Articles by Mike Thornton

Gibbon's History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

Like many others, I had heard that Gibbon’s work was the definitive version of that period of history and thought that one day I would read it. Again, like many people I never got round to doing it. Then I read the memoirs of Churchill’s wartime Private Secretary, John Colville. The main impression of Colville’s account was of the upper classes doing very nicely during the war. However, one comment caught my attention. Colville wrote that at one point he thought it was time to read Gibbon again - again and on top of all his other work? So it could not be that formidable a task. Shortly after, I was perusing the boxes of books in Spencer’s auction house in Bridlington. I bid for two boxes at £2 each and got them. There was a wealth of interesting stuff there, including a full set of Gibbon’s work in perfect condition. So then there was no excuse. Obviously, it is impossible to give a thorough review of something so vast without the review itself being huge. However a brief description should be possible, according to a friend who wanted something to fill out his magazine. When I produced the review, he said it was too long! I replied that it was the book that was long, not the review. Anyway, I gave him a shorter version and this one remains for me to use in my own way.

The first thing I noticed when I started the long journey through the work was that many years earlier the people that tried to teach me History must have used this as their basis. The phrases they had used were word for word like Gibbon. This was in the 50s and 60s. They may use other sources now.

The next thing I realised was the extent of the explanatory footnotes; all the various sources are quoted with a detailed explanation of which ones Gibbon thought were the most reliable and why. The research is obviously meticulous and reliable. I later found that the many versions of the work that exist differ mainly in the amount of footnotes that the editors have left in. The most important thing is that the sources are all primary, unless only secondary sources were extant, in which case it is clearly stated. This means that Gibbon read most of his sources in the original Latin and Greek, and some of the later ones in French and German. He was writing in English while living in France. He admitted to some help with Arabic for the later volumes. It is impossible not to admire the intellect of the man. However, his insistence on primary sources led him to ignore later writings by Catholic theologians, as he regarded these as only secondary interpretations, and a conflict with the Church was inevitable.

Gibbon originally intended to finish his work with the end of the Western Empire in 476, but was persuaded to continue the story through the various twists of the Eastern or Byzantine Empire until the final collapse of Constantinople in 1453. (Much the same had happened to Cervantes, who was forced into continuing the story of Don Quixote, and later, Conan Doyle would have to resurrect Sherlock Holmes.)

Gibbon starts with the Roman Empire with its widest boundaries after the reign of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius. (AD 180) He gives a brief outline of the Empire up to that point. He tells how the Kings were overthrown and superseded by the Republic with its Consuls and Senate. Then Julius Caesar grabbed supreme power and his successor, Augustus first took the name of Emperor. He describes the way that Augustus concentrated his power even more while fooling the public that he was giving power back to them - one of the first “spin doctors”. He describes the previous benign emperors such as the Antonine dynasty and the tyrannical ones like Nero. He further explains that the bad emperors often got away with it through bribing the Praetorian Guard, the emperor’s personal bodyguard. That did not always work, and the Guard sometimes turned on emperors, assassinating several.

So how could a city state be in control of such a vast empire? There were obviously not enough true Romans to do it. However, the inhabitants of the conquered areas were persuaded to ally themselves to the Romans and guard the borders from external incursion. Often they were glad to be within the Roman borders, because they had been displaced from their own lands by population pressure from invading barbarian tribes. Often they were bought off rather than defeated in battle. They were encouraged to integrate and were often given some form of Roman citizenship, and marriages between their leaders and prominent Romans were encouraged. Their religions were polytheistic, as was the Roman religion during most of the conquests. The Romans always recognised the barbarian gods and added them to their own, sometimes even building temples in their honour. Encouraging the conquered groups to keep following their religious traditions ensured agreement with them.

This worked fine until the Romans encountered the Jews, who being monotheistic, would never accept a “sharing” of gods like the other tribes. So they were subdued by force alone. Later, the rise of Christianity within the Empire would provide another group who could not compromise their beliefs. Their own God was the only one and so resistance was inevitable. Simply stating that this was a factor was enough for Gibbon to be criticised again by the Church. He was accused of exaggerating the effect of Christianity on the Imperial decline.

So what were the principal reasons of the decline? Basically, at the start of Gibbon’s account the Empire was too big to be sustainable. The natural and manageable boundaries in the North East had been the line of the Rhine and Danube rivers, but Trajan had extended the Empire over the Danube into Dacia and Marcus Aurelius had quelled a rebellion there. This area was too remote and it made sense to retreat behind the line of the rivers. Similarly, there was constant conflict in the East with the Persians. The border fluctuated widely over several centuries, but any attempt to push further than the Tigris and Euphrates was unsustainable. So the first losses were to return the borders to their natural limits. It really was a case of "last in, first out".

Apart from this overreaching, the borders might have been maintained, but there were only enough troops to defend them if they were not distracted by other conflicts. Other conflicts were unfortunately perpetual, and worse, they were internal. The power struggles of the Roman aristocracy were never-ending, and there were always armies willing to support the power seekers, because they were well paid to do so.

The Emperor always took the title of Augustus and nominated a successor, who then took the title of Caesar and worked alongside the Emperor. However, many Caesars could not wait and usurped the incumbent leader. Furthermore, on several occasions there were rebels who nominated another choice for Emperor, together with his own Caesar, making a four-way civil war possible. In fact, a six-way war occurred once. The size of the Empire made it likely that a choice of leader in one region was deemed inappropriate in another, as the ethnic origins of the regions were so diverse. The choice of Caesar was not just within the family of the Augustus, because outsiders were adopted as sons.

All this occurred against a background of the Roman social system, which was based on clearly demarcated classes. The lowest class was that of slave, and slaves were a commodity to be traded to settle debts within the Empire or to buy off external threats. However, there was some fluidity in the system and Gibbon explains how slaves could be freed and allowed to rise through the classes.

