Wednesday, September 27, 2017

King Penda of Mercia—The Kingslayer of 7th-Century Britain



The two best early sources of information on Penda of Mercia are The Ecclesiastical History of the English People by Bede and the History of the Britons, written by Nennius. The latter author wrote in more detail about Penda, yet, in his own way, Bede clearly characterized the man’s bloody reign.

Even though King Penda was never a major focal point of any of Bede’s chapters, readers cannot help but notice that the man’s name had a habit of appearing whenever Bede described the death of other 7th-century kings. To set the scene, imagine Bede writing about a saintly Christian king of Northumbria—then, seemingly out of nowhere, Penda arrives with an army and slaughters the opposing king in a bloody battle. That is the general way King Penda’s name appears in Bede’s History. Even so, Bede had to write down Penda’s name quite often. After all, Penda’s military campaigns led to the deaths of at least five separate kings.

Penda became the ruler of Mercia (English midlands) in the 620s or early 630s, after the death of King Ceorl (or Cearl) of Mercia. When he ascended to the Mercian throne, not all was to his liking. Although Penda was the ruler of Mercia, Northumbria was technically in control of the region. Despite being subservient to the Kingdom of Northumbria and not yet officially holding the title “king,” Penda did not give up on his own ambitions.

Upon becoming ruler of Mercia, Penda immediately moved for independence.  He began by making strong alliances while also attacking weak targets. In this way, Penda seized Hwicce (approximately Gloucestershire) from the Kingdom of Wessex and formulated a powerful alliance with Cadwallon, the king of Gwynedd. In 633 CE, the combined forces of Cadwallon and Penda faced King Edwin of Northumbria in the Battle of Hatfield Chase. During the battle, King Edwin was killed, throwing Northumbria into instability. With the Northumbrians in chaos, Cadwallon proceeded to ravage the Northumbrian countryside, and Penda succeeded in asserting himself as the independent king of Mercia.

Next, in the 630s or possibly the 640s, King Penda set his sights on East Anglia. There, King Ecgric and the retired (but respected) King Sigebert of East Anglia defended against the Mercian advance. Nevertheless, Penda’s campaign was a great success, and both Ecgric and Sigebert were slain, bringing Penda’s monarch kill-count to at least three.

Around this time, a new ruler in Northumbria was quickly bringing his kingdom back to order. Oswald, a nephew of the slain King Edwin, had returned from exile and claimed the throne of Northumbria. In 634, he killed Penda’s ally, Cadwallon of Gwynedd, and brought the Kingdom of Northumbria back to normalcy. After the initial threats to his kingdom were defeated, King Oswald eventually set out for revenge against Mercia. In 642, King Oswald and the Northumbrians met Penda and his allies in a battle near Owestry, in Shropshire. King Oswald died in the battle, with Penda killing his fourth known king. Following the battle, Penda seized even more Northumbrian land, including the regions of modern Elmet and Lindsey.

With Northumbria momentarily put back in its place, King Penda sought out opportunities in the various kingdoms that bordered his realm. He attacked Wessex and East Anglia, again, and in his campaign against the latter kingdom, he killed his fifth king, this time it was the East Anglian King Anna, who met his end around 654.

Riding upon this wave of successive victories, King Penda likely was feeling invincible. After all, in his military campaigns Penda had killed a minimum of five kings, with two from Northumbria and three from East Anglia. Nevertheless, King Penda wanted even more and decided to launch another military campaign against his greatest rival, the Kingdom of Northumbria. As the proverb goes, those who live by the sword, die by the sword. This saying applied perfectly to King Penda. Spending almost his entire reign in perpetual war, King Penda ultimately died on the battlefield. In 655, King Penda led his army against King Oswiu of Northumbria, brother of the slain King Oswald. The two forces finally clashed at the Battle of the Winwaed River. After asserting Mercia’s independence and making his kingdom a major power in Britain, King Penda died in battle somewhere near Leeds.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Top picture attribution: (Anglo-Saxon helmet from the Sutton Hoo ship burial, c. 7th century, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

