Monday, January 20, 2020

The Steamy And Sensual Tree-On-Tree Adult Scene Written By The Historian, Ammianus Marcellinus

Ammianus Marcellinus (c. 4th century) was a man of Greek ancestry who was raised in Antioch. He joined the Roman military and, although he did not distinguish himself in battle, he gained a high rank as an officer. He eventually retired from the military to pursue his scholarly ambitions, a drive which ultimately led him to Rome, where he wrote a 31-book text in Latin that traced events from the time of Emperor Nerva (r. 96-98) to his own times in the 4th century. The resulting Res Gestae, also known simply as the History, then and now has been an object of rave reviews, and Ammianus Marcellinus remains commonly known as the ‘last great historian’ of ancient Rome.

Although indeed a great historian who produced a history of priceless value to our understanding of the 4th century, Ammianus Marcellinus could at times be quite unique from his fellow Roman greats, such as Livy and Tacitus. Renowned Roman historians, such as the two just mentioned, were not only known for their historical research, but also for the eloquence and artistry with which they presented their information in writing. Ammianus, too, had a knack for drama and imagery, but unlike his successful predecessors, his text was in no way regarded as a masterpiece of sentence composition. Instead, Ammianus had his own unique (sometimes bordering on gaudy or simply bad) writing style and blatantly embraced his own quirks while he wrote. As a result, his History is filled with bizarre wording and huge digressions off into all sorts of subjects that piqued his interest. Yet, whereas the average writer may find such attributes to be detrimental to their work, Ammianus’ narrative skill and talent for imagery turned his bizarre digressions into a charming and entertaining strength. Take, for example, Ammianus’ unforgettably vivid description of the tree-on-tree orgies that go on in date-palm groves:

“We are told that palms themselves mate, and that the sexes may easily be distinguished. It is said too that female trees conceive when they are smeared with the seeds of the male, and that they take delight in mutual love, which is shown by the fact that they lean towards each other and cannot be separated even by a strong wind. If the female is not smeared with the seed of the male in the usual way, she miscarries and loses her fruit before it is ripe. If it is not known with what male tree a female is in love her trunk is smeared with her own nectar, and nature arranges that another tree senses the sweet smell. This is the evidence on which belief in a kind of copulation is based” (History, 24.3).

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (Palm tree landscape modified with the addition of a dryad painted by Evelyn De Morgan (1855–1919) and a nymph painted by James Carroll Beckwith (1852–1917), all [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

  • Ammianus Marcellinus’ History, translated by Walter Hamilton as The Later Roman Empire. London: Penguin Classics, 1986, 2004.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

The First Scandinavian Reported To Have Seen North America

Two sagas from the 13th century—Eirik the Red’s Saga and the Saga of the Greenlanders—unanimously declare that Leif Eiriksson was the first known Scandinavian to set foot on North America. Despite that acknowledgment, the Saga of the Greenlanders also claimed that at least one other person had seen the New World before Leif made his journey. The person in question was an Icelandic merchant named Bjarni Herjolfsson. Around 986, Bjarni was reportedly seeing to his trade route between Iceland and Norway when he received news that his father, Herjolf, was joining Eirik the Red’s expedition to settle Greenland. By the time Bjarni returned home, his father had already set sail for the new land. This realization disturbed the merchant—perhaps he was worried about his father’s ability to set up a farm alone, or maybe he was simply a filial type of guy who really loved his father. Whatever the case, Bjarni Herjolfsson quickly set back out to sea in order to meet up with his father in Greenland before winter, and he did not even take the time to unload or sell any of the cargo that he brought back from Norway before leaving port.

With his ship overweight and his navigation rushed, Bjarni soon found himself at the mercy of the weather. As the story goes, he was blown off course by storms and then found himself blinded by dense fog. Lost at sea, he continued sailing until finally, at long last, he spotted land. Yet, the sight of the coast perturbed Bjarni, for he had been given a description of his destination before he had set sail, and the lands he saw ahead were in no way Eirik the Red’s misleadingly-named Greenland. What was before him was an entirely different land.

