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Tag: h.a.l. fisher


Frederick III, Holy Roman Emperor, detail
(Hans Burgkmair, circa 1500)
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

from H. A. L. Fisher, A History of Europe, pp. 351-352
(Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 1935)

Frederick III (1440-93), the first Emperor to show the famous Habsburg lip, and the last Emperor to be crowned in Rome, was as great a nullity as ever played an important part in history. Without any of the engaging gifts of Edward II of England, Frederick was just as little fitted as that unfortunate monarch for the dispatch of business… [This] dull obstinate bigot ruled in Vienna for more than fifty years, leaving no print of mind or will upon the conduct of affairs. The Turks conquered Constantinople and overran Hungary. The rôle of Austria as the chief remaining bulwark of Christianity against the Ottoman Turk became charged with a new significance, which could hardly escape the meanest intelligence. But no event, however, startling, could ruffle the placidity of Frederick, no problem however grave could excite his sluggish mind, or the most alarming prospect inflame his torpid imagination. Inertia was the principle of his life. The most important station in Europe at one of the most critical moments in her history was occupied by a blockhead.

Looking Back at Obama

Ex-President Obama’s last look at the White House
(Source: Pete Souza’s Instagram)

As Obama’s term ends, one cannot help reflect on the legacy of his presidency. While his approval ratings remain highest among exiting chief executives of the recent past, I’m afraid that the sober eye of history will cast a harsh judgment on what he did–or rather, did not do–during his watch. As the glitter of his celebrity tarnishes with time, the deficiencies of his feckless leadership will come to full relief, like that of “dull” and “sluggish” Holy Roman Emperor Frederick III, who oversaw the final fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks (1453). When Europe is finally completely Islamized, and its democracies subjected to Sharia Law, its people will look back on Obama’s failures in Libya, Syria, and Iraq, the rise of the barbaric Islamic State and the mass migration of muslim refugees to Europe, and discover in his inscrutable inertia the root of its decline.










“No problem however grave could excite his sluggish mind”

The Course of Empire

The Course of Empire: Desolation (1833-36, Thomas Cole)
“First freedom and then Glory–when that fails
Wealth, vice, corruption–barbarism at last” (Lord Byron)

from H. A. L. Fisher, A History of Europe
(Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 1935)

The Western Empire, A. D. 476 (pp. 124-125)

From this moment, the germanization of the West steadily proceeded. Ostrogoths poured into the Balkan peninsula, creating by their restless and turbulent activities a problem similar to that which had taxed the resources of the Eastern Empire a century before. In Italy a succession of phantom and ephemeral emperors reached its close with a pathetic figure, named by the supreme irony of providence, Romulus Augustus, who was deposed by Odovacar, the East German master of the troops (476). Military revolutions were no novelty in the annals of the Roman Empire, and the act of Odovacar had many precedents… It is true that he deposed Romulus, but the lad was a usurper, unrecognized in Constantinople, and the deed condoned by the bestowal upon its author of the high imperial title of patrician. What was original in Odovacar’s action was not that it was revolutionary, but that it was conservative. He refused to appoint a successor to Romulus, calculating that he would have more elbowroom in a united Empire governed from Constantinople as in the days of Theodosius the Great. That unity was in fact and theory preserved until the coronation of Charlemagne as Emperor of the West in 800.

The Roman Empire at the time of Theodosius I,
Last Emperor to rule the Eastern and Western parts

Barbarian invasions of the 5th century

The Eastern (Byzantine) Empire, A. D. 1453 (pp. 418-419)

Constantine VI (1458-53), the last of the Caesars, though the nominee of Murad and his vassal, shines out in the final crisis of the Empire as a statesman and hero, prepared alike for compromise and for sacrifice. The Greek population of Constantinople, for whom the quarrels of monks were always more important than the clash of races, were unworthy of such a leader. While Mohammed’s artillery was battering at the walls, the public opinion of the capital was inflamed by denunciation of the Emperor who, in the desperate hope of winning the West to his side, had dared to recognize the Roman Church and to permit the celebration of Roman rites in the Church of Saint Sophia. To these wretched theological preoccupations we may perhaps ascribe the fact that the main part of the defence of the city was undertaken, not by the Greeks, but by Spaniards, Germans, and Italians. And as the defending force was not principally Greek, so the attacking army was not wholly Turkish. The levies of Mohammed were largely recruited from men of a Greek and Christian stock. So it happened that on May 29, 1453, by default of the Christians the great city was breached and stormed, the last of the Byzantine Emperors perishing honourably in the death agony of the Empire.

