As for the West, it is a land of sleep; darkness weighs on the place where the dead dwell.
—Taimhotep, funerary stela, ca. 45 B.C.

Un homme qui dort tient en cercle autour de lui le fil des heures, l’ordre des années et des mondes.
—Marcel Proust, À la recherche du temps perdu

Last night, I awoke in a feverish state. Looking around, I was quickly put right. The books on my nightstand were as I had left them; the armoire hadn’t moved. But for however long I had slept, I was visited by what I now realize are horrors of a sort unimaginable by the waking mind. What was so gruesome, in hindsight, was how real it all seemed. The world was not populated by aliens or demons. Instead, my mind served me a buffet most recognizable, but simultaneously off.

Let me provide a taste. In my dream, an atlas informed me that I hailed from a country called Rus, not England, and in my pocket calendar a flight by plane to the United States had become a balloon trip to a place named Biru. Only after careful investigation did I determine I was living in the present day and not some other, since that calendar was dated not anno Domini but according to the “Coptic Era” (for which the abbreviations were “C.E.” and “B.C.E.”; it was a happy coincidence that both calendars centered on the same year). My checkbook had disappeared, as a centralized state jealous of private property had outlawed banks and private lenders some time ago. In its place I found an account of gold stores and livestock in my possession, apparently remitted to me by the imperial authorities. Dazed, starting out into the street, I hailed the first passerby I saw and asked where I might find a doctor; he scoffed at the luxury, which he said was reserved for the Rus elite, and bade me follow him to the community sauna. In short, this was a version of the world in which the West had lost, or more accurately, never come to be. Kipling advised us to not make dreams our master, and so I haven’t. Nonetheless, my trip into the uncanny may prove useful in ascertaining our present real-world ills.

This is not to say that my counterfactual vision was entirely without pleasure. Indeed, counterfactual history can be a delightful pursuit apart from its obvious danger. Which professional scholar has not at times been tempted to play Horus, nudging the possibilities of chance to elaborate alternative and potentially convincing versions of the past, given the mercurial concatenations of circumstance that determine our mapping of the then to the now? This, it seems, is what my mind did while I slept, indulging in the game of speculative historiography. I wonder whether my nightmares were brought on by general trends in academia. Scholarship in the last few decades has aimed at “decentering” or even “decolonizing” the received narratives of our history. While the facts of the past that we possess remain obstinately the facts, my mind sought to play tricks on me, perhaps inspired by the malignant sorcery of our academic paladins.

Counterfactual history can be a delightful pursuit apart from its obvious danger.

It was, indeed, only by the stubborn irruption of reality—flashes of truth even my sleeping imagination could not ignore—into this ghoulish narrative that I was able, on awakening, to disabuse myself of its falsehood and fancy. What follows, then, is my account of a world we can be glad not to inhabit—and if traces of the world we do inhabit, counter-counterfactuals of a sort, have recurred and insinuated themselves therein, I have let them stand as markers by which the absurdity of my dream might be judged. For if absurdity is a poison, the antidote comes from the same source.

As Ulysses says in Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, “Take but degree away, untune that string,/ And, hark, what discord follows! Each new thing meets/ In mere oppugnancy.” This principle was at work in my dream, and the string became untuned early, never to be put right. The event that set the wheels in motion was the Battle of Actium of 31 B.C.E. (that is, “Before the Coptic Era”), which was won by Cleopatra, who defeated her rival, the Roman general Octavian.1

Alas, this is to get ahead of myself. History moves forward, but its study must be conducted in retrospect. My vision of Actium and what followed could not but cast its antecedents in a new light. That is to say, my mind sought explanations for its inventions in prior fact. It needed a running start, on firmer ground.

And so it drifted back almost five centuries before Actium, to the defeat of Athens by Sparta in the Peloponnesian Wars, which saw the remaining nine vessels of the Athenian fleet escaping, eight to Cyprus, one to Athens to deliver the bad news, after the battle of Aegospotami in 405 B.C.E. The former Athenian empire was now definitively rid of the system of government known as “democracy,” which Cleisthenes had briefly imposed and Pericles had extended and exposed to the ambitions of competing states, a contest that resulted in Athens’s absorption by Alexander the Great in 338 B.C.E. Alexander arrived six years later in Egypt, where he founded his eponymous city, which of course remains the seat of the Papal See to this day.

