Archive for category Italy

The Venetian Republic, 697-1797

venice

The last western Roman Emperor was deposed in 476.  The Italian peninsula was in ruin – barbarian tribes were attacking what was left of the old imperial glory, and soon the knowledge and order of Rome gave way to the dark ages, as politics throughout Europe became exceedingly local, with custom and tradition defining social life.  With the church embracing Augustine’s other-worldly theology (this world has no value, it can only tempt you – eschew the things of the world and focus on preparing for the afterlife), progress stopped.

Venice was different.  As Rome fell, a group seeking safety decided that the sand dunes around what is now Venice could make it a defensible city, and keep out the barbarians.  They took wood and piled it up in the lagoon, literally creating islands!  Wood does not decay as quickly under water, and wood from that era was much stronger than today.  Without so much carbon in the atmosphere the rings of trees are tighter – that wooden foundation still holds Venice up today.

Fitting that the last western Roman Emperor was Romulus Augustus - Romulus was the name of Rome's mythical founder, Augustus was the man who began imperial rule.

Fitting that the last western Roman Emperor was Romulus Augustus – Romulus was the name of Rome’s mythical founder, Augustus was the man who began imperial rule.

Early on they fished and focused simply on creating a sustainable life style.   They recognized the authority of the Byzantine Empire to the East.  Rome had split into East and West, as Emperor Constantine created the city of Constantinople to rule the East.    For a time it kept the Roman heritage alive, and could provide Venice protection.   For the ensuing centuries Venice couldn’t really be called Italian – they focused on the East and stayed out of Italian political life.

Politically, the Venetians created one of the most successful Republics in history.   In 697 they elected their first Doge, who would be the symbolic leader.  The Venetian Republic would last 1100 years, and be dynamic for most of that time.   It’s decline would start in the 1400s but even in decline Venice would remain stable and prosperous.

Their political system was complex.  Up until 1297 nobility was something that came with wealth – if you were a successful merchant, you could be in the Venetian ruling class.  The system had what we would call checks and balances to guard against any group getting too much power.  The Doge was “first among equals” and had very limited power.

The onion domes at San Marco show the Byzantine influence on Venice

The onion domes at San Marco show the Byzantine influence on Venice

The rise of Venice as a true power started with the first crusade of 1095.   Although we tend to see the crusades in primarily religious terms, and certainly religion was the rationale provided, it was also political.  Europeans had been fighting the Vikings and other groups for centuries.  By the eleventh century things had stabilized and they needed something for their warrior class to do – expansion to the east was natural.  Venice would transport troops and material for the crusade, and bring back goods to sell.   Quickly they became exceedingly wealthy and their influence grew.

The Serrata of 1297 altered the Republic by preventing anyone new from joining the Venetian Great Council.  Nobility was now by birth, ending the centuries of having a ruling class that was chosen by a kind of entrepreneurial meritocracy.  However, the nobility knew that they could not lose the loyalty of the rest of the merchant class, so they created the cittadini originari which gave those who might begrudge the new nobility certain rights and powers.  Various workers had their own status, as well as political roles.  It worked.

What Venice managed to do was to create a system with virtually no political dissent.   They did this by institutionalizing decision making in a manner that kept everyone with the same goal: protect and enhance Venetian prosperity.  Differences of opinion were worked out peacefully, almost invisibly.

The dark red was original Venice, lighter red is territory they acquired.  Pink they held temporarily.  Yellow routes, and light yellow shade is where Venice dominated trade in the 1300s

The dark red was original Venice, lighter red is territory they acquired. Pink they held temporarily. Yellow routes, and light yellow shade is where Venice dominated trade in 1500

This gave them the capacity to defeat Genoa in 1381, becoming for awhile the dominant force in European international trade.  Venice was at the height of its power, but faced a new problem.   The Byzantine empire, which was a buffer from the power of the Islamic world, was in rapid decline.   The Ottoman Empire emerged as a real threat.  At that point Venice truly became Italian, and in the 1400s built the Terrafirma empire which stretched almost to Milan.

Alas, this led to rivalry with other Italian powers, and in 1509 Venice was defeated at Agnadello.  If not for the Pope, who wanted Venice to remain a buffer preventing the expansion of the Ottoman Empire to Italy, the city might have been taken and the Republic would have ended.  As it was, it would last almost 300 more years.

Venetian power was in decline, however.   Their defeat at Agnadello combined with the expansion of the Ottomans to eat away at Venice’s trade dominance.   When Portugal managed to get around the cape of Africa, states on the Atlantic coast rose in trade power.  It’s a credit to the Venetian Republican system that it could endure all that without creating bitter rivalries.  Other cities like Genoa and Florence were weakened by internal power structures, Venice was not.

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In some ways, Venetian history is more impressive than that of the Roman Empire.  They remained a republic (albeit an oligarchic one), and except for the relatively small terrafirma, focused on making profit rather than expanding territory.  Imperial Rome was constantly riveted by civil war and power struggles – Venice had a kind of unity of purpose that is rare.

As a political scientist I ponder what they got right, and if there are lessons we can learn.   More on that soon; those who may join us on the May term trip to Italy, think of the rich, wonderful history we’ll encounter.  Venice is so much more than beautiful canals and narrow alleys.

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Hadrian’s Rome

Hadrian, 76-138

Hadrian, 76-138

Hadrian was Rome’s Emperor from 117-138.  This was a fateful time for the Roman Empire.  His predecessor Trajan ruled from 98-117, and was declared by the Roman Senate Optimus Princeps, the greatest leader of Roman history – even surpassing Augustus.  Trajan had reformed the empire and brought it to near its apex of power, territory and prosperity.  Hadrian would die despised by many, lacking his predecessor’s foresight and diplomacy.

What is fascinating about Hadrian’s rule is that the path Rome took early in that second Century helped program the future decline of what would become the western Empire, and set up the rise of Christianity.   It is fair to say that civilization had a level of comfort and prosperity in second Century Rome that was not equaled until the 20th Century.

Hadrian’s foreign policy was a sign of the change.  He built fortifications along the frontiers to protect the empire.  This was a momentous pivot from ongoing offensive wars to expand the empire in favor of a clearly defensive approach.  The empire was comfortable and content – why get involved in costly foreign wars?

