Empress Dowager Cixi: “I have read a great deal about Queen Victoria. Still, I think her life isn’t half as interesting and memorable as mine.”

January 11, 2019: This post needs some re-writes for organization and clarity.



left: photo, right: painting; both created in 1903

Empress Dowager Cixi (1835-1908) is a fascinating, complex, contradictory, and often polarizing figure. She took the throne of China for herself at a time where the country was being torn apart by foreign influence, and spent her reign fighting European imperialism in China.

Cixi’s political career began in her adolescence, when the Xianfeng Emperor selected her as a concubine. She worked her way up through the ranks of the harem, and upon her son Zaichun’s (1856-1875) first birthday, she became the second highest ranking woman in the imperial household. She took over as regent for her son upon the death of the Xianfeng Emperor, and when Zaichun died in 1875, she installed her nephew as the Guangxu Emperor. However, it was Cixi who held the true power during both of their reigns.

Cixi came into power at the conclusion of the Second Opium War, and in the midst of the Taiping Rebellion—a rebellion against the Qing Dynasty led by a Chinese Christian convert who aimed to institute Christian ideals in China over Cunfucian ideals, and to institute social reforms based in foreign ideals. Both of those wars were, at their core, about the struggle against foreign influence and interference in China. Cixi was a conservative, anti-Reformist, anti-foreign ruler, so it is quite fitting that she began her rule in the midst of those two conflicts.

The opening years of her rule can be characterized by increasing hostility and mistrust towards foreign powers. This mistrust grew to such proportions that, in 1881, Cixi halted the practice of allowing Chinese children to study abroad, fearing the liberal attitudes they often returned with. Upon his sixteenth birthday in 1887, Cixi publicly handed power over to the Guangxu Emperor. However, after the 1894 loss of the First Sino-Japanese War, and a failed series of social and political reforms in 1898, Cixi had him removed from power and re-instated herself as regent.

In 1900, in an official show of support for the Boxer Rebellion, Cixi declared war on the foreign powers operating within China. The Rebellion had begun two years previously by groups calling themselves the Boxers, who were fighting against the encroachment of foreign ideals across all spheres of Chinese society. The foreign powers responded to her declaration of war with the formation of the Eight-Nation Alliance, with the titular Eight Nations being Austria-Hungary, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, the United States, and the United Kingdom.

The Alliance defeated the Boxers, and the conflict officially came to an end in 1901. Though the Boxers had wished to continue fighting, Cixi, ever the politician, decided that it would be best to simply end the war and appease the Eight Nations. That appeasement took the form of the Boxer Protocol, which demanded the presence of an international military force in Beijing, and the payment of the equivalent of $333 million in reparation fees to the Eight Nations. Those fees effectively bankrupted China.

Beginning in 1902, Cixi did a complete political 180, and began to support the powers she once hated, and advocate for policies she had once suppressed.


She had tea with the wives of foreign officials in the Forbidden City, and instigated reforms far more radical than the ones she had rather brutally suppressed earlier in her reign. It is my opinion that she retained her anti-foreign views, but recognized that cooperation was, by that point, probably the best way to save her country from total collapse.

The Empress Dowager Cixi died in 1908 at the age of 73, and the Qing dynasty collapsed a few years after her death. Those who came after her characterized her as a ruthless leader and held her responsible for the fall of the Qing dynasty. In reality, she was no more ruthless than a male emperor would have been in her stead, and it was the imperial powers of the day who were responsible for the fall of the Qing Dynasty, not the woman who spent her life trying to save it.

The Historicity of Exodus and Joshua

January 11, 2019: This post needs some serious tightening, updates, and transitions.

As some of you may know, Passover begins soon. So, I wrote up a huge-ass post about the historical and archaeological issues surrounding the books of Exodus and Joshua because I’m that kind of dick at the seder (jk only to my mom on the way home when i’m wine drunk). But I digress.