After the great conqueror’s death, it was Ptolemy of Lagos who gained the satrapy of Egypt in 323 and was proclaimed king there in 304. The annexation of Lower Nubia by Ptolemy II supplied three major advantages upon which the subsequent members of the dynasty founded their dominance: African war elephants, the gold reserves of Nubia, and access to the west and central African iron-smelting works already present in the region for a millennium. The completion under the Ptolemies of the Suez Canal, along the same route as the excavations of Darius I of Persia in 500 B.C.E. (which in turn followed a route which dated back a potential further thousand years), established Egypt’s trading dominance on the routes to India and in the lands that later became the empire of Mali.2

History moves forward, but its study must be conducted in retrospect.

The fortunes of the Ptolemaic dynasty and the simultaneous ascent of the Roman Empire during the following three hundred and fifty years naturally held a key place in my somnolent account of civilization, but for the present purpose we must now move forward to the confrontation between Cleopatra and Octavian in 31 B.C.E. The Queen of Kings had been proclaimed twenty years earlier, and her sexual liaisons with Julius Caesar and his successor (and her consort) Mark Anthony left her perfectly positioned to take advantage of Octavian’s overweening ambition.

After the assassination of the first Caesar, the Roman domains were divided between Anthony and Octavian, the former taking the east and the latter the west. Octavian’s fatal gamble was his attempt to present Anthony as a traitor to the Roman cause when in the Donations of Alexandria he divided the eastern empire between Cleopatra, Caesarion (her son by Julius Caesar), and Alexander Helios and Ptolemy Philadelphus (Anthony’s own offspring by the queen). Collectively, their apanages comprised Egypt itself, Cyprus, Cyrenaica, Syria, Armenia, Parthia, Phoenicia, and Cilicia, thus much of the known world beyond Italy and Western Europe, then in the thrall of Rome.

Anthony may have been less skilled a general than he was a geographer, and the military historians of my dream remained divided as to the extent of the risk Cleopatra ran when, with her legendary boldness, she engaged her warships at Actium. Anthony’s fleet of broad, heavy quinqueremes had given battle to Octavian’s lighter, more maneuverable liburnian boats for several hours without result when Cleopatra, who held her forces in the rearguard, gave the signal for retreat. Anthony was unaware of the ruse. In the confusion that followed the apparent retirement of the Egyptian vessels from the field, Cleopatra divided her fleet and pressed around her ally’s flanks, bearing down on Octavian’s ships from either side and funneling them within range of Anthony’s archers.3

It was, as the counterfactual historian Barry Strauss notes in his new book, The War That Made the Roman Empire: Antony, Cleopatra, and Octavian at Actium, the “hinge” of history.4 We might call it the crossroads of civilization. Strauss presents a captivating tale of what might have been had Octavian and Agrippa won at Actium over Anthony and Cleopatra. “Actium,” he notes, “was the decisive event, and its consequences were enormous.” Had the battle turned out otherwise—had Augustus won, the center of gravity of the Roman Empire would have shifted westward. Rome might well have won out over Alexandria or Byzantium as the capital city of the ancient, and later our own, world. The world would have spoken Latin, not Greek. Strauss imagines the monument Octavian might have raised to commemorate his victory:

The Victorious General [Imperator] Caesar, son of a God, victor in the war he waged on behalf of the Republic in this region, when he was consul for the fifth time and proclaimed victorious general for the seventh time, after peace had been secured on land and sea, consecrated to Mars and Neptune the camp from which he set forth to battle, adorned with naval spoils.

But it was not to be.

The niceties of Cleopatra’s strategy have provided topics for many pleasant scholarly gatherings, but the outcome is undisputed. Cleopatra’s ships sailed into harbor at Alexandria dressed for victory. When news of their triumphant return reached Octavian, who was trying to augment his depleted troops in Syria, the great-nephew of Julius Caesar fell upon his own sword with the words, “I wished to be Augustus; so ends the West.” What may have seemed at the time vainglorious appears to have been borne out by the events that followed.

