was a heady time for chemistry. Immersing rubber in sulphur causes a chemical reaction in which rubber molecules link themselves together with chemical “bridges” formed of sulphur atoms. So ubiquitous are the bonds that a rubber band – a loop of vulcanized rubber – is actually a single, enormous, cross-linked molecule. With the molecules anchored together, they are more resistant to change: harder to align, harder to entangle, more resistant to extremes of temperature. Rubber suddenly becomes a stable material.

The impact of vulcanization was profound, the inflatable rubber tire-key to the adoption of both the bicycle and the automobile – being the most celebrated example. But rubber also made electrification possible: try to imagine a modern building without insulation on its wiring. Or imagine dishwashers, washing machines and clothes dryers without the belts that transmit the motion of their engines to the appliance itself. Equally important but less visible, every internal combustion engine contains many pipes and valves that channel, usually under pressure, water, oil, gasoline, and exhaust vapour. Unless the parts are manufactured perfectly, engine vibrations will cause liquids or gases to vent dangerously from joints. Flexible rubber gaskets, washers, and O-rings almost invisibly fill the gaps. Without them, every home furnace would be at constant risk of leaking natural gas, heating oil, or coal exhaust – a potential death trap.

In short three fundamental materials were required for the Industrial Revolution: steel, fossil fuels, and rubber.

The Rubber Rush

As this point, the primary source of natural rubber was latex from Hevea Brasilensis, native to the Amazon basin, the tree is most abundant on the borderlands between Brazil and Bolivia. The nearest ports to this area are those on the Pacific coast, across the Andes. Sending rubber to those ports would mean carrying it across the high, icy mountains. After doing that, shipping the latex to England would involve dispatching ships around the stormy southern tip of South America, a long and dangerous trip of almost twelve thousand miles. The entire route was so difficult, in fact, that the secretary of the Royal Geographical Society calculated in 1871 that it would be four times faster to ship rubber to London from the western amazon by transporting it down the Madeira River to the Amazon itself, and thence to the Atlantic.

Even in a time of crazy boom-and-bust cycles the rubber boom stood out. Brazil’s rubber exports grew more than tenfold between 1856 and 1896. Ordinarily such an enormous increase in supply would drive down prices. But instead they kept climbing. Attracted by tales of fortunes gained, speculators leaped into the market. New York rubber oscillated between $1.34 and $3.06 a pound. On top of that, the inflation, financial panics and political instability of the era caused the currencies of Brazil, Britain and the United States to gyrate wildly in value.

Still, rubber kept going up. Its “soaring price is turning rubber manufacturers gray”, the Times claimed on Mach 20, 1910. “Once ounce of rubber washed and prepared for manufacture is worth nearly its weight in pure silver”. The newspaper was hyperventilating, but not entirely wrong. One economist recently calculated that the average London price of rubber roughly tripled between 1870 and 1910.

Theatro de Paz, Belem

Theatro de Paz, Belem

The financial centre of the trade was Belém. Founded in 1616 at the entrance to the world’s greatest river, it had a strategic location. The rubber boom allowed it to become, at last, what Amazonian dreamers had long hoped: the economic capital of a vibrantly growing realm. Convinced they were building the Paris of the Americas, Belem’s newly rich rubber elite filled the cobbled streets with sidewalk cafes, European style strolling parks and Beaux –Arts mansions. Social life centered around the neoclassical Theatro de Paz, where barons in box seats smoked cigars and drank cachaça, the distilled sugarcane liquor that is Brazil’s preferred high-alcohol beverage.

After inspection, the rubber went into series of immense warehouses that lined the shore like sleeping beasts. Rubber was everywhere, one visitor wrote in 1911, “on the sidewalks, in the streets, on trucks, in the great storehouses and in the air – that is, the smell of it”. Indeed, the city’s rubber district had such a powerful aroma that people claimed they could tell what part of the city they were in by the intensity of the odour.

Belém was the bank and the insurance house of the rubber trade, but the centre of rubber collection was the city of Manaus. Located almost a thousand miles inland, where two big rivers join to form the Amazon proper, it was one of the most remote urban places on earth.

Atop one hill was the cathedral, a Jesuit built structure with a design so austere that it looked like a rebuke to the monstrosity that dominated the next hill over. The Teatro Amazonas was a preposterous fantasia of Carrara marble, Venetian chandeliers, Strasbourg tiles, Parisian mirrors and Glasgow ironwork. Finished in 1897 and intended as an opera house, it was a financial folly: the auditorium had only 658 seats, not enough to offset the cost of importing musicians, let alone the alone the expense of construction.

Teatro Amazonas - Manaus, Paulo Cameli, Flickr Creative Commons

Teatro Amazonas – Manaus, Paulo Cameli, Flickr Creative Commons

Wide stone sidewalks with undulating black-and-white pattern led downhill from the theatre through a jumble of brothels, rubber warehouses and nouveau-riche mansions to the docks: two enormous platforms that rode up and down with the river on hundreds of wooden pillars. State governor Eduardo Ribeiro aggressively boosted the city, laying out streets in modern grid, paving them with cobblestones from Portugal (the Amazon had little stone), overseeing the installation of what was then one of the globe’s most advanced streetcar networks (fifteen miles of track), and directing the construction of three hospitals (one for the Europeans, one for the insane, one for everybody else).

A celebrant of urban life, Ribeiro took part in everything his city had to offer, including its sybaritic whorehouses, in one of which he died amid what historian John Hemming delicately referred to as “a sexual romp”.  The city’s many brothels were largely for the rubber tappers and field operatives who staggered into Manaus after months of labour on remote tributaries. The owners and managers had mistresses, with whom they sported in the decadent style then fashionable.

In the 1890s the boom went still further upstream, into the Andean foothills – areas that until then had been regarded as useless, and so left largely to their original inhabitants, most of whom had minimal contact with Europeans. Because H.brasilensis can’t tolerate the cooler temperature on the slopes, entrepreneurs focused on another species, Castilla elastic, which provided a less-valuable grade of rubber known as caucho. “Caucheiros”, rather than futilely protect the trees, simply cut them down, gouged off the bark, and let the latex drain into holes dug beneath the fallen trunk. Sometimes collectors could obtain several hundred pounds of the latex from a single tree, thus making up in volume for caucho’s lower price.

Because caucheiros killed the tree they harvested, they naturally put a premium on being the first into a new area. The goal was to extract the most rubber in the least amount of time; every minute not at the axe was a minute when someone else was taking down irreplaceable trees. Work crews spent weeks or months trekking from tree to tree through steep, muddy, forested hills, carrying heavy loads of caucho from the areas they had just looted. Few people from outside the area were willing to come into the forest for this. Caucheiros thus turned to the people who already lived there: Indians. The situation invited abuse – and there are always people ready to take up such invitations. Among them was Carlos Fitzcarrald, son of an immigrant to Peru who had changed his name from the hard-to-pronounce “Fitzgerald”. Beginning in late 1880s Fitzgerald forced thousands of Indians to work the caucho circuit.

More brutal was Julio Cesar Arana. The son of a Peruvian hat maker, Arana came to exert near-total command over more than twenty-two thousand square miles on the upper Putumayo River, then claimed by both Peru and Colombia.

A photo of enslaved Amazon Indians from the 1912 book "The Putumayo, the Devil's Paradise"

A photo of enslaved Amazon Indians from the 1912 book “The Putumayo, the Devil’s Paradise”

Not wanting to lure labourers from other areas with high wages, he turned to indigenous people. At first they were willing to do some rubber collecting in exchange of knives, hatchets, and other trade goods. But when Arana asked for more they balked. So he enslaved them. By 1902 he had five Indian nations under his thumb. Caucho flowed from his land in ever-larger amounts. He controlled his slave force with a goon squad led by more than an hundred toughs imported from Barbados. Nobody other than Arana’s agents was allowed to enter Putumayo from outside. Twenty-three custom-built cruise boats enforced his rule. Arana had incorporated his company in London in an attempt to go public and cash out, as software entrepreneurs would do a century later.

The slavery was therefore a British matter. Eventually there was a parliamentary investigation and a yearlong public furore. London sent an investigatory team that included Roger Casement, an Irish–born British diplomat who was a pioneering human rights activist (he had exposed atrocities committed in the Congo by agents of Belgium king Leopold II). Casement shuttled about the Putumayo, confirming Hardenburg’s charges by obtaining detailed confessions of murder and torture. In a misguided fit of nationalism, Peru defended its citizen against foreign meddling. Nonetheless Arana’s empire disintegrated. He died penniless in 1952.

Wickham changes the game for Britain

photo of Sir Henry Wickham from the Library of Congress catalog

Sir Henry Wickham from the Library of Congress catalog

If this ecological tumult could be laid at the door of a single person, it would be Henry Alexander Wickham. Wickham’s life is difficult to assess: he had been called a thief and a patriot, a major figure in industrial history and hapless dolt whose main accomplishment was failing in business ventures on three continents. He was born in 1846 to a respectable London solicitor and a milliner’s daughter from Wales. When the boy was four, Cholera took his father’s life and the family he left behind slid slowly down the social ladder. Nonetheless at the end of his days he was a respected man. Crowds applauded as he walked onto testimonial stages wearing a silver-buttoned coat and a nautilus-shell tie clip. He was knighted at the age of seventy-four.

Wickham won the honour for smuggling seventy thousand rubber tree seeds to England in 1876.

As a young man, Sir Clements Markham had directed a British quest in the Andes for cinchona trees. Cinchona bark was the sole source of quinine, the only effective antimalarial drug then known. Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador, which had a monopoly, zealously guarded the supply, forbidding foreigners to take cinchona trees. Markham dispatched three near-simultaneous covert missions to the Andes, leading one himself. Hiding from the police, almost without food, he descended the mountains on foot with thousands of seedling in special cases. All three of these teams obtained cinchona which was soon thriving in India. Markham’s project saved thousands of lives, not least because Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia were running out of cinchona trees – they had killed them by stripping the bark. Riding the success to the position of director of the India Office’s Geographical Department, Markham decided to repeat the feat with rubber trees. British industry’s dependence on rubber was leaving the nation’s prosperity in the hands of foreigners, he believed.

Markham argued, “It’s hardly possible to over-rate the importance of securing a permanent supply”. Glory would attach to those who secured that supply. In the early 1870’s, Markham let it be known that Britain would pay for rubber seeds. When the seeds arrived, they would be sown at the Royal Botanic Gardens, at Kew in Southwest London, and the successful seedlings dispatched to Britain’s Asian colonies. Two separate hopeful adventurers sent batches of rubber seed. Neither batch would sprout. Wickham became the third to try. Wickham gathered seventy thousand seeds, enough to pay for passage back to Britain. Today Wickham is reviled in Brazil. Tourist guides refer to him as the “prince of thieves”, a pioneer of what has become to be called “bio-piracy”.

Two months after Wickham appeared in London, Kew shipped out the seedlings, most of them to British Ceylon, known today as Sri Lanka.

Henry Ridley and the rise of the Malaya Rubber

Rubber trees in Malaysia, Yun Huang Yong, Flickr Creative Commons

Rubber trees in Malaysia, Yun Huang Yong, Flickr Creative Commons

At the same time that the seedlings were dispatched to Sri Lanka, a further two cases, containing fifty seedlings, were sent to Singapore. There, the Singapore Botanical Garden’s new director, Henry Ridley, set to work on rubber plants, comparing them with other rubber-producing plants, and figuring out the best way to harvest latex without harming or killing the trees and coming up with a method that is still used to this day.

Ridley’s zealous persistence in persuading Malaya’s planters to grow rubber trees earned him less than flattering nicknames such as “Mad Ridley” and “Rubber Ridley”. During the 1890s and early 1900s, he devised successful propagation methods and advocated the large-scale cultivation of rubber in Malaya. Initially, planters largely ignored his advice until their coffee plantations were devastated by disease and they desperately required a new cash crop. During this time, demand for rubber soared as the automobile industry boomed. By 1912, Malaya was producing more rubber than Brazil, and when prices fell the Brazilian rubber industry was reduced to dust.


The first real chance for Brazil to recover occurred in 1922, when British colonies in Asia, which had overplanted rubber, sought to control prices by forming a cartel. Among those enraged by this action were Harvey Firestone, the world biggest tire maker, and Henry Ford, the world biggest car maker.

Firestone responded by creating a huge rubber plantation in Liberia, West Africa. Ford planned one of equal size in the Amazon. Ford hired a Brazilian go-between who in 1927 sold him almost four thousand square miles of land up the Tapajos river that happened to be owned by the go-between. To house his workers Ford built a replica of a middle-class Michigan Town, complete with a hospital, schools, stores, movie theatres, Methodist churches and wooden bungalows on tree-lined streets. On a hill was the Amazon basin’s only eighteen-hole golf course. Orderly and straitlaced as Ford himself, the town was the opposite of boomtown Manaus. Wags immediately dubbed the project Fordlandia.

Water tower and main warehouse building in Fordlandia, Brazil. Amit Evron, Wikimedia Commons

Water tower and main warehouse building in Fordlandia, Brazil. Amit Evron, Wikimedia Commons

For Ford, the next few years were a series of unhappy surprises; after the first season’s rubber trees died did the company find out that H. brasilensis must be established at particular times of the year to thrive. Only after paying steamship bills did the company realize that it would not be possible to offset the cost of clearing all the hardwood trees on its land by selling the timber in the United States. And only after planting thousands of acres did the company learn that the Amazon has fungus, Microcyclus ulei, that is partial to rubber trees. This last sentence is imprecise. The company did know that M. ulei existed. What it didn’t grasp was that there was no way to stop it. M. ulei causes South American leaf blight.

The disaster effectively ended Fordlandia, though it wasn’t formally abandoned until 1945. Its fate made the most Brazilians conclude that rubber plantations are not viable in the Amazon. When Ford bought land in Brazil, 92% of the world’s natural rubber came from Asia. Five years after Fordlandia ended the figure was 95%.

The Chinese move in

Natural rubber still claims more than 40% of the market, a figure that has been slowly rising. Only natural rubber can be steam-cleaned in a medical sterilizer, then thrust into a freezer-and still adhere flexibly to glass and steel. Big airplane and truck tires are almost entirely natural rubber; radial tires were entirely synthetic. High tech manufacturers and utilities use high-performance natural rubber hoses, gaskets and O-rings. So do condom manufacturers – one of Brazil’s few remaining natural-rubber enterprises is a condom factory in the western Amazon.

With its need for materials that can withstand battle conditions the military is a major consumer – which is why the United States imposed a rubber blockade on China during the Korean War.

The blockade helped convince the Chinese of the need to grow their own H. brasilensis. In the 1960s the People’s Liberation Army worked to turn the prefecture into a rubber haven. Xishuangbanna plantations were, in effect, army bases; entry was forbidden to outsiders. Outsiders included the Dai and Akha who lived nearby. As suspicious of minorities in the mountains as the Qing, the Communists imported more than 100,000 Han workers, many of them urban students from faraway provinces, and put them into labour gangs charged with revolutionary fervour. “China needs rubber” they were told. “This is your chance to use your hands to help your country”. Workers were awakened every day at 3:00 am and sent to clear the forest, one former Xishuangbanna labourer told anthropologist Judith Shapiro, author of Mao’s War Against Nature.

Chinese rubber plantation in northern Laos (2010), Prince Roy, Flickr Creative Commons

Chinese rubber plantation in northern Laos (2010), Prince Roy, Flickr Creative Commons

Even as burgeoning China became the world biggest rubber consumer, its rubber producers were running out of space in Xishuangbanna – every inch of land was already taken. They looked enviously over the border at Laos; with about six million people in an area the size of the United Kingdom, it is the emptiest country in Asia. But the real push didn’t begin until the end of the decade, when China announced its “Go-Out” strategy, which pushed Chinese companies to invest abroad. No one knows exactly how much H. brasilensis is now in Laos; the Laotian government estimated that rubber covered seven hundred square miles of the nation by 2010. And the pace of clearing will only accelerate, along with the effects of that clearing.

More than a century ago, a handful of rubber trees had come to Asia from their home in Brazil. Now the descendants of these trees carpet sections of the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and parts of southern China. Across the border H. brasilensis was marching into Laos and Vietnam. A plant that before 1492 had never existed outside the Amazon basin now dominates the Southeast Asian ecosystem.


Main image: Rubber Latex in India, Avinash Bhat, Flickr Creative Commons

Header image: Tyres, Sally Butcher, Flickr Creative Commons

The WW2 Battle of Crete

The WW2 Battle of Crete


In May, 1941, the Greek Island of Crete was the only part of mainland Europe holding out against advancing Nazi forces whose Blitzkrieg had overrun the continent.

As the huge wave of German aircraft approached, the Island of Crete was defended by a poorly equipped allied force.

Such a huge airborne invasion had never been attempted before or since in war.

In May, 1941 the German invasion force consisted of 14,000 elite paratroopers who’d be dropped on the Island. The aim was to take it from 30,000 allied soldiers from Britain, Australia, and New Zealand and 12,000 Greek soldiers tasked with defending it. The airborne invasion would be successful after just two weeks, but the campaign was bloody with both sides suffering huge losses. For Germany, they would lose more troops on the first day of battle than they lost in 18 months of the war.

Crete is an Island familiar with bloodshed and invasion throughout its long history, but the invasion and four year occupation of the Island by German forces marked one of its most violent chapters.

Today, war graves of both allied and German soldiers are scattered across Crete along with memorials to Crete and civilians and resistance fighters either killed or massacred by the German occupiers

Souda Bay Allied Cemetery

Souda Bay Allied Cemetery

Build up to the Battle

In the months previous, German troops had pushed down through the Balkans and just a few weeks earlier had taken mainland Greece. The capital Athens fell on April the 27th and the swastika was raised over the Acropolis. The Italians under Mussolini had launched the invasion of Greece the previous year, but it was widely seen as a failure. German involvement had turned it around.

Thousands of allied soldiers had been defending the mainland until its fall, but had been hastily evacuated to Crete along with members of the Greek government and the King of Greece. Churchill needed to delay any further German expansion into North Africa and the middle East and decided to make a stand against impending invasion in Crete.

To lead the defence of Crete, Churchill turned to a New Zealand general Bernard Freyburg, a Gallipoli hero, and old friend.

Crete is 160 miles long, between seven and 30 miles wide, and has 8,000ft mountains dividing the North coast from a very steep Southern coastline. In 1941, there were only three main roads connecting North and South; other routes were no more than tracks and mountain paths.

The German invasion would involve an airborne division of the Luftwaffe developed by Goering a few years before the war. It was known as the Fleigercorps, and the paratroopers were known as the Fallschirmjager or ‘sky hunters’.

Paratroopers and aeroplanes in the sky above Crete during airborne invasion - Courtesy of The Alexander Turnbull Library

Paratroopers and aeroplanes in the sky above Crete during airborne invasion – Courtesy of The Alexander Turnbull Library

The Fallschirmjager were very effective when used in commando style raids. Many were drawn from old elite Prussian military families and were famous for their willingness to give it every effort unwaveringly even in the grimmest of situations.

