Thursday, November 16, 2017

The Otherworldly Bones Supposedly Belonging To The Ancient Persians Who Fell At The Battle of Plataea



In the region of Plataea, around 479 BCE, the combined forces of the Greek coalition crossed their spears and swords against an army of Persians that was led by Mardonius. The king of Persia, Xerxes I, was already long gone from Greece—he, personally, abandoned the campaign after his disastrous defeat at the naval Battle of Salamis in 480 BCE and decided to leave the administration of the war to his generals. When Xerxes left, he understandably took with him an escort made up of a substantial portion of his invasion army. Yet, the manpower that remained behind with the Persian commander, Mardonius, was still impressive. There is very little certainty as to exactly how many men were present at the Battle of Plataea, but a common statistic is that Mardonius had around 100,000 men and faced an army of approximately 40,000 Greeks. For several days, these two sides maneuvered and fought, with the Greeks eventually emerging with a decisive victory. Mardonius was among the estimated tens-of-thousands of Persians who were slaughtered during the battle. Although conflict continued between Persia and the Greek cities, the Battle of Plataea was an irrecoverable deathblow to the Persian invasion of mainland Greece.

In the aftermath of the battle, the Greek forces captured the Mardonius’ supplies and treasury. In the camp of the Persians, there was an enormous quantity of rich food, gold, silver and artwork, which the Greeks divided among themselves. Yet, also left behind were the remains of thousands of slain Persians. The historian, Herodotus (c. 490-425/420 BCE), wrote that while the various Greek dead were respectfully cared for by their own respective comrades, the Persian corpses from the Battle of Plataea were left to rot.

Herodotus went on to say that Greek treasure hunters, who were scavenging for overlooked valuables, began to notice strange things about the Persian corpses. Odd skeletal remains were found on the battlefield—the Greek observers believed the remains were former Persian soldiers, but some of the discoveries seemed to be anything but human. A peculiar skull and jawbone were supposedly discovered. Herodotus claimed that there were no joins or joints in the different sections of the skull. Similarly, the jaw supposedly did not have individual teeth, but a single, solid horseshoe-shaped mass of tooth material. The ancient historian also claimed that a skeleton was found of a Persian soldier who, when alive, would have stood between seven and eight feet tall.

What exactly these ancient Greek scavengers discovered on the battlefield of Plataea still remains a mystery. Did these ancients misidentify the bones? Did they unearth some sort of fossil? Did an ancient Persian soldier of seven feet in height really die at the Battle of Plataea? Either way, it is a characteristically odd, but interesting, story that you can expect from The Histories of Herodotus.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Top picture attribution: (Greek hoplite and Persian warrior fighting each other. Depiction in ancient kylix. 5th c. BCE National Archaeological Museum of Athens, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

Sources:
  • From The Histories by Herodotus (Book IX), translated by Aubrey De Sélincourt and revised by John Marincola (Penguin Classics, 2002).  
  • https://www.ancient.eu/Plataea/ 
  • https://www.britannica.com/event/Battle-of-Plataea 

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

The Failed Expedition Into Arabia By The Roman Governor, Aelius Gallus



A man known as Aelius Gallus was appointed as Prefect of Egypt around 26 BCE during the reign of Augustus. Shortly after his appointment, the prefect, with the blessing of Augustus, launched an invasion into southwestern Arabia (near modern Yemen), known at the time as Arabia Felix. The Romans coveted the region for its rich supply of spice and incense. In a spirit similar to future explorers who sailed in search of El Dorado, an army of Romans led by Aelius Gallus marched into Arabia, driven by visions of wealth and glory. The exact date of this expedition is still debated, but it is believed to have taken about two years, likely either from 26-25 BCE or 25-24 BCE.

