Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s Report, July 1944

Rommel, post 17 July 1944, still recovering from his wounds.

Reasoned Reality versus an Unbending and an Irrevocable Path to Gotterdammerung!

Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, professional soldier, decorated veteran of the First World War, was well liked by the National Socialist leadership and for a time commanded Hitler’s headquarters military guard. In the Second World War he acquired fame as commander of 7th Panzer Division in the campaign in the west in 1940. From 1941 he was the best-known general in the German forces fighting in North Africa, and he finally commanded Army Group B in France when Allied forces had landed there in 1944. By this time, he was a sworn enemy of Hitler and ready to collaborate with the conspirators who planned the uprising of 20 July 1944. The events of that day might have taken a different turn had Rommel not been severely wounded on 17 July 1944. When Rommel’s involvement in the conspiracy was revealed, Hitler gave him the choice of suicide, or a trial followed by kith-and-kin imprisonment of his family.

In the document printed below, Rommel confronted Hitler with an ultimatum. He did so through proper channels, that is to say, through his superior, Field Marshal Günther von Kluge, Supreme Commander West. Kluge sent the ultimatum to Hitler and addressed to the Führer his own assessment of the situation, which fully supported and partially repeated that of Rommel.


The Commander-in-Chief

of Army Group B

H.Q., 15.7.44

Considerations of the Situation

The situation on the Normandy front grows more difficult daily and is approaching a severe crisis.

Due to the severity of the fighting, the enemy’s enormous use of material, above all artillery and tanks, and the effect of the enemy’s unrestricted command of the air over the battle area, our own casualties are so high that the fighting strength of the divisions is rapidly diminishing. Replacements from home come only very sparingly and, with the difficult transport situation, take weeks to reach the front. As against casualties of around 97,000 men (including 2,360 officers) – that is, on average 2,500 to 3,000 men per day – replacements to date number 10,000 (of which around 6,000 have actually arrived).

Material losses the deployed troops have incurred are also uncommonly large and could be replaced up to now on only a very small scale, for example, so far 17 tanks as against losses of 225.

The newly arrived infantry divisions are raw, unused to battle, and – with their small establishment of artillery, armour-piercing guns, and close-combat anti-tank guns – not in a state, after hours of barrage and heavy bombing, to successfully repulse major enemy offensives for any length of time. As the fighting has shown, with this use of material by the enemy, even the bravest troops will be smashed piece by piece, losing men, arms, and territory.

Through the destruction of the railway system and the threat of the enemy air force to roads and tracks up to 150 km behind the front, supply conditions are so difficult that only the barest essentials can be brought up, and it is necessary to exercise the greatest economy in everything, above all in artillery and mortar ammunition. These conditions are not likely to improve, as enemy action is steadily reducing available transport capacities, and enemy activity in the air is likely to become more effective as the many airfields in the bridgehead area are taken into use.

No new forces of any consequence can be brought into the Normandy front without weakening the front of the 15th Army [on the Channel] or the Mediterranean front in southern France. The front of the 7th Army alone urgently needs 2 fresh divisions, since the troops there are exhausted.

On the enemy’s side, fresh forces and quantities of war materiel flow to the front every day. The enemy supplies are undisturbed by our air force. Enemy pressure is becoming steadily stronger.

In these circumstances, we must expect that the enemy in the foreseeable future will succeed in breaking through our thin front, especially that of the 7th Army, and thrust deep into France. I may refer to the enclosed reports of the 7th Army and the 2nd Paratrooper Corps. Apart from the Panzer Group West’s sector reserves, which for the time being are tied down by the fighting on their own front and, due to the enemy’s command in the air, can only move by night, no mobile reserves are available at 7th Army for defence against such a break-through. Action by our air force will have, as before, very little effect.

The troops are everywhere fighting heroically, but the uneven struggle is nearing its end. In my opinion, it is necessary to draw conclusions from this situation. As Army Group Commander-in-Chief I feel myself in duty bound to speak plainly on this point.


signed Rommel

signed signature

General Field Marshal.



In his later years, Montgomery was acutely aware of this human cost and felt it deeply. In 1967, on the 25th anniversary of the battle, Montgomery went to Egypt on what would be his last overseas trip. With a former staff officer, he visited the Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery on the ridge near Alamein station, which has a clear view of most of the battlefield. Montgomery had been there on October 24, 1954, when the cemetery was officially opened, but this visit in 1967 was a more poignant and restrained affair. After spending considerable time before the headstones of two brothers killed on successive days, Montgomery quickly left the cemetery. That evening, walking beside the Mediterranean, Montgomery was silent and subdued. He confessed to his concerned companion, “I’ve been thinking of all those dead.” That forlorn feeling, no doubt tinged with a sense of guilt, often returned. In the last month of his life, Montgomery awoke after a troubled night. He told his friend, Sir Denis Hamilton, the reason for his disturbed sleep:

I couldn’t sleep last night—I had great difficulty. I can’t have very long to go now. I’ve got to go to meet God—and explain all those men I killed at Alamein.


At Alamein, Montgomery demonstrated considerable skill fighting “with the army he has rather than the one he wants it to be.” When Lightfoot failed to achieve the break-in and the battle’s momentum was waning, Montgomery, “resilient but resolute, did not hesitate to change his plan.” The new plan, Supercharge, while not entirely successful, did enough to break the will of his skillful opponent. Throughout the battle, despite many anxious moments, Montgomery radiated “confidence and determination amid all the stress and urgency.” It was an impressive performance. But despite achieving a decisive victory, Montgomery never received the accolades, plaudits, or adulation that his defeated opponent did. As Nigel Hamilton, Montgomery’s sympathetic biographer, noted with some concern:

Author after author would play down or denigrate Monty’s leadership. Not only did Auchinleck acolytes feel duty-bound to do so, but non-military historians waded in, too.

The first book to be thoroughly critical of Montgomery’s performance as a military commander was Correlli Barnett’s The Desert Generals. It first appeared in 1960 and “caused a scandal when published.” It has since been reprinted four times; the last revised edition appeared in 2007, nearly fifty years after its initial publication. Barnett’s book was followed by many others all “intent on chipping away some of the polished marble of Monty’s reputation.”

Conversely, Rommel’s standing as a skilled, daring battlefield commander, maybe even a brilliant one, has endured, especially among British and American historians. David Fraser, for example, described Rommel as “a master of manoeuvre on the battlefield and a leader of purest quality.” He “stands in the company” of other military greats such as Napoleon Bonaparte and Robert E. Lee. Ronald Lewin, not quite as praising, ranked him with Jeb Stuart, Attila, Prince Rupert, and George Patton. For Lewin, who had been an artillery officer in Eighth Army, Rommel’s place “as one of the last great cavalry captains … cannot be denied.” For Martin Blumenson, Rommel’s reputation has only grown since the war. Rommel was “a master of modern warfare” and undoubtedly a military genius; one of the “great captains who epitomized generalship on the field of battle.” In a similar vein, Antulio J. Echevarria II wrote:

Indeed, the decades since the end of the Second World War have seen historians and other writers both add to and clear away substantial portions of the Rommel myth. What remains, however, seems enough to qualify Rommel as one of history’s great, if controversial, captains—perhaps even a military genius. He did, after all, defeat a number of able British commanders before the run was broken by Montgomery at El Alamein.

Rommel’s reputation was not always so high, especially among those he commanded. Reflecting on what had gone wrong in this last battle, the Afrika Korps commander, Wilhelm Ritter von Thoma, felt that Rommel deserved much of the blame. He agreed with Ludwig Crüwell that Rommel “never worried about anything apart from his own fixed ideas.” But Rommel had other poor qualities that had contributed to his defeat. He was cocky and overconfident. Von Thoma described the incident that revealed this serious character flaw:

BURCKHARDT interpreted when that NEW ZEALAND General [Brigadier George Clifton] was taken prisoner—I’ve forgotten his name. Field Marshal ROMMEL said: “Tell the General that the war will be over in six weeks and I shall have occupied CAIRO and ALEXANDRIA.” BURCKHARDT told me himself that it would have been most painful for him to have to say such a thing to this General who was standing there so pensively and had had the misfortune to be taken prisoner in the front line, which is no disgrace. So he simply said: “You’ll find you are mistaken, Sir.” I mean later on, if he ever comes to write of his experiences, what will he say about our appreciation of the situation and our over-confidence? Our tanks were nothing but scrap-iron. It wasn’t a Panzer Division, it was just miserable odds-and-ends. To ALEXANDRIA, to CAIRO!

There was more, too. According to von Thoma, Rommel’s battle tactics “were those of an infantryman…. He took no interest … in all the rest, that is personnel or supplies, which are the decisive factors for the whole theatre of war.” Rommel’s reliance on the dense “Minengarten” for protection, especially when they could not be covered by fire, “was fundamentally incorrect.” It was a damning indictment of the man who had recently been von Thoma’s commander, but it was by no means a lone criticism of Rommel. Writing soon after the war, Generalmajor von Holtzendorff felt that Rommel’s forward command and aggression made him an excellent Kampfgruppen [combat team] commander but “seriously impaired his efficiency as an Army commander.” And, according to Holtzendorff, Rommel never understood how armor should be used:

His attitude toward the Panzer arm and its employment suffered from the lack of knowledge of its technical capabilities. This attitude and his constant rejection of material and fully justified objections on the part of the Panzer commanders repeatedly caused heavy losses in material (especially Panzers), which then jeopardized the very idea of the mission.

These criticisms, if valid—and von Thoma was certainly in a position to know what he was talking about—hardly justify the Rommel “myth” or the notion that he was one of history’s “Great Captains” or a military genius. The reality is that Rommel as a military commander was not as exceptional as some of his biographers have described him, nor was Montgomery the disaster he has often been portrayed to be.


On October 23, 2012, a date that marked a significant commemoration of the Alamein battles, the United Kingdom’s Daily Mail ran a story by Guy Walters with a provocative headline. It read: Was Monty’s finest hour just a pointless bloodbath? Historians claim El Alamein—which began 70 years ago today—sacrificed thousands for the sake of propaganda. The headline, which probably caused distress to some veterans of the battle, was misleading. In his article, Walters claimed that “detractors” of the battle’s significance “maintain that it was a pointless battle in a pointless campaign, fought for political reasons to boost morale throughout the Empire, and not from any strategic necessity.” Once again, Montgomery’s generalship was denigrated. He was described as a “hugely over-rated and unimaginative commander” who “should never have been raised to the status of national hero.” Walters’ headline is misleading in that his article, while not naming any of the “detractors,” actually dismisses their arguments. He concludes:

El Alamein may not have been an elegant victory, and Montgomery may have been a ponderous general who was happy to steal much of the credit from the RAF, but it was a battle that gave the British what it most badly needed—confidence with which to go on and win the war.

Correlli Barnett had certainly dismissed the October Alamein battle as pointless. With Operation Torch, the Allied landings in French North Africa, due to commence in early November, for Barnett this raised “the really interesting question … why this bitter battle … was fought at all.” Barnett was emphatic that the “famous Second Battle of Alamein must therefore, in my view, go down in history as an unnecessary battle.” The hindsight in Barnett’s judgement is clearly evident. As David Fraser, with the wisdom of experience, has astutely observed: “In war no man can say how an untried alternative course of action would have gone, since in war nothing is certain until it is over.”

