My recent methodology focuses less on parallels and how they prove the Book of Mormon. We don’t necessarily have to point to a direct connection between Rome, China and the people of the Book of Mormon because the underlying behavior, motivations and feelings are so similar.
I’ve talked about many principles between the Jaredite and Chinese Civil War in my first book. In this case, I was particularly impressed with the jealousy of the Roman empress regent against powerful generals and how those generals held key commands around Roman territory. The power struggle between generals, politicians, and priests using the levers of the state or their personal commands to protect their own power against rivals aided by assassination. Aetius also had to recover from defeat which recalled the similar effort by Coriantumr. These scrums for power place the Book of Mormon firmly in ancient settings.
We might consider how chaos in both China and Rome allowed associated barbarian groups to enter and seize control. One Chinese source said they “picked the bone of the dynasty.” Aetius used his time as a hostage to the Huns to use them as allies against his enemies. This presents an intriguingly possibility concerning others in the Book of the Mormon. The Jaredite fight for power among themselves and crush for manpower could have led to unconventional alliances or allowed nonaffiliated groups to expand their power. In fact, the Mulekites could be some of those outsiders. They were too late to affect the twilight wars of the Jaredites (though the account says Coriantumr lived with the people of Zarahemla for 9 months.) But they entered the Jaredite (possibly San Lorenzo) culture zone and soon created their own mix aristocracy and control of nearby regions.
The more I read ancient accounts and documents the more firmly I’m convinced of its ancient setting. Without further ado here are the three summaries of the churning for power in ancient society. If you get lost trying to keep track of all the power players, don't worry, that is kind of the point.
After a period of disunion, romantically called the “Three Kingdoms Period,”1 Sima Yan united China and proclaimed the beginning of the Jin Dynasty in the mid-3rd century A.D. Sima Yan placed his relatives in strong military commands surrounding the capital of Luoyang on the Yellow river.2 As is typically the case in Chinese history, however, commanders capable enough to protect the frontier were also powerful enough to assert their will against the Emperor. It took a strong Emperor at the center to hold these ambitious commanders in check.
Upon the death of Sima Yan in 290 A.D, his mentally feeble son Sima Zhong assumed the throne. His wife, the Empress Jia, suppressed, executed or ran off members of the Sima clan, and effectively ruled until 300 A.D. After the murder of the Sima Yu, the various Princes stationed along the periphery asserted their will in favor of the Imperial (Sima) clan. Two Princes, Sima Yong and Sima Lun, violently seized power in the capital and forced the Empress to commit suicide.
Up until this point, the various political machinations had been done under the façade of Imperial authority. The Empress signed an edict in the name of her feeble husband, and then executed or exiled the various “traitors” to the Empire. The naked use of power without a justifying edict by the Sima brothers led to what historian David Graff calls a “plunge into the abyss.”3 Members of the Sima clan justified their actions based on assertions of military power, and not Imperial authority.
Less than a year after the two Simas coup, a third, Sima Yun, attempted a coup but was killed. In response, Sima Lun abandoned all pretenses of ruling through his feeble cousin and declared himself Emperor.4 Yet this caused the former Emperor’s younger brothers (Sima Ying, Sima Yih, and an area commander Sima Jiong) to attack from the West. They defeated the new Emperor and restored their mentally challenged brother to the throne.
With the unremitting carnage among the princes in their struggles for power, by May of 302 A.D., no clear heirs remained to the (recently restored) Jin Emperor. Sima Ying hoped for the nomination, and he resented the dominant position taken by the more distant relative Sima Jiong, while Sima Yung from the west also sought a role. In complex intrigue during the last days of the Chinese year [heading into 303 A.D.], Sima Ying and Sima Yung involved Sima Yih in their rivalry with Sima Jiong, but when Sima Jiong sought to destroy Sima Yih, Sima Yih turned the tables on him and took his place at the head of government...5
After heavy fighting, Sima Yih defeated Sima Ying’s forces and held off another army from Sima Yung, commanded by the vigorous general Zhang Fang. However, Sima Yih was betrayed by his own soldiers, under the influence of Sima Yue. In 304 A.D., the latter had the former burned at the stake, and he continued his efforts to gain control over the Emperor. Sima Yue’s enemy, Sima Yung, tried to appease him by offering the head of his general Zhang Fang. Sima Yue accepted the head but continued the fight to gain control of the government. He accomplished his design in 306 A.D.
