Sunday, 16 March 2014

Carthaginians and Romans and Visigoths and Arabs! Oh My!

J.P. de Oliveira Martins (1845-1894). Until some six months ago I had no idea who he was. If my eyes had previously chanced upon his name in some passage in a book, the fleeting encounter was not enough for it to pique my interest. But then I read Miguel de Unamuno, and suddenly I started seeing his name pop up everywhere, evoked by some very important people. I’m not even talking about his friendship with poet Antero de Quental and novelist Eça de Queiroz. I can’t open a modern book of essays or history without finding at least a mention of him. People who are of no consequence to my readers but who constitute the crème de la crème of Portugal’s intelligentsia from the previous century, are still writing in agreement or reaction to his ideas – Eduardo Lourenço, António Sérgio, Jaime Cortesão, Vasco Pulido Valente, Joel Serrão. Not everybody liked him, some even thought he was a fool, a reactionary and an ingénue - one day I'll write a post just with quotes about him - but nobody can avoid him who wants to understand 19th century Portugal or how the Portuguese see themselves nowadays. Ever since my infatuation with him I’ve acquired seven books by him and perused many more. I’ve even bought his biography; to explain why this is remarkable, consider for a moment that I’ve never in my life bothered to buy a biography of Eça de Queiroz, and he’s my favourite novelist.

Last time we met Martins he was regaling us with episodes of Portugal’s nautical discoveries. Today we return once more to his role as historian. He showed many facets throughout his life, his least successful being the one of novelist, of which only a novel nobody reads anymore, Febo Moniz (1867), survives to tell the tale. After a brief stint as a literary critic, which produced a book on Luiz de Camões which I’m anxious to read one day, he moved to politics and economy, being one of the main promoters of Socialism in Portugal. But he really found his groove as pedagogue, envisioning a vast project to divulge popular science to people in a country that was still a bit backwards and lacking a good educational system. His “Library of the Social and Human Sciences” was going to be about history, of Rome, Greece, Christianity, it’d be about politics, philosophy, mythology, psychology, sociology and economy. Left unfinished, it nevertheless produced many startling works. The first volume, which brought him notoriety, was História da Civilização Ibérica, in 1879, the first of a loose triptych about Portuguese history, continued in História de Portugal (1879), going from the formation to the Discoveries, and culminating with Portugal Contemporâneo (1881), bringing us into 19th century Portugal. His História de Portugal is dedicated to Alexandre Herculano, our first modern historian who had written his own major history book decades earlier, paving the start of scientific historiography amongst his countrymen.

História da Civilização Ibérica, as you can tell from the title, is about the history of the Iberian Peninsula from the Carthaginian invasion onwards. The book also shows yet another facet of the author, that of an Iberista, that is, someone who defends the integration of Portugal and Spain into a single political entity, turning the whole peninsula into one state. For that reason he usually calls the peninsula Spain. So he’s also interested in proving the existence of a unique Iberian personality, a nature endemic to us. This was very much in line with the nationalism of Romanticism. I think his thesis is less interesting than the way he narrates historical events. His thesis, for me, are little more than the much known nonsense that languages express the personality of their race, you know: English is a good language for business; German is ideal for philosophy; French is perfect for diplomacy; Italian (but also French sometimes, depends on who you go to) is the language of love, and so on. We’ve all read this rubbish somewhere at some point in our lives, right? This was very much in vogue in the 19th century, as was isolating and defining what made a people unique. Unamuno was obsessed with the national identity of the Spaniards, I guess that’s why he was crazy about Martins.

Yes, the book is very much a product of its time. It even follows the methodology of the time, Hippolyte Taine’s historiography based on three factors: race, milieu, and moment. Portugal and Brazil were very taken with French theories. Martins’ first three chapters are titled “Territory,” “Race,” and “Character and History,” and begins with a geographical analysis of the peninsula. Euclides da Cunha’s The Backlands did the same, but hopefully Martins didn’t go overboard, taxing us with 100 pages of geology, flora, fauna, and climate changes. Still he doesn’t refrain from a geographical description like this:

This back spine of Spain is split from east to west in two diverse regions in their look, climate, culture, and we’d say even in race, if peradventure the distribution of successive invaders could have determined in historical times the formation of new ethnogenic phenomena. To the south of the mountain range, and transposing the Tejo basin, it is as if one starts breathing Africa’s climate. Everything reveals, to the north, a natural regime more similar to the one of Europe.