The rise of Christianity did make conflict even worse within the Empire, but many say that Gibbon exaggerated its effect. To start with, Christianity was suppressed and its adherents regarded as rebels because they insisted on their single God and would not integrate with the polytheistic state. Eventually, Christians gained more support and the Emperor Constantine converted. After that, things were reversed and non-Christians became the persecuted faction. As Emperors changed, the situation was reversed again several times before Christianity was fully established within the Empire.

Within the Church, there were heated debates about the nature of the Trinity. The views of Arius conflicted with others and were branded the "Arian heresy". The orthodox version maintained that the Father and the Son were "consubstantial", while Arius said that the Father created the Son rather than was the Son. It may seem like wordplay now, but at the time it was heretical. Arius was denounced at the Council of Nicaea, with Constantine reaching a compromise that became known as the Nicene Creed, which included the orthodox phrase "of one substance". The interpretation of the dual nature of Christ as both God and man caused further turmoil within the Church. The version expounded by Nestorius was branded a heresy. There were many more doctrinal conflicts.

Later, when all the emperors were Christians, they still differed in their interpretation of these aspects of the religion. Furthermore, centuries later when the Goths invaded Italy, although they were by that time Christians, it was felt even more important to expel them because they were Arians.

Internal conflicts were caused by the strangest things. The fights of our football hooligans seem trifling when compared with the sports-based riots that destroyed whole districts of Rome. The chariot racers in the Circus Maximus were organised into 4 teams, but 2 became fanatically supported – The Blues and the Greens. Rival gangs trashed neighbourhoods and caused widespread civil unrest, yet bizarrely they once united and tried to usurp the Emperor.

So the following points can be made:

There was constant pressure from outside the Empire with expanding tribes displacing each other and forcing people onto the borders.

Sometimes invaders were repelled, but often they were integrated or bought off, then used as mercenaries, who stayed loyal as long as they were well paid with money, land or privileges.

The Empire was so vast that usurpers to the Imperial throne could organise their campaigns to a high degree before being discovered. The regions had their own cultures because of their foreign origins, and local pretenders were thus well supported. The civil wars resulting from this were the principal reason for neglecting the borders and allowing the loss of territory.

Bad emperors were not expelled and were allowed to continue to wreck the Empire because they were protected by the corrupt Praetorian Guard.

The arrival of Christianity and its doctrinal conflicts did contribute to the disarray of the Empire, but many think Gibbon exaggerated its effect.

The work is immense but it is readable. The second half, devoted to the Byzantine period is harder work than the first. There is so much information that maybe Colville was right; it may be time to read it again. (No promises there!)

One interesting episode in Gibbon’s account is a useful example of how we can learn from History. General Belisarius took Italy back from the Goths and returned to Constantinople in triumph. However, Emperor Justinian was so jealous that he sent him off to the Persian front where he thought he would not be so successful, and then took credit for the Italian victory for himself as overall commander. Many centuries later, a parallel relationship between Zhukov and Stalin occurred, with Stalin putting Zhukov out of the way and claiming credit for the victory against Hitler for himself as overall commander.


(Previously published in "Driffield Leader" magazine.)


Social aspects of multilingual situations

Specialist students of linguistics have developed an extensive system of description and classification of the social aspects of language usage. Much of such study is directed at societies that either use two distinct languages, or use several dialects of the same language. However, the study also recognises a further choice: that of a formal form or a vernacular form of a single language. In all these cases, the social dimension is manifested by how the various available language forms are selected for use in different circumstances.

1. The single language situation

In this situation, there is a formal language that is used more in written form, to those who are not close acquaintances, and to those regarded as social superiors. On the other hand, informal or vernacular language is used more in spoken form, to family and friends, and to those with equal or inferior social status.

The most obvious distinction between the two forms is seen with languages that have polite and familiar forms of personal pronouns, like French, German and Spanish (i.e. tu or vous, Du or Sie, tu or Usted). Where this is not possible, as in English, an equivalent distinction is available, and this is based on the use of either a person's title or their first name (e.g. "Mr. Smith" or "John"). In fact this is a useful guide for those learning new languages. If they are not sure whether to use the polite personal pronoun or the familiar one, they need only remember those situations in which either the titled address or the first name address would be used in their own language.

One other difference between the formal and vernacular forms of a single language is the use of slang words by the vernacular form. These are often new words that are temporarily fashionable, particularly with young people, and will not be incorporated into formal speech or writing until they have stood the test of time. Some are never heard of again, others eventually find their way into the standard dictionaries. I was taught not to use the word "horrific". This was said to be a word invented by journalists by adding parts of "horrible" and "terrific" together, and was used to sensationalise their reports. Nowadays, news readers say it every day, and the dictionaries include it without even a mention of its supposed origin as a convenient invention. So this word has been promoted from informal to formal language. (You will now have an idea of how long ago it was when I went to school!)

Some languages, like English, have contracted versions of certain groups of words e.g. "isn't" for "is not", and "won't" for "will not". These are often used with informal communication, specially the spoken form, but not so much with formal language, and particularly they are less common in writing.

2. The situation with several dialects of the same language.

Dialects have to be defined here as more than regional accents. They have distinct vocabularies too. Both the accents and the local words are gradually disappearing, under the influence of the modern media. They survive best in a rural situation, where social mingling and the reach of communications are least. Old people cling to their local languages more than the young do. Within small isolated communities, dialects give people something with which to identify, and they take comfort in the collective statement of identity.

Some English dialects and accents have long been regarded as socially acceptable alternatives to Standard English, while others have been ridiculed. Most Scots accents, apart from the very strong Glaswegian, have been accepted, while others, like the West Country and Northern accents, have not. It is not obvious why this should be. If you have a theory, let us know your thoughts.

