Sunday, May 27, 2018

The Bare Charge Of The Spartan Warrior, Isadas



Around 362 BCE, the Spartan king, Agesilaus II (r. 400-360 BCE) left Sparta with an army intended to help the Mantineans rebel against Thebes. When the Theban military leader, Epaminondas, heard of the approaching army, he decided that Sparta needed to be dealt with before he could focus on subduing Mantinea. Therefore, he evaded King Agesilaus and began marching his Theban forces against the undefended city of Sparta.

Before the 4th century BCE, nobody would have dared to march against the Spartan homeland. The Spartans were so sure of their military might that they never built a wall around their city and they proudly bragged that no woman in Sparta had ever seen smoke from an enemy campfire. Yet, Epaminondas had shattered this arrogance. He had defeated a Spartan army in a pitched battle at Leuctra, in 371 BCE, and followed that up by besieging the city of Sparta in the winter of 370 and early 369 BCE. During that siege, king Agesilaus kept a strictly defensive strategy, and, for unknown reasons, Epaminondas eventually called off the siege and withdrew.

So, when Epaminondas marched into the Peloponnesus in 362 BCE, it was nothing new to him or to Sparta. Thankfully for the Spartans, King Agesilaus discovered Epaminondas’ plan and was able to return to Sparta before the forces from Thebes besieged the city. Although Agesilaus had chosen a defensive strategy in the earlier siege of 370 BCE, his reaction to the 362 BCE siege was vastly different. This time, the aging king (reportedly eighty-two years old) had the Spartans repel the Thebans by overwhelming force.

The Greek-Roman historian, Plutarch (c. 50-120 CE), described the siege in his biography of King Agesilaus II, included in his Parallel Lives. He wrote that the Spartan forces faced the Thebans in the narrow streets of the city. King Agesilaus micromanaged his troops with skillful coordination, attacking where the besiegers were thin and sending reinforcements to where his own soldiers faced pressure. Plutarch wrote that many Spartans showed heroism during the battle to end the siege, but that a young man named Isadas was the hero that stood out above the rest.

At the time of the siege, Isadas was in his teens or early twenties. Or, as Plutarch put it, “Handsome in appearance and tall in stature, he was at the age when the human physique reaches perfection as boyhood merges into manhood” (Life of Agesilaus, chapter 34). When the Spartans began to counter-attack, this ideal Spartan youth apparently burst out of his home completely in the nude and charged at the enemy with nothing but a spear in one hand and a sword in the other. Equipped in this manner, the naked warrior ran past his startled comrades and plunged straight into the shocked enemy lines. According to the tale, he struck down countless foes while not even suffering a scratch during his frenzied fight. The Thebans were apparently convinced that the nude warrior was protected from harm by the gods and granted superhuman strength. Against such staunch defenders, Epaminondas once again abandoned his siege of Sparta and withdrew his forces.

Plutarch wrote that the government of Sparta recognized Isadas’ valor after the battle. The youth was given an honorary crown by the Ephors of the city, a governing council that shared power with the Spartan kings. Yet, they also wanted to use the occasion as a teaching point—in addition to the crown, they fined Isadas 1,000 drachmas as punishment for the idiocy of charging into battle without armor.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (Ancient Greek running warrior by a Colmar Painter (–520–445 BCE), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

Sources:
  • On Sparta (Life of Agesilaus), by Plutarch excerpted from his Parallel Lives, translated by Richard J. A. Talbert. New York: Penguin Classics, 2005.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

The Future King Of Norway, Harald Hardrada, Supposedly Conquered A City By Playing Sports



From around 1038 to 1041, the Byzantine Empire’s talented general, George Maniakes, carried out a military campaign that led to the momentary conquest of the island of Sicily. Harald Sigurdsson, also known as Harald Hardrada or Harald the Ruthless, was one of the foreign mercenaries that took part in the campaign. He would later become King Harald III of Norway, but for now, he was leading the Varangian Guard, the most renowned mercenary company in the empire that took orders only from the Byzantine emperor.