Still eager to reach his father, Bjarni Herjolfsson did not stop to explore on foot, but instead sailed northward along the coast. He watched the geography change as his journey progressed. At first, the country he saw was extremely forested. Tree-covered hills began to give way to wooded flatlands, followed by a region of snow-capped mountains and a glacier on what seemed to be an island. Upon arriving in this more frigid and snowy place, Bjarni and his crew made the fortuitous decision to start sailing back east. Navigating this new route, the lost Icelanders finally reached Greenland, and Bjarni was reunited with Herjolf. Despite seeing plentiful land to the west, Bjarni apparently never attempted to go back to the places he witnessed. He did, however, spread the word in Greenland and similarly told his story in Norway whenever he visited for business.

Leif Eiriksson, according to the Saga of the Greenlanders, was one of the people reportedly captivated by Bjarni Herjolfsson’s tales of land to the west. Eirik the Red’s Saga, however, cuts Bjarni out of the story and instead insists it was Leif who, while returning home from Norway, was blown off course by storms and discovered the New World by accident. Whatever the case, either tipped off by Bjarni Herjolfsson or carried off course by his own fateful storm, Leif was said to have reached North America around the year 1000 and went one step further than Bjarni by actually stepping foot on the land, which he called Vinland.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

  • The Vinland Sagas (Saga of the Greenlanders and Eirik the Red’s Saga) translated by Keneva Kunz. New York: Penguin Classics, 2008.

Thursday, January 16, 2020

The Army Of Hernan Cortes Was Almost Drowned In An Engineered Flood

In the final days of December, 1520, Hernan Cortes began his second march toward the Aztec capital city of Tenochtitlan. Setting out from the land of his allies, the Tlaxcalans, Hernan Cortes crossed mountainous terrain to reach the city of Texcoco. There, he caused Aztec loyalists to flee the region and, in the power vacuum that occurred, the Spaniards propped up a new dissident faction in the city and recognized the faction’s chosen leader as the ruler of Texcoco. With the cooperative Texcocan leader on his side, Hernan Cortes began working on a makeshift port on the city’s lakeside shore from which he wished to launch a blockade against Tenochtitlan. The Spaniards spent a twelve-day span in the city, directing the locals to dredge the local canals and widen the channels to accommodate ships.

After enjoying the new year in Texcoco and spending several days overseeing canal modifications, Hernan Cortes decided to move on from the city in order to relieve his army’s burden on the farmlands of his newfound allies, and to further consolidate power in the cities surrounding Tenochtitlan. Cortes mobilized his army and marched for Iztapalapa, a city still loyal to Tenochtitlan in the Aztec sphere of influence. Hernan Cortes’ movements were not overlooked by the Aztec intelligence network, which had eyes and ears throughout the lakeside cities that surrounded Tenochtitlan. Due to these spies, the Aztecs were able to send thousands of reinforcements to Iztapalapa before the Spaniards arrived. Together, the local city garrison and the reinforcements took to the field to challenge Hernan Cortes’ army in battle—it was a poor decision, for in a fair fight on the open ground, Cortes’ cavalry, crossbows, firearms and artillery gave him an overwhelming advantage. The Aztecs, after their forces were torn apart by such firepower, soon ended their attack and decided to retreat to Iztapalapa. As the day was late and night was beginning to fall, the Spaniards decided not to pursue. Instead, Cortes’ troops settled down in some vacated houses near the lake.

Hernan Cortes and his conquistadors suspected that a night attack was possibly incoming and took precautions by setting up watchmen and sentinels. Forces from Iztapalapa were indeed planning an attack, but it was not spears and arrows that they planned to use in their assault. Instead, with their knowledge of the canals and causeways that crisscrossed the region, the locals decided to let Mother Nature take her own swipe at the Spaniards. During the night, saboteurs from Iztapalapa went to work, and might have ended Hernan Cortes’ meteoric campaign against the Aztecs then and there had it not been for the presence of the Spanish-allied Tlaxcalans and Texcocans, who were wise to Aztec tactics. The vital role of these native allies in detecting and warning the Spaniards of the watery surprise that occurred that night near Iztapalapa was described by Bernal Díaz del Castillo (c. 1492-1580), one of Cortes’ conquistadors. He wrote:

“We placed our sentinels and watchmen, we sent out patrols and scouts. But when we were off our guard, such a flood of water swept through the town that if the chiefs we had brought from Texcoco had not shouted to us to get out of the houses as quickly as we could and make for dry land, we should have all been drowned. For the enemy had emptied the fresh- and salt-water canals, and cut through a causeway, which caused the level of the water to rise suddenly” (Conquest of New Spain, volume 2, chapter 138).