It is convenient to have a standard language, so that all the inhabitants of a country or region can use the same form, and the news media can relate to all the people. Sometimes a standard form evolves on its own from one dialect e.g. as in England where most of the people surrounding the monarchs came from the South of England, and their speech became known as Court English. This variation of the language evolved into a standard known as Received Pronunciation. One of the earliest influences that started a move towards standardisation was probably William Tyndale's English translation of the Bible. It was read by people from all regions and they would learn the same new forms of English from it. The new standard was propagated by public schools, and their pupils took their accents home to all parts of the country.

However, not only standard forms were spread: local influences spread too, and modified the standard. Railways would increase interaction between communities, and the telephone would continue this and the standard was influenced. It has been modified more recently by a more rapid incorporation of these local influences because of modern media. For example, the rise of pop music from Liverpool in the 1960's led to all parts of the country using Liverpudlian phrases. Later, television soap operas spread US, Cockney and Australian phrases. One effect that many find annoying is the rise in the use of the Australian question intonation at the end of sentences that are not questions at all. The Neighbours and Home Away programmes are blamed for it. Other changes, mainly coming from Cockney influence are the use of the glottal stop and decrease in the vocalisation of the letter L. Even the Queen has been observed to change vowel intonations during the last 50 years.

Sometimes the standard has to be deliberately constructed from a set of dialects. This happened in Norway, where scholars took the most widely used parts of several dialects and put them together to make a standard language. In most cases the standard is no better grammatically than any dialect, yet it becomes more socially acceptable.

3. The situation with two distinct languages in one area.

Where two distinct languages are spoken in any area, the term diglossic is used. However, this has now been extended to mean two varieties of one language as well. In a diglossic situation, the two languages or varieties are often classified as High or Low language, with the High form being occupied more for business and technical use, and the Low form being used in the home, and for the description of natural things.

Cuarahý MembýYpecaháSpanish and Guaraní are so used in Paraguay. Guaraní is a traditional language that was not written down much until recently. Some of its sounds are difficult to represent on paper, and many words with completely different meanings are almost identical in the written form, their difference being shown by vocal intonation only understood by a native speaker. People who are only used to writing Spanish are surprised by the need to employ the letter k and the apostrophe. For these reasons, it is not convenient for business use. However, its value for the description of Nature is without question. Many animals are named by the sounds they make, which is an excellent way to give their description. For instance, the Spanish description of the Wood Rail as a Gallineta does not convey as much as the Guaraní name, Ypecahá, because that is just what the bird seems to say. In other cases, the Guaraní is just more poetic. The White Egret that is merely a Garza Chiflón or "Whistling Heron" in Spanish is the beautiful Cuarahý Membý or "Child of the Dawn" in Guaraní. Incidentally, during the Stroessner regime in Paraguay, Guaraní was encouraged by the Government to stimulate nationalism among the common people, but this allowed a Spanish-speaking elite to monopolise business. So language can even be used for political purposes. The philosophy of many Paraguayans at that time was "Learn to read before you learn to sign your name!"

People with two codes of speech switch between them frequently, often within a single conversation. This is usually not because they confuse the two languages; it is a deliberate tool used in conversation. It creates special effects, and shows off the speaker's knowledge. Moreover, the person addressed feels more comfortable hearing some of his or her own code. It gives a sense of solidarity, or "belonging".

Where immigrants take languages into new areas, they are usually lost after several generations, but they can add dialect words to the area. Old people change their language less, and rural areas preserve it longer. Both sides of the language interface change their way of speaking to fit in with the other. This is described by specialists as "accommodation", and satisfies the need to belong to a social group, in the same way as the code switching described above.

Where many languages meet, for example in international trade, a language of convenience is sometimes used. This can be an already established language, and then it is known as a lingua franca. Even Latin has been used for this.

However, the required vehicle of communication is often newly invented. This usually occurs when there is a meeting of languages with such different properties that neither side can easily learn the code of the other, e.g. where European and Asian languages interface. Such invented codes are called "Pidgin" languages. These are often transient, falling into disuse as trading patterns, and hence international encounters change. If one of these languages becomes permanently established, then it is called a "Creole". There are many examples of these constructions of convenience, especially in remote islands, but as always, they are being diluted and abandoned, as modern communications bring in more permanently established languages.


What is good writing?

As part of a series of articles that are making observations on the nature of languages, this is an attempt to find out what it is that distinguishes good writing from bad. It does not pretend to be authoritative; it deliberately uses many quotations from established and respected writers, in the hope that they might give an indication of where to look for an answer. Furthermore, it is accepted that these are suggestions only, and the final interpretation rests with you, the reader.


When we read anything, we unconsciously sense the quality of the writing, but can we identify what it is that decides our judgement? There will be as many opinions as there are readers as regards the details of our preferences, but surely we can isolate some universal principles of quality behind these details. One thing is apparent to all those who write at any level: making a start is the hardest part. After that the rest follows more easily. Furthermore, it is well known that a convenient way to launch into any subject is to recount its history up to present time, and then expand the topic from there. Science teaching has always done this; Einstein's gravitational theory is always explained as a counterpoint to Newton's, rather than being taught first as the nearer approximation to reality. I too am surrendering to the convenience of the historical approach to set the writing in motion. My own experience of literary criticism started at school, and my starting point now is based on the ideas that were knocked into me then. (Literally sometimes - it was an "old-fashioned" school.)

What is it for?

We were told that the purpose of the writing has to be defined first, and it must do that predefined job well before anything additional can be contemplated. If a work of non-fiction such as a textbook or manual is attempted, then the content must be correct and well laid out, and the facts must be explained simply and clearly, so that the reader can gain maximum learning from the account. If, on the other hand, we are considering a work of fiction, then we simply have to tell a good story that is consistent and grips the reader. Whatever else the writing does, it must do these basic things first.

What else can be added?

Despite the above, there are thousands of useful manuals and gripping stories about, and so few of them stand out as truly great literature. So there has to be more than the basic idea. Just as a musician has to learn to hit all the right notes first, but after that can progress to add style and interpretation, so the author can add further artistic content, once the soundness of the carrying vehicle is assured.