The Greek historians, such as Michael Pseullus and John Skylitzes, mainly focused on the actions of George Maniakes in their commentaries on the Sicilian campaign. They acknowledged that foreign mercenaries were also present on the island and some admitted that Harald Hardrada accomplished impressive feats while in Sicily. They, however, reserved their highest praise for George Maniakes, who, by 1039, had conquered most of the island, and was said to have personally captured thirteen Sicilian cities.

Nevertheless, the future Norwegian king received more recognition from his Scandinavian peers. The great Icelandic historian and saga writer, Snorri Sturluson (c. 1179-1241), wrote a dramatic account of Harald’s war-torn life in King Harald’s Saga. In it, Sturluson claimed that Harald led his band of mercenaries in four successful sieges against Sicilian cities. Although each of these four supposed sieges were accomplished through very unique and memorable means, today we will only focus on the third city that Harald attacked.

After taking one city by setting it on fire, and another by tunneling under its walls, Harald Hardrada came across a third city that was populous and wealthy. The settlement was described as having strong walls, a moat, and enough supplies to last through a long siege. In addition, Harald thought that the local garrison in charge of the defense of the city looked competent enough to repel anyone trying to scale the walls with ladders. According to Sturluson, the defenders lined up on their walls and opened their gate, beckoning the invaders to attack. Still wary, the future king held his troops back and made camp.

Instead of storming the city, Harald marched his men over to a spot that was out of range from enemy projectiles and then had his men remove their equipment to start playing sports and games. Harald kept his troops playing these games (in shifts) for several days. With time, the besieged town took interest in the spectacle and people would crowd the walls to have a look at the ongoing competitions. As the days went on, the city grew lazy with its defense—spectators on the walls were unarmed and they would habitually leave their gate open.

On a certain day, the sporting event was being held as usual. This time, however, the competing mercenaries looked a little bulkier than usual; they had on hoods or large hats, and their clothing was looser than usual. The city defenders realized too late that the athletes were wearing helmets under their headgear and had swords stowed away under their tunics. Each soldier that happened to be playing a sport that day suddenly rushed toward the city’s open gateway. The defenders, unprepared and surprised, managed to keep this first wave of attackers from fully entering the city, but they could not close the gate. Then, as planned, Harald Hardrada charged in with his remaining band of fully equipped mercenaries and pushed his way into the city through the opening. The town fell shortly after that, but the assault was said to have been the most costly attack that Harald enacted in Sicily, primarily because the first wave of his soldier-athletes were wearing very little armor when they entered combat.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (A game from the Cantigas de Santa Maria, c. 1280, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

Sources:
  • John Skylitzes. A Synopsis of Byzantine History: 811-1057, translated by John Wortley. Original text c. 11th or early 12th century. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010.
  • https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/basis/psellus-chrono04.asp 
  • https://www.britannica.com/biography/Harald-III-Sigurdsson 
  • http://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/oi/authority.20110803100130762  

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Cynisca, The First Woman In Greece to Win An Olympic Chariot Race



Cynisca was the sister of Agesilaus II, a king of Sparta from about 400 to 360 BCE. Agesilaus was known to help his friends, even if it required corrupt action, so when his sister, Cynisca, became passionate about horse breeding and chariot racing, the king gave her patronage and support.

Driven by her ambition and backed by her family’s wealth, the Spartan princess created one of the most talented horse breeding and training programs in 4th-century Greece. Her chariot teams won glory in the Olympic Games of 396 and 392 BCE, making her the first woman in recorded Greek history to own a victorious Olympic chariot team. The historians, Plutarch (c. 50-120 CE) and Pausanias (143-176 CE), both wrote of her successes. Plutarch’s account presented her only as the trainer and owner of the chariot teams, with no role in the physical operation of the vehicles. Pausanias was more vague in his wording, with a general statement that she won victories at the Olympics. Yet, he, too, did not explicitly credit her with the act of driving the chariot during the race. Nevertheless, she was honored with a statue and a stone inscription at Olympia for her accomplishments. The inscribed stone base still survives today and is on display at the Museum of the Olympic Games in Olympia, Greece.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (The Chariot Race in the Circus Maximus, by Alfredo Tominz (1854–1936), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