Left: The Sack of Rome by the Barbarians in 410
(1890, Joseph-Noël Sylvestre)
Right: The Entry of Mahomet II into Constantinople
(1876, Jean-Joseph Benjamin-Constant)

Marginal Notes:

Another example of Fisher’s gift for compression–a rendering of complex history vividly yet with great economy. While he describes the final fate of the Western and Eastern Roman Empires at a galloping pace, he does so in evocative language that attends to all that are remarkable and of consequence, and to the peculiar nature of personalities: the pathetic figure of Romulus, ironically named after the Empire’s mythical founder; the germanic military mensch, Odovacar, usurping power from the effete boy-king; the tragic Constantine XI (not VI), last emperor of Byzantium, protecting with his life a city that bickered against him.

While germanic barbarians whittled away at the Western Empire over a period of a hundred years, the Byzantine Empire slowly collapsed under its weight for another thousand years, until the Ottoman Turks finally captured Constantinople. Fisher dramatizes the immediate causes of the fall by describing how, even as Mohammed II’s army were banging at the walls, the Greek monks were busy publicly denouncing the Emperor for allowing Latin liturgy in an Orthodox church.

These epic historical moments were popular subjects of paintings in the 19th century, with Sylvestre depiciting in Academic mode the Sack of Rome by the Visigoths, while Benjamin-Constant employed the lush Orientalist style for Mohammed II’s triumphal entry into Constantinople. In Sylvestre’s painting, brutish barbarians, in their animal nakedness, scale the imposing statue of Caesar to topple it, while Alaric the Bold looked on. The stolid white marble of the Roman Forum, and the imperious demeanor of larger-than-life Caesar, adorned with laurels of victory and bearing a lion shield, contrast effectively with the sanguine beastliness of the German mob. In Benjamin-Constant’s painting, Mohammed II on his black Arabian stallion raises the green crescent flag as he tramples upon the dead Byzantines–patrician women and slaves, monks and knights, even Moors. Smoke billows from the burning Christian city, as a late afternoon light washes the stone archway with a tinge of saffron, the sun setting on the ruins of a once glorious Empire.

While such arcane theological debates that caused so much grief and bloodshed throughout Europe’s history seem quaint today, a new sort of religion has taken its place, especially among the secular Left in the West, in the form of PC activism. While ISIS razes the Middle East and Al-Qaida threaten Western civilization in Europe, the priests and prophets of Climate Change are preoccupied with theological sophistries (carbon emissions causing terrorism?) and persecution of its heretics (plotting civil suits against “deniers”?). Their long incubation in the comforts of civilization have detached them from the grim realities that prop up the conditions of their existence, and like the monks behind the walls of Constantinople, they have lost all sense of proportion.

Cities, however, are not defended by beliefs, but by will and material power. Had the Greeks been resolute and united, had the navies of Genoa and Venice been placed at the disposition of the Imperial Government, had there been among the Greek and Italian peoples a common will to save Constantinople, saved it would have been. (p. 418)

This flight from reality is symptomatic of a decadent exhaustion in the late phases of Empire. What fools they would seem when Europe is finally reduced to the rule of tribal despots and subjected to Sharia Law. The barbarian invasions of the 5th century forever changed the character of Europe; there is no reason it will not happen again.

But while the pagan German invaders converted to Christianity and schooled themselves in Latin culture, the Ottoman Turk did not. At the end of his account of the fall of Constantinople, Fisher writes this coda:

The conquerors were Asiatic nomads and so remained. Sir Charles Eliot, describing the interior of the house of a Turkish gentleman in the nineteenth century, observes that it contained no more furniture than could be carried off at a moment’s notice on a wagon to Asia. A certain dignity of bearing, coupled with a grave exterior polish and a sense of humor and irony, were noted by Western observers as favourable traits in the Turkish character… But the culture of the West was not valued. The Turk remained an alien in Europe, having no part in its traditions, and limited in his notions of imperial government to the philosophy of a slave-owning oligarchy in a world of potential slaves. (p. 419)

