Uncategorized

Rulers Who Were Actually Good — History Hijinks

History can be hard, right? Lots of timelines and 
players to keep track of, and discussions of the   interplay between political, economic, cultural, 
and military factors can easily become mystifying   to the point of incoherence. Imagine the surprise 
of European farmers who learned that a disruption   to tourism in the Holy Land means they have to 
pay higher taxes to fund a transcontinental war.   It’s a little tricky sometimes! This is why 
historians aiming to both lighten the vibe   and slim down the amount of narrative knives to 
juggle may gravitate towards singular narratives   about famous figures: rulers, generals, and 
other such go-getters. This is often known as   Great Man History — But it is stupid, and I 
hate it, because not only is it insultingly   reductive and so slavishly rote that it still 
somehow manages to be boring, but it tends to   blindly-glorify characters that, more often than 
not, are assholes. So let’s try something else:   we’ll ditch the arbitrary concept of “Greatness” 
and give praise where it’s actually due by   discussing two Good rulers in history: King 
Cyrus of Persia and Sultan Saladin of Egypt.   Two noble, genuinely virtuous people who, in a 
statistical anomaly, are not profoundly awful   after three minutes of cursory research. Of 
course, this is not to say they are blameless,   they’re monarchs who conquered stuff, their 
literal job description involves killing thousands   of people to acquire land, and the simple act 
of ruling necessitates countless choices big and   small that negatively affect someone or other. 
My point here is to look at how someone in an   innately-perilous moral position can nonetheless 
demonstrate a commitment to virtue. So, to have   a little fun with pure-biography in such a way 
that won’t make me furious, Let’s do some History. Now let’s rewind to the 500s BC and meet our first 
protagonist in Persia. Well, politically, this   whole stretch was under the Median Empire, just 
east of the Neo-Babylonian Empire in Mesopotamia.   According to legend, the Median king Astyages was 
feeling antsy about a dream that prophesied his   overthrow at the small, adorably stubby hands of 
his as-of-yet-unborn grandson. But despite orders   for his daughter to kill the child, the itty bitty 
Cyrus survived in secret for 10 years before being   discovered by Astyages. Although the King had 
been pretty set on his course a decade earlier,   this time he was content to let Cyrus just 
kinda go home to Persia and exist. In 559,   Cyrus inherited Kingship of Persia from his 
father, but they were still subordinate to Media,   so in 553 he revolted against his grandfather 
Astyages and, improbably, won, conquering Media   in 550 and creating the Achaemenid Persian 
empire, named after a distant ancestor.  From there, Cyrus zoomed, swooping west into 
Anatolia to conquer the Kingdom of Lydia,   pushing east toward the Hindu Kush mountains, 
and then finally into Mesopotamia to topple the   empire of Babylon in 539. 14 years after telling 
his grandfather to scram, Cyrus had an objectively   insane amount of territory, with somewhere on the 
order of 50 million people spread over dozens of   cultures. Cyrus was managing Greeks, Phoenicians, 
Semites, Mesopotamians, Medians, Persians,   Bactrians, Parthians, and Indians. And those are 
all pretty wide descriptors! Listing off all the   ethnicities and subcultures of the Achaemenid 
Persian Empire would leave me here all day,   so you might expect someone in Cyrus’ position to 
tell all of those people “gross, too complicated,   no, no rights for you. Act more Persian, speak 
my language, and also pay more taxes”, because   that’s precisely what the Babylonian empire had 
done. The capital city was rich beyond belief   because it was drenched in tax revenue and loaded 
with treasures from all over the empire, like   statues of local gods, which, according to many of 
these cultures, were the actual gods themselves.  And Cyrus was aware that this was not the nicest 
way to treat one’s subjects. When the Persian   armies marched on Babylon, Cyrus claimed that 
the great god Bel had deserted Babylon because   of their greed and cruelty, switching his divine 
favor onto the Persians. Now let’s just take a   second to appreciate that Cyrus fundamentally 
works on the same moral framework as China’s   Mandate of Heaven. It’s obviously not the same 
thing, but it’s clearly a similar thought process,   and it definitely informs our reading of his 
benevolence. So now that Cyrus was in charge of,   well, functionally everything, he made some 
changes, like sending divine statues back to   what he called “The places that make them happy” 
which is just so adorably sweet. He also allowed   people to go back to their happy places, which 
is corroborated by a little source known as   The Bible. Because after Israel was conquered by 
Babylon, the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed and   most Jews were deported to Mesopotamia. Cyrus 
undid all that, allowing Jews to return home,   and even sponsoring the construction of a 
new temple to replace the first one. Many   Jews were content to stay in big city Babylon, 
but the migration back to the Levant had a huge   cultural and theological impact on Judaism as a 
whole. The books of Isaiah and Ezra describe how   nice it is to be treated like people despite 
their difference in religion and ethnicity,   but if we had more sources from around the empire, 
I’m sure we’d have lots of stories like this,   as official records indicate multiple 
repatriation and reconstruction programs.  But all this pan-imperial benevolence 
wasn’t just for warm fuzzy feelings,   because Cyrus was extremely pragmatic. He 
recognized where Media and Babylon failed,   and knew that the disparate parts of the 
empire would be happy if they could practice   their customs in peace, and if the economic 
infrastructure of the empire brought wealth   into the provinces rather than just yanking 
it out as taxes. So Cyrus and his successors   worked to connect the empire and facilitate 
trade by building roads, issuing coins,   and standardizing weights & measures. After 