Aelius Gallus and his army did not wander blindly into Arabia—they were sensible enough to find a guide named Syllaeus, a Nabataean Arab from the region of Petra. Thousands of Roman soldiers followed Syllaeus for months through the most inhospitable and dry lands of the Arabian Peninsula. In these hot and parched conditions, the army quickly began to run out of supplies, especially water, and they failed to scavenge enough from the landscape to replenish their stocks. By the time the unfortunate Romans discovered that Syllaeus was deliberately leading the army on long routes through waterless-regions, it was too late—the army was thoroughly dehydrated and infected with disease.

Despite Syllaeus’ effective sabotage, Aelius Gallus supposedly dragged his troops a fair distance into southern Arabia. According to ancient sources such as Strabo, Cassius Dio and Pliny, the army of Aelius Gallus harassed several towns and cities within Arabia, and possibly even reached as far as Marib, or even Aden (in modern Yemen). Nevertheless, the poor condition of the speedily deteriorating army forced the Romans to retreat back to their safety and supplies in Egypt. In the end, the costly expedition was little more than a deadly scouting mission.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Top picture attribution: (Speculum Romanae Magnificentiae- A Roman Legion (from Trajan's Column), c. 16th century, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

Sources:
  • The Roman History (Book 53, chapter 29) by Cassius Dio, translated by Ian Scott-Kilvert. New York: Penguin Classics, 1987.  
  • https://www.britannica.com/place/Arabia-Felix#ref231404 
  • http://www.encyclopedia.com/science/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/aelius-gallus-attempts-conquest-arabia-and-reaches-limits-roman-power  
  • https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/journal-of-roman-studies/article/chronology-of-the-campaigns-of-aelius-gallus-and-c-petronius/2D7C9EC8E96C8337EB910C25117EAF79 
  • http://classics.oxfordre.com/view/10.1093/acrefore/9780199381135.001.0001/acrefore-9780199381135-e-100?product=orecla#acrefore-9780199381135-e-100  
  • https://theodora.com/encyclopedia/g/gaius_aelius_gallus.html

Monday, November 13, 2017

Archimedes And The Luxurious Ship, Syracusia



From sources such as Athenaeus, Moschion of Phaselis and Plutarch, we know that a magnificent ship, known as the Syracusia, was built in the Greek city of Syracuse in the 3rd-century BCE. It was built during the reign of the tyrant Hiero II (or Hieron II, c. 270-215 BCE), and was one of the largest ships ever built in antiquity.

There are two main accounts of why and how the ship was built and launched. In one version of the story, King Hiero II had his shipwrights create the glorious vessel as a lofty gift to Ptolemaic Egypt, but when the ship was completed, it was too heavy to be launched to sea. The tyrant brought in the brilliant Archimedes (c. 287-212 BCE)—who claimed that he could move the earth, itself—and challenged the genius to prove his worth by moving the ship to water. Archimedes accepted the challenge and, by setting up an elaborate system of pulleys and cranks, managed to successfully push or pull the ship off land and onto the waves. In an alternative account of events, the Syracusia may have been Archimedes’ creation from the very beginning. In this version, Archimedes would have been the architect of the ship and overseen its construction, ensuring that the vessel was a pristine display of his mastery of engineering and architecture. Just like in the previous story, Archimedes may have used some of his mental acumen to launch his creation out to sea.

The feat of dragging the Syracusia from land to water becomes more impressive as you learn about the ship. The luxurious Syracusia was said to have been constructed out of enough materials to build a fleet of sixty trireme ships. The vessel had enough sturdiness and buoyancy to accommodate well over a thousand tons of cargo, as well as just under 2,000 passengers.

The Syracusia, however, was not the average freighting vessel or ferry—it was an extravagantly furnished cruise ship. It reportedly had its own library, gymnasium and temple for the passengers to use during voyages. As an added touch of aesthetics, the ship was covered in sculptures, paintings and gardens. For protection, it also housed a garrison of around 200-400 soldiers, and even was said to have had siege engines on board, which were possibly elevated on towers. If the ship began to take on water, the Syracusia was also equipped with an Archimedes screw, which could pump water out of the hull.