This is an excerpt from the story of the late 23rd, early 22nd BCE ruler, Sargon the Akkad (also known as Sargon the Great):

My mother gave birth to me in secret at Asupiranu, the city of Saffron. She hid me in a basket woven from rushes and sealed with tar. My mother abandoned me on the bank of the Euphrates, the Euphrates carried my basket away. Akki, the royal gardener, lifted me out of the water; Akki reared me as his own. Akki trained me to care for the gardens of the Great King. Ishtar, my divine patron, cared for me. Then I became a Great King. I ruled the Sumerian peoples for fifty-five years.

Sargon was one of the greatest rulers of the Akkadian people, and it has been theorized that this story was written as a justification for his rule.

The similarities between Sargon’s story and the story in Exodus 2:1-2:10 are pretty glaring, so glaring, in fact, that it would be correct to assume they are not a coincidence,  but a result of literary use of common Ancient Near Eastern literary conventions.

Anyway, Moses is in the basket, Pharaoh’s daughter finds him, etc. The rest of Exodus tells the story of the enslavement of the Israelites, and of their eventual escape. Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy tell of their wanderings in the desert, Joshua details their return to the Promised Land, and Judges tells of the beginning years of their society.

Joshua is an odd book. It reads like the dramatic conclusion to the cosmology begun in Genesis,complete with a glorious return, and a successful military campaign. But that’s not the odd part. What’s odd is that it lowkey tells the same story as Judges. They both purport to document the beginning of Israelite civilization in Canaan. In Joshua, it describes them finally returning from their long wanderings in the desert and promptly destroying all the Canaanite cities and everyone in them before starting their civilization.

Judges, however, describes a loose, tribal society developing in the central hill country of Canaan. It describes that society engaging in warfare with surrounding Canaanite groups, and sometimes with each other. On multiple occasions, the Canaanite peoples at war with the Israelites are the same ones identified as having been destroyed in Joshua.

In addition, the archaeological evidence doesn’t quite add up. Though archaeologists have found Iron Age destruction levels at some of the sites identified in Joshua, most of the sites identified in that book show no signs of having been destroyed at that time (~13th century BCE). Many of those cities have much later destruction levels, or show clear signs of having been re-built soon after the destruction.

So what actually maybe might have happened? If Exodus is a story, and Joshua grandiose fiction, then where did the Ancient Israelites come from?

The answer is that they came from within Canaanite society. Nothing grand, nothing fancy; they were merely a loosely connected group of tribes that broke away from the rest of Canaanite society around 1200 BCE and began their own culture in the central Judean hill country.

The beginnings of this society are documented in the Book of Judges. If you read Judges, what you’ll see is a patchwork of stories relating to a variety of tribal rulers and their deeds. Some, like Sampson, are likely folkloric figures who were shoehorned into the Judges framework because their stories were considered important, or too popular to exclude. Some only have one line dedicated to them, indicating that they probably existed, but weren’t important enough to have anything else said about them other than that they killed someone with an oxgoad. Some, like Deborah have multiple versions of their story included in two separate literary forms.

Judges is written in such a way as make the reader believe that the stories of twelve consecutive leaders are being told, when in reality, it tells of the overlapping rules of tribal leaders and of their conflicts with surrounding Canaanite factions, and with each other.

There is no archaeological evidence that says “Yael was a bamf and staked Sisera through the head on this spot.” There is no archaeological evidence of Abimelech’s brief kingship, or of Samuel’s proto-Marxist anti-monarchic diatribe (technically Samuel was not in the book of Judges, but he was still regarded as a Judge).

What there is, however, is archaeological evidence of a new society formed in the central hill country around 1200 BCE. Without any knowledge of the Hebrew Bible or of the Israelites, archaeologists could look at sites and definitively conclude that a new culture, a new kind of society, was developing in that area at that time.

The location of those sites matches many of the locations named in Judges, and the dating of those sites matches the general time-frame which generations of Biblical scholars–both religious and secular–have set and agreed upon for Judges.

