Barbarian Hall of Fame: Alaric

Alaric was the barbarian who finally did what others had tried to do for centuries: sack Rome. When Emperor Honorius, holed up in Ravenna and protected by the surrounding marshes, refused to negotiate, Alaric and his Goths turned on Rome. They’d already beseiged it twice in an effort to get the Romans to pay up. On the night of 23/24 August 410, the Salarian Gate was opened to Alaric. For three days, the Goths plundered the Eternal City, although with more restraint than usual: this was more asset stripping than rape and looting. The city had not been taken by an enemy for nearly 800 years. The myth of Roman invincibility irrevocably broken, Alaric headed south, aiming for Africa, but died of natural causes.

Barbarian Hall of Fame: Arminius

A German raised in Rome, Arminius nevertheless appeared a thorough-going Roman: fluent in Latin, an equestrian, a trusted auxiliary to the legions bent on conquering Germany. So when Arminius told the governor, Publius Quinctilius Varus, of a revolt, Varus had no hesitation in letting Arminius guide three legions into the depths of the forest. But Arminius had tricked him. Unknown to the Romans, Arminius was plotting against them and he had forged alliances among the German tribes. Having lured the legions far into enemy territory, Arminius slipped away. The attack, when it came in the Teutoborg Forest, was devastating. Strung out, the legions were annihilated, three imperial eagles captured, and Varus fell on his sword. The battle was one of the most decisive in history. Therafter, Rome made its frontier at the Rhine. However Arminius himself later fell victim to the jealousy of rival German nobles, who assassinated him in 21AD.

Barbarian Hall of Fame: Boudicca

Boudicca, queen of the Iceni tribe of East Anglia, saw her daughters raped when grasping Roman administrators attempted to steal her inheritance. She was flogged. Mistake. Boudicca led the British tribes in revolt, first attacking Colchester (Camulodunum). The Ninth Legion, hastening to put down the revolt, was destroyed. Gathering men as she went, Boudicca headed to London. When she arrived, she killed anyone who had stayed – 70,000 according to the Roman historian Tacitus – and burned what was left. Archaeologists can still see the red layer of Boudicca’s burning. Seeking battle with the Roman governor, Suetonius Paullinus, the queen of the Iceni marched north. Boudicca’s mistake. 10,000 Romans defeated Boudicca’s army of over 100,000. Boudicca herself either died from poison or illness.

Descartes’ Oven

On the night of 10 November 1619, the 23-year-old René Descartes, a soldier in the army of the Duke of Bavaria despite being a Frenchman, was stationed in Neuborg on the River Danube. It was bitterly cold and Descartes, a slight man sensitive to the cold, sought escape from the wind by sleeping in an oven. Later writers have questioned if he really meant an oven, arguing that he was referring to a room that was heated by an oven. After all, there aren’t that many ovens that a grown man can comfortably fit into. However, what happened next suggests that Descartes might have meant exactly what he said. For in this dark space, cut off from the rest of the world, he had a series of three dreams that proved formative of his future intellectual life. In these dreams, he believed a divine spirit had shown him the secret of analytical geometry – the Cartesian system we use today – as well as revealing that all that is true is joined together. Thus by finding one certain truth, he could go on to reveal all truth. It was not long after these visions that Descartes formulated the basis of his method of philosophy, the certainty that “I am, I exist”. As to the importance of the oven, Descartes, with his knowledge of Plato, would surely have seen its dark embrace as the modern restatement of the Cave from which Plato ascends to true knowledge of the eternal forms.

The Calculus Competition

In science, there’s no glory for second place. So when it came to claiming priority on the discovery of calculus, one of the key tools of modern mathematics, it’s little surprise that a dispute developed between Wilhelm Leibniz and Isaac Newton, both of whom had discovered methods of calculus independently, as to who had been first. But what is surprising is the dirty tricks both men stooped to. By the time the dispute broke into full force, in 1711, Newton was President of the Royal Society, the world’s oldest scientific institution. The Royal Society published an investigation into the question of who had invented calculus that roundly proclaimed Newton its originator and Leibniz a fraud. The impartiality of this report was somewhat compromised when it was revealed that Newton had written the conclusion. As for Leibniz, he was not above altering the dates of his letters and notes to back up his claim. Now it is generally accepted that both men independently invented calculus, although it is Leibniz’s notation that has become the standard way of doing calculus. Looking at the dispute is a reminder that two of the most intelligent men in history may still stoop to lies, evasions and slander to do down an intellectual rival: a playground spat between two superbrains.

