The World’s Ten Most Influential Women
What is Simone De Beauvoir’s thesis? The psychological differences between the sexes are largely due to history and law rather than to any inherent qualities; when given the same opportunities for varied experiences, “women display intellectual qualities perfectly identical with those of men.”
So De Beauvoir surveys the record of woman’s status and conduct throughout history, though she never compiled a list. It might seem like an interesting parlor game, but some take the compiling of a list of the most influential women throughout history as very serious. Books have been written, lists have been compiled, and debates have ensued, but what follows is a list that might reasonably represent a common consensus of what scholars and laypeople have arrived at to represent womankind as their “greatest.” Of course, greatness varies with the individual—what might seem great to one is obtrusive to another. Perhaps, the great women are all around; motherhood might be the defining act of greatness, or not being a mother if a woman has made the decision that she probably wouldn’t make a good one. Either of these decisions makes a woman “great.” For a woman to be able to make this (and other) decisions is what De Beauvoir and her fellow “feminists” strove mightily to achieve. . . .
Next to her son, Mary is the most touching figure in the gospel narrative: rearing him through all the painful joys of motherhood, proud of his youthful learning, wondering later at his doctrine and his claims, wishing to withdraw him from the exciting throng of his followers and bring him back to the healing quiet of his home (“thy father and I have sought thee sorrowing”), helplessly witnessing his apparent crucifixion, and receiving his body into her arms; if this is not history it is supreme literature, for the relations of parents and children hold deeper dramas than those of sexual love. The tales later circulated, by Celsus and others, about Mary and a Roman soldier are by critical consent “clumsy fabrications.” Not so awkward are the stories, chiefly contained in the apocryphal or noncanonical gospels, about the birth of Christ in a cave or stable, the adoration of the shepherds and the Magi, the massacre of the innocents, and the flight into Egypt; the mature mind will not resent this popular poetry. The virgin birth is not mentioned by Paul or John; and Matthew and Luke, who tell of it, trace Jesus back to David through Joseph, by conflicting genealogies; apparently the belief in the virgin birth rose later than that in the Davidic descent and we may never know more than we already do. More certain is the belief amongst scholars that Mary took the place of Venus, Aphrodite, Ishtar, Isis, and the “Great Mother” of the Phrygian cult, and out of many mother goddesses of Mediterranean lore came at last “the fairest flower of all poesy,” as Heine called Mary, the “Mother of God,” revered by billions.
Catherine was victorious in the struggle for power in Russia over her husband Peter III (1762), but she was exposed to all the hazards of a chaotic change. She warmed the ardor of her partisans with rich rewards; those who had opposed her were treated leniently. These measures may have helped to keep her on her slippery seat, but the chief factors were her own courage and intelligence. Seventeen years as the neglected wife of the heir to the throne had taught her, against her youthful vivacity, a degree of patience, prudence, self-control, and statesmanlike dissimulation. She decided to center all rule in herself, and to face the absolute monarchs of Europe with an absolutism that would rival Frederick’s combination of militarism with philosophy. The choice was between the autocracy of the sovereign and the fragmentary absolutism of feudal lords—precisely the choice faced by Richelieu in seventeenth-century France.
Catherine surrounded herself with able men, and won their loyalty, frequently their love. She made them work hard, but paid them well, perhaps too well; the splendor and luxury of her court became a major drain upon the revenues. It was a heterogeneous court, rooted in barbarism, veneered with French culture, and ruled by a German woman superior to her aides in education and intellect. Her lavish rewards for exceptional service begot emulation without checking corruption. Many members of her entourage took bribes from foreign governments; some achieved impartiality by accepting bribes from opposite sides.
Surrounded by nobles whom she could not trust, and harassed by intrigues that disordered administration, Catherine invented a new form of rule by making her successive lovers the executives of the government. Each of her lovers was, during his ascendancy, her prime minister; she added her person to the emoluments of the office, but she exacted competent service in return.
She approached with both art and science the task of choosing a new favorite. She watched for men who combined political with physical capacity. Being quite devoid of religious belief, she allowed no Christian ethic to interfere with her unique manner of choosing ministers. In 1774, Grigori Alexandrovich Potemkin became her favorite. He was an officer in the Horse Guards, whose uniform she had donned (1762) to lead them against Peter. Noticing that her sword lacked the tassel proudly worn by the Guards, Potemkin tore his from the hilt, rode boldly out of the ranks, and presented the decoration to her; she accepted it, forgave his audacity, and admired his handsome face and muscular frame. Catherine opened her arms to Potemkin, then twenty-four, at the peak of his masculine vigor and dashing charm. Soon she was as infatuated with him as he was with her. She showered favors, rubles, land, serfs, upon him, and when he was absent she sent him billets-doux quite innocent of majesty. He proposed marriage to her; some historians believe they were secretly wed; in several letters she calls him “my beloved husband,” and speaks of herself as “your wife”—though we must never conclude to reality from words. He seems to have tired of her, but his influence over her remained so great that most of the favorites who succeeded him did so only after his approval had been secured.
Between love and war, statesmanship and diplomacy, this astonishing woman found time for philosophy. Long before her accession, Catherine had relished the style, wit, and irreverencies of Voltaire, and had dreamed of becoming the “enlightened despot” of his dreams. She must have liked Diderot too, for in September 1762, she offered to print the Encyclopédie in St. Petersburg if the French government continued to outlaw it.
Throughout her life, or till their deaths, Catherine corresponded with Voltaire, Diderot, d’Alembert, Mme. Geoffrin, Grimm, and many more French notables. Voltaire himself had occasional doubts; but soon he was praising her legislative program, her patronage of the arts, and her campaign for religious liberty in Poland. Diderot was equally fascinated by beauty on the throne. When Catherine heard that he was planning to sell his library in order to raise a dowry for his daughter, she instructed her Paris agent to buy it at whatever price Diderot should ask; he asked and received sixteen thousand livres. Then she requested Diderot to keep the books till his death, and to be their custodian for her at a salary of a thousand livres per year; moreover, she paid his salary twenty-five years in advance. Diderot overnight became a rich man and a defender of Catherine. When she invited him to visit her, he could hardly refuse. For a while, he tried, like Voltaire with Frederick, to play the diplomat, and turn Russia from alliance with Austria and Prussia to alliance with France; she soon diverted him to topics nearer to his trade. He told her in some detail how Russia could be transformed into Utopia; she listened gaily, but remained skeptical. She also cultivated Melchior Grimm, for she knew that his Correspondance littéraire reached influential Europeans. He took the first step by offering (1764) to send her his periodical letters; she agreed, and paid him fifteen hundred rubles per year. Catherine found him much more realistic than Diderot, and very usefully informed on all aspects of that Parisian world which fascinated her with its literature, philosophy, art, women, and salons. She invited him to chat with her almost every day during the winter of 1773-74. Grimm came back to Paris dripping with enthusiasm for Catherine. From 1777, Grimm served as Catherine’s agent in France for art purchases and confidential missions. His friendship for her lasted untroubled till her end.
What were the results of this flirtation between autocracy and philosophy? Her admiration for the heroes of the French Enlightenment was sincere; if it had been an affectation, it would not have borne such long confrontations with Diderot and Grimm. Her liaison with French thought helped to Europeanize literate Russia, and to modify the Western view of Russia as a colossal brute. A growing number of Russians visited Paris and brought back with them ideas that shared in preparing the outburst of Russian literature in the nineteenth century.
We can hardly doubt the good intentions of Catherine in the early years of her reign. She informed herself assiduously on every relevant subject, and wrote detailed instructions on a thousand topics from army training and industrial operations to the toilette of her court and the production of operas and plays.
The number (ten thousand), diversity, contradictions, and chaos of existing laws made the task of governing her vast area almost impossible. Hoping to play Justinian to Russia, and to consolidate her power, Catherine, on December 25, 1766, summoned to Moscow administrative agents and legal experts from every part of the empire, to undertake a thorough revision and codification of Russian law. She personally prepared a Nakaz, or Instructions, describing the principles that should form the new code. These reflected her reading of Montesquieu, Beccaria, Blackstone, and Voltaire. She began by declaring that Russia must be thought of as a European state, and should have a constitution based upon “European principles.” In her understanding this did not mean a “constitutional government” subordinating the sovereign to a legislature chosen by the people; the educational level of Russia would not permit even so limited an electoral franchise as existed in Britain. It meant a government in which the ruler, though ultimately the sole source of law, ruled in obedience to law.
She submitted the Nakaz, before its printing, to her advisers; they warned her that any sudden change from existing custom would plunge Russia into disorder; and she allowed them to modify her proposals, especially those for the gradual emancipation of the serfs. Even as so bowdlerized, the Instructions, published in Holland in 1767 stirred the European intelligentsia to enthusiastic praise. The modified Nakaz was presented to the “Committee for Drafting a New Code,” which met on August 21, 1767. In some ways, the Committee corresponded to the States-General that was to meet in Paris in 1789.
Two of Catherine’s recommendations became law: the abolition of torture and the establishment of religious toleration. This was widely extended: it allowed the Roman Catholic Church to compete with the Greek Orthodox; it protected the Jesuits even after the dissolution of their order by Pope Clement XIV (1773); it permitted the Volga Tatars to rebuild their mosques. Catherine admitted the Jews into Russia, but she subjected them to special taxes, and (possibly for their safety) confined them to specific areas. Catherine’s subordination of the Russian Church to the state especially pleased the philosophes. By a decree of March 8, 1764, she turned into state property all the lands of the Church. The state—so ensuring their support of the government—henceforth paid the salaries of the Orthodox clergy. She applied the surplus revenues from ecclesiastical institutions to the foundation of schools, asylums, and hospitals.
Both the clergy and the nobility opposed the extension of popular education, fearing that the spread of knowledge among the masses would lead to heresy, unbelief, and factionalism, and would imperil social order. In 1763, she organized at Moscow a school for foundlings, which by 1796 had graduated 40,000 students. In 1764, she opened a school for boys in St. Petersburg, and in 1765 a school for girls; Catherine was the first Russian ruler to do anything for the education of women. Baffled by the dearth of qualified teachers, she sent Russian students to study pedagogy in England, Germany, Austria, and Italy, and founded a teachers’ college in 1786. An elementary school was established in the chief town of each county, and a high school in each of the principal cities of twenty-six provinces. These schools were open to all children of any class and she disallowed corporal punishment in them; the state provided teachers and textbooks. The reluctance of the parents to send their children to school rather than use them for labor at home largely frustrated the project. In the ten years between their foundation and Catherine’s death, the “popular schools” grew slowly but Russia was still far behind the West in public instruction. The University of Moscow and special academies scantily provided higher education. She founded a School of Commerce in 1772 and an Academy of Mines in 1773, enlarged the old Academy of Sciences, and provided it with ample funds. A Russian Academy was organized (1783) for the improvement of the language, the encouragement of literature, and the study of history.