This additional content can be of various forms. All of us are introduced to our own nation's most respected authors, and here in Britain this naturally includes a lot of Shakespeare. Students hear that one of his greatest assets is his use of fine language, and this does indeed add greatly to his writing, but it must be noted that this is on top of already superbly sculptured works. He can afford pretty upholstery in his coach, because its body is strong. The fancier the trimmings, the more ridiculous does the owner look, when the user notices that the wheels are held on with string. So the enlightened use of words can transform good writing into great writing, yet cannot disguise poor initial ideas. Indeed, it will expose them in even sharper relief. For example, in his later works, Góngora (1561- 1627) developed excessively flowery language and many have claimed that the content could not carry it.

The other extension that can be made to an already sound literary idea is the addition of social, political, economic or religious comment. Most great works of the past have survived into modern times because they make observations on the human condition that have been seen as universal. The best do not do this in an over obvious way. To go back to the idea of first defining the purpose of writing, it seems reasonable to make the most overt commentary in essays specifically defined and clearly stated as studies or lectures. If, on the other hand, the predefined purpose is to write a good story, this must be achieved first. Then after that, the addition of observations of fundamental truths is another of the ways in which a good work can be turned into a great one. It can be elevated from mere entertainment to the status of enlightenment. It can point the way to social improvement, and give people hope. One way in which good writers make observations on life is through the development of the characters in their stories. A strongly developed character can be thought to be speaking on our behalf. They can say the things we would like to have said ourselves.

Avoid the obvious

Readers do not take kindly to writers who pontificate. They like to make their own minds up, and though they can thank a writer for suggesting an idea that they might not have stumbled upon unaided, the development of the idea is up to each one to pursue as they please. The best writers have always known this:

Anton Chekhov (1860 - 1904) : "The artist's duty is to put the questions, but let the reader find the answers."

Good writers do not need to overstate; they can make commentary merely by recounting their own observations, because their superior writing skills let them describe the reality which is there for all to see, but which most do not have the ability to express. Many accomplished artists have themselves said that art is nothing more than the shrewd observation of life, and the good artist is the one with the capability to use his chosen medium to interpret the signs and transmit them in a form capable of appreciation by the recipient. After that all the readers will make a personal interpretation, based on how their own thoughts are echoed by the writer.

Leo Tolstoy (1828 - 1910) : "Art is not a handicraft; it is the transmission of feeling the artist has experienced."
From "What is art"

Emile Zola (1840 - 1902) : "A work of art is a corner of creation seen through a temperament."
From "Mes Haines"

Michelangelo (1574 - 1637) : "The true work of art is but a shadow of the divine perfection."
From his notes

Henry James (1843 - 1916) : "Art is nothing more than the shadow of humanity."
From his lectures

Some go as far as to say that all of us are part of art, whether we know it or not :

William Shakespeare (1564 - 1616) : "All the world's a stage, And all the men and women merely players: They have their exits and their entrances; And one man in his time plays many parts,....."
From "As you like it"

John Lennon and Paul McCartney : "Behind a shelter in the middle of the roundabout, the pretty nurse is selling poppies from a tray. And though she thinks she's in a play, she is anyway"
From "Penny Lane"

Form versus content

Many lesser writers have assumed that they have the solid basis on which to expand their work, because their writing has the correct form; it has a beginning , a middle, and an end. A playwright can ensure that his offering follows Freytag's Pyramid, with its exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution. However, this is definitely not enough. If a piece of music is written in the form "ABA", then it can be loosely defined as a sonata, but the majority of popular songs have the main theme interrupted by a "middle eight" bars, and then return to the starting tune. If, as is usual, the variations on the theme are minimal, and show little imagination, then the quality will be poor. The form is correct but the content is banal. It will not be a sonata like one of Beethoven's. So it is with writing. Ulysses, by James Joyce, progresses by "free association" of its ideas, and seems to have little form, but on a broader scale it has its own kind of form. This is sufficient, because the content is an expert interpretation of genuine human thoughts - too realistic for some readers, because all have base thoughts at times, and Joyce unforgivingly reminds everyone of it.

An excellent exposition of the relative importance of form and content in art is to be found in Maxs Felinfer's essay, "Sketch in the day of comedy." In this, animals are used to characterise humans, much as in Orwell's "Animal Farm." They pretentiously applaud the bear's dancing, except for the perceptive monkey, who notes :

"All that happened was loaded with the most luxurious formal displays, but I have not found in them the objectives that art should pursue, beyond the purified technical plan..........in his state as a bear, he has managed to reply to the craving of a multitude, educated for the superficial. However, we need to consider whether his plantigrade head can conceive of movements that fit his big hairy body. Why force it to perform established choreography, underestimating how much more inherent dance is in snakes or cheetahs, who have essentially another concept of corporal expression? Furthermore, I would add that we must try to conceive of an expressive language that has nothing to do with what the majority applaud, thinking it correct, but one that is appropriate and describes the essence in all of us."
From "Sainete en el día de la comedia" © by Maxs Felinfer

How many stories are churned out by cheap authors who write much as the bear dances? The stories are given the "technical plan" of a beginning, middle and end, yet this footwork is irrelevant, because the headwork is "flat-footed". However, a surfeit of shallow literature is only to be expected, because people do not want to think deeply all the time, and there is a good market for pure escapism. People can and will make money out of it, but their work will not be remembered. The money will compensate them for the ridicule inevitably thrown at such writing :

Clive Anderson, interviewing Jeffrey Archer, asked : "Is there no beginning to your talent?"

What about humour?

