Horace and the Persians – Horatian Society Address 2014

At the end of last month I made, along with the writer and FT journalist Harry Eyres, one of the two annual addresses to the Horatian Society, held at the Old Hall of Lincoln’s Inn, London. Previous speakers to the Society include Boris Johnson, Sir Peter Stothard and Gail Trimble. I decided to speak on Horace and the Persians…

Mr. President, my Lords, Ladies and Gentlemen:

Persicos odi puer apparatus – “I hate Persian fripperies”. So began Horace the last poem of his first book of Odes. He was, in this instance, giving instructions to his slave boy for preparing an al-fresco dinner at the end of the summer. No need, he goes on, for anything fancy: no elaborate garlands woven with lime bark; don’t trouble to hunt out the last roses of the season; we need nothing, you and I, to adorn the beauty of simple myrtle.

I am glad to observe this Society honours the Poet’s memory by keeping his precepts over the setting of dinner. Persian fripperies are mercifully absent this evening, and there would be little enhancement brought to this excellent feast by the addition of belly-dancers, arak, or opium-filled shisha pipes.

But needless to say, Horace’s injunction is about much more than his preference for simplicity in table settings. Even the word “apparatus” is polyvalent.[1] I translated it as “fripperies”; it might be grand preparations, the paraphernalia for a military triumph (perish the thought that the Persians should have any of those) or even rhetorical devices (a dig at his Persian poetic rivals, perhaps?). And beyond that, the poem comes in a context of sustained barbarian-bashing. In the previous ode (I.37), there is a public celebration for the downfall of that dangerous easterner, Cleopatra. Perhaps Horace’s al fresco dinner is the private celebration to follow that public joy, with the sentiment of trashing oriental luxury and magnificence – be it Egyptian or Persian – as the abiding theme of both poems.

When Horace predicted his literary immortality, I do not know if he thought that descendants of the effete Persians might be numbered amongst his votaries. Seeing as I find myself amongst their number, it is not unreasonable for me to ask how comfortable it is to be in such a position. The Persians are notoriously touchy about those of the classical world who did them down. They still smart over the ruins of Persepolis, and Alexander the Great is strictly Alexander of Macedon in Iranian circles. Should I then begrudge the poet his Delphic laurel for his general denigration of the Persian kind?

I need hardly remind you of the main source of Horace’s Persophobia. It was not just the un-Roman luxury of the “gorgeous East” which rankled with him. It was the Battle of Carrhae, 53 BC, Marcus Licinius Crassus’ ill-conceived adventure to win himself glory and riches in the East, and make himself a rival to Caesar. Instead, he found at the hand of the Persians – or Parthians, I should say – his own death, the annihilation of his legions, and the shameful capture of their legionary standards. The Roman prisoners, as Horace recalls “lived in vile marriages with barbarian wives… forgetful of their shields, and togas and eternal Vesta…” Persia was, for generations, an existential threat to Rome. Their conflict was perennial, and one recalls that even a Roman Emperor, Valerian, was captured in AD 260 and forced to serve as the Great King’s footstool. If Horace egged on Augustus to protect Rome from this menace, and to turn Rome’s energy, so recently expended against itself in civil war, outwards against a dangerous foreigner, can he really be blamed?

Yet it is curious to think about how the Persians are portrayed in Horace’s work. First, there is his carelessness about naming them – one in which I have so far shared. The Arsacid dynasty of the Parthians were in charge in Horace’s time, not the Achaemenid Persians. Yet, for Horace, they are all one: Persians, Parthians, Medes, King Achamenes, King Cyrus. By the same token, today’s diplomats might complain of the increasingly authoritarian nature of the Ottoman Sultan, or the wearisome truculence of the Grand Duke of Muscovy towards the eastern Ukraine. Naturally, it is a studied carelessness. It is not worth our while spending precious time to learn in detail about these barbarians, and besides, to call them by those old names will associate Augustus with Salamis and Marathon, the Greek triumphs over the Persians in the 5th century BC in defence of western liberty; an elegant way to bring lustre to one’s ultimate patron.

But when Horace does trouble to offer any detail about them, how wonderfully contrary his depiction. On the one hand, we have the jihadi. They are feroces, warlike and insolent[2], graves, harsh and oppressive[3], horribiles, dreadful[4], and infidi, deceitful[5]. It is indeed by their deceitful means of war that we know them, their use of feigned retreat[6] and archery[7]. Think of an Islamic State guerrilla armed with a bow and arrow.

On the other hand, we have the trustafarian sybarite. They drip with wealth, drip with extremely expensive perfume, as do even their slaves, and they are addicted to apparatus, fripperies. None of this opulence ever seems to please them. And, on occasion, the warrior and the wastrel are fused together; in one ode we see the “Median” soldier strutting about and showing off his flashy and no-doubt bejewelled quiver[8].

