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Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Papal Pest Control At The River Adige

In The Malleus Maleficarum (published 1487), the text’s authors informed readers, “There is a common report current in the districts of the River Etsch, as also in other places, that by the permission of God a swarm of locusts came and devoured all the vines, green leaves and crops” (Part II. Qn 2. Ch 1). As the quote described, the Italian lands around the River Etsch (more commonly known as the Adige River) reportedly suffered a plague of locusts on a biblical scale. Inhabited districts around the river were in such danger of famine that the Catholic Church felt it had to get involved to defeat the army of diabolical insects.

In order to solve the locust problem, Rome allegedly sent a high-ranking holy man to the region. The clergyman, whose name was kept anonymous in the Malleus Maleficarum, allegedly could perform special miracles connected in some way or other to the Keys of Heaven (or Saint Peter), a central symbol in the imagery of the Catholic Church.  As the story goes, the unnamed priest formulated a plan to rid the Adige River region of locusts by carrying out a complex ceremony that combined the might of the Keys, the Papal power of excommunication, and the rite of exorcism, all amplified by certain chants. According to The Malleus Maleficarum, the locusts “were suddenly put to flight and dispersed by means of this kind of excommunication and cursing” (Part II. Qn 2. Ch 1). With the holy shooing complete, so the folkloric tale claims, the locusts were defeated and the people in the Adige River region were saved.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (Swarm of Locusts by Emil Schmidt (1839–1909), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

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

Tuesday, March 3, 2020

The Chaotic Civil War Of Ardea In 443 BCE

In the 440s BCE, the Italian city of Ardea experienced a heavy dose of political turmoil that caused tempers and discord to flare. At the beginning of the decade, Ardea was embroiled in a land dispute with a rival city called Aricia. Years went by and neither city was able to enforce its claim on the territory. As both Ardea and Aricia were allies of Rome, they were said to have eventually sent representatives to the Romans and asked for the city to make a decision as to whether Ardea or Aricia had the better claim to the land. During the negotiations, which reportedly took place in 446 BCE, the Roman government came to a scandalous conclusion, claiming the disputed land for themselves instead of giving it to either of the rival cities.

In outrage to Rome’s decision, Ardea abruptly ended its alliance with the Romans. Yet, Rome’s controversial arbitration and the scorned city’s subsequent rage-cancellation of the alliance became topics of great debate among the different factions in Ardea. Heated partisan arguments in the city would only grow in intensity, for the then-leading party in Ardea quickly regretted the end of the alliance and almost immediately tried to resume a new partnership with the Romans. Between 445-443 BCE the leaders of Ardea were able to negotiate some sort of treaty with Rome, yet the wishy-washy policy of the city leaders only further stoked the ire of the opposition. Unfortunately, by 443 BCE, the animosity between the political factions in Ardea had descended into open civil war.

Centuries later, the Roman historian Livy (c. 59 BCE-17 CE) would comment on Ardea’s civil war in his History of Rome. Based on ancient annals, documents and histories that he had at his disposal, Livy described the conflict as a chaotic and action-packed struggle, with both warring factions pulling other Italian powers into the war. In a scene similar to the Cold War of the 20th century, Rome and its rivals used the conflict as a proxy war. The Romans gave their support to an aristocratic faction in Ardea, presumably the ruling party that had negotiated the recent treaty with Rome. The opposition movement of Ardea, dominated by commoner-oriented factions, instead reached out to Rome’s enemies, the Volscians and Aequians.

Romans, Volscians and Aequians all scrambled to help their chosen side of the civil war, ensuring that a complicated battle would soon play out at Ardea. A coalition of Volscians and Aequians were the first to arrive at the city, led by a commander named Cluilius. The Roman-aligned aristocrats reportedly still maintained control of most of the city at the time, so the Volscian-Aequian army helped the opposition forces set up a siege of the city. Yet, sieges take time, and time was a commodity that the besieging party did not have on their side, for a Roman army led by Consul Marcus Geganius Macerinus was also on its way to Ardea.

