10 Facts About The 16th Century ‘Game of Queens’

The Game of Queens was played out in deadly earnest. But that’s not to say that we – like these sixteenth-century women themselves – can’t have a little fun along the way! Here’s ten facts I found in my research that particularly struck me:

1 Anne de Beaujeu, regent of France, wrote a manual of instruction for powerful women. One piece of advice was not to pay too much attention to clothes – ‘Past 40, no finery can make the wrinkles on your face disappear’.

2 King James IV of Scotland took an interest in a wide variety of subjects, including dentistry. He paid his subjects to let him take their teeth out – a practice that might endear him to many patients today!

3 When Henry VIII sent his sister Margaret Tudor, James IV’s widow, the present of some wonderful dresses, she was in such pain from sciatica she couldn’t even bear to be turned in bed. But she still made her attendants hold up the dresses so she could see them, every day.

4 While Henry VIII was looking for a new bride, after beheading Anne Boleyn, his eye lit on Marie de Guise. He said that they should get one, because they were both ‘large in person’. ‘I may be large in person’, she retorted, ‘but I have a little neck!’

5 Margaret of Austria was unlucky in her marriages. On her way to the second, with her ship in danger of foundering in the Bay of Biscay, she composed her own mocking epitaph.

                  Here lies Margaret

                  The willing bride

                  Twice married –

                  But a virgin when she died

6 When Margaret, as Regent of the Netherlands, was negotiating a peace treaty with England’s Cardinal Wolsey, she tried literally to sweeten his mood with a daily breakfast delivery of fresh rolls, wine and sugar.

7 Margaret was succeeded as Regent by her niece Mary of Hungary. Ambassadors said Mary was ‘a little mannish’, and that everyone knew she wouldn’t have children – she was far too sporty.

8 It was Mary Queen of Scots who liked actually actually to dress up in men’s clothes and go roistering around the Edinburgh streets with her ladies. There was always the joke that the best way to end the troubles between Scotland and England would be for Mary and Elizabeth I to marry.

9 When Mary sent Sir James Melville on a diplomatic mission to Elizabeth, the Tudor queen kept pressing him as to whether she or Mary were the taller, the better dance, the prettier. Mary was  the fairest queen in all Scotland and Elizabeth in all England, answered Melville, diplomatically.

10 Across the Channel in France, two other rival rulers were Jeanne d’Albret and Catherine de Medici. But when they were trying to negotiate and end to the war between Protestants and Catholics they still broke off to go shopping round the Paris boutiques together, disguised as ordinary bourgeoisie.

Sarah Gristwood has written bestselling biographies of Arbella Stuart, and Elizabeth and Leicester. Blood Sisters was a dramatic portrait of the women whose dynastic ambitions and rivalries fuelled the Wars of the Roses and her latest book is Game of Queens: the Women Who Made Sixteenth-Century Europe. She will be speaking at Chalke Valley History Festival on 27 June on this subject. Tickets available here.

Research your ancestors’ worlds

As lovers of history we relish feasting on the latest historical books, and soaking up the newest series on the telly – and absolutely quite right too. But history doesn’t have to be something you solely watch from the sidelines. It’s something you can dive into, join in with, something you too can research – with pleasure and with a real purpose. And an excellent way to do this is by tracing your family history.

If you’ve not yet tried it, you may be wondering about the appeal – however, once you begin finding out about your family history, I guarantee you’ll be absorbed.

So what’s family history all about? Going up into the roof and hauling down those boxes of papers and photos? Yes certainly. Booking yourself on a battlefield tour, or taking a DNA test? Yes those too. Unearthing skeletons, little-known stories and long-lost relations? Yes (we all have the skellies but they’re not so scary).

But as someone passionate about history, one of the things I think you’ll find most appealing about family history is that first-hand look at the past. Actually tracking down the records (in the archives and online) that tell us about our ancestors’ lives and the world they once lived in. Discovering the miles of records that are held in the thousands of archives nationwide (helpfully increasingly now digitised too). Wrestling with the crabbed old handwriting. Making sense of what that record can tell you about the past.

Think back to 1939 and the start of World War 2 for instance. We know about the Nazi invasions Europe-wide, the gas masks dished out on the Home Front, and the young evacuees whisked away to rural safety. Now look at September 1939 with a family historian’s eye. Yes we do want to know about the wider historical context for sure. But we also want to find out about our family and pinpoint their place in history, so we turn to the 1939 Register.

Taken on 29 September 1939, within weeks of Britain joining the war, the 1939 Register is a time capsule of our ancestors on the brink of the dark years of war that were to follow. It’s literally a role call of the nation – names, birthdays, home addresses. But already the tentacles of war had crept in and disrupted our ancestors’ lives. Have a serviceman or woman in the family? They won’t be listed, being recorded separately by the military. Looking for a youngster in the family? Don’t be surprised if you can’t find them at home – Operation Pied Piper, launched earlier in the month – had relocated millions of young and vulnerable people in the national evacuation programme.