Some senior military commanders were also dismissive of the October Alamein battle. The US Chief of Staff George Marshall was one. Marshall was never impressed with the British campaign in North Africa or with Montgomery’s generalship. In some off-the-record comments made in 1949, his interviewers noted:

He [Marshall] explained that our opinion of the British at that time was not very high in that the President thought the 8th Army at El Alamein would lose again in the desert. FDR said to have them attack at night. The General discussed what was wrong with British command in Africa at some length. He said that the British in the Middle East [8th Army] had committed about every mistake in the book. It was no model campaign. The pursuit of Rommel across the desert was slow. The British even laid a minefield in front of them which benefited the Germans more than it did the British. Here Marshall formed an opinion that Montgomery left something to be desired as a field commander. The experience with Montgomery in northwest Europe confirmed Marshall’s opinion about that.

Even the Chief of the German High Command, Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel, was dismissive of Alamein and the North African campaign. Shortly before his execution at Nuremberg, Keitel reflected on Rommel’s career. During his interrogation, Keitel had expressed “unlimited admiration of Rommel’s military achievements and courage.” While Rommel’s efforts in North Africa had resulted in some “unexpected victories,” this talented commander’s skills had been wasted there. Keitel wrote, “One cannot help wondering what this daring and highly-favoured tank commander would have achieved had he been fighting with his units in the one theatre of war where Germany’s fate was to be determined.” Clearly, Keitel’s delusions continued to the end of his life. Rommel and the units he commanded in North Africa would have made no difference at all to the outcome of Germany’s defeat on the Eastern Front.

The October or second battle of El Alamein was an important tactical victory for Montgomery and Eighth Army. As Stephen Bungay concluded, “However one looks at it, in the third round of fighting at El Alamein Rommel was decisively defeated.” It was “the climax to two years of to-and-fro struggle in the Western Desert.” And there was a strategic effect to the battle as well, which transformed it into one of the turning points of the war. A senior German staff officer at their Supreme Command, the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKW), recalled after the war that this battle was indeed “the turning point at which the initiative passed from German into Allied Hands.” Generalmajor Eckhardt Christian admitted that the OKW “doubtlessly underestimated Africa’s strategic importance” and that by November 1942, “The realization of the enemy’s strength and our own weakness came too late to avert disaster. The enemy now had the initiative and retained it.” Alexander also wrote of the strategic effect of the battle. There were several reasons why the battle had to be fought:

In the general context of our war strategy in 1942, the battle of Alamein was fought to gain a decisive victory over the Axis forces in the Western Desert, to hearten the Russians, to uplift our allies, to depress our enemies, to raise morale at home and abroad, and to influence those who were sitting on the fence. The battle at Alamein was very carefully timed to achieve these objects—it was not a question of gaining a victory in isolation.

And as Alexander pointed out, both his knowledge of military history and his battlefield experience “convince me that a war is not won by sitting on the defensive.”

Winston Churchill certainly saw the battle as a key turning point. For him, the October–November Alamein battle was “the turning of ‘the Hinge of Fate.’” He explained why in two sentences that have become the most quoted (and misquoted) assessment of the battle’s importance. Churchill wrote that:

It may almost be said, [This first part is often omitted] “Before Alamein we never had a victory. After Alamein we never had a defeat.”

Little wonder then that on Sunday, November 15, 1942, to mark the victory, the church bells rang all over the United Kingdom. It was the first time in three years that Britons had heard their church bells ring. The BBC made a point of recording the bells of Coventry Cathedral for their Overseas Service. “Did you hear them in Occupied Europe?” a gleeful radio commentator asked. “Did you hear them in Germany?”

The transformation was far more than a tactical and strategic shift. This was alluded to in Guy Walters’ conclusion quoted above. The October–November battle marked a major change in how the British Empire thought and felt about its warfighting capabilities. It was a critical transformation. For British soldier and historian David Fraser, the victory at El Alamein in November 1942 “was the best moment experienced by the British Army since another November day long ago in 1918.” It meant that “the tide had finally and irrevocably turned.” When writing about the British defeat in June 1942 during the Gazala battle, which lead to the “deplorable” loss of Tobruk, Fraser made a profound observation that has often been overlooked by military historians. Fraser perceived that “battles are won and lost in the minds of men, and this one had been lost.” To date, the British armies had experienced few victories and many, costly defeats. There were doubts in the minds of men and women at the highest and lowest levels whether the British could ever defeat an army that included German panzer and motorized formations. That doubt was infectious and had spread to Britain’s allies. The October Alamein battle, inelegant as all Allied victories in this war were, provided convincing and much-needed proof that a British army could achieve a victory over German forces.

After the battle, the Australian commander, Lieutenant General Leslie Morshead, wrote a revealing letter to a friend. In it, Morshead highlighted why Eighth Army had won the battle. He also recorded a significant mind-shift in the Australian soldiers:

It was a very hard and long battle, twelve days and nights of continuous and really bloody fighting, and it was not until the last day that the issue was decided. A big battle is very much like a tug-of-war between two very heavy and evenly matched teams, and the one which can maintain the pressure and put forward that last ounce that wins…. I shall always remember going round the line during the battle and a real digger saying to me “Yes Sir it’s tough all right … but we’ve at last got these bloody Germans by the knackers.”

The feeling towards the end of the Alamein battle was that the Germans were on the ropes and losing the battle. The British Eighth Army, after a hard fight, did at last have “these bloody Germans by the knackers.” While this sentiment wasn’t expressed in quite so colorful vernacular, it certainly became infectious. The Alamein battle “was crucial to the morale of the free world.” The news of Rommel’s defeat at Alamein electrified that free world. Nigel Hamilton wrote that “the sense of a change in the fortunes of democracy was palpable.” It signified, as many noted at the time and after, a crucial shift. The spell was broken and the Germans could be beaten. As the New Zealand official historian wrote, the battle of Alamein deserves its place in military history “because it was the first victory of any magnitude won by the British forces against a German command since the Second World War began.” That victory transformed the British forces. Instead of doubt, bewilderment, confusion, and a feeling of inferiority, there was now the strong belief that your side could fight hard and win. It at last had all the tools to do the job. The long string of defeats, what Churchill called the “galling links in a chain of misfortune and frustration,” was finally over.80 The British army, with its allies, had turned a corner and it was to experience a string of victories, albeit marked with some setbacks. It had taken a very long time for the Hinge to turn.


General term for Nahuatl speaking peoples in Pre-Columbian central Mexico, which connotes “people from Aztlan.” Today the word Aztec is typically used to refer to the Mexica people who resided in the island city of Tenochtitlan in Lake Texcoco in the Basin of Mexico. The Aztecs are widely recognized for their imperial political and economic structure; religious ideology that involves natural elements, ancestors, sacred landscapes, and human sacrifice; and for their monumental stone art and architecture, which is routinely uncovered during construction projects in contemporary Mexico City. The Mexica Aztecs had one of the most powerful states and one of the more splendid capital centers in all of ancient Mesoamerica.

Of the many deities important to the Aztecs, we know much about the widely revered Huitzilopochtli, Quetzalcoatl, Tlaloc, Tezcatlipoca, Coatlique, Xipe Totec, and Coyolxauhqui, which are often mentioned in sources that date to early colonial times. Aztec art is famous the world over for its monolithic stone carvings, including the calendar stone and the chacmool, portable objects carved from jade, feather work, and finely painted and modeled ceramics. They also created codices, or books, that contained painted images, but not many hieroglyphs, on bark paper or animal skin. The Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan was the home of thousands of inhabitants, towering temples, ornate palaces, ball courts for the bouncing rubber ball game, marketplaces, tzompantli, or skull racks, irrigated chinampa agricultural fields, and the residences of the calpulli “clans.”

The Aztecs were newcomers to state politics in central Mexico during the 13th century when they wandered into the Valley of Mexico (or Basin of Mexico) while migrating from their original homeland. Here they became tribute paying vassals and mercenaries of local established states. Through political intrigue and much success in warfare, the Aztecs eventually gained their independence and their own tributary towns, agricultural plots, and land for their capital center. The Aztecs came to power in central Mexico and were able to expand to other parts of Mesoamerica through the military and political support of a “triple alliance” between the peoples of the towns of Tenochtitlan, Tetzcoco (Texcoco), and Tlacopan (Tacuba).

Aztec imperial expansion was driven by the need to acquire food, materials, and labor for the growing Aztec state and also to obtain the necessary sacrificial victims on the battlefield to feed the sun during its daily journey. The Aztecs would subjugate an area by means of military force, then set up rulership through local elites and allies and ensure their subordinates’ allegiance and tribute payments with the threat of warfare and by political and marriage alliances.

The Aztec empire was at its peak and possibly facing drastic political and economic reform in order to continue making conquests, when the Spanish conquistadores under Hernan Cortes arrived in A.D. 1519. The Spaniards were greeted by the Mexica-Aztec ruler Motecuhzoma, who was trying to consolidate his realm and implement political and economic changes at the time. Because of military strategy and advanced weaponry, and, critically, through the help of thousands of indigenous allies (both former friends and enemies of the Aztecs), combined with the spread of deadly epidemic diseases that decimated native populations, the Spanish were able to sack Tenochtitlan, subdue the Aztecs and their last emperor, Cuauhtemoc, and appropriate their territories by A.D. 1521.


The Aztecs, who became established in central Mexico in the early 1300s and whose empire flourished from 1430 to 1521, made the last major weapons innovations. Under their empire, a preindustrial military complex supplied the imperial center with materials not available locally, or manufactured elsewhere. The main Aztec projectiles were arrows shot from bows and darts shot from atlatls, augmented by slingers. Arrows could reach well over a hundred meters-and sling stones much farther-but the effective range of atlatl darts (as mentioned earlier, about 60 meters) limited the beginning of all barrages to that range. The principle shock weapons were long, straight oak broadswords with obsidian blades glued into grooves on both sides, and thrusting spears with bladed extended heads. These arms culminated a long developmental history in which faster, lighter arms with increasingly greater cutting surface were substituted for slower, heavier crushing weapons. Knives persisted, but were used principally for the coup de grace. Armor consisted of quilted cotton jerkins, covering only the trunk of the body, leaving limbs unencumbered and the head free, which could be covered by a full suit of feathers or leather according to accomplishment. Warriors also carried 60-centimeter round shields on the left wrist. Where cotton was scarce, maguey (fiber from agave plants) was also fabricated into armor, but the long, straight fiber lacked the resilience and warmth of cotton. In west Mexico, where clubs and maces persisted, warriors protected themselves with barrel armor-a cylindrical body encasement presumably made of leather.City walls and hilltop strongholds continued into Aztec times, but construction limitations rendered it too costly to enclose large areas. Built in a lake, the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan lacked the need for extensive defenses, though the causeways that linked it to the shore had both fortifications and removable wooden bridges.By Aztec times, if not far earlier, chili fi res were used to smoke out fortified defenders, provided the wind cooperated. Poisons were known, but not used in battle, so blowguns were relegated to birding and sport. Where there were sizable bodies of water, battles were fought from rafts and canoes. More importantly, especially in the Valley of Mexico, canoe transports were crucial for deploying soldiers quickly and efficiently throughout the lake system. By the time of the Spanish conquest, some canoes were armored with wooden defensive works that were impermeable to projectiles.The Importance of Organization Despite the great emphasis placed on weaponry, perhaps the most crucial element in warfare in Mesoamerica was organization. Marshaling, dispatching, and supplying an army of considerable size for any distance or duration required great planning and coordination. Human porters bearing supplies accompanied armies in the vanguard (the body of the army); tribute empires were organized to maintain roads and provide foodstuffs to armies en route, allowing imperial forces to travel farther and faster than their opponents; and cartographers mapped out routes, nightly stops, obstacles, and water sources to permit the march and coordinate the timely meeting of multiple armies at the target.What distinguished Mexican imperial combat from combat in North America was less technological than organizational. More effective weapons are less important than disciplining an army to sustain an assault in the face of opposition; that task requires a political structure capable not merely of training soldiers, but of punishing them if they fail to carry out commands. Polities with the power to execute soldiers for disobedience emerged in Mexico but not in North America; those polities had a decisive advantage over their competitors.In North America, chiefdoms dominated the Southeast beginning after 900 CE, and wars were waged for status and political domination, but the chiefdoms of the Southwest had disintegrated after 1200 CE, and pueblos had emerged from the wreckage. (We use the term pueblos to refer to the settled tribal communities of the Southwest, but chiefdom is a political term that reflects the power of the chief, which was greater than that exercised by the puebloan societies after the collapse around 1200 CE.) There too warfare played a role, though for the pueblos wars were often defensive engagements against increasing numbers of nomadic groups. The golden age of North American Indian warfare emerged only after the arrival of Europeans, their arms, and horses. But even then, in the absence of Mesoamerican-style centralized political authority, individual goals, surprise attacks, and hit-and-run tactics dominated the battlefield, not sustained combat in the face of determined opposition.