Thanks to the attentiveness of the Texcocans, Hernan Cortes’ army was saved, although the water rolled in so quickly that a few people did indeed die. In addition to the loss of life, the water ruined provisions being hauled along by Cortes’ army and it wetted much of the gunpowder that powered the Spanish firearms and artillery. Furthermore, the flood made many of Cortes’ troops uncomfortable and cold, impairing their sleep and mood. Hoping all of these contributing factors would give them an advantage, the Aztecs launched a powerful attack on Hernan Cortes as soon as dawn arrived. The Spaniards, with their soaked gunpowder, had trouble fending off the attack. Nevertheless, they managed an orderly retreat and fought their way back to Texcoco. Both sides were disappointed in the battle—the Spaniards were embarrassed and humiliated over being forced to retreat, whereas the Aztecs were distraught over their inability to inflict more damage on the conquistadors during their vulnerable state after the engineered flood.

Picture Attribution: (Flood in the Darling by WC Piguenit (1836 - 1914), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

  • The Conquest of New Spain by Bernal Díaz, translated by J. M. Cohen. New York: Penguin Books, 1963.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

The Tale Of How Pericles Consoled A Sailor Frightened By An Eclipse

Pericles (c. 495-429 BCE) was the leading figure in Athens at the start of the Peloponnesian War (c. 431-404 BCE). During the first years of the war, both sides attacked their opponent using the strategy they were most comfortable with—the Spartan-led Peloponnesians invaded enemy territory by land, while the Athenians mobilized their navy and raided the Peloponnesian coast by sea. With this strategy in mind, Pericles gathered 100 Athenian ships and 50 allied vessels, loaded with thousands of heavy infantry and hundreds of bowmen and cavalry. Yet, as Pericles was preparing his forces for war, the cosmos threw in his path one of the most ominous and supernaturally-significant omens known to the ancient world—a solar eclipse. Thucydides (c. 460-400 BCE) dated this eclipse to the first year of campaigns in 431 BCE, while the Greek-Roman biographer, Plutarch (c. 50-120 CE), claimed this took place just before Pericles’ second campaign, in 430 BCE, at which time the Athenians tried and failed to besiege the city of Epidaurus.  Whatever the case, Pericles’ navy reportedly witnessed this ominous solar event, and the Athenian leader had to act quickly to keep the morale of his sailors from plummeting.

Thucydides described the eclipse itself, writing “there was an eclipse of the sun after midday. The sun took on the appearance of a crescent and some of the stars became visible before it returned to its normal shape” (History of the Peloponnesian War, Book II, section 28). Plutarch, using whatever sources were at his disposal, wrote about how the eclipse affected the Athenian navy. He wrote, “it happened that the sun was eclipsed, and it grew dark on a sudden, to the affright of all, for this was looked upon as extremely ominous” (Plutarch, Life of Pericles, 35.1). Of the Athenian sailors who were frightened by the event, Pericles’ own flagship steersman displayed some of the worst symptoms; the solar eclipse left him frozen in shock and paralyzed by fear. This stupefied sailor, thankfully, would soon be saved by his captain’s quick thinking and reasoning.

As the story goes, Pericles was able to calm his panicking steersman using a tried-and-true calming method used on all forms of animals, to this day. To snap the sailor back into reality, Pericles used sensory deprivation—specifically blocking the man’s sight. Pericles, it was said, grabbed a nearby cloak and held it in front of the steersman’s eyes. If he was in a particularly dramatic mood, perhaps the Athenian leader tossed the cloak over the sailor’s head, as if it were a birdcage. Once the sight-deprived sailor had begun to calm down, Pericles then began whittling away at the man’s fears through reason, explaining that the solar eclipse, while indeed dramatic, was no more dangerous or ominous than the simple cloak that was before his eyes. Plutarch claimed that this tale, including Pericles’ reasoning, became a favorite story that Athenian philosophers started to teach their students.