Vikings in Sicily

Coronation of Roger II, robed in Byzantine splendor

from H. A. L. Fisher, A History of Europe, pp. 195-196
(Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 1935)

So under the full glow of papal benediction these freebooters of the North laid the foundations of a civilized state in Mediterranean waters. With Norman flexibility the descendants of Tancred organized government under new and difficult conditions and on original lines. In the kingdom of Roger II, who united the Norman territories on either side of the Straits of Messina, Europe witnessed a polity half Oriental, half Western, providing a shelter for Greek, Latin, Moor, and Jew, and better organized, seeing that it preserved the tradition of its Greek and Saracen past, than any other European government of that age. Among the orange groves of Palermo, Roger, the descendant of the Vikings, sat upon his throne, robed in the dalmatic of the apostolic legate and the imperial costume of Byzantium, his ministers part Greek, part English, his army composed as to half of Moors, his fleet officered by Greeks, himself a Latin Christian, but in that balmy climate of the South, ruling in half Byzantine, half Oriental state, with a harem and eunuchs, a true representative of his lovely island shared then as ever between East and West.

Monreal Cathedral (from Wikipedia)

Time has dealt kindly with this dynasty of gifted pirates. Mosaics, the best which Greece could provide, still embellish the walls of the noble cathedral of Monreale, which looks down upon the flowers and orchards of the Conco d’Oro. In that same earthly paradise an exquisite cloister still invites to repose, and the visitor, noting what he there sees of building and sculpture, of jewellery and decoration, must admire the splendour of the Norman princes now sleeping in tombs of dark porphyry, who in the twelfth century brought about so great an assemblage of the arts and crafts of their age.

Very different was the Scandinavian scene from which the Vikings had sailed forth to slay, to burn, and to conquer. No Monreale, or Caen, or Durham rose in the solitary valleys of Norway. There the Viking aristocracy bled to death in civil war. By the thirteenth century Scandinavia was empty of personal eminence, The days of her influence was over. A rude, unlettered peasantry extracted a sorry living from a barren soil.

Marginal Notes:

One of the many memorable passages in H. A. L. Fisher’s A History of Europe. A signal example of what contemporary critics called “a marvel of compression” (The Spectator), while praising its “[narrative] richness and glow” (The Times). I continue to delight in reading this book I found in the dusty bins of an old thrift shop. It is a must companion on any trip to Europe.

Here Fisher describes in one nimble sweep the effect of Norse conquest of Latin Europe after the disintegration of the Western Roman Empire. Like the Germanic tribes before them, the Norsemen became more humane from contact with civilizing Latin culture. Thus the conquerors, in turn, were conquered, adapting the language and manners of the Romans, the prestige of their Church and gilded glow of their liturgy. The romance and chivalry of Medieval Europe evolved from the Latin enlightenment of these Northern barbarians.

To make the point of how far these Viking marauders have come along in two centuries of Mediterranean settlement, he describes the splendor of their palaces and churches, their cosmopolitan society and civil government, and the excellence of their arts and crafts, contrasting this to their progenitor’s descent into barbarity.

But even as Fisher surveys history with a clear-sighted long view and even-handed judgment, he brings into relief those remarkable characters, scenes, and episodes in expressive, even lyrical, language rich in detail and drama, such as the coronation of Roger II, decked in Byzantine splendor among the orange groves of Palermo, or the elegiac image of Norman princes in their tombs of porphyry.

This vivid language and magisterial command is what is now lost in the tedious bureaucratese of what passes for scholarship these days in the humanities.


Bronze figure of a running girl (perhaps Spartan?)
Archaic Greek (520-500 BC), British Museum

from Herodotus, The History, 4.49-51
(Translation: David Grene, University of Chicago Press, 1987)