The mythical homeland from which the Aztec people are believed to have originated and subsequently left to migrate to central Mexico. From this original homeland they wandered through northern Mesoamerica until they reached Lake Texcoco (Tetzcoco) in central Mexico and founded the city of Tenochtitlan. Aztlan is Nahuatl for “Place of the Herons/Cranes” or “Place of Whiteness,” and it is said to have been a habitable island in a beautiful lake. The word Aztec signifies “people from Aztlan,” and this term has been applied to Nahuatl speakers of Postclassic central Mexico. The Aztecs of Tenochtitlan referred to themselves collectively as the “Mexica.”

Anthropologists and historians have long tried to locate Aztlan, or the area in which the mythological place is based, either in central or west Mexico or in Veracruz, by studying Aztec myth and archaeological evidence. These areas have numerous lakes and water fowl as described in the Aztec myth of Aztlan. However, the true location of Aztlan, or the area that inspired the legend, may never be known. There are conflicting and vague details from the Aztec chronicles and a number of distinct places seem to be referred to in the histories. It is also possible that Aztlan is truly mythological and existed only in Aztec religion and beliefs. Also there are many sacred “Places of the Reeds,” (Tollan), or additional sites of origin, in Mesoamerican lore (such as the centers of Teotihuacan and Tula), which further confuses the search for Aztlan. Even Aztec kings sent out parties in search of Aztlan, where it was believed communication with deities and ancestors was possible, but the place, or places, of these visits was never recorded or definitively identified.

Aztec legend states that their premigration ancestors lived on Aztlan, an island surrounded by reeds in the center of a large lagoon. The journey from Aztlan by the Aztecs, who may have been hunters, gatherers, and incipient farmers earlier on, was initiated and led by Huitzilopochtli, an important Aztec deity who may have been linked with a historical person and culture hero/leader.

The Mexica-Aztecs wandered many years throughout Mexico visiting sacred places, including caves and hills. They overcame obstacles and arduous tests by supernatural beings to eventually settle in Tenochtitlan, itself an island surrounded by reeds and herons, which may have helped shape Mexica-Aztec history, legends, and origin myths concerning “Aztlan” or “Tollan.” Many Aztec codices, such as the Boturini and Mendoza, illustrate the Aztec migration from Aztlan and their travels and trials in search of a new homeland in Mexico.


This book is a crucial source of cultural information on the preconquest Aztecs of central Mexico. Although this codex was produced in the mid-16th century and after the Spanish conquest and colonization of Aztec territory, the images and texts within relate to precontact Aztec warfare and conquests, customs, social organization, economic structure, and material culture. The Codex Mendoza was destined for Spain as part of the documentation of the peoples, lands, local histories, and holdings under the control of the expanding Spanish empire in the New World. The manuscript changed hands over the years, and today it is kept at the Bodleian Library at Oxford University.

The multicolored painted images on the folios of European paper were created by native Aztec scribes commissioned by the Spanish to record the highlights of Aztec culture and history. Spanish notations and descriptions of the images were placed right on the manuscript at the time of its production. The first section of the codex contains an outline of Aztec history from the founding of their capital at Tenochtitlan to the conquests of the rulers of the empire. This section contains indigenous calendar dates, images of people and their name hieroglyphs, and ancient place names and cities of central Mesoamerica.

The tribute rolls of the conquered polities and territories make up the second portion of the book. This part has several pages depicting in vibrant colors the actual tribute items, such as jade beads, jaguar skins, ceramic vessels, quetzal and other bird feathers, cotton cloaks, foods, and clothing and their quantities that were delivered to Tenochtitlan. The last section contains painted scenes from Aztec everyday life, including punishments of their children, duties of apprentices, marriage ceremonies, occupations, and captive taking. The combination of the rich imagery created by native scribes, the Spanish commentary accompanying the designs, and the topics recorded in the Codex Mendoza make it an invaluable source for the study of ancient Mesoamerica and the Aztecs.


The name of the people and area that was never subdued by the Aztecs and that became one of the first indigenous allies of the Spanish conquistadores. Although many archaeological sites remain and much was written about the Tlaxcalans by the Spanish, comparatively little research has been done on this region and its Postclassic culture. Many large settlements and fortified centers are found in Tlaxcala, which is situated between the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan and the Totonac area on the Gulf Coast of Veracruz.

The Tlaxcalans successfully repelled repeated attempts at conquest by their bitter enemies, the Aztecs. However, they had been surrounded by Aztec enclaves and were surrounded and cut off of critical supplies, such as cotton cloth textiles and salt for example, upon the arrival of the Spanish. For these reasons and for the opportunity to become a regional power, the Tlaxcalans joined the European newcomers marching to conquer the Aztec capital. The Tlaxcalans also had “flower wars” with the Aztecs in which ceremonial warfare was undertaken to test army strengths and weaknesses and in order to take captives for human sacrifice.


The Totonac people were located in the rich tropical region of the Gulf Coast of Veracruz, Mexico, near the Huastec Maya and the ancient ruins of El Tajin and Cempoala. The Totonacs were tribute-paying subjects of the Aztec empire, and they were organized in small regional states and through inter-elite alliances. These people were the first defeated in major skirmishes with the conquering force of the Spanish led by the conquistador Hernan Cortes. After losing the initial battles with the Spaniards, the Totonacs then became their first indigenous allies. The Totonacs seized the chance to remove the Aztec threat and tribute obligation and join the powerful European intruders to become new rulers of Mexico.

The Spanish placed their first base at Cempoala, a Totonac city with monumental architecture, palaces, and large plazas. Several ring-shaped structures built of rounded cobbles with small pillars around their edges were excavated and restored at this site, and these buildings may have been used in recording calendar dates and astronomical cycles.

It is not clear if the Totonac people or others built the city of El Tajin or made stone sculptures and Remojadas ceramic figurines in central Veracruz or not. Today, the Totonac people still reside in the tropical rainforests of coastal Veracruz where they entertain visitors at the ruins of El Tajin as voladores, or men who spiral down from spinning poles with ropes tied around their ankles.

Further Reading Andreski, S. (1968). Military organization and society. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press. Ferguson, R. B., & Whitehead, N. L. (1992). War in the tribal zone: Expanding states and indigenous warfare. Santa Fe, NM: School of American Research Press. Hassig, R. (1988). Aztec warfare: Imperial expansion and political control. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press. Hassig, R. (1992). War and society in ancient Mesoamerica. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press. Hassig, R. (1994). Mexico and the Spanish conquest. London: Longman Group. LeBlanc, S. A. (1999). Prehistoric warfare in the American southwest. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press. Otterbein, K. F. (1970). The evolution of war: A cross-cultural study. New Haven, CT: HRAF Press. Pauketat, T. (1999). America’s ancient warriors. MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History, 11(3), 50-55. Turney-High, H. H. (1971). Primitive war: Its practice and concepts. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press. Van Creveld, M. (1989). Technology and war: From 2000 b. c. to the present. New York: The Free Press

Poland’s Agony

In spring 1787 Catherine the Great of Russia set off on an imperial progress through her southern dominions. As she drifted down the Dnieper greeted by crowds of subjects lined up along the banks by her minister Prince Potemkin, King Stanisław Augustus left Warsaw to greet her on the Polish stretch of the river. On 6 May the imperial galley tied up at Kaniów, and the King came aboard. With the formal greetings over, the two monarchs, who had last met as lovers nearly thirty years before, retired for a tête-à-tête.

They emerged after only half an hour, and the assembled courtiers and diplomats sensed all was not well. The Empress entertained the King lavishly, but declined to go ashore for a ball he had arranged in her honour. Stanisław Augustus was mortified, and not just because his feelings were hurt. He had come to Kaniów to propose an alliance in Russia’s forthcoming war against Turkey. The Commonwealth would contribute a substantial army and at the same time fend off potential belligerent moves by Prussia and Sweden, in return for which it would acquire Moldavia and a Black Sea port. Apart from permitting the Commonwealth to raise and test an army, participation in such a war would have eased the tensions building up in Warsaw and strengthened the King’s position. Catherine’s rejection of the plan left him without a policy at a critical moment and played into the hands of his opponents.

While the King had bowed to the conditions imposed by Russia after the partition in 1772, many had refused to reconcile themselves to this state of affairs and his seemingly docile acceptance of it. By the late 1780s there was a growing feeling, particularly among the younger generations brought up on Rousseau’s pre-Romantic ideas on the rights of nations, that the time had come to shrug off the protection and the restrictions imposed by Russia, which stood in the way of almost any attempt at reform or modern—isation. A group of magnates, including some members of the Familia, Ignacy Potocki, Stanisław Małachowski, Michał Kazimierz Ogiński, Stanisław Potocki and malcontents such as Karol Radziwiłł, who called themselves ‘Patriots’, began to stir up opposition to the King’s collaborationist policy.

Those who had believed in anarchy as a blessed state had seen their argument demolished by the partition. As they looked around, at states such as Russia and Prussia which expended two-thirds of their revenue on the army and appeared more and more to be driven by a philosophy of military success (even their monarchs wore uniform), most felt that Poland’s only hope of survival lay in abandoning the glorious liberties of the Commonwealth and turning it into an efficient modern state with an adequate army.

Prussia, which had just entered into an alliance with England and Holland aimed at checking Russian expansion, made it clear that the Commonwealth could count on military support were it to sever its connection with St Petersburg. With Russia engaged in wars against Turkey and Sweden, and with Prussia making friendly overtures to Poland and striking hostile attitudes at Russia and Austria, it looked as though the menacing concert of the Commonwealth’s neighbours had fallen into discord.

The Sejm which assembled in 1788 under the marshalcy of Stanisław Małachowski, which would be known as the Great Sejm, was dominated by the Patriots. It promptly voted an increase in the army, which was placed under the control of a Sejm commission. The conduct of foreign policy was vested in another such commission. In January 1789 the Sejm abolished the Permanent Council which had been ruling the country since 1775 and prolonged its own session indefinitely. In March it imposed a tax on income from land of 10 per cent for the szlachta and 20 for the Church, the first direct taxation ever to have been imposed on either.

The Patriots encountered little opposition. The King’s supporters were in disarray. Conservative and pro-Russian members were intimidated by events, which had taken on an ominous significance in the light of the revolution which broke out in France in the summer of 1789. On the night of 25 November 1789 Warsaw was illuminated for the twenty-fifth anniversary of the coronation of Stanisław Augustus, which many feared might act as a provocation to the mob. While the rabble in the streets confined itself to abusive lampoons, a real revolution was being prepared in other quarters. In September 1789 the Sejm had appointed a commission under Ignacy Potocki to prepare a new constitution for the Commonwealth.