Source:
  • Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People (and relevant letters), translated by Leo Sherley-Pride, R. E. Latham and D. H. Farmer (Penguin Classics, 2003).  
  • http://www.earlybritishkingdoms.com/adversaries/bios/penda.html 
  • http://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/HistoryofEngland/Kings-Queens-of-Mercia/  
  • https://www.britannica.com/biography/Penda 
  • http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/11/15/on-this-day-britains-last-great-pagan-king-is-struck-down-by-chr/  
  • http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/search_the_collection_database/term_details.aspx?bioId=180596 
  • http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/people_penda.html 

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

The Three-Month Reign of The Roman Emperor Pertinax



On December 31, 192 CE, Emperor Commodus (r. 180-192) was strangled to death while he was bathing. The assassination freed the Roman Empire from Commodus’ incompetent and negligent rule. Yet, the Roman glory days were over, and the empire would never fully return to its former harmony. Instead, the reign of Commodus was succeeded by another type of chaos—instability and civil war.

By the first day of January 193, the senate had already chosen who would be the next emperor. The man they put on the throne was Publius Helvius Pertinax, and, at least on paper, Pertinax seemed to be a perfectly adequate candidate.

Emperor Pertinax was born around 126, the son of a freed slave. Despite his humble beginnings, Publius Helvius Pertinax would rise to the top of Roman society. Pertinax managed to obtain a thorough education, and rose in the academic world high enough to become a teacher.

At some point in his life, Pertinax quit his job as an educator and decided to devote himself to the symbiotic spheres of Roman military and politics. Recognized as a man who served with distinction, Pertinax built up his prestige by leading troops in Syria, Britain and Germany. Due to his military achievements, Pertinax was granted a seat in the Roman Senate, and was even elected to the office of consul. With the respect and support from Emperor Marcus Aurelius (161-180), Pertinax was eventually tasked with defending much of the eastern empire, from the Danube River to Syria. Yet, upon the death of Marcus Aurelius, Pertinax lost a great deal of his former influence. Nevertheless, by 192, the year of Emperor Commodus’ death, Pertinax had been able to climb back to prominence by becoming a Prefect of Rome, as well as the senior marshal of the Roman Empire.

When Emperor Commodus was killed, most of the key players (the assassins, the Praetorian Guard and the Senate) backed Pertinax as the next emperor. After all, the man was a former teacher, a distinguished soldier and a senior member of the Roman Senate. Also, in staunch contrast to Commodus, Pertinax had a reputation for living a moral and virtuous lifestyle. Yet, it was this side of the emperor that would lead to his downfall.

When he became emperor, Pertinax quickly scanned through the messy finances of the Roman Empire, and was dismayed by the wasteful spending and corruption that was present everywhere. In an attempt to remove all of the luxurious excesses that were expensively imposed on the empire by his predecessor, Commodus, Pertinax instituted major spending cuts in both the civilian and military spheres. Most significantly, he did away with many of the lavish benefits that Commodus had given to the emperor’s personal protection, the Praetorian Guard.

Naturally, the praetorians were not at all pleased that their elite brotherhood was being cleaned of its corruption. Therefore, after only around three months of Pertinax’s rule, a mob of disgruntled praetorians (sometimes estimated at 300 in number) pressed their way forcefully into the palace where the emperor was staying. Pertinax, a former teacher, general and senator, felt that he could disarm the mob with his words, and fatefully decided to remain in the palace and try to negotiate with the angry soldiers. The praetorians, however, either were unimpressed by the emperor’s speech, or ignored his words altogether. In March 193, Emperor Pertinax was stabbed to death by his own praetorian guardsmen. He was not allowed to die gracefully; Pertinax’s killers reportedly cut off the emperor’s head and paraded it on a stake for all of the Romans to see.