But look closely and you will find further clues about your ancestors too. Notes, perhaps, that someone was an air raid warden, or maybe a change of surname – as the register continued to be used by the fledgling post-war NHS. And why was the register taken in the first place? To make sure the war effort worked – to allocate and organise ID cards, conscription and rationing. Turn to Hansard (freely available online), and the transcripts of the discussions in Parliament through that long summer of 1939, and you can read of the politicians’ concerns about how to manage with the clouds of war gathering, concerns about how to feed the nation, about what Emergency Powers would be needed.

This is all part of our families’ history. The events that were common to all, and the individual story of each person’s life and experiences. By finding out your family story, piecing together the tales, tragedies and adventures of your ancestors’ lives you’ll be setting yourself on a time travel trip back into the past where history is truly, poignantly very much alive.

Helen Tovey is the Editor of Family Tree Magazine. In her talk on 30th June at Chalke Valley History Festival, she will be looking at ten types of historic records, and seeing what light each one can shed about our family history, our ancestors and the world they once lived in. You can book tickets for the ‘My Heritage and Ancestry Morning’ here.



Game of Queens

The sixteenth century saw an explosion of female rule. Large swathes of Europe  – France, England, and the Netherlands, Spain and Portugal, to say nothing of Hungary and Scotland – were at one time or another controlled by a woman, whether as regent, or as reigning queen or a female regent. Many of them were linked by a complex web of interrelations – as mothers and daughters, mentors and proteges. Lessons passed from Isabella of Castile to her daughter Katherine of Aragon, and on to Katherine’s daughter Mary. From the French regent Anne de Beaujeu to Louise of Savoy, through Louise’s daughter Marguerite of Navarre to her own daughter Jeanne d’Albret), as well as to Marguerite’s admirer Anne Boleyn and finally to Elizabeth.

Some of these women are household names; others virtually unknown to many of us in the English-speaking countries. But the female rulers of Europe themselves recognised bonds of sisterhood stretching across the borders – sometimes even running contrary to the interests – of their countries. And, sometimes, they consciously invoked their status as women to conduct business in a different way.

In the sixteenth century – as in our own! – the phenomenon of the powerful woman seemed to offer both challenges and opportunities. Opportunities, as when in 1529 Margaret of Austria and Louise of Savoy negotiated the ‘Ladies’ peace’ of Cambrai. Challenges, as when sexual scandal threatened Elizabeth I, and destroyed both her mother Anne Boleyn and her rival, the Scots queen Mary. This earlier Age of Queens did not outlast the sixteenth century – the more so since women found themselves at the forefront of the great religious divides which tore Europe apart. But the sheer scale on which the women of the sixteenth century exercised power (as well as the challenges they faced) remains both a spectacle and a source of warning right up to our own day. And I’d say it’s no coincidence that it was in this era the chess queen got the powers we know today . . .


Sarah Gristwood has written bestselling biographies of Arbella Stuart, and Elizabeth and Leicester. Blood Sisters was a dramatic portrait of the women whose dynastic ambitions and rivalries fuelled the Wars of the Roses and her latest book is Game of Queens: the Women Who Made Sixteenth-Century Europe. She will be speaking at Chalke Valley History Festival on 27 June on this subject. Tickets available here.

Herodotus: Reflections on Tolerance and the Foundations of Democracy

The Greeks of the fifth century BCE did not practise life-writing. Our word ‘biography’ is of Greek derivation (biographia), but the genre was not developed until well after Herodotus’s lifetime and achieved its apogee only with Plutarch (c. 46 BCE – CE 120). That’s one reason why Herodotus’s life and death dates (?? 484-425 BCE) are only approximate: no one cared to record them at the time. Another is that the genre of biography was reserved at first for ‘great’ men, movers and shakers on the political scene, such as Pericles or Alexander the Great. Not for men of letters, mere intellectuals: even though – as we now know –  it’s historians who make history.

The responsibility of trying to do anything like proper justice to a thinker and writer who was one of the great innovating geniuses of the fifth century BCE is a heavy one. Herodotus was not just any historian but the founder of an entire intellectual discipline and practice, or craft, the one that I am honoured to try my hand at myself. Cicero called him ‘the Father of Historia’, and that dictum is often simply repeated without further examination. But for Romans historia had come to mean something rather different from the original Greek historia of Herodotus’s Preface (quoted below). Originally, Greek historia meant ‘research’, or ‘enquiry’ – a meaning it still carries in English in the phrase ‘natural history’. But for Herodotus it was literally a term of art – by using the word upfront in his Proimion, he was showing off a new way of looking, feeling, and above all thinking:

‘Herodotus, from Halicarnassus, here displays his enquiries’.

It’s very noticeable too that Thucydides, Herodotus’ greatest Greek successor, avoids the word historia  altogether; he avoids it like the plague, we might say. Because he saw himself as a rival of Herodotus as well as his principal successor in writing history, and he did not want to give even the merest hint that they might both of them be engaged in doing the same sort of thing. So very ancient Greek, that … an agôn (contest, competition, even war) for generic priority.