Yet, for the Athenians at the time, they likely would have thought that the ill omen of the solar eclipse was justified in their case. The naval expeditions against the Peloponnesus in 431 and 430 BCE were inconclusive, and, even worse, a deadly plague hit Athens in 430 BCE that wiped out a large portion of the city’s population. Pericles, too, died not long after the eclipse, breathing his last in 429 BCE.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (Scene from the life of Gelon, painted by Michele Panebianco (1806–1873), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

  • Plutarch’s Lives edited by Charles W. Eliot in the Harvard Classics series. New York: P. F. Collier & Son, 1909, 1937.
  • History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides, translated by Rex Warner and introduced by M. I. Finley. New York: Penguin Classics, 1972. 

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

The Folkloric Origin Tale Of Kunmo Liejiaomi

The Wusun were one of several nomadic or semi-nomadic peoples in Asia who were literally pushed around by a powerful nomadic confederation known as the Xiongnu. Shanyu Maodun, leader of the Xiongnu from approximately 209 and 174 BCE, was said to have indirectly caused chaos for the Wusun people by driving a group known as the Yuezhi into Wusun territory near the end of his reign. The then khan, or kunmo, of the Wusun was reportedly named Nandoumi, and he fought back against the Yuezhi incursion into his land. Nandoumi, however, died in battle and the Wusun people had to flee to the Xiongnu for protection. During the retreat, possibly due to politics after the kunmo’s death, Nandoumi’s young son, Liejiaomi, was reportedly left behind to face the wild alone.

Yet—as folkloric origin stories of kingly or heroic figures often go—mother nature and her animals took pity of young Liejiaomi and cared for the abandoned boy during this vulnerable time. Grand Historian Sima Qian (c. 145-90 BCE), citing an explorer who interacted with the Wusun, wrote that Liejiaomi, “then only a baby, was cast out in the wilderness to die. But the birds came and flew over the place where he was, bearing meat in their beaks, and the wolves suckled him, so that he was able to survive” (Shi Ji 123). Living on bird regurgitation and wolf milk, Liejiaomi stayed alive long enough to be rediscovered by the Xiongnu, who were impressed by his survival skills. By this time Shanyu Jizhu was reportedly in power, a position he would have over the Xiongnu from around 174 to 159/158 BCE. As the stories go, Jizhu gave shelter to Liejiaomi and took interest in raising the boy, encouraging his education in the ways of leadership and war.

When Liejiaomi grew to adulthood, he was given a military command and eventually was supported by the shanyu in becoming the next kunmo of the Wusun. In conjunction with the Xiongnu, Kunmo Liejiaomi was able to have his revenge against the Yuezhi, pushing them westward toward the region of modern Uzbekistan, allowing for the Wusun to claim the vacated land left by the Yuezhi. Despite this partnership, Kunmo Liejaomi and the Wusun would eventually be recruited by the expansionist Emperor Wu of Han China (r. 141-87 BCE) to combat the Xiongnu.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (Painting from the Xiongnu exhibit in Henan Provincial Museum, Zhengzhou, photographed by Gary Todd for, [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.

Monday, January 13, 2020

The Murder Of Moneylender Armentarius

Armentarius was a moneylender who operated in the late 6th century. As a man of the Jewish religion, he was able to work around the medieval Christian stigma against usury, and could lend money, buy government bonds, and charge interest on his loans. Yet, his benefit of being able to receive interest payments came at great risk, especially as Armentarius’ clients could often be at the top of society, with leading nobles and their assistants making up much of his business.  If he pushed too hard for his loan payoff, or if his clients became distressed because of debts, Armentarius could easily find himself in peril. Armentarius had to manage these touchy relationships himself, for the kings and courts of public opinion in medieval Europe were becoming more and more tainted with antisemitism, allowing for angry debtors to fight back against moneylenders by stoking bias, bigotry and the us-versus-them mentality. Despite the dangers, Armentarius continued lending money and the governing nobles and officials continued to be his targeted audience.