The death of Pertinax ignited one of the most persistent problems that plagued Roman society—civil war. After killing Pertinax, the Praetorian Guard held an auction, offering the imperial throne to the highest bidder. The man with the biggest coin purse, named Didius Julianus, was escorted by the Guard to the Roman Senate, where the man was made emperor. Yet, by buying the throne, Didius Julianus had little support among the people or the senators, and his protection by the Praetorian Guard would only last as long as he could pay their wages. Sensing weakness, three other powerful military commanders launched rebellions, each claiming to be the rightful heir to the slain Pertinax.

In 193, the so-called “Year of the Five Emperors,” the most powerful warlord to rise up was Septimus Severus, who launched a rebellion with around sixteen legions stationed in the regions of the empire that were adjacent to the Rhine and Danube Rivers. When news reached Rome that Severus was marching to Italy, Didius Julianus lost all of his support. Mere weeks after he had bought the throne, Emperor Didius Julianus was killed by an assassin sent by either the Roman Senate or Septimus Severus. Regardless of who sent the assassin, the Roman Senate quickly proclaimed Severus as the new emperor. Emperor Severus (r. 193-211) spent the next several years defeating his military rivals and began the Severan Dynasty, which would produce four more emperors.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Top picture attribution: (Depiction of Emperor Pertinax, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

Sources:
  • The Roman History by Cassius Dio, translated by Ian Scott-Kilvert. New York: Penguin Classics, 1987.  
  • https://www.britannica.com/biography/Publius-Helvius-Pertinax
  • https://www.ancient.eu/Pertinax/ 
  • https://www.roman-emperors.org/pertinax.htm 
  • https://www.britannica.com/biography/Septimius-Severus 
  • https://www.ancient.eu/Didius_Julianus/  

Monday, September 25, 2017

An Ancient Statue Of The Goddess, Hera, Allegedly Could Predict The Future In Bizarre Ways



Around 494 BCE, King Cleomenes of Sparta marched his army against the city of Argos, which was Sparta’s most powerful rival in the Peloponnesus at the time.  The Spartans won a great victory against the Argives, destroying the army of Argos and chasing the shattered enemy soldiers into a forest. With the remaining Argive forces trapped in the dense foliage, Cleomenes gave his enemies false promises and coaxed some of the men out of the forest. The unfortunate men who left the protection of the trees were quickly cut down by the Spartans. When the remaining Argive survivors refused to come out of their hiding place, King Cleomenes then set fire to the entire forest. It was after this that Cleomenes learned that the forest he had burned was sacred ground. According to Herodotus, Cleomenes was so distraught over this realization that he sent most of his troops home to Sparta, leaving only his elite men to stay with him near Argos.

In the ancient world, many militaries prized omens, prophecies and oracles, if not purely out of faith, then as a boost to morale. With the disgraceful burning of sacred ground being the epitome of an ill omen, Cleomenes then ventured to a nearby Heraion (temple of Hera), to ascertain if the gods would still give their blessing to the Spartan conquest of Argos.

When Cleomenes arrived at the temple, the Argive priest refused to let the Spartans offer sacrifice. Unperturbed, the Spartan king simply had the priest dragged away. Cleomenes then personally offered a sacrifice to the statue of Hera within the temple, hoping for a sign that would encourage further action against Argos. According to Herodotus, the statue did, indeed, produce a clear sign, yet it was the opposite of what the king wanted. Apparently, jets of fire erupted from Hera’s sculpted breasts. Somehow, Cleomenes knew that this peculiar sign meant that his mission in Argos was over, and that Sparta would not conquer the enemy city. Even stranger, the king supposedly knew the sign that he had wanted, the one which would have spelled the doom of Argos, would have been demonstrated by fire shooting from the head of Hera’s statue. Nevertheless, the fire came from the statue’s chest, not the head, and King Cleomenes returned home to Sparta, with his conquest incomplete.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Sources:
  • The Histories by Herodotus (Book VI), translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt and revised by John Marincola. New York: Penguin Classics, 2002.  
  • https://www.britannica.com/biography/Cleomenes-I 
  • https://www.britannica.com/biography/Demaratus  
  • http://www.encyclopedia.com/people/history/ancient-history-greece-biographies/cleomenes-i 
  • http://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/oi/authority.20110803095617233  
  • http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:1999.04.0004:entry=cleomenes-anaxandridou