Sources:
  • On Sparta (Life of Agesilaus), by Plutarch excerpted from his Parallel Lives, translated by Richard J. A. Talbert. New York: Penguin Classics, 2005.
  • http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Paus.%203.8.1&lang=original 
  • http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Paus.%203.8.1&lang=original 
  • http://www.open.edu/openlearn/history-the-arts/world-changing-women-cynisca 
  • https://www.encyclopedia.com/women/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/cynisca-fl-396-392-bce 
  • https://www.britannica.com/biography/Pausanias-Greek-geographer 
  • https://www.britannica.com/biography/Plutarch  

Monday, May 21, 2018

The Absolute Cheesiest Tale About Charlemagne



In the 880s, a monk named Notker the Stammerer decided to write about the life of Charlemagne, the famous king of the Franks who took power in 768 and died in 814. Notker, however, was not the king’s first biographer. The Life of Charlemagne by Einhard was written in the 820s and was already a widely read text by the time Notker began writing. Nevertheless, Notker the Stammerer must have felt that Einhard’s text was lacking in one aspect of Charlemagne’s life—religion and the church. In fact, nearly the entire first book of Notker’s Deeds of Charlemagne consisted of numerous bizarre stories told to Notker by a certain cleric named Werinbert. These tales were unfortunately often left devoid of names, locations and dates, so it is difficult to assign any historical validity to the stories of Notker’s first book. Even so, the strange tales are immensely entertaining and can give a window into the mind of a 9th-century author.

One of Notker’s stories told of an anonymous bishop who resided along an inland route that Charlemagne used frequently for his travels. While the king of the Franks was there, the unnamed bishop offered the king his hospitality, supplying food and drink from his own stores. The local church had plenty of supplies to feed the monarch, but there was a problem—the king arrived on the Friday Fast and, as a devout Christian, Charlemagne refused any dish made with meat from land animals or birds. Fish was an acceptable meal for the fast, but as the king was in an inland bishopric, Charlemagne would have been long gone before any seafood could be carted into town. Unfortunately for Charlemagne, all that the bishop could provide on that Friday was cheese.

Surrounded by his attendants and the bishop, Charlemagne prepared for his meal. As the bishop blushed with embarrassment, a wheel of cheese was brought before the king. It was the best cheese that the region had to offer, but it must have looked unappetizing, especially the rough, dry edges of the wheel. According to the tale, Charlemagne withheld any comment and silently cut away the edges, intending to eat only the smooth and creamy center. When the bishop realized what the king was doing, he hesitantly approached and lightly commented that Charlemagne had cut away the best part. It was a comment that the bishop would likely come to regret.

As the tale goes, Charlemagne trusted the bishop and looked for the choicest section of the unseemly hardened ends of the cheese. He cautiously ate the selected piece, slowly but methodically devouring the specimen. When the king finally swallowed the cheese, he enthusiastically turned to the bishop and agreed that the ends were delicious. Charlemagne was so delighted with the taste that he demanded two full carts of the cheese ends to be shipped to his capital at Aachen on an annual basis. The king even specified how the cheese should be shipped: The cheese wheels were to be cut in half, with the best halves going to the king and the lesser sections staying behind to feed the bishopric. The king’s cheese selections would then be skewered together and placed in a barrel, which, in turn, would be placed in the two carts that would carry the cheese to Aachen.