The Jaredite Civil War is no less sanguine, complicated, or less known by the public at large. Ending in roughly 300 B.C.,6 the historian Moroni summarized Ether’s account.7 The final war begins with the latter’s eviction from the rulers’ court. At this point, many “mighty men” fight Coriantumr. Knowing “all the arts of war” (Ether 13:16), Coriantumr fights back for three years before being put into captivity by Shared. His sons promptly rescue him and restore him to the throne. This naked aggression seems to throw the kingdom into continual bloodshed, as there was “none to restrain them” (Ether 13:31). A “curse” upon the land corresponds to this bloodshed. It is manifested by a complete lack of trade and a shredding of the Jaredite economy.
Shared and Coriantumr continue their back and forth fight and exchange victories across the land until the latter kills the former. Shared’s brother, Gilead, beats Coriantumr in a series of battles and assumes the throne. Then Gilead’s high priest murdered him as he sits upon the throne. The text is a bit unclear, but this high priest is either Lib, or killed by Lib so that he can take the throne (Ether 14:10).8 Renewed from his defeat and succored by what appears to be a regional power base, Coriantumr regains the throne and kills Lib (or the man who killed Lib). By this point, the armies are forcibly conscripting soldiers and destroying large populations and cities in their path. Lib’s brother, Shiz, continues the fight, despite peace overtures from Coriantumr, until the nation ceases to exist in any organized form.9
A six year old boy cannot rule an empire, even in the hands of so capable and experience a mother as Galla Placidia….The fragmentary records indicate that she aimed to sustain a balance of power in which no one figure among the military or bureaucratic elite should become too dominant. The main contenders for power and influence in the years after 425 were the leaders of the three main western army groups: Felix [Italy], Aetius [Gaul], and Boniface [North Africa]…
For awhile, Placidia’s strategy just about worked. The threatened dominance of first one figure, then another, was kept in check, if not entirely smoothly. Slowly, however, the situation fell out of the Augusta’s control. Felix made the first move. Accusing Boniface of disloyalty, in 427 he ordered him to return to Italy. When he refused, Felix sent forces to North Africa, but they were defeated. Then Aetius stepped in. On the strength of some military successes in Gaul against Visigoths (426) and Franks (428)…he felt confident enough to move against Felix. Perhaps his successes had won him new favor with Placidia, or perhaps personal extinction was the price of Felix’s failure against Bonficace, but in 429 Aetius was transferred to Italy and to the post of junior central field army general…In May 430 Aeitus had Felix and his wife arrested for plotting against him. They were executed at Ravenna. Three had become two, and high noon was fast approaching for Boniface.
Aetius seems to have lost little ground at court after he got rid of Felix. Perhaps, one again, Placidia was fearful of the dominance of one unchallenged generalissimo. Boniface was therefore recalled to the Italy, seemingly while Aetius was absent in Gaul again; and Boniface too was promoted to the post of central field army general. Aetius immediately marched to Italy with an army, and met Boniface in battle near Rimini. Boniface was victorious but also mortally wounded; he died soon afterwards. His political position, and the struggle with Aetius, were immediately taken up by his son in law Sebastianus. After the defeat, Aetius first retreated to his country estates, but after an attempt was made on his life, he turned to the Huns, as he had in 425. In 433 he returned to Italy with enough Hunnic reinforcements to make Sebastianus’ position untenable…Aetius had emerged by the end of 433 as the de facto ruler of the western Empire.
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1 This period is similar in legend and romance to that of Arthurian Britain.
2 See Appendix B in my book a map of Jin Provinces.
3 David Graff, Medieval Chinese Warfare: 300-900 (New York: Routledge Press, 2002), 62.
4 Edward Dreyer, "Military Aspects of the War of the Eight Princes, 301-307," in Military Culture in Imperial China, ed. Nicola di Cosmo, 112-142 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009).
5 Rafe de Crespigny, “The Three Kingdoms and Western Jin: A history of China in the Third Century AD,” Internet Edition, 2003.
6 The timeline for this section of The Book of Mormon is incredibly tenuous. I give a tentative timeline of the battle below (see fn. 53).
7 This following is a summary of the major events starting in Ether 13:15 to the end of chapter 15.
8 Ether 14:10 could be explicating verse 9 or could be introducing a new actor.
9 At this point in The Book of Mormon’s timeline, the Jaredites fade from history and the Nephites assume a central role. While the common assumption is that the Jaredite nation is destroyed, Hugh Nibley concludes that the political leadership is destroyed, but Jaredite individuals continue to participate in Nephite society, usually as bad actors. See Hugh Nibley, The World of the Jaredites.
10 Peter Heather, The Fall of the Roman Empire, (Oxford University Press, 2006), 260-262.