The Syracusia only made one known voyage, from Syracuse down toward North Africa, with its destination presumably in Egypt. The fate of the luxurious ship still remains a mystery.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Top picture attribution: (18th century illustration of the Syracusia, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

Sources:
  • https://www.ancient.eu/Syracusia/  
  • http://www.hellenicaworld.com/Greece/Technology/en/Syracusia.html 
  • https://www.britannica.com/biography/Archimedes  
  • https://www.britannica.com/biography/Hieron-II

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Who Was Ambrosius Aurelianus in 5th-Century Britain?



Around the year 495, an army of Britons and assimilated Romans won a decisive victory over a force of Anglo-Saxons on a battlefield either in Bath, Badbury Hill or Dorset. This battle, known as the Battle of Badon Hill, was said to have been masterminded by a man who went by the name Ambrosius Aurelianus. The battle, itself, is deemed to be fairly historical, but the man who led the Britons to victory has been buried under myth and legend.

In the 6th century, a monk named Gildas wrote that Ambrosius Aurelianus was a man possibly descended from Roman royalty, who became a king of Britain and was a major rival to Vortigern, another quasi-mythical figure said to have been High-King of the Britons at the time. Gildas also attributed the victory of the Britons at Mount Badon (or Badon Hill) to Ambrosius’ leadership.

Later, another monk by the name of Bede (c. 673-735) also wrote about the reign of Ambrosius. Bede did not connect him to Vortigern, but his account of the king aligned with Gildas in most other areas. He wrote that Ambrosius Aurelianus was born from Roman royalty, and that he rallied together an army of Britons to defend against the influx of Anglo-Saxons. Like Gildas, Bede also claimed that Ambrosius won the day at the Battle of Badon Hill.

By the 8th and 9th century, another writer named Nennius reintroduced the narrative of a rivalry between Ambrosius Aurelianus and Vortigern. From there he elaborated, claiming that Ambrosius had the gift of prophecy. When Geoffrey of Monmouth took up the story in the 12th century, the reign of Ambrosius had bloomed into an elaborate folk tale. Geoffrey wrote that Ambrosius Aurelianus was the brother of Utherpendragon—making him the uncle of the legendary King Arthur. Geoffrey went on to claim that Ambrosius eventually defeated and killed Vortigern. The victorious king then turned against the Anglo-Saxons and defeated them in battle, after which an assassin brought his reign to an end with the use of poison.

So, who really was Ambrosius Aurelianus? In short, we don’t know for sure. Yet, like most myths and legends, there is often a sliver of truth hidden under all of the extravagant folklore.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Top picture attribution: (Detail of miniature from the New Minster Charter, 966, showing King Edgar flanked by the Virgin Mary and St Peter, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

Sources:
  • Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People (and relevant letters), translated by Leo Sherley-Pride, R. E. Latham and D. H. Farmer (Penguin Classics, 2003).  
  • The History of the Kings of Britain by Geoffrey of Monmouth, translated by Lewis Thorpe. New York: Penguin Classics, 1966. 
  • http://www.englishmonarchs.co.uk/celts_17.html 
  • http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Ambrosius_Aurelianus  
  • http://www.vortigernstudies.org.uk/artgue/guestsheila2.htm 
  • http://www.britannia.com/history/biographies/ambros.html 

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Vedius Pollio’s 1st-Century BCE House Of Horrors



It is an impressive feat that a lowborn Roman civilian managed to achieve a high level of notoriety during the very same century that featured the rise of brutal authoritarian dictators such as Sulla, Julius Caesar and Augustus, amidst waves of bloodshed and civil war. Nevertheless, a certain Vedius Pollio, made a place for himself in the history books by simply being an audaciously cruel man.

Multiple ancient sources wrote about Vedius Pollio. Some of the earliest writers to mention the man’s scandalous behavior were Ovid and Seneca, but Pliny, Tertullian and Cassius Dio also commented about Vedius Pollio’s life.

