The ‘Great Men of History’ Are Great at Getting You Killed
The traditional telling of the medieval sack of Rome might go something like this: In 1527, Charles of Bourbon led his army in an assault on Pope Clement VII’s Rome, promising his soldiers that they’d be paid in the Eternal City’s plunder. Bourbon was killed in the assault, but the city fell, and the pope was held hostage for a sizable ransom. The event marked a shift in Europe’s balance of power that had repercussions for decades to come.
Now here’s how historian Patrick Wyman chronicles the sack in his new book, The Verge: “Shattering glass, breaking wood, crackling flames, and sporadic gunfire — and above it all, the piercing screams of fleeing citizens — filled the streets and alleyways as evening descended on Rome. The emperor’s army slaughtered indiscriminately while establishing control, killing the sick and infirm at the hospital of Santo Spirito along with a group of orphaned children. … Come evening, flames illuminated the city, throwing light onto scenes of horrific violence.”
The difference, in a nutshell, is that Wyman’s recounting includes the story of common people. He’s not here for the “great man theory,” which holds that the best way to understand the past is to track the exploits of its most powerful people, particularly in their conflicts with one another. It’s because of that theory that, for a lot of us U.S. students, the country’s history is taught largely as a relay race that starts with early European kings and emperors, moves to colonizers and Founding Fathers, and then continues onto U.S. presidents.
There’s the occasional digression into everyone else: women, low-wage workers, the enslaved, Native Americans and other first nations, and immigrants from all over the world. But these people — also known as 99.999999999999999999999 percent of all humans who’ve ever lived — are treated as a sideshow to the main event: powerful men leading wars against other powerful men.
That approach provides a woefully incomplete recounting of history, Wyman tells Rolling Stone. “I really think it’s important to understand the perspectives of common people and the experience of common people to the extent that that’s possible,” he says. “These are people like us, who were living, breathing, eating, dying — just like we do. We have to remember that the consequences those people suffer and deal with are every bit as much a part of the story.”
Wyman is quick to note that he’s far from the only historian taking this approach, and that, at higher levels, trying to capture perspectives up and down the economic chain is “fairly standard philosophy of history stuff.” But Wyman has made a successful podcasting (his Tides of History podcast has covered subjects from post-Roman Europe to the paleolithic era) and writing career for himself by bringing that approach to a broad audience.
His new book, The Verge, focuses on the years 1490 to 1530. It’s a four-decade period that, Wyman explains, laid the groundwork for Western European nations — and later, the United States — to become the dominant players for the next 500 years. At the start of the period, Western Europe was largely a backwater, a collection of far-flung ministates that produced little in the way of goods anyone else wanted to buy. Those countries lagged far behind the Ottoman Empire or Imperial China or a host of other civilizations around the globe. But by the end of the period — thanks to a breathtaking series of technological changes, historical accidents, and decisions that were little understood at the time — these nations had laid the groundwork for dominating the globe.
This is not, however, a straightforward success story. Instead, Wyman tells much of the story of the transformation both through the eyes of the people who brought it about and from the perspective of people who lived with its consequences, including suffering among the common people of (at least) three continents.
Wyman spoke with Rolling Stone about how the modern world came together, how that formation was experienced differently, and how the “great man” approach isn’t just an incomplete way to understand history, but that it can be a profoundly dumb and damaging way of understanding the present. (Suffice to say, he got a bit fired up about the media fixating on billionaires flying phallic rockets — and ignoring the millions of workers who put them there.)
In your podcasts and in this book, you give a lot of focus to what daily life was like for the people of various historical eras. In some, you even create fictional composite characters to personalize the story for the audience. Why do you think that’s important?
I don’t mean to say I’m the only person who’s ever thought about this, but I really think it’s important to, first, understand the perspectives of common people to the extent that that’s possible, and, second, to understand the experience of common people to the extent that that’s possible. So that’s why I try to spend a lot of time focusing on things like economic history and market mechanisms. Economic history has a certain democracy to it: pretty much everybody works, and it’s a unifying thread that ties people together in a way in which people have agency in the grand scheme of things.
We have narratives of progress and things getting better and these grand ideas about the course of history. But history is still just regular people going about their lives. And their experience may bear very little resemblance to the actual lived experience of a person of that era. In fact, there are probably going to be people who suffer, whose lives get worse for those things to happen. I hope that there’s some of this in the book — this idea that we have to look beyond the agency of great people in order to understand the past. We have to understand that everybody’s got a role to play.
How can we apply that thinking to today? Where are we still falling into the “great man” trap?
So I can give you a perfect parallel for this right now: It’s Jeff Bezos going to space. The “great man theory” of history says that Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk and Bill Gates are single-handedly driving forward the human endeavor, that we should understand technological advancement, achievement, and anything good that’s going to come of that space race through the agency of those “great men,” with them as the driving force behind it.
I think the flip side to that story is what Bezos kind of ham-fistedly referred to, which is that Amazon’s employees and customers pay for him to go to space. By busting unions, by putting his warehouse workers through God-awful conditions, Bezos accumulated enough excess capital to go to space for a few minutes. So whose agency should we really be talking about here? Is it all of the Amazon workers who had to suffer and pee in bottles and work absurd hours in dangerous conditions to generate that excess surplus for Bezos? Or is it Bezos? Who gets to be the star of that story?
