Wednesday, September 19, 2018

The Mysterious Earthen Miracles of 822



In 822, a little under a decade after Louis the Pious (r. 814-840) became sole emperor of the Franks, something really strange occurred in his realm. The chroniclers of the Royal Frankish Annals wrote about the incident in their entry for the year 882. According to them, not only did unexplained earthen structures appear that year, but the mysterious creations were also found in multiple locations in the empire.

In the region of Thuringia, a peculiar ditch was found, measuring about fifty feet long and four feet wide. The dirt excavated from the spot had not traveled far; approximately twenty-five feet from the ditch was an elevated block of earth, and, like the ditch, it measured fifty feet long and four feet wide. The authorities, or at least the chroniclers, could not find any motives or suspects for the weird rectangle of soil.

The next incident occurred in Arendsee, near Magdeburg, in Frankish-controlled Saxony. There, an unordered earthen dam appeared on a local stream or river after just one mysterious night of work. No one in the region came forward to claim that they had worked on the project, leaving the chroniclers of the Royal Frankish Annals, and the royal court that they worked for, baffled by the structure’s sudden appearance.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (Louis the Pious (from BL Royal 16 G VI, f. 198v) on a pixabay.com soil background, both [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

Sources:
  • Carolingian Chronicles: Royal Frankish Annals and Nithard’s Histories, translated by Bernhard Scholz and Barbara Rogers. Ann Arbor Paperbacks / University of Michigan Press, 1972.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

After His Death, The Body Of King Hálfdan The Black Was Supposedly Divided Between Different Regions Of His Kingdom



While most of the Yngling Dynasty of ancient Sweden and Norway is considered legendary or semi-legendary, the figures of Hálfdan the Black and especially his son, Harald Finehair (the first king to unite Norway), are more solidly considered to have been real people. Nevertheless, their stories are still heavily filled with fantastical folklore. Almost all of the information on Hálfdan the Black and his famous son comes from skaldic verse and Icelandic sagas—hence the plentiful folklore—yet, armed with caution and a skeptical eye for dramatic filler, readers can glean a general sense of the reigns of these two kings.

According to Snorri Sturluson’s Ynglinga saga and Hálfdanar saga Svarta, which were included in his Heimskringla, Hálfdan the Black (so-called because of his black hair) was a powerful 9th-century king in southeast Norway. As the saga tells it, Hálfdan was raised in his mother’s homeland of Agthir. When he turned eighteen, he inherited the throne of Agthir from his grandfather, Harald the Redbeard, and quickly annexed a piece of Vestfold from his half-brother, King Olaf. He also expanded by force into Vingulmork, Raumarik, Heithmork, Thótn, Land and Hathaland. In addition, Hálfdan reportedly also acquired Sogn through marriage.

Hálfdan’s years of military expansion coincided with a palpable agricultural boom, which further extended his reputation as a successful king to the point of his subjects allegedly attributing their good crop yields to their liege. Consequently, when the middle-aged king unexpectedly died reportedly from falling through thin ice near Lake Randsfjorden, the people were afraid that their lands would lose fertility. Similarly, the sagas claimed that the medieval Norwegians also believed that the region where Hálfdan’s body was buried would be supernaturally blessed with bountiful fields. Therefore, at least according to Snorri Sturluson, it was decided that the body of Hálfdan the Black would be divided among several burial mounds located throughout his kingdom. Apparently, the head was entombed at Hringaríki, while three other sections of Hálfdan’s body were buried at Raumaríki, Vestfold and Heithmork.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (Image of Halfdan the Black falling to his death through ice, by Erik Werenskiold  (1855–1938), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

Sources:
  • Heimskringla, by Snorri Sturluson and translated by Lee Hollander. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1964, 2018.
  • https://www.britannica.com/biography/Harald-I-king-of-Norway  

Monday, September 17, 2018

The Odd Ceremony Used By Emperor Gaozu To Bind His Ministers To A Pledge



According to Han Dynasty tradition, the first emperor of that dynasty, Emperor Gaozu (r. 202-195 BCE), wanted the majority of the kingdoms in China to remain firmly in the hands of the Liu imperial family. Therefore, by the end of Gaozu’s reign, the emperor’s sons, brothers and nephews ruled most of the empire’s kingdoms. The emperor was apparently so concerned about the rise of a rival family that he called his most important officials together in a meeting and had them swear to depose any new kings who were not from the Liu family.

The ministers and generals who were called forth to make this pledge were allegedly faced by an odd ceremony. According to the account of Grand Historian Sima Qian (c. 145-90 BCE), the emperor brought a white horse to his meeting with these courtiers. In front of the crowd, the emperor supposedly sacrificed the white horse and smeared some of the animal’s blood on the lips of his ministers. Then, with their lips reddened, the important officials made their pledge to depose any new king that was not from the Liu family.