Debate on the question of reform had grown progressively more radical and was now dominated by two political thinkers of substance, Stanisław Staszic and Hugo Kołłątaj. Staszic (1755-1826) was a priest of plebeian origin who had been befriended by Józef Wybicki and promoted by Andrzej Zamoyski. He had travelled through Germany to Paris, where he became a friend of Buffon, whose Histoire Naturelle he translated and published in Poland, and thence to Rome, where he lost his faith. On his return to Poland he devoted himself to political writing. Later, in 1800, he would found the Society of Friends of Learning with a fortune he had built up in business, and in 1815 publish a seminal work on the geological formation of the Carpathian Mountains, while working on a verse translation of the Iliad.

Staszic was a republican who believed in the sovereignty of the Sejm, but realised that a nation surrounded by despotic states must have a strong executive, and he therefore argued for a hereditary monarchy. He saw the nation as a ‘moral entity’ consisting of all the citizens of the Commonwealth, whether they were szlachta or peasants, townspeople or Jews, and believed that all citizens should subject their individual will to its greater good.

Hugo Kołłątaj (1750-1812) was of a very different stamp. He had studied at the Jagiellon University and in Italy, where he became a priest, and subsequently worked on the Commission for National Education. He showed his organisational skills when he was given the task of reforming the Jagiellon University, whose Rector he became in 1782.

As the Great Sejm convened, he formed a political pressure group known as ‘the Forge’ with the aim of promoting reform of the whole system, or a ‘gentle revolution’, as he put it. In A Few Anonymous Letters to Stanisław Małachowski (1788) he addressed the Marshal and the assembling Sejm. ‘What then is Poland?’ he taunted them. ‘It is a poor, useless machine which cannot be worked by one man alone, which will not be worked by all men together, and which can be stopped by a single person.’ Like Staszic, he demanded a strong hereditary monarchy, the supremacy of the Sejm and the extension of the franchise. It was he who composed the memorandum presented to the King by the representatives of 141 towns, dressed in black like the États Généraux in Paris the previous year and led by Jan Dekert, on 2 December 1789. A commission was set up to devise a system of representation for the towns, and several hundred tradesmen were ennobled.

As soon as he realised the strength of the movement behind the Patriots, Stanisław Augustus shifted his position and began to work with them. He invited Ignacy Potocki, Kołłątaj and Małachowski to join him in drawing up a new constitution. They worked in secret, with the King’s secretary Scipione Piattoli editing the drafts. When the final draft was ready a wider group of reformists was invited to discuss it before the final wording was agreed.

Their project entailed the abolition of so many traditional rights and liberties that it was bound to encounter fierce opposition in the Sejm. They therefore prepared what amounted to a parliamentary coup. The support of the people of Warsaw was assured by a municipal law of 18 April 1791 giving seats in the Sejm to twenty-two representatives of major towns. Another law passed at the same time disenfranchised landless szlachta.

A date was chosen when many deputies and senators would still be on their way back to the capital after the Easter recess, and as a result, on 3 May 1791 only 182 deputies were present in the chamber, a hundred of them in on the secret. Outside, purposely mustered crowds surrounded the Royal Castle expectantly. The proposed constitution was passed overwhelmingly, after which the King was carried shoulder-high by the populace to the church of St John, where the Te Deum was sung.

The document which became law on 3 May 1791 was a pragmatic compromise between the republicanism of Potocki, the radicalism of Kołłątaj and the English-style constitutional monarch ism of the King. The opening clauses were purposely anodyne. Catholicism was enshrined as the religion of state, although every citizen was free to practise another without prejudice; the szlachta was declared to be the backbone of the nation; the peasantry was piously acknowledged as its lifeblood; all the privileges bestowed by Piast and Jagiellon kings remained inviolate. Hidden deeper in the thicket of print lay the substance. The throne was to be dynastically elective as it was under the Jagiellons, and since Stanisław Augustus had no legitimate children, Frederick Augustus of Saxony was designated as the founder of the new dynasty. The Sejm became the chief legislative and executive power in the Commonwealth, and voting was to be conducted by strict majority. Both the veto and the right of confederation were abolished. The government of the country was vested in the king and a royal council to be known as the Guardians of the National Laws. This was to include the Primate of Poland, five ministers and two secretaries, all appointed by the king for a period of two years. The king could direct policy, but no act of his was valid without the signature of at least one of the ministers, and they were answerable directly to the Sejm.

The constitution was hardly revolutionary in itself: it was the commissions and other organs it set up which were to carry through the real reforms. Under the slogan ‘The King with the People, the People with the King’, and aided by a barrage of propaganda emanating from Kołłątaj and his assistants there set to their work transforming the country. An economic constitution was to cover property relationships, the protection of labour, investment, the establishment of a national bank and the issue of a paper currency. Kołłątaj began work on plans to turn all labour-rents into money rents for the peasants, while the King and Piattoli began discussions with the elders of the Jewish community with a view to emancipating and integrating it.

The events in Poland were hailed far and wide. Political clubs in Paris voted to make Stanisław Augustus an honorary member. Condorcet and Thomas Paine acclaimed the constitution as a breakthrough, while Edmund Burke called it ‘the most pure’ public good ever bestowed upon mankind. For the same reasons, they alarmed Poland’s neighbours. The Prussian minister Count Hertzberg was convinced that ‘the Poles have given the coup de grace to the Prussian monarchy by voting a constitution much better than the English’, and warned that the Poles would sooner or later regain not only the lands taken from them in the partition, but also Prussia.

The fall of the Bastille in Paris two years before had caused fear in St Petersburg, Potsdam and Vienna, and the fact that what was viewed by their rulers as a second beacon of revolution had ignited in Warsaw induced a state of panic. They felt threatened by the revolutionary presence in their midst, if only because a steady trickle of runaways from all three countries flowed into Poland in search of new freedoms.

A year before the passing of the constitution, in March 1790, Poland had signed a treaty with Prussia, where Frederick II had been succeeded by Frederick William II. The immediate object was to make common war on Austria, from which Poland intended to recapture Galicia (as the Austrians had named their slice of Poland), but it also guaranteed Prussian military support if Poland were attacked by her eastern neighbour. Prussia then demanded that Poland give up Gdańsk, which was already cut off from the rest of the country by a Prussian corridor, in return for which Polish traffic on the Vistula would be granted customs-free passage. England, which was behind the Polish-Prussian alliance, and whose fleet was expected in the Baltic in the autumn, urged Poland to agree, but there was opposition in the Sejm.

In February 1791 the Emperor Joseph II was succeeded by Leopold II, who took a conciliatory line towards Prussia, but the international situation nevertheless remained favourable to Poland. Leopold and his Chancellor Kaunitz both believed that the passing of the constitution, far from being a threat, would probably prevent revolution in Central Europe.

Before the constitution was a year old, however, the inter national situation changed once more. On 9 January 1792 Russia signed the Peace of Jassy with Turkey and began to pull troops back from the southern front. On 14 February, at the first general election since its passing, the sejmiks throughout Poland voted overwhelmingly to endorse the constitution, to the dismay of the disenfranchised landless szlachta and conservatives who mourned the liberties of the Commonwealth, and much to the fury of Catherine, who had paid out fortunes in bribes to persuade them to reject it. In March she began moving her troops towards Poland. At the beginning of the month the Emperor Leopold died and was succeeded by Francis II. In April, revolutionary France went to war against him and Prussia. A few days later, on 27 April, Catherine sought out a number of Polish conservatives such as Seweryn Rzewuski, Feliks Potocki and Ksawery Branicki, who formed a confederation in St Petersburg. It was not proclaimed until 14 May in the border town of Targowica, under the slogan of defence of Polish ‘glorious freedoms’ against the ‘monarchical and democratic revolution of 3 May 1791’. Four days later the confederates crossed the border at the head of, or rather in the baggage of, 97,000 Russian troops.

Tadeusz Kościuszko

Against these veterans of the Turkish wars, the Commonwealth could field only 45,000 untried recruits. Frederick William of Prussia, who had written to Stanisław Augustus in May 1791 professing his ‘eagerness’ to ‘support the liberty and independence of Poland’, refused the appeal for help in June 1792, and the Polish forces went into action on their own. One corps, under the King’s nephew Józef Poniatowski, won a battle at Zieleńce, another under Tadeusz Kościuszko fought a fine rearguard action at Dubienka. But there was no real hope of stemming the Russian advance.

Stanisław Augustus tried to negotiate directly with Catherine, offering to bring Poland back within the Russian hegemony and to cede his throne to her grandson Constantine. Catherine demanded that he join the Confederation of Targowica. The King and his advisers, desperate to find a way out which could guarantee the integrity of the Commonwealth and the survival of the constitution, decided to bend to her will.

This act of humility was of little avail. In November, after the defeat of his armies by the French at Valmy, the King of Prussia demanded areas of Poland as compensation for his efforts to contain Revolutionary France. A second partition was agreed between Russia and Prussia, and signed in Petersburg on 3 January 1793. Catherine helped herself to 250,000 square kilometres, and Frederick William to 58,000. The Commonwealth now consisted of no more than 212,000 square kilometres, with a population of four million. Wielkopolska and most of Małopolska, the ethnic and historic heartlands of Poland, had gone, leaving a strange elongated and uneconomic rump. Even this was to be no more than a buffer state with a puppet king and a Russian garrison.

As with the first partition, Catherine insisted that the arrangement be ratified by the Sejm, to be held at Grodno in Lithuania rather than in the potentially explosive Warsaw. At first Stanisław Augustus refused to cooperate, but he was eventually browbeaten and blackmailed into going, and as he left his capital all hope and will to fight deserted him.

The Russian ambassador carefully selected candidates for the Sejm and used everything from bribery to physical assault in order to ensure their election. But once they had assembled at Grodno, some proved less than cooperative, in spite of the presence of Russian troops in the chamber who would drag out recalcitrant deputies and beat them up. At one stage, a battery of guns was trained on the building. After three months of stubbornness, the Sejm bowed to the inevitable and ratified the treaties.

The King returned to Warsaw. But it was the Russian ambassador that governed and Russian troops who policed the country. There was little possibility for action by patriots and most of them went into voluntary exile, some to Vienna, Italy and Saxony, others to Paris. Kościuszko was hatching a plan for military action based on a French victory against Prussia and Austria. Kołłątaj and Ignacy Potocki were thinking in terms of a national rising by the masses.

Catherine was unconsciously creating the perfect conditions for a revolution. She started by reducing the Polish army to 12,000 and disbanding the rest. Some 30,000 able-bodied fighting men were made redundant, and these patriotic vagrants were drawn to Warsaw, creating the revolutionary mob on which every upheaval depends. The way in which Poland had been carved up virtually precluded what was left from supporting itself. Cities had been cut off from their agricultural hinterland and trading patterns disrupted. Economic activity came to a virtual standstill, and in 1793 the six largest Warsaw banks declared insolvency. The country had to support a 40,000-strong Russian garrison and pay stringent customs dues imposed by Prussia. Thousands of unemployed cluttered Warsaw. The army was the focal point of discontent. When, on 21 February 1794, the Russians ordered a further reduction and the arrest of people suspected of subversive activity, revolution became inevitable.