Appalled by the high death rate in Russia, and the primitive character of public sanitation and personal hygiene, Catherine brought in foreign physicians, established a College of Pharmacy at Moscow, and provided funds for the production of surgical instruments. She opened in Moscow three new hospitals, a foundling asylum, and an insane asylum, and in St. Petersburg three new hospitals, including a “Secret Hospital” for venereal diseases. In 1768, she introduced into Russia inoculation for smallpox, and quieted public fears by serving, aged thirty-nine, as the second Russian subject of the treatment.
One of Catherine’s basic measures (1765) provided for a survey of all Russian land. As it proceeded, the Empress realized with discouraging clarity how the economy of Russia rested upon the organization of agriculture by a feudal system of lords and serfs. She made moves toward emancipation. She renewed the edict of Peter III forbidding the purchase of serfs for factory labor, and she required employers to pay their workers in cash and to maintain conditions of work as determined by the officials of the town or the mir. The number of serfs in the rural population, however, rose from 7,600,000 to 20,000,000. The peasants resorted to flight, rebellion, or assassination. Between 1760 and 1769, peasants killed thirty landlords; between 1762 and 1773 there were forty peasant revolts.
In some measure, she challenged the nobility by favoring the growth of a business class. Convinced by the arguments of the physiocrats, she established free trade in agricultural products (1762), later in everything; she put an end (1775) to government-sanctioned monopolies by ruling that any man should be free to undertake and operate an industrial enterprise. The predominance of cottage and manorial industry and the participation of nobles in industrial and commercial ventures retarded the growth of a middle class. Factories multiplied from 984 to 3,161 during Catherine’s reign, but these were mostly small shops employing only a few workers. Urban population increased from 328,000 in 1724 to 1,300,000 in 1796—still less than 4% of the population.
The busy Empress, with only grudging support from her noble entourage, did what she could to promote commerce. Roads were terrible, but rivers were many, and canals bound them into a beneficent web. Under Catherine, a canal was begun between the Volga and the Neva to join the Baltic with the Caspian Sea, and she planned another to join the Caspian and Black Seas. By negotiation or by war she secured the unhindered passage of Russian commerce into the Black Sea and thence into the Mediterranean. She prodded her diplomats to arrange trade treaties with England (1766), Poland (1775), Denmark (1782), Turkey (1783), Austria (1785), and France (1787).
Catherine borrowed, at home and abroad, 130,000,000 rubles; she issued paper money far beyond any gold collateral; during her reign the ruble lost 32% of its value. In the same period, despite a rise of revenues from 17,000,000 to 78,000,000 rubles, the national debt rose to 215,000,000. Most of this was due to the wars that broke the power of Turkey, and carried the borders of Russia to the Black Sea.
Like any philosopher, Catherine had begun with pacific aims. She announced that the internal problems of the empire would absorb her attention, and that she would, if unmolested, avoid all conflict with foreign powers. She reduced the army, neglected the arsenals, and sought to negotiate with Turkey a treaty of perpetual peace. But the more she studied the map, the more fault she found with the boundaries of Russia. She itched to give her adopted country a place in politics commensurate with its place on the map.
Within a year of her accession, she sallied forth upon a foreign policy that aimed at nothing less than to make Russia the pivotal power on the Continent. By taking Russia out of the Seven Years’ War she in effect decided that Continent-wide conflict in favor of Frederick. In 1764, she signed with Frederick a treaty that presaged the dismemberment of Poland. She took advantage of Denmark’s need of Russian support against Sweden to dominate the foreign policy of the Danes. In 1779, she served as arbiter between Frederick and Joseph II at the Peace of Teschen, and became protectress of the German Imperial Constitution.
Catherine’s first Turkish war originated as a strange by-product of her invasion of Poland. She had sent troops there to help the non-Catholics in their struggle for equal rights with the Catholic majority; the Catholics moved a papal nuncio to explain to Turkey that now was an opportune time for Turkey to attack Russia; France seconded the suggestion, and urged Sweden and the Khan of the Crimea to join in the attack. Sweden refused but the Crimean Tatars ravaged the newly settled Russian colony of Novaya Serbia (January 1769). A Turkish army of 100,000 men advanced toward Podolia to join the army of the Polish Confederation. Catherine refused to withdraw her forces from Poland. She sent 30,000 men under Alexander Golitsyn and Piotr Rumiantsev to repulse the Tatars and check the Turks. The Tatars were driven back; Azov and Taganrog, at the mouth of the Don, were taken; 17,000 Russians defeated 150,000 Turks at Kagul (1770); Rumiantsev advanced as far as Bucharest. In 1771, Vasili Mikhailovich Dolgoruki overran the Crimea and put an end to Turkish rule there.
Catherine invited the Turks to a conference; they came, but balked at her insistence on the independence of the Crimea; and in 1773 the war resumed. By the Peace of Kuchuk Kainarji (in Romania), on July 21, 1774, Turkey recognized the independence of the Crimea (which remained under Tatar rule). Turkey ceded Azov, Kerch, Yenikale, and Kilburun (at the mouth of the Dnieper) to Russia, opened the Black Sea, the Bosporus, and the Dardanelles to Russian shipping, paid Russia a war indemnity of 4,500,000 rubles, granted amnesty to Christians involved in insurrections against their Turkish governors, and acknowledged the right of Russia to protect Christians in the Turkish empire. Altogether, this was one of the most advantageous treaties ever made by Russia, which was now a Black Sea power; the Crimea and the other Tatar regions in South Russia were left open to early Russian conquest, and the skeptical Empress could pose as the defender of the faith. Drunk with success, Catherine dreamed of liberating—i.e. conquering Greece and crowning her grandson Constantine at Constantinople as head of a new empire.
Catherine thought it time for relaxation. She combined pleasure with business by arranging a stately “progress” over land and water to inspect her conquests and impress their people—and all Europe—with the wealth and splendor of her court. On January 2, 1787 she left the Winter Palace and began the long journey in a berline, or coach, large enough to contain—besides her now spacious self—her current favorite Mamonov, her chief lady in waiting, a lapdog, and a small library. Fourteen carriages and 170 sleighs followed her containing ambassadors, an army of officials, courtiers, musicians, and servants. Potemkin had gone some days in advance to prepare the route, to light it by hundreds of torches, and to arrange for each evening’s meals and sleeping quarters for all.
England and Prussia advised Sultan Abdul-Hamid to strike at the Russians while they were off guard, with their military preparations incomplete. The Sultan declared a holy war, and demanded the restoration of Crimea as the price of peace. In August 1787, the main Turkish army crossed the Danube and marched into the Ukraine. Russia was unprepared for the ultimate test; Potemkin advised the Empress to surrender the Crimea. She reproved him for his unwonted timidity, and ordered him, Suvorov, and Rumiantsev to marshal all their available forces and go forth to meet the invaders. Suvorov routed the Turks at Kilburun, and Potemkin besieged Ochakov, which commanded the outlets of both the Dniester and the Bug. While jihad and crusade came face to face in South Russia, Sweden decided that now at last the time had come to recapture her lost provinces. Soon, however, her agents persuaded Sweden to peace (August 15, 1790).
Now she was free to concentrate forces against the Turks, and Austria joined Russia in the war. The Western powers felt that the situation called for united action against Catherine if the strategic Bosporus was not to fall into her hands and make Russia the master of Europe. Frederick William II saw with dismay the movement of Russia toward Constantinople, and of Austria into the Balkans; between Russia and Austria so strengthened, Prussia would be at their mercy. On January 31, 1790, he bound his government with the Porte in a pact that committed him to declare war upon both Russia and Austria in the spring, and not to lay down arms till all Turkey’s lost territory had been restored.
The political tide seemed to be turning against Catherine. Joseph II died on February 20, 1790, and his successor signed an armistice with the Turks. England and Prussia again urged Catherine to make peace based on the restoration of all terrain won in the war; she refused; the capture of Ochakov had cleared Russian access to the Black Sea; she would not surrender that vital gain. Moreover, her generals were moving from victory to victory, culminating in the capture of Izmail (December 22, 1790) by Suvorov and Potemkin; in taking that Turkish stronghold on the Danube the Russians lost 10,000 men, the Turks 30,000. After that feast of blood, Potemkin on October 15, 1791 died on a road near Jassy. Catherine fainted three times the day she heard of his death. Turkey, exhausted, gave up the struggle, and signed at Jassy (January 9, 1792) a treaty that confirmed Russia’s control of the Crimea and the basins of the Dniester and the Bug. Catherine had not reached Constantinople, but she had risen to the zenith of her career as the most powerful ruler in Europe, and the most remarkable woman of her century.
Was she a woman, or a monster? At the beginning of her reign, she was physically attractive; by 1780, she had grown stout. She was vain, visibly conscious of her accomplishments and her power. She was as amiable (barring a few possible murders and the sanctified slaughters of war) as Charles II of England and Henri IV of France. In the ending years of her reign she indulged now and then in fits of rage unbefitting omnipotence, but she took care not to give an order or sign a paper in these volcanic moods; soon she grew ashamed of such outbursts, and schooled herself to self-control. As to her courage Europe discarded all doubt.
Mentally Catherine surpassed all her favorites. She absorbed French literature to a point where she could correspond with its leaders as one philosophe to another; her correspondence was almost as voluminous as Voltaire’s, though written in the interstices of court intrigues, domestic insurrections, critical diplomacy, and map-remaking wars. Her conversation kept Diderot on his toes, and moved Grimm to ecstasy. There was, however, a hurried confusion and instability in the torrent of her ideas; she plunged too quickly into projects that she had not thought through, and the urgency of events and the multiplicity of her tasks sometimes defeated her. Even so, the result was immense.
It seems incredible that in a career of such political and military excitement Catherine found time to write poems, chronicles, memoirs, plays, opera librettos, magazine articles, fairy tales, a scientific treatise on Siberia, a history of the Roman emperors, and extensive Notes on Russian History. In 1769-70, she edited anonymously a satirical journal to which she was the chief contributor. Catherine’s fairy tale Prince Khlor told of a youth who went through perilous adventures to find a fabled rose without thorns, only to discover in the end that there was no such rose but virtue; this story became a classic in Russian literature, and was translated into many languages. Two of her plays were historical tragedies imitating Shakespeare; most of them were unpretentious comedies ridiculing charlatans, dupes, misers, mystics, spendthrifts, Cagliostro, Freemasons, and religious fanatics. These pieces lacked subtlety but they pleased the audiences, though Catherine concealed her authorship. On the curtain of the theater that she built in the Hermitage she placed an inscription, Ridendo castigat mores—“He chastizes manners with laughter”; this well expressed the aim of her comedies. Oleg, the best of her dramas, was a remarkable succession of scenes from Russian history, enlivened by seven hundred performers in dances, ballets, and Olympic games. Secretaries revised most of Catherine’s literary work, for she never mastered Russian spelling or grammar, and she did not take herself too seriously as an author; but literature took courage from the imperial example, and gave a final and tarnished glory to her reign.