Coveted by many for its richness, its climate, its fertile beauty, Iberia was invaded by everybody:

Spain’s geographic situation was destined to be the battlefield that would receive the waves of people coming down from central Europe in search of new preys, and the waves which from Africa fell in love with this parayso de Dios that was right in front of them.

Whatever the clashes between nations had been, before the ones history gives us notice of, it’s a fact that in Spain Romans and Carthaginians met, come, the former from beyond the Pyrenees, the latter from Mauritania, to continue in the peninsula the Punic Wars. It’s also a fact that, later and in the same way, Visigoths and Arabs met. Twice Spain performed for Europe the role which in the Orient later befell Hungary: it was the advanced outpost and rather the stronghold of European society against Saracen invasions.

The first half of the book focuses on the settlement of each one of these four civilizations: Romans, Carthaginians, Visigoths and Arabs, in order to answer the question he poses at the beginning, “In what measure and way did they all contribute to create the peninsular race?” For him the two defining traits of this race are what he calls hombridade, that is, “nobility of character; dignity, manliness; laudable pride,” according to my dictionary; and religious fervour, that “religiousness that in the 16th century reached its expressive peak producing Calderon’s mystic theatre and the paintings of Murillo and Ribera, animating Saint Theresa and finally Loyola and Jesuitism,” and although he doesn’t list it here, he hasn’t forgotten the Holy Inquisition, which makes a splash in the second part.

The most interesting aspect of the book, and what will contribute to make Martins such an important figure amongst modern historians, is that he writes from the perspective of a man aware he’s performing an autopsy on a corpse. “We fell, we passed, because it is the nature of all living things – and a society is an organism – to be born, grow and die.” That’s him talking about Iberia. Somewhere I wrote that writing about Portugal is really writing elegies to Portuguese history, because as a nation it consciously or unconsciously denies the possibility of a future for itself.  Portugal’s glory as a nation reached its zenith in the 16th century, after enjoying about a century of relative, unbalanced and dubious prosperity, and since then it’s been a slow decline. In 1580 it lost its independence to Spain, and after the 1640 Restoration it was a broken, impoverished, backward, paranoid kingdom, having lost its empire in the Orient to British and Dutch expansionism and keeping the outside world at bay thanks to inquisitorial bonfires. The discovery of Brazilian gold mines in the 17th century helped mask the decline for another century, but after Brazil’s independence in 1822, and regardless of a handful of African colonies that nobody wanted to populate or had the money to invest in, it became obvious that Portugal would never know its previous magnificence. Martins, then, is the product of decades of pessimism about the role of Portugal in the world. Later, though, Martins, like his abovementioned friends, would take part in a messianic generation that would try to shape a new consciousness for his people in order to usher them into modernity, hence why his historical output will slowly give way to his interests in economy, finances, repopulation, systemic emigration, education and industry. And that’s a pity because I love the way he wrote history.

The book, for what it seeks to accomplish, is quite short, less than 300 pages, even so is densely packed with facts and interpretations, and it’s impossible to offer anything but a sketch. Each of the four civilizations that precede the creation of what he calls an Iberian civilization receives ample space, and he takes us through their contributions in the areas of administrative institutions and laws that have survived into modern times. The Romans and the Arabs, however, get the lion’s share of praise. Of Carthage not much has remained that could be used, in part because of the nature of the invaders:

Carthage defended its maritime and commercial dominion of the Mediterranean against Rome. Having lost Sicily and Sardinia in the First Punic Wars, the Barca family, then autocrats of the African city, thought that neighbouring Spain was a region fated, not only to compensate the Republic for its losses, but to solve that difficulty common to all small nations since their empire dilates over vast regions – lack of soldiers.