In 180 BCE, the Liu nobles and other loyal vassals did, indeed, rise against a rival family. Their rival was the Lü family, the clan to which Emperor Gaozu’s wife belonged. From the time of Gaozu’s death in 195, to the time of her own death in 180 BCE, Empress Lü had feverishly worked in hopes of making her Lü clan equal or greater than her husband’s Liu family—she placed numerous members of the Lü family in positions as generals, marquises and kings. Yet, when the empress dowager died in 180 BCE, the Liu nobility and their followers quickly raised their forces, seized the capital city, and launched a systematic extermination of the whole Lü clan. In the end, it is possible that the story about the white horse could have simply been propaganda produced by the Liu family to justify their massacre of the encroaching Lü.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (Marengo, painted by James Ward (1769–1859), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

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

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Emperor Charlemagne And Empress Irene Almost United Their Empires



For those who like to contemplate the alternative paths where history might have led under different circumstances, the almost-achieved marriage between Emperor Charlemagne of the Franks and Empress Irene of Constantinople is an intriguing concept. Charlemagne began his reign in 768, as a co-king alongside his brother, Carloman. In 671, however, Carloman died, leaving Charlemagne as sole ruler of the Franks. During his years on the throne, he sent his army in all directions, campaigning over the years in Italy, Saxony, Spain, Brittany, Dalmatia, and several Eastern European regions. Throughout his long reign, Charlemagne cultivated a strong relationship with the popes of Rome and was crowned as emperor in the Roman fashion by Pope Leo III in the year 800.

In Rome’s rival city, Constantinople, Empress Irene was making her own remarkable rise to power. Irene was said to have been a commoner from Athens who joined the nobility by marrying Emperor Leo IV in 769, after she was discovered in an imperial beauty contest. After her husband died of a fever in 780, Empress Irene served as regent ruler for her son, Emperor Constantine VI, who was around ten years old at the time. Irene kept power in her own hands until 790, when she was ousted by the military in favor of her son. Despite this, Constantine VI interestingly asked Irene to return as co-ruler in 792, a proposition which she, of course, accepted. Irene, however, was not content with sharing power. In 797, after Constantine VI had lost support among the populace, the clergy and the military, Irene successfully usurped sole power in Constantinople and had her son blinded. The blinding must have been particularly brutal or botched, for Constantine VI reportedly died of the wounds.

Empress Irene and Charlemagne began sending emissaries to each other’s courts as early as the year 787, when the two were considering a marriage between Constantine VI and one of Charlemagne’s daughters, either Rotrude or Hruodtrude. The match, however, fell through and, like a true break-up, both sides claimed their liege was the one that broke it off, with the Franks writing that Charlemagne refused and the Greeks swearing that it was Irene who changed her mind. Interestingly, the two officially became pen pals in 798, one year after Constantine VI was blinded. Charlemagne received a letter from Empress Irene expressing her wish to maintain peace between their empires. In response to her letter, Charlemagne sent an emissary to her court in Constantinople.

Liutgarda, Charlemagne’s fourth wife, died only months before her husband was crowned as a Roman emperor in the year 800. Within two years of that date, in 802, Irene and Charlemagne were again exchanging high-ranking emissaries to each other’s courts. According to the writing of Theophanes the Confessor (c. 782-818), Charlemagne and Irene were negotiating a marriage to each other that could have put most of the lands between the Pyrenees and Anatolia under a single political entity. This intriguing possibility, however, never came to fruition, as Empress Irene was forced into exile and died in 803. Her most trusted officials had conspired against her, possibly in resistance to the alleged marriage proposal of Charlemagne. When the Frankish emissaries returned from Constantinople in 803, they did not bring with them a marriage acceptance letter, but instead brought news of Irene’s removal from power, and an entreaty of peace from the new emperor of Constantinople, Nicephorus I, who was Irene’s former minister of finance.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (Woodcut Illustration of Empress Irene and Charlemagne, printed by Johannes Zainer Two Lives of Charlemagne, by Einhard and Notker the Stammer, translated by David Ganz. New York: Penguin Classics, 2008. at Ulm ca. 1474, uploaded by Kladcat, [Public Domain/CC 2.0] via Flickr and Creative Commons).

Sources:
  • Carolingian Chronicles: Royal Frankish Annals and Nithard’s Histories, translated by Bernhard Scholz and Barbara Rogers. Ann Arbor Paperbacks / University of Michigan Press, 1972.
  • Two Lives of Charlemagne, by Einhard and Notker the Stammer, translated by David Ganz. New York: Penguin Classics, 2008.
  • https://www.britannica.com/biography/Irene-Byzantine-empress-752-803 
  • https://www.ancient.eu/Empress_Irene/ 
  • https://www.ancient.eu/Constantine_VI/ 
  • https://www.britannica.com/biography/Saint-Theophanes-the-Confessor  

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

After Crushing A Spartan Army, King Antigonus III Of Macedonia Reportedly Shouted Himself To Death



In 227 BCE, King Antigonus III ascended to the throne of Macedonia. He spent the first years of his reign mainly defending his borders, but King Antigonus soon obtained an incredible offer from the Peloponnesus. Around 225-224 BCE, he received and accepted a request from Aratus of Sicyon, calling for Macedonian troops to move into Achaean League territory in order to defend against an expansionist Sparta, ruled by a competent Spartan king named Cleomenes III (r. 225-222 BCE).

