Friday, September 01, 2006

Today in History: Le Roi Soleil

Death is a great leveller. As he lay wasting away from gangrene, it's doubtful that Louis XIV took comfort from the fact that history would remember him as the Sun King. More likely he was contemplating the ruins of his bid for European hegemony, joining a list of despots who failed to mix iron and clay into a New Roman Empire. Where the strongmen failed, democracy and markets have succeeded, which might encourage one to see some upward progress in human history. Unless, of course, you believe that the twin rebirths of Israel and the godless European Union herald the coming of the Antichrist...

Having failed to shift France's borders despite haemmorhaging the country's blood and treasure for seven decades, Louis earned his epithet by making his court a byword for extravagant consumption and sycophancy. Towards the end, perhaps, he took a look at all the insects hovering round his great light at Versailles and wondered what was the point. It would have been a profound insight, since for all the Sun King's glory, today no one really gives a s_t. Be warned before you spend your life accumulating fame and power: once you're dead, the only people who will care are history-addicted bloggers (and possibly their readers). And the only immortality lies in satirical cartoons.

If you do like historical conjunctions, Louis certainly chose to exit in style, expiring on the first day of spring, a few days before his birthday and a few years ahead of another long-reigned absolutist monarch, at the opposite end of the Eurasian landmass. 1715 was also the year that the would-be assassin of Louis's great-grandson (Louis XV) was born. Robert-Francois Damiens failed to make the regicide list, but at least earned the distinction of being the last person in France to be drawn and quartered, a privilege retained by Freeborn Englishmen a few decades longer.

And this happens to be the day that World War Two started...

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