Once upon a time – not all that long ago, actually – most historians who like me were interested in the origins of their craft would unhesitatingly have ranked Thucydides above Herodotus. Thucydides was, as it were, the historian’s historian – from the Renaissance (or indeed from the Hellenized Syrian Lucian, and his How to Write History, in the 2nd century CE) onwards. Beginning in the later nineteenth century, however, the comparison between them started to be made in terms of the dominant intellectual paradigm of modern times. Thus Thucydides’ history was considered ‘scientific’, whereas Herodotus’s was if anything the reverse. He was, admittedly, a brilliant teller of tales, but all too often they were merely tall tales. Moreover, he was in general far too credulous, even gullible, so far as his sources of information were concerned, and (not least) he was far too religious in explaining what he was told and what he believed to have happened in the past: far too quick, that is, to see the hand of god (or a god) or – more impersonally –  Fate at work decisively in human history.

It is therefore one of the more positive effects of the so-called ‘postmodern turn’ in historical studies that that semi-automatic judgment in favour of Thucydides and against Herodotus has been severely questioned, even turned on its head. Now, Herodotus’s methods of enquiry and his reporting of the results of those enquiries are regularly seen as being entirely appropriate for the kind of information situation he found himself having to deal with, and for handling the type of subject matter he chose to research. Moreover, what Herodotus does, and Thucydides famously (or notoriously) does not do, is enable the reader to see that the past is a complex, indeterminate and messy sort of thing, that people’s perceptions and recollections of it are very different, often hazy, always (self-)interested, and that history is therefore always more or less invented – by the historian. (The past not only is a foreign country but also is something quite different from history.) At all events, it’s now generally agreed that there’s no such thing as ‘scientific’ history, if by that is meant that there are ‘laws’ of history to be discovered or affirmed, and hypothetico-deductive reasoning to be applied. So, from the more recent scholarship on Herodotus – of which there’s been a simply enormous amount – there has emerged a very different Herodotus from the one that was current even when I was an undergraduate student, at Oxford in the late 1960s. And it’s a version of this ‘new’ Herodotus that I want to try to articulate for you here.

But first – why ‘Herodotus 2500’? Although his birthdate was not precisely recorded, according to our BCE/CE system (invented in the 6th century by a Christian monk of Byzantium, Dionysius Exiguus), he was regularly said to have been born in the equivalent of 484 BCE. That accorded with the facts that he was too young to have fought in the main subject of his work, the Graeco-Persian Wars of 480-479, and their 490 BCE preliminary, but yet mature enough early enough to have grasped that this was to be his lifework and to have travelled with that work (ergon) in view and interviewed many participants – on both sides of that epochal conflict. As there was no BCE 0 or CE 0, the years from 484 BCE to CE 2017 add up to 2500. QED. Which means that his 2500th coincides with Martin Luther’s 500th, that is the 500th anniversary of his alleged posting of his 95 anti-papal theses at Wittenberg castle, heralding what came to be known as the (Protestant) Reformation. The juxtaposition of Herodotus’s historiographical reformation and Luther’s confessional reformation is alluring – and instructive. Ancient Greek ‘pagan’ religion was radically different from any version of Christianity, and Herodotus was in every sense a layman, whereas Luther was an Augustinian monk. That may help to account for the fact that, whereas Luther may be regarded (by some) as a fanatical fundamentalist, Herodotus may fruitfully and positively be considered – as I present him here – as the antidote to religious fundamentalism.

The ancient Greeks had no word for ‘religion’ as such, partly because religion (‘the things of the gods’) was for them everywhere, permeating the air they breathed. Or as the father of Greek science, Thales of Miletus (an early exponent of historia) put it, the world is ‘full of gods’. And goddesses: the plural, rather than the gender, is of course key. The ancient Greeks were polytheists, for whom the monotheism of the Jews (with whom the Greeks of Herodotus’s day had little or no contact) would have been incomprehensible. Arguably, one version of official Persian imperial religion, the worship of Ahura Mazda, was henotheist (privileging one god above any others), but Herodotus will not have been alone in discerning no fundamental difference of religious world view between that of the Greeks and that of the Persians. The Greeks’ was not a revealed religion. It had no sacred books, no vocational priesthood. Anyone – almost – male or female (and a free citizen) could be a priest or perform priestly functions. The Greeks did not worship the gods and goddesses – and heroes and heroines too –  because they had faith in them, but because these superhuman and supernatural beings might do them good – or harm. To worship the Greeks’ divine powers and especially the members of an officially recognized pantheon was to acknowledge them duly, typically by the performance of cult-acts, especially that of animal blood-sacrifice. Failure to acknowledge them duly might stir anger in and punitive retribution by these larger, anthropomorphically conceived Greeks.

I begin therefore with a – suitably Herodotean – paradox. On the one hand, Herodotus was himself conventionally pious in the ancient Greek terms of the fifth century BCE. He was a believer in the existence of the gods (or ‘the divine’, to theion) and in their ability to act powerfully and decisively in the world of men. Above all, he seems to have believed implicitly in the power and truth of prophecy. That sort of religious outlook might well be considered to be utterly consistent and compatible with what is normally referred to as religious fundamentalism today – except that pious ancient Greeks, unlike pious Jews, Muslims and Christians today, did not have authoritative sacred texts, let alone one overarching sacred text (a Bible, a Qu’ran), to guide or perplex them. On the other hand, although Herodotus was thus conventionally pious in ancient Greek terms – indeed, I am tempted to say precisely because he was pious in that way – he was both intellectually able and morally prepared to see that Others (non-Greeks) legitimately did otherwise: that they too believed and practised no less fervently very different, indeed incompatibly and incommensurably different, things in the sphere of religion.