For three years the bishop meticulously carried out Charlemagne’s orders, selecting, barreling and shipping two cart loads of the excellent cheese to Aachen each year. The burden of finding enough pristine cheese to meet the king’s demands was no easy task, yet the bishop always met his quota and usually drove the carts to Aachen himself. After the third annual shipment was received at Aachen, Charlemagne released the dutiful bishop from the job of being the king’s supplier of cheese. Perhaps, Charlemagne recognized the effort it took for the bishop to collect the cheeses, or the king could have simply grown tired of cheese after three years. Whatever the case, Charlemagne rewarded the bishop for his three years of service by adding to his bishopric new tracts of fertile lands, which were pristine for the cultivation of grain and wine vineyards.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (“Still Life With Cheeses, Almonds and Pretzels”, by Clara Peeters (1594–), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

Sources:
  • Two Lives of Charlemagne, by Einhard and Notker the Stammer, translated by David Ganz. New York: Penguin Classics, 2008.  

Sunday, May 20, 2018

The Medieval Tale About The Devil Impersonating A Priest And Giving A Perfect Sermon



The Malleus Maleficarum, published by Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger in 1487, was one of the most popular texts on witchcraft and demonic forces during the age of the witch craze. Between sections describing monsters, spells and demonic abilities, the authors of The Malleus Maleficarum included tales of witchcraft that they heard from other inquisitors, or allegedly experienced themselves during their time as active witch-hunters. While most of the stories they recorded focused on the dastardly deeds of witches, some of the tales also contained subtle jabs at the 15th-century religious community.

One humorous criticism of the Christian community was quietly placed into the end of Part II, Question 1, Chapter IX of The Malleus Maleficarum. It comes in the form of a short tale, which took up the space of only one paragraph.

According to the story, an anonymous clergyman went to hear a sermon delivered by an anonymous priest of an anonymous church in an anonymous town. As you can see, names, dates and locations are often lacking in the tales found within The Malleus Maleficarum. Nevertheless, the unnamed clergyman entered the church and took his seat to hear the sermon. As he watched the priest speak, something about preacher’s demeanor made the clergyman in the audience suspect that all was not as it seemed. Somehow, instinct told the attendee that the priest was not a man of God at all, but rather the Devil.

Convinced that Satan was preaching to the congregation, the clergyman listened carefully to every word that the Devil spoke. When the Devil inevitably spoke some blasphemy or heresy, the clergyman planned on denouncing the demonic priest to the congregation, revealing him as Satan. Yet, as the clergyman listened to the sermon, he could find nothing wrong with what the Devil was saying. The theology was correct. The interpretation of scripture was sound. The prescribed advise and religious counsel was pure. Satan channeled his angelic past to deliver the ultimate sermon. To the clergyman’s chagrin, he could not find a single criticism of the Devil’s speech and allowed the sermon to be concluded without interruption.

When the sermon was over and the congregation had funneled out of the church, all that remained in the sanctuary was the priest and the man who had seen the demon within. When confronted, the demonic priest, indeed, confessed that he was Satan. The clergyman conceded that the sermon was perfect, and only asked for an explanation from the Devil as to why he did not deceive the congregation. In response, Satan joked that although he had taught the congregation the way of supreme holiness, none of them would implement his teachings into their lives, making the scheme all the more diabolical.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (Saint and the devil, by Michael Pacher (1435–1498), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

Sources:
  • From The Malleus Maleficarum by Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger, translated by Montague Summers (Dover Publications, 1971).

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Medieval Inquisitors Believed That Witches Allegedly Collected Living Severed “Members”



The European and colonial witch hunters believed many bizarre ideas about witches, but some theories were more baffling than others. The Malleus Maleficarum, published by the inquisitors Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger around 1487, served as the go-to guide for those who wanted to root out witchcraft for most of the witch-hunting era. In it, the inquisitors wrote about witches, demons, monsters, spells and other miscellaneous dark content. One of the more peculiar spells that witches were able to cast could allegedly make men believe that their manhood was missing. Supposedly, the spell was an illusion that left only smooth skin visible to the victim’s eye. We have already published a small article on that strange magic, HERE. Yet, there was an additional quirk to the spell. The witches, according to the inquisitors, liked to hoard the illusory severed members in hidden locations.