From above the island, the Luftwaffe could strike the South at the British sea routes to Egypt and Cyprus.

By contrast, the allied forces defending Crete were poorly equipped. There had been about 50,000 troops involved in the Greek campaign. Two thirds of them from Australia and New Zealand. The Australian Imperial force was a volunteer one, the first to be raised since the first world war.

There was a shortage of weapons among the defending troops. The 10,000 evacuees from the Greek mainland had been forced to leave a lot of their equipment behind.

As the German Luftwaffe buzzed the skies above Crete, preparations were made for the evacuation of the King and Greek government to Egypt, an indication as to the diminishing prospects for a successful defense.

Considering this, New Zealand’s Freyberg was a reluctant commander. He wanted to return to Egypt with his troops. After the defeat on the Greek mainland, he contacted his HQ in Egypt requesting the removal of troops that he regarded as useless, unwanted personnel who did not have weapons and had little or no employment other than getting into trouble with the civilian population and subsequently most were removed from Crete before the battle began. The Australians were amongst those accused of behaving badly.

Allied Air forces were confined to only a handful of planes. Most were destroyed on the ground by German fighters. There would be no reinforcements as Churchill had prioritized Libyan defenses in North Africa and for the British base in Malta. This then was an army with no air defense.

The British Navy was effective in neutralizing any invasion by sea, but its ships faced a serious challenge from the German air force.

In the weeks before invasion only 2,700 of 27,000 tons of supplies shipped from Egypt arrived. The rest was lost after ships carrying it were attacked by the Luftwaffe. In the days leading up to the invasion, Germany’s massive air arsenal was employed to ruthless effect to soften up allied defences.

The Luftwaffe

Hundreds of aircraft took part including 200 elite Stuka dive bombers otherwise known as Junkers Ju 87s. This aircraft’s distinctive and frightening noise emitted when diving earned it the nicknames ‘the sirens of death’, ‘the flying swastika’ and ‘the Jericho trumpet’. The Stuka could dive bomb at an angle of almost 90 degrees, and at a speed of almost 400 miles per hour.

The backbone of this Blitzkrieg style operation however was the fast bomber, the Messerschmitt Bf 109. Almost 35,000 of these were produced by Germany during World War II, fully half of its air fleet, and they were heavily involved in the Cretan air invasion. Also involved was the twin Heinkel He 111, one of the Germans’most important bombers. It was distinguished by its greenhouse nose complete with rotating machine gun turret to allow greater and more precise visibility above targets.

There was also The Dornier Do 17 known as the flying pencil on account of its unique sleek design.

The actual airborne invasion was set to take place on May 20 1941. It was a unique high tech enterprise of its time — the brainchild of World War I German fighter ace General Kurt Student, the head of the air Corps and architect of a successful and highly innovative air campaign in Holland a year earlier.

Young German Paratrooper on Junkers troop carrier before takeoff for the invasion of Crete - Courtesy of The Alexander Turnbull Library

Young German Paratrooper on Junkers troop carrier before takeoff for the invasion of Crete – Courtesy of The Alexander Turnbull Library

Code named Operation Mercury, over 500 Junkers Ju 52 transport planes would drop the 14,000 paratroopers from the skies above Crete. They would be supported by another 570 aircraft made up of the Stukas, Junker 88s, Dorniers, Henkiels and Messerscmitt 109s and 110s. The invasion was a showcase of supreme and innovative German airpower – perhaps the single greatest example during the entire war. In the days preceding the invasion, these were the aircraft that had been used to soften up Allied defenses on the island.

Hitler, like the army, was actually opposed to the plan believing it was too costly but was persuaded by Goering, head of the Luftwaffe. He, like Student, was a World War I fighter ace and the Fallschirmjager paratroopers were his elite force.

The Battle

Leading up to the battle and throughout it, General Freyberg had access to German plans through Britain’s secret Codebreakers at Bletchley Park, in England. But despite this apparent advantage, Freyburg was heavily criticised for not using the information more intelligently.

In the first wave of the air invasion, 8,000 paratroopers were landed. In another first in aerial warfare, the lead troops were carried aboard DFS 230 gliders, towed by Junker JU52s. The gliders were released a good distance before target so the sound of towing aircraft would not alert the allied forces, allowing them to silently descend upon Crete.

One of the first German objectives was to knock out Allied anti-aircraft warfare. In all, 70 gliders, each carrying ten paratroopers would land in the first few hours of the battle, many along the dry Creek bed, west of the strategic Maleme airfield in the north west of the Island. The paratroopers came very well equipped-but on their initial descent they carried only a pistol, knife and hand grenades for weapons. They were also kitted out with knee pads and some carried cameras. Their heavy equipment was parachuted separatedly.

These well-equipped paratroopers, or sky hunters, became known to the Allies as the green devils.

The German mission was first to take three airfields along the Northern coast at Maleme, Rethimno and Heraklion, paving the way for the giant transports to land more troops and supplies in order to take the Island.

The key airfield was Maleme. This would be defended in a series of bloody and costly encounters, often involving hand to hand combat with allied troops, mainly new Zealanders and, surprisingly for the invaders, with the local Cretan population who had formed themselves into militias.

In all drop zones, the paratroopers were dropped in between and around allied troops, making for a confused battleground with no front lines. At Maleme, the paratroopers were dropped on top of and among battalions of New Zealand troops. At Rethimno, they were dropped either side and on top of Australian and Greek defenders protecting the airport and the city. It was a similar story in Heraklion where the paratroopers were set down amongst Australian, Greek and British troops. also defending both the city and airfield.

It wasn’t all plain sailing — The German aircraft had to come low and slow in front of prepared positions.

 “We were delighted to leave the aircraft because we thought they couldn’t hit us as easily as they could in the aircraft. But that was not so. In the air I heard this whistling of bullets around me, but the whistling is not so bad to hear because you know, everything you hear is already past you, it can’t hit you anymore. “

— Felix Gaerte, German paratrooper

New Zealand Maori troops attacked paratroopers as they landed with the bayonets.

Maori soldier courtesy of The Australian War Memorial

Maori soldier courtesy of The Australian War Memorial

One German unit dropped on the 23rd New Zealand battalion lost 800 out of a thousand men in just a few short hours. Cretan peasants even took the parachutes which were made of silk and made them later into dresses and other garments.

The key moments of the battle would unfold at the Maleme airfield.

Due to the slow Allied response to the attack on the airfield, at the end of the crucial first day, the German paratroopers had secured a foothold on the airport perimeter and the battle was balanced on a knife edge.

Despite the German advances, a New Zealand brigade still occupied the olive groves on what was known as Hill 107, which had an elevated position overlooking the airstrip. What happened next was critical.

The New Zealand officer commanding the Hill 107 position liuentant Colonel Leslie Andrew who won a Victoria Cross in World War I said the bombing incurred by his troops on May 20, made what he’d witnessed in the Battle of the Somme appear like a picnic.

Andrew then decided to pull the New Zealanders off the hill giving the Germans the advantage.

Then on the morning of day two the German commander General Student took a huge risk, turning the course of the battle in his favour. He crash landed Ju 52 transporters – allowing troops to get off and onto the contested airfield.

Within a day or two and with the airfield secure, the Germans had landed up to 10,000 troops and made up for the huge losses on the first day. From this point on, the Allies had lost the Battle of Crete.

Freyberg was heavily criticized for continuing to plan for a Seaborne attack and for spreading his forces too thinly across Crete’s Northern coast. British historians said it would prove the most costly and strategic miscalculation of the brief campaign which gave way to the lengthy German occupation of Crete.

But New Zealand historians say Freyberg’s planning was correct, and rather that he was let down by his brigade commanders at Maleme.

Despite a bold counter attack at Maleme involving brave fighting from Freyberg’s New Zealand brigades, it came too late and the allies were unable to retake the airfield, allowing the Germans to begin building a crucial bridgehead. This enabled the landing of more paratroopers and hardened fighters from the seventh mountain division.

With the Maleme airbase finally secure it took each JU52 just over a minute to touchdown, drop their troops and take off. As the reinforcements arrived, the invaders began spreading out.

Despite looming controversy, the allies would begin a series of dramatic rear guard and counter attack actions. 20,000 of their troops were still on a now German held Crete. The job now was how to protect them and get them off the Island.



As the allied troops fell back from the Maleme airfield, a series of bitter battles occurred, the first of which was in the village of Galatas.

The narrow lanes and streets of Galatas were the site of bitter close quarters combat, given its strategic location atop a small hill between the lost airport at Maleme and the allied lines between Channia and Suda Bay to the East. It was the first of several rear guard positions taken by the allies.

The historic city of Channia occupied by the Venetians for 450 years was heavily bombarded. Thirteen Venetian palaces were destroyed in a brutal bombing campaign.

Chania after bombing

Chania after bombing

The first of many thousands of POWs were already being rounded up. In addition, there was the gruesome task of burying the dead. There were atrocities on both sides.

The Battle at Sea

The Royal Navy’s role in the unfolding battle would be crucial. Initially tasked with intercepting German reinforcements arriving by sea, the fleet had needed to sail from Egypt and was repeatedly attacked by dive bombers. For the British, there would be more casualties at sea than on land. Admiral Cunningham, the commander of the Mediterranean fleet, had nearly 30 ships off Crete on the morning of the invasion- two battleships, eight cruises, and 17 destroyers. But over the course of the battle, two thirds would either besunk, damaged, or lost.

One of them, HMS Gloucester would lose 715 out of a crew of just over 800.

Her sister ship, HMS Fiji, lost 250 hands when she too was sunk on May 22nd whilst attempting to help rescue crew from the destroyer; HMS Greyhound.

The HMS Kelly, a destroyer commanded by a great grandson of Queen Victoria and future Viceroy of India, Louis Mountbatten, was also among the ship sunk. Mountbatten lost half his crew of 200; the others, including himself, rescued from the sea while being machined gunned by some of the 27 Stukers that had attacked.

Soon the Royal Navy’s role would change from stopping German reinforcements from landing on Crete, to a rescue mission with the sole aim of getting allied soldiers off the Island before further bloodshed.


On May 26th, six days after the invasion, the commander on Crete, General Freyburg let his commanders in the Middle East know the battle was over and that the evacuation was beginning.

The route chosen for more than 15,000 troops was from the battlefields around Chania up over the central mountain range to the small port of Khora Sfakion known as Sfakia, where Royal Navy ships would spirit the survivors across the Mediterranean to Alexandria in Egypt.

Crucial in delaying advancing German troops, moving East from the Maleme airfield was an action fought on a sunken road that ran Southeast from Channia to Suda Bay, the giant Naval port and Harbor that had been crucial for incoming supplies delivered by sea. 42nd street would become the last hoo-rah for the defenders of Suda Bay, mainly New Zealand, and some Australian troops who would undertake most of the land combat operations on Crete.

As the two sides slugged it out, Maori soldiers from New Zealand even reverted to traditional methods with their war cry known as the Haka.

More than 80 German troops were killed in the action.

The Battle at Rethimno

Further east, the Germans had been met with stubborn resistance, trying to take the airfields at Rethimno and Heraklion. The Rethimno area had been defended by two Australian battalions, commanded by Colonel Ian Campbell, but they were now cut off from their commanders to the west.

The Germans were unable to take both the town of Rethimno and its airport. Overlooking the airport on what was known as Hill A, the Australians were able to keep the Germans at bay.

The Germans retreated to the high ground offered by the church of St George where bullet holes in the church facade and the damage to the cemetery can still be seen .

During the fighting, local villagers who lived near the coast were herded onto the beach, suspected of collaborating with the allied soldiers. They were executed.

Meanwhile, Freyberg’s evacuation order hadn’t been picked up by Colonel Campbell’s Australians. The Australian battalions were effectively abandoned, but carried on defending the airport. They would eventually ssurrender .

Today, commemoration ceremonies in Rethimno honor the battle here, which involved both Australian and Greek troops. Here, Greek and Australian dignitaries attend annually, reflecting the special bond that formed here between the two.

The Battle at Heraklion

Further east in Heraklion the German paratroopers had been dropped on and around the city. Heraklion today still has a busy sea and airport, but on the 28th of May 1941, it was dedicated to evacuating sorely pressed troops.

A force of nine Royal Navy ships, including six destroyers had been sent from Alexandria, but during the rescue two ships out of the nine ship convoy had been sunk and three more badly damaged, including the flagship, Orion. More than 600 lives were lost.

The Road to Sfakia

While many allied soldiers on the North coast were surrendering or being evacuated, thousands were heading for the South coast in hope of an evacuation by the Royal Navy as Sfakia.

On this treacherous march across the Island, weary soldiers were constantly exposed to overhead attack by German fighters, which left them abandoning their equipment along the way.

In 1941, the road over the central mountains of Crete was little more than a dirt donkey track. All along the road to Sfakia, rear guard troops were installed at strategic points to slow down the German pursuit, as almost 20,000 fleeing troops tried to get off the island.

Once over the mountains the fleeing troops reached a high plateau, known as The Saucer, where they were once again exposed to attack forcing them to abandon yet more equipment. Some of this can still be found in local museums today.

The road to Sfakia then descended down precipitous gorges and mountainsides. The hair pin bends today give an indication of the journey thousands of soldiers had to make by foot. The road stopped 500 feet above the villages of Sfakia and the coast.


Over several nights at the end of May 1941 the British Navy successfully evacuated over 10,000 troops from Sfakia. The operation was described as a mini Dunkirk.

Of the thousands who made it to Egypt, there was one Australian office and offered a place on the boats who was not among them opting to stay instead with his men. Colonel Theo Walker then walked several kilometers along the coast from Sfakia where he would officially deliver the allied surrender.

5,000 allied soldiers became prisoners of war. Others either took to the hills to fight or tried to escape or get off the island by any means. The Germans began four long years of occupation.


For the Anzac forces, the battle of Crete represented a reminder of their famous defeat at Gallipoli a quarter of a century earlier, a campaign that ironically had made heroes of the battle commanders on Crete.

New Zealand commander general Freyburg, another Gallipoli hero who in the end had spent 10 years of his life fighting the Germans, would spend the rest of his life defending his decisions and tactics, which his critics maintained lost the Island.

For the man that commanded Australia’s ragtag Creten forces, Australia’s most decorated soldier General Thomas Blamey, also a Gallipoli hero, Crete was a blemish on a glittering career that had spanned two world wars. He was accused of evacuating himself off the Island before his troops. He and other World War 1 veterans could not escape the criticism that they were old and out of step with modern day warfare.

Despite the huge losses for Germany, these were papered over and the battle was marked with victory parades.

The German boxing champion, Max Schmeling who had beaten Joe Lewis in 1936 to become world champion became a Nazi pinup. He jumped with the paratroopers but hurt himself landing.

But Nazi propaganda announced a triumph as awards for the paratroopers were dished out by the commander in chief Hermann Goering.

German commander General Kurt Student would dub Crete “the graveyard of the German paratroopers”, and a disastrous victory. Almost 2000 German troops were killed on the first day of the invasion alone. Out of 4,400 dead, another 2,600 were wounded, in less than 12 days of fighting. Dead and wounded meant half the paratroopers fighting force became casualties.

Hitler would never again approve the use of paratroopers in such large scale operations. More than 250 aircraft including 150 of the JU52 transports, were lost.

On the allied side, 3000 were dead and a dozen warships lost. More than 12,000 allied soldiers would be taken prisoner of war — one third of the defending force.

The loss didn’t go down well in some parts of the British Empire. Australian prime minister Robert Menzies lost power in August, 1941 in part due to his conduct of the war in Europe and in particular in Greece and Crete.

New Zealand prime minister Peter Fraser was in Alexandria welcoming his evacuated and exhausted troops and urging the British to go back to Crete to get more, but Menzies was nowhere to be seen.

Australian historians blame Churchill for deceiving the ANZAC forces. He was accused of committing ANZAC forces to a hopeless cause which didn’t square with their national interests.

They were also wider consequences on the greater war effort. The devastated British Mediterranean fleet had been expected to head East into the Pacific, but could only muster a handful of ships in an unsuccessful attempt to counter Japanese aggression. 

But the cost of the battle to the Germans had higher strategic value for the allies. It was credited with delaying the ultimately ill-fated operation Barbarossa, the invasion of Russia later that year, and German aggression in North Africa and the Mediterranean stalled as a battered Royal Navy interrupted supply routes.

General Kurt Student , the world war one fighter ace who’d built the German paratroopers into such an innovative, feared and daring airborne fighting force, went on to salvage his reputation to some extent with a daring and successful raid, also using gliders that rescued Mussolini from a remote mountaintop in Northern Italy after he’d been deposed and captured by Italian royalists. But Student never recovered from the huge losses in The Battle of Crete, and after the war served a prison sentence for war crimes on the Island.


After an historic invasion by air and 10 days of fierce fighting. In May, 1941 German forces were in effective control of the Island of Crete.

With the majority of Allied troops captured, evacuated or literally escaping into the hills, in the last days of May, 1941 with the Germans victorious, the remaining allied troops had streamed South from the battle zones around Chania, heading to Sfakia and their evacuation point.

Cretan irregulars had put up fierce resistance during the battle, and they continued this resistance as the occupation began to take hold.

This would lead to brutal and bloody reprisals.

Early Village Massacres

German commander, General Student ,would stand trial for war crimes, for ordering German responses to Cretan resistance. The reprisals endorsed by the head of the air force ,Goering, were numerous and alluded to in notices distributed by the Germans.

Greek villager arrested by German troops

Greek villager arrested by German troops

In Kondomari, on June 2nd , 1941, 22 men were shot by German paratroopers. They were commanded by Lieutenant Horst Trebes, a former Hitler youth member and the only officer of his battalion to survive the invasion unscathed. A German journalist who took photos of the execution and helped a villager to escape was court marshalled.

In Kandanos on June 3rd, the very next day, just two days after the surrender,  villagers were punished for holding up German motorcycle divisions that were heading south along the mountain road to the village of Paleochora to stop the Allies landing reinforcements on the island’s south coast. Twenty five German soldiers had been killed in the action. The villagers would pay dearly for their actions. A few days later, fearing retaliation, they had taken refuge in the surrounding hills. The Germans entered the village and raised it to the ground.

Allied Escapees

The Cretans would also pay dearly for protecting Allied soldiers who were left behind after the evacuation. Several thousand had been taken prisoner, but hundreds took to the mountains in Southern Crete where they were protected for months, or even years by Cretan families.

German authorities knew the Allied soldiers were on the run and issued leaflets demanding they surrender . In the coming months, several individual groups of these escapees would make their way in small craft across the Mediterranean to Africa.

One of the first was Australian Stan “Tidge” Carroll, who later demonstrated how he made the final leg of the journey with just a steel can to keep him afloat. After spending several weeks on a solo escape trek on a small boat he found on the South coast, he finally reunited with his battalion in Egypt, alerting the Allies about the number of stranded soldiers still on Crete.