Despite the arrival of the Volscian and Aequian troops, the opposition faction could not force the ruling aristocratic party in Ardea to surrender. Instead, the aristocrats and their supporters held out until Consul Geganius arrived on the scene. The Romans, upon their arrival, went about doing what the Romans did best—they built. As the story goes, Consul Geganius’ army built a series of earthworks and forts around the Volscian-Aequian army. Simply put, the Romans reportedly besieged the besiegers. Additionally, Consul Geganius reportedly constructed a fortified passageway to the city, so that he could resupply the aristocratic party inside the city.

Cluilius and the Volscian-Aequian forces could not find a way to destroy the fortified path between the Roman army and the aristocratic faction position inside the city, much less devise a way to break free of the greater ring of Roman earthworks and forts. Trapped, and with a victory in battle unlikely, Cluilius reportedly opened up negotiations with Consul Geganius. An agreement of surrender was reached between the two, in which the Volscians and Aequians were allegedly allowed to leave Ardea, albeit only after handing over their weapons, armor and belongings to the Romans. With the city in their hands, the Roman army went to work enforcing the authority of their chosen faction on the city. As told by Livy, “Geganius restored peace to the distracted town of Ardea by executing the ringleaders of the recent troubles and turning over their property to the public funds” (History of Rome, 4.10). As for the unarmed and unarmored army of Volscians and Aequians, they were reportedly massacred in an ambush near Tusculum.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (Roman Emperor Meeting With A Soldier, by Agostino Veneziano (c. 1490-1536), [Public Domain] via Smithsonian Institute Open Access and Creative Commons).

  • The History of Rome by Livy, translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt. New York: Penguin Classics, 2002.

Monday, March 2, 2020

The Murder Of Wine-Merchant Christopher And The Hunt For His Killers

Around the year 585, France experienced a severe famine, which the merchant class savagely used to their advantage. A man named Christopher was one such opportunistic trader who scurried to sell food and drink to the parched and starving people of France at a predatory price. He was apparently from a larger merchant family, and with him in France was at least one other brother who was helping to administer the family’s business interests in the Frankish lands. Their buying and selling schemes were aided by the family’s access to a network of ships that could navigate the rivers and seas of Europe. Christopher’s last known mission brought him to the city of Orleans, where he ensured that a shipment of wine was loaded onto boats and sent down river to its destination. Although the wine was being carried by way of the river, Christopher went in a different direction. Instead of hitching a ride on one of the ships, he hopped on a horse and traveled by road in another direction. His path brought him into a forested region, yet his next mission and intentions are unknown, for he was murdered during his journey and all of his effects were stolen.

Before long, Christopher’s body was discovered, and his brother made his way to the vicinity of Orleans to complete the morbid task of overseeing the funeral arrangements. Yet, the brother was likely not prepared for the gruesome nature of the crime. Wounds on the victim’s body told a foul tale—he had been stabbed in the back and mutilated by blows to the head and torso. The number and ferocity of the blows hinted at the murder being a crime of rage and hate instead of a robbery gone wrong.

Christopher’s wealthy family strove to avenge their kinsman’s death. The brother in Orleans gathered a posse to hunt down the killers, and he already had some persons of interest in mind. In Orleans, witnesses had seen Christopher traveling with two servant-slaves of Saxon origin. While the late merchant had been brutal on the prices of his wares for the starving, he was even more savage in his treatment of his slaves. Christopher’s brother knew the two Saxon slaves had been flogged many a time by their late master and that the two had unsuccessfully tried to run away in the past—leading to even more punishment. As the slaves in question had not been found dead, injured, or present at the scene of the crime, they became prime suspects for the murder. As such, Christopher’s brother had his mercenaries and bounty hunters search specifically for the missing slaves.

