“History is a gallery of pictures in which there are few originals and many copies” – Alexis de Tocqueville
History is not only a work in progress, it is continuously redacted. Scholars write and rewrite, reinterpreting scraps of information in their current idiom, and inevitably accusing predecessors of the venal sin of bad historiography. Napoleon wasn’t actually that short for his time. A land war in Asia is a bad idea, unless of course, you’re a Mongol. Nero didn’t fiddle while Rome burned since it would be another 1000 years before the fiddle was invented. The essential point is not that “history is written by the victors”, rather that history is written. For many years, we ascribed great authority to the written word, a theology which is becoming increasingly attenuated in the Information Age, where anybody can establish a rest-stop on the information superhighway, and someone out there somewhere can be found to agree with pretty much anything. Historians tend to be a conservative lot, mostly because they realize that the same damn things keep happening over and over again, with minor variations in the principal actors, geographical locations, and justifications, and the trick is trying to figure out what might actually have happened by recognizing the filters through which various contemporary authorities and later scholars were viewing events. This is why historians get all hot and bothered when a “lost work” appears – not because it may contain essential truths heretofore hidden, but because it adds an additional ideological and perceptive layer. Another pair of eyes, so to speak. When an overworked scribe bothered to write something down in the dark ages before you could buy reams of paper at Office Depot, you can be fairly confident that they felt it was significant, and equally sure that they would do their darndest to ensure that it reflected their particular philosophical perspective. Consider the instance of magical rainmaking that helped Marcus Aurelius (121-180 A.D.) defeat the Quadi. Everyone agreed that a fortuitous storm helped Marcus Aurelius snatch victory from the jaws of certain defeat. Opinions vary widely on which divine critter intervened.
Marcus Aurelius was the 16th emperor of the Roman Empire and something of an eminently reasonable philosopher-king. He had the misfortune to ascend the imperial throne when Rome was starting to have serious problems with barbarians on the northern shore of the Danube (the northeastern border of the Roman Empire), culminating in the Marcomannic Wars that would eventually lead to the fall of the Roman Empire in the 4th and 5th Centuries A.D. Basically, the Germanic tribes were getting uppity. Through strategic alliances, punitive expeditions, and selective peace treaties, Rome had been able to temporarily stave off the unwashed hordes, but the weakness of Rome’s northern European borders had been exposed. They may have been barbarians, but they weren’t no dummies. Somewhere around 170 A.D., an alliance of the Germanic Quadi and Marcomanni tribes, recognizing that Rome was not in its prime, crossed the Danube, overwhelmed a Roman army, and laid siege to towns in northern Italy. Now, the Legions were perfectly happy to scrap with you out past the frontiers of the Roman Empire, but they took barbarian forays into the motherland rather seriously. Starting in 172 A.D., Marcus Aurelius sent a major force to stomp on the Marcomanni, and although he had earlier signed a peace treaty with the Quadi, because they were aiding Marcomanni refugees, he decided a little Quadi ass-kicking was also in order. Don’t mess with a philosopher-king. He’ll administer a beat down and then convincingly explain why you deserved it. Of course, military operations are often subject to the whims of logistics (beans, bullets, and bandages), and the Roman Legions tasked with wiping out the Quadi and salting the earth marched straight into a particularly nasty drought that seriously hampered their typical effectiveness.
In the year 174, Marcus Aurelius went with an army into Germany, where there had been some rebellion against his government. While he was there at war, with a tribe called the Quadi, a remarkable fact took place. It was a wild country, and there was difficulty in procuring provisions. The Roman army endured hunger, and began to fear death from famine. The weather was very warm. No rain had fallen for a long time. The grass was so withered, that scarcely any food could be obtained for the horses. Both man and beast suffered the most distressing thirst. The brooks were dried. The enemy shut them up between the mountains and themselves, and tried to prevent their approach to any fountains or rivers. They kept pressing closer and closer upon them, to force them to battle in their weak and suffering condition. The Romans stood in their ranks, with parched lips and enfeebled bodies. For more than four days they had been able to obtain no water. They were almost consumed by heat, and suffocated with dust. Their foes drew near and faced them, expecting to cut them all off (Sigourney, 1835, p73-74).
The Quadi were no fools. They took advantage of the fortuitous change in the weather and opted for a strategy that in most circumstances would have spelled disaster for the Romans. Luckily, by this time Roman religion was rather syncretic. Sure, there was a whole pantheon of Roman gods, but when you’re faced with barbarian hordes and imminent death from dehydration, practical theology tends to outweigh doctrinal orthodoxy. Any port in a storm, as they say.