Nor did Herodotus confine that perception to the sphere of religious beliefs and practice. He saw – both literally and metaphorically – that Others were no less committed to the unimpeachable truth and worth of their customs (nomoi) in general, not only religious customs, than were his fellow-Greeks. In other words, Herodotus was not only the first historian. He was also the first comparative cultural anthropologist. If we were to try to pin down his religious outlook more closely, we might contrast him and compare him with two of his contemporary intellectuals. Unlike Protagoras of Abdera – who is credited with having written that the subject of the gods was obscure, and that human life is too short for it to be possible fully to come to terms with it – Herodotus seems to have thought that he could know and understand the divine. But like Protagoras, who enunciated the doctrine that man is the measure of all things that are (or are not), Herodotus as mentioned also embraced a considerable degree of relativist crosscultural understanding. Like Plato’s Socrates, moreover, he too seems to have believed that ‘the unexamined life’ was ‘not worth living for a human being’. It is this Herodotus – Herodotus the relativist and pluralist in ethical stance, and critical enquirer in historical method – who stands most firmly opposed to the radical intolerance of most contemporary forms of religious fundamentalism.

For the purposes of this essay I propose to explore in some detail just five passages from the Histories of Herodotus (8.3.1, 8.144.2, 3.38, 3.80-82, and 1.207), using the recent translation of Tom Holland. The division of the Histories into books and their naming after the Nine Muses beginning with Clio Muse of History were not Herodotus’s own doing. They were superimposed by scholars working in the Library of Alexandria in Egypt (founded in the 280s BCE) long after Herodotus’s time. Herodotus himself thought rather in terms of logoi, literally ‘words’ or ‘accounts’ but here meaning narrative episodes or blocks. Let me first put my own cards on the table, as we say, and declare my hand. I am not myself opposed to all religious belief and practice as such, though I don’t happen to have any or do any myself. What matters to me, as an intellectual and historian, is the place of such religious activity and belief within a philosophical (broadly understood) worldview.

8.3.1 reads as follows: ‘civil strife among people of the same heritage and race (stasis emphulios) compares as disastrously to a united war (polemos) effort as does war itself to peace’. Herodotus, I believe, though I cannot prove it, was essentially a man of peace. This does not mean that he did not fight when he felt he had to: he is recorded as having taken part precisely in a violent kind of stasis within his own home polis (city) of Halikarnassos. What I mean is that he was not one who took delight in war for war’s sake. As he put it very vividly elsewhere (1.87), in peace sons bury their fathers, but in war fathers bury their sons – a reversal of the natural order. That attitude might possibly have made him an untypical Greek. Surely untypical, too, was his belief as expressed so starkly in this passage that it was wrong for Greeks to fight other Greeks. That, at any rate, is what I think he meant by stasis emphulios, not – or not only – the all too frequent kind of civil war stasis that occurred within individual cities but any sort of war among Greeks.

This hostile attitude towards inter- or intra-Greek warfare was reinforced by his unusually broad and vehement version of panhellenism. (The Greeks called themselves then, as they still do, Hellenes.) For most Greeks, their patris or fatherland was their polis. Patriotism in ancient Greece was typically local or civic, not ‘national’, as it were. The ancient Greeks didn’t have, or did not form, a ‘nation’ in any strong political sense. This was a lack, indeed a failing, that Herodotus, I would argue, bitterly regretted. The evidence is in 8.144.2. We are in winter 480/479 BCE. The few and not very firmly united Greeks who have chosen at great risk to resist the massive Persian invasion, led in person by Great King Xerxes, have been defeated at Thermopylae in north-central Greece, but they have then won a great naval victory at Salamis near Athens. That victory was not, however, decisive. Xerxes has returned to Persia but he has left behind a huge army and a still useful navy to finish off the job of conquest. The new Persian commander-in-chief, Mardonius, attempts to bribe the Athenians to desert the loyalist Greek coalition headed up by the Spartans.

When the Spartans get to hear of Mardonius’s underhand initiative, they, apparently suspecting that the Athenians were indeed bribable, immediately send a delegation to persuade them to stay loyal to the ‘Greek’ cause. Herodotus uses this episode to bring out what he considers to be its most important aspect of all, its widest possible signification, namely what it was to be Greek (Hellene). Hence Herodotus’ expository device of putting into the mouths of  ‘the Athenians’ a famous declaration of what has been called ‘Hellenicity’. Here is the relevant quotation from the speech of ‘the Athenians’ to the Spartans in full:

‘There is a whole host of pressing reasons why we could never adopt such a course of action. First and foremost, the cult-states and temples of the gods have been left as charred rubble. How, when these are crying out for vengeance, could we possibly make a settlement with the culprits? On top of that, there is the fact that we are all of us Greeks, of one blood and tongue, united by the temples that we have raised to the gods, and by the way in which we offer them sacrifice, and by the customs we have in common. For the Athenians to prove traitors to all this would be a terrible thing.’

