Wednesday, July 18, 2018

One Of Julius Caesar’s Most Famous Quotes Actually Came From An Ancient Greek Play

In 49 BCE, Julius Caesar rested with his army on the Gaul side of the Rubicon River. By crossing the Rubicon, he would be moving his forces without authorization from Gaul into Italy, officially igniting a rebellion against the Roman Senate and Pompey. To honor the momentous occasion before plunging the Roman Republic into civil war, Julius Caesar reportedly delivered one of his greatest phrases. Suetonius, representing the Latin tradition, claimed that Julius Caesar crossed the river after stating, “the die is cast” (The Twelve Caesars, Divius Julius 32). Plutarch, representing the Greek tradition, instead wrote that Caesar proclaimed, “let the die be cast,” and commented that the phrase was actually a quite commonly-used quote by people who are about to expose their fortunes to peril (Life of Caesar, 32).

The line was a well-known saying because it had been coined centuries before Caesar by the Greek dramatist and comic playwright, Menander (c. 342-291 BCE), who allegedly wrote over a hundred plays during his career. Regardless, what Caesar said at the Rubicon is still debated. Was it coincidence, or paraphrasing, or simply a later embellishment added by commentators? Julius Caesar’s own memoirs only add more questions to the conversation, as he did not deem whatever he said at the Rubicon to be worth recording in his war commentaries.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (Julius Caesar "Crossing the Rubicon" from Abbott, Jacob, 1803-1879, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

  • The Twelve Caesars by Suetonius, translated by Robert Graves and edited by James B. Rives. New York: Penguin Classics, 2007.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Hneftafl—A Mysterious Scandinavian Board Game From The Early Middle Ages

Hneftafl (also spelled hnettafl or hnefatafl) was a popular board game that is believed to have originated in Scandinavia or possibly in the northern Germanic lands. Although modern hneftafl games are being sold by nostalgic producers, it likely took a lot of guesswork and improvisation on the part of these companies, for there is very little surviving information on how the authentic hneftafl game was played.

What we do know about the game mainly comes from remnants of the player pieces found in burial mounds and a few brief descriptions of the game found in medieval literature, such as the Icelandic sagas. The game is often compared to chess—they both had light and dark sets of game pieces, and they both had a king that needed to be protected or captured. Hneftafl pieces could sometimes be fairly large in size and they often were made with pegs jutting out underneath, so that the hneftafl pieces could be securely attached to the game board. The pegs must have been fairly long and sturdy, for in one grisly episode from Grettir’s Saga (c. 14th century) the peg from a hneftafl piece was used to gouge out a person’s eye.

Around the time of the crusades, hneftafl’s popularity began to wane under the weight of the skyrocketing rise of chess in Europe. As the northern Europeans converted to chess, hneftafl soon sank to the vague and incomplete shadow that we have of the game today.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (Odin entertaining guests in Valhalla, by Emil Doepler  (1855–1922), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

  • Grettir's Saga (anonymous Icelandic saga, c. 14th century) translated by Jesse Byock. New York: Oxford World's Classics, 2009.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Emperor Gaozu Of The Han Dynasty Almost Had His Son-In-Law Executed

Zhang Ao was the son of Zhang Er, a politician and general who helped Emperor Gaozu (King of Han c. 206 BCE, emperor r. 202-195 BCE) seize power after the fall of the Qin Dynasty. For his role in Emperor Gaozu’s rise to power, Zhang Er was rewarded with the crown to the kingdom of Zhao, which, of course, was still subservient to the Han emperor. When Zhang Er died in 202 BCE, his son, Zhang Ao, succeeded to the throne of Zhao. His power and prominence increased even further when he married Princess Yuan of Lu, the daughter of Emperor Gaozu and Empress Lü.

