There is an old adage that “history repeats itself,” and I can’t help but feel that it does when writing for this column again after a long summer break. Exploring historical events that happen each week is as fun as it is fascinating. This week, we’ll explore Ancient Rome, World War II and the Boxer Rebellion in China, so let’s get straight into it!
On Sept. 4, 476 A.D., the young Roman Emperor Romulus Augustulus was forced to abdicate his throne in favor of the Germanic mercenary leader, Odoacer. By most accounts, this transfer of power marks the end of the Western Roman Empire as a political force.
However, Augustulus was hardly an emperor at all, and deposing him ended very little. The true power resided in his father Orestes, a wealthy Patrician from the northern province of Pannonia.
Orestes was wise in many ways, working his way up to the court of Atilla the Hun and ultimately managing the “Foederati,” barbarian client states which were bound by treaty to the Roman Empire.
Despite his influence and command of several Foederati armies, Orestes never had a legitimate claim to the throne, nor did his son Augustulus. The Eastern Emperors Zeno and Leo had already appointed Julius Nepos, a Dalmatian nobleman, to the position.
Regardless, Nepos was largely unable to act on his claims. He had meager support in the West as he commanded little military influence, essentially relegating him to his province of Dalmatia. In a desperate attempt to claim his title, in 475 he appointed Orestes as the “Magister Militum,” or “master of soldiers” giving Orestes total control of military movements in all respects. Perhaps Nepos thought Orestes’ command over the Foederati would prove useful in securing the crumbling Western provinces, but sadly, he appointed his usurper.
Orestes was thus uncontested once he forced Nepos to flee from the de facto capital of Ravenna using his Foederati armies. Nepos was to live the rest of his life in Dalmatia — a lingering remnant of the Western Empire — until his assassination in 480.
As Orestes knew he could not count on support from Constantinople while Nepos was still alive, the usurper hastily appointed his teenage son as the new, illegitimate emperor.
Initially given the impressive name Romulus Augustus, many soon referred to him as “Augustulus,” meaning “the little Augustus.” His reign was brief and relatively insignificant. Orestes handled court affairs while some gold coins were minted in the few cities under imperial influence.
Hardly a year later, Orestes faced a dire situation. The same Foederati soldiers that he used to take power were desperate to find land to settle in. They asked for land grants that would cripple Orestes’ control in the Italian provinces — claims he had to refuse. Soon after, Orestes’ armies rallied under a new barbarian leader, Odoacer, who promised to grant their land requests if they promised him the throne.
Orestes was powerless to resist; he was killed immediately.
However, the question of Augustulus remained. Rather than slaying him, his father’s killers gave him pity and exiled him to a castle near modern day Naples. Additionally, he received quite a large recompense payment. Augustulus then returned the imperial regalia to Constantinople and the East was to stand alone for the next 1,000 years.
Next, let’s transition to an entirely different time and place as we often do in this column: In late 1944, when Western Europe was ablaze once again with renewed conflict in France and Italy.
Allied landings in Sicily and Calabria took place in late 1943, while landings in Normandy began in June of 1944. Axis domination over Europe was coming to an end, yet battles still raged fiercely across the continent.
The Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg all rapidly succumbed to the German war machine in May of 1940. Officials fled to exile in the United Kingdom and soon the fight wasn’t simply against Axis forces, but the wave of pessimism that free Europe was ultimately lost.
To combat this, the British Parliament passed the Diplomatic Privileges (Extension) Bill in 1941, offering assistance to any allied nations who had governments toppled by the incessant Axis expansion. London became a safe haven for nationless governments, now treated as “representatives of national resistance” in the terms of the bill.
The governments of the Belgians under Prime Minister Hubert Pierlot, the Dutch under Queen Wilhelmina and the Luxembourgish under Pierre Dupong all anxiously awaited the opportunity to return to their homelands, an increasingly likely event in late 1944.
However, the governments-in-exile were not idle while awaiting the day of their return. Many deals, pacts and international discussions occurred in the forums in London. It was in this discourse that the London Customs Convention was conceived.
Long interested in an economic union — after getting a glimpse of its potential benefits through the interwar Belgium-Luxembourg Economic Union — the three nations signed the treaty on Sept. 5, 1944, leading to the formation of the Benelux Economic Union.
The Convention aimed to unite the currencies of Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg, with each nation’s abbreviation making up the name “Be-Ne-Lux.” The Benelux was formed as a regional economic union, designed to integrate the economies of the three closely related countries.
In later years, the Benelux served as a precursor and example to the larger European Economic Community, and the eventual European Union that stands today. Perhaps this long-lasting unity could only be achieved through shared times of strife.
Finally, let’s transition to a pivotal era on the other side of the globe. On Sept. 7, 1901, the Boxer Protocol was signed by the Qing Dynasty and 11 other nations.
China had long been affected by growing colonial and religious dominance by European powers who largely viewed China as a profitable and exploitable region. So vested were these imperial powers in the Chinese economy that when rebellion initially broke out, nine European nations who were typically at odds with each other unified with America and Japan to curb the revolt.
This level of cooperation was sadly solely driven by a desire to restore the profit streams derived from the Chinese economy and to restore the legations.
Now, it is worth noting that in 1901 the Boxers and the Qing Dynasty were by no means defeated. In fact, since China was never truly conquered by the so-called Eight-Nation Alliance, it could theoretically fight on indefinitely in the interior provinces, a nearly impossible fight to win for any invaders.
As a result, the Boxer Protocol was accepted not as the concrete terms of defeat, but primarily out of a need to end the war and mitigate as much destruction as possible. Consequently, the Qing did not cede any land or change governments. Instead, the treaty simply restored the unjust economic situation in place that prompted the Boxers to revolt in the first place.
The Chinese were forced to pay 18,000 tonnes of gold to the imperial powers, as well as accept numerous terms in regards to future rebellions against foreign influence.
For instance, no civil servants were to be hired from regions where foreigners were massacred, and the government was to ban any anti-foreign organizations under penalty of death for those involved. Likewise, the government was to disarm their munitions construction and fortlines.
In effect, China was subdued to foreign influence in all but name. The Boxer Protocol was but one of the numerous Unequal Treaties forced onto the Chinese, with lasting effects in the modern day. Perhaps the Boxers were not entirely unjustified in being wary of foreign control.
And that wraps up this first edition of This Week in History! I am thrilled to be writing once again; it has been a joy to explore the history behind these events. See you next week!