Originally ten feet thick and up to twenty feet tall, parts of Hadrian's wall in Great Britain still stand.   The wall also had ditches.  Similar walls were built in Germany and elsewhere.

Originally ten feet thick and up to twenty feet tall, parts of Hadrian’s wall in Great Britain still stand. The wall also had ditches. Similar walls were built in Germany and elsewhere.

Hadrian’s era also began an intensely spiritual part of Rome’s history.   Christianity was spreading, especially among women who rebelled against some of Rome’s harsh sexism.  Women would convert their husbands and family, and the once Jewish sect became a major force in the Roman world.   Most Romans, however, would have probably found themselves more comfortable with the Stoic teacher Epictetus.

Epictetus was born a slave but was later freed.   Like Jesus and Socrates before him, he (55-135) never wrote down his words, but simply taught.  An example:  “There is only one way to happiness and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power of our will.”  That’s the stoic philosophy.  You control your mind and your actions – everything else is beyond your control.  You can’t control the twists of fate, the choices of others or even the consequences of your actions.   So to be happy you must accept whatever happens to you.

Hadrian's pantheon, which still stands as a Catholic Church, was originally made to worship all Gods - for Rome in an era of spirituality

Hadrian’s pantheon, which still stands as a Catholic Church, was originally made to worship all Gods – for Rome in an era of spirituality

To the stoic, one becomes enslaved if they get enmeshed in trying for wealth or success, pining for a lost love, or even feeling sorrow at the death of a friend or family member.  God controls those things, we control only our mind.  Later Marcus Aurelius, a late Second Century Roman Emperor (ruling from 161 to 180) and stoic philosopher would say “Someone will irritate me today.  I must not let it bother me.”  To the stoic a human has the power not to let their happiness depend on anything anyone else does – or anything that happens.  That is the will of God.

The stoic philosophy had a natural fit with Christian beliefs, especially with the Greek twist Augustine gave Christian theology in the Fourth Century.  That helped assure that Rome would adopt Christianity as its official religion, which has shaped our world to this day.

This also was the start of a shift to a society that would lose itself to the pursuit of pleasure and comfort, no longer embodying the virtues of early Rome.  Marcus Aurelius would be a virtuous leader and stoic philosopher who would spend much of this rule trying to defeat the Germans.  However his son and successor Commodus would live purely for his own pleasure.  Instead of tolerating the gladiatorial games, he embraced them and in fact participated, becoming a reasonably proficient gladiator himself.  Most put the start of Rome’s decline with Commodus.   And the war with the Germans?   Commodus couldn’t be bothered, he signed a peace treaty which emboldened the Germans who saw that as weakness.

Hadrian's villa and tivoli gardens outside Rome also stand as a tourist attraction.

Hadrian’s villa and tivoli gardens outside Rome also stand as a tourist attraction.

Ironically Rome’s success helped program its fall.  Though there would be efforts to expand the empire after Hadrian, Rome was at its apex.  The people were growing soft due to comfort, and resource use helped deplete Rome’s forests and force them to go to greater lengths to keep up their lifestyles.  The Imperial form of government would leave Rome subject to poor rule by power hungry Emperors and increasing political intrigue – with poisonings and other types of assassination common.

Next May I co-lead a travel course to Italy.  One focus will be “Rome of the Second Century,” with visits to some of Hadrian’s sites, and discussion of the Emperors of that era – from Trajan to Commodus.   We’ll try to get a feel for what life in Rome was like – and how in some ways it wasn’t so unlike our own.  In fact, we’d probably feel more comfortable in Second Century Rome than 17th Century Europe.   Exploring Rome is always enjoyable.  To learn about and experience it through the eyes of the past makes it even more powerful.

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Next Stop: Berlin!

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One of the joys of teaching at UMF is the ability to offer travel courses, usually in May term, winter term or February break.  My first one was back in 2000/01 over winter break with 20 students to Italy.  That was back when the US economy looked super strong so the Euro cost only 78 cents.   The Italians still used the lire, but already the European currencies were locked in the Euro rate, with Euro coins and notes taking over in 2002.  The dollar was so strong almost everyone on the trip bought leather jackets in Florence, ate out a lot, and had a small trip fee (for hotel, flight, and train) of $1250.

In January 2001, leading my first travel course, I gave a seminar on the EU at the Pompeii amphitheater

In January 2001, leading my first travel course, I gave a seminar on the EU at the Pompeii amphitheater

In the winter of 2003/04 I lead 18 students to Germany, going to Weimar, Berlin, Koeln and Koblenz.   At that time UMF had only one other professor offering travel courses, so this was new territory.   Now there are probably ten or so a year, and the university is trying to expand them.

In May 2005 I joined three other professors – Steve Pane from Music History, Sarah Maline from Art History and Luann Yetter in Literature – to offer a multifaceted course to Italy, visiting Venice, Florence and Rome.   We had nearly 40 students, and the trip was amazing.   We reprised that trip in January 2006/07, February break 2008 and 2009, May 2011 and May 2013.    In February 2009 and May 2013 only two faculty members could go since we didn’t have so many students (Sarah and I in 2009, Steve and I in 2013).  We’re hoping to have enough for all four of us to go again in 2015.

My colleague Steve Pane, at a picnic during the 2005 course for over 40 of us, near the Piazza Michelangelo

My colleague Steve Pane, at a picnic during the 2005 course for over 40 of us, near the Piazza Michelangelo

Steve, Sarah and I did a Vienna-Munich-Berlin trip in 2010, and I lead a solo trip to Berlin, Bonn and Munich in 2012.   So this Monday when I lead a solo course to Berlin, Munich and Vienna, it’ll be my 11th travel course.   They are a lot of work – organizing the itinerary, booking hotels, airfare, trains, etc.   Even on trips led by a number of us, I am the logistics/budget coordinator.  That doesn’t mean I do more work — the others have unenviable jobs of dealing with sick students (sometimes taking them to the ER), handling lost passports, or various tasks.  But the work is worth it, in some ways I enjoy traveling while teaching more than I would enjoy leisure travel.

It is extremely rewarding to be able to watch students learn another culture, to share what I’ve learned about Germany or Italy with them.  To learn about art and music from my colleagues on the multi-faculty trips, expanding my knowledge, with all of us seeing connections between the disciplines that we hadn’t before.