From what was recorded, we know that Vedius Pollio was born low in the Roman social hierarchy. He was the son of a freedman, but he likely achieved the more prestigious rank of equestrian, or knight, during his lifetime. From means unknown, Pollio built for himself an enormous fortune and owned a sprawling estate, with land within and outside of Rome. Somehow, likely because of his money, Vedius Pollio befriended Augustus, the authoritarian ruler of the Roman Empire. Pollio is thought to have worked for Augustus in the Asian territories of the empire, but what he did for the emperor in those regions remain vague.

What made Vedius Pollio infamous, however, was his installation of a tank or a pond on his property in which he placed eels or lampreys. The shocking things he did with those creatures seems more fitting in the lair of a James Bond movie villain rather than in a villa of rich ancient Rome. The accounts are so outlandish that it is hard to tell if they are truth or fiction. After all, simple false rumors can eventually morph into folklore and myth. Nevertheless, the name of Vedius Pollio was recorded into history as the depraved Roman who had a hobby of feeding live humans to his flesh-hungry eels and lampreys. There is no known count for how many people Pollio supposedly fed to his aquatic pets, but ancient commentators suggested multiple instances, and the animals allegedly were specifically trained to eat humans.

In one story, Pollio was hosting Augustus when a servant (or possibly a slave) dropped a crystal goblet that was meant for the emperor. When the goblet shattered upon hitting the floor, the enraged Pollio immediately sentenced the servant to death by eel. The servant, understandably horrified, begged the emperor for protection. Augustus may have been a dictator who habitually sentenced people to execution, but he had a clearer sense of right and wrong than Vedius Pollio—he decided to save the servant. The quick-thinking emperor called for some more of Pollio’s goblets to be brought forth and personally smashed them to bits so that he had committed the same offense as the servant and shared in the blame. For the moment, the servant was spared.

When Vedius Pollio died in 15 BCE, he left his property to Augustus. The emperor had Pollio’s estate in Rome demolished and built a portico for his wife, Livia, on the spot.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Top picture attribution: (Coin showing Vedius Pollio, c. 1st century BCE, Licensed Creative Commons 3.0 via Classical Numismatic Group, Inc. http-_www.cngcoins.com). 

Sources:
  • The Roman History (Book 54, chapter 23) by Cassius Dio, translated by Ian Scott-Kilvert. New York: Penguin Classics, 1987.  
  • http://penelope.uchicago.edu/~grout/encyclopaedia_romana/wine/pollio.html 
  • http://classics.oxfordre.com/view/10.1093/acrefore/9780199381135.001.0001/acrefore-9780199381135-e-6707 

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Besides Being A Deadly Swordsman And Duelist, Miyamoto Musashi Was Also A Skilled Painter



Miyamoto Musashi (c. 1584-1645) was one of the most accomplished duelists in history. He claimed to have fought in around sixty duels, many of which (unfortunately for his opponents) were fought to the death. Yet, despite his life of bloodshed, Musashi had an artistic side. The art that most people know him by is his writing. The Go Rin No Sho, or Book of the Five Rings, which he wrote shortly before his death in 1645, is deemed to be his masterpiece. But words were not the only form of ar in which he excelled. The same work ethic and diligence in technique that made Musashi a legendary swordsman also made him a masterful painter.

No one knows exactly when Miyamoto Musashi began to paint, but he is known to have been creating works of art by the 1630s. His strategic mind showed through in his work—the paintings he created were made with controlled amounts of precise exertion to produce baffling effects. In many ways, his art was minimalist in nature, with simple ink being his main painting material.

Miyamoto Musashi was a master of monochrome ink-painting, and applied this art form to recreate scenes of landscapes and wildlife. Birds, in particular, seemed to be of interest to the duelist; he painted various kinds of birds in multiple locations, such as roaming through reeds, or resting on tree limbs. He also, but less frequently, painted human figures, one of which was a self-portrait. Included below are some of Miyamoto Musashi’s more notable public domain works.