The Extraordinary Adventures of Pêro da Covilhã

In 1487, King John II of Portugal dispatched Bartolomeu Dias to find the sea route round Africa and into the Indian Ocean. But King John didn’t just send ships: he sent spies too. In particular, Pêro da Covilhã, a low-born but multilingual adventurer. Covilhã, with letters of exchange to pay his way, made his way to Alexandria, the entry port to the Islamic world and then, passing himself off as a Muslim merchant, he made his way to Cairo and then on to Aden where he took ship on a dhow across the Indian Ocean, arriving in Calicut, India. Taking notes on the Indian Ocean spice trade, Covilhã then returned to Cairo where he met emissaries sent by John II, giving them his report. Now apparently bit by wonderlust, Covilhã explored Arabia, even entering Mecca and Medina in disguise as a Muslim pilgrim, before venturing across the Red Sea to Mount Sinai. From there, the indefatigable Covilhã headed to Ethiopia, the Christian kingdom in the heart of Africa and the probable source of the legends of Prester John. The ruler, Eskender, received Covilhã well but refused to let him leave. Thirty years later, a Portuguese embassy met their countryman, still living in the court of the kings of Ethiopia.

Taking Care of Business

Although William had made every effort to convince his magnates, his people and the wider world of Christendom of the justice of his case, yet the duke was old and wise enough to know that war was war, and even a war fought under God’s banner might turn against him. So, as part of his preparations, William nominated his eldest son, Robert Curthose, to succeed him as Duke of Normandy in the event of his death, and saw that Robert also signed William’s gifts to his new abbey. Curthose – a nickname – means short pants and suggests the difficult relationship between William and his elder son. Amid their other preparations, the Norman magnates spent much time setting their affairs in order. Everyone involved knew they were embarking on a do-or-die enterprise, and most of them sought to ensure they had settled outstanding disputes and matters of inheritance before they left.

Getting God On Side

Soon after he heard that Harold had been crowned king, William sent an embassy to Pope Alexander II in Rome, asking papal support for his projected invasion of England. Although the text has not survived, the case William made must have been persuasive: it no doubt rehearsed the familiar points of Edward’s promise of the throne and Harold’s perjury in swearing on holy relics to support William’s claim to the crown, and the pope soon decided in William’s favour. As mark of his support, Pope Alexander sent a banner with William’s returning messengers and instruction that England’s clergy should submit to William as king. For William, this was further proof that God was, indeed, on his side.

Adventures with Words: Felix Unlimited by Andrew Norriss

Quietly, without any fuss, and entirely unnoticed by the literary establishment, Andrew Norriss has become the best writer for children today. Not entirely coincidentally, this also explains in large part why he has become such a great writer. ‘Quietly’ because this is not the sort of writing that draws attention to itself but rather is so skillfully done that the art behind and supporting it disappears entirely. ‘Without any fuss’ because the characters who people Andrew Norriss’s books are exactly the sort of people who do live their lives ‘without any fuss’, not calling attention to themselves but getting on with living in the way that the English were once celebrated for and that still continues, away from the distorting glare of anything to do with the media. Andrew Norriss writes the Drama of the Good, of people who are attempting, each by their own light, to do the best for themselves and their families and friends. It is how most people, away from the corruption of politics or media, generally live and Norriss makes these people the heroes of his stories. The more sceptical reader might ask, where then is the conflict, the tension to provide the petrol for the narrative engine? It is there in life itself, in its pitfalls, straitenings, misadventures and all the limitations and constraints that attend upon being a particular person living in particular circumstances in a particular time and place. To exist at all is to be filtered from limitless possibility and to be inserted into time and place. This is the drama of existence in its purest form, freed from the crabbing effects of the storybook villain with all his fake freedom: it is the story of the conflict with being itself, sometimes in its most recalcitrant forms and sometimes with its most generous face on – and usually in the same Andrew Norriss story!

As for being ‘entirely unnoticed by the literary establishment’, that is a result of the stories having nothing to do with the sort of fashionable tropes and passing political fads that form opinions and tastes among this self-selected and self-satisfied coterie. Most of the literature that supports this establishment is reflective, mirroring back its own attitudes on itself to its own self-aggrandisement – there is nothing better calculated to increase one’s own vanity than to have one’s beliefs fed back in a slightly offset manner. But Andrew Norriss is doing something that Rudyard Kipling did in the 19th century: he is writing about the sorts of people who would normally never feature in proper literature. Kipling wrote of the everyday soldiers of the Empire, he wrote of fishermen on the Grand Banks and engineers on the Indian Railways, of an orphaned Indian boy and a fierce little mongoose, he wrote of men who made things and drove things and did things, very far from the literary salons of the century. Andrew Norriss writes about children who are kind and considerate, and in Felix Unlimited he writes of a boy who wants to run a business. Entrepeneuers, even junior entrepeneurs, are not the sort of people that writers meet very often and even less so do they feature in the academic circles of the literary elite. But when the history of the 21st century comes to be written I strongly suspect that Elon Musk will be written about long after Philip Pullman has been forgotten. Andrew Norriss writes about a boy who likes starting businesses, who keeps trying even when things go wrong, and how they go write. Even the boy’s uncle, a very successful businessman who in any other story would be a conniving capitalist ready to defraud his nephew, in this story proves honourable and helpful. Anyone thinking of starting a business could put aside the start-up manuals, with all their dreadful management speak, and just read this book instead. It’s all there, everything necessary to start and get a business going, within the context of the most delightful story. Felix Unlimited indeed!