My colleague Luann Yetter during her popular Dante walking tour in Florence

My colleague Luann Yetter during her popular Dante walking tour in Florence

I think the second trip to Italy we were heading out for a walk after checking in to the Venice hotel.   We make sure the students stay up until at least 10:00 the day we arrive so they can get their body clocks adjusted to European time.   We were heading out and then I heard a commotion, “look at that!”  I looked – but saw nothing out of the ordinary.  The students zoomed by with cameras and started taking pictures of the canals.  Then I realized – I had been to Venice enough that the canals seemed ordinary to me, but through the students I could see them again as if for the first time.   That keeps the experiences fresh – though it is cool to know that I am quite familiar with how to navigate Venice, Florence and Rome!

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Above – 42 students and 4 faculty made our 2011 trip the largest!

Some students have never been out of the country; we’ve had at least one who had never been on an airplane before.  Some have traveled before.   But we always develop group bonds, traveling together and sharing two weeks.   When it ends people vow to keep in touch and not lose that connection.   Alas, people do go their separate ways, but there is always talk of alumni trips or people coming back to travel again.   For many these travel courses are a life changing experience.

Finally me in a photo!  Talking with students about connecting concepts and themes in the course so far

Me during the 2011 trip, at a park in Florence as we broke into groups to discuss various questions connecting course themes.

So Monday I leave with 13 students for Berlin, flying Aer Lingus via Dublin.  The course is “German Political History,” and we’ll include Austria with the Vienna visit.   Everything is arranged, the weather looks fantastic, and all I have to do is pack and hope that everyone makes it to the airport without a hitch.  Hopefully I’ll find some time to blog during the next two weeks (during the 2011 Italy trip I kept a pretty extensive blog).

So now I have to get in my grades by Sunday, pack and be ready!  I will try to blog while underway!

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A New Era in Italian Politics

At age 39, Renzi represents a new breed of Italian politicians

At age 39, Renzi represents a new breed of Italian politicians

In the early 1990s the Italian political system underwent a complete collapse.  Every party disintegrated or was renamed.  Former Prime Minister Bettino Craxi, once considered the most powerful man in Italy, died in exile in Tunisia.  The cause of the collapse was the Mani Pulite or “clean hands” investigation started by Milan magistrates, which led to the discovery of massive and pervasive corruption callend “tangentopoli” or bribery city.

By 1994 Italy was said to be entering its “second republic.”  From the end of World War II to the 90s the Christian Democratic party dominated Italian politics.   While the country had over 40 governments, making it appear to be in constant crisis and unstable, the problem was the opposite: Italy was too stable.   The insiders shifted coalitions and positions, but the same people dominated, becoming more and more corrupt over time.   Italians knew what was happening – there was real scorn for “la classa politica” – but seemed powerless to stop it.

It's not surprising that Berlusconi, here shown with corrupt Bettino Craxi, continued corrupt practices

It’s not surprising that Berlusconi, here shown with corrupt Bettino Craxi in the 80s, refused to seriously combat corruption

The system broke down just as other single party systems fell part – Communism, the LDP in Japan, and the PRI in Mexico.  With the internationalization of global capital, countries had to shed their isolated corruption to be relevant in the world economy.   Yet hope for a new system in Italy faded; while many of the old guard left, the new leaders were still of the old thinking.   Silvio Berlusconi dominated Italian politics and did not institute real change.   Even reformers like Romano Prodi found it hard to take on a system that had been built on kickbacks and inside deals.   By 2009 the glaring deficiencies of the Italian system came into full view as Italy fell into a crisis that threatened its ability to maintain membership in the Eurozone.

In 2013, as the country struggled to implement needed reforms, Enrico Letta became Prime Minister, leading a large coalition.  The idea was that together the parties could do what was necessary to get on track.   Yet progress was slow, people were losing patience, and under pressure Letta resigned in February 2014, allowing the young Matteo Renzi to be named Prime Minister.

John Kerry pays his respects to Prime Minister Renzi

John Kerry pays his respects to Prime Minister Renzi

Italy has a multi-party system, and Renzi’s left of center Democratic party controls 293 of 630 seats in the national assembly, and 108 of 320 in the Senat.   In order to govern it has formed a coalition with seven other parties.  Renzi’s task is to implement reform while keeping that coalition together.

Renzi has argued that Italy needs generational change – that the old system will never truly be open and transparent if the old guard remains in power.   His cabinet has an average age of 47, younger than any in Italian history.   He already has forced the resignations of leaders of the largest state owned companies, replacing them with women.  That alone is a culture shift – women never ran any of those companies before, and Italian business has been male dominated.

His ideology is said to be close to Tony Blair’s “third way” – center-left, with an emphasis on the center.   His first three year budget has controversial provisions, but is designed to create long term growth potential.    Italy’s economy is not exactly healthy.   In 2013 its economy contracted by 1%, with unemployment over 12%.   It had a budget deficit of  minus 3.3%, with total government debt at 133% of GDP.   To succeed Renzi has to get the deficit below 3%, grow the economy, and lower unemployment.

A young Matteo Renzi won about $25,000 on Italy's version of Wheel of Fortune

A young Matteo Renzi won about $25,000 on Italy’s version of Wheel of Fortune

To do all that he must not only craft a solid economic plan, but more importantly remake “la classa politica.”  For generations the political class has been corrupt.   That has to end.  A new generation has to make links with the other European economies and build a new civil society.   Faced with corrupt leaders, citizens had no qualms about tax evasion, cheating the government, or trying to get for themselves whatever they could.   Civil society was weak.

None of that can be changed overnight.  Renzi offers a breath of fresh air and a sense that a mixture of crisis and impatience may be enough for Italians to now build a true modern democracy based on rule of law and accountability rather than inside deals and kickbacks.

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Inferno!

inferno

No spoilers about story or plot in this entry!

On May 14th I was among the first to purchase Dan Brown’s new book, Inferno.   By the next day I had finished all 463 pages, it is perhaps the best in the Robert Langdon series, including the earlier books Angels and Demons, The DaVinci Code and The Lost Symbol.

The reason I devoured the book is because almost of all the action takes place in either Florence or Venice; the lion’s share in Florence.   On Monday I take off with students on a travel course to Italy, visiting Venice, Florence and Rome.  This book whetted my appetite for Italy with brilliantly descriptive images of Florence, mixing tidbits of history with a story line that honored perhaps the greatest and most influential author of history, Dante Alighieri.