On 12 March General Madaliński ordered his brigade into the field and marched on Kraków. Émigrés flocked back to Poland, and on 23 March Kościuszko arrived in Kraków. The following day he proclaimed an Act of Insurrection. He assumed dictatorial powers, took command of the armed forces and called on the nation to rise, delegating the conduct of the administration to a Supreme National Council with emergency powers. When the Insurrection was over all power was to be handed back to the Sejm.

From Kraków Kościuszko marched north. At Raclawice on 4 April he defeated a Russian army with a force of 4,000 regulars and 2,000 peasants armed with scythes. On 17 April the Warsaw cobbler Jan Kiliński raised the standard of revolt in the capital. After twenty-four hours of fighting the Russian troops abandoned the city, leaving 4,000 dead on the streets. On the night of 22 April the city of Wilno rose under the leadership of Colonel Jakub Jasiński, a fervent Jacobin, and several of the adherents of the Confederation of Targowica were lynched. But while Jasiński wrote to Kościuszko that he would prefer ‘to hang a hundred people, and save six million’, the dictator would have none of it. There had also been some lynchings in Warsaw, but Kościuszko put a stop to that when he reached the capital.

The Insurrection could hardly arouse optimism in the more settled sections of the population, and there remained uncertainty as to its real political nature. While the King remained in his castle, untouched by the mob and ostensibly recognised by the leaders of the Insurrection, a number of Jacobins waited in the wings to seize control. Kołłątaj, who had taken over the Treasury, implemented a number of revolutionary measures. He introduced graded taxation and issued paper currency as well as silver coinage, underwritten by confiscated Church property. Kościuszko’s proclamation, issued at Polaniec on 7 May, granting freedom and ownership of land to all peasants who came forward to defend the motherland, was a provocation to landowners.

Some magnates declared for the Insurrection and the King donated all his table-silver to the cause, but the majority of the szlachta were cautious, and most made sure their peasants never received the message of the Polaniec manifesto. It was only in the cities that large numbers came forward, and in Warsaw the Jewish community formed up and equipped a special regiment of its own under the command of Colonel Berek Joselewicz, the first Jewish military formation since Biblical times.

Kościuszko, who had marched out to meet the advancing Prussian army under King Frederick William, was outnumbered and defeated at Szczekociny on 6 May. On 15 June the Prussians entered Kraków. In July a combined Russo-Prussian army of 40,000 besieged Warsaw, but Kościuszko used a combination of earthworks and artillery to repel it, and after two months of siege the allies withdrew. Wilno fell to the Russians in mid-August, but a week later the Insurrection broke out in Wielkopolska and a corps under General Dąbrowski set off from Warsaw in support. He defeated a Prussian army near Bydgoszcz, then marched into Prussia.

The situation became hopeless when Austrian forces joined those of Prussia and Russia. Having extracted a pledge of neutrality from Turkey, Catherine ordered Suvorov’s army to move against Poland from the south-east. Kościuszko marched out to head him off, but was isolated from his supporting column and beaten at Maciejowice on 10 October. His defeat would have been no great blow in itself, but he was wounded and captured, along with other Polish generals.

The capture of Kościuszko induced political instability. The need for compromise badly affected the choice of his successor as commander-in-chief, which eventually fell on a Tomasz Wawrzecki. The Russians, who had been intending to retire to winter quarters, now decided to push home their advantage and on 4 November Suvorov attacked Warsaw. He had little difficulty in taking the eastbank suburb of Praga. Only four hundred of the 1,400 defenders survived, while the mainly Jewish population was butchered as a warning to Warsaw itself. The warning carried weight, and the army withdrew, allowing Warsaw to capitulate. On 16 November, Wawrzecki was surrounded and captured, and the Insurrection effectively came to an end.

Russian troops once again entered Warsaw, soon to be relieved by Prussians, as the three powers had decided to divide what was left of Poland between themselves and the capital fell to them. A new treaty of partition was signed in 1795, removing Poland from the map altogether. The King was bundled into a carriage and sent off to Grodno, where he was forced to abdicate, and the foreign diplomats accredited to the Polish court were ordered to leave. The Papal Nuncio, the British minister and the chargés d’affaires of Holland, Sweden and Saxony refused as a protest against the unceremonious liquidation of one of the states of Europe. Their embassies were also crammed with fugitives seeking asylum. It took the three powers more than two years to sort out the mess, and it was not until January 1797 that they were able to agree a treaty finally liquidating the debts of the King and the Commonwealth, after which they signed a protocol binding themselves to excise the name of Poland from all future documents, to remove any reference to it from diplomatic business and to strive by every means for its oblivion.

Mainly out of spite to the memory of his mother, Tsar Paul celebrated Catherine’s death in 1797 by freeing Kościuszko and other Polish prisoners, and inviting the ailing Stanisław Augustus to St Petersburg. Over the next months the Tsar repeatedly discussed with him plans to resurrect the Polish Commonwealth, and when the King died on 12 February 1798 Paul gave him a state funeral, personally leading the mourning.

It was not, however, the cranky behaviour of Paul that ensured the survival of the Polish cause. Stanisław Staszic had written that ‘Even a great nation may fall, but only a contemptible one can be destroyed,’ and the Poles did not see themselves as contemptible. They needed only to brandish the political testament of the dying Commonwealth, the constitution of 3 May, to claim their right to the esteem of other nations.


From Korea, 1871, to Samoa, 1899

In 1861 the U.S. Navy was redirected from fighting small wars to focusing its energies on the deadliest conflict in American history. This required a buildup of startling proportions. At the beginning of the Civil War, the Union Navy had deployed just 68 vessels. It emerged from the conflict with 626 ships, including 65 ironclads. If it had desired, the United States could have challenged the Royal Navy for command of the seas. But for the time being, America had its fill of martial splendor.

The pacifist mood that so often takes hold after a big war gripped the country again. The army was demobilized, the navy scrapped. By 1881 only 50 vessels remained in the fleet, most of them obsolete hulks. That was just fine as far as the post–Civil War administrations were concerned. One story that gained wide circulation had Rutherford B. Hayes’s navy secretary, upon first boarding a warship, exclaiming in surprise, “Why the derned thing is hollow!” Though undoubtedly apocryphal, this tale accurately conveyed the lack of interest in all matters naval displayed by the politicians of the time.

The crabby, conservative naval establishment, riven by feuds between line and staff officers, and run by autonomous bureau chieftains, did not help its own cause by resisting innovations such as steam power and rifled cannons. Its senior officer from 1869 until his death in 1891 was Admiral David Dixon Porter, an aging relic of the old navy forged by his father and the rest of “Preble’s Boys”—a force, it was said, composed of wooden ships and iron men.

As the navy declined, so did the frequency of small wars overseas. In the 20 years between 1841 and 1861, the marines landed abroad 24 times. The next 20 years saw half as many landings—only 12. There was a similar falloff in diplomatic negotiations by naval officers—from 201 in the 20 years before the Civil War, to 101 in the 20 years after. This was related to another trend: While American overseas trade soared in the years after the Civil War, the percentage carried in U.S. flag ships plummeted—and so did the need for naval protection of commerce. Congress subsidized the building of Western railroads as a national priority but did not think the decline of the merchant marine was important enough to warrant much action.

The nation’s attention and energy were directed elsewhere: to the Reconstruction of the South, the winning of the West, and the industrialization of the Northeast and Midwest. What little military activity the U.S. engaged in for the next few decades was primarily directed against Plains Indians who had the misfortune to find themselves in the path of Yankee settlers. After 1890, the year when the frontier was officially declared closed, America’s attention would once again focus on expansion abroad. In the meantime, one of the few expeditions undertaken in the spirit of Porter and Perry was the foray to Korea in 1871.


Appropriately enough, the commander of this fantastic voyage was the scion of a great naval dynasty stretching back to the service’s early glory days. Rear Admiral John Rodgers was the son of Commodore John Rodgers, who had served in the quasi-war with France, the Barbary Wars, and the War of 1812, and had gone on to become the navy’s senior officer from 1821 to 1839. The family was linked by marriage to the illustrious Perry clan; one of John Rodgers Sr.’s sisters married the brother of Commodores Oliver Hazard Perry and Matthew C. Perry.

Young John Rodgers became a midshipman in 1828 at 16 and learned his trade the old-fashioned way—aboard ship. Unlike most naval officers of his era, he attended college, spending a year at the University of Virginia, but he headed back to sea without graduating. Promotion in those days was entirely on the basis of seniority, so a man could wait decades in rank until someone above him died or retired. Rodgers made rear admiral—a new rank—only after the Civil War, where he distinguished himself as a commander of ironclads in the Union navy. (It was by no means certain which side he would fight for, since his father, the commodore, had been a Maryland-born slave owner.)

In 1870, at age 58, stout and white-haired, having already spent 24 years at sea, Rodgers took over the somewhat ramshackle Asiatic Squadron (formerly the East India Squadron), based in Hong Kong. He had three steam-powered iron gunboats—the Ashuelot, Monocacy, and Palos—along with three wooden ships, the Colorado, Alaska, and Benicia, that combined sail and steam power. The navy still had reservations about the new-fangled, steam-belching monsters, and anyway coal was hard to come by, so captains had instructions to use sails whenever possible and resort to steam only when necessary in battle.

As Perry had opened Japan, so Rodgers set as his objective opening Korea. The Hermit Kingdom was nominally a vassal of Peking but in reality had control over its own destiny. Its de facto ruler was the regent, Yi Ha-ung, known as the Taewongun (“Prince of the Great Court”), part of the Choson dynasty that had ruled the peninsula since the fourteenth century. The xenophobic Taewongun was determined to keep Korea closed to the West. In 1866 he launched a campaign to eradicate Christianity, executing nine French missionaries and some 8,000 of their converts. France sent a punitive expedition, but it was repulsed by the Koreans.

The Koreans generally treated shipwrecked mariners more kindly, returning a number of American sailors safely to China. But in 1866, a U.S.-registered merchant schooner, the General Sherman, was burned and its 27 crew members (mainly Chinese) killed near Pyongyang. The Koreans later explained that the crew had brought this fate upon themselves by entering interior waters without permission, kidnapping a Korean official, and firing into a crowd on shore. This incident nevertheless prompted the Grant administration to mount a major effort to secure from Korea treaties governing shipwrecks and, if possible, trade. Chosen to carry out this assignment were Rear Admiral Rodgers and the U.S. minister to China, Frederick F. Low.

On May 16, 1871, five ships of the Asiatic Squadron, mounting 85 guns and carrying 1,230 officers and men, set off from Nagasaki, Japan, headed for the great unknown—a land where, it was rumored, the natives diced and pickled unwelcome visitors. “Whether this is positively true or not I can’t say,” Marine Captain McLane Tilton wrote to his wife, “but you may imagine it is not with a great pleasure I anticipate landing with the small force we have, against a populous country containing 10,000,000 savages!”

The expedition reached Chemulpo (now Inchon), Korea’s premier port, by the end of May and tried to open diplomatic negotiations. While this was going on, Rodgers sent small boats to do surveying work on the Han River leading toward Seoul. The Koreans naturally took umbrage at foreigners conducting a military survey of one of their most strategically sensitive waterways. On June 2, one of these surveying parties was fired upon by forts on Kangwha Island. The USS Palos and Monocacy promptly returned fire, silencing the fort. Afterward, Minister Low demanded an apology. The proud Koreans refused; they thought it was the foreign barbarians who should apologize. So, in the time-honored fashion of the navy, Rear Admiral Rodgers decided to mount a punitive expedition.