The great-nephew of Julius Caesar fell upon his own sword with the words, “I wished to be Augustus; so ends the West.”

Cleopatra had Octavian’s body brought to Alexandria, where it was interred with appropriate honor beside that of her unfortunate husband Anthony, whose death from an asp bite coincidentally occurred on the very evening of Cleopatra’s coronation as the first Ptolemaic Emperor of the Romans.5

Over the next six hundred years, the Ptolemaic Empire flourished, in counterpoint to the slow death of the former Roman dominions to the West. Alexandria was already established as the intellectual and cultural center of the world. Though its vast and unparalleled library suffered collateral damages during Julius Caesar’s siege of the city in 48 B.C.E., the collection was soon restocked with some 200,000 volumes from the Pergamon book hoard, which represented one of Anthony’s last gifts to his Egyptian queen and which are still consulted by scholars to this day.6

A list of Greek-speaking scholars whose discoveries in the library at Alexandria further advanced Ptolemaic civilization must include Euclid (geometry), Archimedes (engineering), Aristarchus of Samos (the heliocentric concept of the universe), Eratosthenes (geography, the circumference of the Earth), the doctors of the Hippocratic tradition (nervous, digestive, and vascular systems of the human body), and Callimachus (cataloguer and etymologist), yet the language of the Eastern Empire was also developing in train with another great innovation, the introduction of the Coptic Church established by a mystic named Mark on his arrival in Alexandria in 42 C.E. As the monastic system introduced by the Coptic Church spread across the lands of the Ptolemies, so too did learning, medicine, and succor for the poor. The other significant figure in this tradition was Pope Arius, the leader of the Coptic Church who in the late third century infused its theology with a radical humanism that would, ultimately and blessedly, affirm the validity of pagan worship.7

The spiritual toleration that had been so important an aspect of Alexander’s conception for Egyptian society (as evidenced by his insistence on preventing his troops defiling the animal necropolis at Saqqara with their presence) was realized as the Qubt language of the Coptic Popes melded with demotic Egyptian, Greek, and Latin and was made manifest in the tolerance of each individual’s deistic preferences. Some continued to worship Isis and Horus, others transferred their hope of salvation to the demi-gods Mark and Arius, still others adhered to the pantheon of the Greeks, but none within the apanage of Alexandria were persecuted.

What a contrast to Rome, the exhausted former champion of Europe! In the aftermath of Actium, those inhabitants of Latin Italia with any pretensions to ability or ambition made their way as soon as possible for Egypt. The population that remained, over time demographically dominated by former slaves, endured a slow leaching of their military and cultural certainties under pressure from incursions from the Germanic tribes, whose fear of the legions had once restrained them beyond the Rhine.

In its long and painful death throes, the Roman Empire behaved with a viciousness that sadly became all too typical of the barbarism that followed over nearly two millennia. It is an interesting footnote to history that only antiquarians know of, but around 33 C.E. the Roman provincial governor of Palestine, Marcus Pontius Pilate, actually crucified an unknown Jewish carpenter-rabbi on no better grounds than the suspicion that he might be a troublemaker. (This crime, long blamed on the local populace, was in fact the fault of the Italians who ruled the province rather than the powerless Jews who lived there.) From what little we know of the anonymous rabbi’s teachings, mainly from the apocrypha of various colleagues and followers of his decades after his death, modern scholars have apprised a fine and decent man with a number of uplifting liberal messages, but sadly his cult died with him on a hill outside Jerusalem.8

Ironically enough, the very absence of booty in the former realm of Octavian protected the rump of the Roman Empire from cataclysmic attack. Put simply, by the time of the great earthquake that destroyed what remained of the Colosseum and the other mighty monuments of the former imperial city in 443 C.E., there was very little left worth looting.9 The colonies of Hispania and Gaul gradually returned to their earlier customs and cultures, while the island of Brython, having been briefly inspected by Julius Caesar, remained quietly on the edge of the map and gave trouble to nobody. The Druids there, whose descendants claim ownership of Stonehenge and regularly use it for religious festivals today, appear to have been the most impressive of the Brythons almost until modern times.10

