“The libraries are closing forever, like tombs,” wrote the historian Ammianus Marcellinus in 378 A.D. The Goths had just defeated the Roman army in the Battle of Adrianople, marking what is generally thought to be the beginning of the end of Rome.
His words echoed in my head during the pandemic, when U.S. public libraries closed their doors one by one. By doing so they did more than just close off community spaces and free access to books: They dimmed one of the great lamps of civilization.
Kings and potentates had long held private libraries, but the first open-access version came about under the Ptolemies, the Macedonian rulers of Egypt from 305 to 30 B.C. The idea was the brainchild of Ptolemy I Soter, who inherited Egypt after the death of Alexander the Great, and the Athenian governor Demetrius Phalereus, who fled there following his ouster in 307 B.C. United by a shared passion for knowledge, they set out to build a place large enough to store a copy of every book in the world. The famed Library of Alexandria was the result.
Popular myth holds that the library was accidentally destroyed when Julius Caesar’s army set fire to a nearby fleet of Egyptian boats in 48 B.C. In fact the library eroded through institutional neglect over many years. Caesar was himself responsible for introducing the notion of public libraries to Rome. These repositories became so integral to the Roman way of life that even the public baths had libraries.
Private libraries endured the Dark Ages better than public ones. The Al-Qarawiyyin Library and University in Fez, Morocco, founded in 859 by the great heiress and scholar Fatima al-Fihri, survives to this day. But the celebrated Abbasid library, Bayt al-Hikmah (House of Wisdom), in Baghdad, which served the entire Muslim world, did not. In 1258 the Mongols sacked the city, slaughtering its inhabitants and dumping hundreds of thousands of the library’s books into the Tigris River. The mass of ink reportedly turned the water black.
By the end of the 18th century, libraries could be found all over Europe and the Americas. But most weren’t places where the public could browse or borrow for free. Even Benjamin Franklin’s Library Company of Philadelphia, founded in 1731, required its members to subscribe.
The citizens of Peterborough, New Hampshire, started the first free public library in the U.S. in 1833, voting to tax themselves to pay for it, on the grounds that knowledge was a civic good. Many philanthropists, including George Peabody and John Jacob Astor, took up the cause of building free libraries.
But the greatest advocate of all was the steel magnate Andrew Carnegie. Determined to help others achieve an education through free libraries—just as he had done as a boy —Carnegie financed the construction of some 2,509 of them, with 1,679 spread across the U.S. He built the first in his hometown of Dumferline, Scotland in 1883. Carved over the entrance were the words “Let There Be Light.” It’s a motto to keep in mind as U.S. public libraries start to reopen.
June 12, 2021
The Pentagon Papers—a secret Defense Department review of America’s involvement in the Vietnam War—became public 50 years ago next week. The ensuing Supreme Court case guaranteed the freedom of the press to report government malfeasance, but the U.S. military analyst behind the revelation, Daniel Ellsberg, still ended up being prosecuted for espionage. Luckily for him, the charges were dropped after the trial became caught up in the Watergate scandal.
The twists and turns surrounding the Pentagon Papers have a uniquely American flavor to them. At the time, no other country regarded whistleblowing as a basic right.
The origins of whistleblowing are far less idealistic. The idea is descended from Roman ‘‘Qui Tam’’ laws, from a Latin phrase meaning “he who sues for himself does also for the king.” The Qui Tam laws served a policing function by giving informers a financial incentive to turn in wrong-doers. A citizen who successfully sued over malfeasance was rewarded with a portion of the defendant’s estate.
Anglo-Saxon law retained a crude version of Qui Tam. At first primarily aimed at punishing Sabbath-breakers, it evolved into whistleblowing against corruption. In 1360, the English monarch Edward III resorted to Qui Tam-style laws to encourage the reporting of jurors and public officials who accepted bribes.