Australian soldier Tidge Carroll demonstrates how he floated across the Mediterranean sea

Australian soldier Tidge Carroll demonstrates how he floated across the Mediterranean sea

A number of other groups also made daring escapes. A group of Australians sailed to Egypt in a craft powered by sails made from army blankets stitched together with boot laces.Another group who had manned the rear guard against advancing Germans but were left behind, also escaped by small boat and were picked up at sea.

Hundreds of other soldiers were protected by Cretan families or hid out in the hills and caves awaiting rescue.In Sfakia Today a memorial still contains the remains of 26 Cretans executed the aiding Allied soldiers.

The Preveli monastery in particular played a crucial role in getting Allied soldiers off the island. Abbots from the Greek Orthodox church have a tradition of protecting Greek independence. dating back to the Turkish occupation.

Forced Labour

In 1941, after their victory, the Germans had named the island Fortress Crete. By 1943 there were 75,000 soldiers on the Island. This constituted a sixth of the entire Cretan population.

Crete became an important air staging post for the resupply of German forces in North Africa where General Rommel wreaked havoc until late 1942.

Concerned about a British sea invasion, the Germans embarked on an ambitious series of public works, including defenses and the rebuilding of air strips to further fortify the Island.

Cretans were the clear choice for a labor force. All Cretans from the age of 16 until the age of 50, were obliged to offer work on a regular basis.

The obviously unpopular forced labor project involved half the Cretan male population at its peak.

British Intelligence

The Germans also took over and occupied iconic Cretan sites. They established their headquarters first in Chania where they occupied the home of the Greek and statesman Venizoulas.

Then later they set up their headquarters further east at the Villa Ariadne next to the historic Minoan site ofKnossos. This was the former home built by Sir Arthur Evans, the eminent British archaeologist responsible for uncovering so much of the ancient Minoan city.

Not all massacres or executions were of Cretans. John Pendlebury, Evan’s protege, had taken over from his boss in the years proceeding the war. But with the outbreak of war, he became a British agent.

Working undercover and injured just a day after the invasion, he was discovered in civilian clothes, regarded as a partisan and executed by the Germans. This brilliant archeologist was age, just 36.

The British intelligence network on Crete, part of the Special Operations Executive (SOE), would become one of the most successful intelligence networks in occupied Europe. They were responsible for the surveying of enemy positions and movements, and for planning sabotage operations. These intelligence operatives would be landed on remote South coast beaches with their supplies and radio sets where they would then dress as Cretans. Operatives included colorful characters such as Patrick Leigh Fermor who became known for one of the most daring undercover operations of the war — the capture of German Major General Heinrich Kreipe in 1944.

As early as 1942, raids were undertaken against airfields, which were critical to the resupply of German forces in North Africa. A particularly bold one at Heraklion airport destroyed more than 20 aircraft, but sadly resulted in the execution of 50 prominent Cretans.

The Italian Sector

During the occupation, the Germans had effectively divided the island into East and West. They ran the West themselves and put their Italian allies in charge of the Eastern zone.

After Mussolini was overthrown in September 1943, the Italian commander on Crete, Angelico Carta, a royalist not fascist, contacted Patrick Lee Fermor and arranged to be smuggled to Egypt along with the defense plans for the rest of the Island.

After abandoning his car near the divisional headquarters at Neapoli as a diversion, Carta and his comrades were than guided Southwest across the Island, evading German patrols and observation planes, before being taken by a British motor torpedo boat to Egypt.

Italian POW Tragedy

There had been more than 20,000 Italians stationed in Eastern Crete. After the Italian armistice, most had surrendered. Hitler had instructed that they should be taken as POWs and sent to the Reich as military internees.

The fate of many of these Italian POWs from Crete would become one of the great forgotten tragedies of the War incurring a loss of life greater than the Allies on the island In 1941.

Just a month after the surrender, a German merchant ship, the Sintra, carrying 2000 Italian POWs, was sunk. Most POWs were loaded in the hole below and drowned.

Then another merchant ship, the Petrella, carrying 3000 Italian POWs suffered a similar fate and was torpedoed and sunk by a British submarine, the HMS Sportsman. 2,600 perished. In both these sinkings, the German guards were accused of locking the holds when the boats sunk.

Abducting a General

German reprisals would worsen in 1944 with return of General Frederick Muller as Commander. He was already known as the Butcher of Crete. Muller was to be the target of the most daring operation carried out by British intelligence, led by Fermor, but he’d just been replaced by another commander General Kreipe.

Over a period of several months, Fermor and his fellow SOE agent William Moss had assembled the kidnap party involving several Greek partisans. Fermor had been parachuted into the Island earlier in the year and the party set off from high in the mountains of Crete. They had already staked out a kidnap spot at a road junction near Kreipe’s headquarters near Heraklion.

Fermor and Moss had dressed up as German army corporals as Kreipe’s car headed down a quiet road with just a driver and no escort.

A Memorial at the kidnap point marks the spot where Fermor and Moss dressed in their German uniforms and manning a fake checkpoint stopped Kreipe’s car. The general was bundled into the backseat and his driver knocked unconscious.

The general’s car, the general and the kidnappers continued the journey back to Heraklion where they were to pass through more than 20 checkpoints even including the gates of the old city. The car was purposefully abandoned by Moss and Fermor as a red herring, designed to indicate that Kreipe had escaped the island. The car’s pennants can now be found in the Rethyminon folklore museum.

Kreipe was then spirited away in an arduous, three-week trek across the Island. The party would hide out along the way before reaching the coast near Rodakino where Kreipe was picked up by boat and taken to Egypt where he would begin his captivity for the rest of the war.

The British then produced leaflets in German bragging that they’d just kidnapped their commanding officer.

In 1972 the participants of this real life escape drama, including Fermor and an ailing General Kreipe were reunited on Greek television in a bizarre “this is your life “encounter.

Resistance Stories

The successful kidnapping of Kreipe sparked further German reprisals later in 1944. The vast Omari Valley had been a favored thoroughfare for escapees and the resistance and the Kreipe party had passed through here. Resultingly nine villages here were destroyed, and 164 killed.

Southwestern Crete with its dramatic and impenetrable coastline, rugged mountains, cliffs and gorges was home to numerous groups of resistance fighters. Tiny villages like Koustogerako were targeted by the Germans. It was home to Manolis Paterakis, the most trusted Cretan colleague of Paddy Fermor. The village was rebuilt afterwards, but during the occupation it was declared a dead zone.

The most famous resistance group operating in these mountains was known as the Selino gang. A leading member was Manolis’s brother, Vasilis Patarakis. The gang were be joined by a New Zealand Sergeant, Dudley Perkins.

The gang was eventually tracked down by German counter agents and Perkins was killed in a firefight in 1944. Perkins is buried in Souda Bay cemetery.

End of occupation

By the end of 1944, German morale was dissipating and desertions were becoming a problem. As it became clear that the Germans would withdraw, British agents met at the Acardi monastery and near the ancient site of Knossos of to plan the transition.

As World War 2 entered its final phase and with German defeat looming, the Germans pulled back. In the end, the Germans remained in control of only a small pocket of the island around Chania and Souda Bay.

Crete was among the last German positions to surrender at the end of the war. Fearful of surrendering to Cretan militias, the German commander was secretly flown to meet the British at the Villa Ariadne, their former headquarters at Knossos and signed an unconditional surrender document on May 9th, 1945.

Fearful of revenge from Cretans, the British established a perimeter and arranged to escort the Germans off the Island.


The Cretans’ fierce defense of their Island led it to being regarded as one of the most successful resistance movements of the war.

Patrick Lee Fermor, the most famous British SOE agent on Crete, became an acclaimed travel writer and only died in 2011 age 96.

Today, memorials to Cretan, Greek, German and Allied soldiers who lost their lives in this conflict can be found all over the Island. Cretan bitterness at their treatment by the Germans lingered for decades after the war.

Two generals who were commanders of the German forces during the occupation — Generals Brauer and Muller, the so-called Butcher of Crete — were handed over by the British and tried by a Greek military court for war crimes. They were executed by firing squad on May 20th, 1947, on the sixth anniversary of the invasion.

Brauer is buried in the German military cemetery here, but it took decades for him and others to be laid to rest. Greek claims for war reparations dragged on for years with the dispute preventing the remains of German soldiers killed in the Battle of Crete being interred in a permanent cemetery on Cretan soil.

After being removed from their original burial place, they were stored in a monastery for almost 30 years, while negotiations continued.

It wasn’t until 1974 that a military cemetery containing the remains of more than 4,300 German soldiers was established on Hill 107 overlooking the Maleme airfield, the site of their crucial victory, but also where so many paratroopers lost their lives in the name of war.

Even today, Cretan claims for compensation from the German government drag on.

German cemetery at Maleme

German cemetery at Maleme


Epidemics Throughout The Ages

Epidemics Throughout The Ages

In an increasingly interconnected and peaceful world, disease remains one of the greatest fears of the modern age, especially the outbreak of a ‘superbug’ from genetic mutation and antibiotic resistance. Despite the medical advances of our time, diseases such as Coronavirus or Ebola have spread across nations and have caused the deaths of thousands. Throughout history, outbreaks of diseases on a major and international level have been rare but at times disastrous, especially in the poor living conditions and medical standards of previous ages, often made worse by times of war or other hardship.

Undefined Epidemics

We find recorded several cases in history of particularly deadly diseases, which may be termed now as epidemics, but the cause, nature and extent of the diseases are difficult to discern.

Plague of Athens 430-426 BC

Plague of Athens by Michiel Sweerts, c. 1652–1654

Plague of Athens by Michiel Sweerts, c. 1652–1654

The first major account of an epidemic was the Plague of Athens in 430-426 BC, recorded by the eyewitness and survivor Thucydides in his The Peloponnesian War (2.49-54). The plague was facilitated by the Peloponnesian War, as a result of which many Athenians had crowded behind the city walls to wait out a Spartan siege. Thucydides reported that the plague spread from Ethiopia into Piraeus, the city port, a very international centre in the ancient world, that spread rapidly. Many possible diseases have been proposed as the cause: bubonic plague, smallpox, typhoid or an ebola-like disease. However, the truth remains a mystery. The death toll is estimated at 75-100,000 people or 25% of the city’s population.

Antoine Plague 165-80

Another major epidemic was the Antoine Plague, described by Galen, which struck the Roman Empire in 165-180 AD. It was first recorded in the Roman siege of Seleucia, in modern Iraq, and spread throughout the Empire as far as Germany and Gaul. The disease is thought to have possibly been either smallpox or measles and at its height killed 2,000 a day in Rome. The estimated death toll is 5 million. The disease may also have spread from Han China, where reports of a similar disease date from the same period. It may have spread along the Silk roads or via the Roman embassy of 166 to Vietnam. Even the thought of this, true or not, may have hampered trade relations between East and West which could have greatly changed history.

Bubonic Plague

Bubonic plague has led to history’s most deadly pandemics, with three major and disastrous outbreaks, despite its relative rareness and preventability now. It is caused the bacterium Yersinia pestis which attacks lymph nodes, swelling to form painful ‘bubones’ which can turn black and burst. The bacterium can also cause pneumonic plague in the lungs and septemic plague in the blood. It is carried most often in fleas and infected small animals or flea-carrying animals, particularly rats. The bacterium is then transferred into the human body via bites or consuming fluids from an infected body. Symptoms include high fever, painful swelling of the lymph nodes, and if it spreads to other parts of the body leads to gangrene and blackening of limbs and facial features, vomiting, diarrhoea, coughing blood, delirium and death.

Plague of Justinian 541-2

Saint Sebastian pleads with Jesus for the life of a gravedigger afflicted by plague during the Plague of Justinian. (Josse Lieferinxe, c. 1497–1499)

Saint Sebastian pleads with Jesus for the life of a gravedigger afflicted by plague during the Plague of Justinian. (Josse Lieferinxe, c. 1497–1499)

The first major outbreak was in 541 affecting much of the Eastern Mediterranean and the Byzantine Empire. It was transmitted via rats that existed on the trade ships moving throughout the Mediterranean, especially grain ships travelling from Egypt to Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire. At its peak some estimates conclude there were around 5,000 deaths a day in Constantinople with 40% of the total population dying and that in total up to 25 million fell victim to the disease, a quarter of the population of the Eastern Mediterranean. However, more modern scholars have concluded on much smaller estimates. It was regarded as the first pandemic and had great effects on European history. The devastation in the Byzantine empire meant agriculture was ruined, with grain prices soaring, whilst tax revenue plummeted due a reduced population. Recent gains in Italy and around Carthage, briefly reuniting the Roman empires, were reversed as the Goths, Vandals and Lombards retook much Byzantine territory.

Black Death 1346-53

The deadliest outbreak of disease was the second major case of bubonic plague, commonly known as the Black Death. Likely originating in the East and China, the disease spread West along the Silk roads reaching the Black Sea and Mediterranean. Trade ships then spread the disease to the rest of Europe, hitting Italy first in Sicily and Venice in 1347, and the rest of Europe over the next three years. The disease would wipe out entire rodent populations, requiring repopulation before another outbreak would occur, recurring frequently over the next few centuries although never so badly. Estimations of a death toll are difficult but range between 75 and 200 million, 45-50% of the population and in the hot and connected areas of the Mediterranean, mortality rate was even higher. Populations would take years to recover and Florence not until the 19th century. The change in population changed the agricultural workings of many areas and the labour force reduced. Some even claim the decline in population led to a ‘mini Ice age’. Fanaticised and fearful, many blamed minority groups, especially Jews, resulting in many massacres, one at Strasbourg killing 2,000. This led many Jews to relocate to Poland where they were welcomed, leading to the large population there until the Holocaust during the Second World War.

Third Plague (Bubonic) Pandemic 1855-1960

A Plague doctor and his typical apparel

A Plague doctor and his typical apparel

The third major outbreak began Yunnan province on the Southern border of China, among the local rodent population. The influx of Han Chinese people to the area for mining, urbanisation, increased trade, and the Panthay rebellion which entailed refugee and troop movements, meant the plague spread rapidly throughout Southern China. Particularly damaging was the spread to the Canton area in 1894 and from there British-held Hong Kong, a centre of world trade and from where the plague spread to every continent.

In India, the plague was particularly severe due to the poor living conditions and packed urban centres of British imperial rule. Moreover, British measures to control the virus such as restriction of movement and the banning of Indian cultural medicines were seen as oppressive and culturally invasive and were hence disobeyed. 10 million died in India, and further 2 million died in the rest of the world. The World Health Organisation only declared the pandemic over in 1960. Bubonic plague still exists in much of the Chinese and East Asia rodent population. In 2019, a couple died of the bubonic plague after eating raw marmot in Mongolia.

Epidemics in the New World

The Spanish conquest of the Americas began with Mexico in 1519. The conquest was deadly in its sacking and massacring of cities, but far more so for the diseases it spread. A merchant ship to Hispaniola, an island in the Caribbean, first brought smallpox to American shores, against which the local population had no immune defence. It devastated the local populations. It reached Tenochtitlan in 1520. Bernard Dial, a Spanish chronicler, wrote “We could not walk without treading on the bodies and heads of dead Indians”. The death toll is estimated at over 5 million

On top of this, a native disease named Cocolitzli by the Aztecs led to millions of deaths. The disease returned several times, baffling native and Spanish doctors. Symptoms included high fever, black tongue, dark urine, dysentery, severe abdominal and chest pain, head and neck nodules, neurological disorders, jaundice, and profuse bleeding from the nose, eyes, and mouth. It usually killed within 3-4 days, leading to 5-15 million estimated deaths.

Subsequent Old World disease epidemics persisted in the Americas such as chicken pox, diphtheria, typhus, influenza, measles, malaria and yellow fever. A century after the arrival of the Spanish, some estimate over 90% of the New World population had died, the vast majority from disease.


Influenza, or ‘the flu’, is a common viral disease, which regularly mutates leading to the usual seasonal epidemics seen annually. A flu jab is developed annually to combat such mutations but due to the rapid changes in the virus, this will not be effective in subsequent years. Annually, there are three to five million cases of severe illness and about 290,000 to 650,000 deaths, usually in vulnerable groups such as the old, pregnant, or those with an existing health condition such as asthma or heart issues. Symptoms include high fever, runny nose, sore throat, muscle and joint aches, headache, coughing, and feeling tired. Complications can lead to viral or bacterial pneumonia, or bacterial infections in the sinuses that can spread throughout the body, as well as worsening previous health conditions.

These mutations are usually guarded to some extent by previous immunity among people. However, large influenza pandemics can occur when a new strain is developed in animals and spread into the human population. Their novelty means there is little to no immune protection existing in humans. The virus is spread rapidly between people in the air via droplets in coughs and sneezes or by touching contaminated surfaces. These pandemics occur when such a new strain infects human populations across the world, and occur irregularly, with 9 happening in the past three centuries.

Spanish Flu 1918-20

The deadliest pandemic was the so-called ‘Spanish Flu’ involving the H1N1 virus, the only Category 5 influenza pandemic, meaning a mortality rate of over 2% amongst those infected. It is unclear from where the disease originated, but crucially it did not start in Spain. The disease coincided with the end of the First World War, with fighting still ongoing. Participant countries censored press to minimise reports of the disease and maintain morale. Spain, however, was a neutral country, and so press covered the spread of the disease here accurately, making it seem as if Spain was suffering particularly, and so creating the name ‘Spanish Flu’.

British Red Cross

1919: American Red Cross volunteers carry a Spanish flu victim, 1919.
It is estimated that anywhere from 20 to 100 million people were killed worldwide, or the approximate equivalent of one third of the population of Europe, more than double the number killed in World War I. British Red Cross.

The timing of the flu was particularly apt for facilitating a pandemic. War meant the focus of governments and press was on other matters. Similarly, large parts of Europe had been devastated and both civilian and military populations were weak. Large troop movements facilitated the spread. The virus also mutated resulting in a more virulent strain developing leading to an even more lethal second wave. The more lethal strain was also spread more than usual: in a usual flu, a mild strain still allows someone to work and so move about and spread the strain, whereas a more severe one will incapacitate and keep the sufferer at home, preventing transmission; in war the more mild sufferers remained at their posts and the more severe sufferers were transported to hospitals to transmit the virus.

The disease spread to all parts of the globe, will 500 million estimated to have been infected and 20-50 million estimated to have died as a result. The disease was particularly deadly in its higher mortality among the young population, whereas deaths from most flus occur disproportionately among the elderly. The death toll for the disease was higher than the First World War, and the deadliest since the Black Death, yet it received little impact in the arts of the time. Virginia Woolf wrote in 1926 in her essay ‘On Being Ill’: “English, which can express the thoughts of Hamlet and the tragedy of Lear, has no words for the shiver and the headache”. It did appear among the work of some artists of the time, and Egon Schiele’s ‘The Family’ has come to embody the disease. Schiele depicts himself, his wife, and daughter, all three of which would die from the illness before the painting could be completed.

Other Influenza Pandemics

There have been 8 other influenza pandemics in the last 300 years, although none have passed beyond a Category 2 pandemic i.e. beyond 0.5% mortality amongst those infected. The ‘Asian Flu’ of 1957-8 and the ‘Hong Kong Flu’ of 1968-9 were two particularly deadly outbreaks, spreading all over the world and both resulting in the estimated deaths of 1-4 million. Their victims were more typically prevalent in more vulnerable population groups, especially the elderly.