The attack got under way on June 10, 1871, a clear, warm day, with steam launches and cutters landing 542 sailors and 109 marines. The first two Korean forts fell with little trouble. The next day—after becoming the first Western troops to spend the night on Korean soil—the expedition faced its toughest challenge: the hilltop fort known as Kwangsong (“the citadel”). To reach it, the Americans had to race down a hill into a ravine and then back up—straight into the mouth of the Korean cannons. The first man over the parapet was killed, and so was the first who entered the fort, but then the Koreans ran out of time to reload and it became a savage hand-to-hand struggle. “Corean sword crossed Yankee cutlass,” wrote a contemporary chronicler, “and clubbed carbine brained the native whose spear it dashed aside.” The defenders fought valiantly, but they were no match for the Americans, who had much more modern weapons, and less than an hour later Old Glory was fluttering overhead. Virtually all of the 300 defenders had been killed or wounded, or had committed suicide, while only three Americans were killed and 10 wounded. Nine sailors and six marines won Medals of Honor for their heroism.

Having “avenged” this “insult to the flag,” the Americans reboarded their ships and spent three monotonous weeks waiting for the Koreans to answer their requests for trade negotiations. After it became clear that Seoul had no interest in reaching a deal, Rear Admiral Rodgers had no choice but to sail away on July 3, 1871, no treaty in hand.

The Taewongun claimed that the “barbarians” had been repulsed, but the ease with which the Americans had destroyed Korea’s most formidable fortifications gave added impetus to pro-Western modernizers, who toppled him two years later. Japan became the first foreign nation to sign a treaty with Seoul, in 1876; the second was the U.S., in 1882, thanks to the skillful diplomacy of Commodore Robert W. Shufeldt. Commander Winfield Scott Schley, Rodgers’s adjutant, thought in retrospect that the treaty was made possible by the Koreans’ memories of their defeat at the hands of warlike Americans a decade earlier. Perhaps. But the 1871 expedition had at most an indirect influence. And by fostering ill will on both sides, it may actually have delayed the establishment of U.S.-Korean relations.


The Korean expedition was the second biggest U.S. landing abroad between the Mexican War and the Spanish-American War. The biggest occurred in Panama in 1885. This was the culmination of U.S. landings almost too numerous to list throughout Latin America in the nineteenth century. U.S. sailors and marines landed in Argentina in 1833, 1852, and 1890; Peru in 1835; Nicaragua in 1852, 1853, 1854, 1896, and 1899; Uruguay in 1855, 1858, 1868; Mexico in 1870; Chile in 1891; and in Panama, part of Colombia, in 1860, 1873, 1885, 1895. Many of those countries would see even more numerous American interventions in the twentieth century.

These landings were so frequent in part because U.S. embassies and legations did not have permanent marine guards until the twentieth century; whenever trouble occurred in the nineteenth century, marines had to be put ashore. A familiar pattern developed: A revolution takes place; violence breaks out; American merchants and diplomats feel threatened; U.S. warships appear offshore; landing parties patrol the city for several days; then they sail away. The 1885 landing in Panama differed from the normal pattern only in the size of the landing force, in part a product of the fact that even before the construction of a canal, the U.S. had more pressing interests in the isthmus than in the rest of Latin America.

In 1846 Colombia had signed a treaty giving the U.S. transit rights across Panama. Nine years later, the world’s first intercontinental railroad opened, running the 48 miles from Colón on the Caribbean to Panama City on the Pacific. This became a vital transit route between the eastern United States and California, acquired from Mexico in 1848. The Panama Railroad Company and the Pacific Mail Steamship Company, which used the railroad to transport mail under a federal subsidy, were both owned by wealthy New Yorkers who got considerably more wealthy as a result of these lucrative ventures. Unfortunately for them, the government in Bogotá always had a tenuous grip on its Panama province. The resulting revolutions led to frequent marine landings.

In 1885 an insurrection elsewhere in Colombia depleted the Colombian army garrison in Panama, leading two different sets of rebels to try their luck. Former Panamanian president Rafael Aizpuru seized Panama City, killing at least 25 people and disrupting the Panama Railroad. Aizpuru threatened “to kill every American on the isthmus.” Meanwhile, a Haitian mulatto named Pedro Prestan, fired by a hatred of all white men, led a small band of followers to terrorize Colón, a small, pestilent town with no proper sewers or bathrooms, garbage piled in the streets, and an abundance of oversized rats.

On March 29, 1885, a Pacific Mail steamer, the Colon, arrived from New York full of arms. Prestan seized six Americans—the Pacific Mail superintendent, the general agent of the steamship line, the American consul, the superintendent of the Panama Railroad, and two officers from the USS Galena, a gunboat anchored in the harbor—and threatened to kill them if the arms from the Colon were not turned over to him. The American consul gave in and told the Pacific Mail company to release the weapons. Upon hearing this, Prestan released his hostages. But Theodore F. Kane, skipper of the Galena, blocked the weapons transfer, leading Prestan to seize two of the Pacific Mail employees once again. The following day, March 31, Kane landed 126 men in Colón to protect American property but, strictly following his orders, he refused to arrest Prestan. Before long Colombian troops also arrived and engaged Prestan’s followers in a pitched battle outside of town, during which the two American hostages managed to escape. Prestan retreated into Colón and set it afire, reducing the town to cinders.

The Cleveland administration had just taken office, and the new navy secretary, a corporate lawyer named William C. Whitney, decided enough was enough. Under the terms of the 1848 treaty with Colombia, he ordered the navy and marines to scrape together an expeditionary force consisting of eight ships and more than 2,000 officers and men. This was pretty much the outer limit of what the U.S. could muster in those days. But it was enough. By the end of April 11, 1885, the expeditionary force had control of the entire length of the Panama Railroad, with marine guards in white pith helmets posted along the route.

The marines next captured Panama City without a shot being fired and arrested Rafael Aizpuru. He offered to declare Panama a sovereign state with U.S. backing, but the expedition’s commander, Rear Admiral James E. Jouett, declined. Nobody had given him orders to carve out a new country. The rebel leader was turned over to Colombian troops, and by May 25, 1885, less than two months after landing, the entire U.S. force had withdrawn. Rafael Aizpuru received only 10 years in exile; Pedro Prestan was hanged by the Colombian government.

While the U.S. had not exactly been isolationist or even neutral—“It cannot be denied that our presence on the Isthmus was of great value to the Government forces,” remarked Admiral Jouett—the Cleveland administration had been determined to avoid a long-term entanglement in Panama. That resolution, harking back to the admonitions of Washington and Jefferson, was now on its last legs.


Teddy Roosevelt’s “Big Stick” included a worldwide tour of the American Fleet to project American power.

The New Navy

In the 1880s, the U.S. Navy was sufficient for chastising errant Koreans or Panamanians, but by Great Power standards it was a joke, ranking twelfth in the world in number of ships, behind Turkey and Sweden, among others. One midshipman complained in 1883 that his ship, the Richmond, was “a poor excuse for a tub, unarmored, with pop-guns for a battery and a crew composed of the refuse of all nations, three-quarters of whom cannot speak intelligible English.” During a crisis in 1891 caused by an altercation between some drunk and unruly American sailors and a Valparaiso mob, the Benjamin Harrison administration was brought to the sobering realization that Chile’s navy might be more powerful than America’s.

This was an intolerable state of affairs, and the U.S. did not long tolerate it. The creation of the New Navy began in 1883, during the Chester Arthur administration, when Congress approved the construction of three steel cruisers—the Atlanta, Boston, and Chicago—that had partial armor plating and breech-loading, rifled cannons (as opposed to the smoothbore muzzle-loaders of old), though they also retained sails to supplement their steam plants. Three years later, during the first Cleveland administration, the Maine and Texas, America’s first battleships powered exclusively by steam propulsion, were authorized by lawmakers.

In 1890, Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan, a 50-year-old professor at the Naval War College whose long career had hitherto been distinguished only by his hatred of sea duty and his affinity for alcohol and high-church Episcopalianism, published a work that would define an age: The Influence of Sea Power upon History. It both grew out of, and contributed to, the revolution in naval thinking. Previously the navy had been designed to protect U.S. shipping and the U.S. coastline and, in wartime, to raid enemy shipping. Now Mahan urged the U.S. to match the Europeans in building an armada capable of gaining control of the seas. There was some opposition, including from the complaisant military establishment, but the critics were pounded into submission by the rhetorical broadsides fired by Mahan and his influential friends, a circle that included Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, philosopher Brooks Adams, Rear Admiral Stephen B. Luce, and, not least, a rising young politician named Theodore Roosevelt, who displayed his genius for invective by denouncing “flapdoodle pacifists and mollycoddlers” who resisted the call of national greatness.

The navalists’ triumph has been much written about but remains insufficiently appreciated. It was by no means foreordained. In the late nineteenth century the U.S. faced no outside imperative, certainly no major foreign threat, necessitating the construction of a powerful navy. Some historians argue that economic uncertainties—a recession occurred in 1873, a depression in 1893—gave added impetus to military expansion, as part of a search for overseas markets. But hard times could just as easily have led to a contraction of the armed forces and foreign commitments, as they would in the 1930s and 1970s. Instead, in the 1880s and 1890s, Mahan and his cohorts convinced their countrymen that they should propel themselves into the front rank of world powers. The result was the first major peacetime arms buildup in the nation’s history, a buildup that gave America a navy capable of sinking the Spanish fleet in 1898.

If the U.S. was to have a two-ocean, blue-water, steam-powered navy, it would need plenty of coaling depots to supply it. The old sailing navy had enjoyed a degree of freedom from fixed bases that would not be rivaled until the advent of nuclear propulsion. Square-riggers could go wherever the winds carried them, repairing and replenishing themselves in virtually any harbor—even on an undeveloped island like Nukahiva, site of David Porter’s 1813 landing. Steamers, by contrast, needed assured access to coal and modern repair facilities. The search for coaling depots had already been a powerful impetus for colonialism by the European powers, as it was believed that no navy could ensure access to this vital fuel supply unless it controlled its own stockpiles scattered around the world. The need for secure coaling stations would likewise spur American annexations overseas.

The U.S. acquisitive impulse had been building for some time and, contrary to the popular impression today, did not arrive full grown, as if by immaculate conception, in 1898. William H. Seward, the great apostle of empire who served as secretary of state in the Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson administrations, succeeded in buying Alaska and acquiring Midway Island in 1867 after it was claimed by Captain William Reynolds of the screw sloop Lackawanna. He also tried, unsuccessfully, to acquire British Columbia, Greenland, the Danish West Indies (Virgin Islands), and naval bases at Samaná Bay in Santo Domingo (the Dominican Republic) and at Môle Saint-Nicolas in Haiti. Presidents Ulysses S. Grant, in 1869, and Benjamin Harrison, in 1891, attempted to revive plans to buy Samaná Bay and Môle Saint-Nicolas, respectively, but nothing came of it.

The U.S. was more successful in expanding its control over Hawaii. With the signing of a free-trade treaty in 1875, the islands became so closely integrated economically with the U.S. that they were, in the words of one senator who voted for the pact, “an American colony.” In 1887 Hawaii granted the U.S. Navy exclusive use of Pearl Harbor, giving America a strategically vital Pacific base. In 1893, American residents overthrew the native queen and asked to join the United States. The local U.S. consul landed 164 bluejackets and marines from the U.S. cruiser Boston, proclaiming the islands a U.S. protectorate and urging Washington to annex them. The outgoing president, Benjamin Harrison, signed the annexation treaty. But newly inaugurated Grover Cleveland looked this gift horse in the mouth; he withdrew the treaty from Senate consideration. The U.S. would not acquire Hawaii for another five years, by which time America had become a full-fledged imperialist power.


