Episode 132 – Escalating Violence

Another view of the frontier fortresses from CPlakidas

Another view of the frontier fortresses from CPlakidas

We return to the frontier where the Phokas family inflict a series of sharp defeats on Sayf al-Dawla. Sayf starts again by restoring his border fortresses and driving off Roman attacks.

Period: 948-954

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Categories: Podcast | 7 Comments

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7 thoughts on “Episode 132 – Escalating Violence

  1. Anders

    Thank You for another interesting episode!

    For those interested, youtuber Sam O’Nella Academy (yes, spelled like that) had quite a different take on Olga of Kiev in his episode on Medieval Warfare: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n1hR9rpvS74 (which also deals with Greek fire, BTW.) A mild language warning regarding that video, though.

  2. Mystikos

    Incredibly exciting to be getting to some of the most famous episodes in Eastern Roman history. Everything’s coming together – the emperors are intelligent and decent, the generals are glorious and genius, the balance of power in the region is favorable – time for the Empire to shine =)!

    As an Eastern Slav, I also hope Robin gets into detail about Princess Olga of Kiev (Knyaginya Ol’ga Kievskaya). This episode explains the Realpolitik logic behind her visit to Constantinople and conversion, but in traditional Rus history her actions are held with far more reverence and significance. She is Saint Olga (Helga in Scandinavian), the first convert to Christianity, “Equal to the Apostles”. Her conversion mirrors that of Saint Helena, the mother of Constantine the Great, who had converted before her son did. The Christian name Olga took on conversion is also Helena (Yelena/Olena in Russian/Ukrainian). Unlike her husband and son, who were pagan, polygamous warriors and spent their time warring and exacting tribute, she is seen as a wise, peaceful governor who created many early institutions of the Rus state. This all goes with the idea of Christianity as a civilizing force for the heretofore barbaric Rus, and Olga, being of the gentler sex, the first to recognize its value, just as Saint Helena did. She also personally raised her grandson Vladimir, who would end up Christianizing the Rus. So to the Rus and their descendants Olga is a figure of great importance, especially from the Orthodox Christian perspective.

    For those reasons, I would not recommend the video user Anders linked. It’s a bit of silly fun, sure, and recounts a story recorded by the early Rus in the Primary Chronicle, but the author is clearly unconcerned about historical accuracy and probably heard the story second-hand. The point of the tale is Olga’s revenge for the murder of her husband and defense of the rights of their son, the rightful dynastic heir. And she’s an Orthodox Saint, recognized by Eastern Rite Catholics, not a Catholic Saint.

    • I wonder what you mean when you say “for those reasons”. So, she’s held in very high regard by people who have a theological motivation to do so. That does have its historical importance, like how the Byzantines believed that the True Cross really was the cross Jesus was crucified on, even if methodologically naturalist historiography would say they were almost certainly wrong about that. Likewise, I think that a responsible historical portrait of Olga really shouldn’t ignore stories like those where the otherwise glorified saint instead comes across as a rather unpleasant character. Of course, the video is far from a responsible historical portrait, but I’d still argue that its portrayal is more justifiable under the methods of historical study than would be to just taking religious tradition at face value.

      • Mystikos

        Oops. Posted my reply to the episode instead of directly to you.

  3. Mystikos

    Oh, I believe you’ve misunderstood me. I’m certainly not taking anything at face value. Just as Robin describes time and again how the Romans viewed the world – military victory is a sign of divine favor, wrong-kind-of-Christians in Roman lands may provoke divine wrath – I am describing how the figure of Olga has been viewed by Orthodox Christians and Eastern Slavs in pre-modern times. As a real historical figure she’s half-shrouded in myth and legend – we can’t really have an independent modern assessment when we only have a few sources from the time. I’m talking about perception and symbolism.

    By no means am I ignoring or downplaying the story of her revenge against the Drevlians – that’s also part of her revered image. It would just have been complicated to fit all that into one post. Within the context of the old tradition, it’s not meant to be seen as her having an “unpleasant character” – after all, it was written in the official history by a monk. To our modern eyes it appears needlessly cruel, but it was different back then. First, it shows that despite being a woman (female rulers being quite rare in Slavic or Varangian traditions) she is tough – the Drevlian enemy tribe killed her husband and wanted to marry her and thus take all her land and disinherit her son, but she didn’t let them. Second, it shows she is cunning, utterly destroying and outwitting opponents that had defeated her husband. Third, it solidifies the idea that the Rurikids (Ryurikovichi) are the rightful and sole rulers of all the Eastern Slavs, who had been disunited tribes until the Varangian Rus ‘brought order’. The same lesson is told earlier in the history, when the regent Oleg slays Askold and Dir for not acknowledging Igor’ (Olga’s husband who was still a child) as the rightful ruler. Medieval stories like to drive the point home that rebelling against your liege lord means horrible death. Finally, since her revenge is the first act of Olga in the history, it shows she also comes from a barbaric pagan past. After her conversion to Christianity, she becomes peaceful and wise, explicitly anti-war. The same history describes Vladimir, her grandson, as an even more benevolent and Christian ruler who forgave criminals to the point that even the church wanted him to be harsher (and was repentant about the violence he did earlier). It’s a comparable narrative to the one the Romans had of themselves – “we used to be pagans who only valued military prowess, albeit the most awesome and glorious pagans who could defeat all enemies… but then we discovered Christianity and became noble, gentle, and pleasing to the one true God”. Since civilization and literature came to Eastern Slavs from the Byzantines, it’s no wonder that a similar self-image developed.

    My objection to the video is that it gets basic facts wrong and ignores the context. Her actions appear random and meaningless (“Look at how wacky she is!”), which is funny, but it’s not responsible history that seeks to understand why people in the past did the wacky stuff they did, which the exemplary and venerable Robin and Mike excel at =).

    TL;DR In history, subjective perception can outweigh objective reality. Yes, Olga’s image is complicated, but it’s not that complicated in the traditional perspective and fits well into the Christian narrative and Eastern Slavic self-image.

    • Yes, it seems I have misunderstood you quite badly. My apologies, you’re clearly very well informed about this and far from the religious axe-grinder I had you pegged as – and your criticism of the video is fair enough.

      • Mystikos

        No apologies necessary – having another excuse to discuss history is always great =D!

        On religion – in my opinion, in our modern times religion lost much of its meaning, since, as Schiller writes in “Gods of Greece”, we know that there’s a lifeless fireball spinning in space, instead of divine Helios majestically steering his chariot across the heavens. (Also stuff like religion mixing in government and inspiring violence, etc.) Studying history and how people sincerely viewed the world through the prism of religion makes it come to life and become worthy of appreciation.

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