Even where credit might be due to the Persians, Horace is unwilling to give it. Some have suggested that Horace was aware of the Persian notion of the paradise garden: a retreat, usually the King’s, pleasant and cool with shade and running water[9]. When Horace urges his friend Tyndaris to visit his Sabine Farm, in addition to many of these paradisal qualities, observes Horace, Tyndaris will not be troubled by a rival who has been importuning him: a wanton fellow who can’t keep his fists under control, who might tear off Tyndaris’ festal robe or garland. The name of this devil kept out of paradise? A resoundingly Persian Cyrus.[10]

Curiously, Horace’s bipolar stereotype is little changed even today. Look at any newspaper: we either see those villainous ayatollahs ducking and weaving at the negotiating table as they menacingly spin their secret nuclear centrifuges; or else the jeunesse dorée of north Tehran, taunting the religious police with headscarves provocatively pulled back, diving into carouses so unbounded that they make a Friday night in Soho look like one of Savonarola’s tea-parties. 

It was not as if Rome was entirely without its Persians to give to the airy nothingness of Horace’s imagination some sensible definition, nor as if he were following some official line of the Augustan regime. In 20 BC, when Augustus returned in triumph with those captured standards – won by negotiation, not war – the Roman statuary and coinage of the period generally portrayed the Persians with dignity. This was shortly after the publication of the Odes in 23 BC. The Persians are shown not as humiliated enemies, bowed and shackled, as for example were the Gauls in coinage to mark Julius Caesar’s conquests. They appear standing upright, hands unbound, almost, but not quite, on a par with Augustus himself.

Indeed, they seem to have made their way to the heart of the Roman establishment. Recent scholarship has identified two of the figures in the imperial entourage on the Ara Pacis, that most perfect icon of Augustus’ blessings (inaugurated in 13 BC), as children of the Persian King, brought back to Rome as part of the settlement over Crassus’ standards[11]. The official iconography does not show them as enemies, but as “contributors to peace”; a far cry from Horace’s wish that war, plague and famine be visited on the Persians[12]. So far from Horace contentedly reclining under his vine, urging us chin-chin with the chosen Massic and not to worry about tedious conflicts in far-off countries of which we know little, he is avid for war. Is our Horace in fact less a guide to life and more a neo-con before his time, a sort of be-togaed Rumsfeld?

Perhaps Horace little esteemed the Persians because he knew little of their literature. Persian princes made it to Rome under Augustus, but it seems that it was not the same for their books. Horace speaks slightingly of Persian apparatus perhaps with its literature in mind, but in truth he had very little to go on. Then again, for Persian writing of that age, neither do we. There was certainly the Avesta, the ancient body of Zoroastrian texts, but had he somehow access to this dense corpus of scripture and liturgy, I feel he would have esteemed these noble but stolid verses little in comparison to what he had from the Greeks. And were there Persian lyricists of that age, they are lost, mute and inglorious.

Yet, if Horace is content to mislay several hundred years in his portrayal of the Persians, then I too claim the right of anachronism in my response. Horace is immortal, after all. Let him fly forward a thousand years and more, and engage in amoebean contest with those later Persians who have raised poetic monuments more long-lasting than bronze. Horace sings of the pleasures of friendship, wine and humble contentment:

Vile potabis modicis Sabinum / Cantharis … “you will drink cheap booze with me, Maecenas, from plastic glasses”[13]

And so Omar Khayyam, mediated by Edward Fitzgerald:

A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,

A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread-and Thou

Beside me singing in the Wilderness-

Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow![14]

The folly of future worries, and love of the moment:

Quid sit futurum cras, fuge quaerere – “Quit asking what will come tomorrow”[15]

Khayyam replies:

Waste not your Hour, nor in vain pursuit

Of This and That endeavour and dispute;

Better be jocund with the fruitful grape

Than sadder after none, or bitter Fruit.[16]

The folly of excessive toil in the face inevitable death:

Eheu fugaces, Postume, Postume… “A worthier heir will quaff your Caecuban vintage now guarded by a hundred keys…”[17]

Step forward Hafez, in the words of Gertrude Bell:

A tale of April the meadows unfold—

Ah, foolish for future credit to slave,

And to leave the cash of the present untold!

Build a fort with wine where thy heart may brave

The assault of the world; when thy fortress falls,

The relentless victor shall knead from thy dust

The bricks that repair its crumbling walls.[18]

And poetic immortality:

Exegi monumentum aere perennius… “I have made a monument more long-lasting than bronze…”[19]

We hear from Sa’adi’s Gulistan or “Rose Garden”:

What use to you might be a dish of roses?

Rather, take a leaf from my Rose Garden.

A rose endures for just five days or six

But the bloom of my Rose Garden will for ever be fresh.[20]

So many are the similarities in motifs, concerns and even spirit that one might quote until the Sultan’s turret is caught in a noose of light, and we hardly know whether Horace’s favourite retreat is the Sabine farm or Shiraz. It might even have been his favourite grape, had he known of it.

It is troubling to find Horace unwilling to see the potential for humanitas in the Persians he so resembled (even at a thousand years’ difference), especially when their verse was so willing to transcend the incidents of religion and tribe. Again from Sa’adi’s Gulistan:

Human beings are members of a whole, / In creation of one essence and soul.[21]

Yet perhaps it is asking too much of Horace to have transcended his age to the extent of spurning its politics, and foregoing a convenient bogeyman. It must be overlooked, as we must overlook for example the inescapable anti-Semitism of Wagner for the boon and ultimate humanity of his work. If Horace had encountered the verse of his Persian brethren – and perhaps he has done so in some paradise somewhere – then doubtless he would have acknowledged his error, and held that Crassus’ soldiers even in Parthian captivity encountered Romanitas and humanitas. And similarly today, amongst those threatening ayatollahs and wild parties of north Tehran, we might recognise something of our own European lives instead of an implacable other. It is something to ponder this on day, when for the first time since the Iranian Revolution a British Prime Minister has met an Iranian President. Let no more be said against Persian fripperies; they are much the same as our own.