Whistleblowers could never be sure that those in power wouldn’t retaliate, however. The fate of two American sailors in the Revolutionary War, Richard Marven and Samuel Shaw, was a case in point. The men were imprisoned for libel after they reported the commander of the navy, Esek Hopkins, for a string of abuses, including the torture of British prisoners of war. In desperation they petitioned the Continental Congress for redress. Eager to assert its authority, the Congress not only paid the men’s legal bill but also passed what is generally held to be the first whistleblower-protection law in history. The law was strengthened during the Civil War via the False Claims Act, to deter the sale of shoddy military supplies.
These early laws framed such actions as an expression of patriotism. The phrase “to blow the whistle” only emerged in the 1920s, but by then U.S. whistleblowing culture had already reigned in the corporate behemoth Standard Oil. In 1902, a clerk glanced over some documents that he had been ordered to burn, only to realize they contained evidence of wrongdoing. He passed them to a friend, and they reached journalist Ida Tarbell, forming a vital part of her expose of Standard Oil’s monopolistic abuses.
During World War II, the World Jewish Congress requested special permission from the government to ransom Jewish refugees in Romania and German-occupied France. A Treasury Department lawyer named Joshua E. Dubois Jr. discovered that State Department officials were surreptitiously preventing the money from going abroad. He threatened to go public with the evidence, forcing a reluctant President Franklin Roosevelt to establish the War Refugee Board.
Over the past half-century, the number of corporate and government whistleblowers has grown enormously. Nowadays, the Internet is awash with Wikileaks-style whistleblowers. But in contrast to the saga of the Pentagon Papers, which became a turning point in the Vietnam War and concluded with Mr. Ellsberg’s vindication, it’s not clear what the release of classified documents by Julian Assange, Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden has achieved. To some, the three are heroes; to others, they are simply spies.
Since the siege of Troy, getting armed forces into battle zones quickly and efficiently has made a decisive difference in warfare
May 6, 2021
The massing of more than 100,000 Russian soldiers at Ukraine’s border in April was an unambiguous message to the West: President Putin could dispatch them at any moment, if he chose.
How troops move into battle positions is hardly the stuff of poetry. Homer’s “The Iliad” begins with the Greeks having already spent 10 years besieging Troy. Yet the engine of war is, quite literally, the ability to move armies. Many scholars believe that the actual Trojan War may have been part of a larger conflict between the Bronze Age kingdoms of the Mediterranean and a maritime confederacy known as the Sea Peoples.
The identity of these seafaring raiders is still debated, but their means of transportation is well-attested. The Sea Peoples had the largest and best fleets, allowing them to roam the seas unchecked. The trade network of the Mediterranean collapsed beneath their relentless attacks. Civilization went backward in many regions; even the Greeks lost the art of writing for several centuries.
The West recovered and flourished until the fifth century, when the Romans were overwhelmed by the superior horse-borne armies of the Vandals. Their Central European horses, bred for strength and stamina, transformed the art of warfare, making it faster and more mobile. The invention of the stirrup, the curb bit, and finally the war saddle made mobility an effective weapon in and of itself.
Genghis Khan understood this better than any of his adversaries. His mounted troops could cover up to 100 miles a day, helping to stretch the Mongol empire from the shores of eastern China to the Austrian border. But horses need pasture, and Europe’s climate between 1238 to 1242 was excessively wet. Previously fertile plains became boggy marshes. The first modern invasion was stopped by rain.
Bad weather continued to provide an effective defense against invaders. Napoleon entered Russia in 1812 with a force of over 500,000. An unseasonably hot summer followed by an unbearably cold winter killed off most of his horses, immobilizing the cavalry and the supply wagons that would have prevented his army from starving. He returned with fewer than 20,000 men.
The reliance on pack animals for transport meant that until the Industrial Revolution, armies were no faster than their Roman counterparts. The U.S. Civil War first showed how decisive railroads could be. In 1863 the Confederate siege of Chattanooga, Tenn., was broken by 23,000 Federal troops who traveled over 1,200 miles across seven states to relieve Union forces under General William Rosecrans.
