Thursday, March 15, 2018

Nero Was Said To Have Encouraged Small Battles Between Supporters Of Theatre Dancers

During the reign of Augustus (r. 31 BCE – 14 CE) a certain type of dance became popular that would remain a theatrical favorite in Rome for centuries. In the dance, a performer, known as a pantomimus, entertained the crowd with a cross between the antics of a mime and the artistry of a ballet. These pantomimi, as they are known in plural, were said to have worn masks and elaborate costumes, dancing along to accompanying sounds from musicians and singers.

The pantomimi dancers found an interesting fan in the youthful Roman emperor, Nero (r. 54-68). As an aspiring musician and theatre performer, himself, Nero was naturally drawn to the dancers. Around the year 56, when Nero’s infamous bad habits were starting to become prevalent, he allegedly decided to liven up the bustling theatres where the performances were held. According to the historian and statesman, Tacitus (c. 56-117+), the audience of the pantomimi were already a rowdy crowd, often getting into fights over differing opinions concerning who would be named the best dancer. Tacitus claimed that Nero enjoyed these skirmishes so much that he abolished any penalties for fighting and gave prizes to the winners. He was also alleged to have sometimes taken part in the brawls.

Nero, however, eventually came to regret his enabling of the fights in the theatre. The enthusiastic crowds showing up for the dances became so rowdy that Nero ultimately imposed a temporary ban, forbidding all pantomimi from performing in Italy. Even so, the dancers would come back and continue to be popular after the downfall of Nero.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (Dancers and musicians, c. 475 BCE, tomb of the leopards, Monterozzi necropolis, Tarquinia, Italy. UNESCO World Heritage Site. Fresco a secco. [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

  • The Annals of Imperial Rome by Tacitus, translated by Michael Grant. New York: Penguin Classics, 1996. 

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

The Siege Of Volandum During The Roman-Parthian Wars Over Armenia

As the year 57 turned into 58, the decades-long struggle between Rome and Parthia over the control of Armenia heightened in intensity. At that time, Parthia had the advantage in the struggle, as the reigning king of Armenia was Tiridates, brother of the Parthian king, Vologeses I. Nevertheless, according to the historian, Tacitus (c. 56-117+), the Armenian people were still divided over which empire they wanted as their overlord, and individual settlements had their own independent preferences.

With Parthian support, Tiridates began raiding the regions of his country that he thought favored Rome. The Roman governor of Syria, a man named Cnaeus Domitius Corbulo, mobilized his own forces to halt the Parthian raids, but he could not move quick enough to trap Tiridates in a battle. As his original scheme was unsuccessful, Corbulo called in his allies to increase pressure on the Parthian-Armenian forces. In particular, King Antiochus Epiphanes IV of Commagene and King Pharasmanes of Iberia answered the governor’s summons and supported the campaign.

This increased pressure brought Tiridates into negotiation with the Roman governor. A meeting was scheduled to discuss peace. Yet, even though the two allegedly camped close enough to see each other, no conversation ever occurred. When diplomacy failed, Governor Corbulo then turned his attention to launching a major offensive against the Parthian-Armenian homeland.

Governor Corbulo came up with a plan to simultaneously besiege three Parthian-controlled border forts in Armenia. Corbulo personally led the attack on Volandum, the strongest of the three. Tacitus claimed to know the governor’s battle plan for the siege. The historian wrote that the governor split his troops into four sections. One group was sent to sieze the fortress’ ramparts and clear obstructions. Two other groups harassed the defenders with siege engines, javelins and slings. The final group charged the fortress and scaled the enemy walls with ladders. Using this approach, Governor Corbulo was said to have seized the fortification of Volandum in about eight hours. The other two fortresses, besieged by Roman forces, also fell that same day.