[1] See P. Hardie, “Fifth-Century Athenian and Augustan Images of the Barbarian Other” Classics Ireland, Vol. 4, (1997), 46-56

[2] Od III.ii.3

[3] Od III.v.4

[4] Od I.xxix,4

[5] Od IV.xv.23

[6] Od I.xix.11

[7] Od II.xiii.19

[8] Od. II.xvi.6

[9] W.S. Anderson, “Paradise Gained by Horace, Lost by Gulliver”, The Yearbook of English Studies, Vol. 14, Satire Special Number. Essays in Memory of Robert C. Elliott 1914-1981 (1984), 151-166

[10] Od. I.xvii

[11] C.B. Rose, “The Parthians in Ancient Rome”, American Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 109, No. 1 (Jan. 2005),  21-75

[12] Od. I.xxi.15

[13] Od. I.xx.1

[14] Rubaiyat XII

[15] Od I.ix.12

[16] Rubaiyat LIV

[17] Od. II.14

[18] Ode VII

[19] Od. III.xxx.1

[20] Introduction

[21] Chapter 1 Story 10

Afghan presidential handover – a historical perspective

Last week I wrote a historical perspective for the BBC Persian Service on the handover of power in Afghanistan from President Karzai to his successor, Ashraf Ghani. Here is a translation of the article:

A Harmless handover

In the week of the Afghan presidential inauguration, Bijan Omrani looks at previous handovers of power in Afghanistan.

No-one would deny that the process of finding a successor to Hamid Karzai as Afghan president has not been easy. A delay of over three months between the second presidential poll and the inauguration; an assassination attempt on the runner-up, Abdullah Abdullah; accusations of vast electoral fraud involving over one million votes appearing from nowhere; and weeks of protracted negotiations about power-sharing and whether to reveal the numerical result of the poll: all of this has led to widespread dissatisfaction and even fear within Afghanistan and the international community.

Yet, for those who feel this way about the 2014 Afghan presidential poll, it pays to stand back for a moment and take a longer view of Afghanistan’s history. In Afghanistan, the handover of power has never been easy, and a look at what has happened in the past might make one more sanguine about the present.

Spare a thought, for example, for Zaman Shah. He ruled Afghanistan from 1793-1800, the third king on the Afghan throne since the country was established in 1747. In the mid-18th century, Afghanistan had been a formidable empire, reaching down to the Indian Ocean in Baluchistan, and also including the Punjab and Kashmir. But by Zaman Shah’s time the country was breaking up. He had relied on various Afghan chiefs to help him secure the throne and keep his kingdom together, but caught up in bitter tribal rivalries, he started to execute the chiefs who had helped him and replace them with members of his own clan. In 1800, his former allies decided that he had to be replaced. Instead of using negotiation or the ballot box, they blinded him, piercing his eyes with a needle. One of his brothers was put on the throne in his place, and Zaman Shah later fled to British India, where he lived on a British Government pension until 1844.

He might have been relieved to have been spared the sight of what went on in Afghan politics in the first half of the 19th century. A host of royal princes – brothers and half-brothers – manipulated by powerful tribal interests struggled bitterly for control of Kabul. Five kings were deposed, two of whom managed even to regain power for short periods. One of them, Shah Shuja, was put back on the throne by a British occupying army in 1839 during the First Afghan War, only to be assassinated shortly after their withdrawal in 1842. He was gunned down by a party of riflemen after being lured out of his Kabul stronghold, the Bala Hissar. Shot through the head, his body was stripped of the mass of jewels he always wore in public, and was then thrown into a ditch.

After a further prolonged period of civil war in the 1860s which saw another struggle between members of the royal family, with no fewer than three people claiming the throne in as many years, the British were again responsible for the loss of two Afghan kings in the 1870s. Fearing Russian interference, they invaded in 1878. Sher Ali Khan, a king who had worked hard to reunify the country after the earlier civil war, fled Kabul and died in Mazar-i Sharif, probably of despair. His son, Yaqub Khan, took the throne in February 1879, but abdicated in October that year after being unable to stop Kabul rioters massacring the members of a British diplomatic mission in the city. Surrendering to the British, he complained “I would rather be a grass-cutter in your camp than king of Afghanistan.”

It was little better in the 20th century. King Habibullah (1901-1919) was assassinated on a hunting expedition by an unknown killer, shot through the ear whilst alone in his tent. His successor, King Amanullah, who had forced through wide ranging social reforms including the education and unveiling of women, was overthrown in a revolution in 1929 by outraged traditionalists. Having fled Kabul in a Rolls-Royce, his role as king was later taken by a bandit chief nicknamed Bacha-i Saqao, “the son of the water carrier”. A member of the royal family, Nadir Shah, managed to rally resistance, capture and execute him by firing squad later in the year, taking over the throne. However, Nadir himself was assassinated by conspirators in 1933. He was attacked by a number of trusted servants outside the royal harem, shot three times and stabbed with daggers.