Catherine did a little more for art than for literature, for art appealed only to the upper classes, and sounded no tocsin of revolt. Catherine confessed that she had no understanding of art. She provided the funds with which Betsky set into actual functioning (1764) the Academy of Arts that had been organized under Empress Elizabeth (1757), for the education and support of students in the Academy, and to send several of them to study in Western Europe. She bought acknowledged masterpieces abroad, and displayed them in her galleries; so she gave 180,000 rubles for the collection of Count von Brühl in Dresden, £40,000 for the collection of Sir Robert Walpole at Houghton Hall, 440,000 francs for Choiseul’s collection, and 460,000 for Crozat’s. Without knowing it, she made fine bargains, for these gleanings included 1,100 pieces by Raphael, Poussin, Vandyck, Rembrandt, and other perennials, whose value has grown with the advance of time and the retreat of currency. Through Grimm and Diderot (whose salons<i> </i>she followed carefully) she gave commissions to French artists—Vernet, Chardin, Houdon. She had life-size copies made of Raphael’s frescoes in the Vatican, and built a special gallery for them in the Hermitage.
Architecture flourished under Catherine, for she was resolved to leave her mark upon her capital. She turned her back upon the ornate baroque and flowery rococo that had reigned under Elizabeth, and cast her vote for the chaster neoclassic style. Some contemporaries credited her with providing explicit instructions and preliminary sketches for her architects. She called to Western Europe for men who had inherited the classical tradition. So came Jean-Baptiste Vallin de La Mothe, who built for her on the Neva the Palace of the Academy of Arts (1765-72). As an adjunct to the Winter Palace Vallin built the famous Hermitage, which Catherine thought of as a refuge from court etiquette, but which became her art gallery, and is now one of the principal museums of the world. And from Italy in 1780 came Giacomo Quarenghi who till 1815 raised, in or near St. Petersburg, a profusion of buildings in classic style.
However, were there no Russian architects fit to spend Catherine’s rubles? Yes. Hoping to leave a monument to her memory at Moscow, she commissioned Vasili Bazhenev to design a stone Kremlin to replace the brick Kremlin of Ivan the Great. Bazhenev conceived an immensity that would have dwarfed Versailles; those who saw the wooden model—which itself cost sixty thousand rubles—marveled at its architectural excellence. Nevertheless, the foundations laid for it sank as the soil subsided through the action of the Moscow River, and Catherine withdrew from the enterprise. However, she found funds that enabled Ivan Starov to build, on the left bank of the Neva, the Taurida Palace; she presented this splendor to Potemkin to commemorate his conquest of the Crimea. Whatever the cost of her buildings, Catherine achieved her object. The flesh and blood of ten million peasants had been turned into brick and stone.
Catherine, like rulers throughout the ages, would have explained that since people must die in any case, why should statesmen not employ genius to direct those harassed lives and certain deaths to make the country strong and its cities great? Years of power, the challenges of revolt and war, the fluctuations of victory and defeat, had accustomed her to bear unflinchingly the sufferings of others, and to turn aside from the exploitation of the weak by the strong as beyond her means to cure.
Disturbed by a dozen conspiracies to unseat her, the French Revolution terrified her. Catherine shuddered at the encouragement so given to those who sought similar action in Russia. She allowed the clergy to forbid the publication of her once beloved Voltaire’s works (1789); she herself soon proscribed all French publications, had the busts of Voltaire removed from her chambers to a lumber-room (1792), and established an inquisitorial censorship over literature and plays. When Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were guillotined (1793) she broke off all relations with the French government, and urged the European monarchies to form a coalition against France. She herself did not join; she used it to keep the Western powers busy while she completed her absorption of Poland.
On the morning of November 17, 1796, she seemed as gay as ever. After breakfast, she retired to her room. As time passed and she did not reappear, her female attendants knocked at the door. Receiving no answer, they entered. They found the Empress stretched out on the floor, the victim of a stroke. She was bled twice, and for a moment she recovered consciousness, but she could not speak. At ten o’clock that evening she died.
Her enemies felt that she had not deserved so merciful a death. They never forgave her the contradictions between her liberal professions and her absolutist rule, her intolerance of opposition, her failure to carry out her proposed reform of Russian law, her surrender to the nobility in her extension of serfdom. Families impoverished by high taxes, or mourning the loss of sons in her wars, did not thank her for her victories. Nevertheless, the people as a whole applauded her for expanding Russia to wider and safer boundaries. She had added 518,000 square kilometers to Russia’s area, had opened new ports to Russia’s trade, and had raised the population from 19,000,000 to 36,000,000. She had been unscrupulous in her diplomacy—perhaps, in her absorption of Poland, a little more so than most other rulers of that time.
Her greatest achievement lay in carrying on the efforts of Peter the Great to bring Russia into Western civilization. Whereas Peter had thought of this chiefly in terms of technology, Catherine thought of it principally in terms of culture; by the force and courage of her personality she drew the literate classes of Russia out of the Middle Ages into the orbit of modern thought in literature, philosophy, science, and art. She was ahead of her Christian compeers (excepting the un-Christian Frederick II) in establishing religious toleration. In the estimate of English historian G. P. Gooch Catherine was “the only woman ruler who has surpassed England’s Elizabeth in ability, and equaled her in the enduring significance of her work.” “She was,” said German historian Otto Hötzsch, “every inch a ‘political being,’ unmatched by anyone of her sex in modern history, and yet at the same time a thorough woman and a great lady.” We may apply to her the magnanimous principle laid down by Goethe: her faults were an infection from her time, but her virtues were her own.
Since the death of Ptolemy VI (145 BC) Egypt had rapidly decayed. Her kings were no longer able to maintain social order or national freedom; the Roman Senate increasingly dictated their policy, and garrisoned Alexandria with Roman troops. By the will of Ptolemy XI, whom Pompey and Gabinius had established on the throne, the government had descended to his son Ptolemy XII and his daughter Cleopatra, who were to marry each other and reign together.
Cleopatra was a Macedonian Greek by origin, though she had an Egyptian maternal grandmother, and was more probably blonde than brunette. She was not particularly beautiful; but the grace of her carriage, the vivacity of her body and her mind, the variety of her accomplishments, the suavity of her manners, the very melody of her voice, combined with her royal position to make her a heady wine even for a Roman general. She was acquainted with Greek history, literature, and philosophy; she spoke Greek, Egyptian, Syrian, and allegedly other languages, well; she added the intellectual fascination of an Aspasia to the seductive abandon of a completely uninhibited woman. Tradition credits her with a treatise on cosmetics and another on the alluring subject of Egyptian measures, weights, and coins. She was an able ruler and administrator, effectively promoted Egyptian commerce and industry, and was a competent financier even when making love. With these qualities went an Oriental sensuality, an impetuous brutality that dealt out suffering and death, and a political ambition that dreamed of empire and honored no code but success. If she had not borne the intemperate blood of the later Ptolemies in her veins she might have achieved her purpose of being the queen of a unified Mediterranean realm. She saw that Egypt could no longer be independent of Rome and knew no reason why she should not dominate their union.
Caesar was not pleased to learn that Pothinus had banished Cleopatra and now ruled as regent for young Ptolemy. Secretly he sent for her, and secretly she came. To reach him she had herself concealed in some bedding which her attendant Apollodorus carried into Caesar’s apartment. The amazed Roman, who never let his victories in the field outnumber his conquests in love, was captivated by her courage and wit. He reconciled her with Ptolemy, and re-established her with her brother on the throne of Egypt. Learning from his barber that Pothinus and the Egyptian general Achillas were plotting to kill him and slaughter the small force that he had brought with him, he delicately arranged the assassination of Pothinus. Achillas escaped to the Egyptian army and roused it to insurrection; soon all Alexandria was alive with soldiers vowing death to Caesar. The Roman garrison which had been stationed in the city by the Senate was inspired by its officers to join in rising against this treasonable interloper who presumed to settle the succession to the throne of the Ptolemies, and even to beget an heir for its future.
In this emergency Caesar acted with his customary resourcefulness. He turned the royal palace and the near-by theater into fortresses for himself and his men, and sent for reinforcements from Asia Minor, Syria, and Rhodes. When he saw that his defenseless fleet would soon fall into the hands of his enemies, he ordered it burned; in the fire an uncertain portion of the Alexandrian library was consumed. By desperate sallies he captured, lost, and recaptured the island of Pharos, as being essential to the entry of the relief he awaited; in one of these engagements he swam for his life, amid a storm of arrows, when the Egyptians drove him and 400 of his men off the connecting mole into the sea. Thinking the rebels victorious, Ptolemy XII left the royal palace, joined them, and disappeared from history. When reinforcements arrived, Caesar routed the Egyptians and the Senatorial garrison in the Battle of the Nile. He rewarded Cleopatra for her fidelity to him in this crisis by making her younger brother Ptolemy XIII coregent with her, which left her in effect the supreme ruler of Egypt.
It is hard to understand why Caesar remained nine months in Alexandria while hostile armies were being organized against him near Utica, and while Rome, stirred to radical revolt by Caelius and Milo, longed for his fine administrative hand. Perhaps he felt that he deserved a little rest and play after ten years of war. He "often feasted with Cleopatra till daybreak,’ says Suetonius, ‘and would have gone through Egypt with her in her royal barge almost to Ethiopia, had not his soldiers threatened mutiny;" they had not all found queans. Perhaps he gallantly waited to share the pains of her confinement. A child was born to her in 47 BC and was named Caesarion; according to Mark Antony, Caesar acknowledged the boy as his son. It is not impossible that she whispered to him the pleasant thought of making himself king, marrying her, and uniting the Mediterranean world under one bed. This, however, is conjectural as well as scandalous; nothing but circumstantial evidence supports it.
After Caesar’s assissination, the old aristocracy fought its last land battle at Philippi. Many of them--Cato’s son, Hortensius’ son, Quintilius Varus, and Quintus Labeo--joined Brutus and Cassius in suicide. The victors divided the Empire between them: Lepidus was given Africa, Octavian took the West, Antony, having his choice, took Egypt, Greece, and the East. Always needing money, Antony forgave the Eastern cities their contributions to his enemies on condition that they give him a like sum--ten years’ taxes within a year. His old geniality returned as victory made him seemingly secure. He reduced his demands upon the Ephesians when their women, dressed as Bacchantes, greeted him as the god Dionysus; but he gave his cook the house of a Magnesian magnate as reward for a distinguished supper. He called an assembly of the Ionian cities at Ephesus and settled the boundaries and affairs of these states with such good judgment that Augustus a decade later found little to change. He pardoned all who had fought against him except those who had shared in killing Caesar. He gave relief to the cities that had suffered most severely from Cassius and Brutus, released several of them from every Roman tax, freed many who had been sold into slavery by the conspirators, and liberated the cities of Syria from the despots who had overthrown their democracies.