After the death of Christopher, whether or not the Saxons were involved, the two servant-slaves fled from the scene and split up. One of the two was unluckily caught by the manhunters, but the Saxon did not give up without a fight. In a second escape attempt from his captors, the unlucky slave killed one of the mercenaries and tried to run away. He did not get far, however, and was soon recaptured. Christopher’s brother had apparently, by then, moved to Tours, so the arrested Saxon slave was brought there by the mercenaries for punishment. Christopher’s brother was in a bitter and unforgiving mood, leading him to push for a merciless and brutal sentencing. When the bounty hunters arrived in that city with their prisoner, tales of the grisly events that they were all involved in reached the ear of Tours’ bishop, Gregory (c. 539-594), who was a historian as well as a clergyman. Gregory of Tours recorded the account of Christopher’s murder for posterity and wrote that the captured Saxon slave was “taken by the others to Tours, submitted to various tortures and mutilated: then his corpse was hanged from a gibbet” (History of the Franks, VII.46). As for the surviving Saxon fugitive, he apparently escaped detection and was not seen again.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (Illustration of the death of William the red, dated to c. 1864, by James William Edmund Doyle (1822–1892), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

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

Sunday, March 1, 2020

The Fatal Fire-Fetching Of Euchidas

In 480 BCE, the Greeks defeated Xerxes’ Persian forces at sea in the Battle of Salamis. This strike turned into a one-two punch, when the Greeks followed up their success by defeating the Persians on land at the Battle of Plataea. Although the Greco-Persian Wars were in no way over, Plataea was such an overwhelming victory for the Greeks that it prompted the Persians to start withdrawing from Greece, and they would not launch another major invasion into the Greek heartland for the remainder of the conflict. After winning the battle at Plataea, the Greeks knew how significant a victory they had won, and several altars and temples were planned to commemorate and celebrate the blessed fortune that the Greeks had received that day. The people of Plataea and other Greeks sponsoring the altars consulted the Oracle of Delphi for advice on what should be done to set up the new religious sites. In response, the Plataeans were told that their city needed to be purified—to do this, Delphi encouraged the Plataeans to send someone to fetch a torch of fire from the Delphic altar and bring it back to ignite a sacred fire on the newly-built altar of Zeus in Plataea.

For this holy task, a certain Euchidas was chosen to retrieve the torch from Delphi and transport it back to Plataea. Eager to complete the auspicious task in an honorable and timely manner, Euchidas set off at a run, refusing any horses or other forms of transportation. He reached Delphi in record time, giving himself leeway to carefully observe any rites of purification that he needed in order to be qualified to carry the holy torch. With firebrand in hand, he sprinted back toward Plataea, making such good time that he was able to reach the city by sunset on the very same day that he had originally left Plataea. With his mission complete, Euchidas succumbed to the fate shared by all too many runners of folklore and legend—he collapsed to the ground and died.

Plutarch (c. 50-120), the great Greek-Roman biographer, recorded the tale of Euchidas in his biographical essay on Aristides. His account of the tale was as follows:

 “Euchidas, a Plataean, promising to fetch fire, with all possible speed, from the altar of the god, went to Delphi, and having sprinkled and purified his body, crowned himself with laurel; and taking the fire ran back to Plataea, and got back there before sunset, performing in one day a journey of a thousand furlongs; and saluting his fellow-citizens and delivering them the fire, he immediately fell down, and in a short time after expired” (Plutarch, Life of Aristides, section 20).

Euchidas’ collapse and death was not the end of his story. Due to his impressive athletic feat and the great religious service he had done for Plataea, Euchidas’ body was reverently brought to a local temple of Artemis and interred with great honors. According to Plutarch, his tomb featured an account of his deed, which stated, “Euchidas ran to Delphi and back again in one day” (Life of Aristides, section 20).

Written by C. Keith Hansely

Picture Attribution: (Image from page 87 of "The antique Greek dance, after sculptured and painted figures" (1916), [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.

Thursday, February 27, 2020

The Tales Of Buried Treasure At Tenochtitlan

Hernan Cortes, with an army of Spanish conquistadors and their Native American allies, besieged and destroyed the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan in 1521. The city was greatly damaged during the battle, and in the aftermath of Spain’s conquest of the Aztec Empire, Tenochtitlan was ultimately razed to the ground and rebuilt as Mexico City. Bernal Díaz del Castillo, one of the conquistadors who took part in the campaign, reminisced about the original city of Tenochtitlan, writing, “today all that I then saw is overthrown and destroyed; nothing is left standing” (Conquest of New Spain, chapter 87).

