History Lessons From the Idiot Box

I mustered enough self-control last weekend to adhere to my alcohol ban but not enough discipline to work on the research paper that’s taking me forever to finish so I procrastinated by watching the History Channel for three hours.

8:00-9:00 PM – Spartacus: Behind the Myth

My first hour of vegetative state was spent on a program featuring Spartacus, the gladiator who kicked some serious Roman ass. He led an escape from gladiator school in 73 B.C. and a subsequent revolt, his band of about 78 slaves growing to an army of 100,000 in just over a year. It took eight Roman legions and the financial muscle of the richest man in Rome to finally quell the rebellion.

Spartacus hadn’t really planned on overthrowing the Roman Empire. Instead, he intended to cross the Alps and probably return to Thrace (now part of modern Greece) where he was originally from. The guy just wanted to go home.

But then his army wanted to stay in Italy and continue the revolt. Previous victories had led them to believe that they might actually defeat the empire, not realizing that they were just fighting second-class soldiers fresh out of boot camp. The best of the Roman forces were out conquering foreign lands.

The slave uprising became threatening enough for the Romans to take it seriously. Crassus, the empire’s richest man, saw an opportunity for glory and volunteered his services. He funded six legions with his own money while Rome dispatched what remained of the four defeated legions.

Although his body was never found, Spartacus was believed to have died in battle along with thousands of his army. At least he gained greater honor that way rather than conveniently sneaking out of Italy. Crassus, on the other hand, was judged as a veritable jackass.

9:00-10:00 PM – The Da Vinci Shroud

I almost skipped this one, thinking it would be yet another rehash of the usual arguments for and against the authenticity of the Turin shroud, the linen cloth believed to have covered Jesus’ body when he was buried.

And yes, it turned out to be another rehash of the usual arguments, carbon dating and all. The main assertion was the image on the shroud may actually be a photograph done by no less than Leonardo Da Vinci. Although photography was only developed in the 19th century, Da Vinci had already mentioned the camera obscura in his Codex Atlanticus.

Dan Brown moment: A graphic artist showed that the face on the shroud and Da Vinci’s self portrait had the same dimensions. So the Turin shroud was supposedly the artist’s five-hundred-year-old fuck-you note to the church he wasn’t very fond of.

10:00-11:00 PM – China’s Forgotten Fleet

My grade-school level knowledge of 16th century explorers is limited only to Ferdinand Magellan, Vasco De Gama and Christopher Columbus. Apparently, a Chinese guy had bested these Europeans 100 years earlier.

Meet Zheng He, the admiral of the Chinese armada that explored South and Southeast Asia, the Middle East and East Africa in the early 1400s. He commanded a fleet of around 300 ships, the largest of which were about the size of a football field.

The fleet included equine ships, which carried horses and tribute goods; supply ships, which contained livestock, poultry and other staples; and water tankers with a month’s supply of fresh water. To combat scurvy, the crew cultivated soybean sprouts, a good source of vitamin C. Ingenious.

Zheng He didn’t permit death on the ships. Those who were dying were thrown overboard. Hopefully, they bludgeoned the poor guy on the head first before throwing him off. At least he’d be dead when he hits the water.

In his expeditions, Zheng He discovered frankincense in Yemen, black pepper in India and the giraffe in Africa among other things. He established diplomatic and trade relations while also bullying leaders into paying tribute to China. Unlike his European counterparts though, he wasn’t interested in colonization or in proselytizing the natives.

Zheng He died on the return trip of his seventh voyage, and with that came the end of Chinese maritime explorations.

11:01 PM – Must turn off TV and have a beer work on research paper. And get a life.


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