While displaying these graces of his simple character, Antony surrendered to such exuberant sensuality that his subjects lost respect for his authority. He surrounded himself with dancers, musicians, courtesans, and roisterers, and took wives and concubines whenever a fair woman struck his Olympian fancy. He had sent messengers to bid Cleopatra present herself before him at Tarsus and answer charges that she had aided Cassius to raise money and troops. She came, but in her own time and way. While Antony sat on a throne in the forum, waiting for her to plead and be judged, she sailed up the river Cydnus in a barge with purple sails, gilded stern, and silver oars that beat time to the music of flutes and fifes and harps. Her maids, dressed as sea nymphs and graces, were the crew, while she herself, dressed as Venus, lay under a canopy of cloth of gold. When the news of this seductive apparition spread among the people of Tarsus they flocked to the shore, leaving Antony solitary on his throne. Cleopatra invited him to dine with her on her ship. He came with an overawing retinue; she feted them with every luxury, and corrupted his generals with gifts and smiles. Antony had almost fallen in love with her as a girl in Alexandria; now he found her, at twenty-nine, in the full maturity of her charms. He began by reproving her, and ended by presenting her with Phoenicia, Coele-Syria, Cyprus, and parts of Arabia, Cilicia, and Judea. She rewarded him according to his desire and invited him to Alexandria. There he spent a carefree winter (4I-40 BC), drinking the Queen’s love, listening to lectures at the Museum, and forgetting that he had an empire to rule. She herself was not in love. She knew that Egypt, rich but weak, would soon attract the cupidity of omnipotent Rome; the only salvation for her country and her throne lay in marriage with Rome’s lord. She had sought this with Caesar; she sought it now with Antony. And he, who had no policy but Caesar’s, was tempted to realize the dream of uniting Rome and Egypt and making his capital in the fascinating East.
While Antony frolicked in Alexandria, his wife Fulvia and his brother Lucius were plotting to overthrow Octavian’s power in Rome. Octavian had found no happiness there: the Senate was a rump of adventurers and generals, labor was restless with unemployment, the populares were disorganized, Sextus Pompey was blocking the import of food, business was petrified with fear, taxation and spoliation had ruined nearly every fortune, and many men were living in a reckless and sensual riot on the ground that the morrow might in any case bring repudiation of the currency, or further spoliation, or death. Octavian himself was anything but an exemplar of chastity at this time. To perfect the confusion, Fulvia and Lucius raised an army and called upon Italy to oust him. Marcus Agrippa, Octavian’s general, besieged Lucius in Perusia and starved him out (March 40 BC). Fulvia died of illness, frustrated ambition, and grief over Antony’s neglect of her. Octavian pardoned Lucius in the hope of maintaining peace with Antony, but Antony crossed the sea and besieged Octavian’s troops in Brundisium. The armies, showing more sense than their leaders, refused to fight each other, and compelled them to a peaceable agreement (40 BC). As a pledge of good behavior Antony married Octavian’s sister, the gentle and virtuous Octavia. Everybody was briefly happy; and Virgil, writing now his Fourth Eclogue, predicted the return of Saturn’s utopian reign.
After marrying Octavia in a state ceremony at Rome, Antony went with her to Athens. There for a time he enjoyed the novel experience of living with a good woman. He put aside politics and war and, with Octavia at his side, attended the lectures of philosophers. Meanwhile, however, he studied the plans that Caesar had left for conquering Parthia. Labienus, son of Caesar’s general, had entered the services of the Parthian king and had led Parthian armies victoriously into Cilicia and Syria--lucrative provinces of Rome (40 BC). To meet this threat Antony needed soldiers; to pay soldiers he needed money; and of this Cleopatra had plenty. Suddenly tiring of virtue and peace, he sent Octavia back to Rome and asked Cleopatra to meet him at Antioch. She brought him a few troops, but she disapproved of his grandiose plans and apparently gave him little of her fabulous treasury. He invaded Parthia with 100,000 men (36 BC), tried in vain to capture its citadels, and lost almost half his forces in a heroic retreat through 483 kilometers of hostile country. On the way he annexed Armenia to the Empire. He awarded himself a triumph and shocked Italy by celebrating it at Alexandria. He sent a letter of divorce to Octavia (32 BC), married Cleopatra, confirmed her and Caesarion as joint rulers of Egypt and Cyprus, and bequeathed the Eastern provinces of the Empire to the son and daughter that Cleopatra had borne him. Knowing that he would soon have to square accounts with Octavian, he abandoned himself to a year of frolic and luxury. Cleopatra encouraged him to dare the last gamble for omnipotence, helped him to raise an army and a fleet, and chose as her favorite oath, "As surely as I shall one day give judgment in the Capitol."
Octavia bore her rejection silently, lived quietly in Antony’s house at Rome, and brought up faithfully his children by Fulvia and the two daughters that she herself had given him. The daily sight of her mute desolation inflamed Octavian’s conviction that both Italy and he were doomed if Antony’s plans succeeded. He saw to it that Italy should realize the situation: Antony had married the Queen of Egypt, had assigned to her and her illegitimate offspring the most tribute-yielding of Rome’s provinces, was seeking to make Alexandria the capital of the Empire, and would reduce Rome and Italy to subordinate roles. When Antony sent a message to the Senate (which he had for years ignored) proposing that he and Octavian should retire to private life, and that the institutions of the Republic should be restored, Octavian escaped a difficult situation by reading to the Senate what he claimed was Antony’s will, which he had taken by force from the Vestal Virgins. It named Antony’s children by Cleopatra his sole heirs, and directed that he should be buried beside the Queen in Alexandria. The last clause was as decisive for the Senate as it should have proved suspicious; instead of raising doubts that a will filed in Rome should have made such provisions, it convinced the Senate and Italy that Cleopatra was scheming to absorb the Empire through Antony. With characteristic subtlety Octavian declared war (32 BC) against her rather than Antony, and made the conflict a holy war for the independence of Italy.
In September 32 BC, the fleet of Antony and Cleopatra sailed into the Ionian Sea, 500 warships strong; no such armada had been seen before. Supporting it was an army of 100,000 infantry and 12,000 cavalry, mostly supplied by Eastern princes and kings in the hope of making this a war of liberation from Rome. Octavian crossed the Adriatic with 400 vessels, 80,000 foot, 12,000 horse. For almost a year the rival forces prepared and maneuvered; then, on August 31, 31 BC, they fought at Actium, in the Ambracian Gulf, one of the decisive battles of history. Agrippa proved the better tactician, and his light ships more manageable than Antony’s heavy-towered leviathans. Fires set by burning brands cast upon them by Octavian’s crews consumed many of these. "Some sailors," says Dio Cassius,
perished by the smoke before the flames could reach them; others were cooked in their armor, which became red hot; others were roasted in their vessels as though in ovens. Many leaped into the sea; of these some were mangled by sea monsters, some were shot by arrows, some were drowned. The only ones to obtain an endurable death were those who killed one another.
Antony saw that he was losing, and signaled to Cleopatra to carry out their prearranged plan for retreat. She headed her squadron southward and waited for Antony; unable to extricate his flagship, he abandoned it and rowed out to hers. As they sailed for Alexandria he sat alone on the prow, his head between his hands, conscious that everything was lost, even honor.
From Actium Octavian went to Athens; thence to Italy to quell a mutiny among his troops, who clamored for the plunder of Egypt; then to Asia to depose and punish Antony’s adherents and raise new funds from long-suffering cities; then to Alexandria (30 BC). Antony had left Cleopatra and was staying on an island near Pharos; thence he sent offers of peace, which Octavian ignored. Unknown to Antony, Cleopatra sent Octavian a golden scepter, crown, and throne as tokens of her submission; according to Dio he replied that he would leave her and Egypt untouched if she would kill Antony. The beaten Triumvir wrote to Octavian again, reminding him of their former friendship and of "all the wanton pranks in which they had shared as youths;" and agreed to kill himself if the victor would spare Cleopatra. Again Octavian made no reply. Cleopatra gathered all that she could of the Egyptian treasury into a palace tower and informed Octavian that she would destroy it all, and herself, unless he granted an honorable peace. Antony led what small forces remained to him in a last fight; his desperate courage won a temporary victory; but on the next day, seeing Cleopatra’s mercenaries surrender, and receiving a report that Cleopatra was dead, he stabbed himself. When he learned that the report was false he begged to be brought to the tower in whose upper chambers the Queen and her attendants had locked themselves; they drew him up through the window, and he died in her arms. Octavian allowed her to come forth and bury her lover; then he granted her an audience and, immune to what lure survived in a broken woman of thirty-nine, he gave her terms that made life seem worthless to one who had been a queen. Convinced that he intended to take her as captive to adorn a Roman triumph, she arrayed herself in her royal robes, put an asp to her breast, and died. Her handmaidens Charmion and Iris followed her in suicide.
Octavian permitted her to be buried beside Antony. Caesarion, and Antony’s eldest son by Fulvia, he slew; the children of Antony and the Queen he spared and sent to Italy, where Octavia reared them as if they were her own. The victor found the Egyptian treasury intact and as abundant as he had dreamed. Egypt escaped the indignity of being named a Roman province; Octavian merely mounted the throne of the Ptolemies, succeeded to their possessions, and left a praefectus to administer the country in his name. Caesar’s heir had conquered those of Alexander, and absorbed Alexander’s realm; the West again, as at Marathon and Magnesia, had triumphed over the East. The battle of the giants was over, and an invalid had won.
Cleopatra’s reputation in history comes largely from the views of Octavian, who described Antony as the love-struck victim of a wicked temptress. The Roman poets Virgil and Horace also adopted this version. Her story has been told many times in literature: dramatized in the famous Elizabethan plays of Cleopatra (1594) by Samuel Daniel, and Antony and Cleopatra (1607?) by Shakespeare; in All for Love (1677) by the English dramatist John Dryden, and by George Bernard Shaw in Caesar and Cleopatra (1901).