America’s deepening involvement in Hawaii reflected its growing orientation toward the Pacific Ocean. As early as 1875 Congressman Fernando Wood had declared, rather prematurely, “The Pacific Ocean is an American Ocean.” Well, not quite. But the U.S. was certainly trying to secure its interests all over the Pacific, and nowhere more so than in Samoa, a chain of 14 volcanic islands conveniently located midway between Hawaii and Australia. These islands, populated by 28,000 people in 1881, became the center of increasingly nasty competition between Britain, Germany, and the U.S. in the last decades of the nineteenth century.

The first U.S. warship had reached Samoa in 1835, but America did not become deeply enmeshed in its affairs until 1872, when Commander Richard W. Meade of the USS Narragansett concluded a treaty with local chieftains that, in return for extending a U.S. protectorate over Samoa, granted Washington the right to construct a naval station at the first-rate harbor of Pago Pago on Tutuila Island. The Senate declined the protectorate, but in 1878 agreed to take the harbor in return for mediating Samoan disputes with outside powers. The following year, Germany and Britain demanded and won similar privileges at other Samoan harbors. Not content with this concession, Chancellor Otto von Bismarck tried to extend German control over the entire islands in 1887 by installing a favored candidate on the Samoan throne. When a revolution broke out, German forces landed, only to be repulsed by the Samoans.

The Cleveland administration was so upset by this act of German aggression, which threatened America’s Pacific flank, that it sent Rear Admiral Lewis Kimberly to Samoa with three warships from the Pacific Squadron. He arrived at the same time as three German warships and one British. All sides were eyeing one another warily when, on March 15, 1889, a mighty hurricane ravaged Samoa, wrecking almost all the foreign warships in the harbor, including the bulk of America’s Pacific Squadron. The war fever was literally blown away, at least temporarily.

Instead of fighting, the three powers negotiated and in 1889 agreed to divide control of Samoa among them, just the sort of “entangling alliance” the U.S. once would have rejected. Nine years later the old king of Samoa died and a civil war broke out pitting the followers of Mataafa, the German candidate, against Malietoa Tanu, the Anglo-American choice. Mataafa gained control of the government—but not for long. Viewing Mataafa’s usurpation as a violation of the 1889 Treaty of Berlin, U.S. Rear Admiral Albert Kautz, aboard the cruiser Philadelphia, coordinated a counterattack with the Royal Navy. In the interest of unity of command, some American sailors were placed under the command of British officers and some British bluejackets were placed under the command of American officers.

On March 13, 1899, an American landing force was put ashore to begin the occupation of Apia. On March 15 and 16, the USS Philadelphia along with HMS Royalist and HMS Porpoise bombarded the area around the towns of Apia and Vailoa, targeting Mataafa’s followers but also hitting, allegedly by accident, the German consulate and a German gunboat. On March 23, wearing an ill-fitting British naval officer’s dress uniform and borrowed canvas shoes, Malietoa Tanu was crowned king of Samoa under the protective guns of the Anglo-American force. But far from surrendering, the followers of Mataafa, the German-backed pretender, fired into Apia from the bush and constantly skirmished with U.S. and British troops. The Anglo-American forces found it relatively easy to operate along the shoreline, where they could be covered by naval guns, but on April 1, 1899, they made the mistake of leaving the safety of shore to pursue Mataafa’s followers inland.

Sixty Americans joined 62 Britons and at least 100 of Tanu’s men on this expedition, commanded by Lieutenant A. H. Freeman of the Royal Navy. They were ambushed by Mataafa’s men firing guns from well-prepared positions in the tall grass. The Anglo-American soldiers put great store by their machine gun; in the past, the Samoans had fled in terror before its bark. This time, however, the Colt gun jammed, Westerners began dropping, and it looked likely that the column would be annihilated. U.S. Marine Lieutenant Constantine M. Perkins organized a desperate rearguard action around a wire fence, holding off the Mataafans long enough for the column to retreat to the beach, where it was saved by covering fire from HMS Royalist. It was only then that they discovered that two American officers and one British officer were missing. The following day the three men were found buried, their heads and ears cut off. In all, four Americans were killed and five wounded in this expedition. Three marines received the Medal of Honor for their bravery on April 1.

The British and Americans continued their sorties and bombardments against the Mataafans until April 25, 1899, when word arrived that Mataafa had agreed on cease-fire lines. An international commission subsequently ended tripartite rule in Samoa, dividing the islands between Germany and America, with Britain receiving compensation elsewhere. The U.S. won title to the island of Tutuila, where the navy set about building a coaling station. In World War I, an expedition from New Zealand expelled the Germans from western Samoa; the islands became independent in 1962. American Samoa never achieved much strategic importance, but it remains part of the United States to this day.

The larger significance of the Samoan adventure is twofold. First the U.S. was abandoning the old strategy of “butcher and bolt”; now U.S. forces were staying in foreign countries and trying to manipulate their politics, if not annex them outright. Normally this practice is known as imperialism, even though Americans, belonging to a country born of a revolt against an empire, are sensitive about applying this term to their own conduct. There is no doubt that at least one American would have been delighted to see this development, if only he had lived so long. The dreams of Commodore David Porter—America’s first, frustrated imperialist—were starting to be realized.

A second and perhaps related point is that American troops in distant lands were now encountering much more substantial opposition than they had in years past, due to the diffusion around the world of Western ideals, such as liberalism and nationalism, and Western technology, such as rifles and cannons. In 1841, Lieutenant Charles Wilkes’s men had burned three villages and killed countless Samoans without suffering any casualties. Fifty-eight years later, Admiral Kautz’s party was almost annihilated by Samoans firing rifles with great accuracy. After a cease-fire had been declared and a weapon buy-back program instituted, the Samoans turned over 3,631 guns. This was the start of a trend: During the Boxer rebellion, German marines would be killed with Mauser bullets and Krupp artillery. America had the misfortune of joining the imperial game just as it was becoming more dangerous.

Medieval Venice I

The Lion City

As Venice grew richer, it became more powerful. A city needs a ruling authority, and the acquisition of authority invites arrogance and belligerence. It encourages the will for further power. Venice, surrounded by the sea, could not grow out of its own frontier. But it could be enlarged and enriched by its extension in other lands and in other cities. It could become an empire.

In earliest times la Serenissima, the city of the Virgin, had been given a masculine identity by its citizens. It was the Lion City. The very conditions of its existence made warfare an inevitable part of its history. There was warfare against the natural world and then warfare against its competitors. It was obliged to fight for its survival. Venice had archers and oarsmen and maritime warriors. Sea powers are natural competitors. While land powers may agree to the division of land into frontiers, the ocean has no frontier. Wherever there is sea, there are hostile ships. Throughout its long history, Venice could never rest.

The drawing books of Jacopo Bellini, composed in the mid-fifteenth century, contain many studies of cavaliers and crossbowmen preparing themselves for combat. Half of Bellini’s lifetime was spent in the battles of Venice against other powers. “This nation of sailors,” Petrarch wrote, “was so skilful in the handling of horses and weapons, so spirited and so hardy, that it surpassed all other warlike nations whether by sea or by land.” So it can indeed be construed as a masculine city. The history of Venice was conceived, and composed, as the history of patriarchal families. The government of Venice was patriarchal in all of its elements. The society of Venice was considered to be patrilinear in nature. The image of the city was wholly dependent upon the exercise of paternal authority.

The patrician youth were trained to use the bow, and to command galleys at sea. They were educated in all the knightly virtues, in a period when the chivalric code of warfare was honoured throughout Europe. The first jousts, in Saint Mark’s Square, are recorded as early as 1242. From that time forward they were staged at regular intervals. In Bellini’s drawing books, chivalric opponents dash upon each other in spectacular tournaments. On these occasions the city was given up to the celebration of militarism and the military virtues. It provided the theatre of war. Painters were employed to embellish shields and armour as well as icons and portraits. Artists, among them Bellini himself, were used to design fortifications and draw military maps. In the sacred paintings of Venice the saints are often seen wielding swords. Saint George, one of the patrons of the city, was the archetypal military saint. This is very different from the picture of Venetians as quick-witted traders or as earnest statesmen. But knightly valour was once an aspect of their culture. How else could the Venetians have created an empire?

So they knew how to use force when it was required. They were quick to strike, when the opportunity presented itself. One conquest led to another conquest. In fact, one conquest demanded another conquest. In a state that never felt itself secure, the condition of the world was always perilous. Unsuccessful generals and admirals were imprisoned, exiled, or killed. When they employed the newly invented cannon against a recalcitrant Italian town, an old chronicle reported that “one would think that God were thundering.” One cannon was named “the Venetian Woman who Casts down Every Wall and Spike.”

The first colonies of Venice were in the lagoon itself; originally the smaller islands had self-ruling or self-sustaining communities. Once each island had its monastery, and its church. But, soon enough, they all became part of Venice itself. The leaders of the city might then take comfort from the opening words of the ninety-seventh psalm: “The LORD reigneth; let the earth rejoice; let the multitude of isles be glad thereof.” The multitude of islands were swallowed up by the great city growing in their midst. Or their communities simply withered away.

Torcello, seven miles (11 km) to the north of the most serene city, was once a thriving place. Before the city of Venice ever rose from the waters, it was a great civic centre for the exiles from Venetia. They had first come in the middle of the fifth century. A cathedral of Byzantine form was raised here in the seventh century. It was built as a refuge and a strength by exiles fleeing from the mainland; the windows of the church have shutters of stone. Wealthy monasteries were founded on its fertile soil. In the tenth century it was described by the Emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus as “magnum emporium Torcellanorum.” Yet the success of Venice led ineluctably to the decay of Torcello. There was no room for two thriving centres of trade in the lagoon. There are some, however, who say that it was poisoned by the malarial waters of the lagoon. The sea was silted up, and the island was surrounded by stagnant ponds. There may be truth to this, but the visitation of disease added only the final blow to a long process of disintegration. Ineluctably Torcello sank in the significance of the world. In the nineteenth century a nobleman of spurious or dubious origin was dubbed as “a count of Torcello.” Now the once thriving island supports a handful of people; all around are wastes of mud-filled creeks and rivulets and what Ruskin described as “salt morass.” The brick campanile, and the mosaics within the cathedral itself, are the only remnants of its faded splendour. The civic square is covered by wild grass. Yet the silence of this island, interrupted sometimes by the soughing of the wind through the reeds or the rustle of rippling waters, is a vivid token of the primeval lagoon to which the first Veneti came. Another symbol can be found here of the Venetian world. There is a restaurant on the island, frequented by the tourists who journey to Torcello as an outdoor museum. It is really no more than that. And might it then somehow anticipate the fate of Venice itself?

On the majority of the islands could once be found a tall campanile and brick-built church; there was a small piazza, with the image of the lion on wall or pillar; there were little clusters of whitewashed houses, their gardens protected from the depredations of the salt wind by neat red fences. Then they were touched by decay more insidious than the wind. The island of Ammiana once boasted eight churches; then it was depopulated and turned into a salt farm. And where did the inhabitants go? They migrated to Venice. All of these dead towns and cities and settlements could once have been proposed as alternatives to Venice; they might have flourished and grown strong, as Venice did. If we were to follow the precepts of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, we might create the possible cities of the lagoon; the distinct customs and dialects of each island might then have created several different cities, resembling and yet not resembling Venice itself. But, then, this would be a fantasy.