After the fall of the fortresses, Corbulo began marching toward Artaxata, the capital of Armenia. Tiridates attempted to ambush the Roman forces, but his attack failed. When the governor’s forces reached Artaxata, the city surrendered. Unfortunately, fearing that he could not adequately garrison the city, Governor Corbulo decided to burn Artaxata to the ground.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (Roman siege of Jerusalem, image produced c. 1921, published in a book by William Ambrose Spicer, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

  • The Annals of Imperial Rome by Tacitus, translated by Michael Grant. New York: Penguin Classics, 1996.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

The Valiant Last Ride Of The 3rd-Century BCE Chinese Warlord, Xiang Yu

In 202 BCE, after around seven years of war following the fall of the Qin Dynasty, two major warlords were left in the competition to seize the imperial throne of China. These two leaders were Xiang Yu, the ruler of Chu, and Liu Bang (also known as Liu Ji), the King of Han. Even though Xiang Yu was the very man who had crowned Liu Bang as the king of Han (in 206 BCE), the protégé slowly began to gain advantage against his master. By 203 BCE, Xiang Yu recognized Liu Bang as ruler of eastern China after they had negotiated a truce. Although an agreement was met, the Han forces were in much better shape than the Chu. Therefore, in 202 BCE, Liu Bang broke the peace and invaded Chu to deliver the deathblow to his rival.

Liu Bang successfully encircled the last remaining troops of Xiang Yu in a walled camp at Gaixia. Sensing that victory was near, the Han troops allegedly spent the night singing triumphant songs. Xiang Yu, likewise, recognized that he could not win a pitched battle against the Han forces, so he prepared his favorite horse, Dapple, and along with 800 horsemen, he prepared to puncture a hole through the besiegers. In the Records of the Grand Historian, the father of Chinese history, Sima Qian (c. 145-90 BCE), recorded a dramatic account of Xiang Yu’s final ride.

According to the historian, Xiang Yu and his band of cavalry successfully broke through Han lines, but they did so at great cost—only 100 of the Chu horsemen were said to have survived the escape. With Han cavalry hot on his trail, Xiang Yu fled first to Yinling, then to Dongcheng. Somewhere between Dongcheng and Wujiang, the Han forces intercepted the fleeing Chu warlord. No longer able to run, Xiang Yu decided to fight in one last battle.

Sima Qian painted Xiang Yu as being an almost super-human figure. Well over six feet in height, and a man of immense strength, Xiang Yu was allegedly a one-man wrecking crew. In a series of charges and strategic withdrawals, Xiang Yu supposedly slaughtered hundreds of the pursuing Han soldiers, including an unnamed Han general and colonel. Nevertheless, Xiang Yu was eventually cornered and could fight no longer. Not willing to allow the enemy a complete victory, the defeated warlord took his own life.

After Xiang Yu was dead, Sima Qian alleged that various Han generals dismembered the deceased warlord and took his head and limbs as prizes. When news of Xiang Yu’s death spread, the region of Chu largely submitted to the king of Han. Sima Qian wrote that only the area of Lu resisted, but when Liu Bang arrived with the head of Xiang Yu, they, too, surrendered. The king of Han allegedly showed respect to his dead rival—he collected the pieces of Xiang Yu for an honorable burial at Gucheng and was said to have taken no reprisals against the Xiang family.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (Pinyin- Dahuting Han mu; Wade-Giles- Tahut'ing Han mu) of the late Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220 AD), located in Zhengzhou, Henan province, China, was excavated in 1960-1961).

  • The Records of the Grand Historian (Shi ji) by Sima Qian, translated by Burton Watson. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.  

Monday, March 12, 2018

Emperor Claudius’ Chaotic And Bloody Grand Opening At A Waterway Near Fucine Lake

According to the historians Tacitus (c. 56-117) and Suetonius (c. 69-122), Emperor Claudius completed a series of canals and tunnels in the year 52 that connected Fucine Lake, in central Italy, to the Liris River. Before the construction was complete, workers frustratingly had to drill through a mountainside on one stretch of the journey. When the project was deemed ready to be officially opened, Emperor Claudius decided to celebrate the event with one of ancient Rome’s favorite spectacles—gladiatorial games. Yet, he did not want a mere skirmish in an arena. No, he wanted the kind of extravaganza worthy of a Roman emperor. With this in mind, Claudius followed the example of some of his famed predecessors and devised a plan to showcase a magnificent sea battle, in which he would pit thousands of ship-bound gladiators against each other.

The historian, Tacitus, claimed that 19,000 gladiators and criminals were gathered on Fucine Lake to fulfill Emperor Claudius’ dream. These fighters, some dressed as Sicilians and others as Rhodesians, were crowded onto warships to reenact a naval battle from Greek history. To ensure that no one fled, Claudius posted his own soldiers on rafts, making a ring around the fluid battle scene. In addition to this, the emperor also allegedly set up numerous siege engines, such as catapults, which were used to fling heavy projectiles at the sailing gladiators. Roman citizens poured in from all over Italy, eager to see the show. Tacitus wrote that countless spectators jostled over the best spots on the hills and beaches by the lake.