The repudiated son of Charles VI proclaimed himself king as Charles VII in 1422. In her desolation, France looked to him for help, and fell into deeper despair. This timid, listless, heedless youth of twenty hardly credited his own proclamation, and probably shared the doubts of Frenchmen as to the legitimacy of his birth. Fouquet’s portrait of him shows a sad and homely face, pockets under the eyes, and an overreaching nose. He was fearfully religious, heard three Masses daily, and allowed no canonical hour to pass without reciting its appointed prayers. In the intervals, he attended to a long succession of mistresses, and begot twelve children upon his virtuous wife. He pawned his jewels, and most of the clothes from his back, to finance resistance to England, but he had no stomach for war, and left the struggle to his ministers and his generals. Neither were they enthusiastic nor alert; they quarreled jealously among themselves--all but the faithful Jean Dunois, the natural son of Louis, Duke of Orléans. When the English moved south to lay siege to that city (1428), no concerted action was taken to resist them, and disorder was the order of the day. Orléans lay at a bend in the Loire; if it fell, the entire south, now hesitantly loyal to Charles VII, would join the north to make France an English colony. North and south alike watched the siege, and prayed for a miracle.
Even the distant village of Domremy, half-asleep by the Meuse on the eastern border of France, followed the struggle with patriotic and religious passion. The peasants there were fully medieval in faith and sentiment; they lived from nature but in the supernatural; they were sure that spirits dwelled in the surrounding air, and many women vowed that they had seen and talked with them. Men as well as women there, as generally throughout rural France, thought of the English as devils who hid their tails in their coattails. Someday, said a prophecy current in the village, God would send a pucelle, a virgin maid, to save France from these demons, and end the long Satanic reign of war. The wife of the mayor of Domremy whispered these hopes to her goddaughter Joan.
Joan’s father, Jacques d’Arc, was a prosperous farmer, and probably gave no mind to such tales. Joan was noted among these pious people for her piety; she was fond of going to church, confessed regularly and fervently, and busied herself with parochial charities. In her little garden the fowls and the birds ate from her hand. One day, when she had been fasting, she thought she saw a strange light over her head, and that she heard a voice saying, “Jeanne, be a good obedient child. Go often to church.” She was then (1424) in her thirteenth year; perhaps some physiological changes mystified her at this most impressionable time. During the next five years her “voices”--as she called the apparitions--spoke many counsels to her, until at last it seemed to her that the Archangel Michael himself commanded her: “Go to the succor of the King of France, and thou shalt restore his kingdom. . . . Go to M. Baudricourt, captain at Vaucouleurs, and he will conduct thee to the King.” And at another time the voice said: “Daughter of God, thou shalt lead the Dauphin to Reims that he may there receive worthily his anointing” and coronation. For until Charles should be anointed by the Church, France would doubt his divine right to rule; but if the holy oil should be poured upon his head France would unite behind him and be saved.
After a long and troubled hesitation, Joan revealed her visions to her parents. Her father was shocked at the thought of an innocent girl undertaking so fantastic a mission; rather than permit it, he said, he would drown her with his own hands. To further restrain her he persuaded a young villager to announce that she had promised him her hand in marriage. She denied it; and to preserve the virginity that she had pledged to her saints, as well as to obey their command, she fled to an uncle, and prevailed upon him to take her to Vaucouleurs (1429). There Captain Baudricourt advised the uncle to give the seventeen-year-old girl a good spanking, and to restore her to her parents; but when Joan forced her way into his presence, and firmly declared that she had been sent by God to help King Charles save Orléans, the bluff commandant melted, and, even while thinking her charmed by devils, sent to Chinon to ask the King’s pleasure. Royal permission came; Baudricourt gave the Maid a sword, the people of Vaucouleurs bought her a horse, and six soldiers agreed to guide her on the long and perilous journey across France to Chinon. Perhaps to discourage male advances, to facilitate riding, and to win acceptance by generals and troops, she donned a masculine and military garb—jerkin, doublet, hose, gaiters, spurs—and cut her hair like a boy’s. She rode serene and confident through towns that vacillated between fearing her as a witch and worshiping her as a saint.
After traveling 724 kilometers in eleven days she came to the King and his council. Though his poor raiment gave no sign of royalty, Joan (we are told--for how could legend keep its hands from her history?) singled him out at once, and greeted him courteously: “God send you long life, gentle Dauphin. . . . My name is Jeanne la Pucelle. The King of Heaven speaks to you through me, and says that you shall be anointed and crowned at Reims, and be lieutenant of the King of Heaven, who is King of France.” A priest who now became the Maid’s chaplain said later that in private she assured the King of his legitimate birth. Some have thought that from her first meeting with Charles she accepted the clergy as the rightful interpreters of her voices, and followed their lead in her counsel to the King; through her the bishops might displace the generals in forming the royal policies. Still doubtful, Charles sent her to Poitiers to be examined by pundits there. They found no evil in her. They commissioned some women to inquire into her virginity, and on that delicate point too they were satisfied. For, like the Maid, they held that a special privilege belonged to virgins as the instruments and messengers of God.
Dunois, in Orléans, had assured the garrison that God would soon send someone to their aid. Hearing of Joan, he half believed his hopes, and pleaded with the court to send her to him at once. They consented, gave her a black horse, clothed her in white armor, put in her hand a white banner embroidered with the fleur-de-lis of France, and dispatched her to Dunois with a
numerous escort bearing provisions for the besieged. It was not hard to find entry to the city (May 8, 1429); the English had not surrounded it entirely, but had divided their two or three thousand men (less than the Orléans garrison) among a dozen forts at strategic points in the environs. The people of Orléans hailed Joan as the Virgin incarnate, followed her trustfully even into dangerous places, accompanied her to church, prayed when she prayed, wept when she wept. At her command the soldiers gave up their mistresses, and struggled to express themselves without profanity; one of their leaders, La Hire, found this impossible, and received from Joan a dispensation to swear by his baton. This Gascon condottiere uttered the famous prayer: “Sire God, I beg Thee to do for La Hire what he would do for Thee wert Thou a captain and La Hire were God.”
Joan sent a letter to Talbot, the English commander, proposing that both armies should unite as brothers and proceed to Palestine to redeem the Holy Land from the Turks; Talbot thought that this exceeded his commission. Some days later a part of the garrison, without informing Dunois or Joan, issued beyond the walls and attacked one of the British bastions. The English fought well, the French retreated; but Dunois and Joan, having heard the commotion, rode up and bade their men renew the assault; it succeeded, and the English abandoned their position. On the morrow the French attacked two other forts and took them, the Maid being in the thick of the fight. In the second encounter an arrow pierced her shoulder; when the wound had been dressed she returned to the fray. Meanwhile the sturdy cannon of Guillaume Duisy hurled upon the English fortress of Les Tourelles balls weighing 54 kilograms each. Joan was spared the sight of the victorious French slaughtering 500 Englishmen when that stronghold fell. Talbot concluded that his forces were inadequate for the siege, and withdrew them to the north (May 17). All France rejoiced, seeing in the “Maid of Orleans” the hand of God; but the English denounced her as a sorceress, and vowed to take her alive or dead.
On the day after her triumph Joan set out to meet the King, who was advancing from Chinon. He greeted her with a kiss, and accepted her plan to march through France to Reims, though this meant passing through hostile terrain. His army encountered English forces at Meung, Beaugency, and Patay, and won decisive victories, tarnished with vengeful massacres that horrified the Maid. Seeing a French soldier slay an English prisoner, she dismounted, held the dying man’s head in her hands, comforted him, and sent for a confessor. On July 24 the King entered Reims, and on the twenty-sixth he was anointed and crowned with awesome ceremonies in the majestic cathedral. Jacques d’Arc, coming up from Domremy, saw his daughter, still in her male attire, riding in splendor through the religious capital of France. He did not neglect the occasion, but through her intercession secured a remission of taxes for his village. For a passing spell Joan considered her mission accomplished, and thought, “If it would please God that I might go and tend sheep with my sister and brother.”
But the fever of battle had entered her blood. Acclaimed as inspired and holy by half of France, she almost forgot now to be a saint, and became a warrior. She was strict with her soldiers, scolded them lovingly, and deprived them of the consolations that all soldiers hold as their due; and when she found two prostitutes accompanying them she drew her sword and struck one so manfully that the blade broke and the woman died. She followed the King and his army in an attack upon Paris, which was still held by the English; she was in the van in clearing the first foss; approaching the second, she was struck in the thigh by an arrow, but remained to cheer on the troops. Their assault failed, they suffered 1,500 casualties, and cursed her for thinking that a prayer could silence a gun; this had not been their experience. Some Frenchwomen, who had jealously waited for her first reverse, censured her for leading an assault on the feast of the Virgin’s birth (September 17 [8 OS], 1429). She retired with her detachment to Compiègne. Besieged there by Burgundians allied with the English, she bravely led a sally, which was repulsed; she was the last to retreat, and found the gates of the town closed before she could reach them. She was dragged from her horse, and was taken as a captive to John of Luxembourg (June 2, 1430). Sir John lodged her honorably in his castles at Beaulieu and Beaurevoir.
His good fortune brought him a dangerous dilemma. His sovereign, Duke Philip the Good of Burgundy, demanded the precious prize; the English urged Sir John to surrender her to them, hoping that her ignominious execution would break the charm that had so heartened the French. Pierre Cauchon, Bishop of Beauvais, who had been driven from his diocese for supporting the English, was sent by them to Philip with powers and funds to negotiate the transfer of the Maid to British authority, and was promised the archbishopric of Rouen as the reward of his success. The Duke of Bedford, controlling the University of Paris, induced its pundits to advise Philip to hand over Joan, as a possible sorceress and heretic, to Cauchon as the ecclesiastical head of the region in which she had been captured. When these arguments were rejected, Cauchon offered to Philip and John a bribe of 10,000 gold crowns. This too proving inadequate, the English government laid an embargo on all exports to the Low Countries. Flanders, the richest source of the Duke’s revenue, faced bankruptcy. John, over the entreaties of his wife, and Philip, despite his Good name, finally accepted the bribe and surrendered the Maid to Cauchon, who took her to Rouen. There, though formally a prisoner of the Inquisition, she was placed under English guard in the tower of a castle held by the Earl of Warwick as the governor of Rouen. Shackles were put on her feet, and a chain was fastened around her waist and bound to a beam.