Zhang Ao’s relationship with his powerful father-in-law, however, was in no way ideal. Emperor Gaozu did not seem to particularly like the man that his little girl had chosen to spend her life with, so the emperor apparently went out of his way to pick on the king of Zhao. The Han historian, Sima Qian (c. 145-90 BCE), wrote that Emperor Gaozu would rudely laze about in the palace of Zhao, publicly showing his disapproval and indifference toward his son-in-law. King Zhang Ao, for his part, tried to remain as humble as possible, apparently even going to the extent of dismissing his servants and personally serving meals to the emperor.

The sight was so pitiful that even the ministers and generals of Zhao sympathized with their abused king. According to Sima Qian, a group of around ten powerful men, led by Prime Minister Guan Gao, met with Zhang Ao and offered to support the king if he wished to rebel. They also proclaimed that they were willing to hire an assassin to send after the emperor. Sima Qian alleged that Zhang Ao chastised the conspirators and sent them away without granting his blessing, but somehow the conspiracy reached the ears of Emperor Gaozu and the emperor ordered Zhang Ao and his advisors to be arrested.

Sima Qian hinted that many of the Zhao conspirators committed suicide, but at least Zhang Ao and Guan Gao were captured alive. When their king was arrested, several members of the court of Zhao who were not a part of the conspiracy decided to travel to the capital in Chang’an with their heads shaved and dressed like slaves, so that they could show support for their imprisoned liege.

Guan Gao apparently testified that Zhang Ao was innocent, saying that while the conspirators had indeed plotted against the emperor’s life, the king of Zhao had vehemently disapproved of the plan. The Prime Minister of Zhao’s speech convinced the interrogators and the emperor, resulting in the release of Zhang Ao. For his truthfulness, Emperor Gaozu allegedly also pardoned Gauan Gao, yet when the prime minister received confirmation that Zhang Ao had been freed, he committed suicide.

Although Zhang Ao did not face any serious punishment, he was apparently removed from the throne of Zhao. Sill, the husband of the emperor’s daughter could not be left landless. As such, after his release from jail, Zhang Ao was quickly named as the Marquis of Xuanping and his descendants with Princess Yuan became the Kings of Lu.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (A Chinese garden gathering painted by Xie Huan, circa 1437, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

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

Sunday, July 15, 2018

The Murderous Krypteia of Ancient Sparta

Like most countries that depended on oppressed laborers, the free citizens of Sparta were far outnumbered by the subservient Helots (similar in nature to medieval serfs), who performed all of the manual work required by the state. As such, the Spartans were always in fear of a Helot revolt, as it would threaten national security and shatter the Spartan economy. One of the unpleasant results of this fear was the Krypteia. Unfortunately, surviving information on the Krypteia is vague, yet what we do know is extremely unnerving.

Plutarch wrote the most detailed description of the Krypteia in his biography of Lycurgus, included in his Parallel Lives. Even though his account is the clearest, it still leaves many questions unanswered. According to Plutarch, the Krypteia was some sort of institution that operated from the shadows to oppress the Helots. In the account, he was unclear as to whether the Krypteia was a large-scale government organization (like a secret police) or if the Krypteia was simply an initiation test given to talented Spartan trainees. Either way, the Spartan youths and their instructors were said to have played a significant role in the Krypteia.

According to Plutarch, agents of the Krypteia were the most intelligent and talented of the Spartan youths. The training overseers would periodically send out these elite trainees, armed with daggers and provisions, to infiltrate the countryside. While on their missions, these agents would allegedly spend their days hiding and resting, but once the sun fell, they would allegedly prowl for Helots and sometimes go on a murdering rampage. The assassins were said to target the strongest, most admired, members of the Helot population—the very ones that could lead potential revolts against Sparta.