Using the peninsula as a strategic post, they recruited soldiers from its inhabitants and used the region to launch Hannibal’s famous march through the Pyrenees. Martins tells us that their conquest of Iberian did not meet considerable opposition, according to know documents, and surmises that the original inhabitants and the invaders already shared cultural and racial traits that facilitated the invasion. Carthage, however, did not leave important social institutions and laws. The task of bringing Spain to Europe to then-modern ways was left to Rome. After defeating Carthage in the Second Punic War (218-201 BCE), the Romans occupied Iberia and laid the foundations for the modern state. Unlike the previous conquerors, Rome met opposition in the region. Martins singles out two episodes: the guerrilla warfare waged by Viriatus (d. 138 BCE), a Lusitanian leader who defended the regions we’d now call Portugal and Galiza; and the siege of Numantia (134 BCE), crushed by Scipio, where the citizens preferred to burn down the town and kill themselves than live like slaves. Regardless of these histrionics, Rome left a more lasting presence:

What distinguishes Roman occupation from the start from the previous ones is the social and administrative character that informs its dominion. Whereas plundering and rapacity constitute the whole conquering art of barbarian people; whereas those extravagant civilizations the Phoenicians and or Carthaginians only moderate the furor of plundering with a wise commercial instinct: the Romans, even though they did not stop from plundering and commercially exploring in their own gain the subjected regions, implemented everywhere many other Romes, widening to all the peoples the network of a system of rights, duties and warranties, basis of true societies.

For Martins, the “Romanization of Spain was the capital fact of the history of the peninsular society. The edifice is built: it can go to ruin, but its traditions will remain, to stop the nation from ever reverting to the previous state of primitive barbarity.” The final institution legated by Rome, in its declining years, was the Christian Church, which, amidst the “general dissolution” of the empire, “would take over control of the administration abandoned by the civil authority annulled by disorder and military seditions.” In time the city of Toledo, the centre of religious power in the peninsula, would become the place of countless councils that would regulate theology and politics for centuries. Intolerant, authoritarian, Martins argues its rigid orthodoxy and interference in people’s lives would contribute to making the population receptive to welcome the Arabs as liberators.

But as Rome faded, the peninsula was subjected to successive waves of barbarian hordes. One of those created a twilight empire that shortly existed between the Romans and the Arabs: the Visigoths. “Effectively Visigoth monarchy was but an episode in the history of the dissolution of Roman Spain which the Arab domination came to complete,” Martins tells us.

After Rome, the only civilization to contribute anything valuable to Iberia was Islam. The occupied populations, as I wrote, did not mind the Arabs. Martins reaffirms what many others have stated: the Arabs were an otherwise benevolent occupation. “Indeed there were no revolts in the subjected nation because the invasion, being up to a point positive for the wretched classes, aided the development of the middle class; and at the same time Islamism showed itself more benign to its slaves than Toledan Catholicism had been, it gave Christians’ slaves the right to free themselves so long as, in running away, they made themselves Muslims.” Martins mentions an amusing fact: the Arab rulers disliked the conversion of Christians and Jews into Muslims, because converts were not obliged to pay taxes unlike the other religions, so they collected fewer taxes. Obviously many pretended to convert while secretly continuing to profess their beliefs, a tactic Hebrews would later attempt when the peninsula was Christian again, with poor results.

Defeated in the Battle of Guadalete (711 CE), the Visigoths retreated to the Northern regions, and eventually Pelagius, a Visigoth leader, founded the Kingdom of Asturias (718 CE) from where his descendants would launch the Reconquista that would create Portugal and Spain. But for a while Iberia lived in relative peace and prosperity, thanks to the tolerance of the Muslims:

The Arab fecund imagination, in that Orient that is a swampy nursery for religious lunacies, did not accept fanaticism; and it was the African personality in Morocco, and Spain later on, that gave Islam its character as an intolerant religion, keeping an orthodoxy. When in Medina the descendants of the founders of Islamism were expelled from the caliphate by the Umayyads (661-750), persecuted they went to shelter themselves in Africa, from where they left to Spain preaching the pure truth, in Arabia defeated by a pagan dynasty.