Her trial began on March 2, 1431, and continued till June 8. Cauchon presided, one of his canons served as prosecutor, a Dominican monk represented the Inquisition, and some forty men learned in theology and law were added to the panel. The charge was heresy. To check the monstrous regiment of magic-mongers that infested Europe, the Church had made the claim to divine inspiration a heresy punishable with death. Witches were being burned for pretending to supernatural powers; and it was a common opinion, among churchmen and laymen, that those who made such claims might actually have received supernatural powers from the Devil. Some of Joan’s jurors seem to have believed this in her case. In their judgment her refusal to acknowledge that the authority of the Church, as the vicar of Christ on earth, could override that of her “voices” proved her a sorceress. This became the opinion of the majority of the court. Nevertheless they were moved by the guileless simplicity of her answers, by her evident piety and chastity; they were men, and seem at times to have felt a great pity for this girl of nineteen, so obviously the prey of English fear. “The king of England,” said Warwick, with soldierly candor, “has paid dearly for her; he would not on any consideration whatever have her die a natural death.” Some jurors argued that the matter should be laid before the pope--which would free her and the court from English power. Joan expressed a desire to be sent to him, but drew a firm distinction that ruined her: she would acknowledge his supreme authority in matters of faith, but as concerned what she had done in obedience to her voices she would own no judge but God Himself. The judges agreed that this was heresy. Weakened by months of questioning, she was persuaded to sign a retraction; but when she found that this still left her condemned to lifelong imprisonment within English jurisdiction, she revoked her retraction. English soldiers surrounded the court, and threatened the lives of the judges if the Maid should escape burning. On June 9 a few of the judges convened, and sentenced her to death.
That very morning the faggots were piled high in the market place of Rouen. Two platforms were placed near by—one for Cardinal Winchester of England and his prelates, another for Cauchon and the judges; and 800 British troops stood on guard. The Maid was brought in on a cart, accompanied by an Augustinian monk, Isambart, who befriended her to the last, at peril to his life. She asked for a crucifix; an English soldier handed her one that he had fashioned from two sticks; she accepted it, but called also for a crucifix blessed by the Church; and Isambart prevailed upon the officials to bring her one from the church of Saint Sauveur. The soldiers grumbled at the delay, for it was now noon. “Do you intend us to dine here?” their captain asked. His men snatched her from the hands of the priests, and led her to the stake. Isambart held up a crucifix before her, and a Dominican monk mounted the pyre with her. The faggots were lighted, and the flames rose about her feet. Seeing the Dominican still beside her, she urged him to descend to safety. She invoked her voices, her saints, the Archangel Michael, and Christ, and was consumed in agony. A secretary to the English king anticipated the verdict of history: “We are lost,” he cried; “we have burned a saint.”
In 1455 Pope Calixtus III, at the behest of Charles VII, ordered a reexamination of the evidence upon which Joan had been condemned; and in 1456 (France being now victorious) the verdict of 1431 was, by the ecclesiastical court of review, declared unjust and void. In 1920, Benedict XV numbered the Maid of Orléans among the saints of the Church.
She was the fourth female pharaoh in Egyptian history, but attained unprecedented power for a woman adopting the full titles and regalia of a pharaoh. The daughter of King Thutmose I and his chief wife, Queen Ahmose, Hatshepsut married her half-brother, Thutmose II. When he died unexpectedly about 1490 BC, Hatshepsut's stepson inherited the throne becoming Thutmose III. But because he was too young to rule, Hatshepsut served at first as regent.
Perhaps the Hyksos invasion had brought another rejuvenation in Egypt by the infusion of fresh blood; but at the same time the new age marked the beginning of a thousand-year struggle between Egypt and Western Asia. Thutmose I not only consolidated the power of the new empire, but--on the ground that western Asia must be controlled to prevent further interruptions—invaded Syria, subjugated it from the coast to Carchemish, put it under guard and tribute, and returned to Thebes laden with spoils and the glory that always comes from the killing of men. At the end of his reign he raised his daughter Hatshepsut to partnership with him on the throne, so claims her propaganda. For a time her husband and half-brother ruled as Thutmose II, and dying, named as his successor Thutmose III, his son by a concubine. But Hatshepsut set this high-destined youngster aside, assumed full royal powers, and proved herself a king in everything but gender.
She did not concede even this exception. Since sacred tradition required that every Egyptian ruler should be a son of the great god Amun, Hatshepsut arranged to be made at once male and divine. A biography was invented for her by which Amun had descended upon Hatshepsut’s mother Ahmose in a flood of perfume and light; his attentions had been gratefully received; and on his departure he had announced that Ahmose would give birth to a daughter in whom all the valor and strength of the god would be made manifest on earth. To satisfy the prejudices of her people, and perhaps the secret desire of her heart, the great Queen had herself represented on the monuments as a bearded and breast-less warrior; and though the inscriptions referred to her with the feminine pronoun, they did not hesitate to speak of her as "Son of the Sun" and "Lord of the Two Lands." When she appeared in public she dressed in male garb, and wore a beard.
She had a right to determine her own sex, for she became one of the most successful and beneficent of Egypt’s many rulers. She maintained internal order without undue tyranny, and external peace without loss. She organized a great expedition to Punt (presumably the eastern coast of Africa, the present-day Somalia), giving new markets to her merchants and new delicacies to her people. Gold, ebony, animal skins, baboons, processed myrrh, and living myrrh trees were brought back to Egypt, and the trees were planted in the gardens of her great memorial temple Deir el-Bahri. At Beni Hassan in Middle Egypt, she built a rock-cut temple known in Greek as Speos Artemidos, and she helped to beautify Karnak, which was dedicated to Amun-Re and included a series of chapels to other gods and the royal ancestors. At the Karnak temple complex, she added a barque shrine (the Red Chapel), raised there two majestic obelisks, built further at the stately temple hypostyle hall which her father had designed, and repaired some of the damage elsewhere in Egypt that had been done to older temples by the Hyksos kings. ‘I have restored that which was in ruins,’ one of her proud inscriptions tells us; ‘I have raised up that which was unfinished since the Asiatics were in the midst of the Northland, overthrowing that which had been made.’ These monuments, though badly damaged when Thutmose III attacked Hatshepsut's memory after her death, have preserved her fame into the present day. Finally she built for herself a secret and ornate tomb among the sand-swept mountains on the western side of the Nile, in what came to be called "The Valley of the Kings" where she extended her father's tomb so that the two could lie together. Her successors followed their example, until some sixty royal sepulchers had been cut into the hills, and the city of the dead began to rival living Thebes in population. The "West End" in Egyptian cities was the abode of dead aristocrats; to "go west" meant to die. In 2007, Egyptian archaeologists announced they had identified her mummy that was discovered in 1903.
Curie was the first woman granted a Nobel Prize, the first person the Nobel committee awarded twice, once in physics and once in chemistry, and the first woman to become an instructor at the prestigious Sorbonne.
She was born Maria Sklodowska* to parents who were both teachers (her father even taught mathematics and physics) on Nov. 7, 1867 in Warsaw, Poland then part of the Russian Empire. She amazed others as a youth with her exceptional memory; it must have helped for at age sixteen, she received a gold medal on finishing high school at the Russian language lycée. Since her father squandered his savings on ruinous investments, circumstances forced her to find employment as a teacher; simultaneously she covertly engaged in the Polish nationalist “free university,” lecturing to other women workers. At eighteen, she accepted a position as a governess and from her wages was able to support her sister Bronislawa who was pursuing medical training in Paris; this came with the agreement that Bronislawa would reciprocate so Marie could pursue her own university degree.
Arriving in Paris in 1891—and using the name Marie—she started attending classes at the Sorbonne. Marie often studied late into the night and received degrees in physics and math. She first encountered Pierre Curie in 1894, and married him the next year. Their marriage commemorated the start of a collaboration that was soon to have revolutionary consequences.
While she searched for a topic for her doctoral dissertation, Antoine Henri Becquerel discovered in the element uranium (1896) a novel phenomenon;* she was curious to find out if radioactivity was a property of other elements, and learned (simultaneously as did Gerhard Carl Schmidt) that this was also the case for thorium. She then investigated pitchblende, a mineral that emitted much greater radiation than that of uranium alone. Only the occurrence of tiny amounts of unidentified matter emitting prodigious amounts of radioactivity could explain this.† The Curies subsequently began a quest for this unknown substance. They publicized their finding in 1898 of two heretofore unidentified but extremely radioactive elements, polonium (named by Mme. Curie to honor her native country), and radium. As Pierre dedicated himself mainly to the physics of these radiations, Mme. Curie grappled (with the assistance of other chemists) to acquire unalloyed metallic radium; they managed to purify miniscule quantities of these substances from tonnes of pitchblende. Mme. Curie conjectured that the radioactivity was a trait associated with specific atoms instead of one that was contingent on the grouping of atoms in molecules. Subsequently, other scientists demonstrated that these new elements were created from the initial uranium atoms via radioactive decay. Prior to this, scientists were unaware that atoms ever changed at all.
Giving birth to two daughters, Irène and Ève in 1897 and 1904 did not disrupt Mme. Curie’s rigorous scientific work. She was hired to lecture in physics (1900) in Sèvres, France, at the École Normale Supérieure for girls and there instituted an instructional technique centered on experimental classroom presentations. Because of her research, Mme. Curie obtained a doctorate in June 1903 and—with Pierre—accepted that year’s Royal Society Davy Medal; they also split with Becquerel the same year the Nobel Prize for Physics for the detection of radioactivity.
Mme. Curie was hired as chief assistant in her husband’s laboratory in December 1904, but the unexpected death of Pierre (April 19, 1906) was a harsh blow to her. It became a pivotal crossroads in her research: hereinafter she would dedicate her total energies to solely completing the scientific efforts that they had started together. On May 13, she assumed the professorship that opened up on Pierre’s passing thus becoming the first woman to lecture at the Sorbonne. Her research continued: she published an original dissertation on radioactivity in 1910, and the following year was once again awarded a Nobel Prize, in chemistry, for her discovery of radium and investigating its chemical behavior. To accommodate her research even further the University of Paris in 1914 built the Radium Institute. During World War I, Mme. Curie, assisted by her scientifically inclined daughter Irène, dedicated herself to the improvement of X-rays as a tool to assist battlefield surgeons.
By war’s end, she had reached the highest point of her fame; her Radium Institute, which Irène had become a member of, started to work in earnest. It became a worldwide facility for the advancement of nuclear physics and chemistry. She also had the pleasure of witnessing the development of the Curie Foundation in Paris in 1920 and the creation in 1932 of the Radium Institute in Warsaw, of which Bronislawa became administrator.
She completed a successful trip to the United States in 1921, escorted by her daughters, where President Warren G. Harding gave her a gram of radium that American women had raised the money to purchase. The next year the Council of the League of Nations appointed her a member of the International Commission on Intellectual Cooperation; additionally, she joined the Académie nationale de médecine, and applied her research in the chemistry of radioactive elements to medical applications.
Her accomplishments were great. She appreciated the necessity to amass concentrated radioactive resources, not only to remedy illness but also to provide a plentiful stock for study in nuclear physics. The resulting store of 1.5 grams of radium at the Radium Institute in Paris had a crucial impact on the results of experiments that were underway about 1930. It cleared the way for the discovery of the neutron by Sir James Chadwick, and for the finding of artificial radioactivity in 1934 by Irène and her husband Frédéric Joliot-Curie. A few months following the Joliot-Curies’ discovery, on July 4, 1934, Mme. Curie Curie died. Leukemia brought about by years of working around radiation had caused it.