Sunday, September 24, 2017

The Lethal Temple Of Death In Ancient Hierapolis



King Eumenes II of Pergamum is thought to have founded the city of Hierapolis (modern Pamukkale) around 190 BCE in the region of ancient Phrygia, located in western Anatolia. Built around beautiful hot springs, the city would serve both as a luxurious spa and a religious center. Along with public baths, a gymnasium and the all important community agora, the city of Hieropolis also had a unique temple, constructed atop a cave or crevice in the earth, which was dedicated to the god of the underworld.

The temple of Hades in Hierapolis, like several other ancient Greek temples (especially the ones that housed oracles), was built atop multiple fault lines that allowed natural gasses to permeate into the structure. Yet, while other temples had fumes that caused delirium or hallucinations, the noxious smog in the temple at Hierapolis caused extreme illness and death. The temple was so dangerous that it was considered a portal to the domain of Hades. When the Romans expanded their empire over the region, they were also impressed with the temple and confirmed that it was a Ploutonion, a temple of their god of the dead, Pluto.

The Ploutonion of Hierapolis was an awesome sight. It was said to have included a tiered theater, and it hosted many sacrifices, where live offerings were carried into the temple to die of the poisonous fumes. One of the more striking accounts of the Ploutonion was written by the geographer and historian, Strabo (c. 64 BCE – 21 CE), who wrote that the temple featured a dark pathway that led under the ground, which was heavily fogged over with lethal vapor. He witnessed that any animals, from small birds to beasts as large as bulls, all quickly died when they were brought down into the temple’s noxious depths.

The Ploutonion remained open until the rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire, when its entrance was eventually sealed and forgotten. The city remained populated well into the Byzantine Era, until it was abandoned around the 14th century.

The ancient city was rediscovered in the 19th century, when archaeologists began to excavate the region. The immense historical and cultural value of the site was internationally recognized in 1988, when Hierapolis was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Modern archeologists have found that potent carbon dioxide gasses, to this day, infest the temple and make the ruins deadly—several curious birds died while archeologists excavated the Ploutonion. It is believed that the priests who carried out the sacrifices in the temple of the dead simply held their breath to safely enter and exit the Ploutonion, as they carried out their religious duties.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Top picture attribution: (Theater of Hierapolis, [Public Domain] via pixabay.com).

Sources:
  • http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2013/04/130414-hell-underworld-archaeology-mount-olympus--greece/  
  • https://www.britannica.com/place/Hierapolis-ancient-Phrygian-city 
  • https://www.britannica.com/biography/Strabo  
  • http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/485 
  • http://metro.co.uk/2013/04/04/ancient-gates-of-hell-found-in-pamukkale-turkey-3582937/ 

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

The Roman Historian Cassius Dio Claimed To Be Divinely Inspired To Write History




Some modern historians probably feel like they have a calling for history, but their sense of purpose may not be as intense as that of Cassius Dio (c. 163-235 CE), a Roman historian of Greek descent from Bithynia, who lived through the reigns of some of the most notorious emperors, such as Commodus and Caracalla. Although we know Dio mainly as a historian, he was also a very successful politician—he held two consulships and served as governor of several provinces. Yet, during the reign of Septimus Severus (c. 193-211), Dio took on a job that would set him on the path to cementing his name firmly in history.

