How Al Fadl Al-Barmaki Learned Bluntness And Generosity

Al Fadl Ibn Yahya al-Barmaki (A.D. 766—808) was a government official who served the most famous of all the Abbasid caliphs, the great but mercurial Harun al-Rashid.  Besides serving in several administrative posts (such as governor of Khurasan), he was also trusted enough to tutor Harun’s young son and heir al-Amin.  Although he later fell out of favor with the caliph, many stories are told of his generosity and kindness.

Continue reading

It Only Takes A Few Men To Change History

With the proper motivation and preparation, small numbers of men can do great things.  Numeric limitation is but one part of the equation.  This fact will be illustrated by a story that appears in Cornelius Nepos’s brief biography of a Theban commander named Pelopidas.

[To read the rest of the article, click here.]


My new book, Sallust:  The Conspiracy Of Catiline And The War Of Jugurtha, is now available.  Find out more by clicking here.

The Curious Customs Of The Franks: How One Arab Knight Saw The Crusaders

We have recently discussed a story from the life of the learned Ali Ibn Munqidh.  His grandson Usama Ibn Munqidh (1095–1188) was a very famous poet, warrior and literary figure in medieval Islam and his memoirs are an almost unique portal of insight on how one culture saw the other.  The scholar Philip Hitti describes Usama this way:

Continue reading

Language Mastery As A Secret Code: How Sadid Al-Mulk Was Saved From Danger

Mastery of language is indeed a powerful tool.  This is especially true when the speakers hail from the same cultural background, and can make use of all those subtleties that would be lost on the non-native. This point is brilliantly illustrated by an anecdote told about Ali Ibn Munqidh, who became emir of the district of Shaizar in northern Syria in 1081.  His surname was Sadid al-Mulk, and this is how I will refer to him in this article.  We will see that words effectively deployed can literally save lives.  This story is adapted from Ibn Khallikan’s short biographical sketch of Sadid al-Mulk.

Continue reading

Resources Can Come In Unexpected Ways: The Bounty Of Imad al-Dawla

Imad ad-Dawla Ibn Buwaih (A.D. 891-949) was the founder of the Buyid Dynasty in medieval Persia.  His name in Persian is given as Ali Ibn Buya, but he is more commonly known as Imad al-Dawla (“pillar of the state”).  Ibn Khallikan’s short sketch of his life contains the story related here; this story in turn is taken from the historian al-Mamuni.  It reminds us of the fact that, sometimes in life, a bit of good fortune can provide us with all we need.  The world, somehow, has its own way of providing for us; and if we persist long enough, some problems eventually solve themselves.

Continue reading

François-René de Chateaubriand: The Apostle Of Romanticism

The nineteenth century literary, artistic, and intellectual movement we today call “romanticism” is not easily defined, but is generally acknowledged to embrace the following sentiments:  an idealized view of the past, the emphasis of feeling and sentiment over rationality, a preference for exotic locales and peoples, and the primary of emotion.  One of the founders—perhaps the founder—of romanticism in French literature was François-René de Chateaubriand, whose memoirs I have just finished.  He titled his book Memories From Beyond The Tomb, since they were specifically intended to be published after his death.

Continue reading

Wise Sayings Of The Poet Al-Tihami

The Arabic poet Abu al-Hasan Ali Ibn Muhammad al-Tihami (? – 1025) is said to have taken the name Tihami in one of two possible ways that may hint at his family’s origins, according to our trusted chronicler Ibn Khallikan.  Tihami was used both as an informal name for the city of Mecca, and as a name for the mountains between the Hijaz and Yemen.  But it is not clear which of these geographic references apply to our poet.

Continue reading