This tolerance, over time, however, degenerated into fanaticism, which would help the peninsula’s pendulum swing back to Christianity. While it lasted, though, it gave rise to a culture that Martins admired so much he devoted a whole chapter to it: the Mozarabs, Iberian Christians who lived under Arab rule, but practicing their religion with a degree of freedom, adopting nevertheless elements of Arabic language and culture, a cultural hybridism that Portuguese sailors would later take with them in their discoveries. These Mozarabs, who thrived “between the 9th and the 12th centuries,” were the “repository of Hellenic culture. The Arab intellectual movement until the end of the 12th century, considered in an absolute way and independently from any considerations, is superior to the one of the Christian nations, who received from the hands of these enemies the tradition of Greek sciences.” But according to Martins, though, this scholarly interest was not so much a way of being, like it was for the ancient Greeks, but a product of the rise of the Abbasid era (750-1258 CE), which propagated a “furor of education” until then unknown amongst the Arabs.

Bagdad caliphs had agents in Constantinople, Armenia, Syria, Egypt, charged with buying Greek books that were immediately translated into Arab. Al-Ma’mum (813-833) personally presided the assembly of wise men, and doctors’ libraries would require many camels to carry them. The one by the Fatimids in Cairo totalled, according to rumour, one hundred thousand volumes; and the Umayyads of Spain, it is said they amassed more than half a million. There were more than seventy libraries in Cordoba, Malaga, Almeria and Murcia.
Arabs were then masters, doctors and fortunate-tellers of barbarian Christian princes, in the same way Jews were their bankers and treasurers. The names of Mesua and Geber, Maimonides, Rasis, Avicenna, Averroes were connected to the early stages of anatomy, botanic and chemistry in the Middle Ages.

But this “love for Greek science was a whim” that did not “turn into a necessity.” It was a fluke that the Abbasid dynasty had showed an interest in the arts and sciences; everybody else just imitated this infatuation in order to fall in their good graces. The Arab was “more artistic than rational, more curious than investigative,” a people “for whom imagination is almost everything and the exercise of reason only elementary.”

The treatises of Aristotle indeed existed side by side with commentaries on the Koran on the shelves; but Greek science did not manage to transpose the barrier of theology, or inspire moral life, or its institutions. The Arab philosopher was just an amateur and a courtier, because the fashion of philosophy emanated from the throne. Dilettantism is always a weakness, and the Arab, the Persian, as dilettantes, were incapable of turning into positive moral conquests their intellectual exercises.

An interesting thesis. I’d need to learn more about the history of Islam, the Caliphate and the Arabs before agreeing or disagreeing. In any event, with the end of the Abbasid dynasty, the engineers of the Islamic Golden Age, what to Martins corresponds to Europe’s Renaissance, this scholarly output withered away too. Things were already taking a turn for the worse during the reign of Almanzor (938-1002 CE), who moved the peninsula away from a tolerant Island which had permitted the co-existence of Christians, Jews and Muslims, adopting a fanatical outlook. This in turn would benefit the Reconquista, which was well under way. And that’s the first part of the book, which culminates with the emergence of several Christian kingdoms in the Northern region of the peninsula and their transformation into two distinct states, and where he finally starts digging for those traits that define Iberia’s national personality. But I’ll leave that for another time. What is important to retain is that this book, absurd as it may sound at times, and there’s a lot of absurdity in it, is an elegant primer for anybody interested in the early history of the Iberian Peninsula.


  1. This sounds like something that I would love to read.

    As to the absurdities, of course many things written in the past seem so. I think that future generations will find many of our beliefs and ideas absurd.

    1. Brian, I'm glad you liked it. Part 2 is coming up, with even more absurdities.