Although the Afghan monarchy was abolished in 1973 (again, thanks to a coup where one of the king’s uncles, Mohammed Daoud, took over executive power as president and prime minister whilst the then king, Zahir Shah, was out of the country), the violence still continued. Daoud, along with most of his family, was murdered in a communist coup in 1978. Nur Mohammed Taraki, who became president shortly afterwards, was killed in September 1979 after falling out with one of his former political allies, Hafizullah Amin. After gunmen under Amin’s orders failed to assassinate him, he was captured and smothered to death with a pillow in the presidential palace. Amin himself, as Afghanistan spiralled out of control, was ordered to be killed by the Soviet government who thought that his bad government was giving communism a bad name. After failed attempts to poison him, he was killed by Soviet Special Forces when they stormed his residence in December 1979.

The 2014 presidential election and handover of power from Hamid Karzai to Ashraf Ghani has hardly been a smooth or painless process. However, in a country where there is little tradition of executive power being transferred peacefully, and where the building of stable state institutions to allow such peaceful handovers has been deeply disrupted by decades of foreign interference, the sight of a well-ordered and amicable presidential inauguration on Monday can only give one hope. This week’s presidential handover, which has been based on the ballot box and negotiation, is a vast improvement on what has happened before.


Forgotten memorial: the Afghan Church in Mumbai, monument to two Anglo-Afghan Wars

The first two British wars in Afghanistan (1838-42 and 1878-80) are even today still very present in the public consciousness. Commentators, looking forward to this year’s coalition withdrawal from Afghanistan still talk darkly of the disastrous British retreat from Kabul in 1842, and Afghans still remember with pride their trouncing of the British at the Battle of Maiwand near Kandahar in 1880.

Yet, despite this awareness of the two campaigns and the continuing relevance of them to the current situation, it is curious that in Britain there are few physical memorials to them. Aside from the Maiwand Lion in the Forbury Gardens in Reading which commemorates the terrible losses suffered by the Berkshire Regiment in the battle, there is not much more to be found than a discrete scattering of plaques and inscriptions.

Nevertheless, there is one grand monument dedicated to those of the occupying armies who fell in the first two Afghan Wars. However, it stands not in Britain but in India. The Church of St John the Evangelist, which is located in the Naval cantonment (Navy Nagar) in Colaba, South Mumbai, is better known as the Afghan Church. In the aftermath of the First Afghan War in 1843, the East India Company commissioned the church to be built as a memorial to those of the British and Company Armies who died in the war in Afghanistan. The work was begun in 1847 and the church was consecrated in 1858, although the 60-metre high bell tower was not completed until 1865.

Bell tower of the Afghan Church

As architecture, the church is particularly significant as a trailblazer for the Gothic style which is the hallmark of South Bombay in buildings such as the Victoria Railway Terminus and the High Court. It is a collaboration between Henry Conybeare and the architect of Keble College William Butterfield, who provided much of the interior decoration such as the reredos, the floor tiling and the memorials for the first Afghan War.

Memorial plaque to the First Afghan War

Whilst one might appreciate the austere grandeur of the church, it is the memorials to the two Afghan Wars which really seize the attention. Needless to say, they are focused on the western officers who fell on the campaigns and there is little acknowledgement of the mass of Indian soldiers or Afghans who perished (though the Afghans do have a monument in Kabul to the Victory of Maiwand). Nevertheless, to see the array of even just these names brings the historic conflicts much closer to home.

Memorial to officers who fell in the First Afghan War, north side of sanctuary

Behind each of the names is a story – I have picked out one from the plaque below to retell here:

Detail of memorial tablet on the north side of the sanctuary showing the name of Captain John Woodburn

Captain John Woodburn of the 44th Bombay Native Infantry had distinguished himself fighting against insurgents during 1841. During this time, he had been based in Kandahar, and was involved in a notable action to contain rebels around Gereskh: on July 3rd, his force of infantry confronted a force of 6000 men under a dissenting chief, Aktar Khan, and although outnumbered by the rebels he was able to put them to flight after a pitched battle on the banks of the Helmand River. The fact that such actions were necessary was a sign of Afghanistan’s essential instability under occupation. As the situation deteriorated towards the end of the year, Woodburn was detailed to march with a small detachment of 130 men from Kandahar to Kabul. On 2nd November the small column fell into difficulty outside the city of Ghazni. Sir John Kaye, the great historian of the First Afghan War, takes up the account:

“[Outside Ghazni] they were attacked by swarms of Afghans, through whom, with consummate gallantry and skill, Woodburn fought his way to the little fort of Syedabad. The place was occupied by a man supposed to be friendly to us; and the English officer, surrounded as he was by the enemy, gladly accepted his offer of protection. But there was no safety within the fort. For a day and a night he held his position against a besieging enemy, and nobly he defended himself. But his ammunition fell short; and then there came tidings of the success of the insurgents at Caubul. On this, the chief admitted parties of the enemy into the towers of his own Harem, which overlooked the court-yard, in which the Sepoys were quartered. Then the massacre commenced. Many of the Sepoys were killed on the spot. Others threw themselves over the walls, and were shot down outside the fort. Woodburn himself, with a few of his men, took post in a tower of their own court, and for some hours they gallantly defended themselves. But they fell at last. The enemy burnt them out; and massacred them almost to a man.”