I can assume that eventually, as the years went on and as the Davidic dynasty consolidated its power, the other Canaanite groups became consolidated into Israelite culture. And then, when Israel fell and Josiah was making his reforms, the priesthood decided to connect their cosmology to their history.

Hatshepsut the Female Pharaoh

Hatshepsut was the only female ruler of Ancient Egypt to assume the title of Pharaoh. While Egypt certainly had other sole female rulers, none of them took up that title.

To enforce her title of Pharaoh, Hatshepsut wore the ceremonial beard and appeared in full (male) Pharaonic costume. She had statues cast of herself in that costume to ensure that that vision of her would endure.

The first image, a bust, shows Hatshepsut with the pharaonic beard, but with decidedly feminine features. Whereas, in the second image, a close-up of a statue, she is shown with much more generic (in terms of Egyptian statuary), male features.

Hatshepsut was the fifth Pharaoh of the 18th dynasty. She had been the principal wife of the Pharaoh Thutmose II. When he died, his only son was Thutmose III who he’d had with Aset, a minor wife. Because Hatshepsut had been Thutmose II’s principal wife, she served as regent for Thutmose III starting in 1479 BCE.

However, Hatshepsut seized the throne for herself and did not relinquish it to Thutmose III when he came of age. She insisted on being referred to as the king, and had her daughter, Neferura, given the title of God’s Wife and portrayed in art as her queen.

After about 20 years, Hatshepsut disappeared from the records. This coincided with Thutmose III’s regaining of the throne. It does not seem that he had Hatshepsut killed; it is likely that the respect accorded to queen mothers in the region kept him from executing her. However, he worked very hard to have her name and likeness removed from as many monuments as possible.

Hatshepsut was a very successful ruler–both economically and militarily–and commissioned many impressive building projects. Including this temple, called the Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut:

This temple is located on the west bank of the Nile near the Valley of the Kings; it is dedicated to the sun god Amun-Ra. The sculptures and reliefs in this temple tell the story of the divine birth of the first female Pharaoh. In commissioning those reliefs Hatshepsut was presenting herself as a living god, just as male pharaohs did.

The Mitfords

From left to right: Jessica Mitford (1917-1996), Nancy Mitford (1904-1973), Diana Mitford (1910-2003), Unity Mitford (1914-1948), and Pamela Mitford (1907-1994); photo taken in 1935.

Deborah Mitford (1920-present); photo taken in 1940.

A few years ago, I learned that JK Rowling probably modeled the characters Bellatrix Lestrange, Narcissa Malfoy, and Andromeda Tonks after three sisters from an aristocratic British family with fascist sympathies: Unity Mitford, Diana Mitford, and Jessica Mitford. The family was described by a contemporary as “nature’s fascists.”

Unity Mitford, the likely inspiration for Bellatrix, was in love with Hitler (who often used her to make Eva Braun jealous), and attempted to kill herself via a gunshot to the head when Britain declared war on Germany. However, she did not die until 1948.

Diana Mitford, the likely inspiration for Narcissa, married Bryan Walter Guinness in 1929, and left him in 1932 for Oswald Mosley–the head of the British Fascist Party. She and Mosley were married in 1936. Diana remained an unrelenting Fascist and anti-Semite until her death in 2003. Interestingly, Diana and Oswald spent most of their post-war life in a wealthy community outside of Paris, and their neighbors were none other than the Duke and Duchess of Windsor: the former King Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson.

Diana and Unity giving the Nazi salute

Jessica Mitford, the likely inspiration for Andromeda and lone Communist of her family, ran away from home in her teens to fight in the Spanish Civil War. She married her Communist second cousin, Esmond Romilly, at the age of 19; Unity once informed Jessica in a letter that, while she would not hesitate to kill Jessica’s Communist husband for the sake of Nazism, she hoped they could still be friends. Jessica and Esmond moved to America in 1939. He died two years later on his way back from a bombing raid over Germany. In 1943, Jessica married Jewish Hungarian civil rights lawyer Robert Treuhaft. She spent the rest of her life as a writer, investigative journalist, and activist. She died in 1996.

