Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Justinian and Aurengzeb

These two great monarchs separated by more than a millennium, Justinian (b 482 - r 527 - d 565) and Aurengzeb (b 1618 - r 1658 - d 1707) are exemplars of the lost opportunity hidden by bitter military success. But in each case, it is not the lost opportunity that is well-known. Allow me to elaborate.

History readers give up on mystery to a great degree because generally when one studies a period, you know how it turns out. So when I speak of lost opportunities, I suppose I am re-introducing an element of mystery. The path not taken leads nowhere in the event, and speculations on where it might have led are fruitless if still potentially fascinating. So from prologue to provisos ... both men stood on the cusp of Central Asia. Justinian's empire crept up to Central Asia but never conquered it as Justinian wasted precious time in heading west; Aurengzeb's empire was a sort of fugitive from Central Asia and he famously turned his back on his origins and headed south.

Justinian was arguably the last great ancient emperor. We in the West prefer to think that Rome died in 476 with Odoacer's displacement of Romulus Augustulus ... one of the really lucky sods ever to rule in the western empire as he survived his displacement and lived out his life in comfort near Ravenna. But by then, Rome had been increasingly and predominantly eastern and Greek for at least two centuries. Justinian confronted on his eastern border the Persian Sasanian empire, another last of the ancients. I am not well schooled in the Sasanians, and, frankly, few are. They hung on for a couple of centuries, famously swept aside like so much dust by the Arabs at Qadissiya (in modern Iraq) in 637. But for the hundred years before then, they were more or less constantly at war with the Romans ... whom we prefer inaccurately to call the Byzantines, but I don't think they are Byzantine until after the Arab conuests, perhaps not until, say, 843 which is traditionally the date ascribed to the birth of Eastern Orthodoxy.

The Sassanian parts of what is now the Middle East, parts of Syria, Iraq, and Iran, had huge Christian populations, too little studied and known. Christianity was actually making great headway across Central Asia in a similar trajectory to what the Muslims would pursue only a century later. The Sassanians periodically repressed Christianity, primarily when adopted by their own nobility who, they felt, should stick to imperial Zoroastrianism. But the non-military Christian populations were allowed to muddle on, and by reason of the state's unconcern for orthodoxy, heterodoxy flourished particularly in the form of the Monophysites (i.e., Christ is of one divine nature, perhaps the right wing of the argument in which the Nestorians where Christ is of human nature are the left wing; the Orthodox and the Catholics fit in the middle where Christ is both and simultaneously divine and human ... theology is bunk, and one needs these little signposts to keep pressing through the historical issues). Such Christians might prefer the Persians over the Romans because their theological disputations would not end up in death or exile or some other moritification. That preference explains to a good degree why the Christians of the Middle East quickly accommodated to their Arab conquerors.

So my question is this: why didn't Justinian set himself to the task of destroying the Sassanians; why did he not look East in his early reign? He wasted his time reconquering Italy and North Africa, and they provided him with insufficient revenues to justify the expense of holding them, even when he increasingly stripped them of troops in favor of the "eastern front". In 542-3, a great plague ripped through the Mediterranean world, and the initiative had been lost, Justinian spent most of the rest of his reign ... he famously did not physically leave Constantinople for 50 years ... trying by subtle persuasions and brutal repressions to impose upon his entire empire his sole view of Christian orthodoxy.

He did not succeed. The combination of the ravages of the plague and Justinian's religious nonsense and the liminal character of much of what is now the Middle East led to a situation where imperial control was distant and imperial allegiances were absent. Cities atrophied and urban communities found their primary allegiance through a religious communitarianism in which the enemy was their heretical neighbor. When the Arabs conquered in a mad whirlwind dash only seven decades later, they found a society that did not care a whole lot who ruled them so long as they were left alone in their cellular religious particularism.

What would have happened if Justinian's early career had been devoted to crushing the Sassanids instead of the pointless exercise of resubjecting the littorals of the Western Mediterranean? If he had ignored the imperial self-absorption of requiring each of his subjects to have the identical view of the precise nature of the godhead? perhaps then the Arabs confront a society that resists over the centuries their religion, which subordinates the conquerors, as has so many times been the pattern, rather than the conqueror converting the conquered.

What ifs are perhaps best left to cocktail conversation ... and in defnse of this notion, as I write this I am down one sublime martini made with Dolin vermouth and Junipero gin and one "PampleRose" which is a gin and Campari invention of my excellent roommate and bartender R. But let me aver that the failure of Justinian to look past his religious Caesarism served to foredoom Roman Asia to Islam. Religious monomania is always destructive ... and I suppose that is subset of religion being the root of all evil.