In a work of fiction, we have seen that any deeper social messages need to be carried as a subtle undercurrent to the story, and will not carry so much weight if they are overstated. Humour in the writing can also take this subtle form, and will not be out of place in even the most serious work. It will lose its effect if overstated, but in the form of irony, or allegory, or even the so-called black humour, it has a place. The modern Argentine author, Julio Cortázar strongly defends himself from the many critics who can see no place for humour in serious modern writing. In his fascinating book, "Around the day in eighty worlds", he points out that the critics are assuming that slapstick is the only form of humour. In fact the finest authors of the past, the very people held up as examples by the critics, have used jokes to good effect, but the humour has often been subtle, and the slow-witted, including the critics themselves, cannot see it. Moreover it would be pretentious to be always serious, because life is often funny, and art should portray all aspects of life.

Julio Cortázar (1914 - 1984) : "Those ugly people believe that seriousness has to be solemn or not be anything at all; as if Cervantes had been solemn, damn it! Discount seriousness needing to be based in the negative, the tremendous, the tragic, the Stavrogin, and only from there will our writer access the positive signs, the possible happy ending, and something that has more of a semblance to this confused life where there are none of those Manichean choices that can lead nowhere."
From "La vuelta al día en ochenta mundos", 1967, © Siglo XXI.

Who does it right?

Each reader will have personal favourites from the vast range of literature that exists. To end this article here are a few examples that are merely my own very subjective choices, and are used to demonstrate that they possess the aforementioned attributes, and have been served well by them, since they have passed the test of time, and received universal acclaim.

"War and Peace" by Leo Tolstoy (1828 - 1910)

It not only tells a good story, but does so to a background of a reasonable version of the contemporary European history, so it is two good stories for the price of one. Its fine words are apparent even in translation to the many language versions available. It postulates the fundamental idea that self-redemption of the most dissolute is possible, but only through suffering. The nature of family values is also studied, but neither idea is pushed at the reader. The ideas come out as part of the story. There is some humour, but not much. However, the rest is so well done, that it is forgivable.

"Don Quixote" by Miguel de Cervantes (1547 - 1616)

This is a glorious tale of the crazy adventures of Quixote and Sancho Panza, who has become one of the all time great comic figures. However, behind the stories is a mischievous debunking of the tales of chivalry that were popular and taken seriously at that time. As regards the linguistic content, even that most conservative of institutions, the Royal Academy of the Spanish Language, uses the writings of Cervantes to illustrate its rules. Nevertheless Cervantes' literature is also totally accessible to the average reader, and the beauty of the words survives translation into many languages.

"And now gay-plumaged birds of all sorts began to warble in the trees, and with their varied and gladsome notes seemed to welcome and salute the fresh morn that was beginning to show the beauty of her countenance at the gates and balconies of the east, shaking from her locks a profusion of liquid pearls; in which dulcet moisture bathed, the plants, too, seemed to shed and shower down a pearly spray, the willows distilled sweet manna, the fountains laughed, the brooks babbled, the woods rejoiced, and the meadows arrayed themselves in all their glory at her coming........ And now bright smiling dawn came on apace; the flowers of the field, revived, raised up their heads, and the crystal waters of the brooks, murmuring over the grey and white pebbles, hastened to pay their tribute to the expectant rivers; the glad earth, the unclouded sky, the fresh breeze, the clear light, each and all showed that the day that came treading on the skirts of morning would be calm and bright."

"The Tempest" by William Shakespeare (1564 - 1616)

Shakespeare's plays are usually classified as comedies, histories or tragedies. "The Tempest" is supposed to be one of the comedies, and Prospero's use of Ariel to frighten Antonio and the King of Naples is comic enough. However, there is more to it than this; for a start there is certainly the required good storyline. Furthermore, the deceitful King repents, and relinquishes his support for Antonio, restoring Prospero to his throne. So good triumphs over evil in the end, making this also a moral tale. As regards the language, it is hard to conceive of anyone doubting Shakespeare's skill with words, in this work or any other. If anyone is still not converted, why not read what Shakespeare lets the previously hideous Caliban come out with:

"Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again: and then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open and show riches
Ready to drop upon me that, when I waked, I cried to dream again."

"Heart of Darkness" by Joseph Conrad (1857 - 1924)

This time one of our requirements seems to be almost totally missing; there is no humour here, but there is a surfeit of the other qualities. The darkness of the title is all-pervading in this most powerful of stories. The reader is gripped by the dramatic background of an unexplored, dangerous, and unhealthy Africa, and horrified yet also fascinated by the greed of the European colonialists. The use of exquisite English by Conrad is all the more astonishing when one considers that it was his adopted language, since he was Polish by birth. The story itself is expertly crafted, and behind it is a forceful rejection of the then fashionable romantic accounts of colonialism. Nowadays most have come to know that this dark version was the correct one. Some critics think that Conrad used pejorative terms to describe the native Africans, but he was only using the language of the time, and was in fact one of the few on their side.

Please send any comments or suggestions to Michael Thornton

Links to reference articles :

"De la seriedad en los velorios"
(Part of "La vuelta al día en ochenta mundos") by Julio Cortázar

"War and Peace" by Leo Tolstoy

"Don Quixote" by Miguel de Cervantes

"The Tempest" by William Shakespeare

"Heart of Darkness" by Josef Conrad


Eva and Juan Peron – the truth behind the myths and legends

Eva PeronYou will have heard the songs, maybe seen the musical, and even have the tee-shirt. But can you believe any of it? What were the real Peróns like? You have plenty of books to choose from, but nearly all give an exaggerated view, either sycophantic or vilifying. Balanced views are hard to find of both Juan and Eva Perón, but especially of Eva. I lived in Argentina for 9 years and only ever found 2 opinions, both extreme: one said Eva did wonderful things for the poor and for women, and the other said she became powerful by charming influential men and then abused power and squandered resources. Yet there are a few sources now that give a reasonable account of both Peróns, and this is an attempt to summarise these and steer a bit closer to the truth about Eva.

