Thursday, August 25, 2011

Constantine's Conversion to Christianity

The Roman Emperor Constantine's conversion to Christianity shortly before the battle of Milvian Bridge in 312 A.D. is quite controversial. Constantine's decision could have been motivated by any number of factors. The first and most straightforward explanation for his conversion is that he genuinely believed the dogma of Christianity and therefore decided to abandon paganism. Constantine's legitimate interest in Christianity is not inconceivable considering that his mother was Christian.

Yet, one must also consider ulterior motives for Constantine's conversion. He chose to embrace Christianity shortly before a large battle against another Roman ruler for total control over the Western Roman Empire. With the stakes so high it is conceivable that Constantine converted in hopes that the Christian God would aid him in battle. This explanation is supported by the contemporary account of the Battle of Milvian Bridge written by a Christian named Eusebius. Eusebius recounts that Constantine had a vision of a cross above the sun with the words "Conquer by this" engraved across it. Eusebius claims that Constantine instructed his men to represent this symbol on their shields and banners by superimposing the letters "Chi" and "Rho" on top of each other:

Chi Rho

Thus, Eusebius clearly saw Constantine's conversion as a means of achieving military victory.

Alternatively, Constantine may have hoped to gain political capital by converting to Christianity. Two years prior to Constantine's conversion Galerius, another ruler in the triumvirate of the Western Roman Empire, ended the Great Persecution of Christians in the Empire by making it legal to practice Christianity. Constantine may have sensed the fragility of the balance between Christianity and paganism. He also might have realized that he stood to gain the support of an increasing number of Christians within the Empire by declaring it the official religion of the Empire.

Which of these three explanations is most plausible? Perhaps a second account of the Battle of Milvian Bridge, authored by Lactantius, offers the most telling information. Five years after the battle he wrote:
Constantine was directed in a dream to cause the heavenly sign to be delineated on the shields of his soldiers, and so to proceed to battle. He did as he had been commanded, and he marked on their shields the letter X, with a perpendicular line drawn through it and turned round thus at the top (P), being the cipher of CHRISTOS. Having this sign, his troops stood to arms.
Lactantius' account is decidedly more observational and less explanatory than that of Eusebius. He offers no clear rationale for Constantine's decision to follow the instructions given to him by God. Perhaps Constantine experienced a genuine conversion after seeing God in his dream. Or maybe he  followed God's instructions not out of faith but out of desperation for a winning edge during the battle. Lactantius leaves the decision to the reader.

Additional Resources

Constantine and the Conversion of Europe (A.H.M. Jones)

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Taft: Fattest President of the United States

President William Howard Taft held many titles - President of the United States, Chief Justice of the United States, Secretary of War, Solicitor General, Governor of Cuba, and Governor of the Philippines, among others. Yet there is only one title which he still holds some 80 years after his death - fattest President.

Many anecdotes have been passed down regarding Taft's tremendous weight. One of the most famous concerns him getting stuck in the Presidential bathtub and thus ordering a replacement - large enough to fit four average-sized men! Taft even had a new bed constructed at his friend Todd Lincoln's (son of Abraham) house because the springs in the original mattress broke under his weight.

Yet, Taft was not always obese. He was a collegiate wrestler at 225 lbs. and by all accounts quite athletic. He steadily gained weight after graduating college, eventually ballooning to 320 lbs. in 1905, at which point he began his first diet. Before the era of diet books (let alone DVDs) and personal trainers, physicians often constructed and oversaw their patients' weight loss regimens.

It is no surprise then that Taft enlisted the services of Dr. Nathaniel Yorke-Davies, a London physician, who created a personalized "reducing" diet for the War Minister. The diet consisted primarily of meat and vegetables and outlawed fruits, grains (except gluten-free biscuits), and sugar. In short, it was a low-carbohydrate diet. Taft presumably followed the diet because 6 months later he was a relatively svelte 255 lbs. Once at his target weight Taft adhered to Yorke-Davies' "stationary" or maintenance diet (the reducing diet plus some grains) least for a few months.

It seems that in addition to dieting, yo-yo dieting also existed in the early 20th century. According to an account by White House mailman of over 50 years Ira Smith, Taft's appetite during his diet became so voracious that he once ordered that a train he was riding on be rerouted so that a dining car could be attached to it- at 10:00 p.m.! (read the full account of the incident here).

Taft reached his all time high of 340 lbs. in 1913 and embarked on a second "reducing diet" shortly after leaving the office of President. After dropping to about 270 lbs., he managed to control his weight for the remainder of his life.

President Taft in 1907, about one year after his first diet.

Unfortunately for Taft, his characterization as a perpetually obese man was mostly a result of bad timing. Although Taft was one-half inch shy of 6 feet and close to 250 lbs for most of his life, his twin peaks of 320 and 340 lbs. occurred as War Minister and President, respectively (see chart below). And that is why he is remembered as the fattest U.S. President (among other things, of course).

Note: Need a mnemonic device to remember the fattest President? Just rearrange the letters in "Taft" and you get "Fatt."

Additional Resources

Presidential Trivia (Ernie Couch)

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Sunni and Shia: The Story

The terms "Sunni" and "Shia" (also spelled "Shi'a" or "Shi'ah") have flooded American media outlets since the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. Pundits describe the Sunni and Shia as being two branches of Islam who are at odds with one another in Iraq and other parts of the Middle East. In order to properly understand Sunni and Shia relations, one must first learn how Islam splintered into two sects.