In 584, Armentarius arrived in Tours, hoping to collect money that he was owed by Count Eunomius and Vice-Count Injuriosus. The moneylender knew that his mission was potentially dangerous, so he brought two Christian protectors along with him to Tours, and a fellow Jewish friend also joined the party.  Armentarius and his three companions, upon entering Tours, had a meeting with Count Eunomius and Vice-Count Injuriosus, in which the moneylender was assured that his loans would be reimbursed with interest. After the meeting concluded, Injuriosus invited Armentarius and his associates to his nearby estate in Tours, where they could further discuss payment options over dinner. Injuriosus also promised to provide his guests with lodgings on or near his own property.

Injuriosus, keeping his word, held a feast for the moneylender’s party and, when night began to fall, the vice-count had his servants lead the guests toward their promised lodgings. Yet, all was not as it seemed. Injuriosus had ulterior motives for luring Armentarius onto his estate, and the servants that he had leading the guests were not simple butlers. According to Gregory of Tours, the bishop of the city at the time of these events, “the Jews and the two Christians were killed by the servants of Injuriosus and their bodies were thrown into a well which was near the house” (History of the Franks, VII.23).

The murder of Armentarius and his companions did not go unnoticed, but it was outside influence that finally prompted an investigation and trial. Family and friends of Armentarius became concerned when their loved one disappeared. They retraced his steps to Tours and scoured the city for news of what happened. After some admirable sleuthing, they successfully found the well near Vice-Count Injuriosus’ house and recovered the remains of the four people that had been thrown down into the depths. Citing local hearsay, the suspicious location of the body dumping site, and the large debts that the vice-count owed Armentarius, the family and friends of the moneylender brought their case before the local justice system. Injuriosus, however, had friends and clout in the court, and he assumed a simple defense of swearing that he had not been involved in the murders. Bishop and historian Gregory of Tours reported on this lackluster trial, writing, “He was prosecuted: but, as I have said, he denied his guilt vehemently, and the plaintiffs had no evidence on which he could be convicted. He was sentenced to clear himself by oath” (History of the Franks, VII.23). After this disappointing result, Armentarius’ family reportedly followed up by bringing their case directly to King Childebert II of the Franks (r. 575-595). The king and his court ignored the case, however, and no further trials of Vice-Count Injuriosus were held concerning the murder of Armentarius and his associates.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (Scene from Frankish History of Duke Guntram Boso being ambushed on the road, painted by Lawrence Alma-Tadema  (1836–1912), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

  • The History of the Franks by Gregory of Tours, translated by Lewis Thorpe. New York: Penguin Classics, 1971.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

According To Hesiod, The Love-God Eros Was One Of The Oldest Divine Beings

In his epic poem, Theogony, the 8th-century BCE Greek poet, Hesiod, strove not only to tell myths about the gods, but to also trace the lineages and genealogy of the divine beings.  In the beginning, claimed Hesiod, there existed a great Chasm from which sprang the primordial deities. The first personified entity that emerged from the Chasm was Gaia (Earth). Similarly, Nyx (Night) and the less-personified Erebos (a realm of darkness) also appeared out of the Chasm. This small cast of Chasm-spawned deities might have been the only gods that the ancient Greek world would have known had not one more being flown out of the Chasm to prod the shy primordial deities into the act of procreation. To fulfill this purpose, the mysterious Chasm created Eros, who brought feelings of attraction and love to the divine world—emotions that would forever change the Greek gods and humanity.

Upon the arrival of this erotic deity and his powerful aphrodisiac side effects, the primordial gods inevitably began to feel quite interested in each other.  There was no fighting his influence as, according to Hesiod, Eros was “the dissolver of flesh, who overcomes the reason and purpose in the breasts of all gods and all men” (Theogony, line 120). After falling prey to Eros’ machinations, the gods Nyx and Erebos hooked up to have children. Gaia, too, felt the mood enough to create her own lover, Ouranos (Heaven). Gaia and Ouranos would in turn bring about the Titans, among which the couple of Kronos and Rhea would become the parents to most of the Olympian gods. In turn, the Olympian pantheon, led by ever-lusty Zeus, who would go on to create more gods, demigods and mythical creatures—so on and so forth, all thanks to the power of primordial Eros.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (4th century BCE image of Eros on pottery exhibited in the Blanton Museum of Art - Austin, Texas, USA, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

  • Theogony and Works and Days by Hesiod, translated by M. L. West. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988, 1999, 2008.