 (Self-portrait of Miyamoto Musashi, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)

 (Grapes and a Squirrel, by Miyamoto Musashi, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)

 (Shrike Perched on Bamboo, by Miyamoto Musashi, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)

 (Hotei Watching at Cock Fighting, by Miyamoto Musashi, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)

 (Wild Geese and Reeds (left screen), by Miyamoto Musashi, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)

 (Wild Geese and Reeds (right screen), by Miyamoto Musashi, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)


Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Sources:

Monday, November 6, 2017

Herculaneum—The Other Major Town Buried Along With Pompeii During The Eruption Of Mt. Vesuvius



Herculaneum was a prosperous Roman settlement that flourished in the stretch of land situated between Mt. Vesuvius and the Gulf of Naples. The town housed an estimated population of 5,000-10,000, only around half of what it’s nearby rival of Pompeii could supposedly tout, but Herculaneum had more than its fair share of luxuries and public structures. The town offered something for everyone. For athletes and players of sports, a palaestra was available for training and competition. There were also extravagant pools for both swimming and bathing, as well as a theatre for viewing performances. If scrolls and writings were your thing, at least one of the town’s villas, known now as the Villa of the Papyri, had a veritable library. And, of course, there was a marketplace for buying commodities, as well as brothels for purchasing pleasure. To top it off, the town and its establishments were decorated with numerous sculptures of marble and bronze, as well as painted works of art.

On August 24, 79 CE, a man named Pliny the Elder, as well as his nephew, Pliny the Younger, lived to the west of Herculaneum in a town called Misenum, located where the larger Gulf of Naples feeds into the smaller Gulf of Pozzuoli. In the early afternoon, both uncle and nephew were shocked by the sight of a huge column of sooty smoke that was climbing into the sky in the distance, near Mt. Vesuvius. Pliny the Elder, as commander of the local fleet, boarded a ship to go investigate and provide any help that was needed—it would be a one-way trip; he died of respiratory problems near the town of Stabiae, just south of Pompeii. Pliny the Younger, however, stayed behind in Misenum to read from the works of Livy, and only fled after some encouragement from his mother and a glance at the darkening, ash-filled sky. In the end, Pliny the Younger wrote at least two letters to the historian, Tacitus, in which he told of his experiences during the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, as well as the death of his uncle, Pliny the Elder.

The gigantic column of ash, as well as the pyroclastic flow, that spewed from Mt. Vesuvius in 79 CE completely buried the large towns of Herculaneum and Pompeii. It also destroyed other nearby settlements, such as Torre Annuziata and Stabiae.

Herculaneum was only rediscovered around 1709, when workers who were digging a well fortuitously struck their shovels against an ancient Roman wall belonging to the city’s amphitheater. As archaeologists began to unearth the center of the millennia-old town, they thankfully found a very small amount of human remains, leading them to believe that the city had been successfully evacuated. Nevertheless, during the 1980s, excavations of the Herculaneum docks revealed at least 300 skeletons in or around the empty boathouses near the beach. As far as archaeologists have discovered, all the viable ships of Herculaneum had already departed, leaving these victims stranded on the beach with only a broken and unusable vessel at their disposal.

The ruins of Herculaneum, Pompeii and Torre Annuziata were named UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1997. The excavation of Herculaneum, just like Pompeii, is still ongoing.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Top picture attribution: (The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum, by John Martin (1789–1854), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

Sources:
  • http://www.pompeii.org.uk/s.php/tour-the-two-letters-written-by-pliny-the-elder-about-the-eruption-of-vesuvius-in-79-a-d-history-of-pompeii-en-238-s.htm  
  •  http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/829
  • https://www.britannica.com/place/Herculaneum 
  • https://www.britannica.com/place/Pompeii 
  • https://www.britannica.com/place/Torre-Annunziata 
  • https://www.britannica.com/place/Stabiae 
  • https://www.britannica.com/place/Misenum 
  • https://www.britannica.com/biography/Pliny-the-Elder 
  • https://www.britannica.com/biography/Pliny-the-Younger