In typical Roman fashion, Emperor Septimus Severus achieved power by winning a civil war with an army loyal only to himself. Around this time, Cassius Dio became suddenly inspired to write a biography about Severus, focusing especially on the prophetic dreams that the new emperor allegedly experienced, which prompted him to seize power. When Dio’s biography was published, Emperor Septimus Severus was impressed by what he read—he personally sent Dio a congratulatory letter, praising his work.

Thankfully for us, Cassius Dio did not shy from writing about his own life. We can, therefore, read in Dio’s own words about the profound impact the emperor’s letter had on the emerging historian:

“I had written and published a memoir about the dreams and portents which led Severus to hope for the imperial power, and after he had read the copy I sent him he wrote me a handsome acknowledgement. Receiving the letter in the evening, I soon went to sleep, and as I slept the divine power commanded me to write history. Thus I came to compose the present account [The Roman History].”
The Roman History (73. 23. I-3, 5) by Cassius Dio, translated by Ian Scott-Kilvert (Penguin Classics, 1987).

Spurned on by whatever forces drove him to write history, Cassius Dio literally created a work that attempted to describe the entirety of Roman history. He started by writing an account of the civil wars that brought Septimus Severus to power. When the document received praise, Dio found the encouragement he needed to continue writing. And write he did—Cassius Dio wrote an eighty-volume history, beginning with Aeneas’ arrival in Italy after the Trojan War, and ending with his own age in the Roman Empire of the 3rd-century. Dio claimed that completing the history was a twenty-two year endeavor, with ten years of research and twelve years of composition.

Unfortunately, much of Dio’s history has been damaged and lost, but his account of events from around 69 BCE to 46 CE, thankfully, remain remarkably whole. In particular, Dio’s volumes on the reign of Emperor Augustus (c. 27 BCE- 14 AD) are still regarded as one of the most comprehensive Augustan histories from the ancient world.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Top picture attribution: (Cicero Denounces Catiline (zoomed and cropped) painted by Cesare Maccari (1840–1919), c. 1889, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

Source:
  • The Roman History by Cassius Dio, translated by Ian Scott-Kilvert. New York: Penguin Classics, 1987.  
  • https://www.britannica.com/biography/Septimius-Severus 
  • https://www.britannica.com/biography/Dio-Cassius 

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Emperor Augustus Never Used The Name “Octavian”



Historians have given Julius Caesar’s great-nephew (and later adopted son) the name, Octavian. In reality, the name of this important figure is much more complicated. The man known today as Octavian actually was called, Gaius Octavius, a name he would use until he was eighteen years old.

The assassination of Julius Caesar on the Ides of March, 44 BCE, was the trigger that led to Gaius Octavius’ first change of name. In his last will and testament, Julius Caesar posthumously adopted Gaius Octavius as his son and named the youth as his heir. To strengthen his ties to the fallen dictator’s legacy, Gaius Octavius then took upon himself the name of his adoptive father—Gaius Julius Caesar.

The man we know of as Octavian actually used the name “Caesar” for around seventeen years, persisting even a few years after Marc Antony and Cleopatra committed suicide. In 27 BCE, on the suggestion of Lucius Munatius Plancus, the second Caesar accepted his third name, Augustus.

Ancient Roman historians, including Cassius Dio (c. 163-235 CE; writer of the most complete ancient account of Augustus’ reign), also never used the name, Octavian. When addressing Gaius Octavius after 44 BCE, the ancient historians simply called him, Caesar, until he officially adopted the name of Augustus in 27 BCE. Understandably, having two successive dictatorial military leaders known by the name of Caesar can ultimately become confusing to readers, so later historians thankfully began referring to Julius Caesar’s heir as Octavian, for the sake of simplicity.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Top picture attribution: (Augustus of Prima Porta, c. 1st century CE, located in the Vatican Museum, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

Sources:
  • The Roman History: The Reign of Augustus (Books 50-56) by Cassius Dio, translated by Ian Scott-Kilvert and introduced by John Carter. New York: Penguin Classics, 1987.