The humanist Poggio Bracciolini wrote a long letter to his friend Niccolo Niccoli in November of 1430. The letter contained the following words:Continue reading
It is a feature of human nature to try to control our environment. We wish to exert some kind of influence over the outcome of events, and thereby enhance our own feelings of security and comfort. Yet there are many times when human labor will fall short; it will prove itself to be incapable of dealing with a situation, or unable to weigh the nuances of an evenly balanced pattern of fact. When these situations come about, we must step back from the work-shop; we must move away from the work-table, the field of conflict, or the courtroom, and Fortune take over the guidance of events.
The historian Ammianus, in describing the brief career of the usurper Procopius (326–366 A.D.), comments on the moral corruption inevitably caused by the abuse of power and privilege. It will have a familiar ring to those accustomed to the practices of contemporary politics:
If you want to understand someone, you must have the desire to hear that person. You must have the willingness to open up your mind, to open up your heart, and be prepared to receive the communication that he or she is sending out. If this open-mindedness is not there, you will not hear the other person, even if he happens to speak your language. You will close your mind, and no words uttered by the other party will make any difference.
Some are tempted to confuse the symbols of power with the reality of power. They are not the same thing. Power is the one thing that cannot be faked. For a time, perhaps, the bluffer can maintain an illusion of authority; he can go through his empty pantomime, imagining he is fooling everyone; but sooner or later, the truth will shine through. And then he will discover that the only one who has been deceived is himself. Symbolism, bombast, and slight-of-hand are no substitutes for the real thing. Some anecdotes from the historian Ammianus Marcellinus, so often mentioned in these pages, help us to reinforce this point.
When we are dealing with an opponent of substantial power, we should try to cut him off from his source of strength. If he can be made incapable of drawing on his strengths, he will be weakened; and so weakened, isolated; and if isolated, destroyed. Everything has a source of strength, whether we are talking about a person, an animal, a machine, a group, a nation. So the first step will be to identify this power source.
The belief in portents and auguries was common before the modern era. We moderns, comfortably ensconced in our towers of science and “rationalism,” are likely to view with extreme skepticism the notion that future events can be foretold. Such a view would appear to some as a superstitious relic from a less enlightened era. Or so we would like to imagine.
The Persian king Shapur II (A.D. 309–379) decided early in his reign to recover by force several of the Roman Empire’s eastern provinces, especially the rich lands of Mesopotamia and Armenia. In the year 359 he focused his attention on capturing the city of Amida; the city was located in the spot currently occupied by Diyarbakir in Turkey. Its extended siege and dramatic fall are recounted in detail by Ammianus Marcellinus, whose account (Res Gestae XVIII.9) forms the primary source for the present article. The historian was personally present during the siege and took part in its defense, and his account of the battle forms one of the most dramatic episodes of his book.