Memorial to the officers who fell in the Second Afghan War 1878-1880

The church also possesses some of the colours – much decayed – which were carried by various regiments in the Second Afghan War.

Plaque below regimental colours near the west door

The colours hang in glass cases under the tower:

Regimental colours

The church is a cool and welcome retreat from the chaos of contemporary Mumbai. However, there is an unfortunate air of obscurity about the place. The stonework of the sanctuary is crumbling, and a fine dust of chipped limestone covers parts of the brightly-tiled floor. The regular congregation, I understand, is in the region of 25. The caretaker proudly showed me a photograph of the Prince of Wales visiting the Church last year. However, given the historic importance of the Church and its continuing relevance with 12 years of a modern British presence in Afghanistan, it would be fitting for the Church to be better known and better connected with Britain. Such memorials should be as visible as possible, calling us to think carefully about the question of foreign intervention and its price.

View of the nave of the Afghan Church

More photographs:

Altar and sanctuary of the Afghan Church with Butterfield's tilework. Names of the fallen of the First Afghan War are on the walls to either side.

Memorial to Lt Francis Stanyer on the East Wall with Butterfield's tilework. Also commemorated on the East wall are Major Sidney Waudby and Major Richard le Poer Trench of the 19th Bombay Native Infantry

Plaque set in the floor of the sanctuary. It reads "In memory of Henry Francis Brooke, late Adjutant General of the Bombay Army, who was appointed to the command of the Second Infantry Brigade at Candahar in March 1880, and fell during the sortie against Deh Khoda on the 16th of August while nobly endeavouring to save the life of Captain G.M. Cruickshank, a wounded comrade."

A rather worn plaque in Latin on the altar steps commemorating the Reverend G. Piggot, the founder of the church. The text states that he was buried at sea "sub undis sepultus" whilst returning to Britain.

Further detail of the First Afghan War memorial, north wall of the sanctuary

View of the nave from the west door beneath the tower

Londinium AD 120: The first British Gladiators?

A new forensic examination of skulls which were discovered in 1988 in the Walbrook Valley has suggested that they could be the remains of gladiators. The examination, carried out by the Natural History Museum in conjunction with the Museum of London, found that the skulls had suffered “blunt force trauma” to their front and sides. As a result of this examination, several theories have been put forward to explain what had happened to the victims – mostly young men who had died between AD 120-160. One suggestion is that they are the severed heads of barbarian enemies taken by the Roman armies on the frontiers of Britain. However, more credible are the ideas that they were executed as criminals in the nearby London amphitheatre, or else had perished in combat as gladiators. Such gladiatorial graves have been found on mainland Europe, and it could be the case that this is the first example of the phenomenon in Britain.

One remembers the old adage from Viz, “A Pint and a Fight, a Great British Night”. From gladiators to glassings, tastes in London don’t seem to have changed much. A friend from Kentish town was shaking his head mournfully over the weekend: “there are two murders every week in the local paper” – but if these skulls are anything to judge, ’twas ever thus in London. Or as the Romans would say, “nihil sub sole novum“.

Ahmed Rashid: “If they just talk to ordinary people, the Taliban will change…”

Further to my earlier post on Ahmed Rashid’s SOAS speech on Friday, there is another statement Rashid made which deserves to be questioned further. He suggested that there was an essential flexibility in the Taliban’s ideology, and that it would be softened if and when the Taliban spent more time talking to ordinary people. Should they spend more time speaking to ordinary people, the Taliban would understand their needs better and consequently moderate their behaviour and approach to governing any areas they hold, be more accommodating of modernity, and be more inclined to making a peace settlement.

There are two comments one should make in response to this striking idea:

1. The Taliban are, by Rashid’s own reckoning, a natural movement arising from the Pashtun peoples in the south of Afghanistan and the Tribal Areas (albeit stimulated and supported by external agents). If they ultimately are of the people, would they not since their emergence as a force in the mid-1990s already have had some little time to get to know their own people and understand their needs? Perhaps not. Kate Clark and Christine Roehrs, in her excellent analysis of the Taverna du Liban bombing of Kabul last week on the Afghanistan Analysis Network, points out that the Taliban’s main occupation seems to be the killing of rather than listening to Afghan civilians. In a recent UNAMA report, the Taliban were found to be responsible for 74% of civilian casualties in 2013, most of them Afghans, including “government officials, mullahs or tribal leaders judged to be pro-government, women activists or alleged spies”, i.e. people trying to get on and live ordinary lives.

2. Is it really the case that a movement whose tenets are held to come from a divine revelation going to moderate them for the exigencies of modern life? What substance does the movement have if it forsakes these notions?

Ahmed Rashid: Afghanistan and Pakistan after the Western pullout

Speaking last night at a joint SOAS/Pakistan Society lecture, the author Ahmed Rashid painted a predictably gloomy picture of the future for Afghanistan, and even more so for Pakistan. Although there was much in his analysis which seems to make sense, some of his observations about the current state of play were surprising and call for further comment.