Mme. Curie’s gifts to science had been enormous, not only due to her own work, but also because of the inspiration given to succeeding generations of nuclear physicists and chemists. Her ashes were preserved in the Panthéon in Paris in 1995, the first woman to obtain this distinction for her own accomplishments. They maintained her office and laboratory in the Curie Pavilion of the Radium Institute as the Curie Museum. She may have been one of the smartest people who ever lived.
* Pronounced: Skwaw-DAWF-skah
* For which Marie later coined the term “radioactivity.”
† Radioactive “decay” can consist of either electromagnetic waves or particles of matter; both can ionize another atom i.e. remove an electron from it. The uranium atoms change from one element into another by emitting this radiation.
Even in her lifetime all Greece honored Sappho. “One evening over the wine,” says Stobaeus, “Execestides, the nephew of Solon, sang a song of Sappho’s which his uncle liked so much that he bade the boy teach it to him; and when one of the company asked, ‘What for?’ he answered, ‘I want to learn it and die!’” Socrates, perhaps hoping for similar lenience, called her “The Beautiful,” and Plato wrote about her an ecstatic epigram:
Some say there are Nine Muses. How careless they are!
Behold, Sappho of Lesbos is the Tenth!
“Sappho was a marvelous woman,” said Strabo; “for in all the time of which we have record I do not know of any woman who could rival her even in a slight degree in the matter of poetry.” As the ancients meant Homer when they said “the Poet,” so all the Greek world knew whom men signified when they spoke of “the Poetess.”
Psappha, as she called herself in her soft Aeolic dialect, was born at Eresus, on Lesbos, about 611 BC; but her family moved to Mytilene when she was still a child. In 593 BC she was among the conspiring aristocrats whom Pittacus of Mytilene (650?-570? BC), one of the Seven Wise Men of Greece, banished to the town of Pyrrha; already at nineteen she was playing a part in public life through politics or poetry. She was not known for beauty: her figure was small and frail, her hair and eyes and skin were darker than the Greeks desired; but she had the charm of daintiness, delicacy, refinement, and a brilliant mind that was not too sophisticated to conceal her tenderness. “My heart,” she says, “is like that of a child.” We know from her verses that she was of a passionate nature, one whose words, says Plutarch, “were mingled with flames;” a certain sensuous quality gave body to the enthusiasms of her mind. Atthis, her favorite pupil, spoke of her as dressed in saffron and purple, and garlanded with flowers. She must have been attractive in her minuscule way, for Alcaeus, exiled with her to Pyrrha, soon sent her an invitation to romance. “Violet-crowned, pure, sweet-smiling Sappho, I want to say something to you, but shame prevents me.” Her answer was less ambiguous than his proposal: “If thy wishes were fair and noble, and thy tongue designed not to utter what is base, shame would not cloud thine eyes, but thou wouldst speak thy just desires.” The poet sang her praises in odes and serenades, but we hear of no further intimacy between them.
Perhaps they were separated by Sappho’s second exile. Pittacus, fearing her maturing pen, banished her now to Sicily, probably in the year 591 BC, when one would have thought her still a harmless girl. About this time she married a rich merchant of Andros; some years later she writes: “I have a little daughter, like a golden flower, my darling Cleis, for whom I would not take all Lydia, nor lovely Lesbos.” She could afford to reject the wealth of Lydia, having inherited that of her husband on his early death. After five years of exile she returned to Lesbos, and became a leader of the island’s society and intellect. We catch the glamour of luxury in one of her surviving fragments: “But I, be it known, love soft living, and for me brightness and beauty belong to the desire of the sun.” She became deeply attached to her young brother Charaxus, and was vexed to her fingertips when, on one of his mercantile journeys to Egypt, he fell in love with the courtesan Doricha, and, ignoring his sister’s entreaties, married her.
Meanwhile Sappho too had felt the fire. Eager for an active life, she had opened a school for young women, to whom she taught poetry, music, and dancing; it was the first “finishing school” in history. She called her students not pupils but hetairai—companions; the word had not yet acquired a promiscuous connotation. Husbandless, Sappho fell in love with one after another of these girls. “Love,” says one fragment, “has shaken my mind as a down-rushing wind that falls upon the oak-trees.” “I loved you, Atthis, long ago,” says another fragment, “when my own girlhood was still all flowers, and you seemed to me an awkward little child.” But then
Atthis accepted the attentions of a youth from Mytilene, and Sappho expressed her jealousy with unmeasured passion in a poem preserved by Longinus and translated haltingly into “Sapphic” meter by John Addington Symonds:
Peer of gods he seemeth to me, the blissful
Man who sits and gazes at thee before him,
Close beside thee sits, and in silence hears thee
Laughing love’s low laughter. Oh, this, this only
Stirs the troubled heart in my breast to tremble!
For should I but see thee a little moment,
Straight is my voice hushed;
Yea, my tongue is broken, and through and through me,
‘Neath the flesh, impalpable fire runs tingling.
Nothing see mine eyes, and a voice of roaring
Waves in my ear sounds;
Sweat runs down in rivers, a tremor seizes
All my limbs, and paler than grass in autumn,
Caught by pains of menacing death, I falter,
Lost in the love-trance.
(Swinburne has given us a better example of the meter, and described Sappho’s love, in a profoundly beautiful poem called ‘Sapphics’ [‘All the night came not upon my eyelids’], in Poems and Ballads.)
Atthis’ parents removed her from the school; and a letter ascribed to Sappho gives what may be her account of the parting.
She (Atthis?) wept full sore to leave me behind, and said: ‘Alas, how sad our lot! Sappho, I swear ‘tis against my will I leave you.’ And I answered her: ‘Go your way rejoicing, but remember me, for you know how I doted upon you. And if you remember not, oh, then I will remind you of what you forget, how dear and beautiful was the life we led together. For with many a garland of violets and sweet roses mingled you have decked your flowing locks by my side, and with many a woven necklet, made of a hundred blossoms, your dainty throat; and with unguent in plenty, both precious and royal, have you anointed your fair young skin in my bosom. And no hill was there, nor holy place, nor water-brook, whither we did not go; nor ever did the teeming noises of the early spring fill any wood with the medley-song of the nightingales but you wandered thither with me.’”
After which, in the same manuscript, comes the bitter cry, “I shall never see Atthis again, and indeed I might as well be dead.” This surely is the authentic voice of love, rising to a height of sincerity and beauty beyond good and evil.
The later scholars of antiquity debated whether these poems were expressions of “Lesbian love,” or merely exercises of poetic fancy and impersonation. It is enough for us that they are poetry of the first order, tense with feeling, vivid with imagery, and perfect in speech and form. A fragment speaks of ‘the footfall of the flowering spring;’ another of “Love the limb-Ioosener, the bitter-sweet torment;” another compares the unattainable love to “the sweet apple that reddens on the end of the bough, the very end of the bough, which the gatherers missed, nay missed not, but could not reach so far.” Sappho wrote of other topics than love, and used, even for our extant remains, half a hundred meters; and she herself set her poems to music for the harp. Her verse was collected into nine books, of some twelve thousand lines; six hundred lines survive, seldom continuous. In the year 1073 of our era the poetry of Sappho and Alcaeus was publicly burned by ecclesiastical authorities in Constantinople and Rome. Then, in 1897, Grenfell and Hunt discovered, at Oxyrhynchus in the Fayum, coffins of papier-mâché, in whose making certain scraps of old books had been used; and on these scraps were some poems of Sappho.
Male posterity avenged itself upon her by handing down or inventing the tale of how she died of unrequited love for a man. A passage in Suidas tells how “the courtesan Sappho”—usually identified with the poetess—leaped to death from a cliff on the island of Leucas because Phaon the sailor would not return her love. Menander, Strabo, and others refer to the story, and Ovid recounts it in loving detail; but it has many earmarks of legend, and must be left hovering nebulously between fiction and fact. In her later years, tradition said, Sappho had relearned the love of men. Among the Egyptian morsels is her touching reply to a proposal of marriage: “If my breasts were still capable of giving suck, and my womb were able to bear children, then to another marriage-bed not with trembling feet would I come. But now on my skin age has brought many lines, and Love hastens not to me with his gift of pain”—and she advises her suitor to seek a younger wife. In truth we do not know when she died, or how; we know only that she left behind her a vivid memory of passion, poetry, and grace; and that she shone even above Alcaeus as the most melodious singer of her time. Gently, in a final fragment, she reproves those who would not admit that her song was finished:
You dishonor the good gifts of the Muses, my children, when you say, “We will crown you, dear Sappho, best player of the clear, sweet lyre.” Know you not that my skin is all wrinkled with age, and my hair is turned from black to white? . . . Surely as starry Night follows rose-armed Dawn and brings darkness to the ends of the earth, so Death tracketh everything living, and catcheth it in the end.
The long reign of John II (1406-54) of Castile, who loved music and poetry too much to care for the chores of state, was followed by the disastrous tenure of Henry IV, who by his administrative incompetence, his demoralization of the currency, and his squandering of revenue on favored parasites, earned the title of Enrique el Impotente. He willed his throne to Juana of Portugal (1462-1530), whom he called his daughter; the scornful nobles denied his parentage and potency, and forced him to name his sister Isabella as his successor. But at his death (1474) he reaffirmed Juana’s legitimacy and her right to rule. It was out of this paralyzing confusion that Ferdinand and Isabella forged the order and government that made Spain for a century the strongest state in Europe.
The diplomats prepared the achievement by persuading Isabella, eighteen, to marry her cousin Ferdinand, seventeen (1469). Bride and bridegroom were both descended from Henry of Trastamara. Ferdinand was already King of Sicily; on the death of his father he would be also King of Aragon; the marriage, therefore, wed three states into a powerful kingdom. Paul II withheld the papal bull needed to legalize the marriage of cousins; Ferdinand, his father, and the archbishop of Barcelona, forged the requisite document; after the fait had been accompli a genuine bull was obtained from Pope Sixtus IV. A more substantial difficulty lay in the poverty of the bride, whose brother refused to recognize the marriage, and of the bridegroom, whose father, immersed in war, could not afford a royal ceremony. A Jewish lawyer smoothed the course of true politics with a loan of 20,000 sueldos, which Isabella repaid when she became Queen of Castile (1474). (The unit of Castilian currency in the fifteenth century was the copper maravedi; 18.7 of these equaled an Aragonese sueldo; 34 made a silver real; 374 made a gold escudo or ducat. The fluctuations of currencies make it especially hazardous to suggest modern equivalents for these coins, but the wage of a day laborer in fifteenth-century Spain was some six maravedis per day.)