But Aristagoras, the prince of Miletus, came to Sparta while Cleomenes held the power. And Aristagoras came to speech with him (according to the Lacedaemonian account) having in his hand a bronze tablet with the whole map of the world engraved upon it, and all the sea, and all the rivers. So Aristagoras came to speech with the king and said: “Cleomenes, be not amazed at the eagerness of my coming here. The circumstances are these: that the children of the Ionians should be slaves instead of free men is the greatest of reproaches to ourselves, and, of all the rest of men, especially to you, inasmuch as you are the leaders of Greece. Now, by the Greek gods, rescue from slavery the Ionians, for they are of your blood. It is easy for you to compass the matter. The foreigners are not men of valor, and you, in war, are in the foremost ranks of mankind for bravery. Their fighting is with bows and short spears. They wear trousers when they go to battle and peaked caps on their heads. So easy are they for the beating. What is more, these men that live on that continent have an abundance of good things such as not all other men together have–beginning with gold, and then silver, and bronze, and dyed raiment, and beasts of burden, and slaves. You may have of these all your heart’s desire. They live, too, next to one another, as I can show you: here are the Lydians, right next to the Ionians, living in a fertile land, and they have much silver among them.” As he spoke, he pointed to these places on the map of the earth that he carried around, engraved on his tablet. “And here, next to the Lydians,” said Aristagoras, “are the Phrygians, to the east, with more flocks than any people on earth that I know and with greater crops. Next to the Phrygians are the Cappadocians, whom we call Syrians. On their borders are the Cilicians, whose land comes down to the sea right here, where the island of Cyprus lies. Fifty talents are what they contribute to the Great King yearly. Next the Cilicians are the Armenians, here–they, too, are rich in herds–and next the Armenians are the Matieni, who live in this country. Next them is the Cissian land, and in it, by this river, the Choaspes, is Susa, where the Great King has his lodging and where his treasure houses are. Capture that city and you may well boast that you rival Zeus in wealth. But here you are fighting for land that is neither large nor fertile but of small bounds. Ought you to risk such a fight? It is against the Messenians, who are as good men as you, and Arcadians and Argives, who have no possessions of gold or silver, the lust for which has led many a man to fight and die. You have the chance of an easy empire over all Asia; will you choose something else?” That was what Aristagoras said, and Cleomenes answered him, “My friend from Miletus, I postpone my answer until the day after tomorrow.”

That was as far as they went, then. When the day appointed for the answer came and they met at the place arranged, Cleomenes asked Aristagoras how many days’ journey it was from the Ionian sea to where the Great King was. In everything else Aristagoras was very clever and had tricked Cleomenes successfully, but here he tripped up. He ought not to have told the truth if he wanted to bring the Spartans into Asia. However, he did tell it, saying that the journey from the sea up to Susa was a matter of three months. Cleomenes cut off all the rest of the story that Aristagoras was set to give him about the journey and said, “My friend from Miletus, away with you from Sparta before the sun sets! There is no argument of such eloquence that you can use on the Lacedaemonians if you want to bring them three months’ journey from the sea.”

With these words Cleomenes went to his house; but Aristagoras, taking on himself the signs of a suppliant, went to Cleomenes’ house and entered and sat down there as a suppliant, begging Cleomenes to hear him. He asked the king to send away his daughter (whose name was Gorgo), for the girl was standing beside her father. She was his only child and was perhaps eight or nine years old. Cleomenes bade him say whatever he liked and not to hold back because of the child. Then Aristagoras began with an opening promise of ten talents if the king would do what he asked. As Cleomenes refused, Aristagoras raised his bids, little by little, till he made an offer of fifty talents. At this the child cried out and said, “Father, this stranger will corrupt you if you do not take yourself away.” Cleomenes was delighted by his daughter’s advice and went into another room, and Aristagoras left Sparta altogether and never got another chance to give any more information about the journey from Ionia inland to the dwelling of the Great King.

Marginal Notes:

Aristagoras was an opportunist and snake oil salesman. Here he tries to convince Cleomenes to come to the Ionians’ aid against Persian invaders with smooth talk about the value of kinship and tempting dreams of empire–of rich distant lands ripe for Sparta’s easy picking. But before this, Aristagoras went before the Persians to recruit their aid against Naxos and the Cyclades, with ambitions of being their ruler. When the expedition turned sour, he switched sides and here, before the court of Cleomenes, presents himself as champion of the cause of Ionian (and thereby Greek) liberty.