The most recent pandemic was the ‘Swine Flu’ pandemic of 2009-10, originating in Mexico. This pandemic likely infected, according to the WHO, 11–21% of the global population, or around 700 million–1.4 billion people. Mortality was no more than the usual seasonal flu, but the characteristic feature was that the elderly were not disproportionately affected, much like the Spanish Flu.


HIV/AIDS 1981-present

AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome) is caused by the infection by two species of Lentivirus, commonly known as the HIV (human immunodeficiency viruses). The virus is usually sexually transmitted, but also occurrs through the transmission of bodily fluids such as from mother to child

in pregnancy and breastfeeding or between people via the sharing of needles or blood transfusions. The virus results in flu-like symptoms 2 to 6 weeks after infection but can remain symptomless for many years after this, whilst still destroying the infected person’s immune system. Left untreated, the virus leads to the condition AIDS, describing when the individual is susceptible to a variety of diseases a healthy immune system would normally defend against. These include tuberculosis, cancers, and other ‘opportunistic infections’. This is the final stage and can quickly cause death if left untreated.

HIV is believed to have originated from chimpanzees in the Democratic of Congo, likely from the bushmeat industry. The disease was discovered in the USA in 1981, when an increasing number of gay men, but also a smaller number of injected-drug users, gained unusual diseases such as rare lung infection called Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia (PCP), usually only found in people with severe complications in their immune system. This led to the disease being initially known as ‘GRID’ (Gay Related Immune Deficiency).

World AIDS Day - Red Ribbon on the White House. The red ribbon is the symbol of solidarity for people infected with AIDS. Photo by Ted Eytan.

World AIDS Day – Red Ribbon on the White House. The red ribbon is the symbol of solidarity for people infected with AIDS. Photo by Ted Eytan.

As organisations struggled to identify the cause, transmission and treatment of the disease, over 2.5 million cases had been confirmed by 1993. In the US, the death rate began to slow by 1997. However, in Africa, where homosexuality was illegal in many countries and the existence of a large homosexual population not acknowledged and persecuted, politics hampered response. AIDS activists were often arrested due to the disease’s associations with the gay population. In 2003, over 40% of adults in Botswana had the disease. Heroin addiction in Asia also led to over 2 million cases in India alone. Response still improved but the current death toll still stands at over 32 million and is constantly rising. In 2018, there remained around 37.9 million cases, with 20.6 million of these in Eastern and Southern Africa.

No cure of HIV exists, but treatment via highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART) can be very effective, and at present two people have been cleared of the disease.

Ebola 2013-16

The West African Ebola epidemic was a widespread outbreak of Ebola virus disease (EVD) in predominantly Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. It is spread via the contact with the bodily fluids of those infected, and is now known, though not at the time, to be also sexually transmitted. The disease is a haemorrhagic fever causing fever, head and body aches, and a sore throat before developing into vomiting, diarrhoea, internal and external bleeding, and the decreased function of the liver and kidneys. The mortality rate was extremely high at somewhere around 40%, usually due to lack of fluid pressure.

Ebola outbreaks had happened before, but this 2013-6 epidemic was especially lethal as it spread out of isolated rural areas to the capital cities of the three affected countries. The poor health and surveillance systems of the area facilitated the spread of the disease. In total there were 28,646 cases, with 11,323 deaths. The impact of the epidemic had knock-on effects on other diseases by absorbing resources and damaging the healthcare workforce. In Liberia, 8% of doctors, nurses, and midwives died. This meant other diseases such as malaria, HIV, and measles grew worse. The Public Health Emergency of International Concern status was lifted by the WHO in March 2019.

COVID-19 2019-Present

COVID-19 is a disease caused by the Coronavirus. Symptoms are similar to the flu, including fever, cough, and shortness of breath which can lead to pneumonia, acute respiratory distress syndrome. The disease is caused by droplets often spread via coughing or the touching of contaminated surfaces or people. The disease was first discovered in Wuhan, China in December 2019. Many believe it originated in the Huanan wet market which sold live animals.

Coronavirus Surgical Mask

Surgical Mask, Paul Sableman, Flickr Creative Commons

The severity of the pandemic is caused by the virus being especially contagious, the little immune defence to its novel form, and the fact it is asymptomatic for up to 14 days. The disease was spread via global travelling between countries and has been particularly deadly amongst the elderly generation. As of the 20 March there have been over 267,000 cases in 183 countries with over 11,000 deaths. But the majority (80%) of deaths have occurred in those over 60, and 75% in those with pre-existing conditions. Countries such as Italy, densely populated and with a high elderly population, have as a result been especially badly hit. Efforts to manage the pandemic have included quarantines, border closures, the closing of schools and universities, and the closing of bars, restaurants, cinemas and other social venues. The economic and social effect has been vast, with many businesses closing due to lack of business, and hysteria causing panic-buying and xenophobia, especially against Chinese individuals and businesses. The pandemic at the time of writing is ongoing and on the rise.


These epidemics were particularly impactful and frightening due to their fast and novel spread and the condensed nature of their effect. However, other diseases can be as deadly on a regular basis. There have been 7 Cholera pandemics, the worst being that of 1852-60 claiming over 1 million lives; there were 228 million cases of Malaria in 2018 with 405,000 deaths; over on quarter of the world’s current population have been infected with Tuberculosis and last year there were 8 million cases with around 2 million deaths. The threat of disease and epidemics has been a constant of life throughout the ages. And the current COVID-19 pandemic has shown the still real threat of epidemics to all nations even today.

More information:

Read: World’s Deadliest Plagues

Read: Where in the Wild has the Coronavirus Come From?

Worldometer: Live COVID-19 Updates

GOV.UK Guidance

Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Guidance

Australian Department of Health Guidance

By Wilfred Sandwell

WWII in Europe

WWII in Europe


The First World War had left much of Europe in an unstable tangle of ruins. Germany in particular felt aggrieved. Due to the Treaty of Versailles, its overseas territories were lost, and much of its land in Europe was ceded to create the Polish state. Reparations crippled its economy and its people were forced to accept blame for the war in the ‘War Guilt Clause’. The situation improved briefly through the 1920s, but the Wall Street Crash of 1929 collapsed the recovering economy, providing a breeding ground for extremism.

Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party’s nationalistic call to end reparations, regain lost territory and prioritise the German race won huge popularity, becoming the largest party in the 1933 elections. Hitler began to tie his party to the state. Other political parties were banned, the Gestapo were formed as a secret police, and his own bodyguards, the SA and SS, were given the same powers as the police. Hitler left the League of Nations and tied himself closer to Fascist Mussolini and Italy.



Neville Chamberlain returning with a declaration of peace between Germany and Britian during the now infamous period of appeasement.

Hitler then began to expand to gain Lebensraum (Living Space) for the German people.  He first joined Austria with strong support, and then far more controversially annexed Czechoslovakia. The weakened state and anti-war sentiment of Britain and France led them to a policy of ‘Appeasement’. The USA was following a policy of isolationism, which undermined the League of Nations’ potency, and Japan and the Soviet Union had no interest in challenging Hitler, preferring to expand themselves.

Japan and Germany signed the Anti-Comitern Pact against Communism in 1939. More aggressively, the Nazi-Soviet Pact arranged the division of Eastern Europe between the two countries after a series of annexations. On 1 September 1939, Germany invaded Poland using Blitzkrieg tactics, which the UK and France had pledged to protect. They declared war on Germany on 3 September 1939.


Despite the British and French declaration, the Western frontier experienced very little military action in what became known as the ‘Phoney War’. Soviet forces also invaded Poland on 17 September and Poland formally surrendered on the 5 October. The Soviet Union then annexed the three Baltic states by August 1940. No resistance was offered. However, Finland rejected Soviet forces, starting the ‘Winter War’, a hard-fought conflict of 5 months in which, despite numerical advantage, the Soviets gained little ground and signed a treaty in which the Finns resentfully ceded 10% of their territory. Germany invaded Norway and Denmark on the 9 April 1940, achieving victory on 10 June, despite some resistance from the British Navy. German attention could now turn West to France.

German Advance West

France had prepared for a German invasion with the Maginot Line, a strong series of fortifications extending across the Franco-German border. The majority of French forces were centred in Flanders on the Belgian border, expecting the German invasion here as the First World War. Instead Germany passed through the neutral Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg before invading to the South on 13 May.

The French army was separated from the majority of France, and the Allied forces were put firmly on the retreat. France went with shocking speed. Paris was besieged and occupied, the government fled, Italy declared war on 10th June, and France surrendered on the 22. Moreover, the surrender was signed in the same train carriage as the German surrender on 1918, specifically arranged by Hitler in order to humiliate France.

British forces were trying to retreat from France and were stranded on the wrong side of the English Channel, with 400,000 trapped at the port of Dunkirk. The German tanks were forced to wait for their infantry to catch up, but time was limited and great causalities were expected. The bold Operation Dynamo was launched. A fleet of both military and civilian ships, over 800 strong eventually, was raised and sent to rescue the trapped troops, whilst the last 40,000 French troops fought a delaying action. Only 68,000 men were lost, in what became known as the ‘Miracle of Dunkirk’, but all the British heavy equipment had to be left. The Germans were left to plan an invasion of Britain, but first aerial superiority and neutralisation of the powerful British Navy had to be achieved.

Battle of the Atlantic

The naval battle between the European powers and allies was the longest and most complex of the war. Whilst the Phoney War happened on land, a German U-boat (submarine) sank a British passenger liner, the SS Athenia, within hours of the declaration. The German Navy could not challenge the British and French Navy, and instead relied on attempting to blockade Britain, which as an island was reliant on imports, via submarines (U-boats) and air attacks.

The German U-boats caused particular issue, traditionally used as lone ambushers of trading vessels. The Allied reaction was to create convoys, groups of 30-70 merchant ships guarded by war vessels. The Germans developed the Rudeltaktik (Wolf-pack) system, where many submarines would attack a singular convoy, overwhelming the defending war vessels. Most damaging was the US refusal to accept British intelligence, leading to 500 unescorted being ships being sunk before they developed their own convoy system.

U534, German U-Boat. Paul Adams, Public Domain.

U534, German U-Boat. Paul Adams, Public Domain.

Winston Churchill commented, “the only thing that ever really frightened me during the war was the U-boat peril”. But the crisis was averted with new technology, especially better weapons and radio, the long-range aircraft Liberator, equipped with centimetric radar, and crucially ‘Ultra’ intelligence. This was from the decoded ‘Enigma’ messages, a German code that regularly changed, broken by code breakers at Bletchley Park, England. Despite this, the battle was costly with many vessels wrecked. 75-85,000 allied seamen, and shockingly 28,000 of 41,000 of the German U-Boat men lost their lives.

Battle of Britain

Following victory in France Hitler planned ‘Operation Sealion’ – the invasion of Britain. To do so though, superiority in the sky was essential. The Luftwaffe (German Air Force) outnumbered the RAF in plane numbers but the British had two advantages. Their defence system, the Dowding system, was very effective, combining radar, ground defences and fighters into one unit; and their fighter aircraft were superior, especially the Hawker Hurricane and Supermarine Spitfire.

Spitfire, Airwolfhound, Flickr Creative Commons

Spitfire, Airwolfhound, Flickr Creative Commons

The Luftwaffe begun their attack on 12 August and targeted British airbases, aiming to destroy radar stations and runways. The RAF took heavy losses but compensated by recruits from places such as New Zealand, Australia, Canada, South Africa, and Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), occupied Belgium, France, Poland and Czechoslovakia, and neutral Ireland and USA. No.303 Polish Squadron was the highest scoring unit of the battle. The Civilian Repair Organisation also out-produced and repaired Germany, putting nearly 5,000 aircraft back into battle.

On 7 September, thinking the RAF near beat, the Luftwaffe shifted focus to bombing London and other major cities in what became known as the ‘Blitz’, in which London was bombed for 56 of the next 57 days. Although this greatly damaged the British residents, the RAF recovered and forced Operation Sealion to be indefinitely postponed.

Balkans and Greece

Italy had already annexed Albania prior to the outbreak of war. Upon its onset, Italy also invaded Greece in October 1940 but was an initial disaster, the Greeks in fact pushing the Italians back into Albania.

Germany, with aid from Italy, Hungary and Bulgaria invaded Yugoslavia in April 1941 dividing it up into Croatia and Serbia. However, a strong rebel group formed under the would-be Communist leader Josip Tito which gained great success, eventually liberating the country.

After initially defeating Yugoslavia, Germany moved south into Greece. Although there was fierce resistance, the German army succeeded in flanking the majority of the Greek army facing the Italians on the Albanian front. By May, resistance had ended on the mainland the allied force retreated to Crete.

Crashed German glider and dead crew members, Crete - Courtesy of The Alexander Turnbull Library

Crashed German glider and dead crew members, Crete – Courtesy of The Alexander Turnbull Library

The Battle of Crete was started by a nearly entirely airborne invasion by German paratroopers. The Germans faced fierce civilian opposition, with locals picking off paratroopers with whatever weapons were available. However, by the end of the second day, the Germans had taken most of the North and the allied evacuation begun. Resistance continued, especially through spy rings orchestrated by the British through figures like John Pendlebury, until his death during the German invasion, and Patrick Leigh Fermour, who most famously succeeded in abducting the German commander, General Kreipe.

Greece played little part in the allied counter-movement, and indeed Crete was the last German-held zone to surrender, in the Villa Ariadne at Knossos.


On 13 September, Italy invaded Egypt, a British colony, via its own colony, Libya. The goal was to gain control of the Suez Canal, a vital link for Britain to her colonies in Asia, and to gain access to the oil-rich Middle East. Britain and her allies under Archibald Waver numbered initially only 36,000 to the Italians’ estimated 150,000. However, Waver weathered the initial storm and then pushed back and defeated the Italians, capturing 130,000 men.

However, Waver was weakened as his troops were diverted to Greece and East Africa, where the Italians had expanded out of Abyssinia, modern Ethiopia, but were then countered from Kenya and forced to surrender. Worse for the Allies, Hitler reinforced Mussolini on 11 February 1941 with Major-General Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps, landing at Tripoli.

Fighting in desert conditions was brutal: disease was common, extremes of high temperature in the day and low at night was testing, and supplies, especially water were easily stretched. This meant there were several large advances and then losses. Rommel’s coordination of infantry and tanks was very effective and eventually the Allied troops were pushed back into Egypt. But a stand at Alamein halted the Germans, and a second battle there started a long retreat all the way to Tunisia. This was aided by the creation of the SAS, the now elite unit, that sabotaged behind enemy lines. The US and allied troops also invaded Morocco with success. On 7 April 1943, 250,000 Axis troops surrendered.

Middle East

The Middle East also proved a complex theatre of war. Italy maintained strong relations in Iraq, a British colony, and launched a propaganda campaign that succeeded in causing a coup by Rashid Ali, and an independence movement. Vichy France also allowed Germany to move planes into Syria to aid the rebels. However, the better trained British garrison defeated Ali and re-occupied Iraq. Moreover, this was used as a pretext to invade and occupy Syria and Jordan, colonies of Vichy France, by Britain with Australian and Indian troops.

In August 1941, British and Soviet troops also invaded Iran, desiring access to the oil fields due to the strain on oil caused by the German Naval Blockade. The Shah was deemed pro-German and so despite his neutrality, was ousted and replaced by his son, who favoured the Allies.

Eastern Front

On 22 June 1941, Germany invaded the Soviet Union, codenamed Operation Barbarossa. It has become known as the bloodiest conflict in history, with around 15 million soldiers killed, 10 million captured and 20 million civilians killed. The majority of war crimes, including the Nazi death camps, happened in this conflict and partisan warfare in occupied territories was ruthless with extensive rape and destruction, often at the cost of local civilians.

The German invasion gave no warning, and by September had made large gains in the Baltic States, Belorussia, the Crimea and Ukraine, most importantly Kiev in which 400,000 Soviet troops were captured. Over the next two months though the advance slowed: the increasingly wintery conditions slowed vehicles, grounded the air force for long periods, and suited the better prepared Soviet army. Still, Germany advanced within 30km of the Kremlin in December, but the bitter conditions, often 43 degrees below freezing, halted advances with Moscow and Leningrad (St. Petersburg) remaining untaken.

A battle-hardened German soldier in Stalingrad, 27 November 1942. Photo by Friedrich Gehrmann. Julius Jääskeläinen, Flickr Creative Commons

A battle-hardened German soldier in Stalingrad, 27 November 1942. Photo by Friedrich Gehrmann. Julius Jääskeläinen, Flickr Creative Commons

The Soviet Counter-Offensive in early 1942 relieved Moscow of immediate danger, and the delay allowed troops in the East, stationed in fear of a Japanese invasion, to be brought over. The German Army pushed hard in the South, to take the oil-rich Caucuses and the important city of Stalingrad in one push. Here the war turned. Soviet forces surrounded Stalingrad in the Winter of 1942 and trapped 300,000 Axis troops there. The fighting was bitter, often hand-to-hand in the streets. The average life-expectancy for a Soviet private was just 24 hours in this battle. But Soviet victory here meant by Spring 1944, their invasion of German lands could begin.

Home Fronts

The nations involved in World War 2 came into a state of ‘Total War’, meaning all society including the civilian population and infrastructure is mobilised for war and so also a military target.

Most countries had learnt from World War 1 and introduced measures immediately. Rationing was common and a high percentage of women were mobilised in the work place to replace the men fighting. In Britain, millions of children were ‘evacuated’, either to the countryside to escape the German bombings or some even abroad to the USA and Commonwealth. Propaganda became of critical importance. Political and social divides, such as religion in Russia and traditional female roles, were abandoned in communal patriotic spirit of unity.

In occupied territories, life was hard as supplies were limited and often prioritised to the occupying forces. Germany requisitioned 15% of French food output, and kept 1.5 million soldiers as prisoners, with their wives only receiving a small allowance to compensate. 1 in 10 were forced to resort to prostitution. In areas such as the Eastern Front, where the land was still contested, conditions were worse. Food was short, especially in Europe where Germany even used starvation as a deliberate tactic, and disease was rife.


The Nazi party had since 1933 used policies of anti-Semitism, alienating Jews from certain professions, restricting their rights, and encouraging hatred in events such as Kristallnacht in which 267 synagogues were destroyed. Concentration camps were set up from 1933, the first being Dachau, as a way of holding Jews, as well as other ‘undesirables’ such as homosexuals or political enemies, and using them in forced labour. Prisoners were collected from throughout occupied territory, first in Ghettos in cities such as Warsaw, and then were later systematically transported to these camps.

