Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Constantine The Great Was A Brutal Roman Emperor

(Statue of Constantine by Phillip Jackson at York Cathedral, England, in front of the 3rd century CE battle scene from the “Grande Ludovisi” sarcophagus, both [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)

The Roman emperor, Constantine the Great (c. 272/280-337 CE), is commonly viewed with a positive light. This perspective is likely deserved—the man achieved a lot of impressive feats in his lifetime. He ended Christian persecution in the Roman Empire and was the only survivor in the civil war between the leaders of the Roman Tetrarchy. The tetrarchy divided the empire between two dominant emperors with the label, “Augustus” and two subservient “Caesars,” but Constantine’s victory in the civil war brought Rome, once again, under the rule of one strong emperor. Constantine also founded the city of Constantinople, the second great capital of the Roman Empire.

It is true that Constantine accomplished a lot of great things, and in many ways was a force for good, yet the darker side of Constantine cannot be forgotten—he was a brutal emperor. Brutality, however, should not be a surprising trait in Roman emperors, especially those involved in civil wars. Even the wise philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius had a few persecutions in his day. To be a successful civil war emperor, Constantine had to carefully craft his own image and tarnish the reputations of his enemies and, sometimes, make his rivals suspiciously disappear.

One of Constantine’s subtle skills was misinformation and distraction. The previous leader of the Roman Tetrarchy prior to Constantine, named Diocletian (emperor, 284-305), had carried out elaborate Christian persecutions during his reign. Diocletian’s persecutions, which occurred around 302-303 CE, were in full swing when Constantine was in his thirties. At the time, Constantine’s father (Constantius Chlorus) was a member of the tetrarchy and Constantine was lobbying for a prestigious position in the court of Diocletian. In his successful bid to gain the support of the Christian population of Rome, however, Constantine later claimed he was younger than he actually was, separating himself from Diocletian’s policies of persecution, while exaggerating the abuses of his rivals, such as Maxentius and Licinius.

Yet, his old history was not all that Constantine could scratch out of existence. In one interesting story, Constantine reportedly executed two Frankish chiefs or kings in 307 CE, by throwing them into an amphitheater in Trier that was filled with deadly animals. There are also several high-profile deaths in which Constantine had a hand. For one, Constantine’s rival, Emperor Maximian was forced to commit suicide in 310 CE, during the civil war. After the war, Constantine controversially (and without much explanation) had his son charged with treason and executed in 326 CE—an event that still baffles modern scholars. Soon after, Constantine’s second wife Fausta either committed suicide or was killed on Constantine’s orders.

One popular theory of what happened in 326 is that Fausta convinced Constantine that Crispus (her stepson) was treasonous, causing the chain of events leading to the execution. Yet, after the execution had occurred, rumor spread that Fauta’s claims were false. Once the public and the emperor believed the rumor, Fausta either committed suicide in shame, or Constantine took revenge for the wrongful execution of his son. This is only a theory, but it is a historical fact that Constantine did execute his son in 326 CE, and his second wife, Fausta, suspiciously died within the same year as the execution of Crispus.

Again, it should not be too surprising that Constantine the Great had a cold and calculating side. All successful emperors of the Roman Empire had to have a certain ruthless grit and cunning to survive the deadly political climate of ancient Rome. Constantine, perhaps, was just a little less brutal than many of his imperial predecessors.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

  • Introduction to Medieval Europe, 300-1500 (Second Edition) by Wim Blockmans and Peter Hoppenbrouwers. New York: Routledge, 2014.  

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Alexander The Great’s Father, Philip II, Lost An Eye During The First Decade Of His Wars For Dominance In Greece

(Bust supposedly of Philip II, king of Macedonia, photographed by Gunnar Bach Pedersen, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons via Creative Commons)

When Philip II became the undisputed king of Macedonia around 359 BCE, he quickly went about cementing his legacy as a conqueror. Interestingly, Philip was able to closely study the strengths and weaknesses of Greek hoplite warfare during the reign of his brother, Ptolemy, because he was sent to be a diplomatic hostage in Thebes—home of the elite Sacred Band warriors. Using the data he collected as a hostage, Philip II created an efficient and deadly fighting force the likes of which had never been seen before in the ancient world. He outfitted his men in light armor with small shields and had his troops carry monstrously long spears, called sarissas. Philip also developed a corps of engineers and drilled his cavalry to work closely in concert with the infantry. The king’s new army of Macedonian phalanxes could outreach and outmaneuver the slower Greek hoplites—an advantage that would make Philip the master of Greece. Philip II gained his fame and prestige through military innovation and prowess, but he would receive many lasting wounds and scars during his long years of war.