Notice once again the key importance attributed by Herodotus to religion – another reason, one might well have thought, why the conventionally pious Herodotus was likely to have been hostile to and intolerant of non-Greek, ‘barbarian’ religious practices and beliefs. Yet he wasn’t. On the one hand, he was the first to acknowledge, indeed to proclaim, that, despite all sorts of other things which they did either differently or precisely oppositely, the barbarians – and especially the Egyptians – had invented and gifted to the Greeks some key aspects of Greek religion. On the other hand, even where the barbarians’ religious customs in question were as far removed from, as alien to, indeed as opposite to Greek ones as it was possible to imagine, even – or especially – then Herodotus was prepared to perform an immense act of interpretative charity, almost indeed one of empathetic understanding.

There can be presumably no more revealing feature of human societies’ customary religious outlooks and practices than their attitudes to death and burial. This is also at the same time an intimately revealing constituent of both personal and group identity. Tell me how you die – that is, how you treat the process of death and burial – and I’ll tell you who you are. Hence the magnum force of Herodotus’ prime illustrative anecdote, or parable, which is to be found at 3.38. Here we notice at once a feature of Herodotus’s manner of exposition that is going to recur in my fourth passage, and indeed elsewhere at key moments in his work (most relevantly, the so-called ‘Persian Debate’ on the theory of political constitutions, also in Book 3, chapters 80-82): namely, his choice of a non-Greek, more specifically a Persian, setting to provide the focus for a moral or ethical discussion that is really about – and intended solely for – his Greek audience.

At some unspecified date Great King Darius (r. 522-486), father of Xerxes, summons to his presence at Susa representatives of two non-Persian ethnic groups – just two out of the many such groups who we know were employed as part of a vast multinational army by this greatest of Persian palatial builders. The first to be summoned are Greeks, the second Callatian Indians. Of the former he asks how much he would have to bribe them (bribery again …) to persuade them to go dead against their actual customary funeral practice and eat – as opposed to cremate – their kindred dead. The Greeks reply that they would never ever do so, not at any price. Darius then asks the Callatian Indians how much he would have to bribe them to cremate – as opposed to their normal practice of eating – their kindred dead. They are even more outraged than the Greeks at the very suggestion – and beg Darius not even to breathe it aloud. Whereupon Herodotus comments that he agrees with (Greek lyric poet) Pindar that ‘custom (nomos) is king (basileus) of all’. In other words, this anecdote had been introduced and/or retold by Herodotus precisely in order to exemplify and to bring home to his audience the general rule governing the behaviour and worldview of all human social groups, namely that every people believes its own customs to be, not just the best possible for them, but the best absolutely – the best against all competition.

That in itself is a pretty sobering thought: you may believe that your customs are absolutely the best but, let me tell you, that’s actually only your opinion, and other people do things very differently from you, and they too think exactly the same about their way of doing things as you do about yours! There speaks Herodotus the ethical relativist. But it is also Herodotus the pluralist, as he does not in fact judge all people’s customs to be equal: for example, eating people – people they have deliberately killed in order to eat them – as is customarily done by the Androphagoi Scythians, is for Herodotus quite simply wrong. Such people ‘have no notion of justice’ (4.106). It is therefore remarkable that, in introducing and commenting on the anecdote, Herodotus does not pass negative moral judgment on the cannibalistic funerary practice of the Indians. That, surely, is to display an extreme tolerance – and also to point the way towards a proper respect for the sincere beliefs and practices of Others, no matter how ‘other’ those beliefs and practices may seem (to Us) to be.

I mentioned the so-called ‘Persian Debate’ on the theory of political constitutions: Book 3, chapters 80-82. This is actually the first surviving example of fully developed political theory (not just political thought) within the Western tradition. The alleged setting and date – the Persian capital of Susa in about 522 BCE – are frankly impossible, and Herodotus could not possibly have known what his three Persian debaters actually said, even if they had really held the views he attributes to them. But actually the entire debate is utterly Greek both in form and in content, and the political ideas and institutions under discussion include one form or genus that had not even been invented yet in the Greek world in the late 520s: namely democracy. Yet that is what the first of Herodotus’ three noble Persian speakers is made to advocate, although he does not use the word demokratia itself. Whoever invented the word demokratia, and whenever it was invented, it was not a neutral, universally approved form of political self-governance. As today, ‘the people’ (demos) can mean lots of different things depending on who is using it. Herodotus’s speaker however was taken by his two opponents to mean something something pretty radical, something like the masses, the majority of ordinary poor (adult, male, legitimate, free) citizens. And that they thought was equivalent to mob-rule – rule by the ignorant, stupid, ill-educated over their betters – the few smarter, richer, better born, more intelligent citizens. Herodotus’s own views on demokratia are not absolutely clear but it in his pages that this extraordinary, complex and dangerous political form was born.