Jessica during the Willie McGee campaign

In 2002 JK Rowling stated that “My most influential writer, without a doubt, is Jessica Mitford. When my great-aunt gave me Hons and Rebels when I was 14, she instantly became my heroine. She ran away from home to fight in the Spanish Civil War, taking with her a camera that she had charged to her father’s account. I wished I’d had the nerve to do something like that. I love the way she never outgrew some of her adolescent traits, remaining true to her politics–she she was a self-taught socialist–throughout her life. I think I’ve read everything she wrote. I even called my daughter after her.”

As for the three other Mitford sisters–Nancy, Deborah, and Pamela–Nancy was a prolific writer, close friend of Evelyn Waugh, and the first to cash in on (so to speak) the public fascination with her family. Deborah, the only living Mitford sister, is the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire and has written a dozen non-fiction works. Pamela was, perhaps, the most low-key of the sisters; she married and divorced millionaire scientist Derek Jackson, and spent the later years of her life with Italian horsewoman, Giuditta Tommasi.

Though I only really focused on Jessica, Unity, and Diana and their politics, Pamela was purported to be a massive anti-Semite, and it is likely that the same can be said for Deborah (who once dined with Hitler along with Unity and their mother). There was also a Mitford brother, Thomas, who died in 1945 while stationed in Burma.

The six sisters kept in constant contact via letters, with the exception of Jessica and Diana, whose political views caused a permanent rift between them. They all had nicknames for each other, and Unity’s was “Bobo.” This created situations in which she would conclude letters to her sisters with lines like “All my best love to the boys! Heil Hitler, Love, Bobo.”

Boudicca: Rebel Queen of the Iceni

Deep beneath London is a layer of reddish-brown ash, with burnt piece of Roman pottery strewn about. Archaeologists call this “Boudicca’s Layer.”

This statue of Boudicca currently stands outside of the Houses of Parliament in London. It was commissioned by Prince Albert, and was completed in 1905.

She was queen of the Celtic Iceni tribe in the early first century CE. Her husband Prasutagus ruled the tribe independently of Rome who, in turn, viewed him as an ally and left him alone. When he died he left the tribal land to Boudicca and their two daughters. However, the Romans—hostile to the idea of cooperating with a female ruler—chose to disregard his wishes and seized the land for themselves.

They raped Boudicca and her daughters to demonstrate their lack of power. In 60 CE, Boudicca retaliated. She rallied thousands, some estimates put the figure at 100,000, of Britons and sacked three Roman cities: Londinium (London), Camulodunum (Colchester), and Verulamium (St. Albans). The ashes from her fire can still be seen in London.

Here’s a map to give you an idea of where all of this took place:

Once she had satisfied herself, she committed suicide with her two daughters to avoid being captured and further humiliated by the Romans.

Her actions persuaded Nero to install a more conciliatory governor in Britain, and her story was preserved in the writings of the Roman historian Tacitus.

The Documentary Hypothesis

The Hebrew Bible and the historical issues surrounding it is one of my major areas of study/geeking. Frankly, I am surprised that I have gone this long without talking about it in here.

The Documentary Hypothesis was founded in the nineteenth century by Julius Wellhausen. It is also known as Biblical Source Theory. This theory states that there are four main sources making up the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, ISamuel, IISamuel, IKings, and IIKings.

The four sources are as follows:

J = Yahwistic

E = Elohist

P = Priestly

D = Deuteronomistic

The J source originated in the southern kingdom of Judah. It is called J, or Yahwistic, because the J texts use “Yahweh,” or the Hebrew letters “yod hay vav hay” to refer to god. The E source originated in the northern kingdom of Israel and is called E, or Elohist because those texts referred to god as either El–the chief god of the Phoenician pantheon and the father of Ba’al–or Elohim, meaning “gods.” The implications of this will be discussed in a separate post.

When the kingdom of Israel was sacked by Assyria in 722 BCE, many of its citizens fled south into Judah, bringing their holy texts, the E source, with them. Because Israel and Judah shared the same general religious beliefs and oral traditions, J and E were easily combined into one text, which I will refer to from this point on as JE.