Conflict came quickly after Philip II became king. One year after ascending to the throne of Macedonia, Philip’s new phalanxes got their first taste of battle against the Illyrians. The battle was a success and the Macedonian military reforms were proven to be effective. Next, Philip struck out against Athenian power. He captured Athens’ outpost at Amphipolis and their fortress at Pydna in 357 BCE. Macedonian troops also moved into Thracian lands, capturing the city of Crenides in 356 BCE.

Philip eventually set his sights once more on Athens in 354 BCE and besieged the city of Methone. The Athenians put up a strong defense, but Philip’s soldiers and engineers eventually found a way to attack the town. During one of the assaults that led to the fall of Methone, Philip II received a wound that would stay with him the rest of his life. The Macedonian king suffered a blow to the eye, likely caused by an Athenian arrow. There is little detail on whether the king received a glancing blow or a horrific puncture, and it is also vague if the eye had to be completely removed, or if it was just damaged and cloudy. Nevertheless, after the siege of Methone, Philip II of Macedonia was blind in one of his eyes for the rest of his life.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

  • Alexander the Great by Philip Freeman. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2011.  
  • Alexander the Great: The Story of an Ancient Life by Thomas R. Martin and Christopher W. Blackwell. New York: Cambridge
    University Press, 2012.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Commodore Matthew Perry—The Man Who Ended Japanese Isolation By Threatening The Use Of Naval Force

(Matthew C. Perry. Half-plate daguerreotype, ‘Beckers & Piard, 264 Broadway’ stamped on the mat, cased, 1855-56, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)

In July of 1853, United States Commodore Matthew Perry, a no-nonsense veteran of the War of 1812, the Mexican War and the U. S. campaign against pirates in North Africa, arrived in Japan, determined to accomplish his mission. The task at hand was to open Japan to United States trade, by force if necessary, and the first step was to deliver a letter from President Millard Fillmore into the hands of the Japanese emperor. Though the objective may sound simple to a modern reader, Japan, at the time, had been isolationist for around two centuries, with their only foreign contact coming from China and the Netherlands. Nevertheless, Commodore Perry entered Tokyo Bay with four ships and loomed threateningly until the Japanese officials accepted President Fillmore’s letter.

The bakufu of Japan—the government of the Tokugawa Shogun—naturally asked for time to contemplate their options. Commodore Perry agreed, but warned he would return the following year with an even larger naval force. The bakufu officials were startled enough by the Commodore that they requested advice from Japan’s powerful regional rulers, the daimyo. The bakufu’s uncertainty was a sign of weakness that the Tokugawa Shogun would soon regret, and the daimyo, certainly, would not forget the wavering self-confidence of the Tokugawa bakufu. This, however, is quite a digression from Commodore Perry.

Keeping his word, Commodore Perry returned to Japan with a larger fleet. He sailed into Tokyo Bay in 1854 with nine ships, and the Tokugawa bakufu warily let the foreigners enter Japan.

When the two countries met, the Japanese and the U. S. sailors put on a cultural show-and-tell. The Japanese brought Perry to see a sumo-wrestling match—he was unimpressed. On the other hand, the United States brought with them a train, a telescope, a telegraph and a variety of alcoholic beverages.

By March, 1854, the United States had secured itself a trade treaty. The Treaty of Kanagawa allowed U. S. ships to enter the Japanese ports of Hakodate and Shimoda. Also, the U. S. gained permission to set up a consulate at Shimoda. Finally, the conditions of the Treaty of Kanagawa spread to other imperial powers—most notably, Britain, France and Russia. Within four more years, Japan would have eight trade ports open to international commerce, and all it took was the threat of brute force from a United States naval officer.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

  • A Modern History of Japan: From Tokugawa Times to the Present (Third Edition) by Andrew Gordon. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.  

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Was The Tale Of Jason And The Argonauts The First Recorded Account Of Maritime Trade And Exploration?

(The Argo, painted by Konstantinos Volanakis  (1837–1907), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)

The story of Jason and the Argonauts (a large company of heroes, including Heracles) was one of the oldest mythological stories produced in ancient Greece. Even though the oldest recovered full account of the story is the version of Apollonius of Rhodes (written in the 3rd century BCE), the story of Jason and the Argonauts is believed to have existed before the works of Homer in the 8th and 7th century BCE—Homer even adapted parts of Jason’s adventures into The Odyssey and mentioned their famous ship, the Argo, by name.