Dante’s book The Divine Comedy included The Inferno, which was Dante’s description of hell.  Brown notes that most of our images of a dark underworld of torture, demons and suffering come from Dante’s imagery.   Yet Dante wasn’t simply trying to depict a religious vision of hell – quite the contrary.   His book was sarcastic social commentary – a kind of satire – in which famous politicians, church leaders and other elite of his day found themselves suffering somewhere in the inferno, with the punishment always fitting the sin.

Exiled from his city of Florence in 1301 due to political rivalries, Dante (1265-1321) wrote The Divine Comedy as a kind of literary revenge, skewering leaders and the politics of the day, while honoring his muse Beatrice, a woman he had barely met but with whom he had fallen in love.   She died at 24, but remained a muse for the poet until his death.  Dante wrote The Divine Comedy before the printing press, but in the vernacular.  In fact, modern Italian is traced back to Dante, so great was his influence.

Botticelli's image of Dante's inferno.

Botticelli’s image of Dante’s inferno.

Dante was one of the first humanists, moving away from a focus on the divine to a perspective embracing the world as it was.    While in exile he would meet Giotto, whose Scrovegni Chapel in Padova broke with past practices to offer a true humanist perspective.   The life of Christ is told with emotion and realistic detail.    Humanism would change European thought forever, and make the enlightenment possible.

While most of that is away from Brown’s story line, which looks more towards the future than the past, his embrace of Dante adds an historical poignancy and meaning which puts Inferno  a step ahead of his previous efforts.   For anyone who loves Florence, the book is a must read; he captures the spirit of the city while describing some of its most compelling locations.

Angels and Demons  was my favorite before now.  I not only liked the story line – mixing the CERN Large Hadron Collider with a Papal Conclave – but it has delightful images of some of my favorite places in Rome.   I make sure to do an “Angels and Demons walking tour” when I take students to Italy.  Not only do those who have read the book identify with the places we see, but Brown does an excellent job in choosing interesting and relevant locales.

Dan Brown, author.

Dan Brown, author.

In the future I will add “Inferno” walking tours to both Venice and Florence.   I may even try this year, though since the book just came out I doubt too many students will have read it.

I heartily recommend this book to anyone who likes a fast paced plot with twists, turns, compelling characters and a few dramatic surprises.   It is a must read for those who love Italy, especially Florence and Venice.

So I’m ready to head to Italy next week, starting in Venice and then going on to Florence and Rome.  It was a pleasant surprise that Brown’s latest novel would be released just in time for me to re-immerse myself into Florentine history and images from both Florence and Venice.

Next week I start blogging from Italy.  My co-instructor in this endeavor is Dr. Steven Pane, who teaches Music History.  He also is fascinated by the study of sound, and plans a sound seminar for our first day in Venice to help students learn to appreciate the different sounds of various cities and locations.   I sent him this snippet from Inferno  (p. 313), set at the piazza San Marco.   Steve said this could be an introduction to his seminar:

“It was not until this moment, as he entered the sheltered square, that Langdon could fully appreciate this city’s most unique offering.

Sound.

With virtually no cars or motorized vehicles of any kind, Venice enjoyed a blissful absence of the usual civic traffic, subways, and sirens, leaving sonic space for the distantly unmechanical tapestry of human voices, cooing pigeons, and lilting violins serenading patrons at the outdoor cafes.  Venice sounded like no other metropolitan center in the world.”

Next week, blogging from Italy!

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Say No to Berlusconi

Mario Monti, Italian Prime Minister since Nov. 2011

Mario Monti, Italian Prime Minister since Nov. 2011

Mario Monti announced he was resigning from the office of Prime Minister of Italy despite a heroic year in which the Italians did what most people thought couldn’t be done.  He stabilized their finances and help brighten the outlook for the EU and Euro in the on going financial crisis caused by southern European lacking fiscal discipline.

Monti’s resignation, which will become official after the 2013 budget is passed, came as a surprise, sending shock waves through financial markets and the Italian political system.  This sets the stage for a critical election in February.

When Monti came into office interest rates for Italian bonds were above 7%, and Italy’s budget deficit was growing quickly.   Monti has managed to lower rates to 4.4% (meaning borrowing money is cheaper), though on news of his resignation it shot up to 4.8%    Total debt has stabilized at 125% of GDP.   Monti’s reforms  included budget cuts, reform of the labor market and other policies not always popular with the public.   As it became clear that Italians had the political will to deal directly with their problems, confidence in both the Italian economy and the Eurozone grew.

So why is Monti resigning?   Monti’s government is a ‘government of experts’ designed to make pragmatic decisions with as little politicization as possible.    Back in November 2011 Silvio Berlusconi resigned as Prime Minister after losing his majority, with international markets showing no confidence in Italy’s policies or leadership.   Monti was chosen as a technocratic leader both left and right could agree on, but one without a political mandate.

On Thursday December 6 Berlusconi withdrew his party’s support from Monti’s government.  Monti had always said that without broad political support a technocratic government was untenable.     But this sets up a potential showdown.

Silvio Berlusconi, one of the worst leaders in post-war European history

Silvio Berlusconi, one of the worst leaders in post-war European history

In my opinion, Berlusconi has been a disaster for Italy.   First elected Prime Minister in 1994 in the wake of the collapse of the Italian first Republic and the party system that defined it, Berlusconi promised to chart a new course for the country.  He said his party Forza Italia (forward, Italy!) would make Italy a modern well governed state, absent the corruption and undisciplined economic policies of the old system.    Despite being Prime Minister three times — from 1994 – 1995, 2001 -06, and 2008-11, he has not followed through.

In fact, Italy’s performed best when Berlusconi was not in office, including the job Romano Prodi did on economic policy in the late 90s to get Italy into the Eurozone.   As Prime Minister Berlusconi mirrored the corruption of the first republic (he was convicted of fraud in October — he’s out free as he appeals, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg of his questionable and likely illegal actions), and the Italian budget mushroomed.

Unfortunately the Italians may vote him back into office.   He claims he wants to stand again, and as media mogul he has the capacity to shape the narrative of the short election campaign.   Despite his faults, his personality and appeal to conservatives means he’ll win a lot of votes.