Tribal, hierarchical, patriarchal, vicious, and constantly feuding, the peoples of Western Europe spent much of the Dark Ages (ca. 31 B.C.E.–1850 C.E.) in backwardness and ignorance in comparison with the rest of the world. Life there really was, in the words of the Wessex-based political philosopher Thomas Hobbes, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” There were some exceptions to this overall tale—Cambridge University, the Abbey church of Woden in Londinium, for example, and the cathedral of Our Lady Cleopatra in Chartres—but nowhere could the term “civilization” really be extended to the West except perhaps for Moorish Spain after the assassinations of Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492 and Ottoman Vienna post-1683, and in both places the inability of Islam to reform internally also led to suppuration and decay.11

 Life there really was, in the words of the Wessex-based political philosopher Thomas Hobbes, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”

The advent of Islam—which, after the decline of Judaism, became the sole remaining Abrahamic religion—in Arabia from the mid-seventh century onwards heralded the division of the Ptolemaic kingdoms and their eventual absorption by the great Caliphates that constitute the essential territories of the modern Dar-al-Islam, a vast ummah stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to the gates of Indo-China. The highest point of their civilization today is perhaps illustrated by modern-day Kabul, where until recently the Taliban has strictly enforced sharia law, ensuring that some 50 percent of the population is kept rigidly away from any activities that might increase gdp.

Simultaneously in the sixth century, the Vikings, whose homelands in Norway, Denmark, Finland, and Sweden had previously enjoyed sparse contact with the Roman Empire, began their series of explorations west to Vinland and Helluland and east to the Russias. A recently excavated settlement at the tip of what is now known as the Albinonic Fringe attests to Viking presence before 1020, though what staging posts or settlements they established were soon abandoned.12 They did not, however, leave without learning of a practice which was to become crucial to the enduring dominance of Rus.

Those people whom the Vikings termed “Skraelings,” the inhabitants of the lands west of the fringe, had long employed the sweat-lodge, or “sauna,” for social and spiritual practices.13 Though there exists considerable debate about the matter, it may be ascertained that the custom of women giving birth in such saunas existed in Finland some time before the establishment of a Viking outpost at Anse. The hygienic consequences of the sauna were, quite simply, revolutionary. Indeed, it is arguably thanks to the sauna that we in Rus, Nubia, and the Dar-al-Islam today enjoy our high average life expectancy of fifty-two years.

Thanks to the sauna, puerperal fever was eliminated in a generation and women no longer died in such tragic numbers in childbirth and consequently could provide many more children for their husbands and tribes. Their offspring were more likely to survive and in turn to produce healthy babies, producing an increase in population—the well-known “Viking Surge” of the eleventh century—which not only increased agricultural production but also spurred the impetus for trade. As a result of such increases in medical knowledge, today’s Western Europeans only die of smallpox, polio, typhus, the Chinese bat-plague, typhoid, bubonic plague, malaria, and yellow fever.

To the east of their original dominions, the Vikings’ search for amber, furs, minerals, and—somewhat regrettably—slaves saw them imposing tribute on the Chud, Slav, and Ves peoples. According to the Povest’ vremennykh let (The Rus Primary Chronicle) they had by the year 852 raided as far as the Sea of Marmara, overrunning the city they knew as Miklågard, a Ptolemaic provincial capital which spanned both shores of the Bosphorus.14 While the reaction of the Coptic Pope Photius was understandable—“Why?’ he moaned, “has this dreadful thunderbolt fallen on us out of the farthest north?”—the Ptolemaians successfully resisted this first Viking incursion by dint of a new technology developed in the seventh century.

Known as “Holy Fire,” this mixture of saltpeter and petroleum was sprayed through skin hosepipes from the city walls over the enemy. And though Miklågard eventually did indeed become part of the state of Rus, Holy Fire, when combined with Chinese gunpowder, has proved one of the most effective and refined weapons at the disposal of the global East, and remains so to this day. (That is not to say that others have not tried in recent years to advance military technology, against the will of the gods, as the summary execution of Wilbur and Orville Wright for their heresies against the order of nature attested.)