Auschwitz Concentration Camp, Fred Romero, Flickr Creative Commons

Auschwitz Concentration Camp, Fred Romero, Flickr Creative Commons

The lives of prisoners were of little consequence and conditions were poor. However, they were not the same as extermination camps, introduced in 1941. At the Wannsee conference, German officials were informed of the ‘Final Solution to the Jewish Question’. This was a euphemism for the extermination of the Jewish race. Camps such as Auschwitz-Birkenau, Treblinka and Sobibor, were set up to systematically kill as many inmates as possible. The preferred method of execution was in gas chambers which were filled with lethal cyanide-based Zyklon-B or engine gases. However, mass shootings, starvation and exhaustion were also widespread. Dead bodies were then burnt in mass crematoria.

With the German line retreating, many camps were evacuated and forced into death marches. The camps were dismantled, and gas chambers destroyed in order to deny any crimes. The allied forces eventually caught up and liberated many of the prisoners but were shocked and appalled with what was found. It is estimated 6 million died as a result of the Holocaust, and 11 million once other ‘undesirables’, especially Soviet POWs, are added.

WW2 Russian Memorial

WWII Russian Memorial

Allied Invasion of Italy

Following victory in Africa, the Allied forces moved to invade Italy. On 10 July 1943, there were amphibious and airborne attacks on Sicily, taking Messina opposite the toe of Italy on 10 August. On 25 July Mussolini was ousted and the new government began negotiations with the Allies. On 3 September, allies crossed the Straits of Messina into Italy, and the government surrendered the same day.

However, Germany was prepared and began to occupy the Northern half of Italy, disarming Italian troops there. Such troops provided an issue for the Germans not only in Italy, but areas occupied by both countries such as Greece and Yugoslavia. There were large numbers of POWs that needed to be housed leading to disasters such as the sinking of the SS Petrella, SS Oria and Tanais by the Allies, in which thousands of POWs died.

Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini in Munich, Germany, ca. 06/1940

Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini in Munich, Germany, ca. 06/1940.

The Germans developed ‘the Winter Line’ of defence to the south of Rome which halted Allied advance. Mussolini was imprisoned by the Allies in Hotel Campo Imperatore in the Gran Sasso mountains but was rescued by an ambitious glider raid and returned to Vienna before being placed as puppet leader of the new Italian Social Republic in Northern Italy. In Spring 1944, the line was broken and in June, Rome captured. The war in Italy now slowed, as focus shifted to France, and the Allied force was made up of a force of over 16 nations, with surrender achieved on 2 May 1945. On 28 April, Mussolini was captured and executed by firing squad. The bodies were then taken to Milan and unceremoniously strung up in front of a filling station.

Operation Overlord

Operation Overlord was the Allied invasion of France from across the English Channel. Preparations were extensive. Hitler brought Rommel from Africa to prepare a defence, the Atlantic Wall, which he focused around Calais, nearest to England, with the best weaponry possible including the V2 rockets, the first military missiles.

However, the Allies preferred Normandy as it was more open and less defended. An extensive deception campaign was launched with fake radio transmission, dummy tanks and trucks in Dover opposite Calais, and double-agents to convince the Germans the invasion was planned on a different date at Calais or even in Norway.

Ports were also avoided, being better defended, and Mulberry ports, portable breakwaters and piers that could be quickly placed, were developed as well as the ‘Hobart’s Funnies’, special tanks designed for amphibious attacks by attaching flamethrowers, mine flails, or in the shape of a ramp which could be used by other tanks to scale sea walls.

Omaha Beach, Dennis Jarvis, Flickr creative Commons

Omaha Beach, Dennis Jarvis, Flickr creative Commons

Beaches were selected with the Americans assigned Utah and Omaha, the British Sword and Gold, and the Canadians Juno.  Initial plans were delayed by bad weather. However, on 6 June, the landings failed in advancing to their planned positions, but all landed successfully, despite great losses, especially at Omaha, with 160,000 troops landed, to be followed eventually by over three million more.

End of War

Operation Overlord was backed by Operation Dragoon in Provence opening up a front across France. Progress though was slow in both France and Italy as the Germans remained on the defence. A last counter-offensive failed though and left advance open to the Allies against a more vulnerable line. The Rhine was crossed in January 1945 and the last German troops in the West surrounded in the Ruhr.

The Soviets also had rapidly advanced through Eastern Europe and moved in on Berlin. Following Mussolini’s death, Hitler realised the end was near. Even as the Battle of Berlin raged on, orchestrated by the ragged remains of the army, police and even the Hitler Youth and civilian militia, Hitler committed suicide on 30 April 1945. German unconditional surrender was achieved on 8 May, known as V-Day in Europe.


WW II Court room 600, Nuremberg

WWII Court room 600, Nuremberg

At the Potsdam Conference, a peace treaty was arranged by ‘the Big Three’: the Soviet Union, USA and UK. Germany was to be divided in four, between these three and France, and would be demilitarised. All annexations of Germany would be reversed, and their territory in the East reduced by 25%, whilst the Soviet Union and Poland gained land. The Nuremburg Trials were also set up to try the Nazi officials for war crimes, especially regarding the Holocaust.

The War had been the bloodiest in history with 50-60 million estimated dead, but even in peace, the possibility of war raised its head. With Europe in ruins, the superpowers of the USA and Soviet Union were left. Germany, especially Berlin, with its divided sectors would become a battleground for the Cold War. Europe, and especially Germany, would take decades to recover from the conflict, with its repercussions still felt strongly today.

More information:

Read: New Series: Ultimate Blitzkrieg – The WW2 Battle of Crete

Read: World War II: The D-Day Landings

By Wilfred Sandwell

Ancient Greece

Ancient Greece

The ancient Greeks as a civilisation have arguably affected the Western World more than any other in history. Their contributions of science, philosophy, architecture, politics and drama are felt every day by the modern world. However, the Ancient Greeks were never part of a Greece as we know it today. The Ancient Greeks were actually a loose grouping of hundreds of individual city states, typically a single city surrounded by a varying amount of agricultural land with several outlying towns and villages.

Paestum in Italy was formerly a part of Ancient Greece

Paestum in Italy was formerly a part of Ancient Greece

The Ancient Greeks were never united in one Greek nation and their habitations extended far beyond what is now Modern Greece. They did inhabit the modern Greek mainland and Aegean islands, but also nearly all of the modern Turkish coastline, particularly on the side of the Aegean, several locations on the Black Sea, Cyprus, some towns and cities in Egypt, the Cyrenaica in modern Libya, much of Sicily including Syracuse, Southern Italy including Paestum and Cumae, modern Naples, Sardinia, even spreading as far as Spain, and founding Massilia, now Marseille.

What is ‘Greek’?

The question then is what made Greeks Greek. Herodotus writes, “Greek people, with whom we are united in sharing the same kinship and language, with whom we have established shrines and conduct sacrifices to the gods together, and with whom we also share the same way of life.” (VIII:144.2).

The ‘Greek way of life’ is a tricky thing to define but there are many common characteristics: a market place, the agora, as the centre of city life and far more than a market place – think of the Houses of Parliament, Trafalgar Square, the Old Bailey, and Covent Garden rolled into one; religion as a central part of both personal and civic life; and a strong notion of law, nomos, and civic involvement in politics. The Greeks at least in theory shared a common ethnicity, with several subsections, although many colonies will have mingled extensively with the native populations. This is why foundation stories, Syracuse in Sicily as a Corinthian colony, Cyrene in Libya as a colony of Thasos, were so important. The Greek language was widely spread, although with several dialects, and would become a ‘lingua franca’ for much of the Mediterranean and the Roman Empire. Finally, all Greeks with some adaptation, shared a common religion which survives to us today in the form of Greek myths. All these parameters though were flexible, and many peoples claimed to be Greek or like the Greeks and it is with this very loose definition of ‘Greek’ we should consider the Greek world.

Greek Mythology


The Greek origin myth, as first told by Hesiod, is that there was originally Chaos, before there spawned Gaia (Earth) and Ouranos (Sky) who gave birth to the Titans as well as the Cyclops and Hecatonchires (100 handed giants). One child, Kronos, a corn god, castrated Ouranos and became king of the gods. Ouranos’ sperm fell into the sea to form Aphrodite.

Kronos and Rhea then gave birth to the Olympians, including Zeus, Poseidon, Hades, Hestia, Demeter, and Hera. Kronos feared his children would usurp him, as he did to Ouranos, and so ate them all as they were born until Rhea hid her youngest child, Zeus, and replaced him with a stone, which Kronos ate instead. When grown, Zeus challenged Kronos. He gave him a drug which made him vomit up the eaten gods, and with their help and that of the Cyclops, freed by Zeus from Tartarus and creators of his thunderbolt, defeated the Titans and imprisoned them in Tartarus, except some including Oceanus (Ocean), Atlas, who held up the sky, Helios (Sun) and Prometheus. The stone was set up in the Delphi as the centre of the world and a cult monument.

Athena, Goddess of War, Peter D. Tillman, Flickr Creative Commons

Athena, Goddess of War, Peter D. Tillman, Flickr Creative Commons

The other gods were sprung from this time on, many from the marriage of Zeus and Hera, but many more from the lustful Zeus’ extra-marital affairs, and Athena, fully grown and dressed for war, from his own skull after he ate her mother Metis (Cunning).

An interesting observation is that in Babylonian and Hittite mythology, there is a very similar progression of the sky god being castrated and defeated by the corn god, in turn defeated by the storm god. Such details seem to suggest Greek mythology spread from these cultures.


Zeus then created the human race, at first only men, who were given the gift of fire by the Titan Prometheus who stole it from heaven. This greatly angered Zeus and as punishment he chained Prometheus to a rock, where each morning a vulture would come and eat his guts, before healing overnight, as an immortal god, for the vulture to repeat the act again the next day. This was until Zeus took pity and sent his son Hercules to free Prometheus. To punish humans, Zeus ordered Hephaestus to create woman, the first being Pandora (meaning All Gifts), who was accordingly given needlework and clothes by Athena, grace and beauty by Aphrodite, a deceiptful nature by Hermes, and necklaces and a crown by Persuasion and the Graces. She was also given a jar, which in later myth became a box, in which were contained all the evils of the world but also hope. Pandora promptly opened the jar, and thus evil was explained in the world.


Greek myth was created to explain the world, and aspects such as the existence of evil, and explains much about Greek thinking and the way they understood their world. Another example is the myth of Persephone, daughter of Demeter, the goddess of fertility. She was abducted by Hades, the god of the Underworld, and this caused a crisis among the gods. Zeus, as god of the sky, was not meant to interfere with the Underworld, but Demeter’s sadness meant no food was grown and so Zeus was forced to order Hades to return Persephone. However, Hades first tricked Persephone into eating some pomegranate seeds and thus to accept his hospitality as host to a guest, a very important relationship in Ancient Greece. So Persephone was forced to spend one third of the year in the Underworld, two thirds with her mother on Earth, and so the Greeks explained the seasons and the infertile winter months due to Persephone’s absence and Demeter’s sadness.


Paris, a prince of Troy (a city in North West Turkey), visited Sparta and fell in love with its queen, Helen. The two ran away together back to Troy to the great anger of her husband Menelaus. He asked for the help of his brother, Agamemnon king of Mycenae and the most powerful king in Greece. He collected a vast army of all the kings of Greece, including Achilles, Odysseus and Ajax to attack Troy. The siege lasted 10 years and was the setting of many famous adventures.

Troy, Turkey, David Spender, Flickr Creative Commons

Troy, Turkey, David Spender, Flickr Creative Commons

The most famous account is that of Homer, whose Iliad covers several days in the last year of the war. Agamemnon and Achilles, the best fighter on the Greek side, argue over a slave-girl, Briseis, causing Achilles’ now famous wrath and him to refuse to fight. After the Greeks begin to lose badly, his friend and often thought lover, Patroclus, dons Achilles’ armour and pushes the Trojans back, to then be killed by their champion, Prince Hector. Achilles’ wrath shifts and an inevitable showdown occurs in which Hector dies. But Achilles’ wrath is not done, and he ties Hector’s body to the back of his chariot and drags it three times round the city and leaves it to rot, shocking and against all morals, even in war. But the gods protect Hector’s body and guide his father, King Priam, right into the Greek camp, where a moving meeting convinces Achilles to release his wrath, return the body and Priam safely to Troy, and to suspend fighting to allow a burial.

Other stories include Achilles’ death by an arrow in his heel. His goddess mother Thetis dipped him as a baby into the river Styx, the river of the Underworld, to make him invulnerable except where she held him, by the heel, leaving one weakness, his Achilles’ heel. Another is the Trojan horse in which several Greeks hid as the rest pretended to go home, only to return once the hidden soldiers opened the gates, and so Troy finally fell. Finally, Homer’s Odyssey recounts Odysseus’s ten year journey home encountering the Cyclops, Sirens and witch Circe on the way home, before returning to reclaim his home from the evil suitors and to be reunited with his faithful wife Penelope and now grown son, Telemachus.


Mycenaeans and Minoans

If there was a Trojan war, it was during the Mycenaean and Minoan civilisations from around 1600BC to 1100BC. The Mycenaeans were a civilisation that lived in mainland Greece and achieved great wealth and power. The treasure hordes of Mycenae, the biggest city, and other places such as Tiryns are impressive but even more so are the vast walls that surround all the cities.

Unlike these, the Minoans lived on Crete, and their cities are remarkably free of walls. Instead they seemed to have enjoyed a peaceful period, with fantastic art work in their large palaces such as Knossos, extensive agricultural land and evidence of trade throughout the Mediterranean. One Minoan colony, Thera, now Santorini, suffered a large volcanic eruption that caused most of the island to sink, perhaps creating the myth of Atlantis.

Both civilisations were known to the Hittites, from whom we do have some textual evidence, perhaps most excitingly of a city, Wilusa, very similar to Troy’s alternative name Ilium or Ilios. Perhaps this is the historical city of the Trojan War. What is most puzzling is that both civilisations mysteriously disappeared, with no sign of destruction or disaster.

Athens and Sparta

Civilisation in Greece experienced a resurgence from 800BC onwards until Roman conquest of the area, finalised in 146BC. Two states or cities remained prominent across this period: Athens and Sparta.

Sparta was located in Laconia in the South-East Peloponnese, a fertile land but surrounded by hilly passes that acted as excellent fortification. This and Spartan military prowess meant the city was never walled. Sparta is now considered a warrior nation, but this was only achieved by victory over and conquest of neighbouring Messenia, making a vast territory for a Greece city. The Messenians were enslaved and became helots, whose agricultural serfdom provided for the Spartan ruling class and enabled their devotion to military training. Any unhealthy baby was hurled from a high rock or abandoned at birth. The agoge was a compulsory school of war, begun at age 7. The Spartan ideal was to excel and die in war and never surrender. Sparta was ruled by two kings, who were mainly in charge of war, but there were also five ephors for the five Spartan villages and a council of gerontes (elders). Sparta waged near constant border wars against Argos and the Achaeans, before rivalry with Athens led to the Peloponnesian Wars. Centuries of near constant war and the exclusivity of the ruling class led to a large population decline which caused Sparta’s later loss of military prowess from the 4th century BC onwards.

Parthenon Temple of Athena, Athens, Neda Dorudi

Parthenon Temple of Athena, Athens, Neda Dorudi

Athens was located in Attica in central Greece, again a relatively large territory for a Greek city, and mostly rocky. The city rose to prominence after the Persian Wars of 499-449BC, when her fleet, actually built to defeat the nearby island rival Aegina, was vital in fending off the Persian invasion. Her fleet also allowed Athens to create something like an Empire throughout much of the Aegean, with subject states paying annual tribute. This wealth made Athens a metropolis and bred an attitude of scholarship that attracted many of the famous names known to us today. Thucydides, Socrates and Plato, were all Athenian, and many more scholars, such as Herodotus, spent time in the city. The annual dramatic competition also spawned the likes of Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides and Aristophanes. Another factor in this reputation was its adoption of democracy, which became popular throughout Greece.


Persian Wars

The Persians, with an empire stretching from Iran to Egypt, had conquered the Greek cities in Ionia, or now the Turkish Coast. In 499BC, these Greek cities rebelled with the aid of independent Athens and Eretria. Having suppressed the revolt, the Persian king Darius vowed to avenge these two states’

involvement. One expedition in 490 conquered the Cyclades and Euboea (Evvia), razing Eretria to the ground, before finally being stopped by the Athenians at Marathon. The run of the messenger from the battle site to Athens to announce the victory is the namesake of the modern race, the marathon.

However, Darius was unfinished and his death in 486 BC did not end Persian ambition, with his son Xerxes continuing preparation for a larger invasion in 480 BC, modern scholars estimating 300,000-500,000 strong. This uniquely bound many Greek states together, although many surrendered immediately. Xerxes crossed the Dardanelles on a bridge of ships tied together and marched down through Northern Greece. His first major hinderance was a small force at the narrow pass of Thermopylae by several thousand allied Greeks, and a similar holding fleet at nearby Artemisium. The Greeks remarkably held the much larger Persian army until a Greek goatherd betrayed the Greeks and told Xerxes of a route behind the Greek position. At this moment, Leonidas famously stayed with his 300 Spartans, but in fact also with 700 Thespians and 400 Thebans, to delay the Persians in a suicide mission whilst the other Greeks retreated.

This left Athens open, but there had already been a prophecy Athens’ protection was her wooden walls. Most believed it to mean her fleet and so evacuated to the nearby island of Salamis. Sure enough, the general Themistocles blackmailed the rest of the Greek fleet to stay and tricked the Persian fleet into sailing rashly into the narrow strait between Salamis and the mainland. Here they were trapped by a hidden Greek fleet blocking their rear and the more manoeuvrable Greek triremes, ships with three rows of oars, won a stunning victory against a much larger fleet, destroying it nearly entirely.

Athens was nonetheless sacked, and with this objective complete and the crushing defeat at sea, Xerxes left home with most of his army. A small force of 70,000 was left under the general Mardonius, which was defeated in 479 at Plataea, again largely due to the Spartans. This begun a Greek fightback that pushed the Persians out of all Greek territory, including the coast of Turkey, but also left two superpowers, Athens and Sparta, who would eventually come to war.

Peloponnesian War

Athens particularly benefitted from the Persian defeat, taking over leadership of the Greek effort from Sparta and establishing the Delian League, an alliance with a combined treasury at Delos. However, once the treasury was moved to Athens, this alliance became an Empire, controlled by Athens’ unbeatable navy, and provoked fear and resentment among other Greek cities, especially Corinth, Sparta’s ally. Eventually, Sparta declared war in 431 BC, invading Athens several times. But Athens had built walls between the city and her port at Piraeus. Sparta could not scale the walls and Athens’ fleet allowed to maintain her empire as well as import anything needed to survive. Athens even won a shocking surrender by Spartan troops at Pylos before a daring Spartan campaign in far Northern Greece and a devastating plague at Athens forced a treaty in 421 BC.

In this brief peace, Athens continued to expand, most ambitiously and disastrously into Sicily in 415-3 BC. This ended with utter defeat and the loss of around 10,000 men and 200 ships. During this time, war with Sparta recommenced but despite the Sicily expedition and several shocking naval defeats, Athens fought on until Persian Empire funded Sparta’s navy. A final and total defeat at the sea battle of Aegospotami, and a long siege forced an Athenian surrender in 404BC.