Pier Luigi Bersani, who will represent the center left in Italy's election

Pier Luigi Bersani, who will represent the center left in Italy’s election

Ironically global markets would be happier if a former Communist, Pier Luigi Bersani, were to defeat Berlusconi.   Bersani’s center-left coalition has pledged support for Italy’s commitments and vowed not to go back to the kind of politics and spending of recent years.   Berlusconi, however, has been skeptical of Italy’s commitments and has hinted that he wants to increase spending and undermine the work done last year by Monti.

Of course, Monti might himself run.   He could hope to get support from centrists and moderates who want to transcend the polarized politics of the left vs. right, and reward Monti for the work he’s done the last year.    Monti would not have the backing of a major party organization, but Italian campaigns are short, intense, and not that expensive.

A Monti victory would not only keep him in office, but give him something he now lacks – a political mandate.   A technocratic party is supposed to avoid political controversy.    When Monti pushed through labor law reforms, he met considerable opposition from Italy’s strong labor unions.   Rather than picking a fight he negotiated with them and a compromise set of laws passed.    With a political mandate, Monti’s hand in such negotiations would be stronger, though it’s unlikely he’d seek political confrontation.

The Italian parliament

The Italian parliament

This election is important for both Italy and the EU.  If Monti were to win, there would be an enthusiastic response from markets and renewed optimism that the worst of the Euro crisis is passed.  If Berlusconi were to return, Italian bond yields would rise and both Italy and the EU could be thrown back into a deep crisis.   Moreover, Italy’s path out of a flawed and corrupt system of governance would be halted; Berlusconi represents precisely what Italians must reject.

Signs are good that Berlusconi’s shine has worn off.   He’s down in the polls, and even he wanted more time to prepare for the next election.   His fraud conviction and his record as Prime Minister overshadows his media appeal and charisma.  By hanging on he deprives Italian conservatives of a viable alternative.    When markets prefer a former Communist to a successful capitalist businessman, that says something!

Still, Berlusconi has had a remarkable capacity to come back and no one should underestimate his Machiavellian political skills.    His return to power would be a disaster for Europe and Italy.

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Augustine, Machiavelli, and Petrarch Conversing

One place for the conversation: in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padova, where Giotto’s frescoes mixed the old religious themes with a new humanist perspective

The assignment closing out the first unit of my honors first year seminar was straight forward: imagine a conversation between Augustine, Petrarch and Machiavelli.   Have them talk about the issues that dominated their lives, react to each other, and bring up others we read or talked about (Aquinas, Dante, Giotto and Boccaccio).   The results were spectacular.

I gave students freedom to tackle the assignment however they wanted.   One took the voice of Machiavelli, describing the conversations and his internal thoughts — polite to Augustine in conversation while ridiculing him in his head.   Another had them all in purgatory, some had them in heaven, one had them in a rather rowdy bar (Augustine sipping fruit juice), while one had them in the equivalent of zoo, having been snatched from earth and brought somewhere outside space/time.   One put herself in the role as translator of the conversation, giving her reflections on what they said, which worked really well.

Augustine (354-430) developed the spiritual philosophy and theology that would define the medieval world view – this world is an illusion, designed to tempt and test, but exists only as symbols of a deeper reality.   Do not pursue worldly delights or ambitions, those only lead you away from Christ.  With that view dominating, it’s not surprising that the Europeans spent nearly a thousand years with little progress!

Petrarch is often called the “father of humanism.”   Humanism means taking the human experience seriously.   Petrarch, along with others such as Giotto, Boccaccio and Dante, were rediscovering the classics from Rome and Greece, and thereby opening the door to a past that Europe had long forgotten.   They were enthralled by the classics, a world where human emotion and practical knowledge mattered — where life wasn’t only about preparation for the after life.

Petrarch expressed humanist love and emotion, but never approached his muse Laura – he loved from afar

Art became more realistic, human emotion invaded literature and poetry, and the material world started to matter again.   This led to the renaissance and an expansion of knowledge and wealth.    It also meant growing corruption in the Church as the spiritual became secondary to the practical.    Niccolo Machiavelli (1649 – 1527) took that humanism to its pragmatic ends justify the means conclusion with his book The Prince.

What’s most impressive is that the students  captured the essence of what these three people  symbolize.   Augustine is the other-worldly mystic who warns about the corruption of the flesh and power of a love for God.  Petrarch has his feet in both the Augustinian world and the new world of humanism.   He writes stirring emotional poetry to a woman, but one he loves from afar.    One student has the two of them reflecting on their similar experiences.   Augustine’s most powerful moment was when opened the Bible at random and was touched by something written by Paul.   Petrarch had done the same with Augustine’s Confessions atop Mt. Ventoux.

Florence at the time of Machiavelli – the wealthiest city in Europe, yet surrounded by strife, corruption and discord

Machiavelli is the anti-Augustine.   He is a humanist and a realist.   Of course the Church and God is important, but one has to live in this world with humans who are, as all three agree, base in their nature.   Humans are wicked, sinful and unclean.

Augustine’s solution is to go to the mountains and live separate from the depravity and ruin, in monasteries where life is devoted solely to the spiritual.    Petrarch admired Augustine but fantasized about living in classical times.   He would carry on conversations with Cicero and others from the past, wishing he could be in a world where knowledge and culture were advanced and developed.   Machiavelli compartmentalized the spiritual in order to focus on the practical.

What impressed me is how the students got into the mindset of the era, be it the dilemmas of humanism, the impact of Aquinas and Aristotle, or the inherent tension in the methods of the Scholastics.   They managed to mentally put themselves into that time frame just before the reformation.

That’s important.  It is so easy to think “oh, they didn’t have science yet, they were backward…the Church is controlling everything, that’s wrong.”   That’s a view of someone in the present imagining those structures of thought imposed on the here and now.

If we judge history through a modern lens we fail to understand the fundamental questions and dilemmas that the people at the time grappled with.    We wouldn’t appreciate how their dilemmas were similar to issues we face now; these were intelligent people whose thinking was not so unlike our own.    Moreover, once we endeavor to understand the past in context, it’s easier to see the imperfections of our own reality.

When we get to the end of the course students have an assignment to write about the present the way an Honors class 400 years from now might see it.    What do we do that will be seen later as barbaric and ignorant?   War?   Chemicals in food?  Eating meat?