Some historians believe that the tale of the Argonauts may be the oldest account of human maritime trade and exploration. Lionel Casson proposed that Jason’s adventures across the Black Sea upon the Argo may have been an elaborate analogy or metaphor for ancient maritime trade. Specifically, the theory focuses on the story of the Golden Fleece, supposedly symbolizing the ancient Greeks journeying across the Black Sea to trade for gold. For further evidence, historians have hypothesized that the idea of the ‘Golden Fleece’ derived from the occurrence of ancient peoples in the Black Sea region placing fleece or wool in gold-rich waterways to catch particles of the precious metal.

As always, the interpretation and ranking of relics from the ancient past will continue to change and adapt as new information is found. Older maritime stories than Jason and the Argonauts may be found in the future, and Jason’s adventures may have been originally created without the merest thought for maritime trade. Nevertheless, the theory is interesting to ponder.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

  • Jason and the Argonauts by Apollonius of Rhodes, translated by Aaron Poochigian. New York: Penguin Classics, 2014.
  • Transnationalism in Ancient and Medieval Societies: The Role of Cross-Border Trade and Travel by Michael C. Howard. McFarland & Company, Inc., 2012.  

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Giuseppe Fiorelli—The Mastermind Behind The Haunting Plaster Casts Of The Victims of Pompeii

(left: cast of dog and chain from Pompeii, center: portrait of Giuseppe Fiorelli, right: cast of sitting man from Pompeii, all [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)

The Roman city of Pompeii began undergoing excavation around 1748, when King Charles VII of Naples (the later Charles III of Spain) decided to loot the ancient city’s art for his personal collection. Nearly a century later, the appointment of Giuseppe Fiorelli (1823-1896)—an Italian professor of archaeology from the University of Naples—as the head of the excavation of Pompeii, was a healthy change for the looted city.

Fiorelli directed the excavation of Pompeii from 1863-1875. Although some of his methods remained somewhat primitive and artifact removal, unfortunately, continued to persist, Giuseppe Fiorelli greatly improved the way Pompeii was being preserved. He developed several methods that have been embraced, perfected and enhanced by the next generations of archaeologists that came after him. For one, Fiorelli disapproved of the excavation system of digging out the roadways of Pompeii in order to find and excavate ancient buildings from the street level up. Instead, he found the tops of the structures and excavated the buildings from the top down to the floor-level. In addition to these excavation methods, Giuseppe Fiorelli also studied the topography, city planning and construction of Pompeii. At the end of his term as director of the Pompeii excavation, he published a book called Descrizione di Pompei (Description of Pompeii) in 1875. Yet, out of all of Fiorelli’s innovations, one clearly stands out—the plaster casts of Pompeii.

During his excavations, Giuseppe Fiorelli found that the decomposing and deteriorating materials from the ruins of Pompeii often left empty spaces in the ash that buried the ancient city. These cavities served as natural molds that, when filled with plaster, resulted in statues showing the dead in their final moments. The same technique could be used to cast wooden structures, such as beams and stairs, that had rotted away long ago. Unfortunately, Fiorelli did not clearly document his method for plaster casting, and much of the process remains a mystery. Researchers do know that he often added iron rods to provide structure for the casts of human remains—especially in the casts of large adults. Some casts of children do, however, contain only the original ancient bones underneath the plaster. Despite the dubious nature of Giuseppe Fiorelli’s casting techniques, the plaster casts continue to haunt and inspire viewers to this day, and the evocation of those very emotions is what the root  ‘muse’ is all about in the word, museum.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

  •   Pompeii: The Dead Speak. A documentary Published by Smithsonian, 2016. 

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

In One Odd Legend, The Ancient Chinese Strategist, Sun Tzu, Trained A King’s Concubines For War

(Tang court ladies from the tomb of Princess Yongtai in the Qianling Mausoleum, near Xi'an in Shaanxi, China. Date 706 AD, with a terracotta warrior, all [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)

The Art of War is a world famous book that has been studied and interpreted for centuries—yet, despite this, its author, Sun Tzu (or Master Sun), remains quite a vague figure in history. One of the few ancient Chinese sources that attempted to give historical information about Sun Tzu was The Records of the Grand Historian by Sima Qian, who lived around 145-85 BCE. In his history, Sima Qian recorded a really strange tale about Sun Tzu training a troop of concubines for warfare, but most historians do not believe that this story actually occurred. Nevertheless, the tale is interesting and entertaining and deserves to be told.