This tragic false focus repeats itself a millennium later in northern India. Aurengzeb was as much a religious fanatic as Justinian, albeit a Muslim one, and it is his religious blindness that brought his dynasty, the Mughals, low and, one might argue, cursed India for centuries to come.

Aurengzeb was the sixth Mughal emperor, the last great one, and the only one of the great emperors to successfully overthrow his father, Shah Jahan, notwithstanding the shibboleth that the Mughal sons were prone to overthrow their fathers ... in fact only one succeeded, despite various other attempts. The important point is that the Turkic system of succession was designed to turn royal sons into generals and governors so that the ultimate winner would be best positioned to advance the interests of the dynasty. Jahangir tried to revolt against Akbar, but Akbar defeated his attempt. When Akbar died, Jahangir moved quickly, perhaps inspired by his unsuccessful revolt, to counter his potential enemies, including his son Khusraw whom he blinded. The future Shah Jahan revolted against Jahangir, but he too was defeated only to succeed a year later when dad died, and against the wishes of his father's favorite wife, the famous Nur Jahan.

Westerners tend to look at the Mughals in a comic-bookish sort of way. We remember the bizarre and corpulent lassitude of the hangers-on and placeholders whom the British used and abused and eventually displaced. And we warm to the aforementioned reductionist tales of sons tormenting fathers and all that. But the Mughal tale is a pivot in Indian history. As with many pivots, it did not have to turn out as it did, and contemporaneous observers of the early Mughals probably thought it would not turn out as it did. Babur (b 1483 - r 1526 - d 1530), a Chaghatay Turk said to descend from both Genghis Khan and Timur, generally known as Tamerlane, swept down from Afghanistan and showed northern India what Central Asia had known about Turks and Mongols on horseback. Babur, by the way, was certainly gay. His son Humayun (b 1508 - r 1530-1539 - r 1555 - d 1556) lost the empire to Sher Shah Suri, struggled with his brothers, found refuge with the Shiite Safavids in Persia, and then regained the empire just in time to die a bizarre death ... he caught his foot on his robe and fell to his death.

Humayun was succeeded by the great Akbar (b 1542 - r 1556 - d 1605) whose reign was the occasion of a grand experiment in religious and artistic syncretism. That experiment continued with the succession of his son Jahangir (b 1565 - r 1609 - d 1627) and his son Shah Jahan (b 1592 - r 1627-1658 - d 1666) whose artistic achievements were crowned by the Taj Mahal. But Shah Jahan was a decidedly more Islamic ruler, and less given to the syncretism that had slowly curdled since the death of Akbar.

The real story of the accession of Aurengzeb (b 1618 - r 1658 - d 1707) is religion. He was a Muslim fanatic, one of four brothers who went after each other during their father's sudden, only seemingly fatal illness from which he ultimately completely recovered. The key battle was between Aurengzeb and the oldest brother Dara Shukoh (sometimes Dara Shikoh). They met at Samugarh near Agra on May 30, 1658 ... one of those great turning point battles little known beyond locals and experts. After Samugarh and a long flight, Dara Shukoh was ultimately subjected to a cruel execution.

Dara Shukoh probably took his succession for granted, and certainly made errors of hubris in his war against his younger brother. Dara Shukoh was a religious syncretist, the pupil of a Sufi Shaikh who argued that Vedas and the Upanishads were the concealed scriptures mentioned in the Qur'an (Richards, page 152). His accession to the throne would have continued a religious experiment and perhaps created a party of syncretism that would exist to this day. More importantly, he would not have been the arrogant and unquenchable pursuer of Hindu rebels in the South that Aurengzeb became.

The state that Aurengzeb inherited was rich and stable and produced vast tax revenues. But he could not sit still; he spent precious little time in his capital and pursued for the bulk of his reign destructive campaigns against Hindu rebels in the South of whom the most storied is Shivaji Bhonsla (1627-80). Neither side could win, and they exhausted themselves in endless campaigns. Meanwhile, imperial authority in the north atrophied, and so did the authority of the dynasty and Aurengzeb's successors who were a bunch of nincompoops! That is what the British confronted as their power rose.

So to me Aurengzeb's victory over Dara Shukoh is the lost opportunity of a powerful kingdom with a syncretic ruler and patron of the arts confronting the British and negotiating a different sort of colonial encounter. His victory was a victory of orthodoxy, and orthodoxy stifles.

So Aurengzeb left a weakened empire that was conquered by Christians; he also bequeathed modern India its hard differentiation between Muslims and Hindus. And Justinian left a weakened empire that was largely conquered by Muslims, and bequeathed the modern Middle East a few weird Christian sects struggling for air in a vast Muslim sea.

Might it have been different? We'll never know.

Photos by Arod; any connection with the post is obviously enigmatic at best. The middle photo is one of the dolls that Winfield expertly makes for his Christmas tree.

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