How will religion and science change?    Is the history of western civilization — and all other cultures — starting to merge into a global discourse?   Might the intellectual history of the West be bracketed — ending at some year when cultural merging makes such cultural distinctions impossible to maintain?

The goal of the course is for students to see their academic journey and their place in the world as part of an unfolding story.   How we think is shaped by our cultural past.    Even an atheist has views and understandings that can be traced back to thinkers like Augustine, Aquinas and Luther.    Instead of being in the present looking at a past whose sole purpose was to create this moment, we are part of an exciting unfolding of history, connected to the past and part of a future yet undiscovered.

And if one sees life that way, learning is not a chore, it’s fun.   Learning does not end when college ends, but one is motivated to continue exploring and understanding the exciting and riveting history unfolding.   Traveling to a city like Rome is not just visiting another place, but traveling through time as we connect with history.   We are not in a world of stress, distractions and emptiness, but are part of the most exciting story ever told — being told by voices across time and space, each voice as loud and important as our own.

That sense of wonder has shaped how I look at life and my place in it.   It provides a sense of wonder and awe that transcends daily routines.    As a teacher, my goal is to provide opportunities for students to make that same discovery.   These papers show evidence that these honors students are doing just that.

 

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Travel Well, Live Well

The Duomo and Baptistery in Firenze

This coming May we plan on offering a travel course to Italy.   It will be the seventh time I’ve been part of a travel course to Italy with student.  I’ve visited Italy five other times, including the year I lived in Bologna while attending the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (from which I earned my MA).

Having just discovered some cool websites involving Italy including Margieinitaly, lovebeautyexperience,  and traveling foodie, I’m very engaged with planning of the trip.   I’m the “trip planner,” the one who makes arrangements and takes care of the finances (in exchange my colleagues take over a lot of excess work during the trip itself).

Venice has been described as a “thinking person’s Disneyland,” but it’s beauty is real

The trip is difficult to plan because of the numbers.   We routinely have 40 students and four faculty, flying into Venice and out of Rome.    Venice is not a major hub so to get inexpensive tickets for that many people requires booking early.

My colleagues:  Steve Pane (Music History), Sarah Maline (Art History) and Luann Yetter (Literature) are the other three faculty, and together we’ve created a tight, integrated interdisciplinary course that yields an academic experience unlike any I’ve encountered.   Not only are we “on the scene” when we talk about art, history, the Catholic Church, or Florence, but over the years we’ve amazed ourselves by how much we learn from each other.    We find connections between disciplines and perspectives, and develop those in conversations with students.  The trip is always an educational experience for us as well as for the students.  There’s always more to learn!

Luann Yetter near Santa Maria Nouvella, talking about Dante at the end of the “Dante walking tour.”

1.  Numbers and Recruitment.    While it may seem like we’d be more comfortable with fewer than forty students, the economics of such a course requires at least nine students for each faculty member at a minimum.   We’re now gathering e-mail addresses of perspective participants, communicating with students who might be interested, and Monday held an early meeting (with a slide show!)   Because the course has a reputation, we usually have a good number who really want to go — but getting to forty can be daunting.

2.  Hotels.   Hotels are a challenge with over 40 people.   Luckily we’ve made connections over the years.  We know of a good hotel in Venice, Agli Artisti, near the train station.   Our favorites are the FLorentine hotels Abacho and Giappone, just blocks from the Duomo.   The Florence hotels feature five flights of stairs and no elevator, but the people there are awesome – we’ve stayed there every time.   Rome varies.   We usually stay near the Termini train station because it’s convenient, but they don’t like booking large groups.   We often have to break the group up.   My strategy now is to inquire about smaller groups in a number of hotels located close to each other.

Here I am with students in a Florence park, a seminar about the themes of the course so far (students were divided in groups, faculty rotated)

3.   Money.   Every trip has had a balanced budget.   As “keeper of the finances” my task is to determine a travel fee (cost of airfare, hotels, internal travel, public transportation, airport service, and many museums and events) and keep it as inexpensive as possible.   We do pretty good.   We get group rate train tickets (much cheaper than the Italian rail passes we got our first time); with hotels we balance price and quality.   By quality I mean safety and cleanliness, we eschew luxuries!   Students bring their own money for meals and others (though hotels usually have breakfast).

The hard part – determining the price in September without knowing what the value of the Euro will be in May.   Sometimes, it makes things really tight.    Even pricing in a higher value things can shoot up, that happened a couple of times and it was a struggle to stay in budget.   Once, though, the Euro dropped pretty dramatically and we were able to have some group meals and extra day trips.

Not the best quality photo, but our friends at Hotel Abacha (via dei Banchi) in Florence surprised us with some bread and wine one evening

4.  Logistics.   Who is coming?   How many need a bus to the airport?   Can we pick people up at the Kennebunk rest area?   How early should we get to the airport?    Too early and people get bored, but we don’t want to risk a flat tire or traffic jam threatening our flight!   One thing I learned is that when you’re traveling with a big group, airlines treat you right.   They don’t want to rebook 40 people.

Once we flew Portland-New York-Rome.   Due to a weather delay we arrived in New York at the very time our Rome flight was to depart.  I was convinced we’d have to spend the night near JFK.   Nope – Delta had a bus next to plane just to get our group to our flight.  They had held it for us, gave us boarding passes as we entered, and the best part is that our luggage arrived on time too!   Another time in London British Airways switched to a bigger plane to rebook us to Vienna (on a Germany-Austria trip) after we missed our flight due to volcanic ash.

Vatican seminar – the history and politics of the Catholic Church is fascinating

Theme of the Course:  Travel well, live well.   Traveling well means to accept that problems will emerge.   Museums will be closed, trains will be late, we’ll get lost, we’ll miss out on something, and our feet will get blisters.

Some people get very annoyed when things don’t go as planned, they get mad at airlines, the trains, and people who seem to be mucking up their day.   Stress builds.   These people are not traveling well.   The key is to let it go, go with the flow.   No matter how bad it seems, you’ll have a story and things will work out.    Once a student forgot his passport at the hostel and had to miss the train from Florence to Rome.   We gave him instructions to catch the next one, but due to a change of platforms about three hours into his trip he noticed the Alps.   Ooops, not Rome.   But he made it.