Under the eyes of the emperor and the masses, the ring of soldiers pressured the fighters into action. Although it was a staged battle, the violence was not an act—Claudius let the blood flow. The mock-Sicilian and mock-Rhodesian fleets engaged in battle on Fucine Lake, all the time having to worry about random shots from the emperor’s catapults. After the battle had stained the lake red with spilled blood, Claudius concluded the event, sparing the fighters who had managed to stay alive. With the gruesome performance over, the emperor officially opened up the waterway.

Interestingly, according to Tacitus’ account, the story did not end there. Apparently, the waterway was not dug adequately deep. Therefore, the outlet built into the lake was dammed and the laborers went back to work on the canals. When the project was finally complete, Emperor Claudius allegedly decided to showcase a second gladiatorial battle on Fucine Lake. This time, the emperor had gladiators fight an infantry battle on a huge stage of sturdy pontoons. As had previously occurred, another massive crowd supposedly came out to see the show, this time setting up banquets for themselves on the lake’s shoreline. Unfortunately, Tacitus claimed that when the outlet was reopened, water from the lake began to surge toward the recently deepened canal with unexpected strength. Waves crashed against the shoreline, startling the spectators, as the forceful currents were pulled toward the waterway. Tacitus did not mention any deaths from this event, but he did note a prevalent atmosphere of shock and terror.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (The naumachia (Naval battle between Romans). Oil on canvas, 125.6 x 200.5 cm. This work was presented at the National Society of Fine Arts in Paris, 1894. [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

  • The Annals of Imperial Rome by Tacitus, translated by Michael Grant. New York: Penguin Classics, 1996. 

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Emperor Gaozu Was Said To Have Invented His Own Style of Bamboo Hats

Liu Bang, the commoner who would eventually become Emperor Gaozu, was an independent-thinking individual—he liked doing things his own way. Instead of joining the family business, he took and passed the examinations required to become an official in the Qin Dynasty, and found employment as the head of a village along the Si River.

While acting as the village leader, the future emperor was said to have envisioned a new kind of hat made from sheathes of bamboo. According to the Grand Historian, Sima Qian (c. 145-90 BCE), Liu bang personally made one of these hats with his own hands. After that, when he was satisfied with the manufacture and design of his product, Liu Bang sent one of his aides off to the district of Xie to have more copies of the bamboo hat produced. Proud of his invention, the future emperor was said to have frequently worn the hat. Liu Bang must have handed down the secret of the headpiece to his descendants, because Sima Qian labeled that specific line of bamboo caps as “the Liu family hats.”

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (Illustration of Han Emperor Gaozu, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

  • Records of the Grand Historian (Shi ji) by Sima Qian, translated by Burton Watson. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Vibulenus Agrippa’s Race For Death Against The Senate

In the year 36 or 37, at the end of Emperor Tiberius’ reign in Rome, a Roman knight by the name of Vibulenus Agrippa was brought before the Senate to stand trial for a severe crime. His case, along with many other prosecutions during the reign of Tiberius, was diligently recorded in The Annals of Imperial Rome, written by the Roman statesman and historian, Tacitus (c. 56-117).

The exact charges brought against Vibulenus Agrippa are unknown, but charges of treason ran rampant during the reign of Tiberius. Regardless of the specifics, if Vibulenus Agrippa was ultimately found guilty of the charge, the death penalty was the expected consequence.

Sometime during the trial, Vibulenus Agrippa lost all hope of being found not guilty. Again, the reason for this is not known. Was he guilty? Did he have enemies within the Senate pushing for his execution? The answer is vague. Nevertheless, exoneration seemed so far out of reach that Vibulenus Agrippa eventually decided to commit suicide. His decision was not an anomaly in the reign of Tiberius. According to Tacitus, countless high-profile Romans ultimately resorted to suicide in order to escape the shame of public execution. Vibulenus Agrippa, however, decided to bring about his own death in a very dramatic and memorable way.