What he failed to consider was Sparta’s deep conservatism. They will not venture far from hearth and home–not even for a get-rich-quick imperial scheme. Here is how H.A.L. Fisher describes the Spartans’ moderate disposition (against the more venturesome Athenians):

A deliberate prudence was the mark of the Spartan, a vivacious and enterprising audacity of the Athenian character. The Spartan loved his home, the Athenian sought adventure far and wide in foreign lands. All the oligarchical parties in the Greek cities looked to conservative Sparta as their natural leader and the principal prop and support of the aristocratic cause. To the democrats, on the other hand…, Athens stood out, not indeed as the champion of liberty, but as the exponent of equality at home…

(A History of Europe, 1935, p.35)

Gorgo was the voice of Spartan prudence in this episode. She saw through Aristagoras’ used-car salesman’s tenacity of slowly sweetening the deal until her father caved in, and so abruptly puts a stop to it. What is surprising (and bad ass) was the self-possession of this young girl, unafraid to let her voice be heard at the king’s court. While Spartan men were solely dedicated to war, women were left to govern the household, the estate, and the economy. Hence Cleomenes’ delight at his daughter’s display of good sense.

The Mediterranean was a Roman lake

The Roman Empire at its greatest extent under Trajan

The Empire, as it was finally shaped by Augustus, included Spain, Gaul, Italy, and the Balkans, the north coast of Africa, Palestine, Syria, and Asia Minor. The Mediterranean was a Roman lake. Every people who had contributed to the sum of Western civilization was now subjected to Rome.

(from A History of Europe, H.A.L. Fisher, p. 85)

Found this excellent book on the history of Europe in the discount section of an antique shop in Old Town Goleta. The author, H.A.L. Fisher, was a member of the British Parliament, upon whose retirement became warden of New College in Oxford, where he wrote, among other things, this history. Published in 1935, the trauma of the Great War was still within living memory, and its consequences very much apparent in world affairs, with the Nazi Party having assumed power in Germany just two years prior. It is a 1280-page tome, but easy on the reader with its brisk pace and vivid prose. It is not textbook fare. For example, the following account of the fall of Athens at the end of the Peloponnesian War is rendered in a high elegiac tone:

When her fleet had been destroyed at Aegospotami at the end of a long and bitter war, Sparta might have applied to Athens the same terrible penalty which, in a spasm of passionate wrath, Athens had meted out to the little island of Melos. She might have razed the city to the ground, she might have slaughtered or enslaved its inhabitants. In the fierce hatred inspired by Athenian tyrrany, these cruelties would have been popular and were, in fact, recommended; but Athens was saved by the respect which even Sparta was compelled to feel for the brightest ornament of Hellenic civilization.

The city was spared in consideration of her virtues, and not on one occasion only. Seventy years later, when Alexander of Macedon had destroyed Thebes, saving only the house of Pindar, and Athens, which had designed to send help to the Thebans, was exposed to his attack, the same sentiment of homage to the shrine of so much genius interposed its mediation–

                         and the repeated air
Of sad Electra’s poet had the power
To save the Athenian walls from ruin bare.

(p. 41)

Leo von Klenze, Reconstruction of the Acropolis
and Areus Pagus in Athens, 1846

The last lines are from Milton’s 8th sonnet, which in turn refers to an episode in Plutarch’s biography of Lysander, the Spartan general who brought Athens to its knees. There was a clamor for “the city be razed to the ground, and the country about it left for sheep to graze.” But during a banquet among the leaders, a Phocian sang the first chorus of Euripides’ Electra, and “all were moved to compassion, and felt it to be a cruel deed to abolish and destroy a city which was so famous, and produced such poets.” (Loeb Classical Library, 1916). Fisher uses this dramatic tension to drive home the cultural importance of Athens even in its decline. The poet’s gentle art had the power to stop the conqueror’s bloodlust with the Miltonian supplication: “Lift not thy spear against the Muses’ Bowre.”

Thomas Cole, The Course of Empire: Destruction, 1833-36

Again, we hear this elevated tone in his account of the final destruction of Rome, after the long drawn-out war between Byzantine Emperor Justinian and the barbaric Goths that occupied Italy. Atrocities were commited on both sides, but ironically, it was Gothic king Totila who more than once offered peace. He was willing to rule Italy as a servant of the Empire and even to pay tribute, but Justinian was rigid in his orthodoxy and single-minded in his designs. He wanted nothing less than to wipe out the Germanic tribes who had converted to a heretical form of Christianity (Arianism). Having achieved thus, the city of Rome was laid waste in the process.