Another student had a passport stolen, others have gotten ill, and we get lost and off schedule quite a bit!   Don’t let such things get the better of you, look at it all as an experience — enjoy and travel well!   My experience is that if you can travel well, those traits carry over into every day life.   Problems get solved, life goes on, and you collect experiences!

Still eight months to go, but already I’m thinking of Italy!

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Global Economic Collapse Imminent?

Alarming words from the head of the IMF: a global economic collapse could occur within weeks if something isn’t done head off the ongoing crisis in Europe.   The warning may seem overblown, but the danger is real.

Here’s the problem: unless investors are convinced that bonds issued by Greece, Spain, Portugal, Italy and Ireland are safe, they’ll start selling them off in the bond market.   That will drive down the price (supply increases, demand will be low).   When the price of a bond falls, that increases its interest rate.    An Italian bond set to pay off 1000 Euros in three years might normally cost 940 Euro, meaning you’d earn 60 Euro (about 2% per year) on your investment.  But if people start thinking the Italian economy is going to tank then the price may drop dramatically — the 1000 Euro bond might cost only 850 Euro, meaning a 5% yield, or go even lower. Right now the Italian 10 year bond has a 5.5% yield rate.

By comparison, US Treasuries have about 2% yield on the ten year bond, as does Germany’s.  This means that if the US and Germany sell bonds to finance government debt, the cost is relatively low — 2% a year.  If Italy wants to run deficits, they pay a much higher interest rates.    Now, guess what Greece’s 10 year bond yield rate is.   23%.   That is simply unsustainable even in the short term.  It shows that people are expecting a Greek default and thus dumping bonds to those who want to take a big risk to potentially pocket a 23% investment gain.

Spain is also at about 5%, but Portugal’s bond yield is 11%, and Ireland’s at near 8%.  Those are getting into very high risk territory.   Now, at this point all these yields are kept somewhat low (relative to what they could be) by the hope/expectation of an EU bailout.   The EU has intervened in Greece, Greece has undertaken a very unpopular austerity program (after all you can’t keep running up debt borrowing at 23%!), and the panic has been minimal.

But what if the EU can’t save Greece?   Then the Greeks will likely default, they simply can’t make payments on their bonds.  The bond holders — banks throughout Europe (including Germany) will then be under stress, as some of their assetts become worthless.  Still, if it stopped there, that wouldn’t be that big of a crisis.  The danger is Contagion.   Holders of Portugese, Italian, Spanish and Irish bonds would realize that the world has changed: default is possible.    Yields on all those bonds would likely rise dramatically creating default threats across southern Europe.   At that point bank assets would be so stressed that credit markets would dry up and the European economy would be hit by a crisis larger than what hit the US in 2008.

US and British banks are relatively unexposed, but the economic impact would be to sink the world deeper in recession.   But it doesn’t end there.

Banks, including those in the US and UK, have been issuing credit default swaps on these bonds.   These swaps can be seen as akin to a life insurance policy.   Let’s say your neighbor confides with you that he has cancer, even though he’s young and fit.  You then go to an insurance agent and buy a life insurance policy on him for $1 million.    You pay a policy of $300 a year, but if the cancer kills him you could get $ 1 million.

Insurance companies sell these policies because statistically they don’t expect to make large payments.  Most of us go through life paying for insurance “just in case.”   But in the world of finance it’s more like a casino.    The credit default swaps are cheap, but have a potentially very large payoff.   It’s like placing a bet on a long shot horse — you’ll probably lose, but if you win the earnings are big.   So if you decide to bet against the EU and Italy, you can buy credit default swaps on Italian bonds.    If the bonds mature and Italy pays their value, you get nothing and lose the “premium” you paid to buy the swap.   But if Italy defaults, you get the value of the bond — potentially a huge pay off.   That happened back in the US when owners of credit default swaps on mortgage backed bonds made a killing when the real estate bubble burst.

The thing is, we don’t know how exposed banks are in terms of credit default swaps.  If they’ve felt confident that the crisis would be contained, they may be very exposed.   So even banks that don’t directly hold bonds might be on the hook if defaults spread.   That would add to the depth of the crisis and could spark a breakdown in the entire financial system of the kind that the bail outs of 2008 managed to avoid.    In such a case credit would be very difficult to come by, even for “safe” auto loans, perhaps even credit cards would be hit.

If the EU doesn’t manage to convince investors that Greece will not default the whole thing could spread quickly — within weeks.   If the EU came up with a very comprehensive package they could allay fears and Greek yields would come back down to earth and overcome the crisis.   It would be a couple years before deleveraging would get them out of the woods, but investor confidence would return and the system would survive.

However, although this may look like a no brainer in those terms, in political terms it’s a tough sell.   Any kind of package that saves the system would appear to be a bail out of countries who had been irresponsible in their borrowing and spending, and protection of banks who made irresponsible loans.    That would be very unpopular in countries like Germany, which would pay a lion’s share of the cost.   But it would also be unpopular in Greece, whose people protest cuts in spending and increases in taxes.   In their eyes they’re being made to suffer for mistakes of bureaucrats and banks, and a mix of spending cuts and tax increases assures a deeper recession and more pain.   They’d rather default than suffer austerity.   So the moves needed to save the global political economy are by nature very unpopular and arose anger.

Most people don’t know how bonds work, wouldn’t know a credit default swap from collaterized debt obligation, and have no sense of just how interconnected the financial industry is world wide.  The argument supporting such “bailouts” is only persuasive if you really work through the intricacies of how the financial system functions.  Most voters don’t do that, so any politician who tries to save the system will probably lose their job.

With so much on the line I think they’ll find a way to avert catastrophe.   The stakes are just too high, and the insiders know what the stakes are, and how inaction could mean utter catastrophe.    Still, the danger is real.   That’s why stories about European bond yields and bailout plans may be the most important news to follow in coming weeks.   Global economic collapse is still unlikely, but quite possible.

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Attila and Osama

I have finished Christopher Kelly’s intriguing and riveting book The End of Empire: Attila the Hun and the Fall of Rome.   It is a superb read for anyone interested in the fall of Rome, and a period of history where the West slipped into chaotic localism after over 600 years of Roman dominance and peace.

In the second half of the book the Empire falls and we get a much closer look at Attila.