Eva was born in a little village called Los Toldos in Buenos Aires province on 17 May 1919. She was the fifth child of Juana Ibarguren who was not married to her father Juan Duarte, so she was baptised Eva María Ibarguren. When Duarte abandoned Juana and decided to go back to his wife, he said the children could use his surname, so Eva Duarte was created. It is now known that she forged or destroyed documents in later life, so that she seemed to have always had the Duarte surname, and did not have to suffer the stigma of illegitimacy. She also changed her date of birth to 1922, to fit in with the other changes. When Juan Duarte died, the family went to his funeral and there was a confrontation with his legitimate family.

The family moved to nearby Junín, where there was more work. They all did menial work to make ends meet, until Eva's older brother had made enough money to help the family move to a bigger house, which they used as a boarding house. Eva liked being in school plays and concerts, and visited the cinema a lot. She dreamed of becoming a famous actress.

In 1934, at the age of 15, Eva went to Buenos Aires. The legend says she ran off with the tango singer, Agustín Magaldi, but there is no record of him being in Junín that year, and he always travelled with his wife, so this is unlikely. Eva's sisters maintain that she travelled to Buenos Aires with their mother, who also found her somewhere decent to live with family friends. All that can be said with certainty is that she arrived in the capital in 1934 and began to pursue jobs on the stage, screen and radio.

She did not get very far in films, but in 1936, Eva toured nationally with a theatre company and in1942, she was hired for a daily role in a radio drama. Later that year, she signed a five-year contract with Radio Belgrano, where she played great women of history, such as Elizabeth I of England, Sarah Bernhardt, and the last Tsarina of Russia. Eventually, Eva Duarte came to co-own the radio company and by 1943, she was one of the highest-paid radio actresses in Argentina. Now with financial stability, she moved into an apartment in the exclusive neighbourhood of Recoleta.

It was now that she met Juan Perón. On 15 January 1944, an earthquake occurred in the town of San Juan, killing 10,000 people. Perón, who was then the Secretary of Labour, established a fund to aid the victims. He planned an "artistic festival" as a fundraiser, and invited radio and film actors. After a week of fundraising, all participants met at a gala held at Luna Park Stadium in Buenos Aires It was here, on 22 January 1944, that Eva Duarte first met Colonel Juan Perón. He was a widower, his wife having died of uterine cancer in 1938. Juan and Eva were soon living together.

At this time, Juan Perón was cleverly developing a political support base among the poor population. He was part of a military government that had intervened after decades of corrupt administrations. The two factions of the rich, the land owners (estancieros) and the company bosses (empresarios), disliked each other, but had co-operated to fix elections and keep themselves in power and the poor in their place. Now the opportunity to unlock the latent resentment of the lower classes was being used by Perón. As Labour Minister, he was perfectly positioned to prepare support for his bid for power. Inevitably, he would make many enemies from the right wing, who felt their position being undermined. Moreover, he would also find resentment from the political left, because they thought the emancipation of the poor was their job.

Juan Perón allowed Eva Duarte full knowledge of his political activities and his inner circle of friends. This was unusual in those times, but he was not a traditional politician. His own approach seemed to work and she was willing to help in any way. Her presence was resented by many in the military.

To cultivate support from the working class, Perón encouraged trade unions. In May 1944, he established an exclusive union for broadcast performers and Eva Duarte was elected as its president. She started a daily program called Toward a Better Future, which dramatized in soap opera form the accomplishments of Juan Perón, whose speeches were blatantly played in the programmes.

At this time, a splinter group of Army officers, including Perón were increasing their influence within the Argentine government. President Pedro Ramírez had been unable to stop them and in February 1944, he resigned under pressure, mainly from Perón. Edelmiro Farrell, a friend of Perón, became President. Perón continued in his job as Labour Minister. However, his opponents became frightened of his rising power. They saw his support from the poor as a danger. On 9 October 1945 he was arrested by his enemies within the government.

His supporters in the trade unions paralysed the country with strikes and demonstrations, some organised, many spontaneous, and Perón was soon released. A few days later he was back in the Casa Rosada and addressed a huge crowd from the balcony. His manner was described as almost like a fascist leader, and he was probably using the style of previous autocratic Argentine leaders, such as Rosas.

Eva has been credited with organising this rally and this version was shown in the film version of Lloyd Webber’s musical. However, this was unlikely, as she was still just an actress with no political influence with the unions, and without Perón, she was not accepted by many of Perón's inner circle, or even by some in the film and radio business, who were jealous of her success and her relationship with Perón. The main force that demanded Perón’s release came from the trade unions whose support he had cultivated, such as the General Labour Confederation. Perón told the crowd to go and celebrate, and even now, 17 October is celebrated by the Justicialist Party, which evolved from Peronism, a force that is said to have started on that day.

Sensing that he had sufficient political power to be become president in an open election, Juan Perón married Eva to gain respectability from the populace. It was not just political expediency; he had genuine affection for her and he had been moved by her loyalty when he had been under arrest. Eva and Juan were married in low-key civil and church ceremonies in 1945. So Eva became a respectable woman in the eyes of most people, and she had the documents from her early life fixed to help the image.

After his release from prison, Juan Perón decided to enter the forthcoming campaign for the presidency of the nation. Eva campaigned heavily for her husband during his 1946 presidential bid. Using her weekly radio show, she delivered powerful speeches with heavy populist rhetoric urging the poor to align themselves with Perón's movement. Though she was now wealthy, she highlighted her humble upbringing as a way of showing solidarity with the impoverished classes. These were now described as the “shirtless ones” (los descamisados).

Along with her husband, Eva visited every corner of the country. It was unusual for a wife to accompany a candidate in those days. The split in opinion was apparent then, and has continued to this day. Eva's appearance annoyed the establishment of the wealthy, the military, and those in political life. However, she enchanted the general public who knew her from her radio and motion picture appearances. She started being "Evita" now. Spanish uses the diminutive form of names as a show of affection.