Sima Qian wrote that Sun Tzu gained an audience with his admirer, King Ho-Lu (r. 514-496 BCE), who ruled the Kingdom of Wu. The king had studied Sun Tzu’s work and was impressed by the strategist’s ideas and methods. Yet, before he put his faith in this man’s military philosophy, the king wanted proof that Sun Tzu could apply his ideas practically. King Ho-Lu then called for a demonstration of Master Sun’s skills—he demanded that Sun Tzu train some fresh recruits into hardened soldiers. For added difficulty, the king decided that these soldiers would be nearly two hundred of his own concubines.

Sun Tzu agreed to train the women without question. He divided the concubines into two companies and promoted two concubines to command their respective companies. When his recruits were ordered and outfitted with weaponry, Sun Tzu called the women out for training and gave them instructions for some basic military drills. The first drill merely consisted of commanding the women to look in certain directions on command. He wanted the women to look forward if he commanded, “eyes front,” and to obey similar commands to direct their attention left, right, and back. When the concubines claimed to understand the drill, Sun Tzu called them to attention.

Despite having just claimed that they were prepared to run through the drill, the women soon began to lose interest. Once Master Sun began the actual drill for the first time, the concubines burst into a fit of giggles. Sun Tzu took sole responsibility for this breach of discipline—he proclaimed that he must not have explained the drill adequately to the women, resulting in his orders not being followed correctly.

For a second time, Sun Tzu instructed the women on how to complete the drill. Look forward, left, right and back on command. Again, the women asserted they were ready to complete the exercise. Nevertheless, as soon as the concubines began the drill, giggles and laughter overtook them, once more.

With this second failure, Sun Tzu had enough. He called in an executioner and condemned to death the two concubine ‘officers’ whom he had appointed to command the two companies of women. These two women, however, were the king’s favorite concubines, and Sun Tzu soon received a message that the women should be given a lesser sentence. In response, Sun Tzu simply stated that, as the king’s appointed general, he had the power and obligation to ensure that the kingdom’s military ran smoothly.

Despite the king’s courtiers trying to dissuade Sun Tzu from his decision, the two concubines were executed. Understandably, after the two officers had been put to death, the rest of the concubines completed any drill Sun Tzu commanded of them in utter, disciplined silence. According to Sima Qian, this was an adequate representation of Sun Tzu’s abilities, and King Ho-Lu invited Master Sun into the inner circle of the Kingdom of Wu.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

  • The Art of War by Sun Tzu, translated by John Minford. New York: Penguin Classics, 2009.  

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Herodotus Recorded A Folk Tale About A Blind Egyptian King Using Urine To Regain His Eyesight

(Public Domain Egyptian symbols combined with Public Domain water)

According to a legend recorded by Herodotus, the Nile River flooded nearly thirty feet higher than usual during the reign of King Pheros of Egypt, a monarch believed to be fictitious by most historians. Apparently, Pheros was so enraged by the Nile River’s destruction that he took a spear or javelin and launched the weapon at the water. The Egyptian gods, however, loathed the king because of this emotional reaction to the river. Soon after King Pheros threw the spear, his eyes became diseased, eventually leading to blindness. For ten years, his blindness persisted without hope, but on the eleventh year, an oracle arrived with knowledge of a cure.

The oracle prescribed for the king a very, very unorthodox cure. The oracle claimed that the king’s blindness would be cured if Pheros could wash his eyes with the urine of a woman who had only slept with her husband. Thinking the cure would be easy to obtain, Pheros went to his wife and collected her urine. He then splashed the foul liquid on his eyes—but to the king’s horror—his wife’s urine did not fulfill the oracle’s requirements.

After his wife’s urine did not do the trick, King Pheros systematically gathered the urine of his female subjects. Finally, after countless failures, the king found a woman who was able to cure his eyesight. Unfortunately, for all the previous women who had failed to meet the criteria, the king held a bitter grudge. According to the legend, King Pheros rounded up all the women whose urine had failed to cure him and locked them in a city called Red Clod by Herodotus. When all of these unfortunate women were locked inside the city, King Pheros burned Red Clod to the ground, killing everyone inside, including his wife.

After massacring the people locked in the city, the king married the woman whose urine had cured his eyesight, and they supposedly lived happily ever after. With that, this bizarre and awkward story about a blind king regaining his eyesight by bathing his eyes in urine comes to a close. Again, King Pheros is not believed to be a real historical figure, and Herodotus’ history is riddled with falsehoods—so think of this story more as folklore and legend. Nevertheless, this bizarre story filled with gallons of urine and mass slaughter is quite an entertaining tale.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

  • The Histories by Herodotus, translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt and revised by John Marincola. New York: Penguin Classics, 2002. 