The danger to Afghanistan at this juncture is perfectly clear. The political institutions have remained half-baked and prone to corruption. The President, Hamid Karzai, has been reluctant to prevent a culture of bribery and criminality in the highest echelons of the Afghan state. He has proved to be a vacillating leader, interested in leaving a legacy but not sure what it should be, or how to go about it. The legitimacy of the Kabul government amongst the people is not strong. The withdrawal of Western forces threatens the Afghan economy – much of the employment has been dependent on the presence of foreign institutions and aid donors, and without it many educated Afghans will be jobless. No significant economy beyond this field has developed over the last 12 years. The army and police forces are not reliable to enforce security or unity. The absence of Western forces will allow the Taliban or other actors to take over the government in the south and east of the country. Extremist movements, such as Laskhar-i Taiba, which were originally associated with Pakistan, are now operating more freely in Afghanistan and linking together with similar Central Asian movements. The neighbouring powers are not yet deeply involved in the conflict, but should one choose to enter the fray, then a conflagration involving Russia, Central Asia, Iran, Pakistan and India in Afghanistan is certainly not impossible.

There is as great a danger for Pakistan. The absence of a visible enemy – the West – on Afghan soil could encourage the extremist movements to be more ambitious in bringing about their objectives of an Islamic state in the region and the overthrow of the current government in Pakistan. Terrorism in Pakistan has recently been on the increase, with indiscriminate bombings and the murder of senior officials calculated to demoralise the population. The region has not come to terms with the fact that the West will be withdrawing from the region shortly, and that the age of “Fixing Failed States” is coming to an end. Rather than the elites of the region looking to the West to bail them out and support them whilst they themselves refuse to solve the underlying problems and stand on their own two feet is a fair and important comment. Indeed, the West itself, wearied by intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq, not to mention Libya, is perhaps not questioning itself about the consequences of losing interest in intervention – greater repression and the development of new dictatorships are the likely results.

Thus far, the analysis seems good. However, some of Rashid’s other statements, as I said earlier, were surprising:

1. He said that the question of a military transition was relatively unimportant. What matters over the next four months is an election which is seen to be free and fair. A government legitimised by the democratic process was a necessity for any future negotiation with the Taliban. If the next election is rigged or seen to be without legitimacy, that might act as the catalyst for a new civil war which could be worse than that of the 1990s and spiral into regional conflict.

2. He suggested that the US withdrawal would cause the “peace party” within the Afghan Taliban to swell. The Taliban were now more understanding of the needs of a modern state and government than they had been in the 1990s. They were reconciled to allowing cosmopolitan and relatively free cities, recognising that they were necessary drivers of economic growth and prosperity. Indeed, the older generation of the Afghan Taliban who had lived through the Jihad of the 1980s and the Civil War of the 1990s, followed by the post 2001 exile were eager to come to a settlement and return to a peaceful existence.

3. Pakistan had lost interest in the old doctrine of “Strategic Depth” – a Great Game style notion, whereby they would be the de facto ruler of the south of Afghanistan up to the Hindu Kush (including Kabul, Ghazni and Kandahar), and call on this territory in the event of any major conflict with India. Pakistan had lost any interest in attempting to govern in Afghanistan or project its hegemony there. This, indeed, was confirmed by a representative of the Pakistan High Commission who was also present.

4. He also suggested that, although this was difficult to verify by concrete research, many of the ordinary inhabitants of FATA (the tribal areas in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (the former North Western Frontier Province of Pakistan) actually welcomed the use of drone strikes against extremist militant leaders who had caused much misery in these areas over the last few years.

One might append a few comments to these points:

1. It seems strange to put democratic elections ahead of the question of a secure military handover. Without the apparatus of security, no state in Afghanistan is going to be able to preserve itself against the many players who wish to overthrow or disregard it. A successful democratic election is hardly going to overawe extremists or external actors who do not consider an election – free and fair or otherwise – as a means of legitimating a government.

2. It seems incredible that the Taliban is going to allow a free cosmopolitanism in the Afghan cities – it would be completely against its essence. One only has to look at the vile and idiotic bombing of the Taverna du Liban in Kabul yesterday to see this. The Taliban is in essence an outgrowth of the historic conflict between the conservative countryside and the cosmopolitan cities in Afghanistan, and if the Taliban forsakes this idea it forsakes one of the very basic tenets of its identity.

3. Perhaps this is in truth the case, but if so it would be a change of policy overturning hundreds of years of geo-politics. The regional power based in the Indian subcontinent has always tried to control Afghanistan up to the Hindu Kush.

4. Perhaps the ordinary people of FATA do welcome drone strikes against militant leaders, but one wishes it were easier to understand their wishes. I asked Rashid whether Pakistan’s new-found interest in seeing an independent and stable Afghanistan extended to offering a negotiated settlement of the troubled question of the “Durand Line” – the outdated frontier established by the British in 1893 which is one of the basic generators of instability in the FATA Tribal Region as well as Afghanistan and Pakistan (see my articles here and here) – but unfortunately, according to Rashid, there is no particular interest in dealing with this fundamental problem. As I relate in my articles, the British who set up the line in the 1890s foresaw that it was basically ungovernable and that hot pursuit would have to be allowed to maintain its security – i.e. that something along the lines of drone strikes would happen sooner or later. A frontier constituted in such a way is hardly the basis for generating modern and secure states.

Regardless of these points, we should consider what Rashid says about the end of the era of Western intervention, especially in the region. The West may have behaved carelessly or criminally in many respects, but their presence has provided a scapegoat for enemies and a support to a fragile order. In the West’s absence, more extreme forms of government could well develop, and it is necessary to ask if the moral ease which the West gains from refusing to interfere in affairs which it considers not its own is ultimately the right option, both in terms of moral as well as practical correctness.