Finally, 1.207: this is another passage set within a Persian context – though not this time in Iranian Susa, but far away in the territory of the barbarous Massagetae of Central Asia to the east of what is left today of the Aral Sea. Here Great King Cyrus, founder of the Persian empire (r. c. 550-530), is conducting yet another punitive expedition of conquest, against a people who are ruled by a ferocious queen. He calls a conclave of his leading Persians and also some non-Persian advisers, including a certain Croesus. This is ex-king Croesus of Lydia, who despite classically and fatally misreading an ambiguous Delphic oracle, and thereby losing his kingdom, had allegedly had his life spared by his magnanimous conqueror Cyrus. Herodotus too is happy to keep Croesus alive, so that he can serve in his narrative as an adviser or warner figure for the Persian Great King, as he does in the scene I am specially interested in now.

Croesus begins his homily to Cyrus piously, claiming that it was Zeus who had surrendered him and his life to Cyrus. (How Cyrus – as opposed to Herodotus himself or his audience – would have understood such a claim is another matter. In any case, Croesus would of course not have spoken of ‘Zeus’.) He then rehearses his own great and bitter sufferings – but only so as to insist that he has learned a powerful lesson from them, and that the same lesson can be learned by Cyrus, provided he does not make the cardinal mistake of equating himself with the immortal gods. The lesson is this: that the affairs of humans are configured like the motion of a revolving wheel (kuklos), and so the same persons are not allowed always to continue in a state of good fortune.

Herodotus was indeed the father of history, and his 2500th birthday (or thereabouts) deserves to be duly commemorated – and celebrated. However, the circle or cycle metaphor catches very well one major difference between our own patterns of thinking and those of the ancient Greeks. They were by no means unfamiliar with the notion or idea of Progress – technological, cultural, even sometimes moral progress. But it was hardly a dominant idea, let alone the driving force, of their culture. For them, the Golden Age was typically thought of as being in the past, as having happened once upon a time long ago. It was envisaged therefore as an ideal to be at best retrieved and possibly emulated, but not necessarily surpassed. One version of this essentially static worldview took the form of eternal recurrence, precisely Croesus’s kuklos: the wheel of fortune which deposited even or especially the most eminent people back where they started, or brought them low after they had been riding high. It is, perhaps, a comforting thought in unsettling times. Even for us – or Us.

Further reading

Bruit Zaidman, L. & P. Schmitt Pantel, Religion in the Ancient Greek City (Cambridge, 1992)

Cartledge, P.A., The Greeks. A Portrait of Self and Others, 2nd edn (Oxford, 2002)

Cartledge, P.A. Ancient Greek Political Thought in Practice (Cambridge, 2009)

Hall, J., Hellenicity: Between Ethnicity and Culture (Chicago, 2002)

Hansen, M.H., POLIS: An Introduction to the Ancient Greek City-State (Oxford, 2006)

Hartog, F., The Mirror of Herodotus. The Representation of the Other in the Writing of History

(Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London, 1988)

Holland, T., translator, with introduction and notes by P. Cartledge, Herodotus the Histories (London, 2013)

Roberts, J.T. Herodotus. A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, 2011)


Paul Cartledge is Emeritus A.G. Leventis Professor of Greek Culture in the Faculty of Classics at the University of Cambridge, where he has taught since 1979; he is also a Fellow of Clare College. He is the author, co-author, editor or co-editor of a score of books, including most recently The Cambridge Illustrated History of Ancient Greece; The Greeks: Crucible of Civilization; Sparta and Lakonia: A Regional History c.1300-362 BC; The Greeks: A Portrait of Self and Others; The Spartans: An Epic History; Alexander the Great: The Hunt for a New Past and Thermopylae: The Battle that Changed the World . He co-edits two monograph series, sits on the editorial boards of three learned journals and serves as consultant in ancient history to Duckworth publishers. He is a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London and holds the Gold Cross of the Order of Honour awarded by the President of the Hellenic Republic.

Paul will be speaking about Herodotus: The Father of History on Thursday, 28 June at 5pm.




Everyone has image of the SAS: feats of physical endurance involving over-muscled men yomping across the landscape, soldiers in balaclavas abseiling down the side of the Iranian embassy, news stories of secret soldiers carrying out operations in farflung warzones, long on drama, but usually short on detail.

The true story of the wartime SAS, I discovered, is very different from the myth.

It is an astonishing adventure story, filled with tales of physical endurance, courage and survival.  But it is much more than that.

Many books about the SAS have focused on a single individual, consequently downplaying the impact of others; some veer towards the hagiographic; many are somewhat over-muscled, tending to emphasize machismo at the expense of objectivity, physical strength over the psychological stamina that was the hallmark of the organization in its earliest incarnation. While many members of the wartime SAS exhibited extraordinary qualities, they were also human: flawed, occasionally cruel, and capable of making spectacular mistakes. The SAS has become a legend, but the true story contains darkness as well as light, tragedy and evil alongside heroism: it is a tale of unparalleled bravery and ingenuity, interspersed with moments of rank incompetence, raw brutality and touching human frailty.