Perón won a landslide victory, and however hard his opponents tried to find irregularities, it was obvious that the election had been won honestly. This was the first time for decades that an election had not been rigged. Those of the old guard of the landowners and industrialists were furious.

In 1947, Eva went on a tour of Europe, meeting with numerous dignitaries and heads of state. It had started with an invitation to Juan Perón to meet Franco, but he did not want to go himself, as being seen with authoritarians would not look good. There had been criticism because Argentina had allowed many ex-Nazis to find sanctuary, and with the formation of the United Nations, Argentina needed to get back into the world mainstream. So the tour was extended to include several more countries and Eva was sent to do it as a non-political "goodwill" tour.

She was well received in Spain, where she found the people were very poor and she gave money to children. She received the Order of Isabella the Catholic. In Rome, Pope Pius XII gave no decoration but spoke to her at length and she was given a rosary. In France she visited the Palace of Versailles, met with Charles de Gaulle, and promised to send the people some wheat. Annoyed that King George VI would not receive her, she cancelled the trip to Britain, diplomatically giving exhaustion as the official reason. The trip to Switzerland went badly. She was pelted with stones and tomatoes. After that, she had had enough, and returned to Argentina.

This trip gave rise to another of the stories put about by Eva’s rich enemies. They said the whole thing was a smokescreen to allow her to deposit money in a secret Swiss bank account. In fact, that was the sort of thing they did themselves. It seems unlikely that anyone would try to do this amid such publicity. Another story said she made a deal with the Swiss to let more ex-Nazis go to Argentina. This was probably pure fantasy, but it was true that many thousands had already been admitted. Juan Perón claimed he wanted their engineering skills, just as the USA admitted von Braun to use his knowledge. This was a poor excuse and does not explain the huge numbers that he let in, including animals like Eichmann and Mengele.

After returning from Europe, Eva toned down her appearance to be look more like a president’s wife and less like an actress. The pompadour hairstyle was replaced with the braided chignon, and the blonde colour was less bright. Her clothing was less extrovert. The huge hats disappeared and the dresses were simpler, though still from top designers like Christian Dior.

It was now that Eva began the work for the underprivileged that was the basis of the adulation given her by her supporters. The Society of Beneficence was a long-established organisation run by society ladies, and did most of the charity work in Buenos Aires. It had been paternalistic, but had achieved good results caring for orphans and homeless women in former times. However, the private contributions had dried up and made it less effective, so the government was now running it. The First Lady of Argentina was normally president of the charity, but the upper-class ladies would not approve of Eva Perón. She had a poor background, little education and had been an actress, a very doubtful profession in those times. So the government funded another charity run by Eva herself. Founded in July 1948 with the initial 10,000 pesos coming from Eva’s own money, it became the Eva Perón Foundation.

Enemies of the Peróns, desperate for something to criticise, say that no records were kept so that money could be siphoned off. In fact, Ramón Cereijo, the Minister of Finance, did keep records. Eva said that the poverty she encountered each day could never be addressed by the then current systems of charity. However, support soon came in with donations of cash and goods from the Peronist unions and private businesses. The General Labour Confederation donated three man-days (later reduced to two) of salary for each of its members per year. There was a tax imposed on lottery and cinema tickets and a levy on casinos and horse races. It was not all benign; wealthy businesses that refused to help found some of their projects blocked.

The foundation soon had enormous assets and employed thousands, most of them in construction. It gave out hundreds of thousands of items, always basic goods like pairs of shoes, sewing machines and cooking pots, so people could help themselves. The foundation also built homes and hospitals. Eva was autocratic; she said yes or no personally to every request. For the first time in the nation’s history, many of the poor were able to receive affordable medical treatment. Some of the effect is still felt today; while most Argentines have private medical insurance, there is still a safety net for those that cannot afford it, which is unusual in Latin America, apart from in Cuba.

Eva worked long hours every day to meet with the poor who requested help, even though she had others who would have done it. She met people with dreadful illnesses and was not afraid to embrace them and examine their wounds. She came into contact with leprosy and syphilis and treated all the people in the same way. Inevitably in a Catholic country, there were those who began to see the attributes of a saint.

As she worked ever longer and harder, she also became more and more angry that such poverty was allowed to exist. She said "Sometimes I have wished my insults were slaps or lashes. I've wanted to hit people in the face to make them see, if only for a day, what I see each day I help the people." She became fanatical about her work in the foundation and felt on a crusade against the very concept and existence of poverty and social ills. And so the legend grew.

Eva Perón has often been credited with gaining the right to vote for Argentine women. She did make radio broadcasts in support of women's suffrage and also published articles asking Peronists to support women's right to vote, but she could only ask. A women's suffrage bill was passed by the Senate in August 1946, but delayed by the House of Representatives until September 1947. Juan Perón exaggerated Eva’s influence by signing the law and then ceremonially handing it to her.

Eva then created a women’s section of the Peronist Party, the first large political organisation for women in the nation. It soon spread and became huge, and Eva’s contribution to the political life of women was decisive. Women had never been active in politics before. The combination of female suffrage and the organization of the Female Peronist Party ensured that nearly all of the new votes would be for Perón in the next presidential election and his support would be 63% of the vote in 1951.

In 1951, Eva sought to be the candidate for vice-president. This move angered many in the military who despised her and feared her increasing powers within the government. According to the constitution, the Vice President automatically succeeds the President in the event of the President's death. The possibility of Eva becoming president in the event of Juan Perón's death was not something the military could accept.

She did, however, receive great support from the working class, the unions, and the Peronist Women's Party. In August 1951, the unions held a mass rally of two million people. The Peróns addressed the crowd from the balcony of a huge scaffolding set up on the Avenida 9 de Julio, several blocks away from the Casa Rosada, the official government house of Argentina. Overhead were two large portraits of Eva and Juan Perón. The crowd demanded that Eva publicly announce her candidacy as vice president. She pleaded for more time to make her decision, and the crowd demanded "Now, Evita, now!" She said she would announce her decision over the radio a few days later.