An event reported by Thucydides (c. 460-400 BCE) to have occurred in Sparta around early 424 BCE is often mentioned in regards to the actions of the Krypteia. It was a time when the morale of Sparta was very low—in 425 BCE, the Athenian general, Demosthenes, audaciously constructed, and successfully defended, a fortress at Pylos, located on the southwestern coast of the Peloponnesus. Not only did the Athenian general protect his newly built fortress from a Peloponnesian attack, but he also captured over a hundred Spartan officers that had camped on a nearby island. According to Thucydides, the loss at Pylos, as well as other Athenian victories, made the Spartans worry about a possible Helot uprising. Thucydides alleged that, in the aftermath of Pylos, the Spartans sent out messages, asking for the Helot community to send their strongest and most productive members of their community to an unnamed temple, where they would receive rewards for their efforts. These chosen Helots, supposedly 2,000 in number, were wreathed with garlands and paraded around the temple grounds. Yet, not long after the ceremony, all 2,000 of the elite helots were said to have died of mysterious causes.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (Three Spartan Boys Practicing Archery, by Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg (1783–1853), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

  • On Sparta (Life of Lycurgus), by Plutarch excerpted from his Parallel Lives, translated by Richard J. A. Talbert. New York: Penguin Classics, 2005.
  • History of the Peloponnesian War (Book IV) by Thucydides, translated by Rex Warner and introduced by M. I. Finley. New York: Penguin Classics, 1972. 

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Horse Fights In Medieval Iceland

At a time when most medieval Europeans were content with entertaining themselves by watching roosters battle it out (unfortunately named cockfighting), the Icelanders and their Norwegian relatives chose to watch battles between larger animals—horses. Interestingly, horse fighting, known as hestavíg, found a great following in medieval Icelandic society. Numerous Icelandic sagas mentioned horse fighting, including Grettir’s Saga, Viga-Glum’s Saga, Eyrbyggja Saga, Kormac’s Saga, and Reykdæla Saga.

Horse fighting had become common in Norway and Iceland by no later than the 10th century, when laws were being written about the practice. Not much is known about the rules of Icelandic horse fighting, but a vague picture can be drawn from the scenes contained in the sagas. It seems that the horse fights were held in the warmer months, and the events were large regional social gatherings, where multiple communities participated in the festivities. Horse owners employed handlers called seconds, usually family members or friends, who were responsible for enticing the specially-trained stallions to fight, and also to keep the violent horses safely away from the crowd of onlookers once the battle began. These seconds were apparently armed with sticks, which they used to prod the horses and it was apparently not unheard of for the opposing handlers to sometimes fight amongst themselves. Even if the seconds kept the peace, the owners and clans were also known to sometimes erupt into feuds over the results of horse fights.

Even though the practice of horse fighting in Iceland began to peter out as time progressed and ethics began to change, the grisly sport managed to persist for many centuries. Icelandic horse fighting was still supposedly in practice as late as the 19th century.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (Fighting Stallions painted by George Stubbs  (1724–1806), [Public Domain] via creative commons).

  • Grettir's Saga (anonymous Icelandic saga, c. 14th century) translated by Jesse Byock. New York: Oxford World's Classics, 2009.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

When South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu Fled From His Country, He Tried To Take Tons Of Gold With Him

Nguyen Van Thieu came from a moderately wealthy family in the ruling Christian minority class of South Vietnam. He was born in either 1923 or 1924, while the French still had an uneasy control over Vietnam. Over a long military career, first in the French-sponsored Vietnam National Army, and then in the South Vietnamese Army, Nguyen Van Thieu made himself into a man of influence. In 1967, he was elected president of a highly militarized South Vietnamese government and remained in power until the final year of the war, in 1975.

Nguyen Van Thieu fled from Saigon on April 26, 1975, while the city was under siege and would inevitably fall. His escape came only five days after he resigned from the office of president. While many other South Vietnamese people were crushed to death while trying to get on American transports, Nguyen Van Thieu received a personal airlift out of Saigon on a U. S. Air Force C-118 transport plane. Dubious reports from 1975 claimed that he smuggled 15 tons of baggage out of Vietnam to accompany him on his exile, possibly including over three tons of gold. Whether or not that is true, other airlines in South Vietnam also reported that they were asked to ship gold out of the country. Spokesmen for the Swissair and Balair airlines stated in 1975 that Thieu had approached their companies about sending 16 tons of gold to Switzerland. Both companies claimed that they had refused the job, as they feared the gold had originated from South Vietnam’s national gold reserve.