Bravery sometimes comes in unexpected forms, and in places far from the battlefield. The wartime history of the SAS is a rattling adventure story, but in my book, SAS: ROGUE HEROES, I have also tried to explore the psychology of secret, unconventional warfare, a particular attitude of mind at a crucial moment in history, and the reactions of ordinary people to extraordinary wartime circumstances.

Rather to my surprise, this turned out to a book about the meaning of courage.


Ben Macintyre is the bestselling author of several books including A Spy Among Friends, Operation Mincemeat and Agent Zigzag, which was shortlisted for the Costa Biography Award and the Galaxy British Book Award for Biography of the Year 2008. He is a columnist and Associate Editor at The Times.

On Saturday 1 July at 6.45pm, he will be at Chalke Valley History Festival to tell the story of David Stirling, the eccentric young officer who was given permission by Churchill to recruit the most ruthless soldiers he could find, thereby founding the most mysterious military organisation in the world: the SAS.

Tickets are available here.


The CIA’s Drone Policy Under Trump

Featured Image: “Gorgon Stare” by Kathryn Brimblecombe

President Trump’s agenda has borrowed heavily from Reagan. Tax cuts, a military buildup, and even the slogan “Make America Great Again” were all signatures of the 1980 presidential campaign, noisily repackaged for a new age. Within a day of assuming office, Trump revealed a further resonance with Reagan’s platform, echoing the former president’s intention to “unleash” a CIA constrained by bureaucracy. While visiting Langley, Trump accused the previous administration of not having always given the CIA the backing it required, and promised to grant the agency “1000 percent” support in “leading the charge” against “radical Islamic terrorism.”

The criticism that Obama did not do enough to support the CIA might seem strange for a president so associated with the agency’s expansive drone campaign. Over the former president’s two terms, the CIA oversaw an estimated 375 strikes in Pakistan’s frontier provinces. Yet despite the enormous increase in the scale and tempo of the agency’s campaign, the Obama administration had retained the collaborative partnership Langley had first established with the United States Air Force in the late 1990s when Predator drones were employed in the agency’s hunt for Osama bin Laden. Under this arrangement the CIA directed the strikes, but the Air Force retained responsibility for piloting the aircraft and pulling the trigger. Within weeks of his visit, Trump delivered on his promise of empowerment, overturning this combined approach and granting the CIA the authority to execute its own strikes.

What is the Trump administration’s motivation for overturning the well-established relationship between the CIA and the Air Force? For critics the decision may seem like little more than a cynical attempt to bypass the safeguards the previous administration had established. Under pressure from human rights and legal groups, and conscious of the legacy he was leaving, Obama had sought to address some of the biggest criticisms related to his two terms of drone warfare, namely the proliferation of targeted killing, erosion of international norms and standards, and the lack of transparency surrounding strikes and their casualties. His administration’s efforts to bring drone warfare out from the shadows were first codified in the 2013 Presidential Policy Guidance, which established strict targeting criteria, and expanded upon in the closing months of his presidency by Executive Order 13732, which committed future administrations to publicly producing annual casualty reports.

Authorizing the CIA to undertake its own strikes theoretically removes these actions from the public disclosure required by Title 10 of the U.S. Code, under which the Pentagon operates. Instead, actions can be concealed behind the CIA’s specialist Title 50, which authorizes covert action. In reality however, prior to Trump’s decision both the Bush and Obama administrations relied upon an exploitative hybrid, leaning upon the Air Force to provide legal authority for lethal action, while using the CIA’s Title 50 rights to render details about such strikes classified. It was not until his final months in office that Obama challenged this abuse. Rather than a dramatic change to established practices of secrecy, Trump’s move represents a rejection of the Obama administration’s belated attempt to set new standards that it hoped the next administration would meet, and possibly improve upon.

The more significant motive behind the Trump administration’s decision to authorize the CIA to undertake strikes is its determination to accelerate the pace of the United States’ campaign against what it collectively describes as “radical Islamic terrorism.” The consensus view held among Trump’s closest advisors is that the ponderous caution exercised by his predecessor enabled groups like the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) to expand. Thus Obama’s guidelines were regarded as little more than bureaucratic red tape, binding U.S. forces with collateral damage assessments and casualty reports, and limiting the nation’s ability to bring its full force to bear against the so called “global jihadist movement.” Consequently, the decision is better understood in the wider context of the administration’s reforms to the way the War on Terror is being fought. The White House has set out to transform America’s counterterrorism operations from a centralized effort led by the Executive to an approach where greater authority is delegated to the Pentagon and Langley to empower commanders on the ground to sanction their own operations, be they drone strikes or other kinds of counterterrorism activity.

That is not to say that Trump’s decision should not ring alarm bells. One of the strongest cases for the sort of transparency Obama belatedly sought to introduce is the added incentive to exercise caution and limit civilian casualties. As revealed by the Trump administration’s disastrous Yemen raid in which twenty-three civilians and a Navy SEAL were killed, and the unprecedented civilian casualties caused by recent coalition air strikes on Mosul, the combination of increased tempo, delegated authority, and limited transparency can have an extremely negative impact upon efforts to limit civilian casualties.