The Ara Pacis: Resetting the Sundial of Augustus

Work by archaeologists at the University of Indiana has overturned a long-standing theory about two monuments raised by the first Roman Emperor, Augustus, and perhaps also cast a new light on his ideas about religion and government.

View of the Ara Pacis (Creative Commons, Manfred Heyde)

In 13 BC, after Augustus had returned from a three-year expedition to Gaul and Hispania, the Roman Senate voted to dedicate an altar in his honour. It was to be called the Ara Pacis or “Altar of Peace”, intended to celebrate the tranquility which Augustus had brought to the Roman Empire after a century of civil war. The Altar was dedicated in 9 BC, and although not large in scale is both beautiful and steeped in allusion to Augustus’ religious policy and his vision for the resurrection of the Empire. Resurrection, even in this context, is not too strong a word. The altar is covered in realistic depictions of indigenous burgeoning foliage, suggesting an almost elemental return of life to a land once sunk in winter and despair. On friezes around the altar are depicted processions of the Roman imperial family and other dignities engaged in sacrifice. Their expressions are grave and dignified, an example of the piety and sober behaviour which Augustus hoped to encourage amongst Romans after the selfish and irreligious violence of the civil war.

The "Tellus panel" from the Ara Pacis (Creative Commons)

The cultivation of an apparently neglected religion as a cure for the evils which had beset both Rome and the character of its people was one of Augustus’ primary policies. The idea is perfectly expressed in one of Horace’s Roman Odes (III.6.1-8):

Delicta maiorum inmeritus lues,
Romane, donec templa refeceris
     aedisque labentis deorum et
     foeda nigro simulacra fumo.

Dis te minorem quod geris, imperas:               
hinc omne principium, huc refer exitum.
     Di multa neglecti dederunt
     Hesperiae mala luctuosae.

(Although without guilt, you will pay for the sins of your ancestors, O Roman, until you restore the tottering shrines of the gods and the images stained with black smoke. Because you make yourselves lowly before the gods, you rule: to this point lay every undertaking, and to it every result. The neglected gods have given many woes to wretched Italy.)

Yet, if one were to accept Horace’s idea that the Romans should make themselves lower than the gods (dis te minorem… geris), there was something that jarred about the Ara Pacis. Sited near it on the Campus Martius was a 70-ft high red granite obelisk – the Obelisk of Montecitorio – which had been brought back from Egypt in 10 BC. The pavement around the Obelisk had been marked with lines so that it might serve as a sundial – all well and good – but according to observations which had been made by archaeologists over the last 50 years, the ensemble was designed so that on the day of Augustus’ birthday (23rd September) the shadow from the tip of the obelisk should fall across the centre of the Ara Pacis.

There were many ideas circulating during that time about Augustus’ almost cosmic role. The whole of the Aeneid, the Roman foundation epic written by Virgil just before this time, suggests that Augustus was fated by Jupiter to bring peace to Rome and extend its dominions across the earth. Yet there is something that always seemed to me excessive about the Sundial of Augustus; a suggestion that there was some grand coincidence of the cosmos looking down and bringing Augustus to birth. If the Altar was ultimately dedicated to the gods, then a proclamation of Augustus’ heavenly grandeur in a monument of piety to the traditional goods looks out of place; it is hardly dis te minorem… geris.

Yet, the new research about the sundial has brought this old theory crashing down. By computer simulations and the use of astronomical data, they have found that the Obelisk was actually designed not to point to the altar on Augustus’ birthday, but on 9th October – the Festival of Palatine Apollo. The revelation makes much more sense of the monument. Augustus was known for his dedication to Apollo: he attributed his victory at the 31 BC Battle of Actium (where he routed Antony and Cleopatra and assured his victory in the Civil War) to Apollo’s presence. A sundial which paid tribute to the guiding hand of Apollo over Augustus’ affairs and the peace of the Roman Empire is much more in keeping with Augustus’ own history and his vaunted piety to the gods, handing the ultimate tribute for Roman peace and victory not to himself, but them.


Afghanistan Revealed – Royal endorsement

Afghanistan Revealed, a compendium of essays on Afghan history, society and culture, which was originally published in a Kindle edition earlier in the year, has just been released as a hardback book by the publisher Pen and Sword, along with a foreword by HRH The Prince of Wales.

The work has received a number of endorsements, for example from Con Coughlin, the Defence Editor of the Daily Telegraph:
‘Afghanistan Revealed is an illuminating collection of essays which go right to the heart of the issues that have afflicted this wonderful country for decades. The book is essential reading for anyone who seeks to acquire a more profound understanding of the complex web of challenges which have confronted and often confounded the world s leading politicians, soldiers and policy-makers for a decade or more.’

Copies may be purchased via Amazon through this link:


Liberty and Leisure – George Herbert, “otium” and lessons for our age

This is the text of an editorial I wrote for the 2013 edition of Camden, Westminster School’s liberal arts magazine meditating on the old clash of “otium” (leisure) and “negotium” (business) in the context of education and modern life. The original text and the whole magazine are available online here:


Liberty and Leisure 

One way in which the 17th-century Old Westminster poet George Herbert shows the modernity of his mindset is a thoroughly uncomfortable relationship with free time.