Alexander the Great

Phillip II was king of Macedon, a kingdom North of Greece usually held to be uncivilised but with a strong Greek influence. He conquered most of the Greek states but was assassinated age 46 in 336BC, leaving his young son Alexander to rule. Quickly putting down several revolts, including destroying Thebes, he moved against the Persian Empire and in a matter of years had defeated its ruler Darius entirely, conquering the major cities such as Babylon and razing the Persian capital Persepolis. Alexander continued even further East, campaign successfully in Pakistan, the foothills of Himalayas, and modern Punjab. However, his army then refused to go on and Alexander was forced to return home. His long campaign far away from home, his mixing of Persian and Macedonian practices and his increasing reliance of Persian governors and soldiers led to some malcontent and Alexander descended into megalomania, executing many of his closest advisors. He died in Babylon from a sudden illness aged just 33.

Mosaic of Alexander the Great, National Archeological Museum of Naples, Pompeii

Mosaic of Alexander the Great, National Archeological Museum of Naples, Pompeii

His empire then became divided amongst his generals. This made Hellenism, or Greek culture, the presiding culture in much of the known world: there were cities called Alexandria as far as Egypt and India; there was a prolific phase called Greco-Buddhism in modern Pakistan, formed from a synchronism of Apollo and Buddha; and many Greek ruling dynasties were formed abroad. Cleopatra, that famous Egyptian queen and seductress of Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, was in fact Greek. It is no doubt largely as a result of Alexander that Greek culture influenced Rome so much, and from there spread through much Western culture.



Democracy was a Greek invention that spread throughout the Greek world. It worked in a more direct form than our representative version today; there were no MPs and no government. Every citizen was able to vote in person on every issue at the assembly. However, only male citizens could vote; slaves, women, and metics (immigrants) could not.

Political positions chosen from among all citizens by lot, which meant all had reason to be politically involved – the equivalent would be you being chosen at random to serve in next month’s cabinet. Law courts also played a prominent role in Greek life, with juries created and law and rhetoric taught and encouraged to provide fair and worthy trials.


Drama was a uniquely Greek invention, with no other civilisation spawning an equivalent. It is thought to have potentially originated in the worship of Dionysus in Athens. There would be a procession between the altar and temple, which would include re-enactment of various stories

about the god. At some point, the focus went from pleasing the god, to entertaining spectators and the theatre was formed around this practice.

The stories were then extended away from Dionysus, and the focus of the City Dionysia, the festival to Dionysus, was five days of dramatic contest. There would be three tragic poets chosen, such as Aeschylus, Euripides and Sophocles, who would write three tragic plays and a concluding satyr play. Tragedies include Oedipus Rex and Medea, but only a fraction survived, and no extant satyr play remains. Each poet would have his plays performed on one day each. A fourth day would be then present three or five comedies by different poets, a normally more light-hearted, self-aware and overtly political genre. There would then be a final day of judging. Theatres spread through-out the Greek and Roman world. Its quite a remarkable thing that to sit in the theatre of Dionysus in Athens, is to sit in the birthplace of all modern film and tv, Hollywood and drama.


The Olympics were also a Greek invention, occurring as a way of worshiping Zeus in his temple at Olympia starting in 776 BC and continuing until the Emperor Theodosius stopped them in 393 AD. Originally one day, and then extended to a longer period, the festival occurred every four years and was importantly pan-Hellenic. This means it was a festival for all Greeks, and there was traditionally a truce amongst all Greek at the time of the festival so any athlete could compete. The temple held a 12.4m high statue of Zeus, made of wood but covered in gold and ivory, which was held one of the seven wonders of the Ancient world.

Sports included: various distances of running, including one race in full armour; long jump, but from a standing start with weights in hand to swing and give momentum; discus; wrestling; boxing; pankration, thought to be an early mixed martial art; horse and chariot races. Victors were awarded olive leaf crowns and became celebrities at home.


The Olympics were the biggest of several games, other major ones including the Nemean and Pythian games. These all occurred at major religious sites as a way of honouring the gods. The Pythian games honoured Apollo at the site of Delphi, a breath-taking spot in the Greek mountains which was also the location for his famous oracle. One famous prophecy was that given to Croesus, King of Lydia, that by making war against Persia he would destroy a great empire – the empire was his own.

The gods played an important role in Greek life. It worked in a reciprocal relationship: by offering something to the god, the god would favour you and grant you something, you would then thank the god with an offering and the god would continue to favour you etc. This could be highly personal: little statues are often found in temples as gifts from individuals. On a grander scale, a city could build lavish temples to win the god’s favour. The Parthenon of Athens is such an example. Temples were designed as houses to the god, the inner sanctum of which was reserved only for the priests. Outside sacrifices would be made and festivals held. They were often located in spectacular locations, such as Delphi in the mountains or in Lindos above the city, overlooking the sea. This was to please and be closer to the god.

Philosophy and Science

The Greeks were also pioneers in Philosophy and Science. The Early Greek Philosophers were concerned with what made up the world, a progression that culminated in the theory of atoms, something which could not be cut (a- meaning negative, and -tomao meaning ‘to cut’), and ‘void’ surrounding it, which we would call vacuum, in combination making up everything in the world.

Another group followed in the practice of Socrates, including Plato. Socrates was nicknamed the horse-fly for his consistent probing questions such as, ‘what is justice?’. The question was usually answered with an example of justice, not justice itself. Aristotle himself learnt from Plato and taught Alexander the Great. He is often credited with first formally studying logic, as well as making leaps in physics and metaphysics. Pythagoras is famous now for discovering trigonometry, but also contributed to the idea of ‘soul’ as a separate and immortal part of the body, a mathematical equation ordering the movement of planets, and that the Earth was a sphere, not flat.

The Greeks were also great inventors. Archimedes is the most famous, largely due to his notorious ‘Eureka’ moment (meaning ‘I’ve found it). Supposedly in the bath, he discovered that by placing an object in water, one could measure its volume and hence deduce the volume or irregular objects. Other achievements were the Archimedes screw, a way of pumping water via a moving screw shaped blade. In the siege of his city, Syracuse, by the Romans, he also invented a claw which could pick up Roman boats from the sea and drop them onto others and mirrors which would reflect sunlight onto ships and set them on fire. He is reported to have died from angering a Roman soldier, being too preoccupied by a mathematical problem to listen to him. The Greeks even invented what is held by many as the first computer, the Antikythera mechanism, a complex of over 30 gears used to predict astronomical events decades in advance.


The Greeks were never the geo-political power the Romans or Persians were, but culturally their impact was vast. A loose group of cities and ethnicities, who fought each other far more than they were unified, were bound by a shared culture that produced some of the greatest steps in the history of human thought. It would in cases take centuries for later scholars and civilisations to catch up, but their influence on the Romans and in turn their influence on the Western world, has left such a remarkable impression in so many aspects of the modern day.

By Wilfred Sandwell

The Russian Tsars

The Russian Tsars
Arists: Viktor M. Vasnetsov (1848–1926) Title: Tsar Ivan The Terrible Date: 1897 Medium: oil on canvas Dimensions: 247 x 132 cm Current location: Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

Artist: Viktor M. Vasnetsov (1848–1926)
Title: Tsar Ivan The Terrible
Date: 1897
Medium: oil on canvas
Dimensions: 247 x 132 cm
Current location: Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

IVAN THE TERRIBLE was one of the most significant and controversial figures in Russian history, Ivan IV, or Ivan the Terrible as he is more commonly known, changed the face of Eastern Europe forever. In power for over 50 years, Ivan left behind a complicated legacy; on one hand as an unparalleled military leader and on the other, the military successes the achieved were marred by mental instability.

Ivan IV was responsible for turning Russia from a Medieval state into a vast empire and world power spanning over a million square miles and all the while his mental state grew increasingly volatile throughout his life as he carried out the ruthless oppression of his people. Amongst Ivan’s most significant contributions to history was his creation of the Tsardom, the autocratic and centralised form of rule, which would dominate the Russian Empire for centuries to come. Prior to his accession to the throne, the title of Russia’s ruler was the Grand Prince. Ivan however, changed everything. Proclaiming himself the Tsar of all the Russia’s, he added a religious dimension to his power. Not only was he his subjects’ political leader but also their religious leader, answering only to God. This new religious component to Ivan’s power enabled him a sense of authority afford to none of his predecessors, surrounding him with an aura of invincibility, ensuring that any threats to his power could remain suppressed.

As successful as this element of his rule was, it was however, not the only way Ivan kept his subjects in check. Ivan earned his terrifying reputation through relentless oppression he inflicted upon his people, particularly the Boyar Elite-the noble families, whom he perceived as a threat to his power. In the 1560’s, Ivan established the Oprichnina, essentially a state within a state, which was the head quarters to the brutal secret police known as the Oprichniki who carried out several arrests and executions of those Ivan believed to be conspiring against him. As Ivan’s mental state deteriorated, these acts of barbarism became increasingly common. His oppression reached a crescendo with the Massacre of Novgorod in 1570, a brutal purge, with 60,000 people murdered under Ivan’s command another major factor in the city’s decline from its position of prominence. Ivan’s worsening mental state had taken its toll and would impact his personal life as much as it would his political one.

One of the defining incidents of Ivan’s life was delivering a fatal blow to his own son and heir, Ivan Ivanovich. A competent military operative, Ivan Ivanovich was present at the Massacre of Novgorod amongst other conflicts. Their relationship became increasingly strained during the Livonian War, a conflict marred by Ivan’s string of failures. In the midst of the conflict, Ivan IV physically assaulted his son’s pregnant wife, causing her to miscarry. His son angrily confronted him, with the conversation eventually shifting to Ivan’s military failures. Furious over what he perceived as insubordination, he struck his son in the head with his sceptre, a wound he would never recover from. Ivan died three years later from a stroke during a chess match in 1584. The murder of his son left his other son Feodor as his heir who was less physically and mentally abled than Ivan, proving incapable of ruling, and thus Russia entered the ‘Time of Troubles’, a catastrophic phase during which a third of the population died from famine while the region descended into civil conflict.

Despite his incredible military accomplishments, Ivan’s reign had a severely detrimental effect on Russian society. His creation of the autocracy set the precedent for centuries of oppression under future Tsars. Furthermore, his mental instability hampered any virtues he may have held as a leader, giving way instead to his increasingly paranoid state, undoing any good he brought about through acts of sheer barbarism.

Portrait of Peter the Great by Godfrey Kneller (1698). Given as a gift to the British monarchy

Portrait of Peter the Great by Godfrey Kneller (1698). Given as a gift to the British monarchy


Nearly a century after Ivan the Terrible’s death, another highly influential leader rose to power under the title of Tsar, Peter the Great, also known as Peter Alexeyevich. His contributions to Russian society were amongst the most significant of any ruler. As a brilliant military leader, he expanded Russia’s territory, establishing his Empire into a world power. Furthermore, he spearheaded a cultural revolution, enabling the Russian Empire to keep pace with the Enlightenment, an evolution of intellectual thought, prevalent in Western Europe during the 18th century.

Peter’s early life was unconventional. He became joint sovereign of Russia at the age of 10 with his older brother Ivan V, who died ten years later. Due to his young age, the actual ruling of the Empire was managed by members of the elite during which a turbulent time ensued with many forces vying for power, resulting in the death of those close to Peter who were killed during conflicts. When Peter eventually assumed full control of his Empire, it was in a shambolic state, years behind the rapidly developing Western European powers. In what would prove to be the defining achievement of his reign, Peter set about implementing a series of modernising measures to allow the Russian Empire to catch up with its rivals to become a world power in its own right. These changes were broad in scope, covering a variety of different areas which included an update of the Russian alphabet and the adoption of the Julian calendar. Having cultivated a variety of Western European advisors, he also sought to turn the Russia Empire into an economic power by stimulating industry, allowing a bourgeoisie social class to emerge. These changes would prove to be vital in the Empire’s transition from an archaic sprawling mass into a world power.

Peter was also renowned for his capabilities as a military leader. Under his rule, the Russian Empire’s territory expanded significantly by the acquisition of key regions including Estonia, Latvia and Finland, as well as registering victories over Sweden. Most important, however, after a series of major conflicts, was his defeat of the Ottoman Empire. This allowed the Russian Empire access to the Black Sea, a vital territorial victory. Furthermore, he founded the city of St Petersburg, a significant milestone which acted as a buffer zone of sorts between West and East.

Despite Peter the Great’s numerous personal shortcomings, known for his ruthlessness and often oppressive behaviour towards his subjects, his legacy is regarded as highly impressive, turning the Russian Empire into a force to be reckoned with through rapid and effective modernisation. Few Russian rulers have left a legacy considered as great as his.

Catherine II by Fedor Rokotov

Catherine II by Fedor Rokotov


Also known as Yekaterina Alexeyevna or Catherine II,  Catherine the Great was the Russian Empire’s longest-serving and best known ruler, her reign lasting 34 years highly influenced by Peter the Great’s drive for modernity. Catherine came to power during a troubled time in Russian history following a coup d’etat during which her husband Peter III was killed.

Her reign coincided with a period of prosperity in the Russian Empire, whilst she oversaw its significant territorial expansion. Under Catherine’s rule, Russia annexed several territories along the Black Sea and the Azov Sea. Furthermore, following the partition of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the Russian Empire gained the most significant stake in land. Furthermore, following a war against the Ottoman Empire, she gained significant territorial gains which further consolidated her power and reinforced sentiments of patriotism throughout the Empire.

Notably, she began the Russian annexation of Alaska, forming Russian America. Her victories rested on a combination of strong interpersonal diplomatic capabilities alongside military prowess, the latter in part due to the strategic placement of a number of highly successful military leaders such as Grigory Potemkin.

In terms of domestic affairs, Catherine oversaw the establishment of several new towns and cities whilst simultaneously reforming the Russian governorate system. She also attempted to integrate several Western European ideas into the fabric of Russian society. As a renowned patron of artistic and cultural endeavours, she counted such significant figures as Voltaire amongst her acquaintances and was an accomplished writer in her own right, composing literary works across many genres. This reconciliation of Western European ideology within Russian society gave birth to the Russian Enlightenment. The period also saw the significant secularisation of the Russian bureaucracy a result of which detracted power from the Church which allowed the State a number of additional resources in terms of land, resources and manpower (the peasantry.)

Catherine showed a sense of patronage towards education. Although she failed in her bid to implement a national school system, she nonetheless heavily revitalised Russia’s antiquated education system and transformed the curriculum of military schools to encompass a wide range of fields such as science and the arts. Furthermore, she established the Smolny Institute, both Russia and Europe’s very first state higher educational institution for women. Whilst falling short of her all her ambitions at educational reform, her accomplishments were substantial.

Building on the foundations of Peter the Great’s implementation of reform, Catherine the Great left behind a highly impressive legacy in the pantheon of Russian rulers, playing a pivotal role in Russia’s transition into a global power while overseeing significant reforms domestically, consequently, many historians consider her reign as Russia’s Golden Age.



Commonly referred to as the Tsar Reformer, Alexander II left behind a polarising legacy. While some consider him, along with Peter the Great and Catherine the Great, as the Russian Empire’s most important reformers, others doubt the substantiality of this claim.

Coming to power in 1855 following the international humiliation of the Crimean War, during which his reactionary father, Nicholas I plunged the Empire into domestic and international turmoil; those issues which were deep seated within the fabric of Russian society became glaringly apparent and reform was essential. Alexander II, aware of these failings, acknowledged the urgent necessity for reform and set about overseeing its implementation across a variety of different fields.

First and foremost was the issue of Russia’s serfdom. Despite comprising an estimated 40% of the Russian population, the serfs had very few rights; bonded to the land-owning gentry, forced to make regular payments in labor and goods. The poor status of serfs across the the Russian Empire caused mounting resentment amongst their communities thereby resulting in turmoil in a number of other spheres in which they were engaged, most notable the ineffective operation of the Empire’s economy and military. Thus the first major piece of reform legislation Alexander II passed was the Emancipation Decree of 1861, which was finally forced through after years of protracted negotiation and compromise. While the Emancipation Decree was, contextually at least, a major political undertaking, its limitations have come under criticism. The Decree freed 20 million serfs and allowed them the rights of citizens, that is the right to freely marry, right to vote etc. However, most were left with little means to survive on with land allotments highly insufficient and worse still they were saddled with heavy redemption payments to their former landlords. This meant the bulk of the profit they would reap from their meagre supplies would be taken, leaving them little means to survive on let alone prosper.

Arguable, Alexander II’s other reforms were more successful. The military reforms, considered a priority after the Crimean War, saw the Russian Empire’s army completely revitalised. Rather than limited to the the peasantry, compulsory conscription was introduced to people of all social classes. Military education was significantly improved and corporal punishment amongst the military was banned.

Judicial reforms were also implemented in 1864, influenced by the French Justice system. A model was put into place allowing open trials as well as a jury system deemed as more just. Other important reforms included economic and local government reforms, which were generally successful.Despite these reforms, revolutionary sentiments grew considerably during Alexander II’s reign, with many seeing his reforms as half-measures. In the later years of his reign he survived several attempts on his life by revolutionaries, the severity of which prompted him to back-track on a number of his reforms. In 1881, he was finally assassinated in a bombing carried out by a member of People’s Will, a revolutionary populist group attempting to encourage mass-revolution. Ironically, on the day of his assassination, he was on his way to sign a piece of legislation establishing a parliamentary body.

Alexander II’s death proved to be a devastating blow for reform in Russia. Following his death, civil liberties were hugely oppressed and police brutality became increasingly prevalent. His son Alexander III, traumatised by his father’s death and encouraged by his autocratic mentors, reversed several reforms, hampering Russia’s development. Indeed, it was not until after the 1905 Revolution when a parliamentary body would come into being. While Alexander II introduced several significant reforms, his commitment to the autocracy hampered their effectiveness, leading ultimately to their failure.

Tsar Nicholas II, in the uniform of a Royal Navy Admiral of the Fleet, c. 1909

Tsar Nicholas II, in the uniform of a Royal Navy Admiral of the Fleet, c. 1909


As the last Tsar of Russia, Nicholas II witnessed centuries of oppressive autocracy collapse under his rule. There is much debate as to whether he was personally responsible for his own downfall or he fell victim to the multitude of external factors, at the time unfolding across the Russian Empire.

Nicholas II acceded the throne in 1894 and for the majority of his reign struggled to escape the imposing shadow of his father and predecessor in power, Alexander III. An intimidating and fiercely reactionary autocrat, Nicholas II struggled to live up to his father’s reputation. Many of the poor decisions he made were influenced by this misplaced ambition, lacking the personal character to reign in the way his father had.

During Nicholas II’s reign, several long-simmering political tensions boiled over. The oppressive Tsarist regime was reaching the end of its rope as opposition became more wide-spread and organised, capable of dismantling the regime. This was further intensified by several political events, which served to damage Nichols II’s reputation. The first of these was the disastrous Russo-Japanese War of 1904 during which the Russian military was completely outmanoeuvred by the Japanese and despite several costly defeats, Nicholas II insisted on dragging the conflict on for longer, believing that Russia could still win. This misguided approach worsened the defeat and leaving 50,000 dead.