But pressure on Juan Perón from the military and the upper classes was too much and he persuaded her to decline the invitation to run for vice-president. She used the renunciation to help her husband’s campaign, saying that her only ambition was that - in the large chapter of history that would be written about her husband - the footnotes would mention a woman who brought the "...hopes and dreams of the people to the president", a woman who eventually turned those hopes and dreams into "glorious reality." Fanatical followers of Eva use this event to portray her as having been a selfless woman in line with the Hispanic cult of marianismo.

Against this background, Eva’s health was in decline. After fainting in public in January 1950, she underwent surgery. Although it was reported as an appendix operation, in fact she was diagnosed with advanced cervical cancer. Fainting continued through 1951, including the evening after the rally about the vice-presidency, and she suffered extreme weakness and severe bleeding. By 1951, her deterioration was more rapid. Although her true diagnosis was withheld from her, she must have known she was not well enough to stand for the vice-presidency. Only a few months later, she underwent a secret hysterectomy.

On June 1952, the Peróns rode in a parade through Buenos Aires in celebration of Juan’s re-election as President of Argentina. Underneath an oversized coat Eva had a frame made of plaster and wire. Only that way could she stand, and was taking big doses of painkillers. She was now given the official title of "Spiritual Leader of the Nation." Juan Perón had to hold her up as she addressed the crowd from the balcony.

Despite the operation, the cancer had spread. She was treated with chemotherapy, one of the earliest uses of this. It was to no avail, and she wasted away. She died at the age of 33, on 26 July 1952. The news was immediately broadcast throughout the country, and Argentina went into mourning. All activity in Argentina ceased; films stopped playing; restaurants were closed and patrons were shown to the door. A radio broadcast interrupted the broadcasting schedule, with the announcer reading, "The Press Secretary's Office of the Presidency of the Nation fulfils its very sad duty to inform the people of the Republic that at 20:25 hours Mrs. Eva Perón, Spiritual Leader of the Nation, died."

The government suspended all official activities for two days and ordered all flags flown at half-mast for ten days. The crowd outside the presidential residence became huge. As her body was moved through the streets, people were killed and injured in the crowd. For the following two weeks, lines would stretch for many city blocks with mourners waiting hours to see her body lie at the Ministry of Labour. The shops ran out of flowers.

Eva Perón never held an elected political position, but she was given a state funeral usually reserved for a head of state, along with a full Catholic requiem mass. The body was then presented for more public viewing and there were more memorial services. Peronist supporters maintained that the mourning was authentic. Enemies said much of it was encouraged and contrived.

Eva’s age was announced as only 30. This fitted in with the earlier tampering with her birth certificate, which had been altered to read that she had been born to married parents. The 3 years as Eva Ibarguren had been lost. It was perhaps no coincidence that she had supported a move to have illegitimate children described as “natural” children.

Dr Pedro Ara had embalmed the body for long-term survival, and plans were made to construct a memorial in her honour. This was to be a statue of a man representing the descamisados, and was going to be enormous. Eva's body was to be stored in the base of the monument and, in the tradition of Lenin's corpse, to be displayed for the public. While the monument was being constructed, her embalmed body was displayed in her former office at the CGT building for almost two years.

However, all the money spent giving help to the poor had been too much for the military and the upper classes who backed them. Perón’s enemies acted to stop everything before the monument was completed. Juan Perón was overthrown in a military coup, the Revolución Libertadora, in 1955. He fled the country and did not even have time to secure his wife’s body. The military dictatorship that took power removed the body from display, and its whereabouts were a mystery for 16 years. From 1955 until 1971, the military dictatorship of Argentina issued a ban on Peronism. It became illegal not only to possess pictures of Juan and Eva Perón in one's home, but to speak their names.

In 1971, the military revealed that Eva's body was buried in a crypt in Milan, Italy, under the name "María Maggi." It was exhumed and flown to Spain, where the exiled Juan Perón and his third wife, Isabel kept it in their home. In 1973, Juan Perón came out of exile and returned to Argentina, where he became president for the third time. He died in office in 1974. His third wife, Isabel Perón, whom he had married in November 1961, and who had been elected vice-president, succeeded him. She had Eva's body returned to Argentina and briefly displayed beside Juan Perón's. She was finally buried in the Duarte family tomb in La Recoleta Cemetery, Buenos Aires. The Argentine government took elaborate measures to make Evita's tomb secure from the attention of both sycophants and defilers. They are still frightened of the legend.

The arguments still rage. Some Peronists have seriously wanted Evita to be made a saint. Opponents have spread dreadful lies; even respected author Jorge Luís Borges being guilty here. As governments have changed, streets bearing the Perón name have been renamed and then had the names put back. The Peronist Party, when it was not proscribed, gradually changed to become the Justicialist Party.

After the return of democracy, most presidents have been Justicialists, sometimes in coalition with other parties. Cristina Kirchner, who served two full terms as president, and is currently the vice-president, is a Justicialist. Inevitably, opinions of her are split along the old lines. The current president, Alberto Fernandez, is also a Justicialist. The other presidents democratically elected recently have been from the Radical Civic Union, except for Mauricio Macri, who followed the cult of nationalism prevalent in many nations at the time.

Balanced opinions of the Peróns are hard to find, but two sources can be recommended:

Nicholas Fraser and Marysa Navarro, “Evita: The Real Life of Eva Perón”, Andre Deutsch Ltd, 1996, ISBN: 9780233990002.

Frederick C. Turner and José Enrique Miguens (editors), “Juan Perón and the reshaping of Argentina”, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1983. ISBN: 0822934647.

Juan Perón’s exile, the regimes that ensued in his absence and his return are another story, as is the account of the administrations that followed him. I witnessed some of these first hand and an account will follow.


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