Once the gold-lusting Spaniards gained full control of Tenochtitlan, they were disappointed in the underwhelming amount of treasure that they found in the Aztec capital. Indeed, they tortured the captured Aztec Emperor, Cuauhtémoc (or Guatemoc), for leads on where to find hidden wealth. Cuauhtémoc and other tortured Aztec elites could do little but lead the Spaniards to personal hoards of treasure that they had buried underground or dropped into the marshy lake on which Tenochtitlan had been built. Yet, such sporadic and limited treasure troves did not provide enough loot for Hernan Cortes to divide satisfactorily among his troops.

When the Spaniards set about rebuilding Tenochtitlan as Mexico City, they unintendingly found a new source of buried treasure. The incident occurred while the Spaniards were grading and leveling the rubble at Tenochtitlan for new construction. Bernal Díaz described the scene:

“After we conquered that great and strong city and divided the ground we decided to build a church to our patron and guide St James in place of Huichilobos’ cue, and a great part of the site was taken for the purpose. When the ground was excavated to lay a foundation, gold and silver and chalchihuites, and pearls, and seed-pearls, and other precious stones were found in great quantities; and a settler in Mexico who built on another part of the site found the same” (Conquest of New Spain, chapter 92).

Upon the discovery of the treasure, a court battle ensued over who should take possession of it, with the church, the crown and the local settlers all hoping to get a piece. During the legal dispute, Spanish officials also investigated the origin of the treasure by asking (or interrogating) influential Aztecs about the hoard of wealth that was found under the cue. The aforementioned Bernal Díaz wrote of this, claiming that the captured Emperor Cuauhtémoc and other Aztec elites explained “all the inhabitants of Mexico had thrown jewels and other things into the foundations, as was recorded in their pictures and records of ancient times. The treasure was therefore preserved for the building of St James’s church” (Conquest of New Spain, chapter 92).

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (Representation of Tenochtitlan by Diego Rivera, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

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

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Emperor Wu’s Lavish Entertainment For Foreign Envoys

Emperor Wu (r. 141-87 BCE), like any powerful emperor, wanted to receive deference and respect from the weaker realms that neighbored his empire. One of the main ways that he spread his influence was through the use of his military might, which he used to expand his empire in all directions throughout the course of his reign. Yet, military might was not the only way he tried to impress and awe his neighbors—he also attempted to win over foreign dignitaries by entertaining them with feasts and spectacles that showed off the extravagant wealth and resources of his empire.

Sima Qian, Grand Historian and palace secretary of Emperor Wu, recorded for posterity a list of various ways that the emperor tried to use luxury and opulence to make visitors to his realm feel awe and reverence for the Han Empire. First of all, the emperor reportedly housed foreign visitors in grand and gorgeous lodgings. The dignitaries, however, did not stay in one place, as the emperor apparently liked to send the foreign envoys on tours of China’s greatest cities. When the foreigners were given time to rest in one place, the emperor smothered them with magnificent banquets and exotic shows.

In describing Emperor Wu’s feasts, Grand Historian Sima Qian wrote, “He entertained the foreign visitors with veritable lakes of wine and forests of meat and had them shown around to the various granaries and storehouses to see how much wealth was laid away there, astounding and overwhelming them with the breadth and greatness of the Han empire” (Shi Ji 123). As for non-edible entertainment, the emperor did not spare any expense. Showmen and exotic animals were brought in from all over the empire to impress the foreign visitors. Sima Qian wrote:

 “He would hold great wrestling matches and displays of unusual skills and all sorts of rare creatures, gathering together large numbers of people to watch…After the skills of the foreign magicians and tricksters had been imported into China, the wrestling matches and displays of unusual feats developed and improved with each year, and from this time on entertainment of this type became increasingly popular” (Shi Ji 123).

If all of the above was not enough to impress foreign envoys, the emperor still had a few options at his disposal. One such method was for the emperor to simply give the diplomats a parting gift of silks and money before they returned to their homelands.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (Image of the Dahuting Tomb mural, c. 2nd-3rd century CE, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

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