Alfonso V of Portugal, who had married Juana, challenged her right to the throne. War decided the issue at Toro, where Ferdinand led the Castilians to victory (1476). Three years later he inherited Aragon; all Spain except Granada and Navarre was now under one government. Isabella remained only Queen of Castile; Ferdinand ruled Aragon, Sardinia, and Sicily, and shared in ruling Castile. The internal administration of Castile was reserved to Isabella, but royal charters and decrees had to be signed by both sovereigns, and the new coinage bore both the regal heads. Their complementary qualities made Ferdinand and Isabella the most effective royal couple in history.
Isabella was incomparably beautiful, said her courtiers--that is, moderately fair; of medium stature, blue eyes, hair of chestnut brown verging on red. She had more schooling than Ferdinand, with a less acute and less merciless intelligence. She could patronize poets and converse with cautious philosophers, but she preferred the company of priests. She chose the sternest moralists for her confessors and guides. Wedded to an unfaithful husband, she seems to have sustained full marital fidelity to the end; living in an age as morally fluid as our own, she was a model of sexual modesty. Amid corrupt officials and devious diplomats, she herself remained frank, direct, and incorruptible. Her mother had reared her in strict orthodoxy and piety; Isabella developed this to the edge of asceticism, and was as harsh and cruel in suppressing heresy, as she was kind and gracious in everything else. She was the soul of tenderness to her children, and a pillar of loyalty to her friends. She gave abundantly to churches, monasteries, and hospitals. Her orthodoxy did not deter her from condemning the immorality of some Renaissance popes. She excelled in both physical and moral bravery; she withstood, subdued, and disciplined powerful nobles, bore quietly the most desolating bereavements, and faced with contagious courage the hardships and dangers of war. She thought it wise to maintain a queenly dignity in public, and pushed royal display to costly extravagance in robes and gems; in private she dressed simply, ate frugally, and amused her leisure by making delicate embroideries for the churches she loved. She labored conscientiously in the tasks of government, took the initiative in wholesome reforms, administered justice with perhaps undue severity; but she was resolved to raise her realm from lawless disorder to a law-abiding peace. Foreign contemporaries like Paolo Giovio, Guicciardini, and the Chevalier Bayard ranked her among the ablest sovereigns of the age, and likened her to the stately heroines of antiquity. Her subjects worshiped her, while they bore impatiently with the King.
After attempts to persuade John II of Portugal, and sounding out other Kings in Europe, Columbus chanced upon Isabella as a possible patron for his attempt to reach Asia by sailing West. He had laid his petition before Isabella (May 10,1486). She referred it to a group of advisers presided over by the saintly Archbishop Talavera. After long delay they reported the plan to be impracticable, arguing that Asia must be much farther west than Columbus supposed. Nevertheless Ferdinand and Isabella gave him an annuity of 11,000 maravedis, and in 1489 they furnished him with a letter ordering all Spanish municipalities to provide him with food and lodging; perhaps they wished to keep an option on his project lest by some chance it should bestow a continent on a rival king. But when the Talavera committee, after reconsidering the scheme, again rejected it, Columbus resolved to submit it to Charles VIII of France. Fray Juan Pérez, head of the monastery of La Rabida, dissuaded him by arranging another audience with Isabella. She sent him 20,000 maravedis to finance his trip to her headquarters at the siege city of Santa Fé. He went; she heard his plea kindly enough, but her advisers once more discountenanced the idea. He resumed his preparations for going to France (January 1492). Prodded by Ferdinand’s finance minister, Luis de Santander, who reproached Isabella for lack of imagination and enterprise, tempted her with the prospect of converting Asia to Christianity, and proposed to finance the expedition himself with the aid of his friends, Isabella was moved, and offered to pledge her jewels to raise the needed sum. Santander judged this unnecessary, and on April 26, 1492—so crowded a year in Spanish history—the King signed the requisite papers. On August 12 the Santa María (his flagship), the Pinta, and the Niña sailed from Palos with eighty-eight men, and provisions for a year. The “discovery” of America was in no small part due to Isabella and Ferdinand.
On October 22, 1504, she wrote her will, directing that she should receive the plainest funeral, that the money so saved should be given to the poor, and that she should be buried in a Franciscan monastery within the Alhambra; “but,” she added, “should the King my Lord prefer his sepulcher in some other place, then my will is that my body should be transported and laid by his side, that the union which we have enjoyed in this world, and, through the mercy of God, may hope again for our souls in heaven, may be represented by our bodies in the earth.” She died December 4, 1504, and was buried as she had directed; but after Ferdinand’s death her remains were placed beside his in the cathedral of Granada. “The world,” wrote Peter Martyr, “has lost its noblest ornament. . . . I know none of her sex, in ancient or modern times, who in my judgment is at all worthy to be named with this incomparable woman.”
She was a fugitive slave who facilitated the exodus to freedom of so many black people via the “underground railroad”* that she acquired the appellation the “Moses of her people.”
Harriet Tubman was born one of eleven children to slaves Harriet Greene and Benjamin Ross about 1820 on an estate in Dorchester County, Maryland. She performed housework and provided care by the time she was seven for white children on neighboring farms, and afterwards became a field hand. When still a child she attempted to prevent a master from disciplining another slave. The man broke her skull with a metal weight; this left her with a permanent neurological impairment in which she experienced blackouts and had visions, which she construed as communications from God. But grueling work strengthened her, and by the time she was nineteen she was as robust as the men with whom she worked.
She acquired permission from her master in 1844 to wed a free black man named John Tubman. For the following five years, she dwelled in semi-slavery: she was still legally a slave, but her master allowed her to live with Tubman. Her master’s passing in 1847, and then the passing off his young son and heir in 1849, complicated her social status. Hearing gossip that they intended to sell the slaves to restore the estate’s solvency, Tubman escaped to the North and freedom. She journeyed by night, helped by the Underground Railroad, while her husband stayed in Maryland. In Philadelphia, and afterwards at Cape May, N.J., she worked as a housekeeper in hotels and clubs.
By December 1850, she had accumulated enough money to undertake the first of nineteen risky voyages back into the South to help other slaves escape captivity. Wishing to persuade her husband to journey north, she travelled back to Maryland. However, by this point John Tubman had remarried. Harriet though would remain single until he died. Thereafter she concentrated her efforts in diligently working with the Underground Railroad, and resolved to become a “conductor” herself. She often left escapees under the supervision of other conductors once she had led them part of the way herself. During her first journey in 1850, Tubman brought her sister and her sister’s two children out of Maryland to freedom. In 1851, she freed her brother, and in 1857 returned to Maryland to liberate her elderly parents. Throughout the perilous voyages from South to North, she upheld meticulous discipline. If a runaway lingered behind or became disheartened and desired a return to slavery, she compelled him forward at gunpoint! During her work as a conductor, she skillfully concealed her identity—occasionally masquerading as a crazy old man or as an old woman—to avoid suspicion when passing through slave states; as a precaution, she would carry sleeping powder to mute crying babies. Prior to the Civil War, she emancipated, in addition to her parents, nearly all of her siblings along with 300 other slaves. During this time, she financially provided for her parents and labored to solicit money for her missions into the South.
The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 had established federal commissioners in every county to help in the restoration of escaped slaves to their owners and meted out severe punishments for those found responsible for aiding them in fleeing. Someone like Tubman was a focus of this law; therefore, in 1851 she moved to St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada. Reaching the city was the goal of many former slaves. By the late 1850s, many Northern states ratified personal liberty laws that protected the rights of runaway slaves, which gave her the opportunity to return to the U.S., purchase land, and relocate with her parents to Auburn, New York, a center of the antislavery movement. However, slaveholders were continuously searching for Tubman and posted hefty sums for her apprehension. They failed not just to apprehend her but even to catch one of the slaves she assisted in escaping during her time with the Underground Railroad. But it wasn’t just luck. She frequently changed her route and modus operandi, although she usually commenced her journeys on Saturday night for two reasons. First, many masters allowed their slaves to rest on Sundays and would not be aware that the slaves were missing till Monday, by which time the fugitives would have already travelled a day and a half. Secondly, newspapers announcing their escape would not publish an edition till Monday, by which time Tubman and her fleeing charges were probably near their northern destinations. Throughout these hazardous operations, she appeared to have an astonishing skill in finding food and shelter and in preventing harm from coming to her “passengers.” Many years later, she proudly recollected, “I never ran my train off the track, and I never lost a passenger.”
Tubman provided inspiration to many. She worked closely with black antislavery campaigner William Still in Philadelphia and with the Quaker Underground Railroad conductor Thomas Garrett of Wilmington, Delaware. Her powerful leadership within the abolitionist movement led John Brown flatteringly to call her “General” Tubman; she even helped Brown organize his October 1859 attack on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, W. Va., even assuring him that many of the slaves she had liberated would join him. Only sickness stopped her from fighting with Brown during the attack itself. During this time, she also spoke at women’s rights gatherings, frequently disguising her name to guard against slave hunters.
Her tireless and heroic actions in serving the Union Army during the Civil War brought well-deserved credit to her. She worked as a scout, spy, nurse, and cook. In 1863, during a military campaign along the Combahee River in South Carolina, she helped in emancipating more than 750 slaves. The following month she prepared food for the famous 54th Massachusetts Regiment (exclusively composed of black soldiers and renowned as the Glory Brigade) prior to its valiant but futile assault on Fort Wagner. She was later awarded an official commendation for her work.
Tubman lived after the war in the North, where she incessantly strove to improve the lives of black people. She remarried in 1869 to black war veteran Nelson Davis. Throughout these post-war years, she solicited funds to help ex-slaves acquire food, shelter, and education. She also established a facility to support the elderly at her home in Auburn, the Harriet Tubman Home for the Aged, which served poor old black people. She became a delegate in 1895 to the first and only assembly of the National Conference of Colored Women in America, an organization created to parry attacks in the press and elsewhere on black women’s decency and civic pride. This organization grew into the National Association of Colored Women in 1896, though she only participated in a limited fashion with it. She also became a campaigner to advance women’s rights, especially black women’s rights, in addition to being a vehement champion of women’s suffrage. She became the focus of many biographies. Her friend Sarah Hopkins Bradford assisted her with the publishing of Scenes from the Life of Harriet Tubman (1869), so that her accomplishments could serve as an inspiration to others.
Tubman died on March 10, 1913 and was buried with military honors. The residents of Auburn, N.Y. raised a plaque to honor her the following year. More honors were to come. The Department of the Interior in 1974 established her former home in Auburn as a national historic landmark, and the United States Postal Service published a stamp with her portrait on it in 1978. The U.S. Treasury announced in 2016 that her image would grace the new $20 bill replacing slaveholder Andrew Jackson. Probably this will not be the final honor bestowed on this great woman. It needn’t be said: she was braver than brave.
* A secret system that helped slaves escape to the northern United States or to Canada through a network of antislavery activists working to eradicate slavery.