After accepting Aratus’ request, King Antigonus III and his army entered the Peloponnesus around 224 BCE and virtually turned the Achaean League into a protectorate. With the arrival of the Macedonians, King Cleomenes III set up a strong defense on the Oneian hills, but he was forced to retreat after the citizens of Spartan-occupied Argos rebelled. Following Cleomenes’ retreat, Antigonus moved in and pushed the Spartans back into Laconia and, from then on, Cleomenes could do little more than raid and pillage settlements. Nevertheless, the Spartans still had a powerful army, but money was running short and Macedonia had the advantage if a war of attrition developed. Therefore, King Cleomenes III was eager for a decisive victory to keep his soldiers’ morale high and to entice foreign lenders to invest money in his military campaign. This eagerness and desperation, however, resulted in the disastrous battle of Sellasia in 222 BCE, where much of the Spartan army was encircled and killed by Macedonian forces. After the battle, Cleomenes fled across the Mediterranean and Antigonus III occupied Sparta.

Unfortunately, a few days after occupying Sparta, Antigonus III had to rush his forces back to Macedonia to confront an Illyrian army that had invaded the Macedonian homeland during his absence. Either during his crushing of this Illyrian army, or possibly during the earlier battles against the Spartans, King Antigonus III supposedly shouted out such an enthusiastic and powerful battle cry that he ruptured a blood vessel, leading to a massive internal hemorrhage. Antigonus’ army defeated the Illyrians in 222 BCE, but he quickly fell ill from his peculiar wound and died in 221 BCE.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (Sculpture from the MET museum (photographed by Shayna Michaels), in front of a painting of Alexander the Great by Pietro da Cortona  (1596–1669), both [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

Sources:
  • On Sparta (Life of Cleomenes), by Plutarch excerpted from his Parallel Lives, translated by Richard J. A. Talbert. New York: Penguin Classics, 2005.
  • https://www.britannica.com/biography/Antigonus-III-Doson 
  • https://www.britannica.com/biography/Cleomenes-III  
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Tuesday, September 11, 2018

The Imaginative Roman Tradition For Serving Justice To Criminals Guilty Of Parricide



Ancient Rome had a grisly fondness for showy executions, but the punishment for someone who confessed to parricide, the murder of a parent or close relative, was especially grandiose. The traditional sentence for parricide was so extravagant that Augustus allegedly warned a man who was guilty of the crime not to confess because, without the confession, the trial and punishment would proceed as with any other capital offense.

If, however, a person did confess to parricide, their last moments were fated to be quite bizarre. At the time of execution, the confessed criminal was forced into a huge sack. The bag was so large because the criminal would not be alone inside. Before the sack was sealed, the executioners brought in a wide variety of small animals. From this macabre zoo, a rooster, a snake, a dog, and even a monkey were supposedly crammed into the sack with the condemned criminal. Finally, when the sewing was complete, the stuffed bag was tossed into a body of water, with the criminal and animals still trapped inside.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (Image from History of Rome and of the Roman people, from its origin to the Invasion of the Barbarians (1883), [Public Domain] via Flickr and Creative Commons).

Sources:
  • The Twelve Caesars by Suetonius, translated by Robert Graves and edited by James B. Rives. New York: Penguin Classics, 2007.
  • https://www.jstor.org/stable/30222199?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents 
  • https://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences-and-law/law/crime-and-law-enforcement/parricide

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Monday, September 10, 2018

Homer Wrote A Tortoise And Hare Fable Before Aesop



By the 5th century BCE, a collection of fables featuring a cast of personified animals with moral tales to tell became associated with a legendary figure called Aesop. One of the few pieces of information that the ancients could agree upon about Aesop was that the storyteller likely lived in the 6th century BCE and that he supposedly was born in some Greek-associated region. Because of Aesop’s vague or unknown background, he is widely regarded as a semi-legendary, or possibly purely-mythical, figure. Whatever the case, somebody (or some people) wrote the timeless stories. These scattered fables, like the collected works attributed to so many of the ancient sages in East Asia, were probably compiled by students and fans, eventually resulting in a collection of Aesop’s Fables often called the Aesopica.