The Prussians referred to this kind of troop-maneuvering warfare as bewegungskrieg, war of movement, using it to crushing effect over the less-mobile French in the Franco-Prussian War. In the early weeks of World War I, France still struggled to mobilize; Gen. Joseph S. Gallieni, the military governor of Paris, famously resorted to commandeering Renault taxicabs to ferry soldiers to the Battle of the Marne.
The Germans started World War II with their production capacity lagging that of the Allies; they compensated by updating bewegungskrieg to what became known as blitzkrieg, or lightning strike, which combined speed with concentrated force. They overwhelmed French defenses in six weeks.
In the latter half of the 20th century, troop transport became even more inventive, if not decisive. Most of the 2.7 million U.S. soldiers sent into the Vietnam War were flown commercial. (Civilian air stewardesses flying over combat zones were given the military rank of Second Lieutenant.)
Although future conflicts may be fought in cyberspace, for now, modern warfare means mass deployment. Winning still requires moving.
April 15, 2021
Twenty years ago this spring, the Taliban completed their obliteration of Afghanistan’s 1,500-year-old Buddhas of Bamiyan. The colossal stone sculptures had survived major assaults in the 17th and 18th centuries by the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb and the Persian king Nader Afshar. Lacking sufficient firepower, both gave up after partly defacing the monuments.
The Taliban’s methodical destruction recalled the calculated brutality of ancient days. By the time the Romans were finished with Carthage in 146 B.C., the entire city had been reduced to rubble. They were given a taste of their own medicine in 455 A.D. by Genseric, King of the Vandals, who stripped Rome bare in two weeks of systematic looting and destruction.
Like other vanquished cities, Rome’s buildings became a source of free material. Emperor Constans II of Byzantium blithely stole the Pantheon’s copper roofing in the mid-17th century; a millennium later, Pope Urban VIII appropriated its bronze girders for Bernini’s baldacchino over the high altar in St. Peter’s Basilica.
When not dismantled, ancient buildings might be repurposed by new owners. Thus Hagia Sophia Cathedral became a mosque after the Ottomans captured Constantinople, and St. Radegund’s Priory was turned into Jesus College at Cambridge University on the orders of King Henry VIII.
The idea that a country’s ancient heritage forms part of its cultural identity took hold in the wake of the French Revolution. Incensed by the Jacobins’ pillaging of churches, Henri Gregoire, the Constitutional Bishop of Blois, coined the term vandalisme. His protest inspired the novelist Victor Hugo’s efforts to save Notre Dame. But the architect chosen for the restoration, Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, added his own touches to the building, including the central spire that fell when the cathedral’s roof burned in 2019, spurring controversy over what to restore. Viollet-le-Duc’s own interpolations set off a fierce debate, led by the English art critic John Ruskin, about what constitutes proper historical preservation.
Ruskin inspired people to rethink society’s relationship with the past. There was uproar in England in 1883 when the London and South Western Railway tried to justify building a rail-track alongside Stonehenge, claiming the ancient site was unused.
Public opinion in the U.S., when aroused, could be equally determined. The first preservation society was started in the 1850s by Ann Pamela Cunningham of South Carolina. Despite being disabled by a riding accident, Cunningham initiated a successful campaign to save George Washington’s Mount Vernon from ruin.
But developers have a way of getting what they want. Not even modernist architect Philip Johnson protesting in front of New York’s Penn Station was able to save the McKim, Mead & White masterpiece in 1963. Two years later, fearing that the world’s architectural treasures were being squandered, retired army colonel James Gray founded the International Fund for Monuments (now the World Monuments Fund). Without the WMF’s campaign in 1996, the deteriorating south side of Ellis Island, gateway for 12 million immigrants, might have been lost to history.
The fight never ends. I still miss the magnificent beaux-arts interior of the old Rizzoli Bookstore on 57th Street in Manhattan. The 109-year-old building was torn down in 2014. Nothing like it will ever be seen again.
Ancient Jews and Christians observed a day of rest, but not until the 20th century did workers get two days a week to do as they pleased.