JE can be found in Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers. The Priestly source was written much later than JE as a theological response to said text; P objected theologically to several issues within the JE text, but mainly to the manner in which it depicted human communication and interaction with god. It was likely written in the late eighth century, and it is very possible that P intended his text to function as an alternate Torah. If this is the case, it is rather ironic; P was combined almost seamlessly with JE in the sixth century by an editor known as the Redactor. Like JE, P can be found throughout the books of Genesis through Numbers.

D is responsible for the writing of Deuteronomy through IIKings. The D source was written during the seventh century reign of King Josiah when D was charged with writing a history of the Israelite people up to that point in time. It is very likely that the Deuteronomist was drawing from much earlier historical material in his writing, but those documents are long gone. King Josiah was carrying out many religious and political reforms during his reign, and the politics embedded within the D books of the Bible reflect this.

While I feel safe saying that the books of Genesis through Joshua have no basis in historical fact, Judges through IIKings contain varying amounts of legitimate history. A good deal of the material in Judges-IIKings has been corroborated by archaeological finds, and by texts left behind by contemporary polities. There is a lot of debate about this within the scholarly community, but I attribute this more to the fact that historians, archaeologists, literary critics, and linguists have trouble working cooperatively and embracing interdisciplinary scholarship than to any other reason.

IIKings ends with the 586 BCE Babylonian conquest of Judah. A second source known as D2 wrote the last chapters of IIKings, which give the history of Judah through the death of Josiah to the fall of Judah.

Oh my. Can I really ask for any historical period? Let’s have the Renaissance then, if you wouldn’t mind?

The Renaissance is an interesting one. It fascinates me how people perceive the Renaissance as a literal rebirth of knowledge in Europe, when in reality, the pursuit of knowledge in Europe never really disappeared. The pursuit of knowledge in Western Europe–outside of the walls of monasteries and convents–ceased for six or seven centuries in the wake of the fall of Rome (as defined in my post on the subject). However, during what we commonly think of as the Middle Ages, the Byzantine Empire was going strong in Eastern Europe, and the Islamic Caliphate was approaching its golden age.

The pursuit of ancient, Classical knowledge never died in those areas. That ancient knowledge, the science and the math and the philosophy and the medical teachings, lived on in those two civilizations, especially within the Islamic one. Here is a map of Europe, Northern Africa, and the Near East during the Medieval period to illustrate the general proximity of these three civilizations to each other:

So, it always seemed odd to me that we’d celebrate the re-birth of knowledge in Western Europe, but ignore its continued presence throughout Islamic civilization and the Byzantine Empire. It is very Western-centric.

Rome did not fall in 476 CE

The thing about the decline of a massive empire is that you cannot pinpoint the time at which it ceases to exist. You can pinpoint when it has ceased to exist, but determining when it fell is much more inexact endeavor.

The fall of the Roman Empire was a process which took place over the course of centuries.

First, we must remember that the Roman Empire was divided into an Eastern Empire and a Western Empire in the fourth century. The Byzantine Empire (the Eastern Roman Empire) endured into the fifteenth century until Constantinople fell to the Ottomans. So in discussing the fall of the Roman Empire, we must remember that we are only discussing the Western Roman Empire.

Here is a map showing the East/West division (please note that this map shows the height of the Empires; within the fifth century time-frame being discussed in this post, the West controlled a significantly smaller amount of territory than is pictured below):


By 476, the Western Roman Empire had, for all intents and purposes, already fallen. Yet at the same time, it would continue to live on for centuries.

What happened in that year was the deposition of the last traditional emperor of Rome, Romulus Augustus, by Flavius Odoacer (historians are unsure as to whether he was a Goth or a Hun). That’s all. And it was hardly a tumultuous event; the peoples the Romans referred to as “barbarians” had, in fact, been major political players in Rome for over 100 years prior to the date of the perceived fall. Many of those tribes were fully assimilated into Roman society, and it was often the case that they functioned as the true powers behind the imperial throne. We can only assume that Odoacer grew tired of the charade and decided to make it official.