In one of his poems, Heaven, he ponders what delights one might find in the hereafter. The first two, he discovers, are “Light” and “joy”. However, the third and greatest is “leisure”. It is a quality which he feels does not ultimately belong to the human condition. In another poem, The Pulley, he suggests that this lack is part of God’s plan. During the creation, God endowed mankind with every blessing except rest. Man could have “beauty… wisdom, honour, pleasure” but had to keep them with “repining restlessness”. “Let him be rich and weary,” said God, “that at least,/ If goodness lead him not, yet weariness/ May toss him to my breast.” Herbert loves the idea of leisure, but fears that its actual possession in this life could easily lead man astray.

By expressing these ideas, Herbert was contributing to a debate which had started in the ancient world. The Romans put it as a contest between otium and negotium – “leisure” and “business”. 

It was the virtue of a Roman to take part in the public sphere. He should be busying himself in the courts, military service, and political office. Here, he might win glory for himself and his family. A failure to do so was seen as indolence, offensive to the state. A Roman who refused to take part in negotium could hardly be said to be Roman at all.

This is not to say that otium was out of bounds. The case for otium was best put by Cicero, who had been forced out of public life in the 50s BC by his rival Caesar into a long spell of otium. Although Cicero was not at ease with his own otium, he turned it to good account. During this period he worked incessantly, producing a slew of books on philosophy and statecraft, many of which had the merit of bringing great tranches of Greek thought into the Roman world. Cicero argued that otium, when used for literary and intellectual pursuits, was of as much benefit to the state as negotium. By acquainting oneself with the works of great writers and philosophers and conveying them to a wider public, one not only became a better statesman, but also improved the people at large. By this token, his otium had nothing of desidia (“idleness”) but was actually otium negotiosum – “busy leisure”.

The debate was one which carried on through the Middle Ages and Renaissance. For St Augustine, otium gave one the opportunity to philosophise and contemplate higher things. St Thomas Aquinas, taking up the Roman debate, held that the Contemplative Life was better than the Active Life, but that the Active Life was still a prerequisite to contemplation. Quoting Gregory the Great, he observes that labour can sometimes be necessary to put one in a fit state for contemplation: “…there be some so restless that when they are free from labour they labour all the more, because the more leisure they have for thought, the worse interior turmoil they have to bear”.

Many Renaissance scholars similarly saw such a need for balance. They lauded the liberty otium gave for religious contemplation, self-examination, and the production of art and poetry, but at the same time recognised the need to engage in public life.

Hence, a number of thinkers observed that there were many dangers in too much negotium. Petrarch, for example, suggested that leisure and withdrawal were an antidote to worldly vanity; a necessary path for those who desire true knowledge. There is a slothful ease in being busy. By losing oneself in overwork, one may be easily distracted from the difficulty and discomfort of genuine hard thought and confronting real problems. The idea is well expressed by another 17th-century poet, Mildmay Fane, 2nd Earl of Westmoreland, “Our Senses are bewitch’d, and seem to grow/ So to the Creature, and on things below,/ That all our busied Fancy can devise,/ Serves more to sink them, than to make them rise…”

This old debate has much to tell the modern world. We are in an age where otium is being crowded out. To use the old cliché, we are cash rich (if we are lucky) and time poor. The persistent demands of the internet, mobile communications, and 24-hour news seize our intellectual appetite like over-salted peanuts. In the political world, the Sisyphean whirl of spin and instant reaction leaves little room for governments to think deeply about the difficult problems of globalisation, overpopulation and the environment. Financial service workers, engrossed by the Blackberry and long hours, give little thought to the wider consequences of their actions. In the media, the difficult and complex is always eschewed for the simplified and bite-sized, for audiences are thought too distracted to concentrate on anything hard. Likewise, in many public institutions, more effort is expended on fine showings in league tables, leaving the strange and original endeavour – in which the genuine strength of society often lies – to perish for want of space.

The word “school” is derived from the Greek σχολή, meaning “leisure”. Now more than ever is it imperative to remember this fact. The Liberal Education for which Westminster School was founded is none other than Cicero’s otium negotiosum: free thought, enquiry and creativity dependent on free time and freedom from cares. As Hobbes said, “leisure is the mother of philosophy”. The best way to achieve the promises of the Liberal Education is to try to achieve less, thus standing against the prevailing imbalance towards negotium in modern society. Herbert’s paradise of leisure is not so difficult to win, and it is not something that we should approach with any fear.

Sonnet on Cricket – The Batsman’s Hope

For those of a cricketing disposition waiting for the start of the Ashes, here is a reprise of my Sonnet on Cricket:

Sonnet on Cricket: The Batsman’s Hope
(Written for James Breen)

It seems a game of hard and bitter loss:
Dismissed upon a sudden slip, expelled
When all about is set to tempt and snare,
And enemies are ready to devour.
Our time upon the crease is fragile as
This life. No glory of a century gained
Will save us, but that we flail at some forbidden fruit,
Well pitched, and from the field take
Our solitary way. But oh, this game
Is brother contest of the English earth,
Which as it raises up the fallen flowers
Forgiven as they tried the summer sky,
So cricket’s rhythms overtrump our loss:
Over to over abides; and drawn stumps
At autumn’s end betoken not a close,
But play redeemed in fullness of the spring.