Despite his plan being thwarted, Nguyen Van Thieu lived comfortably for the rest of his life. He first flew to Taiwan, then Britain, and finally settled down near Boston, Massachusetts, in the United States. Nguyen Van Thieu died in his Boston home in 2001.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (President Nguyen Van Thieu of South Vietnam standing in front of world map, during a meeting with Lyndon B. Johnson in Hawaii, c. 1968, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

  • The Vietnam Experience: Setting The Stage, by Edward Doyle and Samuel Lipsam. Massachusetts: Boston Publishing Company, 1981. 

Monday, July 9, 2018

General Han Xin And The Strategic Wei River Flood

Around the year 204 BCE, or early 203 BCE, a skilled general named Han Xin led an army against the kingdom of Qi. His mission was to subjugate Qi and deliver it into the hands of Liu Bang, the King of Han, who would found the Han Dynasty. Liu Bang’s main rival at the time was Xiang Yu, the king of Chu. Although Liu Bang and Xiang Yu only claimed to be kings, they had come to dominate the other minor kingdoms of post-Qin China, with Liu bang lording over the west and Xiang Yu commanding the east. When Xiang Yu heard that his Han rivals were moving against Qi, he sent an army of Chu soldiers, led by general Long Ju, to help King Tian Guang of Qi defend the kingdom.

The forces of Qi and the army of Long Ju combined their strength and marched together to face Han Xin’s invading troops. They intercepted the Han army before it could cross the Wei River. When the two opposing forces met, the Qi and Chu soldiers observed that the river was oddly low and shallow.

The shallow water did little to encumber the Han forces as Han Xin led half of his troops into the river. Han Xin by this point had an impressive résumé—in 204 BCE, he had personally captured the kings of Wei, Zhao and Dai in battle. Yet, the forces of Qi and Chu found the army in front of them to be underwhelming—when Long Ju led some of his troops to skirmish with the Han soldiers in the river, it seemed to the Qi and Chu forces as if Han Xin had lost his nerve. Not long after the fighting began in the shallow waters of the river, the Han army began fleeing back across the river, where the rest of their troops were still waiting.

Seeing the Han army flee before him, Long Ju apparently believed he was nearing the end of a decisive victory. Eager to deliver the killing blow, Long Ju signaled for the Chu and Qi forces to cross the river and attack the wavering Han army.

Han Xin observed from his side of the river as a significant portion of the Chu and Qi forces waded into the water. Everything had gone exactly as planned—now it was time to spring his trap. Using some sort of signal, Han Xin communicated a message upriver to a group of engineers who were eagerly awaiting orders. These men were overseeing a sandbag dam in the Wei River, which they had rigged to catastrophically fail when triggered by some sort of mechanism. When Han Xin’s message arrived, the engineers collapsed the dam and let the impatient water rush violently back into the depleted Wei River.

Before the soldiers of Qi and Chu could identify the roaring sound coming from upstream, the powerful flood was already upon them. Much of the army was drowned in the flow, but those in the frontlines who had followed Long Ju to the other side of the river were now cut off from the rest of the surviving army. Han Xin and the Han army then charged against the vulnerable troops who had survived the flood and general Long Ju was slain in the resulting massacre. King Tian Guang of Qi, who was watching the catastrophe from dry land on the other side of the river, decided that the battle was lost and fled with what remained of his army. Nevertheless, Han Xin soon intercepted and captured the fleeing king and the last remnants of his troops.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (Battle at the River Thi-cau, c. 18th century, [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.