The costs of the war coupled with a variety of other factors lead to a sharp increase of protest in the following years, reaching its apex with the 1905 Revolution. The catalysing event of this nation-wide wave of protest was the Bloody Sunday Massacre. A peaceful protest on the Winter Palace that ended in bloodshed, with thousands estimated to have been killed. While the revolution
was not entirely successful, it saw Nicholas II forced to make several concessions as outlined in the October Manifesto. These included the establishment of a parliamentary representation in the form of the State Duma, Russia’s first elected parliament, whilst an indication of significant social progress, proved to be short-lived.

Nicholas II was unable to reconcile his firm commitment to the Tsarist autocracy and backtracked on several of his promises, issuing the Fundamental Laws not long afterwards to uphold his absolute power as Russia’s ruler leaving the State Duma virtually powerless – unable to pass through any effective legislation without the Tsar’s approval. This contributed significantly to anti-Tsarist sentiments amongst the general public, which continued to intensify over the following years.

Even though revolution was inevitable long-before the First World War, many see this as the event that finally caused the Tsarist regime to collapse. The War had a devastating effect on Russia with nearly 1.5 million dying in the conflict. The Russian Army were caught in several devastating theatres of conflict, the Battle of Tanenburg being its most costly. Completely unprepared, the logistics of transporting soldiers and supplies across thousands of miles of terrain to the battlefields were grossly underestimated. Perhaps most disastrously, Nicholas II assumed leadership of the military.

His lack of experience and competence hampered the Russian war effort significantly. Meanwhile, in Russia the court was in complete disarray under the control of Rasputin, a mysterious confidante of the Tsar left in charge during his absence. Food supplies were running short and public outcry was stronger than ever – revolution was imminent.

The Revolution of 1917 was a long, drawn-out affair, split into two distinct rebellions. The first of which was the February Revolution, catalysed by protests on International Women’s Day. The Tsar returned from the battlefields of the war when the revolution was in full-swing, previously detached from public opinion. Initially dismissive of the severity of the situation, eventually he relented, and towards the end of the Revolution agreed to abdicate ending centuries of Russia’s Tsarist autocracy.

Held in captivity alongside his family for months, Nicholas II and his family were eventually assassinated in July 1917 by the Bolsheviks in part due to his crimes as well as to prevent the autocracy from resurfacing in the future.

While Nicholas II doubtlessly bears a significant share of responsibility for the Russian Empire’s decline and eventual collapse, the Revolution had been inevitable for decades. It is arguable a more imposing and competent leader could have prevented this from happening for a longer period of time, but it would have certainly unfolded regardless. Through incompetence and ineffectual rule, the end of the autocracy accelerated under Nicholas II’s rule.

A Brief Introduction to the Industrial Revolution

A Brief Introduction to the Industrial Revolution



This guide is split into three sections:

1. Causes
2. Events
3. Effects


Although bears little in common with any other revolution due to its lack of political context, the Industrial Revolution was nonetheless one of the most significant periods of upheaval in recorded history. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, the manufacturing of goods was done on a very small scale with very basic tools. Furthermore, the majority of people lived in rural regions, far from the cities. Industrialisation was a period of significant technological innovation, which lay the blueprint for several key industries in the modern world, which we now take for granted.

The Industrial Revolution had its roots in Britain in the late 18th century. There were several key reasons for Britain’s prominence regarding industrialisation. Firstly were the country’s vast resources of fossil fuels such as coal and iron, pivotal materials in the emerging industries. Secondly was its status as the world’s most powerful colonial empire, allowing it access to other raw materials as well as a strong network of markets. Leading the charge, Britain’s contributions to Industrialisation would eventually change society.


The only surviving example of a Spinning Mule built by the inventor Samuel Crompton

The only surviving example of a Spinning Mule built by the inventor Samuel Crompton

There were several innovations, which were products of the Industrial Revolution. Arguably the first significant innovation was in textiles. In the 1760s, James Hargreaves invented the spinning engine, or “jenny”, which enabled multiple items of clothing to be produced at the same time by spooling thread. This enabled the mass production of clothing, which prior to this point was hand and custom-made. Further innovations in textiles included the power loom, invented by Edmund Cartwright in the 1780s. These, amongst others, would prove to be incredibly historically significant.

The iron industry was arguably the most important facet of the Industrial Revolution. Several discoveries were made regarding cheaper, more efficient ways of mass-producing iron and steel. These materials were instrumental in industrialisation as the foundations of innovative new methods of construction. This allowed developments in architecture, engineering and technology to unfold at a rapid rate.These innovations in the iron industry would prove to be instrumental in the development of communication, transport and infrastructure. Indeed, the steam engine in many ways is considered the defining achievement of the industrial revolution. The steam engine not only powered machines, which significantly improved productivity in factories, but also trains and ships, which would prove to be hugely important. As more complex ships were built, it became far easier, quicker and more efficient to travel between continents. In the case of Britain, the bastion of the industrial revolution, this proved to be important in the establishment of infrastructure and communication between its various colonies. The steam train was of huge importance as well in a more localised sense. It allowed travel between far-apart areas on the same landmass to be far more easily facilitated. This allowed people to traverse distances at a speed previously thought impossible and also allowed goods and materials to be more easily distributed over a wide range of areas.

example of Steam Engine Locomotives developed during the time of Industrialization

Example of Steam Engine Locomotives developed during the time of Industrialization

As a result, communication links became far more sophisticated. This was further improved by the invention of the electric telegraph by Charles Wheatstone and William Cooke. This innovation allowed communication to become even more direct. The cable laid across the Atlantic in 1866 allowed communication links between the Western and Eastern Hemispheres to be strengthened significantly. The world was rapidly changing and becoming increasingly linked through these innovations. Resources could be spread all across the globe and the ability to communicate far more quickly and easily helped the industrial drive in Britain spread across the globe.

Map of the 1858 trans-Atlantic cable route

Map of the 1858 trans-Atlantic cable route


The Industrial Revolution laid the foundations for a more globalised world. In modern times, all countries across the globe are linked through developments, which began during industrialisation. The drive to industrialise Britain expanded soon after its beginnings, the world catching up with its developments at a fast rate. The society we live in today owes much of its contributions and failings in a broad spectrum of fields to the incredible period of innovation that was the Industrial Revolution.


main image: c/o creative commons: A Roberts loom in a weaving shed in 1835. Note the wrought iron shafting, fixed to the cast iron columns Illustrator T. Allom – History of the cotton manufacture in Great Britain by Sir Edward Baines,

Roman Britain

Roman Britain


55 BC marked a dramatic change in the history of the island of Britain. The island was inhabited at the time by a collection of Celtic tribes, loosely connected culturally and ethnically but strongly independent of each other, perhaps joining together infrequently into small alliances but never as one nation. Before 55 BC, the island was regarded to the ‘civilised world’ as mysterious, wild, and almost mythical. Plutarch, Greek biographer and essayist, wrote that it “provided much dispute among many writers over whether its named and story had been made up, since it had not and did not now exist”. However, 55 BC was the year to end debate, as Caesar became the first Roman leader to launch an invasion of the island. Although Caesar’s invasions left no soldiers behind, and no territories occupied, the reach of the Roman empire had touched the island, and the attention of Rome would never be far away.

Hadrian's Wall, Walltown Crags, Martyn Wright, Flickr Creative Commons

Hadrian’s Wall, Walltown Crags, Martyn Wright, Flickr Creative Commons

Following the successful invasion of Britain by the Emperor Claudius in 43 AD, Rome steadily expanded her territories north, as far as Scotland, and into Wales. The general Agricola achieved some successes here, but unrest further south made true consolidation of the far north impossible. Therefore, a symbolic border was set at Hadrian’s Wall, although the Roman territory did encroach further north intermittently over the subsequent few centuries.

Control of Britain was always turbulent, and later in the 3rd and 4th centuries AD Britain became the perfect breeding ground for rebellions against Rome, and usurpers to the Emperor. With increased barbarian incursions occurring both in Britain and elsewhere within the Empire, there was a steady decline of Roman Britain. By the early 5th century AD, Roman imperial control of the province had been transferred to local municipalities and warlords, until the island began to fall gradually to Saxon rule. Nevertheless, distinct Roman cultural influences remained, including those on mythology, government and the economy. This Romano-British culture resisted Anglo-Saxon rule, and potentially provided a basis for the legend of King Arthur.

Invasions of Julius Caesar

Under Caesar’s governorship of Transalpine Gaul, which he had been allocated as one of three provinces to govern following his consulship in 59 BC, Roman control extended further north than ever before. At the time, Transalpine Gaul had consisted only of the area just beyond the Alps, in what is now South-East France. However, during the Gallic Wars Caesar had pressed north, fighting against the Belagae, a tribe who occupied modern Belgium. Following success here, and with little time remaining in the campaigning season, Caesar took the decision to make a small reconnaissance into Britain in 55 BC, in preparation for a later, and larger, punitive expedition. This was provoked by Briton aid being extended to Caesar’s Gallic enemies.

Caesar sent Gaius Volusenus to scout the coast, as even local traders were unable, or unwilling, to provide information about Britain. With an area near Dover chosen, Caesar rapidly mobilised two legions and launched an amphibious landing, leaving behind his cavalry to provide later reinforcement.  Fighting was fierce, with the Roman infantry, who were stalled by the deeper water, being attacked by Briton missiles and chariots. Whilst Caesar’s use of warships, which were novel and frightening to the Britons, as mobile batteries for his slingers and archers bought enough space for the infantry to group together on solid land, full pursuit of victory could not be achieved without the cavalry, who whose arrival was blocked by storms, which also destroyed many of Caesar’s ships. Acknowledging a potentially dire situation, Caesar withdrew to Gaul as soon as the weather allowed, demanding hostages to be sent to him there. Despite little tangible achievement, the landing in Britain earnt Caesar a thanksgiving (supplicatio) of twenty days in Rome.

Seven Wonders, Sandwich, Kent, Barry Marsh, Flickr Creative Commons

Seven Wonders, Sandwich, Kent, Barry Marsh, Flickr Creative Commons

A second invasion was planned for 52 BC, for which Caesar had newer, shallower shops designed, for easier disembarkation. Moreover, he gathered a much larger force of five legions, with two thousand cavalrymen, and a rear-guard of three legions, and two thousand cavalrymen, who were stationed in Gaul. Caesar’s landing between Deal and Sandwich in Kent was uncontested, and his men advanced immediately, achieving victory in a battle inland, probably on the River Stour.

Further advance was hindered by another storm, which caused great damage to the fleet. Having repaired his ships, Caesar marched again against the Briton forces, who were united under Cassievellaunus, one of the tribal chiefs. The Britons were defeated by heavy Roman infantry on two occasions, leading Cassievellaunus to resort to guerrilla tactics. These defeats caused several tribes, most notably the Trinobantes, to defect. Following another defeat at his stronghold, reckoned to be the hill fort at the Devil’s Dyke in Hertfordshire, Cassivellaunus was forced to sue for peace.

Whilst no Roman troops were retained in Britain to further Caesar’s interests, he did leave Commius, a Gallic chief who had been his loyal envoy to the Britons during the war and whom he made King of the Atrebates, the largest Briton tribe at the time, based in modern Hampshire.

The invasion of Claudius

Emperor Augustus had planned further invasions of Britain in 34, 27 and 25 BC, but circumstances had proved unfavourable, and instead a diplomatic relationship between Britain and the Roman empire followed. Augustus’ involvement is suggested in his Res Gestae¸ an inscribed list of his accomplishments, which note two individuals, an Artaxares of the Britons, and a Dumnobellaunus, also likely from Britain, as probable refugees who came to him. It is likely the Romans aimed to influence Britain by balancing the interests of the Atrebates and Cattuvelauni, the two major tribes In the South of England, so that neither became too powerful or dominant.

This diplomatic relationship changed in 43 AD when Emperor Claudius launched an invasion of Britain in support of Verica, the exiled King of the Atrebates. Aulus Plautius led the campaign for Claudius, likely with four legions – Legio II Augusta, Legio IX Hispana, Legio XIV Gemina, and Legio XX Valeria Victrix – totalling about 200,000 men, and a similar number of auxiliaries. This invasion consisted of two major battles, the first at a river crossing thought to be near Rochester, on the River Medway, and the second occurring at the Thames. The battle on the River Medway lasted for two days and was notable for the actions of Gnaeus Hosidius Geta who, after almost being captured, turned the battle decisively. For his work, he was awarded a triumph, an unusual honour for a man who had not yet been consul. At the second, on the Thames, the Romans either built or utilised an existing bridge successfully, despite incurring some losses when a Batavian (German tribe) auxiliary unit swam the river and further casualties in the marshes of Essex. Here, Plautius halted, sending messages for Claudius to join him. Upon arrival, Claudius led a victorious final assault upon the Cattuvelauni, capturing their capital Camulodunum (Colchester). With this victory, many kings surrendered. According to the inscriptions upon the arches of Claudius, which were commemoratively erected throughout the empire, eleven of the surrenders occurred without Roman losses.

Colchester Roman Ruins, Silent Penguin, Flickr Creative Commons

Colchester Roman Ruins, Silent Penguin, Flickr Creative Commons

The future emperor Vespasian was to lead the Legio II Augusta as far west as Exeter, fighting, according to the historian Suetonius, thirty battles. The Legio IX Hispania went north to Lincoln, establishing a northern border here, which loosely followed the Fosse Way, forming a lateral Roman road across Britain. Whilst several long, difficult and costly campaigns were launched in Wales, the more difficult terrain meant it was not until Vernaius’ and the Suetonius’ campaigns that victory was achieved in 60 AD. Most notorious was the massacre of the Druids on Anglesey, who dressed in all in black, allegedly to defend their alters of human sacrifice.


Further consolidation of Wales was prevented by the rebellion of Boudica. Her husband, Prasutagus, was king of the Iceni tribe, an independent ally of the Romans. However, upon his death the Romans annexed Iceni territory, flogging Boudica and raping her two daughters. This sparked a hatred and resentment that would provoke a revolt by the Iceni, supported by, amongst others, the Trinovantes tribe in 61/0 AD. Whilst the Roman governor, Suetonius, was in Wales, Boudica destroyed the Roman capital of Camulodunum (Colchester), before advancing onto Londinium (London) and Verulanium (St Albans). Boudica’s advance forced Seutonius to abandon both, following the defeat of a detachment of the Legio IX Hispania.

An estimated 70,000 – 80,000 soldiers were killed during this conflict, with Cassius Dio describing the slaughter by the Iceni: “they hung up naked the noblest and most distinguished women and then cut off their breasts and sewed them to their mouths, in order to make the victims appear to be eating them; afterwards they impaled the women on sharp skewers run lengthwise through the entire body.”

Boudica statue in London, Aldaron, Flickr Creative Commons

Boudica statue in London, Aldaron, Flickr Creative Commons

Boudica, the queen of the Iceni, was finally defeated by Suetonius in 61 AD, taking poison to avoid capture by the Romans. She has since become an iconic figure of Briton folk culture, with a status of her in her chariot, along with her two daughters, now standing by Westminster Bridge.


Northern Campaigns

Further campaigns extended Roman control northwards as far as Eburacum (York), before the governorship of Agricola. Finding that several previously defeated and subdued tribes had reclaimed independence, Agricola used military might to consolidate Roman rule throughout Britain, with campaigns in northern Wales and against the Brigantes of northern England consolidating previous territory. Agricola then moved further north, into Scotland. Archaeological remains show forts along the Gask Ridge, a line close to the Highland Ridge, which were built between 70 and 80 AD. How comprehensively Roman control was maintained before Agricola’s military interventions is unclear, but between 79 and 84 AD he consolidated power here, pushing increasingly far north with both an army and fleet, winning a significant battle at Mons Graupius, probably in Aberdeenshire.

Following Agricola’s recall to Rome in 84 AD, the Roman empire’s interest in the far north appears to have disappeared. The Gask Ridge was abandoned, with evidence of burnings of forts from around 105 AD indicating trouble from the northern tribes. Finally, in 117, an uprising in the North, which lasted for two years, resulted in the emperor Hadrian taking the decision to erect Hadrian’s Wall in 120. Following emperor Trajan’s great expansion of the Roman empire, especially to the East, his successor, Hadrian, adopted a policy of withdrawal and consolidation of Roman territory. The establishment of Hadrian’s Wall can be seen as evidence of this.

In 142, following northward expansion, Emperor Antoninus Pius commissioned a second, lesser-known, wall to be built built further north, slightly south of the Gask Ridge. However, this lasted for only two decades after revolts by the Brigantes, which forced the wall to be abandoned in 162 – 3.


Becoming part of the Roman Empire brought an influx of immigrants to Britain, and with them new culture, trade and religion. The most tangible indicator of Roman rule was the army, who, including their families and households, amounted to 125,000 people by the end of the 4th century, out of a total population of 3.6 million. The army camps became new focal points and urban centres, which is reflected in the etymology of many modern British cities, as the ending ‘-chester’ or ‘-cester’ comes from the Latin for camp, castra. Therefore, the development of urban centres was often derived from the security and economic benefits of close proximity to a Roman garrison.

Whilst the presence of the army was the most obvious indication of Roman power, it is perhaps the construction of Roman infrastructure that marked the most enduring legacy of Roman influence, as Britain became connected to an unprecedented degree by Roman roads. Additionally, within cities cultural landmarks of Roman life remain, with examples including the theatre at Verulanium, the amphitheatre at Caerleon, the palace at Fishbourne, and the baths at Aquae Sulis, now modern Bath.

Roman Fort Ruins in London, Dun.can, Flickr Creative Commons

Roman Fort Ruins in London, Dun.can, Flickr Creative Commons

The influences of the Roman empire can also be seen in trade and imports to Britain, such as pottery and wine from Gaul, preserved olives and olive oil from southern Spain and salted fish from the western Mediterranean and Brittany. To facilitate the transaction of imports, Roman coinage was used, and has been found in many excavations.

Furthermore, the reach of the Roman empire into Britain brought civic immigration, breaking down borders and the exclusivity of local cultures and identities. Whilst few Romans from the metropole emigrated to Britain, people from provinces within the empire did, such as the 5,500-string Sarmatian cavalry who were brought to Britain in 175. Such people would have had a strong presence, making centres such as Londinium ethnically diverse municipalities.

Exemplified in the site of Bath, Romanisation brought with it the merger of local Briton religions with Roman deities. ‘Aquae Sulis’ means the ‘Waters of Sulis’, an ancient Briton deity who was worshipped at the site. By constructing baths adjoining to a temple on the site, the Romans encouraged the worship of a goddess of their own, Minerva, and in doing so linked the two. The polytheistic pantheons of both cultures made religious assimilation far simpler for the Romans than in monotheistic cultures, such as Judaea. With civic immigration, foreign deities also became popular in Britain. An example is Mithras, adapted from Iranian Zoroastrian religion, whose worship involved secret, underground cavers used as temples. These are now preserved in the London Mithraeum.