The imperial forces, therefore, were compelled to battle vigorously; but the barbarians put themselves entirely upon the defensive, trusting that the Romans would be overcome by thirst and heat, and they seized every avenue of approach in order that the army might be cut off from the water. At last the Roman forces became so prostrated by sickness, by wounds, by the heat of the sun, and by thirst, that they were able neither to fight longer nor to retreat, and it seemed as if the entire army must certainly perish on the spot. But all at once the sky became overcast with clouds, and the rain descended in torrents, not by chance, but by divine assistance. For it is said that a certain Arnuphis, a magician of Egypt, who was with Marcus, had by some magic arts invoked the favor of Mercury and other spirits, and through their aid had called down the rain. . . . When the rain began to fall, all, looking up, at first received it in their mouths. Afterwards they caught it, some in their shields, others in their helmets, out of which they drank greedily, and also gave to their horses to drink. And when the barbarians fell upon them they drank and fought at the same time; and some who were wounded drank water mixed with the blood which fell from their wounds into their helmets. And, indeed, being attacked while most of them were busy quenching their thirst, they would have suffered greatly from their enemies, had not a violent storm of hail, with lightning, descended upon the combatants; so that at the same time, and in the same place, might be seen water and fire coming down from heaven, whereby the one party was refreshed with drink, and the other was burned and consumed. The fire did not reach the Romans, or if it did, it was immediately extinguished, nor did the rain help the barbarians, but rather increased the flame, like oil; so that, though they were rained on, they called for water; and some wounded themselves, that they might put out the fire with blood; and others went over to the Romans, since their water only it was possible to drink. “Wherefore Marcus took pity on them” (Watson, 1884, p195-196).
Everyone seems to agree that an inexplicable rainstorm arrived, delivering the Romans from an ignominious whomping at the hands of the Quadi, a storm so unexpected and fortuitously timed that some of the Quadi thought it prudent to defect posthaste. Certainly, freak storms and tactically advantageous rain showers in the midst of a drought are not unheard of in the annals of military history. One need not rush to ascribe them to preternatural intervention, but what is particularly illuminating, both in terms of history and anomalistics, are the subsequent historical interpretations.
During a war waged by Marcus Antoninus in Germany (A.D. 174) he and his army were almost famished with thirst, being cut off doubtless from water by their enemies. An opportune shower relieved them. The Antonine-column attributes this to Jupiter Pluvius. Christians attributed it to the prayers of a Christian legion; some Heathens to an Egyptian Astrologer named Arnuphis, others to a Chaldaean named Julian. Christians invented a letter, professedly by the emperor, endorsing their account. This letter must have existed by the beginning of the third century, for Tertullian alludes to it. A copy of it has come down to us, appended by some scribe to Justin’s first Apology (Huidekoper, 1882, 167).
Whether an Egyptian astrologer successfully invoked Isis, a Chaldean magician scored points with the weather gods, or an omnipotent Semitic deity jumped in and decided the Quadi needed to be erased from history, the modern historical interpretation would aridly declare that the only fact we can discern in two millennia of subsequent interpretation is that it rained, despite all odds. This is why it is so amusing when historians claim authoritative knowledge about what is possible and impossible, leveling charges of “pseudo-history” at any interpretation that deviates from the currently accepted gospel. I don’t think that the world is flat, but neither do I assume that fragments of Cassius Dio’s (155-235 A.D.) eighty volume history of Rome have a solid handle on what happened. Civilization, for much of history, has become increasingly reliant on what is written. Nine out of ten scientists have published in journals nobody reads, moderated by like-minded fellows, and agree upon the same fact. If the tenth scientist disagrees, he is just a bad scientist. This is not an excuse to go out and become a climate change denier or hollow earth advocate, rather a caution that we tend to give a strange level of authority to that which is written and published, a model that is increasingly strained by our unprecedented ability to publish a myriad of conflicting viewpoints, disseminating them far and wide across the intellectual ether. There is nothing especially revolutionary or disruptive about this. Social media simply demonstrates what has always been true since we first put pen to papyrus. We record hearsay and call it history, sneering at the dubious sources of others based on our own dubious sources. We treat history as an existential warning, as if it had an existence independent of the humans that live it, ignoring the inextricable experiential component, or as Lord Acton said, “History is not a burden on the memory but an illumination of the soul”.
Huidekoper, Frederic, 1817-1892. Indirect Testimony of History to the Genuineness of the Gospels. 3rd ed. New York: James Miller, 1882.
Sigourney, L. H. 1791-1865. History of Marcus Aurelius: Emperor of Rome. Hartford: Belknap & Hamersley, 1835.
Watson, Paul Barron, 1861-1948. Marcus Aurelius Antoninus. New York: Harper & brothers, 1884.