April 1, 2021
Last month the Spanish government agreed to a pilot program for experimenting with a four-day working week. Before the pandemic, such a proposal would have seemed impossible—but then, so was the idea of working from home for months on end, with no clear downtime and no in-person schooling to keep the children occupied.
In ancient times, a week meant different things to different cultures. The Egyptians used sets of 10 days called decans; there were no official days off except for the craftsmen working on royal tombs and temples, who were allowed two days out of every 10. The Romans tried an eight-day cycle, with the eighth set aside as a market day. The Babylonians regarded the number seven as having divine properties and applied it whenever possible: There were seven celestial bodies, seven nights of each lunar phase and seven days of the week.
The ancient Jews, who also used a seven-day week, were the first to mandate a Sabbath or rest day, on Saturday, for all people regardless of rank or occupation. In 321 A.D., the Roman emperor Constantine integrated the Judeo-Christian Sabbath into the Julian calendar, but mindful of pagan sensibilities, he chose Sunday, the day of the god Sol, for rest and worship.
Constantine’s tinkering was the last change to the Western workweek for more than a millennia. The authorities saw no reason to allow the lower orders more than one day off a week, but they couldn’t stop them from taking matters into their own hands. By the early 18th century, the custom of “keeping Saint Monday”—that is, taking the day to recover from the Sunday hangover—had become firmly entrenched among the working classes in America and Britain.
Partly out of desperation, British factory owners began offering workers a half-day off on Saturday in return for a full day’s work on Monday. Rail companies supported the campaign with cheap-rate Saturday excursions. By the late 1870s, the term “weekend” had become so popular that even the British aristocracy started using it. For them however, the weekend began on Saturday and ended on Monday night.
American workers weren’t so fortunate. In 1908, a few New England mill owners granted workers Saturdays and Sundays off because of their large number of Jewish employees. Few other businesses followed suit until 1922, when Malcolm Gray, owner of the Rochester Can Company in upstate New York, decided to give a five-day week to his workers as a Christmas gift. The subsequent uptick in productivity was sufficiently impressive to convince Henry Ford to try the same experiment in 1926 at the Ford Motor Company. Ford’s success made the rest of the country take notice.
Meanwhile, the Soviet Union was moving in the other direction. In 1929, Joseph Stalin introduced the continuous week, which required 80% of the population to be working on any given day. It was so unpopular that the system was abandoned in 1940, the same year that the five-day workweek became law in the U.S. under the Fair Labor Standards Act. The battle for the weekend had been won at last. Now let the battle for the four-day week begin.
From the Incas to the College Board, exams have been a popular way for societies to select an elite.
March 11, 2021
Last month, the University of Texas at Austin joined the growing list of colleges that have made standardized test scores optional for another year due to the pandemic. Last year, applicants were quick to take up the offer: Only 44% of high-school students who applied to college using the Common Application submitted SAT or ACT scores in 2020-21, compared with 77% the previous year.
Nobody relishes taking exams, yet every culture expects some kind of proof of educational attainment from its young. To enter Plato’s Academy in ancient Athens, a prospective student had to solve mathematical problems. Would-be doctors at one of the many medical schools in Ephesus had to participate in a two-day competition that tested their knowledge as well as their surgical skills.
On the other side of the world, the Incas of Peru were no less demanding. Entry into the nobility required four years of rigorous instruction in the Quechua language, religion and history. At the end of the course students underwent a harsh examination lasting several days that tested their physical and mental endurance.
It was the Chinese who invented the written examination, as a means of improving the quality of imperial civil servants. During the reign of Empress Wu Zetian, China’s only female ruler, in the 7th century, the exam became a national rite of passage for the intelligentsia. Despite its burdensome academic requirements, several hundred thousand candidates took it every year. A geographical quota system was eventually introduced to prevent the richer regions of China from dominating.
