WSJ Historically Speaking: Why Walls Rarely Keep Enemies Out

Photo: DEAGOSTINI/GETTY IMAGES

Photo: DEAGOSTINI/GETTY IMAGES

News of the latest theft of sensitive American information— this time of some 4 million records from the federal government’s Office of Personnel Management, allegedly by Chinese hackers—highlights the unfortunate truth about defensive walls. They may offer great psychological  comfort, whether as firewalls in the online world or stone walls and natural barriers in the real one, but they rarely work.

In the Book of Joshua, the Israelites engineered a brilliant victory by stamping their feet for seven days and blasting the walls of Jericho with their trumpets. In “The Aeneid,” Virgil described how the Trojans brought about their own downfall by bringing the famous wooden horse inside their gates. In his monumental “The Histories,” Herodotuslauded the courageous but futile last stand of the Spartans at the Battle of Thermopylae (480 B.C.) after they were betrayed by Ephialtes of Malis, who showed the Persians a secret route through the mountains that led to the back of the Greek lines. But these striking failures didn’t deter subsequent generations from believing that walls could keep them safe.

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WSJ Historically Speaking: The Glory Days of Frankincense and Myrrh

Photo: PRINT COLLECTOR/GETTY IMAGES

Photo: PRINT COLLECTOR/GETTY IMAGES

The Magi, the three wise men, famously offered the baby Jesus gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. We can still understand why they brought gold, but what Mary and Joseph were meant to do with the frankincense and myrrh—resins derived from the Boswellia and Commiphora trees—has become less obvious.

The usual explanation for the Magi’s gifts is that they symbolized the trajectory of Jesus’ life: gold to announce his divine origins and kingship, frankincense (which was burned in religious ceremonies) to declare his future role as a priest, and myrrh (which was used in burials) to represent his suffering and death.

But to the ancients, the significance of frankincense and myrrh went far beyond their spiritual symbolism. Both commodities had played a central role in daily life since the dawn of civilization. The resins were introduced to Egypt in the third millennium B.C. from the Land of Punt (thought to have been somewhere between Ethiopia and Eritrea).

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WSJ Historically Speaking: Fire as a Source of Destruction—and Innovation

Photo: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Photo: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Wildfire season officially began in September, but the long drought in parts of the U.S. has made the idea of a specific season seem almost redundant. According to the National Interagency Fire Center, the U.S. has already suffered 41,000 wildfires this year, resulting in the loss of 3.1 million acres.

Although fire remains one of the greatest dangers to human life, throughout history, its devastating power has been a source of both inspiration and innovation.

In 24 B.C., the constant threat of city fires led the Roman Emperor Augustus to institute the Cohortes Vigilum, the first municipal fire department. Its 7,000 freedmen acted as watchmen, day and night. Although Rome’s six-story wooden buildings and narrow streets made actual firefighting all but impossible, the Cohortes Vigilum helped make the city a safer place. If necessary, it had the authority to knock down whole streets—a crude but effective form of fighting fires.

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WSJ Historically Speaking: When a Monarch Calls It Quits

Photo: THOMAS FUCHS

Photo: THOMAS FUCHS

Abdication fever is sweeping the royal palaces of Europe. Recently, Spain’s King Juan Carlos became the third monarch in just over a year to renounce his crown. In January 2013, Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands declared that she was stepping down in favor of her son, Prince Willem-Alexander. King Albert II of Belgium followed six months later.

Abdication in the old days was usually a prelude to execution. Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, or Tarquin the Proud (who ruled from 534 to 509 B.C.), is one of the earliest recorded examples of a monarch who was forced to abdicate and still lived to tell the tale. Tarquin was the seventh and last king of the Romans. Burdened by heavy taxes, the aristocracy was already wishing to be rid of Tarquin when his son raped the pious Lucretia. The crime proved to be the catalyst for the birth of the Roman republic.

Tarquin eventually retired to the court of a neighboring tyrant. There, bored and angry, he plotted endlessly to reconquer Rome. Today, if Tarquin is remembered at all, it is by the generations of British schoolchildren who grew up learning to recite “Horatius at the Bridge,” Thomas Babington Macaulay’s stirring ballad on Tarquin’s defeat: “Lars Porsena of Clusium, / by the Nine Gods he swore, / That the great house of Tarquin / Should suffer wrong no more…And how can man die better/ Than facing fearful odds / For the ashes of his fathers / And the temples of his gods.”

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WSJ Historically Speaking: Beware of Astrologers on the March

Photo: THOMAS FUCHS

Photo: THOMAS FUCHS

According to the Roman historian Suetonius, an unnamed soothsayer repeatedly tried to warn Julius Caesar that calamity awaited him, famously saying, “Beware the Ides of March.” But March 15 arrived without anything untoward taking place, and Caesar bumped into the soothsayer as he made his way to the Curia Pompeii. “See,” chided Caesar, “the day has come.” “Yes,” came the reply. “But it has not yet gone.”

If the story is true, the soothsayer is one of the few astrologers in history to make a completely clear and unambiguously accurate prediction. But the abysmal record of astrology and its intellectual cohorts doesn’t seem to have dented their popularity. Looking to the stars for guidance is as ancient as the Babylonians, who used astrological charts to help predict the recurrence of the seasons. Every ancient civilization from the Egyptians to the Persians studied the stars, seeing astronomy and astrology as variations of the same pursuit.

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