completing his conquests, Cyrus led with kindness,   and backed it up with actions that would 
directly ensure the long-term stability and   well-being of the Persian state. Man, it’s 
amazing what happens when you actually Try. Our next subject won’t move us very far, but 
we will timeskip about 1600 years ahead, which   lands us in the Holy Land during the Crusades, 
so I’m already not having fun. Politically,   this corner of the world was, whoooof, crowded, 
with Crusader states hugging the Levantine coast,   and a smattering of small Muslim vassal 
states sandwiched between the Egyptian   Fatimid Caliphate and the Seljuk Sultanate. 
Our protagonist Salah ad-Din was born Yusuf   Ibn Ayyub in Northern Mesopotamia, where he was 
educated in language, theology, Islamic political   and military history, and science. But Medieval 
Muslim scholarship was almost always fantastic,   so this really shouldn’t be surprising. There 
was, however, no substitute for experience,   and as a young adult Saladin accompanied 
his uncle on a campaign to Egypt, where   some clever politics, a victory in battle, and 
maybe assassinating the Fatimid vizier resulted   in Saladin becoming Vizier of Egypt, and thanks 
to the fortuitous deaths of a couple caliphs,   Saladin ruled his new Ayyubid Sultanate by 1174.
And boy could he have done a heck of a lot worse   than Egypt. Throughout history, the place 
has been well-supplied, interconnected,   and extremely rich. So it made a wonderful 
base of operations from which to go pester   the crusaders. While he was swooping 
around the levant and up to Syria,   Saladin’s main focus stayed on the Christian 
kingdoms along the coast. He obviously had a   religious motivation in taking Jerusalem, but this 
typically theological rivalry had one especially   irritating antagonist by the name of Raynald 
of Châtillon. From the Sultan’s perspective,   Raynald’s singular goal in life was to give 
Saladin a heart attack from raw stress,   by breaking every treaty he possibly could, and 
killing innocent pilgrims basically for funsies.   Raynald unambiguously sucked, and even Christian 
sources at the time openly wished for Saladin   to get him. In 1183 he did get close, when he 
besieged Raynald’s castle at Kerak. But Saladin   heard Raynald’s stepson and Princess Isabella of 
Jerusalem had been married in the castle earlier   that day, and were spending the evening in one 
of the towers, so he ordered his army to continue   the siege, but be mindful so as not to disturb 
the tower. The castle was too well-defended so   Saladin withdrew a few days later, but this 
still shows Saladin’s chivalry and his good   sense of humor. Just because he was at war 
didn’t mean he’s going to be a jerk about it.  But Saladin wouldn’t have to wait for long 
to get that weaselly Raynald, or Jerusalem,   for that matter. In 1187, Saladin besieged 
the city of Tiberias and baited a crusader   army to ride out from Acre; in the middle 
of the summer, across a very long road with   only one water spring. When Saladin subsequently 
ambushed the army at the Horns of Hattin, it was   already Game Over. Most of the army was killed 
or captured, including the King of Jerusalem   and Monsieur Raynald. The King was cool, so 
Saladin treated him with the utmost courtesy, but   Raynald was beyond negotiation, so Saladin scolded 
him for his awful behavior before grabbing a sword   and killing him himself. After that, the king was 
ransomed and sent peacefully home. Although, home   is a stretch, because Saladin took advantage of 
the Crusaders’ sudden lack of an army to conquer   Jerusalem and almost all of the Holy Land. And 
in contrast to the Crusader’s massacre of 1099,   Saladin took Jerusalem with far less violence and 
vandalism, ransoming most Christians in the city   and letting several thousand just go free. This of 
course prompted a third Crusade, pitting Saladin   against England’s King Richard the Lionheart, but 
this contest was far more chivalrous. Although   Richard executed thousands of Muslim captives in 
Acre, he was still infinitely better than Raynald.   When Richard lost a horse and fell ill at the 
battle of Arsuf, Saladin, who lost that battle,   gifted two horses from his royal stables and sent 
his royal physician to treat the English King.   The war soon ended in a treaty that restricted 
Crusader kingdoms to the coast, and recognized   the capture of Jerusalem, but Saladin offered to 
allow Christian pilgrims to still visit the city.   So it’s not hard to see why even sources from 
his adversaries had a deep respect for the man. Both within and beyond their respective 
empires, Cyrus and Saladin are well-deserving   of their reputations. Their political and 
military accomplishments were plenty already,   but it takes a really special figure for even 
their enemies praise their underlying character.   Generals who fought against Saladin wrote him 
letters of apology, and then even the Greek   writer Xenophon cited Cyrus as the ideal king. To 
a degree, both of these figures got caught on the   other side of an arbitrary East vs West conflict, 
which is why us “westerners” don’t know them as   well as we arguably should, but despite the unkind 
bias of various Greek and Crusader historians   against Persians and Muslims respectively, 
the reputations of these two have clearly   transcended cultural boundaries, as models of what 
it means to use power for good, mostly for good,   about as good as a monarch can use their power 
for, all things considered. And heck, maybe recent   history is just getting to me, but I uh, I dunno, 
feel like we can maybe learn a bit from that. Thank you so much for watching! As someone who 
has very strong opinions about the way monarchs   are discussed in history, this was a very fun way 
to talk about cool characters that we can actually   look up to in some key ways. Luckily, history 
does have a handful of actually good rulers,   so I’m looking forward to covering 
some more in future videos. As always,   thank you patrons for supporting the work that 
we do, and I’ll see you in the next video.
Video source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DJ3-c-sg1uQ

Related Articles

Back to top button