Roman Baths, City of Bath, PapaPiper, Flickr Creative Commons

Roman Baths, City of Bath, PapaPiper, Flickr Creative Commons


Britain would later serve as an excellent base for potential usurpers to, and rebels from, the Roman empire. Due to its administration as a single province, and its separation from the main continent of the empire, Roman governors of Britain had a unique amount of autonomy. Furthermore, because of troubles posed by northern and western tribes in Britain, a large garrison, of three legions, was required to govern the island. The combination of relative administrative autonomy and the large military presence meant governors of Britain could pose a threat. Consequently, control over Britain was frequently wrought with difficulty.

The death of emperor Commodus in 192 provoked a civil war within the empire with multiple players, one of whom was Clodius Albinus, then governor of Britain. Whilst Septimius Severus successfully defeated Clodius Albinus, it highlighted the problem posed by Britain. Severus had witnessed the danger of such a large British garrison, and its presence was necessary due to barbarians “rebelling, over-running the land, taking loot and creating destruction” during his further campaigns in 208 – 209. As a result, Severus took the decision to split the province into Britannia Superior and Britannia Inferior.

This division proved successful for several decades, until further unrest within the Roman empire made it particularly vulnerable to rebellion. Therefore, in 259 the “Gallic empire” was established in Britain and parts of Gaul, after Postumus, the commander of the empire in the West, rebelled against emperor Gallienus. It was not until 274 that emperor Aurelian reunited the empire. Marcus Aurelius Probus, emperor from 276 to 282, spent most of his reign dealing with Britain, during which time Bosonus, a half-Briton, claimed himself emperor at Cologne and from 286 to 296 a Britannic empire was announced, led by Carausius.

So as to address the issue of British trouble, the province was transformed into a diocese under Diocletian’s reforms, to be headed by priests and praetorian prefects. It was subsequently split into four regions. Under this administration, roles were devolved, and governors stripped of military command, being allocated civic duties. However, this did not prevent Britain from being a breeding ground for rebellion. In 306, Constanine I used Britain as a springboard from which to successfully claim the throne of the Western empire, and later the usurpers Magnentius, in 350 – 353, and Magnus Maximus, in 383 – 388, both used the island as a successful base for rebellion.

Roman Withdrawal and Sub-Roman Britain

Unrest in Britain encouraged further incursions by the Saxons from Europe, Picts from Ireland and the Scots. A last punitive expedition was led in 399, but by 401 a withdrawal had been ordered, as troops were needed to defend against the threat of the king of the Visigoths, Alaric I, who would later sack Rome in 410. Nevertheless, a Romano-British culture continued to exist under the rule of warlords and local municipal administrations.

In 466, the ‘Groans of the Britons’ was issued, an appeal to Aetius and the Western empire for aid, and defeat at the Battle of Deorham (Durham) signalled the death-knell of the Roman empire’s influence, after which time the cities of Bath, Cirencester and Gloucester fell. This allowed Saxon influence to spread across the breadth of the island, to the Irish Sea.

Whilst our knowledge of the history of this period is limited, several traditional stories endure of the long struggle by the remaining Romano-British against the invading Saxons. One such tale is that of Vortigern, labelled by Bede as king of the Britons, who is alleged to have invited the Saxons, Angles and Jutes to form an allegiance against the Scots and Picts, only to be turned against by the Saxons, and is kingdom invaded. Another is the legend of Arthur, who is, in later sources, credited with victory at Mount Badon in 490, a victory which kept the Saxons at bay for several decades. Some historians believe this to have developed from a Welsh warlord who fought the Anglo-Saxons in the 5th century.

Nevertheless, the remaining Romano-British peoples were eventually occupied by the Angle and Saxon tribes, forced into Cornwall or Wales or chose to emigrate to Brittany or to Galicia, in northern Spain. Thus Roman rule over Britain ended and the majority of the island taken over by the new Saxon culture. However, Roman influence had still reigned for nearly four centuries and its place in British identity sealed even up until the modern day.

Main image: Roman Tower at Dover Castle, John K Thorne, Flickr Creative Commons

By Wilfred Sandwell

The Spanish Inquisition

The Spanish Inquisition

One of the darker periods of Spanish history is the Spanish Inquisition, which entrenched Spain for over 350 years. Also known as The Tribunal of the Holy Office of the Inquisition, it was created in 1478 by Catholic Monarchs, Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile.

Following their kingdom-uniting marriage, the famous Catholic monarchs Fernando and Isabel had a huge project ahead of them. Not only did the two kingdoms of Aragón and Castilla become one amongst mixed opinions, but the monarchy was closing in on the remaining Moorish kingdoms with the end of the Reconquista. It was intended Catholic orthodoxy be maintained in their kingdoms whilst replacing the Medieval Inquisition, which was under Papal control.

To manage, unite and strengthen their enlarging and culturally diverse kingdom it was decided the means of unification would be through Catholic orthodoxy. Therefore in 1478, permission was requested from Pope Sixtux IV to establish a special sect of the Inquisition – permission he reluctantly granted, which began the Spanish Inquisition.

What followed was an era of severe censorship, paranoia, torture, autos-da-fé, death, and the persecution of heretics or anyone who deliberately disagreed with the principles of the Catholic church lasting lasted until 1834.

This period became the most substantive of the three different manifestations of the wider Christian Inquisition along with the Roman Inquisition and Portuguese Inquisition.  This Inquisition operated in Spain and in all Spanish colonies and territories, which included the Canary Islands, the Spanish Netherlands, the Kingdom of Naples, and all Spanish possessions in North, Central, and South America. The Inquisition was originally  intent was to  ensure the orthodoxy of those who converted from Judaism and Islam. Regulating the faith of the newly converted intensified after royal decrees issued in 1492 and 1501 ordered Jews and Muslims to convert or leave Spain.

The monarchy feared the intervention of Jewish and Moorish alliances from oversees  and forced non-Catholics to choose between conversion to or expulsion from the country to abolish any possibility of dissent. Those suspected of practicing Protestantism, non-Catholic-approved sexual acts, black magic or any other activity the monarchy deemed a threat, also were among the persecuted.

Within a few years later suspicions and paranoia arose again.  This time regarding the loyalty of those conversos (converted Jews) and moriscos (converted Moors) to Catholicism. The Inquisition persued converts with suspicion, obsessed with the notion they had only convert to escape persecution, were continuing to practice their own religion covertly planning to undermine the church.

The inside of a jail of the Spanish Inquisition, priest supervising his scribe while men and women are suspended from pulleys, tortured on the rack or burnt with torches. Etching.This file comes from Wellcome Images, a website operated by Wellcome Trust, a global charitable foundation based in the United Kingdom

Religious Turmoil

Much of the Iberian Peninsula was dominated by Moors following their invasion of the peninsula in 711 until they were finally defeated in 1492. The re-conquest did not result in the expulsion of Muslims from Spain, instead producing a multi-religious society comprised of Catholics, Jews and Muslims. Larger cities such as Granada, Seville, Valladolid, the capital of Castile, and Barcelona, the capital of the Kingdom of Aragon, had large Jewish populations centered in juderias(Jewish Quarters).

The period was known as the Reconquista and produced a moderately peaceful co-existence with intermittent periods of conflict among Christians, Jews and Muslims in the peninsular kingdoms. There was a long tradition of Jewish service to the Aragon crown: Ferdinand’s father John II named Abiathar Crescas a Jew,  as court astronomer and many other Jews occupied important posts both religious and political even Castile itself had an unofficial rabbi.

Nevertheless, towards the end of the fourteenth century in some parts of Spain there was a wave of anti-Semitism, encouraged by the preaching of Ferrant Martinez, archdeacon of Ecija. The pogroms of June 1391 were incredibly bloody: in Seville, hundreds of Jews were killed the synagogue completely destroyed and there were similar numbers of victims in other cities, such as Cordoba, Valencia and Barcelona

The Jewish Population

Wood engraving by Bocort after H.D. Linton.

Wood engraving by Bocort after H.D. Linton

Towards the end of the 15th century, the Reconquista was drawing to an end, nearly finished, however, the desire for religious unity became more of a pervasive force.. Spain’s Jewish population, amongst the largest in Europe became a target.

Over the centuries, the Jewish communites throughout Spain had flourished and grown in numbers and strength , despite  anti-Semitism surfacing from time to time. During the reign of Henry III of Castile and Leon (1390–1406), Jews faced increased persecution and were pressured to convert to Christianity. The pogroms of 1391 were especially brutal, and the threat of violence hung over the Jewish community in Spain. Faced with the choice between baptism and death, many converted and many others were killed. Those who adopted Christian beliefs—the so-called conversos (Spanish: “converted”)—faced continued suspicion and prejudice.


One of the consequences of these disturbances was the massive conversion of Jews. Prior to this, conversions were rare, motivated more by social than religious reasons. From the fifteenth century a new social group appeared: conversos, also called new Christians,  distrusted by Jews and Christians alike. By converting, not only could Jews  escape eventual persecution, but also obtain entry into many offices and posts  prohibited to Jews be means of new, more severe regulations.

Many conversos attained important positions in fifteenth century Spain. Among them, physicians Andres Laguna and Francisco Lopez Villalobos (Ferdinand’s Court physician), writers Juan del Enzina, Juan de Mena, Diego de Valera and Alonso de Palencia, and bankers Luis de Santangel and Gabriel Sanchez (who financed the voyage of Christopher Columbus) were all conversos. Conversos face much opposition but managed to attain high positions in the ecclesiastical hierarchy, at times becoming severe attackers of Judaism. Some received titles of nobility and as a result, during the following century it was claimed that virtually all Spanish nobility descended from Jews.

Inquisition Begins

Alonso de Hojeda, a Dominican from Seville, convinced Queen Isabel that crypto-Judaism existed among Andalusian conversos during her stay in Seville between 1477 and 1478. A report, produced at the request of the monarchs by Pedro González de Mendoza, archbishop of Seville and by the Segovian Dominican Tomás de Torquemada, confirmed this allegation. The monarchs decided to introduce the Inquisition to uncover and do away with false converts requesting the Pope’s assent. On November 1, 1478, Pope Sixtus IV spread the bull Exigit sinceras devotionis affectus, establishing the Inquisition in the Kingdom of Castile. The bull gave monarchs exclusive authority to name the inquisitors. However, the first two inquisitors, Miguel de Morillo and Juan de San Martín were not named until two years later, on September 27, 1480 in Medina del Campo.

At first, the activity of the Inquisition was limited to the dioceses of Seville and Cordoba, where Alonso de Hojeda had detected converso activity. The first Auto de Fé was celebrated in Seville on February 6, 1481, where six people were burned alive. Alonso de Hojeda gave the sermon himself and following this the Inquisition grew rapidly. By 1492, tribunals existed in eight Castilian cities: Ávila, Cordoba, Jaén, Medina del Campo, Segovia, Sigüenza, Toledo and Valladolid.

Establishing the new Inquisition in the Kingdom of Aragón was more difficult, the population of Aragón being adamantly opposed to the Inquisition. Ferdinand did not resort to placing new appointments; rather he breathed new life into the old Pontifical Inquisition, submitting it to his direct control. In addition, differences between Ferdinand and Sixtus IV prompted the latter to spread a new bull downright prohibiting the Inquisition’s extension to Aragon. In this bull, the Pope unambiguously criticized the procedures of the inquisitorial court.

The cities of Aragón continued to resist, and even saw periods of revolt, for instance in Teruel from 1484 to 1485. However, the murder of the inquisidor Pedro Arbués in Zaragoza on September 15, 1485, caused public opinion to turn against the conversos in favor of the Inquisition. Pedro Arbués  was an official of the Spanish Inquisition who was assassinated in the La Seo Cathedral of Zaragoza in an alleged plot by conversos and Jews. He was quickly venerated as a saint by popular acclaim, and his death greatly assisted the Inquisition and its Inquisitor General, Tomás de Torquemada, in their campaign against heresy and crypto-Judaism. In Aragón, the inquisitorial courts focused specifically on members of the powerful converso minority, ending their influence in the Aragonese administration. Between the years 1480 and 1530, the Inquisition saw a period of intense activity. The exact number of trails and executions is debated, but it is said to be approximately 2,000 people.

Expulsion Of The Jews

A 1508 woodcut of the Inquisition

A 1508 woodcut of the Inquisition

Jews who continued practicing their religion were not persecuted by the Holy Office, however, it was suspicious of them because it was thought that they urged conversos to practice their former faith. In the trial at Santo Niño de la Guardia in 1491, two Jews and six conversos were fated to be burned for practicing an allegedly sacrilegious ritual.

March 31, 1492, only three months after the reconquest, concluded with the fall of Granada, Ferdinand and Isabella publicized a decree ordering the expulsion of Jews from all their kingdoms. Jewish subjects were given until July 31, 1492 to choose between accepting baptism and leaving the country. Although they were allowed to take their possessions with them, land-holdings, of course, had to be sold.  Gold, silver and coined money were surrendered. The reason given to justify this order was that the proximity of unconverted Jews served as a reminder of their former faith and persuaded many conversos to relapsing and returning to the practice of Judaism.

The number of the Jews that left Spain is not recorded and therefore difficult to accurately estimate. Historians cite figures between 300 and 800,000.  Nevertheless, more populist estimates are significantly lower. Henry Kamen, who wrote the book, “The Spanish Inquisition: A Historical Revision, estimates that of a population of approximately 80,000 Jews, about one half or 40,000 chose emigration. The Spanish Jews emigrated mainly to Portugal, where they were later expelled in 1497 as well as to Morocco. Much later, the Sefardim, descendants of Spanish Jews, established thriving communities in many cities of Europe, North Africa and mainly in the Ottoman Empire.

The most intense period of persecution of conversos lasted through 1530. From 1531 through 1560, the percentage of conversos among the Inquisition trials lowered significantly, down to 3% of the total. There was a rebirth of persecutions when a group of crypto-Jews were discovered in Quintanar de la Orden in 1588.  The last decade of the sixteenth century saw a rise in denunciations of conversos. At the beginning of the seventeenth century some conversos who had fled to Portugal began to return to Spain, fleeing the persecution of the Portuguese Inquisition that was founded in 1532. This translated into a rapid increase in the trials of crypto-Jews, among them a number of important financiers. In 1691, during a number of Autos de Fe in Mallorca, 36 chuetas, or conversos of Mallorca, were burned.

Repression Of Moriscos

The Inquisition did not exclusively target Jewish conversos and Protestants. Moriscos, who were converts from Islam, suffered its rigors as well, although to a lesser degree. The moriscos were concentrated in the recently conquered kingdom of Granada, Aragon, and Valencia. Officially, all Muslims in Castile had been converted to Christianity in 1502; those residing in Aragon and Valencia were obliged to convert by Charles I’s decree of 1526.

In the first half of the century, many moriscos were under the jurisdiction of the nobility, so persecution would have been attacking the economic interests of this powerful social class.  However, even though the moriscos were mostly ignored by the inquisition in the first half of the century, things changed in the second half of the century under Phillip II. Between 1568 and 1570, the revolt of the Alpujarras occurred, which was repressed with unusual harshness. Beginning in 1570, in the tribunals of Zaragoza, Valencia and Granada, morisco cases became much more abundant. In Aragon and Valencia moriscos formed the majority of the trials of the Inquisition during the same decade. In the tribunal of Granada itself, moriscos represented 82 percent of those accused between 1560 and 1571.  However, the moriscos did not experience the same harshness as Jewish conversos and Protestants, and the number of capital punishments was proportionally less.

Cruelty To Protestants

During the sixteenth century, Protestant reformers bore the brunt of the Inquisition. Interestingly, a large percentage of Protestants were of Jewish origin.

The first target were members of a group known as the alumbrados of Guadalajara and Valladolid. The trials were time-consuming, and ended with prison sentences of different lengths. However, no executions took place. In the process, the Inquisition picked up on rumours of intellectuals and clerics who, interested in the Erasmian ideas, had allegedly strayed from orthodoxy.  Juan de Valdés was forced to flee to Italy to escape the Inquisition, whilst the preacher, Juan de Ávila spent almost a year in prison.

The first trials against the Protestants influenced by the Reformation took place between 1558 and 1562 in Valladolid and Sevilleas, at the beginning of the reign of Philip II, against two communities of Protestants from these cities.  These trials signaled a notable escalation of Inquisition activities. A number of enormous Autos de Fe (the ritual of public penance of condemned heretics and apostates) were held. Some of these were presided over by members of the royal family, and approximately one hundred people were executed. After 1562 the trials continued but the repression was reduced. It is estimated that only a dozen Spaniards were burned alive for Lutheranism through the end of the sixteenth century, although some 200 faced trial. The Autos de Fe of the mid-century virtually put an end to the largely diminished Spanish Protestant population.

Torture Methods

Torture was used only to get a confession and wasn’t meant to actually punish the accused heretic for his crimes. Some inquisitors used starvation, forced the accused to consume and hold vast quantities of water or other fluids, or heaped burning coals on parts of their body. But these methods didn’t always work fast enough for their liking.

Strappado is a form of torture that began with the Medieval Inquisition. In one version, the hands of the accused were tied behind his back and the rope looped over a brace in the ceiling of the chamber or attached to a pulley. Then the subject was raised until he was hanging from his arms. This caused the shoulders to pull out of their sockets. Sometimes, the torturers added a series of drops, jerking the subject up and down. Weights could be added to the ankles and feet to make the hanging even more painful.
The rack was another renowned torture method associated with the inquisition. The victim had his hands and feet tied or chained to rollers at one or both ends of a wooden or metal frame. The torturer turned the rollers with a handle, which pulled the chains or ropes in increments and stretched the subject’s joints, often until they dislocated. If the torturer continued turning the rollers, the accused’s arms and legs could be torn off. Often, witnessing someone going through this intense torture on the rack was painful enough to extract another person’s confession.

Whilst the accused heretics were on strappado or the rack, inquisitors often applied other torture devices to their bodies. These included­ heated metal pincers, thumbscrews, boots, or other devices designed to burn, pinch or otherwise mutilate their hands, feet or bodily opening. Although mutilation was technically forbidden, in 1256, Pope Alexander IV decreed that inquisitors could clear each other from any wrongdoing that they might have done during torture sessions.

Inquisitors needed to obtain a confession because they believed it was their duty to bring the accused back to the faith. A true confession resulted in the accused being forgiven, but he was usually still forced to clear himself by performing penances, such as pilgrimages or by wearing multiple, heavy crosses.

Inquisition torture chamber. Mémoires Historiques (1716)

Inquisition torture chamber. Mémoires Historiques (1716)

If the accused didn’t confess, the inquisitors could sentence him to life imprisonment. Repeat offenders were people who confessed, then retracted their confessions and publicly returned to their sacrilegious ways.  They could be ‘abandoned’ to the ‘secular arm.’ (what does this mean?)

Capital punishment allowed for burning at the stake. In some cases, accused heretics who had died before their final sentencing had their corpses or bones dug up, burned and cast out. The last inquisitorial act in Spain occurred in 1834, but all of the Inquisitions continued to have a lasting effect on Catholicism, Christianity and the world as a whole.