It would be inaccurate however to assume that because Trump has sought to return the CIA’s drone warfare to the shadows that the automatic consequence will be higher civilian casualties. The decision, while doubtless intended to be part of the administration’s tempo-increasing streamlining, overlooks the fact that Langley has long had different targeting criteria to those employed by the Pentagon, reflecting the different cultural attitudes and roles of the two bodies. The Pentagon—as a warfighting organization—uses “reasonable certainty” to validate targets when operating within warzones, enabling it to respond quickly to threats but with a higher proportion of risk. The CIA however—as an intelligence agency whose strikes often take place outside of warzones—relies upon “near certainty” for their targets, a standard which can take weeks or months longer than a typical Pentagon operation to achieve.

Evidence of the CIA’s more methodical approach to drone strikes was revealed when the Obama administration explored the possibility of transferring responsibility from the CIA to the Department of Defense in 2013. Lawmakers in the Senate Intelligence Committee, who were concerned that the military lacked the necessary intelligence-gathering capabilities to ensure the same degree of precision, opposed the move. The CIA, argued the committee’s chair Diane Feinstein, had proven itself capable of exercising “patience and discretion specifically to prevent collateral damage.” Thus, while Trump’s decision reflects a retrospective step in terms of transparency and government accountability, the more meticulous approach of Langley’s terrorist hunters should be regarded as a positive policy development at a time when the Executive’s desire for quick results and greater appetite for risk has already seen a troubling rise in civilian casualties.

This article was first published by Yale University Press on 10 April 2017.

Dr Christopher Fuller is a lecturer in modern US History at the University of Southampton. His research & teaching is focused upon US foreign policy, in particular the origins & conduct of the War on Terror & the exploration of the United States as a post-territorial empire in the post-Cold War era. His book See It/Shoot It: The Historical Origins of the CIA’s Lethal Drone Program is due for publication 6 June 2017.

He is speaking at our Schools Festival in June about ‘US Foreign Policy Since the Cold War.’

Goya: The Portraits

Audio from Xavier Bray’s talk at Chalke Valley History Festival 2015.

Francisco de Goya’s career spanned a tumultuous time in Spain’s history, but it was a backdrop in which his innovative style and technical development flourished. In this talk, the great man’s life, career and world was examined by the preeminent expert in this field.

Chalke Valley History Evening at St Giles

Hidden In The Countryside

The Wansdyke at Morgan’s Hill near Devizes

A series of four parallel earthworks cut the line of the Icknield Way south east and south west of Cambridge.  They are up to 5 miles long and up to 34 feet high.  Most people have never heard of them.

The Wansdyke is a linear earthwork which stretches from Marlborough to Bath, with some interruptions.  That is a distance of about 40 miles.  In places it is about 20 feet high.  Most people are completely unaware of its existence.

In the 1860s and 1870s the Victorian antiquarian General Augustus Pitt Rivers excavated a number of long linear earthworks in East Yorkshire.  They were generally known as the Wolds Entrenchments.  Pitt Rivers’ conclusion was that they were built by a people expanding westwards from the area near the coast, fortifying as they went.  The Wolds Entrenchments are generally forgotten today, yet there are dozens of them. They are easy to find, run for miles, and are typically several feet high.

Pitt Rivers also excavated a major earthwork astride the Roman road between Salisbury and Blandford Forum, about two miles from the Chalke Valley.  Called the Bokerly (or Bokerley) Ditch, it is about 12 feet high in places today.  There is a car park where the A354 crosses it.  Occasionally, curious tourists wander over it and wonder who built it.  But the great majority of people have never heard of it.

Pitt Rivers considered that the Bokerley Dyke and the Wansdyke (which he also excavated) were  late or post-Roman defence works.  There are hundreds of these earthworks.  They are spread across much of England (but very little of Scotland or Wales).  In total they are hundreds of miles long.

Grim’s Bank: one of a series of earthworks associated with the Roman town of Silchester, Hampshire.

They would have taken hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of man-hours to build.  Very few have been excavated.  The most famous is Offa’s Dyke, excavated over eight seasons in the 1920s and 30s by Sir Cyril Fox.  The few that have been dated with any rigor have been shown to be late- or post-Roman.  In the 1960s the chief archaeologist of the Ordnance Survey considered them to be ‘[t]he most impressive monuments of the Dark Ages in Britain’.  Yet today they are almost entirely forgotten.

These Dark Age dykes raise four key issues. The first is to find out how many there are, where they are, and how big they are.  The other three issues should be applied to each earthwork in turn:  ‘who built it?’,  ‘why did they build it?’  and finally ‘why did they build it there?’  (‘there’ in the sense of locally, regionally and nationally).  If you do that, you come to some interesting conclusions.  I shall be talking about my findings at this year’s Chalke Valley History Festival.

The Assassination of Julius Caesar

Audio from a talk by Barry Strauss at Chalke Valley History Festival 2016.

Thanks to Shakespeare, the death of Julius Caesar is the most famous assassination in history. But what actually happened on 15 March 44 BC is even more gripping than Shakespeare’s play. With a fresh perspective, American historian Professor Barry Strauss sheds new light on this fascinating, pivotal and carefully planned paramilitary operation and the mole in Caesar’s entourage who betrayed him.