Tacitus recorded the Roman knight’s final moments in great detail. It must be noted that Tacitus was regarded as one of the greatest orators of his age and, when he wrote, he sometimes prized artistry and drama over bland fact. As such, it is quite possible that Tacitus embellished Vibulenus Agrippa’s death scene for dramatic effect. Nevertheless, in his telling of events, Tacitus claimed that Vibulenus Agrippa managed to procure a powerful poison and kept it concealed on his person during one of his sessions before the Senate. Once the hearing had ended for the day, the defendant fished out the lethal substance and gave himself a fatal dose. The poison was said to have acted almost instantaneously and Vibulenus Agrippa collapsed to the floor in an unconscious stupor.

At this point, the prosecutors and other onlookers burst into a frenzy. They rushed in panic to the fallen man, hoping to keep him alive. Yet, their worry was apparently not for the man’s health—they were more concerned about carrying out their execution. According to Tacitus, when it was determined that Vibulenus Agrippa could not be saved, the prosecutors immediately moved for execution. The prosecutors allegedly tried to have Vibulenus Agrippa hanged (or more likely strangled) before the poison took full effect. Yet, if the Roman historian’s account was correct, Vibulenus Agrippa successfully ended his own life before the executioners could complete their work.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (Cicero Denounces Catiline painted by Cesare Maccari (1840–1919), c. 1889, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

  • The Annals of Imperial Rome by Tacitus, translated by Michael Grant. New York: Penguin Classics, 1996.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

A Witty Dwarf Was Said To Have Advised The Qin Emperors Of China

According to the sources of the Grand Historian, Sima Qian (c. 145-90 BCE), a certain dwarf named Actor Zhan served in the courts of the First (r. 221-210 BCE) and Second (r. 210-207 BCE) Qin Emperors of China. Zhan’s job description was something akin to the Western idea of a court jester—he navigated a fine line with his humor, joking about the emperor’s poor ideas, while staying respectful enough to keep his head intact. His goal was not only to make the emperors laugh, but to also inform them of their mistakes so that these could be corrected.

Sima Qian recorded a few tales in which Actor Zhan played a prominent role. One of the stories was set on a cold, rainy day when the First Emperor was holding a banquet in his palace. While the emperor was hearing toasts and receiving cheers to his health from the important guests, all of the guardsmen were shivering in their soaked uniforms out on the palace steps. Taking pity on the guards, Actor Zhan made a quip about how blessed a dwarf he was to be able to lounge in the comfort of the palace while brave and valiant soldiers were left to freeze in the cold downpour. Enlightened to the situation, the First Emperor directed the guards to split into shifts, so that they were not all in the rain at the same time.

In another story, the First Emperor supposedly had the bizarre idea of converting most of the land around the capital city of Xianyang into one huge royal hunting park, even to the extent of displacing military garrisons and defenses. Actor Zhan was said to have gleefully agreed with the idea, but also suggested that animal trainers would need to be brought in to teach the wildlife how to fight rebel armies. Warned that turning the whole capital region into a hunting reserve could leave Xianyang open to attack, the First Emperor decided to no longer pursue the idea.

Actor Zhan still had influence in the imperial court even after the Second Emperor seized the throne in the aftermath of the First Emperor’s death. Sometime in 210 BCE, the first year of the Second Emperor’s reign, the new emperor allegedly decided that the capital city needed some renovations. He proclaimed that he wanted all of the capital’s walls to be lacquered. Actor Zhan apparently proclaimed that it was a splendid idea. He energetically envisioned rebels slipping and sliding down the slick, shiny lacquered walls of the city. Surely the enormous manpower and expenses required to apply lacquer to the whole city would be worth such a sight. He ended his witty outburst with a joke about the gargantuan drying shed that would be needed to finish the project. After listening to Actor Zhan’s veiled criticisms, the Second Emperor decided to spruce up the city by different means.

According to Sima Qian, Actor Zhan eventually became disillusioned with the Qin emperors. Following the suicide or execution of the Second Emperor of Qin in 207 BCE, Zhan defected to the growing rebel movements. By the end of the same year, rebels executed the Third Emperor and the Qin Dynasty collapsed. Not long after the downfall of the Qin Dynasty, Actor Zhan died, presumably from natural causes.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (Chinese dwarf, Chung Mow. Wood engraving, via Welcome Images, on top of A mural painting from Cave 61 at the Mogao Caves, Dunhuang, Gansu province, China, Public Domain via Creative Commons).

  • Records of the Grand Historian (Shi ji) by Sima Qian, translated by Burton Watson. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.