During the prophet Muhammad's lifetime, Islam was a largely unified faith. When Muhammad died in 632 A.D., he left no sons and thus there was some question over who would succeed him. A council was held and the Muslim community elected Abu Bakr as caliph or leader. Those who believe that Abu Bakr's election as caliph was legitimate are known as Sunnis.

Muslims who maintain that Muhammad named his cousin and son-in-law, Ali, as his successor are known as Shia (literally "party of Ali"). The Shia believe that Ali, not Abu Bakr, deserved to be the first caliph. Eventually Ali became the fourth caliph, almost 25 years following the death of Muhammad.

Muhammad's supposed appointment of Ali as his successor.

Thus, the debate over the succession of Muhammad can be seen as the impetus for the division of Islam into Sunni and Shia. Since that time, differences in religious practice have further distinguished the two sects. Below are two key differences between Sunni and Shia:
  • Imams
    • Sunni: community and spiritual leaders
    • Shia: infallible and divine
  • Hiding one's religion (taqiyya) under threat of persecution
    • Sunni: permissible under limited circumstances
    • Shia: emphasized
Relations between Sunni and Shia have oscillated over time between amicability and hostility, peace and war. Sunni have always been a majority of the Muslim population and currently represent approximately 90% of Muslims globally. It is no surprise that the Shia have come to stress taqiyya as a result of periods of persecution. Currently the 10% of the Muslim population who identifies as Shia is concentrated heavily in Iran (approximately 90% Shia), Iraq, and Yemen.

While many Muslims identify themselves as either Sunni or Shia (or sub-sects of each), a sizable number of the Islamic faith identify themselves first and foremost as "Muslim." One might argue that the fundamental beliefs shared by the two sects are more significant than the differences.

So the next time you are watching CNN and Anderson Cooper says "Sunni and Shia" and your Uncle Butch blurts out, "What the hell's the difference anyway?" you can drop some knowledge on him; or just smile coyly and shrug.

Additional Resources

After the Prophet: The Epic Story of the Shia-Sunni Split in Islam (Lesley Hazleton)

Churchill and Hitler: Two of a Kind

Winston Churchill and Adolf Hitler are often thought of as polar opposites. In the public consciousness Churchill represents peace, bravery, and equality, while Hitler stands for war, cowardice, and persecution. Churchill is good and Hitler is evil. These characterizations have been implicitly and explicitly propogated through educational institutions, popular media, and historical scholarship. But little consideration has been given to the strong similarities between the two leaders.

Churchill (left) and Hitler (right) delivering speeches. Both men were tremendous orators.

In his book Churchill and Hitler: In Victory and DefeatJohn Strawson predominately presents Churchill and Hitler as opposites. Yet, he does concede that the two leaders shared a significant number of common attributes and interests. According to Strawson, both men:
  • Were accomplished military strategists
  • Loved to dabble in and commanded remarkable grasp of military detail
  • Loved dressing up in military uniforms
  • Were prodigious orators (see Resources section below)
  • Possessed strong historical imaginations
  • Painted (see Resources section below)
  • Were forever fighting
  • Never gave up
  • Had a strong desire to succeed
Both men shared fundamental talents and proclivities which made them powerful leaders. It was the competing purposes behind their leadership that differentiated Churchill and Hitler.

Additional Resources

Mental Floss quiz to see if you can tell Churchill's paintings from Hitler's. I scored a 50% (no better than guessing!) How did you fare?

Churchill and Hitler: In Victory and Defeat (John Strawson)

John Quincy Adams: Skinny Dipping & Other Firsts

John Quincy Adams was a skinny dipper. Before pools and jacuzzis, having a river in your backyard was as good as it got. The sixth President of the United States took full advantage of the White House's proximity to the Potomac River by wading through the river nude almost daily at 5:00 a.m.

In addition to being the first President known to skinny dip in the Potomac, Adams was also the first president to be photographed; luckily not nude (see picture below).

John Quincy Adams was the first President to be photographed. 
Perhaps he is daydreaming about his morning dip.

One morning while skinny dipping, Adams was coerced into becoming the first President to grant an interview to a female reporter. Having been refused an interview in the past, a certain Ann Royall took matters into her own hands by acting on knowledge of the President's morning routine. One morning when Adams was skinny dipping, Royall sat on his clothes and refused to leave until granted an interview. History tells us that the President valued his physical decency above his scorn for Ms. Royall, as she became the first female reporter to interview a President of the United States (naked or otherwise).

Skinny dipping in the Potomac seemingly fell out of favor among Adams' successors until Theodore Roosevelt took office some 75 years later. The president known for serving in 1st United States Volunteer Cavalry and later for his doctrine of "Speak softly and carry a big stick" also enjoyed nude baths in the White House backyard. In the current age of the White House Press Secretary and Secret Service, who is to say that presidents since Roosevelt have not continued the tradition? Let us only hope that they have learned from Adams' failure to follow the golden rule of skinny dipping: keep an eye on your clothes.

Additional Resources

John Quincy Adams (Harlow Giles Unger)