Victor Davis Hanson’s New Book The End of Everything: Lucid History, Murky Message

Do lessons from ancient history apply to today’s nations? Hard to say, but probably not.

By Timothy Furnish Published on June 23, 2024

I am a huge admirer of Victor Davis Hanson. I’ve used his writings for college-level world and military history classes for years. And I almost always agree with his TV political commentary.

So I quickly ordered and read his latest book: The End of Everything. How Wars Descend into Annihilation (Basic Books, 334 pages). For those who might not know, Hanson has a doctorate in classics from Stanford University and is an expert on ancient history, particularly Greek warfare. He has taught at Stanford, Cal State-Fresno, and Hillsdale College, among others. Hanson has also written 26 books and hundreds of articles.

The End of Everything pulls together four topics that most folks, even historians, would not usually lump together: Ancient Thebes and Carthage, late medieval Constantinople, and early modern Tenochtiltlán — specifically, how each iconic city was so utterly destroyed by enemies that its end marked the annihilation not just of a population, but of an entire civilization.

Thebes: The End of Classical Greece

Thebes was one of four major classical Greek city-states, along with Athens, Sparta, and Corinth. By 371 BC it was dominant, having beaten legendary Sparta in battle. But then Philip II of Macedon conquered all of Greece, and the days of the independent polis were over.

Unlike Athens, however, Thebes refused to acknowledge reality. In 335 BC it revolted against Macedonian rule — incurring the wrath of the new king, Alexander. Forgetting that three years earlier its forces (along with the rest of the Greeks’) had been crushed by Philip at Chaeronea and hoping to spark a larger revolt against Macedon, Thebes’ leaders were dangerously optimistic.

The 20-year old Alexander was not about to tolerate any challenges, especially as he was already planning to invade the Persian Empire. He also had more than 30,000 soldiers to pit against Thebes’ 7,000. After a short siege and battle, almost all the Theban troops were killed, and between 30,000 and 50,000 citizens were sold into slavery. Then the city was razed.

The Thebans overestimated their own military power, believed a rumor that Alexander had been assassinated, relied on Athens to help, and insulted the new Macedonian king. The result? Writes Hanson:

“No one in the past had obliterated such a large and legendary city as Thebes. And its complete destruction had a catastrophic political and psychological effect on the Greeks for decades to come.”

Carthage suffered the same fate as Thebes, although it took the Romans longer to mete it out. For over a century Punic (Phoenician) Carthage and Rome battled for supremacy in the western Mediterranean. The first two Punic Wars, in the third century BC, were won by the Roman Republic — but the second not until after Hannibal’s army, including elephants, wreaked havoc in Italy and destroyed many legions. Carthage was stripped of its empire in Noth Africa and Spain. But it remained wealthy, and a constant existential threat to its northern conqueror. In addition, religious child sacrifice was always “one of the oddest and most repugnant features of Carthaginian culture, at least to Hellenistic Greeks but also to the Romans.”

So in 149 BC the Romans drummed up an excuse to attack and besiege Carthage. The Carthaginians acceded to every Roman demand, even handing over all their weapons. They finally balked at the Romans’ “requiring nearly half a million Carthaginians to vacate and destroy their ancient harbor city of seven hundred years.” Instead, the Carthaginians dug in, rebuilt their armaments, and withstood three years of Roman siege. Eventually Scipio Aemilianus (adopted grandson of the man who had defeated Hannibal, Scipio Africanus), “one of the authentic tactical geniuses of his age,” tightened the noose. He cut off Carthage from any remaining hinterland, or resupply by sea. Starvation set in.

Eventually the Romans were able to breech the city walls. All inside were killed or enslaved. And this population was 10 times that of Thebes (larger, in fact, than Rome at the time). Why did the Romans hate Carthage so? The 200,000 men it had lost in previous wars with Carthage, greed for that city’s wealth, intolerance for any Mediterranean rival, and the aforementioned child sacrifice — which Hanson, strangely, downplays as a factor. He does admit, though that “we might call Roman existential hatred [of Carthage] a ‘psychological’ cause of the war.”

For their part, Carthaginian leaders’ biggest folly was relying on their city walls, as well as sympathetic politicians in Rome, to save them from that existential hatred. So

a once great civilization by 146 [BC] had shrunk to little more than its magnificent capital and its environs. Consequently, the leveling of the city could become synonymous with the end of everything Carthaginian—in modern-day terms, Carthage had become reduced to a “one bomb state.”