Over the centuries, all that cramming for one exam stifled innovation and encouraged conformity. Still, the meritocratic nature of the Chinese imperial exam greatly impressed educational reformers in the West. In 1702, Trinity College, Cambridge became the first institution to require students to take exams in writing rather than orally. By the end of the 19th century, exams to enter a college or earn a degree had become a fixture in most European countries.
In the U.S., the reformer Horace Mann introduced standardized testing in Boston schools in the 1840s, hoping to raise the level of teaching and ensure that all citizens would have equal access to a good education. The College Board, a nonprofit organization founded by a group of colleges and high schools in 1899, established the first standardized test for university applicants.
Not every institution that adopted standardized testing had noble aims, however. The U.S. Army had experimented with multiple-choice intelligence tastes during World War I and found them useless as a predictive tool. But in the early 1920s, the president of Columbia University, Nicholas M. Butler, adopted the Thorndike Tests for Mental Alertness as part of the admissions process, believing it would limit the number of Jewish students.
The College Board adopted the SAT, a multiple-choice aptitude test, in 1926, as a fair and inclusive alternative to written exams, which were thought to be biased against poorer students. In the 1960s, civil rights activists began to argue that standardized tests like the SAT and ACT were biased against minority students, but despite the mounting criticisms, the tests seemed like a permanent part of American education—until now.
Winston Churchill made the term famous, but ideological rivalries have driven geopolitics since Athens and Sparta.
February 25, 2021
It was an unseasonably springlike day on March 5, 1946, when Winston Churchill visited Fulton, Missouri. The former British Prime Minister was ostensibly there to receive an honorary degree from Westminster College. But Churchill’s real purpose in coming was to urge the U.S. to form an alliance with Britain to keep the Soviet Union from expanding any further. Speaking before an august audience that included President Harry S. Truman, Churchill declared: “From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the continent.”
Churchill wasn’t the first person to employ the phrase “iron curtain” as a political metaphor. Originally a theatrical term for the safety barrier between the stage and the audience, by the early 20th century it was being used to mean a barrier between opposing powers. Nevertheless, “iron curtain” became indelibly associated with Churchill and with the defense of freedom and democracy.
This was a modern expression of an idea first articulated by the ancient Greeks: that political beliefs are worth defending. In the winter of 431-30 B.C., the Athenians were staggering under a devastating plague while simultaneously fighting Sparta in the Peloponnesian War. The stakes couldn’t have been higher when the great statesman Pericles used a speech commemorating the war dead to define the struggle in terms that every Athenian would understand.
As reported by the historian Thucydides, Pericles told his compatriots that the fight wasn’t for more land, trade or treasure; it was for democracy pure and simple. Athens was special because its government existed “for the many instead of the few,” guaranteeing “equal justice to all.” No other regime, and certainly not the Spartans, could make the same claim.
Pericles died the following year, and Athens eventually went down in defeat in 404 B.C. But the idea that fighting for one’s country meant defending a political ideal continued to be influential. According to the 2nd-century Roman historian Cassius Dio, the Empire had to make war on the “lawless and godless” tribes living outside its borders. Fortifications such as Hadrian’s Wall in northern England weren’t just defensive measures but political statements: Inside bloomed civilization, outside lurked savagery.
The Great Wall of China, begun in 220 B.C. by Emperor Qin Shi Huang, had a similar function. In addition to keeping out the nomadic populations in the Mongolian plains, the wall symbolized the unity of the country under imperial rule and the Confucian belief system that supported it. Successive dynasties continued to fortify the Great Wall until the mid-17th century.
During the Napoleonic Wars, the British considered themselves to be fighting for democracy against dictatorship, like the ancient Athenians. In 1806, Napoleon instigated the Continental System, an economic blockade intended to cut off Britain from trading with France’s European allies and conquests. But the attack on free trade only strengthened British determination.
A similar resolve among the NATO allies led to the collapse of the Iron Curtain in 1991, when the Soviet Union was dissolved and withdrew its armies from Eastern Europe. As Churchill had predicted, freedom and democracy is the ultimate shield against “war and tyranny.”