“The Highest Enterprise Ever Undertaken”: The Venetian Side of the Fourth Crusade

Introduction

              The Republic of Venice – also known as the Republic of St. Mark or La Serenissima – was a medieval city-state centered around the Adriatic city of the same name and governed by a merchant oligarchy. That governing group of elites met in the Grand Council chamber, or Sala del Maggior Consiglio, of the Palace of the Doges to make critical decisions on war, peace, and commerce. The walls of the room are bedecked with beautiful paintings by Renaissance masters like Tintoretto and Vicentino, depicting famous scenes of glory from the history of the Republic, including the 1177 Peace of Venice.[1] A large portion of the chamber, however, is taken up by a series of works related to the infamous Fourth Crusade. That fateful conflict has historically been seen as an utter disaster for Christendom, both at the time of its occurrence and centuries later; observers and commentators from Pope Innocent III – who declared the crusade initially – to Voltaire lambasted the crusaders, especially the Venetians.[2] Given this widespread condemnation, why would the Venetians, who had the opportunity to renovate the Grand Council chamber after a devastating fire in 1577[3], choose to celebrate their participation in the Fourth Crusade? Are the tales “of the Venetians who had no religion but profit and the state, and of the devious Dandolo who spun a web to entrap the naïve northerners to achieve his ends”[4] true? Could the Venetians not be the greedy, rapacious villains of this story?

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On Police Abolition

The conflict over police abolition is essentially a fight over how we view humanity; in the battle between Hobbes and Rousseau, the Englishman wins.

Over the past few weeks of protests and civil unrest following the tragic killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, discussion of police brutality has been widespread and bipartisan. Politicians, journalists, and regular people across the ideological spectrum have come together around the idea that police reform is necessary. This is an excellent development, as any changes to American policing need to be generally popular with all groups to have any chance of being made permanent and accomplishing their goal of improving public safety for us all. Unfortunately, radical (and unpopular) ideas have come to dominate some aspects of this conversation, particularly on the political left. The idee du jour among American progressives is the concept of total police abolition, or in its slightly tamer variant, the defunding of the police. In this article, I am going to group these two somewhat different ideas under the same heading of police abolition for one major reason: those advocates for defunding of the police often see it as a step towards a wholly new model of public safety that does not involve policing at its heart. To me, this seems like a slower version of the more aggressive slogan of ‘abolishing the police’, so it is fair to lump them together when thinking in the abstract.

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The History of Art: The Death of Socrates

“Therefore I say to you, men of Athens, either do as Anytus tells you, or not, and either acquit me, or not, knowing that I shall not change my conduct even if I am to die many times over.”

Socrates in Plato’s ‘Apology’[1]

The quote above, from Plato’s Apology, was purportedly spoken by the ancient philosopher-sage Socrates just prior to his condemnation to death by the men of Athens. His crime? According to Plato, Socrates was condemned to death for the unforgivable offense of ‘corrupting the youth’ of the august city-state through his teachings, philosophy, and exhortations to greater self-knowledge. The resolve with which Socrates met his death and the stand he took for his principles have been celebrated throughout the ages as defining examples of political and philosophical courage. One of the historical eras which was typified by its fascination with the ideas and history of the ancient Greco-Roman world was the period of the late Enlightenment just prior to the French Revolution. The story of Socrates and his principled stand in the face of a hostile state was extremely resonant for French intellectuals in this period; one such intellectual was the famed painter Jacques-Louis David, who crafted a masterpiece depicting the moments before Socrates drank the hemlock that would kill him. David’s masterwork, The Death of Socrates[2], is a powerful visual representation of a literary and historical event as well as being an exemplar for an Enlightenment attitude – the value of defending one’s principles even to death – that would resound throughout the French Revolution.

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The Curious Case of Simeon Bekbulatovich

Note: This is the first academic paper of many that will be posted to this blog. Please check out our Brief Update for more info. Fair warning, this is not a short read. Enjoy!

Abstract

One of the most peculiar episodes of sixteenth-century Russian history revolved around a Christianized Tatar prince, Simeon Bekbulatovich. His brief reign as Grand Prince of All Rus’ from 1575 to 1576, during an abdication by Ivan IV, was seen as controversial at the time and has only become more contentious over the centuries. The significance of Bekbulatovich’s time as Grand Prince, Ivan’s rationale for Simeon’s elevation, and the merits of that decision remain up for debate. This paper undertakes a historiographical analysis of the perspectives of various historians on the Bekbulatovich affair, from the initial sixteenth-century accounts through those of the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries. I explore the contemporaneous evidence from Bekbulatovich’s reign, including writings by foreigners in Muscovy at the time who discussed the issue with Ivan IV. An assortment of historical views on Bekbulatovich, from those of early scholars like Soloviev and Kluchevsky to those of more modern historians including B.A. Uspenskij, Charles Halperin, Ruslan Skrynnikov, Donald Ostrowski, and Isabel de Madariaga, are presented and analyzed. I argue that the defining aspect of the controversy over Bekbulatovich’s rule was Ivan’s attempt to reestablish an oprichnina­-like system to further cement his own autocratic power.

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A Brief Update

Hello reader! As you may be able to tell, this blog has not been updated in quite some time; this should soon be rectified. I have been quite busy in the past two years, getting married, buying a home, and starting a new career path, that of historian. I am currently in graduate school, pursuing my master’s degree in European History. Given these major life changes, I had put my blog on hold for a time. Now that summer is approaching, I hope to spend more time posting a wide variety of content on this site, from my personal historical research and writing to news analysis and essays on current affairs.

The first such post will be up shortly; it is a paper that was accepted for presentation at the 2020 conference of the North East Slavic, East European & Eurasian Studies Society. Unfortunately (but not surprisingly), that conference was cancelled due to the coronavirus outbreak, so I am hosting the paper here for your reading pleasure. It is most definitely an academic historiographical treatise and may not be supremely accessible to the lay reader, but I hope you will read and enjoy it regardless. Please check back soon to learn about the fascinating, bizarre, complex saga of Simeon Bekbulatovich, a man who was the supreme power in the entirety of Russia for all of one year during the reign of Ivan the Terrible.

Cheers!