Let’s get a bit more specifically into your book. It tells the story of 40 years that changed the course of the next 500, particularly with the hard-to-foresee rise of a series of Western European states. Will you explain where things stood in 1490, when Western Europe seemed an extremely unlikely breeding ground for the next set of world powers?
Western Europe wasn’t totally impoverished. There are some regions that were incredibly commercially sophisticated, densely populated, and quite wealthy. But there were only a few: The Low Countries (modern-day Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg), northern Italy, the Mediterranean coast of Catalonia. But the rest of Western Europe was pretty rural, it was a peasant-driven economy, and, generally, it was kind of a sideshow to the major centers of trade and, frankly, of innovation.
The places that you would really look [as seemingly the strongest candidates to dominate the centuries ahead] was the Ottoman Empire — the superpower of the day in that part of the world. There was also some parts of India that were quite commercially sophisticated and exceptionally wealthy. The Mughals there would set up an exceptionally wide-ranging and sophisticated empire. And then, of course, Ming China. You might also look at the Aztecs in the Americas, the Incas’ rising power in the Andes.
There are a lot of sophisticated, complex things that happened across the world, and Western Europe is not the global center in any meaningful way. If you would have said that a few hundred years from now you’re going to have several global empires that are based in Western Europe and that control the vast majority of the Earth’s surface, that would have looked crazy in 1490. By 1530, even if it was still a few centuries away, you can see how you get there.
So what happens from 1490 to 1530 to produce that shift?
It’s a lot of trends coming together in roughly the same period of time. There’s also the process of state-building and the emergence of gunpowder warfare that is a huge trans-European phenomenon that takes place during this period. You have the Protestant reformation and everything that went along with that. You have the voyages of exploration — Columbus to the Americas, Vasco de Gama around the horn of Africa to India — that kick into another gear. And all of it is crammed into a few decades.
Why did those trends set the stage for a string of Western European empires? Was there something particular about those countries?
So, I think necessity was the mother of invention. There was trade in Western Europe, but it was inter-regional. The area did not have a lot of goods to trade that the rest of the world wanted, so that’s why it’s Western Europeans going elsewhere to try to find these things, because at the time, there was a steady drain of gold and silver in order to buy things that Western European elites wanted.
So Western Europeans did find pretty creative ways of operating in what was effectively a time of monetary scarcity. That gave rise to a shared understanding of a financial system [of lending and borrowing] that’s broadly shared all the way from the richest bankers in Europe down to a peasant who shows up to the ale house and says, “I don’t have any coins right now, put this beer on my tab.” That financial system allowed money to get spent again and again and again, so any sort of new addition to the money supply had an outsize effect on the economy. Having this multiplier effect, I think, was one big difference between Western Europe and the rest of the world.
The Ottoman Empire would get huge windfalls of treasure, of conquest. But that money would come in, be disbursed, and become part of the treasuries. When you have a surplus, you don’t have to find more sophisticated ways of utilizing it. You can just spend the money you have. I think it’s largely accidental that you have really capital-intensive processes right at the time when Europeans happen to have figured out a variety of mechanisms for financing capital-intensive things.
Your book, right from its opening pages, makes it clear that viewing this only as a “success story” is a mistake. What were some of the negative consequences of this era?
In the short run in Europe, it has a massively disruptive effect. It’s a new era in terms of the scale of warfare. The armies are getting much, much larger, and the destruction they bring is substantially great. A lot of people died in these wars. Take the voyages of exploration. After the first voyages showed promise, the financing system in place ensured that there would be more expeditions and larger ones. Columbus’ subsequent voyages found plenty of willing investors. Vasco de Gama’s fleet that sailed to India in 1497 was very small — only one ship made it back. But the next fleet was much larger. The next even larger, and the voyages became an annual thing.
But as the scale gets bigger, so do the consequences. The same financial system that made voyages of exploration possible also gave them a profit motive, and that profit motive meant they weren’t out there doing NASA stuff for the good of humankind. These were profit-driven enterprises, and that leads directly to enslavement, conquest, and all the other stuff we know is bad about the early stages of European colonialism. The investors wanted to get paid back, so if Columbus had to enslave the natives of Hispanola in order to keep his investors happy, that’s what was going to happen. If in order to pay for the cost of war, you had to let your mercenaries sack the city of Rome because you didn’t have the money to pay them, that’s what was going to happen. You get this cascading series of increasingly violent and large-scale things that happen across Europe and beyond, and it’s like a snowball rolling downhill.
Your book demonstrates that there are often clear trade-offs between human well-being and national development, as well as that there’s often a real conflict between a state’s drive for global power and the well-being of the people who live in it.
There’s that great quote that politics is “how we distribute pain” throughout our society. And frankly, I’m glad I’m not the one making the decision of how much suffering right now is acceptable for the sake of a hypothetical better future. I don’t know the answer to that. I do know that we shouldn’t pretend that there are no costs and there are no consequences. And I think that’s the best I can do, to try to remind people that the decisions we make today have consequences, both intended and unintended.
This interview was edited for length and clarity. Wyman’s book The Verge: Reformation, Renaissance, and Forty Years that Shook the World is available in bookstores now. His Fall of Rome and Tides of History podcasts are available on multiple platforms.