The Dark Ages: When Barbarians and Peasant Farmers Took Back Power

The Dark Ages Are Upon Us : Imperator

Episode 22: Chaos and Consolidation

The Big History of Civilizations (2016)

Dr Craig G Benjamin

Film Review

In this fascinating lecture, Benjamin traces the reconfiguration of Eurasia following the collapse of the Rome and the Han empire in China. The period 400 – 1000 AD is commonly referred to as the Dark Ages, owing to the break-up of Western Europe into smaller kingdoms and city-states. This seems to be based on the traditional view that large totalitarian empires run by ruthless dictators are preferable to smaller city-states, largely because the latter are at greater risk of being overthrown by the peasant farmers who generate state wealth.

  • China – Between the 3rd and 7th century AD (following the collapse of the Han Dynasty in 200 AD), 37 separate dynasties attempted to rule different areas of China. During the 6th century AD, the Sui dynasty unified northern and southern China via construction of the Grand Canal linking the Yellow and Yangtze Rivers. This paved the way for the Tang dynasty. The the wealthiest, most powerful and most urbanized* empire to that point in history, it would conquer Vietnam and much of Tibet and Central Asia.
  • Japan – adopted Buddhism and Chinese administrative systems in the 3rd Century BC, but independent regions controlled by powerful Samurai would not be unified under a single emperor until 1000 AD.
  • India – the Kushan empire controlling Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nepal and northern India collapsed in the 3rd century AD to be replaced by the Gupta network of regional rulers. During this period, Aryabhata (476-550) discovered the rotation of the Earth and first calculated the length of the solar year, and Varahamira invented the concept of zero.
  • Iran – the Parthian and Kushan empire was replaced by the Sassanian empire (251-651 AD), which promoted a resurgence of Zororastrianism and traded with the Byzantine Empire and the Chinese.
  • Western Europe – (following the collapse of Rome) broke up into six independent kingdoms governed by the Franks and Burgundians (in northern France), the Alemanni (in Germany), the Ostrogoths (in the Balkans) and the Odoaccerdom (Italy) and Visigoth kingdoms (Spain and southwest France). Many former Roman cities were taken over by peasant farmers and converted to pasture and market gardens.** There was a brief effort to unify Western Europe (as the Holy Roman consecrated by the Pope) effort under Charlemagne in 800 AD, but following Charlemagne’s death, reverted to warring kingdoms governed by local kings.
  • Western Asia – the eastern Roman empire (consisting of modern day Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia, Greece, Montenegro and Macedonia) continued under centralized  Byzantine rule from Constantinople.

The political dynamics of this era were complicated by a number of significant invasions:

  • Muslim: the rise of Islam in the 6th century AD, leading to the Muslim conquest of much of central Asia, North Africa and the Iberian peninsula.
  • Barbarians: the invasion of formerly Roman Britain by Picts, Scots and Anglo-Saxons.
  • Vikings: the invasion of Britain, northern Europe***and Russia**** by Vikings.

*By the 10th century AD, 2 million people lived in Chang’an and 1 million in Hangzhou.

**In the 7th century AD Rome had a population of 25,000, down from a population of one million in 150 AD.

***Normandy in France was settled by Vikings.

****Vikings controlled most of Ukraine and Russia via the trading networks they established. Kievan Russ, the first Russian state, was created by Viking elites who controlled these networks.

This film can be viewed free on Kanopy with a library card.

https://pukeariki.kanopy.com/video/chaos-and-consolidation-eurasia

The Role of the Industrial Revolution and Modern Warfare in Third World Colonization

History of the World Part 7 – The Age of Industry

BBC (2018)

Film Review

This second-to-last focuses on the role of the Western industrial revolution in facilitating wholesale colonization of the Third World: British opium wars launched against China to make the world safe for western industrial capitalism, the US Civil War, Japan’s war against their traditional Samurai class, and World War I.

In the middle of the episode, the filmmakers take a break from war to depict the brutal enslavement of the Congo (as his personal fiefdom) by Belgian King Leopold II and to re-enact the invention of the steam engine and railroad, as well as Leo Tolstoy’s efforts to educate and free his serfs.

Part 7 begins with the brutal opium wars the UK used to force China to open up to western trade. At the beginning of the 19th century, a massive British demand for tea was draining their treasury of the silver European countries had expropriated from South America. However because China refused to import western goods, the British had no legal way to get  this silver back.

They eventually fell back illegal opium smuggling to pry open the Chinese import market. The result was an estimated 17 million Chinese opium addicts by 1839. The emperor’s clampdown on smuggling led to a British declaration of war. China’s primitive wooden warships were no match for the gunships born of Britain’s industrial revolution. After two wars, the peace treaty the UK imposed ceded Hong Kong to British control and forced China to open all their markets to western trade.

Modern weaponry would also give the industrialized North a clear advantage over the agricultural South in a Civil War resulting that killed over 650,000.

When Japan refused to open their country to international trade, it was US warships that fired on their capitol in 1853. When Japan modernized their military with Western weapons and tens of thousands of new recruits, their elite Samurai class, solely responsible for centuries for the emperor’s protection, rebelled. In 1877 an army of 40,000 Samurai faced certain defeat against a modern military force with at least twice as many men and Western military hardware.

The segment about Leopold II’s personal conquest of the Congo (and its rich mineral and human resources) under the cover of a “humanitarian charity” is well worth watching. Likewise the one about German foreign minister Arthur Zimmermann’s efforts to form a military alliance with Mexico during World War I – to help them reclaim territory the US stole during the US-Mexican War (1846-1848).

Otherwise the openly anti-German propaganda in the final segment totally obscures the real origins of World War I, as revealed by recently declassified British and US documents. This is covered really well in James Corbett’s 2018 documentary The World War I Conspiracy:. The World War I Conspiracy