In 447 an earthquake did major damage to the Theodosian walls.  57 towers were destroyed, and much of its defensive ability was gone.    Constantinople was vulnerable to a Hun attack.    Attila did attack, and the Roman forces lost every battle in an effort to slow down the progress.  They didn’t try to come together and decisively win, fearing that if they lost, Attila would rush to Constantinople and take the city.  They had to buy time – and did.  In an heroic effort to rebuild the walls in 60 days all of the citizens came together and formed work teams.   Attila got within 20 miles, and then negotiated a peace.  He got chunks of territory along the Danube and a large yearly pay off not to attack.

The result was that by 450 the Roman empire had become a shell of what it was.  The western Empire had lost Great Britain, much of Spain, northern Africa and even Sicily.  The Eastern Empire fared better.  Persia was keeping the peace.   By this point, the Emperors were scrambling to keep their empires in tact.  Theodosius would die in 450, just before Attila would make a bold dash into France in 451.  The Goths and Romans would together defeat the Huns, but only after Attila pushed nearly to the coast and did considerable damage.

They thought that Attila would regroup back on the Hungarian plains, but instead in he attacked Italy in 452, taking Milan and threatening Rome itself.  Attila’s forces had cut into the Western Empire in both France and Italy, and had a few times gotten deep into the East near Constantinople.  However, in 453 he died.   He had taken a new wife and in the celebration after the wedding he died.   His sons couldn’t hold the empire and the people they had conquered rebelled and within a few years the Huns were no longer a force in Europe.

Still, the Vandals, Goths and others were too much for the West.  In 476 the last western Emperor was deposed.  The Eastern Empire, which would morph into what would be known as the Byzantine Empire, would survive until 1453, but only with a shell of the former Roman glory.   A great Empire had fallen.

As noted in the previous post, Rome had been built on brutality – on the same kind of cold willingness to kill that so offended the Romans when it came from the Huns.   Caesar’s conquests destroyed human life at a pace and scope not to be met until the Spaniards would invade Latin America.   A Christian Roman Empire had a different set of values than the pagan Roman Empire.

Thus the Empire did not keep its military science moving forward, culture stagnated, and the number of troops available and the taxes to arm them started to diminish.   Instead of taking from those they conquered they started to pay off others so that they would not conquer them.

To the Romans the Huns were savages, lacking Christian values or even the basics of civilization.   The Roman historian Ammianus describes them (this quote taken from Christopher Kelly’s The End of Empire, pp. 23-25 — get the book to read more, I’m cutting a lot out):

“The Huns exceed any definition of savagery.  They have compact, sturdy limbs and thick necks.  They are so hideously ugly and distorted that they could be mistaken for two legged beasts…they are so wild in their way of life that they have no need of fire or pleasant tasting foods, but eat the roots of uncultivated plants and the half raw flesh of all sorts of animals.  This they place between their thighs and the backs of their horses to warm it up a little.

…They wear garments made of linen or stitched together from the pelts of mice found in the wild; they have the same clothes for indoors and out…Once they have put on a tunic (that is drab colored) it is not changed or even taken off until it has been reduced to tatters by a long process of decay and falls apart bit by bit.

…  Like refugees, all without permanent settlements, homes, law or a fixed way of life – they are always on the move with their wagons…in their wagons their wives weave for them the horrid clothes that they wear.

…In agreeing truces they are faithless and fickle, swaying from side to side in every breeze as new possibilities present themselves, subordinating everything to their impulsive desires.  Like unthinking animals they are completely ignorant of the difference between right and wrong. They burn with an unquenchable lust for gold, and are so capricious and quick to anger that often without any provocation they quarrel with their allies…Fired with an overwhelming desire for seizing the property of others, these swift moving and ungovernable people make their destructive away amid the pillage and slaughter of those who live around them.”

The Romans contrasted their advanced culture and civilization – and Christianity – with these godless semi-human beasts.    Yet almost all of that was propaganda, reflecting traditional Roman views of non-Romans.   Ammianus may have believed it, but he was going on hearsay and bias.

In that same book, Kelly tells of another history of the Huns, written later by Priscus.  Priscus could speak Hunnish, so he was sent along on a diplomatic mission from Constantinople to meet Attila.    Priscus and the Roman envoy Maximillan stayed in Attila’s city for almost two months.  Priscus knew this was the opportunity of a lifetime, and acting like a social scientist he observed and analyzed Hun culture.  (The whole story is fascinating, get Kelly’s book to read it in detail!)

The Huns had homes, dressed well and liked fancy clothes.   Their food was good and well cooked.  They had rituals, customs, treated each other and their guests with respect, enjoyed Roman delights like dried fruits, and were curious about Roman culture.   One ex-Roman he met – a farmer who had been attacked by the Huns and ultimately joined them and took a Hun wife – said that Hun culture had the virtue and strength Rome had lost.  Priscus puts forth a defense of Roman civilization in his recounting of this encounter, but leaves with the farmer saying that Rome has lost much of what Priscus describes.  Priscus does not respond, suggesting that he may agree.

Priscus point is simple: though he doesn’t condone Hun destruction of whole towns and the slaughter of innocents, the caricatured view of the Huns as savages with no regard for the value of human life is absolutely false.

There are parallels between the above example and how some Americans look at Arabs or Muslims.  Describing and attacking whole groups as having weird and even inhumane (e.g., ‘they don’t value life as we do’) traits is a common way to portray an enemy.  This fed into Roman notions that they were defending Christian civilization from barbarism and paganism.  That’s how many have portrayed the US ‘war on terror.’

One could compare Attila and Osama Bin Laden.  Bin Laden has been portrayed as the inhumane essence of evil.  But like Attila, he was shrewd, even brilliant, and rationally pursued his goal.  For Attila it was to build the most profitable protection racket he could; for Osama it was to try to get western influence out of the Muslim world.   Neither had moral qualms about killing innocents.   For Attila this was to instill fear so people would pay; for Osama it was to use the little power he had to weaken and potentially manipulate a great power.

I hopes that there is yet another similarity.   After Attila died, the Huns became a non-factor, fighting amongst themselves as the people they once subjugated rose up and crushed the Hun Empire.   Osama Bin Laden is now dead; hopefully his movement will also dissipate and the Arab spring will crush violent extremism.

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