Of Aesop’s many fables, the tale of the hare and the tortoise is one of the most popular. In the story, a slow tortoise challenges a speedy hare to a foot race. The hare, confident in the disparity of quickness between the two animals, eagerly accepted the challenge. After the race began, the tortoise fell so far behind in the race that the hare decided to take a nap on the side of the path. The clever tortoise, however, calmly kept crawling along the race path, eventually surpassing the sleeping hare to win the race.

Interestingly enough, Homer wrote a similar story centuries before Aesop. Homer’s tale, however, did not feature animals, but instead pitted the lame-legged god, Hephaestus, against the spry and lusty god, Ares. The story in question takes place in book VIII of The Odyssey, beginning around line 260.

As the story goes, Odysseus met an incredibly talented bard named Demodocus in the blessed community of Phaeacia. While Odysseus was staying in the region, Demodocus took up a lyre and began to perform a song about an embarrassing scandal that occurred at the home of the gods on Mount Olympus. This was Demodocus’ story:

According to the bard, Hephaestus, the talented craftsman of the Greek gods, won Aphrodite’s hand in marriage after producing a series of wondrous presents. These gifts, however, were sent to Zeus, not Aphrodite, and the resulting union was an arranged marriage. Consequently, Aphrodite did not return Hephaestus’ affection and was predisposed to extramarital affairs, especially with handsome Ares, the god of war.

Unfortunately for Aphrodite and Ares, one of the ablest informants in the Greek pantheon, the sun god Helios, was a close friend of Hephaestus. Helios spotted the two lovers fooling around in broad daylight while he was doing his daily rounds. Helios immediately sent this information to Hephaestus, who, upon receiving the news, stormed off to his workshop with revenge on his mind.

Channeling his rage and sense of betrayal, Hephaestus constructed a metallic masterpiece of a net. It was made of chains so fine that they could not be easily seen by the naked eye, while also being strong enough that even the gods could not pull the links apart. With this net in hand, Hephaestus returned to his home and marched into his bedroom. There, he threw the net around the feet of the bed, and also hung other sections to the rafters. When the trap was set, the invisible spider web of chains weaved all around the bed, just waiting for some unsuspecting prey to enter the room.

With his preparations done, Hephaestus loudly announced to his wife and neighbors that he was leaving on an impromptu vacation to Lemnos. Hephaestus, however, did not go very far. Instead, he found a hiding spot and contacted Helios to keep an eye on his house.

Ares, for his part, was completely fooled by Hephaestus’ sudden departure from town. When he could no longer see Hephaestus, the god of war quickly rushed over to Hephaestus’ house, where he eagerly found his beloved Aphrodite. Within moments of their clandestine encounter, the two flushed lovebirds inevitably fluttered over to the bedroom. Yet, as soon as they lay down on the bed, their hearts, which had been beating with longing and anticipation, suddenly began to thump with a cadence of terror. As soon as they hit the bed—in whatever state of dress they were in—the trap was triggered and the net caught its prey. Like the tortoise from Aesop’s fable, Hephaestus caught his rival sleeping.

By now, Helios had already informed Hephaestus that Ares was in the house. Accordingly, the craftsman of the gods returned home where he triumphantly found his wife and her lover entangled in his net, which was so tight that the two inside where stuck exactly as they were the moment the net fell. After seeing that his trap had worked, Hephaestus sent word to all of the gods, calling them forth to witness the sad creatures he had caught in his net. The goddesses, who had an inkling of what they would find, decided not to go to Hephaestus’ house. Zeus and Hades also interestingly ignored the craftsman’s call. Yet, many other important male gods curiously wandered over to the house to see why Hephaestus was shouting.

Poseidon, Apollo and Hermes were mentioned by name as having entered the home to see the spectacle inside. The gods in attendance, all except Poseidon, immediately began laughing at the chained lovers on the bed and started cracking jokes about the situation. Between these eruptions of laughter, one of the observers commented:

“The tortoise catches up the hare. See how our
slow-moving Hephaestus has caught Ares, though no god on
Olympus can run as fast. Hephaestus may be lame, but he has
won the day by his cunning.”
(The Odyssey, Book VIII, approximately line 330)

After the other gods had made their jokes, the unimpressed Poseidon finally convinced Hephaestus to release the captives. After the net was undone, the lovers fled Mount Olympus in disgrace, with Ares huffing and puffing off to Thrace and Aphrodite going into self-exile at Cyprus, where the Graces tried to comfort the distressed goddess with gifts of new clothing and oils.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (Mars and Venus Surprised by Vulcan, painted by Alexandre Charles Guillemot (1786 - 1831), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

Sources:
  • The Odyssey (Book 8) by Homer, translated by E. V. Rieu and edited by D. C. H. Rieu. New York: Penguin Classics, 2009. 
  • https://www.britannica.com/biography/Aesop 
  • https://www.biography.com/people/aesop-9176935 
  • https://www.britannica.com/topic/Aphrodite-Greek-mythology