While the Vikings were extending the borders of Rus to march with those of modern-day Indo-China, the Empire of Mali—which had come to dominate the remaining territories of the Ptolemies that had not been absorbed into the Dar-al-Islam—was simultaneously extending its own trade links to the lands of the Aztecs and Incas, collectively known as “Biru.” Of all the innovations discovered by the Malian merchants, the most significant was the earthquake-proof architecture these societies had perfected, which, in conjunction with the search for oil to convert into petroleum to produce Holy Fire, encouraged the northward push by a combined force from Mali and Biru into the lands of those “Skraelings” first encountered by the Vikings in Helluland.

By the year 1550, therefore, the world was thus divided into five great empires: Rus, Greater Nubia, Indo-China, Dar-al-Islam, and Biru, with Western Europe a cultural and economic backwater contributing nothing of value to mankind. This brings us to the period conventionally (though increasingly controversially) known by its Danish nomenclature, the Renæssance. The achievements of this period and its contribution to the competitive advantages enjoyed by the “global East” include, though not exclusively: mathematics,15 gunpowder,16 moveable metal type,17 historiography,18 and linear perspective.19 We might add paper money, nautical innovations such as the rudder and separable bulkhead, and the blast furnace, the two former from China, the latter from Greater Nubia.

The decision on behalf of the Five Empires to ban usury, for fear that it might encourage the development of what counterfactualists call “free markets,” saved the world from many dangerous innovations over the centuries. Any danger that there might be an industrial revolution in the West was effectively snuffed out by the ukase against borrowing and lending, with the obviously beneficial results that the West retains its largely barter economy that is so popular today. The danger posed by the limited joint-stock company, by which individuals banded together to pursue entrepreneurial activities, was ended once the Batavian authorities clamped down hard on the practice in the early sixteenth century.

Similarly, popular obscurantism and rules against absurdly over-optimistic adventurism kept the West safe. Although few outside the academy have ever heard of him, in the late fifteenth century there was a Genoese adventurer called Christopher Columbus who was fortunately unable to raise the capital necessary for his harebrained schemes of sailing westwards to the Indies.

Similarly, popular obscurantism and rules against absurdly over-optimistic adventurism kept the West safe.

The arrest and execution without trial of Galileo Galilei in April 1633 might seem harsh half a millennium later, but at least it put paid to the outrageous and ludicrous notion that the Earth revolved around the Sun, which if adhered to by enough people would undoubtedly have led to a great doubt among the populace of the verities of our present-day existence.20 Galileo paid a high price for his heresies, but times were much harsher then. Our knowledge that the Sun moves around the Earth—and the banning of any teachings or experiments to the contrary—keeps Western society happy and contented.

Our knowledge that the Sun moves around the Earth—and the banning of any teachings or experiments to the contrary—keeps Western society happy and contented.

With regard to punishment, today the stonings and decapitations in Dar-al-Islam stand out as exceptional, whereas the rest of the world is far more civilized; for example, the late Ronald Reagan only had his thumbs branded by the Dublin Consistory Court when he wrote his illuminated manuscript promoting such ancient Attic notions as “democracy.” Considering the absurdities he attempted to promulgate in the 1980s—a belief in rationalism, individual liberty, freedom of speech, the rule of law, and so on—it was extraordinary that he got off so lightly. Fortunately, there seems to be no one on the present political scene who has followed his heretical lead.

Indeed, we can be proud of what the world has achieved since Cleopatra’s glorious victory at Actium. There have been occasional moments of violence—the burning at the stake of Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo for innovative artistic expression was of course regrettable, though probably necessary—but overall the absence of what counter-factualists call “liberal values” has strengthened Western society to the point that average wages there equate to over forty groats a year after tax, enough to buy two bullocks and eleven goats. This is meaningful wealth. Meanwhile, Western arts and culture have been confined to the graceful whittlings of the eighteenth-century woodcarver Antoni Stradivari and the musical experiments undertaken with Chinese nose-flutes by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Ludwig Beethoven, who both hailed from the Viking-occupied region of Germania.

We have already noted the health revolution instigated by the sauna. Whether it was the Skraelings or the Vikings who were responsible for the origin of this technology is a continuing source of debate. The same ownership issue holds true in the case of the technology that permitted the unification of the innovations listed above and resulted in the definitive dominance of the “global East”: the balloon. Whether one subscribes to the theory that balloon travel was developed by the Nazca peoples of the pre-Inca Biru, or to the contending argument that smoke balloons were built and tested in twelfth-century Yin China, it is undoubtedly the case that the dissemination of the knowledge of the Renæssance was the consequence of air travel. The fact that it is now possible to fly from Kiev to Machu Picchu in a mere eight and a half days is incontestable evidence of the efficacy of the vehicle which truly revolutionized the world.

This account has, notably, left out most of what we in the real world call “the West.” But what account could I give of such desolation as inhabits the Albinonic Fringe, these balloon “flyover states”? Just as the early Vikings passed over the desolate wastes of Brython and Gaul in their pursuit of plunder, so too must I neglect and dismiss the contribution and potential of these regions to our global historic narrative.

But then I began to stir. Earlier in the dream, the characterization of the inhabitants of the Fringe as backward, pale, flabby, beer-swilling primitives only fit to dig for coal seemed justified. Even accepting their early advances in chariot technology and thatched architecture, the sophisticated trade between Brython and Gaul, a coinage system, and their richly decorative shrines, temples, and tombs, it seemed to me that such people deserved their backwards reputation. But then more doubt crept in. What if the current gatherings of senior tribesmen in Brython known as witans shows a potential for representational government similar to that which was cast out of Athens more than twenty-five centuries earlier? Yet I shook it off, rolled over, and returned to my dream. It is clearly absurd to believe that a democratic system could ever take root in places like Brython, where so little of note has emerged from the mists for over a thousand years. Back dreaming, it became clear to me that democracy remains as yet too delicate and dangerous an idea to be released to the mercies of the masses. For such an idea genuinely to work, we would need centuries of civilizing institutions in the West to instill such concepts as the equality of men and freedom of conscience, and of course there was no prospect of that happening even in the distant future. Instead we must be content with the exciting new developments taking place in Kabul, in the easternmost part of the Dar-el-Islam Empire, where women have occasionally been allowed to leave their houses unaccompanied by their male relations, and the local Council of Islamic Scholars has, in its infinite mercy, banned women from being beaten with canes wider than a man’s thumb. The world is therefore on the correct path, and is undoubtedly a happier, richer, and better place without the dangerous and revolutionary concepts of democracy and Western civilization.

And then I awoke. Over my morning coffee I reflected on this alternate universe, one in which the glories of Western civilization were not, instead, achieved by the East but, in fact, not achieved at all. While contemporary scholars may decry the West’s past, attributing to it all the ills that continue to bedevil our imperfect world, my dream showed me a world without the West: no protection against serious infectious diseases; no six-hour transatlantic flights; no real knowledge of what occurs beyond Earth’s atmosphere—the list of technological liabilities goes on and on. In some ways, the political and social penalties are even starker. For congregated under the word “democracy” are all manner of signature Western achievements, from the ideal of equality before the law, the protection of private property (“the first object of government,” according to James Madison), and the cultivation of free markets, to the Socratic spirit of self-criticism and open debate. Let us not blindly praise the past, but nor should we denigrate it without just cause or proper context. Historians who chide the bad but ignore the good leave many gaps for invention, something scholars and citizens both present and future would do well to remember.

  1.  In reality, Octavian won, assuring Roman dominance in the Europe of the time and the cultural ascendancy of Roman precedents thereafter.
  2.  The “Canal of the Pharaohs,” the predecessor of our modern-day Suez canal, was in fact completed in the time of the Ptolemies but closed down in 767 A.D.
  3.  Historians agree that Anthony and Cleopatra faced long odds in attempting to escape from the Ambracian Gulf, at whose mouth the city of Actium was located and within which Octavian had pinned their naval forces. As Barry Strauss explains in The War That Made the Roman Empire, we cannot know Anthony’s precise strategy, but it was probably known to Octavian, thanks to the last-minute defection of Quintus Dellius, a top commander from Anthony’s camp. Cleopatra and the Egyptian reserves nevertheless succeeded in breaking through Octavian’s lines, near the center; joined by Anthony and perhaps a few other ships, they sailed for Africa with their war treasury on board. They left over half their ships and the vast majority of the Roman legions behind. There were minor skirmishes afterward, but two centuries later the Roman historian Cassius Dio was not far off in asserting that the decisive victory at Actium gave Octavian “sole possession of all power” in the Roman empire.
  4.  Strauss’s book is, of course, entirely factual. The War That Made the Roman Empire: Antony, Cleopatra, and Octavian at Actium, by Barry Strauss; Simon & Schuster, 368 pages, $30 (March 22).
  5.  The biographer Plutarch tells us that Anthony committed suicide in Alexandria on August 1, 30 B.C., after a false report, possibly sent by Cleopatra herself, that she had done likewise. Cleopatra in fact killed herself nine days later—the story goes, by putting an asp to her breast.
  6.  The only counterfactual aspect here is the assertion of the library’s longevity: in reality, intermittent pillaging and general neglect had reduced it to a shadow of its former self by the time Saracens took Alexandria in 640 A.D., destroying what remained.
  7.  The Christian heresy of Arianism, which held that Jesus was not co-eternal with God the Father, was stamped out by the Council of Nicaea, convened by the emperor Constantine in 325 A.D.
  8.  In reality, the consolidation of the Roman Empire by Octavian, which paved the way for the extension by later emperors of Roman citizenship to those living in the territories, was also a necessary precondition for the flourishing of Christianity. As Harry Jaffa explained, when “everyone was a Roman, then Roman law was everyone’s law. The separate gods of the separate cities had been the lawgivers of their cities. If there was but one law there must be only one God. Some form of monotheism was thus destined to become the Roman religion. . . . Christianity was able to combine the monotheism of Judaism with the universality of Roman citizenship.”
  9.  The source of this earthquake was finally correctly attributed to the fault in the Monte Vettore range by seismologists investigating the tremor that further blighted this corner of the world in 2016.
  10.  The remains at Stonehenge date at least to the third millennium B.C., well before the Celtic peoples and their leaders (known as Druids) arrived in Britain (likely after 500 B.C.).
  11.  The failure of the Ottoman siege of Vienna, which lasted two months, marked the beginning of the end of organized Muslim incursion into Europe.
  12.  L’Anse aux Meadows sits at the northern tip of modern-day Newfoundland and was settled by the Vikings in the early eleventh century.
  13.  “Skraelings” were the native inhabitants encountered by the Vikings upon their arrival in Greenland.
  14.  “Micklågard” is the name given in the Icelandic sagas for the “big stronghold,” which is to say Constantinople, modern-day Istanbul, which Viking travelers visited.
  15.  Known in Egypt from 2,700 B.C., including unit fractions, multiplication, division, composite and prime numbers, and linear and quadratic equations.
  16.  Discovered in China ca. 850 A.D.
  17.  In Korea, dated definitively to 1377 A.D. with the completion of the earliest extant book printed with movable metal type, The Anthology of Great Buddhist Priests’ Zen Teachings.
  18.  Attested by tenth-century A.D. Indian commentaries on the Raghuvamsa, an epic poem dating to the fifth century A.D.
  19.  Employed by Li Cheng of China, who died in 967 A.D.
  20.  In truth Galileo was arrested and tried for these beliefs and forced to abjure by the Catholic Church in 1633. This fact is hardly a credit to the Church’s tolerance, but the reality diverges from the above counterfactual in two important respects: first, that instead of being killed, after his conviction the aging Galileo retired to his farmhouse in Arcetri, Italy, until his death in 1642; and second, that the public nature of the trial, pre-determined though its conclusions may have been, and the private records thereof have afforded subsequent generations the opportunity to form their own opinions about the authority exercised and the degree of justice attained.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 40 Number 6, on page 4
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