By the fifth century, these tribes—the Vandals, the Huns, the Ostrogoths, the Visigoths, the Lombards, the Franks—had assimilated to the Roman way of life and were exporting it to areas outside the bounds of the Empire. Western Roman culture outlived the Western Roman Empire as a result of these tribes.

For at least two centuries after the generally accepted time of the fall of the empire, the Roman culture lived on. However, by around time of Charlemagne (late eighth, early ninth century), most of the populace had come to view the cultural heritage of the Roman Empire with suspicion and disdain. Thus, we can probably say that the Western Roman Empire had ceased to exist by the mid or late seventh century.

Aelia Eudoxia and Aelia Pulcheria: Power and Purity Politics

Pictured above from left to right are two of my favorite historical ladies: Aelia Eudoxia (d. 404) and Aelia Pulcheria (399-453).

Aelia Eudoxia was a late fourth century, early fifth century Byzantine empress. Her husband, the Emperor Arcadius, wasn’t much of an emperor, so she was the real power behind the throne. Her power, religious politics, overtly feminine presentation, and influence over the populace pissed off St. John Chrysostom (Archbishop of Constantinople and influential preacher) so much that he declared her to be the second Jezebel, making him the second Elijah.

Her daughter, Aelia Pulcheria, was even more amazing. Her brother, Theodosius II, was the emperor, but like her mother, it was Pulcheria who held the true power. At the age of 14, she took a vow of chastity and ordered her sisters to do the same. While this may have been done out of true religious sentiment,* it is far more likely that she did it to keep hold of her power; the vow ensured that she would never be forced to marry and lose her power to a man. This, of course, pissed off loads of ambitious nobles who were hoping to gain power by marrying into the imperial family.

In short, Pulcheria manipulated the patriarchal construct of appropriate female religious behavior in order to consolidate her power and keep it out of the hands of men. She used the patriarchy against them, and there was nothing they could really do or say about it because they were the ones who created that framework in the first place. Fucking brilliant.

*This vow of chastity was influenced by her devotion to the Theotokos, or the Virgin Mary. This particular form of worship is known as Mariology.

I wouldn’t be anywhere without the Academy

In 1939, King George VI broadcast a speech across the British Empire, informing his people of Britain’s entrance into war with Germany. In 2010, this speech was respectfully used to great effect in the climactic scene of The King’s Speech. In 2011, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences thought it would be appropriate to take that speech and use it as a dramatic audio backdrop for their Best Picture montage. A montage full of ballerinas, animated toys, pretty people skipping around with guns, rich white dudes with a lot of feelings, and relationship drama set against the very real backdrop of the outbreak of World War II. Unfortunately, it seems that the Academy has been super anal about ensuring that no copies end up online, so I can’t embed the clip for you.

This was exceedingly disrespectful to every life which was lost or affected or changed by that war, and to every living person who continues to feel its painful legacy. Being a ~millennial~, I turned to facebook to vent my very serious feelings on all of this, only to be told by two separate people that the montage had, in fact, been totally awesome and cool from an artistic perspective and that I was just taking it too seriously and expecting too much from Hollywood and needed to pick my battles.

My thoughts were simply that the legacy of WWII should be taken seriously, and that I could not give less of a crap about ~art~ if the lives of millions are disrespected in the process. Feeling vaguely annoyed and self-righteous following my lost facebook status debate, I first deleted that status because I am an imperfect person who does not like to lose comment debates in public. Then I thought to myself, “I should start a blog where I can bitch about people who use history incorrectly!”

So, welcome. This blog will not be mainly comprised of bitching. Or self-righteous ranting (though those things will probably occur from time to time); I intend to use this blog to address when the media, entertainment industry, politicians, etc use history incorrectly or irresponsibly, to debunk popular, inaccurate historical myths or perceptions of the discipline, and to geek out over random historical things.