Monday, May 22, 2017

The Native American, Black Elk, Killed A United States Soldier When He Was Thirteen Years Old

("The Custer Fight" by Charles Marion Russell  (1864–1926), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)

Around 1874, the United States discovered there was gold buried in the Black Hills of the Dakota Territory. When this information was made public, prospectors and fortune-seekers poured into the region in search of wealth, all the while disregarding the Treaty of Fort Laramie (1868), in which the U. S. recognized Sioux and Arapaho authority over the region. The United States government did not want to forcibly remove the prospectors from the Black Hills, so they instead offered to purchase the territory from the tribal leaders. When the natives refused to sell, and the gold-hunters continued to arrive, the U. S. finally issued an ultimatum, decreeing that all the Native Americans who did not return to their reservations by late January of 1876 would be considered hostile combatants. When the deadline passed, the military was sent into the Dakota territories to suppress the remaining dissident Native Americans—mainly the Lakota Sioux leaders, Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull. Among the many natives following these two charismatic leaders was a thirteen-year-old boy named Black Elk (1863-1950), who would grow up to be one of the most important figures in Native American religion and mysticism.

In Black Elk Speaks, a pseudo-autobiography narrated by Black Elk, but transcribed and edited by John Neihardt, Black Elk talked about some of the first battles he witnessed or participated in. He stated that his first skirmish occurred when he was thirteen. Black Elk’s family was traveling with a small band of Oglala Lakota Sioux and Cheyennes who were all traveling to join the forces of Crazy Horse. They camped near the Bozeman Trail (probably around May 1876) and spotted a United States wagon train heading their way. The convoy also spotted the Native American scouts and began shooting. When the gunshots started, the Sioux and Cheyennes gathered their weapons and attacked the wagons. Black Elk hesitated only for a moment, then equipped his six-shot revolver that was given to him by his sister and joined in the attack.

When the caravan noticed there was a threat, they made a defensive circle with their wagons, providing shelter for themselves and their animals. The Sioux and Cheyenne warriors began circling around the wagons on their horses, firing shots at the people who were crouching behind their defenses. Black Elk said that he and the warriors kept inching ever closer to the wagons as they rode round and round. Nevertheless, they could not break through the defenses. The warriors finally decided to withdraw and resume their journey to meet with Crazy Horse.

Black Elk also witnessed, and may have participated in, the famous Battle of Little Bighorn on June 25-26, 1876, when he was still only thirteen years of age. He was living in a camp village made of various tribes who decided to fight alongside Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse against the United States. The camp at Little Bighorn (known to the natives as the Greasy Grass) is thought to have been populated by as many as 8,000 people, with more than 1,500 warriors.

The battle occurred when Lt. Colonel George Armstrong Custer camped his 7th Cavalry force of around six hundred men at Wolf Mountain, near the Little Bighorn River. His main objective was to scout out the hostile encampments, and possibly to push the Native Americans into a larger ambush planned by General Terry. Yet, Custer’s men (or his own Native American scouts) were spotted, causing the people of the camp village to panic. After being discovered, Custer decided to attack the enemy immediately.

Custer divided his already outnumbered 7th Cavalry force into three fighting divisions, not including those men handling the supply line and ammunition. Lt. Col. Custer kept one division for himself, and divided the rest between Major Marcus Reno and Captain Frederick Benteen. Reno’s division crossed the Little Bighorn River and attacked the Native American camp from the south. Custer took his troops and threatened the camp from the north. Meanwhile, Benteen hovered with his troops near the center of the enemy camp.

Major Reno’s attack was disastrous. He was outflanked and the Native Americans chased his men down as if they were hunting buffalo. The survivors of the Reno division found their way back to Benteen’s force and they ended up being besieged on a hill until June 26th. Lt. Col. Custer’s division, however, was attacked from multiple angles by forces led by the Sioux leaders, Crazy Horse and Gall (battle leader of the Hunkpapa). Custer and his men were surrounded and were massacred. The rest of the 7th Cavalry were only saved when the Native American force withdrew after they heard that General Terry was approaching with reinforcements.

Black Elk stated that he did not participate in the battle, itself, but he did help the warriors execute the wounded. He scalped at least two soldiers that day. Black Elk commented on one particularly gruesome scalping: “He had short hair and my knife was not very sharp. He ground his teeth. Then I shot him in the forehead and got his scalp” (Black Elk Speaks, Chapter 9). Like any proud kid, the thirteen-year-old Black Elk took his new trophy and proudly displayed it for his mother, who let out a huge cheer.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

  • Black Elk Speaks, narrated by Black Elk and recorded by John G. Neihardt. Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 2014.