The Ottomans “Neutron Bombed” Constantinople

On May 29, 1453, the Eastern Roman (“Byzantine”) Empire ended when the Ottoman armies under Sultan Mehmet II conquered Constantinople. That city had lasted 977 years longer than Rome, as the capital of a Christian state. Or, as Hanson also puts it, “over four and a half times longer than the current lifespan of the United States.”

By the 15th century, however, Constantinople faced three nagging problems: “religious disunity with the Catholic West” 2) “serial conflict with Islamic powers” and 3) “the logistical and public health difficulties of managing an enormous city.”

The first two were by far the worst, and by the time the Ottoman army settled in for its siege, the city’s population was down to some 50,000 — one-tenth what it had been. In fact, by this time “Constantinople was not properly an empire at all, but a commercial city-state.”

Furthermore, the Ottomans were a unique threat, “since they were able to unite disparate enemies of Constantinople under their growing Islamic suzerainty, while successfully drawing on European arms and technology [massive cannons, notably] in a way past Eastern enemies had not.” Mehmet and his men, particularly the elite Janissaries, believed that “ghaza [holy war] is our basic duty” and that Constantinople should be conquered and repurposed as the capital of the ascendant Ottoman Empire. And so it was, after a two-month siege.

The body of the warrior-emperor, Constantine XI, was never found. Hagia Sophia, the greatest church of Christendom for a millennium, became a mosque. Most of the city’s 50,000 residents “were either killed, enslaved, or allowed to live under … Sharia law.” Thus ended Orthodox Christian, Hellenistic civilization as a political entity.

Spanish Conquistadors vs. Tenochtitlan

On August 13, 1521, Hernán Cortés and some 1500 conquistadors, assisted by tens of thousands of natives, conquered the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán in modern-day Mexico This was the end result of two years of warfare between the Spaniards and their Tlaxcalan allies, primarily, on the one hand, and the imperialistic, brutal Aztecs on the other.

Run off and almost wiped out at one point, Cortés would go on to receive reinforcements, rally his men, have them build 13 brigantines, and drag them many miles to Lake Texcoco, then lead them to victory.

“His reconstituted army would end up killing outright in battle perhaps over a hundred thousand warriors…while leveling the city’s iconic buildings and adobe homes of its inhabitants.”

Yes, the conquistadors were motivated by “God, gold, and glory.” But they were also horrified by the Aztecs’ “industry of death” which sacrificed tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of their enemies yearly, and which included cannibalism. No wonder the Spaniards deemed the Aztecs “wholly satanic.”

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Still, how did the handful of conquistadors win, even with native help? The Spanish had “cavalry horses, war dogs, gunpowder, steel, swords, steel armor, pikes, crossbows and large ships with mounted cannons.” Also, they fought as professional soldiers, in units, whereas the Aztecs did so as individual warriors. And Cortés was a legitimate military genius. The upshot? “The idea of being an Aztec vanished with the city.” It was remade as a Spanish one: Mexico City.

Great History Book, But Lessons Fall Short

Hanson’s historical accounts of how brittle a civilization can become when it depends on one city is fascinating. Where this book falls short is in the epilogue, in attempting to draw parallels to today. He distills seven lessons from his case studies:

  • Don’t depend on outside help
  • Don’t deem your defenses impregnable
  • Factionalism is a weakness
  • Know the military prowess of your enemy
  • Past tolerance by the besieger is not guaranteed to continue
  • Long resistance stokes the anger of the attacker
  • The more educated/intellectual the attacking leader, the less likely you are to receive mercy.

Hanson then attempts to apply these principles to Ukraine vis-à-vis Russia, Pakistan in relation to India, Israel against Iran, among others. Yes, all involve nuclear powers. But neither Ukraine, Pakistan nor even Israel is reducible to one city, the destruction of which would end the entire polity. While the Thebans, Carthaginians, Byzantines, and Aztecs chose poorly, it’s not clear from this admittedly fascinating book how their examples, even mutatis mutandis, can instruct moderns on choosing more wisely.

 

Timothy Furnish has a PhD from Ohio State in Islamic, World & African history. He’s been an Arabic interrogator in the 101st Airborne, a US Special Operations Command analyst, an author and professor. Furnish is the military/security affairs writer for The Stream.

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