Other islands, once under Venetian control, have disappeared. The island of Constanziaca was engulfed by the waters. It had once contained monasteries and churches. It became so woeful, however, that it was turned into a burial site where the bones of the dead were left to bleach in the sun. Then with all its churches and bones it simply subsided into the sea. No one knows its precise position. Other islands suffered a similar fate, among them Terra dei Mani and Terra dei Soleri. Five little islands encircling Murano have been washed away by tides and currents. There is seaweed now where once tall cypresses grew. Some islands were overcome by earthquakes or tidal waves; others were claimed by a slow and general desuetude. They could not compete against the most serene city.

The Venetian authorities turned some of these once flourishing islands into prisons or hospitals. It was one way of pushing the undesirable elements of the population to the margins. It was also an exercise in total power. The island of S. Servolo was turned into a lunatic hospital for men, while the island of S. Clemente was a mental asylum for Venetian women. Sacca Sessola was a place of exile for those suffering from consumption, while the Isola della Grazia held those who burned with fever. On the island of Poveglia were laid out huts for the lepers banished from the city. All these islands were known to the Venetians as “isole del dolore” or the islands of sorrow.

The island of S. Biagio, now called Giudecca, was once a green haven of orchards and gardens; here were a convent, a home for penitent prostitutes and a pilgrims’ hostel. But the secular world of Venice intervened. It became essentially a suburb of the city. Other islands were used as agricultural factories for the markets of the Rialto. In the second half of the fifteenth century the island now known as the Lido became an extension of Venice’s port. It became part of the economic zone that now encircled and sustained the city.

The beginning of the Venetian empire beyond the lagoon can be found in the ninth century. Venice was not as yet a leading sea-power. That position was reserved for the Spanish and for the North Africans. But it needed to control its immediate environment. It had to find, and maintain, a reliable food supply for an increasing population. It needed to secure access to water and to agricultural land. It needed to control the lifelines of its trade. So Venice turned to the mainland. The people of the sea were obliged to conquer terra firma.

Towards the close of the ninth century Venice sacked the rival cities on the Italian coast and took control of the mouths of the Adige and Po rivers. The rivers gave them access to the markets of northern Italy; within a short time the bargemen of the city were offering their wares in Pavia, the capital of Lombardy. The merchants of Venice were prominent, too, in the markets of Verona and Cremona. In the tenth century Venetian markets and warehouses were built on the banks of the rivers Sile and Piave. The Venetians occupied a castle beside the Livenza river, so that their goods could reach the German traders coming down into Italy. By 977 the Venetian traders had a colony in Limoges, and by the next century they had diffused themselves into Marseilles and Toulouse. The corn-growing areas of Treviso and Bassano were acquired. In this period, too, the Venetians began the slow process of purchasing mainland property and territory. Some of the great families of Venice, like the Badoer and Tiepolo, acquired land around Treviso. The larger monasteries purchased estates along the coastal plain. This gradual enlargement of Venetian property continued for seven centuries. The key issue, as always, was that of commerce and in particular of the supply of grain.

Once the trade with northern Italy and much of Europe was considered secure, the governors of Venice turned their attention towards the sea. The merchants already effectively controlled the trade in eastern goods, but the success of that trade demanded that the routes to the East should be strengthened and defended. The sea was to be made safe for the mass transport of goods. The principal cities of Istria, immediately across the sea from Venice, submitted. The northern part of the Adriatic became known as the Gulf of Venice. Then the Venetian navy worked downwards. By the end of the tenth century it effectively controlled the Middle Adriatic, and set about the conquest of Dalmatia (now part of modern Croatia). The islands and cities of the region surrendered to the superior force and numbers of the Venetians. Some cities, more alarmed by the depredations of the pirates who found safe haven in the small islands and inlets along the Dalmatian coast, invited the doge and his troops to enter their gates. Other cities were tormented by the demands of the petty despots, characteristically living in fortress outposts, and preferred the more benign sovereignty of Venice. Other places were simply happy to enter stable trading relations with the great sea-city. All of them were treated as allies, rather than as subjects, of Venice. Yet in truth the empire was being born. The pirates were defeated. The marauding Slavs were pushed back from the coast. In 998, the doge added the honorific of “dux of Dalmatia” to his title.

The seaway was open for increased traffic with Egypt and, more particularly, with Byzantium. Venice had already become that ancient city’s single most important trading partner, sending slaves and timber in exchange for wine, oil and wheat. In 991 Greek and Arab envoys travelled from the East to pay respect to the new doge, and a year later a treaty confirmed that Venice had been granted “most favoured” status by the Byzantine emperor. It confirmed what was already known. Venice had become the dominant trader of Europe, its commercial supremacy sustained by a vigorous and expanding navy. In return Venice offered its ships as transport for Byzantine soldiers crossing the Adriatic. The city was also, for all practical purposes, inviolable. At the time of the Magyar invasions of Lombardy, at the end of the ninth century, a stone wall was built to defend the islands of the Rialto. A great chain was placed across the water to prevent enemy ships from entering the Grand Canal. But the precautions were unnecessary. The Magyars could not reach the sea-girt city. They were beaten off in the shallow waters of the lagoon, where their ships foundered and sank. The great wall itself was demolished in the fourteenth century. It was not required.

By the eleventh century, therefore, Venice had become an autonomous and influential state. In the latter part of that century it fought with the troops of Byzantium against the Norman invaders of Sicily. The reason for the Norman adventure, as well as all the other policies and actions of Venice in this period, was very simple. No other state or city could be allowed to block the mouth of the Adriatic, thus imprisoning Venice within its own waters. This was the great fear and the abiding preoccupation.

It has become customary to describe the eleventh century as the period in which Latin Christendom emerged triumphant. This is nowhere more powerfully evinced than in the history of the Crusades. They have been construed as a direct attack upon the Muslim world, or as a form of spiritual imperialism, but the participation of Venice in the First Crusade had no such motives. The Venetians were waging economic warfare by other means. They were not concerned with the cross, or with the sword, but with the purse. The point was that rival trading cities, Genoa and Pisa in particular, were already taking part. Venice could not permit its competitors to gain an advantage in the lucrative markets of Syria and Egypt. To have a permanent presence in Antioch, or in Jerusalem, would be a source of innumerable commercial benefits. So, in the summer of 1100, a fleet of two hundred Venetian ships arrived at Joppa (Jaffa); the Venetian commanders agreed to help the crusaders on condition that the merchants of their city were given the rights of free trade in all dominions recovered from the Saracens. The terms of this practical bargain were accepted. The Venetians were then despatched to besiege the town of Caifa (Haifa) and, having achieved the surrender of that place, they returned to the lagoon before the end of the year. They were not content, however, with this single and relatively simple victory. They wished to acquire more profit from their participation in the holy cause. They established trading stations within the Syrian ports, and began a lucrative business in transporting pilgrims to the newly captured Jerusalem.

On their way to Joppa, too, they had engaged in a peculiarly Venetian piece of business. The fleet had cast anchor at the ancient Lycian town of Myra (Bari), in search of the bones of Saint Nicholas who had been bishop of that place; the saint is now better known as the progenitor of Santa Claus but, in the eleventh century, he was revered as the patron saint of sailors. The Venetians, naturally enough, wanted him. It is alleged that they arrived in the town and put to the torture four Christians, the keepers of the shrine. They learned nothing of any consequence from these unholy proceedings, however, and made do with the theft of the bones of Saint Theodore. Theodore had been the patron saint of Venice before the arrival of Mark; he was a good second-best. Yet before their departure, according to the Venetian chronicles of Andrea Morosini, a wonderful fragrance issued from a recess beneath an altar in the church itself. The scent was that of Saint Nicholas. So he was removed, too, and brought back in triumph to Venice where his bones were lodged in the monastery of Saint Nicholas on the Lido. That is the story, at least. In fact the remains of Saint Nicholas, if such they are, have remained in Bari to this day. Whether the tale reveals more of Venetian mendacity, or of Venetian greed, is an open question.

The crusading venture had been a success for Venice, and in 1108 the Venetian fleet once more sailed under the flag of the cross. It may be noted that the governors of the city were particularly interested in the seaports of the Mediterranean, and that Venetian merchants were established in Acre, Jerusalem and elsewhere. Yet the attentions of the doge and senate were not confined to the principalities and powers of the Middle East. They thought it prudent to maintain and consolidate their presence on the mainland. They took Ferrara and Fano under their control, and moved against Padua. In the process they reasserted their rights over the principal rivers of the territory. On the other side of the Adriatic, they struggled with the Hungarians over the coastal regions of Dalmatia. They now had many enemies. The cities of the mainland were jealous of Venetian wealth, and fearful of Venetian power. The Norman kingdom of Sicily had long regarded Venice as a foe. The German empire of Hohenstaufen still laid claim to northern Italy.

There emerged one other formidable enemy. In 1119 the new emperor of Constantinople decreed that the trading privileges of Venice were at an end. He ordered all Venetian residents within the boundary of his empire to remove themselves and their business. He also proposed a treaty with the king of Hungary, thereby recognising Hungarian claims to the Venetian settlements in Dalmatia. The reaction of Venice was slow but assured. The Venetian fleet raided and sacked a number of Byzantine territories; Rhodes, Chios, Samos, Lesbos and Modon were some of the objects of their vengeance. They had set out to prove that they were now the single most important sea power in an area previously deemed to be the preserve of Constantinople. The emperor signed a new trade agreement with Venice in 1126.

The Venetian empire could justify its existence with the claim that trade, and not conquest, was its purpose. It naturalised its subjects with a spirit of enlightened commercialism. The motive was one of constructive self-aggrandisement. There was no true cult of empire, as there was in nineteenth-century London or in third-century Rome. There was no interest in massiveness or monumentality for their own sake. The only concession to the appetite for glory lay in the construction of gateways at key points in the city—the Torre dell’Orologio, the Porta della Carta, and the Arco Foscari among them. The gateway to the Arsenal is in every guide to the city. These were the Venetian equivalent of the triumphal arch, all the more striking in a city without a defensive wall.

Yet the Venetians who lived and traded in Constantinople, and in the other markets of the kingdom, became increasingly unpopular. They were judged to be arrogant and greedy. Away from Venice, the Venetians became insecure and fractious. They attacked their Genoese and Pisan rivals in trade, and refused to obey Byzantine edicts. They even stole the relics of saints from the churches of Constantinople. They were generally considered by their hosts to be vulgar, mere merchants looking for bargains. In turn the Venetians despised the Greeks, as effete and indolent. Then in 1171, on the command of the emperor, all the Venetians in Constantinople and elsewhere were arrested and imprisoned. A Venetian fleet, despatched to threaten the lands of the emperor, was reduced to impotence by the onset of plague. The commander of the unsuccessful expedition, on his return to Venice, was assassinated in the streets. It was the condign justice meted out to all perceived failures. The Byzantine emperor then sent a message to the doge in which he asserted that the Venetian nation had acted with great foolishness. He noted that they were “once vagabonds sunk in the utmost poverty” who had somehow claimed the right to imperial ambitions. But their abject failure and “insolence” had rendered them “a laughing stock.”

The leaders of Venice reacted cautiously. They formed alliances with some of the emperor’s enemies, and began an insidious campaign against Byzantine territories. There were secret talks and clandestine meetings. An accord was eventually reached and in 1183, twelve years after their arrest, the Venetian merchants were finally permitted to leave the prisons; a formal peace treaty between Venice and Byzantium was signed. It had represented a great crisis, and a vivid token of the real enmity between Constantinople and Venice; one city was dying, and the other was impatiently waiting to emerge supreme. Over the next few years there were pacts and agreements and messages of mutual confidence between the two cities. But in truth there could be no end to the struggle other than a fatal one.