India’s First Emperor

Okay, I’m a little slow.  India’s Independence Day was yesterday.  Still, I think a bit of South Asian history is in order as a belated celebration:

Cyrus the Great built the Persian empire on those of the Medes and the Babylonians.  Alexander the Great began his empire by taking over Persia.  Chandragupta Maurya created the first pan-Indian empire from a patchwork of small states in northern India and Afghanistan.  At its height, the Mauryan empire included most of modern Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India and Pakistan–an area larger than any other Indian ruler would command.

Chandragupta’s rise to power began with Alexander the Great’s abortive invasion of India in 326 BCE.*  Sometime between 324 and 313 BCE, when he was no more than twenty-five years old,  Chandragupta took advantage of the political confusion caused by Alexander’s withdrawal to seize Magadha, the largest and most influential kingdom in northern India.  With Magadha under his control, Chandragupta drove Alexander’s remaining garrisons out of India and into Afghanistan.  One of Alexander’s generals, Seleucus Nicator, invaded India again in 305 BCE.  Within two years, Chandragupta had forced him to retreat. In the resulting peace treaty, Seleucus ceded parts of what is now Afghanistan to Chandragupta in exchange for five hundred war elephants and a marriage alliance with the Mauryas.

According to legend, Chandragupta abdicated in favor of his son Bindasura in 301 BCE and retired to a Jain monastery, where he fasted to death.  Bindasura ruled for thirty-two years and expanded the empire by conquering large portions of the Deccan, but he is best known for a letter he wrote to Antiochus, the Seleucid king of Syria.  He asked the Syrian ruler to sent him figs, wine, and a sophist.  Antiochus sent the figs and wine, but told him that philosophers were not available for export.

The Mauryan empire reached its height under Chandragupta’s grandson, Ashoka.  But that’s a story for another day.

* The short version:  Once in India, Alexander’s troops mutinied and demanded to back to familiar territory.  Alexander reluctantly led his army back to his new capital at Babylon, leaving behind garrisons to rule the conquered Indian provinces.  He later claimed that the only military defeat he ever suffered was at the hands of his own men.

The Rise of the Skyscraper

Reliance Building, Chicago
Reliance Building. 1895. Photo courtesy of Cornell University Library

I was fascinated by architectural history long before I moved to Chicago.  As a child I amused myself by keeping a running count of Doric vs Ionic capitals on the pillars on front porches throughout town.  (So many ways to be a dork.  So little time.)

When I came Chicago for graduate school, I found myself in architecture geek heaven.  Think Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright and, above all, the birth of the skyscraper.

At the end of the nineteenth century, Chicago was a boom town with an expansion problem. The city’s growing business district was hemmed in by Lake Michigan, the Chicago River, and the tangle of railroads leading in and out which had fueled the city’s boom.  There was nowhere to go but up.

For centuries, the height of buildings was limited by the ability of the walls to support not only their own weight, but those of the floors above them. The taller the building, the thicker the walls had to be support it. Some of Chicago’s earliest tall buildings, like Burnham and Root’s sixteen-story Monadnock Building (1893), still used masonry load-bearing walls and needed dramatically thickened bases to support the weight of more floors.

The first true skyscrapers left such limitations behind, thanks to two new technologies.  The development of skeleton framing and curtain walls, in which a metal frame supports a strong thin outer wall, ended the structural limitations on building heights.  Elisha Otis’s invention of the first safe elevator made higher buildings practical as well as possible.

Chicago’s Home Insurance building, constructed in 1884-85, was the first building to use a steel skeleton.  Others soon followed.  Rapidly adopted by other cities,  the skyscraper defined twentieth century America as surely as the cathedral defined medieval Europe.

Just another way to reach toward the heavens.



Isidore, Patron Saint of the Internet

From left to right, Bishops Braulio and Isidore

In a recent discussion on Facebook, a friend of a friend mentioned that St. Isidore of Seville is the patron saint of the Internet. Luckily I had already swallowed or there would have been iced tea all over the computer and the cat. Isidore the encyclopediast looking over computers and the Internet? Who knew the Vatican had a sense of humor?

I first encountered Isidore of Seville when I began to read about the impact of Muslim science on Western civilization. His contemporaries accurately described Isidore as saeculorum doctissimus (the most learned man of the ages). Nineteenth century historian Charles de Montalembert called him “the last scholar of the ancient world”–an assessment that stuck.

Isidore was the archbishop of Seville from 594 to 636. Spain was under the rule of the Visigoths, who were not significantly less barbaric than they had been when they sacked Rome two hundred years before. The little classical learning that remained in the west seemed to be disintegrating.

Isidore, the most learned man of his time, set out to preserve every piece of knowledge that he could put his ink-stained hands on. * The result was Etymologies a twenty-volume encyclopedia of knowledge, including volumes on grammar, rhetoric, mathematics, medicine and law. According to his friend Bishop Braulio of Saragossa, it contained “well-nigh everything that ought to be known,” but much of that knowledge was half-digested and/or badly translated.** (Isidore’s mangling of a classical text was the primary source for the popular “flat earth” fallacy, even though most educated people of the time knew better.)

Etymologies was a medieval best seller and a standard book in what passed for libraries in Europe at the time. It remained popular well into the Renaissance. Despite his errors, Isidore succeeded in his goal of preserving knowledge for the future. We know many of the classical works he discussed or quoted only through his work.

In short, Isidore, Bishop of Seville, gave people access to a sprawling compendium of knowledge, some of it inaccurate and much of it incomplete. Sounds like the perfect patron saint for the Internet to me. Now if you’ll excuse me, I think I’ll light a candle and ask for a little help to stop Firefox crashing.

* Isidore wasn’t the first man to make a heroic effort to save classical knowledge for future generations. A hundred years earlier, a Roman patrician named Boethius, serving in the court of the Gothic king Theodoric, created a similar encyclopedia for similar reasons.

**It’s easy to poke fun. But who among us could do better? As someone who is currently reviewing galley proofs for what is essentially a history of the world, *** I feel a new sympathy for Isidore.

***BLATANT PROMOTION WARNING: Mankind: The Story of All of Us is coming to a bookstore near you sometime in October (I hope).