For the city of Rome, five times besieged, the results of this calamitous struggle were decisive. At the end of the war, the teeming capital, with its luxurious public baths, its system of food doles and popular amusements, had disappeared. In its place a few thousand impoverished beings, many of them clerics, lingered on among monuments of ancient greatness, henceforth and for many centuries to come to be girdled by undrained and malarious wastes. No more was there a Roman Senate. The last circus had been held, the last triumph celebrated, the last consul elected. Trade and commerce were extinct, and since the Goths had cut the aqueducts which had given to ancient Rome as good a water supply as any modern city can boast, the reign of mediaeval squalor which Roman example might have corrected, spread without resistance through the Western world.

(p. 135)

I can see the haunting image of bewildered clergy stumbling among the toppled columns of the Roman Forum at the triumph of their faith. In a feat of both vivid language and sharp compression that characterize his history, Fisher powerfully evokes the irrevocable loss of civilized life, as well as foreboding the misery of the Dark Ages, when the light of Rome was snuffed out.

Theodora (mosaic detail), Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna

I think Fisher’s narrative style is borne of his approach to history, which he lays down in the Preface, that sees contingent causes, rather than overarching patterns, moving the fortunes of men.

Men wiser and more learned than I have discerned in history a plot, a rhythm, a predetermined pattern. These harmonies are concealed from me. I can see only one emergency following upon another as wave follows wave, only one great fact with respect to which, since it is unique, there can be no generalizations, only one safe rule for the historian: that he should recognize in the development of human destinies the play of the contingent and the unforeseen.

Arnold Toynbee, for example, in A Study of History, discerns a general movement (genesis, growth, time of troubles, universal state, and disintegration) in the rise and fall of nineteen civilizations from Egypt to China. (Wikipedia) Fisher, on the other hand, dispenses with such theories, and focuses, for example, on the character of the players and their actions, which make for dramatic storytelling. In his account of the Byzantine Empire under Justinian, we get this memorable sketch of Theodora, the Emperor’s wife:

[He] had looked into the gutter for a wife and picked out a diamond. Theodora was the daughter of a Cypriot bear-keeper. She had been an actress and a courtesan, had wandered and suffered, and combined in her person every quality of station and experience certain to give offence to respectable people. But though a thousand scandals were woven around her name, though she was violent in her passions and vindictive in her hates, she appears to have been in a sense a noble being, beautiful and witty, with a high courage, a statesman’s mind, and the precious gift of womanly compassion.

(p. 133)

Though done in quick brush strokes, it is quite clear who this woman was. Theodora became a tempering influence to the extremism of Justinian, and brought some measure of tolerance to his orthodoxy. Fisher’s history is thus about individual actors rather than sweeping structures. The name of so and so should be remembered, he would often say. He is like Herodotus in this sense, as well as in his firm belief in pure happenstance–like the odds of finding a diamond in the gutter. The fates of civilizations, it turns out, are determined more from the fickle outcomes of battles than from abstract, inexorable forces, as evinced in the decisive defeats of the Moslems by the Frankish king Charles Martel in 732 and by Byzantine Emperor Leo III in 718 AD.

Had Leo the Isaurian failed to beat off the imposing armada of Moslemah, the Moslem might have spread like prairie fire through the Balkans and the plain of Hungary and northward and eastward to the Urals. From this danger the great defence of Constantinople in 718, conducted by a young and capable Emperor with the aid of stout fortifications, a superior navy, Greek fire, and the timely assistance of a Bulgar army, delivered European civilization. The name of Leo should be remembered. That the Russian Church is Greek and not Moslem today is one of the results, how fortunate we dare not say, which may, without a great stretch of probabilities, be attributed to his great and resounding triumph.

(p. 149)

American journalist James Foley was beheaded by an ISIS jihadi

But there is no reason to assume that Western civilization will go on forever. Camille Paglia, in a TIME essay, wrote: “The earth is littered with the ruins of empires that believed they were eternal.” As the West faces the resurgence of virulent Islamic extremism in ISIS, it is indeed well to remember the name of Leo the Isaurian (who in some accounts was actually Syrian), his staunch defense of Constantinople, and what its outcome meant for the survival of the Western tradition, both Hellenic and Christian.