The wording used by Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger to describe this bizarre theory in The Malleus Maleficarum is too entertaining to be paraphrased, so it will be quoted here. Witches that used the dismembering spell “sometimes collect male organs in great number, as many as twenty or thirty members together, and put them in a bird’s nest, or shut them up in a box, where they move themselves like living members, and eat oats and corn, as has been seen by many and is a matter of common report” (Part II, Qn 1, ch 7).

In some of the odd tales, the witches who allegedly used spells to make men think that their members were gone would eventually direct the emasculated victims to one of these wriggling hoards. The Malleus Maleficarum reported one account where a witch supposedly instructed one of these memberless men to climb a tree and pick out his lost limb from a crowded nest that was filled with wiggling manhoods. When the unnamed victim chose the largest one in the nest, the witch chastised the man and made him pick again, saying that the one he was holding belonged to a parish priest.

As was stated earlier, the dismembering and the hidden hoards were all allegedly an elaborate illusion. But beware, The Malleus Maleficarum later stated that the Devil was also known to take genitals if the good angels allowed, and when Satan gathered manhood, it was apparently no illusion.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (Witches' Sabbath, by Francisco Goya  (1746–1828), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

Sources:
From The Malleus Maleficarum by Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger, translated by Montague Summers (Dover Publications, 1971).

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Infant Wine Baths In Ancient Sparta



The great scholar, Plutarch (c. 50-120), was a polymath born in Roman-controlled Greece. Though he wrote prolifically on theology, philosophy and other topics, he is best known for his series of biographies on important figures from ancient Greece and Rome, known together as the Parallel Lives. Interestingly, Plutarch’s biographies on the people who shaped the city of Sparta provide much of what we know about daily life in ancient Sparta.

According to Plutarch, a mysterious man named Lycurgus brought about the famous ascetic militancy that came to define ancient Sparta. Plutarch freely admitted that the accounts about Lycurgus presented more of a myth than man, and that accurately dating Lycurgus’ life was nearly impossible. At best, Lycurgus could be said to have lived as far back as the 9th century BCE, in the time of Homer, or as late as the 6th century BCE, when Sparta started to become noticeably more militant and luxury-opposed than their neighbors. No matter the date of Lycurgus’ life, the Spartans attributed their new lifestyle to his teachings.

One of the more notorious elements of the ancient Spartan way of life was how the elders would reportedly decide which newborns lived or died. Plutarch wrote that Lycurgus imposed a system of state-sponsored eugenics, where procreation was encouraged among pairs who would bring about strong children—even if extramarital affairs were required to do so. In this societal model, children were not raised for the sake of a family, but rather for the protection and longevity of Sparta. As such, Plutarch reported that Spartan parents did not have the right to decide if their children were worthy of joining the community. Instead the newborns were brought to a meeting called a lesche, where the elders would determine the fate of the child. Plutarch wrote that, if healthy, the child was guaranteed a portion of land and was approved for upbringing. If the elders disliked what they saw, the newborn was condemned to abandonment at Apothetae, “the place of rejection,” located near Mount Taygetus.

Even though the fate of their child was out of their hands, Plutarch wrote that some Spartan mothers were impatient, or perhaps anxious, about the lesche and therefore devised their own tests to evaluate the vigor of their infants. In one such test, the baby was bathed not in water, but in undiluted wine. According to Plutarch, the mothers could get a sense of their child’s fate based on the baby’s reaction to the potent alcohol. Lycurgus’ ideal baby supposedly would endure the stinging, staining and powerful fumes, while the weak would allegedly lose control of their senses or stiffen in discomfort.

Despite the obvious ethical issues with the extreme Spartan attitude toward children, Plutarch wrote that nurses from the Spartan culture were coveted in other regions of Greece. The Spartan nursemaids had talents that any parent would dream about—Plutarch listed that they were skilled at teaching children not to be fussy about their food, could root out childhood fears of the dark and even specialized in stopping temper tantrums and fits of crying. Nevertheless, these enviable abilities by far did not make up for the horrid system of Spartan child culling.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (Wine selling advertisement and prices, "Ad Cucumas" shop, ancient roman painting in Herculaneum, Italy. [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

Sources: