There is an awesome power to the sea. To the senses, hearing its music in the dark or else simply watching its vast and seemingly uncontrollable energy can leave a lasting, or humbling, impression: as one old song lyric goes, “nobody rules the waves”. This was a common theme to medieval Celtic or Norse-Gaelic legends (including a tale of King Canute). It was perhaps a predominant mentality among the Irish who, despite being islanders, were not a great seafaring people. I recall an English historian telling me that the only time the Irish ever appeared in Anglo-Saxon literature was in Asser’s story of how some Irish monks ended up in the court of King Alfred by accident, having (as a sort of religious exercise of ‘trusting in God’) deliberately set sail in a boat with no oars. This was, perhaps, taking the mentality of “nobody rules the waves” a little too far.
Anyone who has heard the popular Last Night of the Proms music festival in England will know that there is a song that claims there is someone, other than God, who can rule the waves. Yes, you’ve guessed: it is “Britannia”. But who is she? That thought often brings to mind an early childhood experience of discovering a coin buried in tarmac in an Irish public square: it was an old English penny, dated 1899. The juxtaposition of seeing that date and the mysterious figure on the front of the coin seemed to my childish mind as equally as supernatural as having made contact with the year Minus One. Seeing one of these coins again recently, however, I was struck by the fact that the figure of “Britannia”, with her trident, shield, bearing and head-dress, was evidently very deliberately and directly modelled upon the statue of “Athena” that is supposed to have stood in the Parthenon in Ancient Greece. Therefore, to pose the question of: who is this mysterious figure that can miraculously ‘rule the waves’ would also seem to point to the necessity of asking the additional question of: who is “Athena”?
Many children today might soon be led to ask this same question due to the omnipresence of cartoon owls in kid’s entertainments (particularly for girls) and, famously for owls, one of the claims to fame of Athena (later reinvented by the Romans as Minerva) is that she had an owl mascot, reputedly to denote wisdom. More significantly, however, Athena was a multifaceted goddess who was equally a goddess of war. In the light of the fact that she was invented as a protector of Athens once it became an imperial centre, I think it is fair to say that her war-like traits may be considered the most significant.
I am certainly no classical scholar – in fact, I know relatively little of classical civilisation at all – but whenever people speak of the modern world’s debt to classical civilisation, two contrasting perspectives immediately spring to my mind: the artistic (as represented by the amazing achievement of creating life-like human sculptures) and, perhaps most significantly, the political. Here, I cannot help but thinking that an irony to classical civilisation is that it seemingly gave birth in quick succession to two loaded political concepts that have remained with us: republics and empires. What began as a republic, as in Athenian democracy, very quickly turned into a militaristic empire and, with that, not only a glorification of power but also a self-centred conception of ‘civilisation’ (as a supposed bulwark against barbarism). If one doubts how strong an influence these ideas, even subconsciously, can exercise on the popular imagination to this day one need only reflect on the great popularity of Star Wars entertainments of the eternal conflict between the Jedi (republicans) and Sith (imperialists) being played out simultaneously in ‘a galaxy, far, far away’ and in your very own living room. The ‘gods’, it would seem, are still very much with us today in playing out tales, if not deeds, of heroism. Outside the pages of science fiction, however, throughout history these conflicts have not generally been ones of ‘star (or sky) wars’ but rather of ‘sea wars’. And here, perhaps, we might come to the central significance of the invention of Athena: classical Greece turned from a republic to an empire (that, in turn, considered itself as “the” centre of civilisation) as soon as it became a maritime power, both military and commercial. Pondering the sea no longer invited the creation of mere adventure stories of fantasy voyages, be it tales of a golden fleece or the later voyages of Sinbad and Celtic (including Irish) seafarers who discovered fantastic islands. Instead, the sea had become the key to imperial power.
Returning to the figure on the English penny coin, it is not too difficult to see the root of the deliberate parallels between the figures of Athena and Britannia. As soon as England became a republic, under Oliver Cromwell, very quickly thereafter it became embroiled in naval and commercial battles with the Dutch (amongst others) so that, not long after the restoration of the monarchy and the settlement of questions of succession by the time of Queen Anne (1714), the idea was born: England was now an empire and, with the Act of Union with Scotland (1707), it could very well be described as a British empire to boot. The song “Rule Britannia!” was created in 1740 by authors that looked both to classical civilisation and to tales of King Alfred’s defeat of sea-invading Vikings in inventing a British patriotic mythology. This is how the figure of Britannia was born. Not only due she ‘rule the waves’ but she was also a protecting goddess of war to ensure that ‘Britons shall never be slaves’ (thereby drawing directly upon classical civilisation’s dichotomy of citizens and slaves). In other words, London was the new Athens, or even Rome. Military or naval power meant being master of the seas and, thereby, master of one’s own destiny with unique gods (of war) of one’s own to symbolise this power. In turn, this led to an impulse to not only come up with a fresh definition of civilisation but also to attempt to apply that definition of civilisation to the rest of the world as well. Can such trends be equated with a Greco-Roman impulse acquiring seniority over Judean-Christian impulses in a society or are these impulses more closely associated than many might assume? To those sensitive to the use of language, it might appear that this particular question laid at the heart of many a historical thesis written prior to the twentieth century; that is, before someone, somewhere, decided that the Alpha and Omega of history was Karl Marx (1818-1883).
It is an easy impulse today, as it no doubt was in any age, to dismiss patriotic mythologies of this kind as essentially ridiculous and meaningless fantasies, designed to turn schoolboys into soldiers (or sailors). To do so, however, may be quite naïve in underestimating just how strongly ideas of civilisation and mastery of the seas go hand-in-hand, well into the modern age and, perhaps, to this very day. Adam Zamoyski’s Holy Madness treated the personification of national valour through either the creation of mythological personages to symbolise a nation, or cults of actual rulers, as a phenomenon that dated primarily from 1770-1870 and as something quite laughable to modern eyes. But how then does one explain the growing popularity thereafter of figures like Marianne, to symbolise the French Republic, or Columbia (who, in the wake of the French gift to the USA of the Statue of Liberty in 1886, came to bear a torch, still to be seen in the movie logo of Columbia Pictures), to symbolise the American Republic? Are not these figures variations on Britannia and Athena; imperial figures in a republican guise?
During the First World War, the vague and utopian idea was born that ‘the freedom of the seas’, as opposed to unilateral mastery of the seas, could be a key to universal peace. America, as a supposed unspoiled beacon of the ‘new world’, presented itself (mostly in the idealistic personality of Woodrow Wilson) as carrying a torch for this idea. However, the American entry into the war during 1917 coincided with the republication of a text that, in its first edition (in 1897), coincided with what many American historians have described as the birth of American imperialism. And what was the title of this text? Yes, you’ve guessed it: it was The Interest of America In Sea Power: Present and Future. It seems yet another republic was turning into a mercantile empire and the same old dynamic of worldly power was coming into play, with eternal regularity: mastery of the seas.
And so, the question of ‘who rules the waves’ would seem not to be a simplistic, childish fantasy or a funny idea for a song. Today there may be hundreds of people lying on a beach somewhere, listening to or watching in awe the majestic power of the sea as a reassuring sign of a natural order that is greater and more powerful than any personal concerns of individuals. However, as soon as the idea of ‘mastery of the sea’ is born, it would seem that alternative instincts are very quickly born: ‘mastery of the sea’ raises the prospect of invading ships and, in turn, nations being locked into a repeating cycle of mercantile wars, be it offensive or (as soon as an empire is born) defensive, and the citizens, or subjects, of such imperial powers are quite likely to be swept up in the resulting enthusiasms. They may also become blind to any alternative viewpoints, for empires frequently lead to an attempt to achieve a monopoly in attempts to define knowledge of the world at large. The Encyclopaedia Britannica (1768) coincided with emergence of the British Empire and during the last century, reflecting Anglo-American economic ties, each issue has been dedicated not only to the reigning British monarch (as they have always been) but also to the concurrent American president in office. To some, the chief attraction of Wikipedia lies its role in rescuing encyclopaedia creation from this tradition of imperial mastery: this may mean that the sum of knowledge and, in particular, the history of the world will no longer be written according to the old imperial dynamic of “writing others’ history for them” or else “conquering a people through first conquering their children’s hearts and minds”. Instead, people can write their own history. No matter what one may think of this debate about Wikipedia, however, soldiers of the pen and soldiers of the sword march side by side more often than one might think.
Can a civil servant perform his or her duties well without truly believing that it is for the greater good? And, then, what of imperial civil servants: are they not most likely to become prisoners of a tunnel vision that can no more be abandoned, or denied, than their very existence? These are, perhaps, impossible or comparatively useless questions to ask beyond the somewhat nebulous history of mentalities. A fascinating example that comes to mind in this regard, however, was a British liberal peer’s reaction to the publication of a book by an Irish author entitled Modern Ireland (1868) that not only challenged the right of British authors to “write Irish history for us” but also claimed virtues for Irishmen that were supposedly alien to the British. One such virtue claimed was that of republican virtue. It was this very claim, however, that evoked the most intense reaction from the British peer, who wrote that “Irishmen talk about republicanism but they have not the slightest fitness for a republic nor any true republican feeling”. In making this claim, this member of the British House of Lords was evidently claiming for Englishmen those very same republican virtues that were supposedly beyond the reach of the fickle or feckless Irish, as if at the very heart of the British Empire itself were indisputably those same republican virtues that constituted the history of civil society, past, present and future. What, if anything, does this perspective indicate? Well, at the time, some Irish members of parliament at Westminster pondered privately whether or not the construction of an Oliver Cromwell monument near the Royal Arch within the grounds of the British imperial parliament was a testament to the existence of ghosts of the English civil war in the British political psyche or, indeed, Anglo-Irish tensions. However, if the British liberal peer’s reaction to the publication of Modern Ireland (1868) can be cited as a more representative illustration of mentalities, there was probably a very different underlying mentality at work. Republics may become empires but at the heart of these empires may still exist a republican core, like a partly forgotten original impulse that nevertheless still resides in the mind.
The American republican preoccupation with their state’s founding fathers may reflect a legacy of the original American debate on republican virtue which, remarkably, not only pondered on the significance of the divide between urban and rural society but also instinctively identified virtue as something that was most likely to thrive naturally within a rural, as well as relatively static, society. This was an alternative take on republican virtue to both the classical and early modern concepts, the latter essentially beginning with the Italian city-states (commercial and maritime powers). At various times, some Americans have retrospectively associated various historic figures like Abraham Lincoln with a lost ‘rustic’ innocence of the American republic that could never perhaps truly re-emerge. If so, however, how did this ‘lost innocence’ occur? Perhaps the answer is not “blowing in the wind” but rather “skimming the surface of the seas”. As soon as nations resolve that it is possible to ‘rule the waves’ (and not just the land), humans’ territorial impulses can become as boundless as the ocean. In turn, the question of “natural” virtue recedes and the question of civic virtue becomes internationalised with an externalised focus that becomes its own raison d’etre. In turn, history becomes a tale not of peoples but of concepts of civilisation. How far the liberal arts can serve to either reinforce or challenge this dynamic is a question that cannot really be answered. The impulse to ask this question, however, would seem to define the historian’s craft; a perhaps obvious point that can easily be forgotten. This may indicate that any instinctive repulsion to the idea of ‘ruling the waves’ could well be combined with a focused historical enquiry: how, or why, did so many “in history” believe that they could? This idea may not make for a good song. However, it could be said to be at the heart of many a good historical thesis.