Tuesday, October 31, 2017

The Impressive Career Of The 1st-Century General Ban Chao Of The Eastern Han Dynasty

The influence of the Eastern Han Dynasty spread deep into central Asia. The success of this expansion was due in large part to the effective leadership of Ban Chao. This military leader, explorer and diplomat was born around 32 CE in the region known today as Xianyang, inside the Shaanxi province of China. We do not know much about his early career, but Ban Chao’s heyday began when he was in his early forties.

Ban Chao’s fame, as we know it, began in the year 73, when he was directed by Emperor Ming (Mingdi, r. 58-75) to take a leadership role in a campaign against the Xiongnu, often associated with the notorious Huns. After fighting for about three years, Ban Chao was withdrawn from the front around the time that Emperor Zhang (r. 76-88) became the new ruler of China. The general, however, was eventually sent back to the empire’s frontiers, corresponding to the modern region of Xinjiang, to secure the Tarim Basin and the Silk Road trade route that threaded through the area.

In 84, Ban Chao worked in concert with the Yuezhi Kushan Empire to defeat the Sogdian threat to Han interests in central Asia. The partnership, however, also created an awkward situation for the Chinese—the Kushan leader sent a message to Emperor Zhang, suggesting that they form an official alliance through marriage. Emperor Zhang balked at the idea of a Kushan ruler marrying a Han princess and refused the proposal, even though such marriage agreements had been negotiated between earlier Han emperors and foreign leaders.

The Kushan Empire, understandably, was irritated by the response that they received. Eventually, around the year 86, Kushan forces attacked Ban Chao’s garrison in the Tarim Basin. General Ban Chao, however, quickly turned the tide of the war heavily in favor of the Eastern Han Dynasty. By the time Emperor He (Hedi, r. 89-105) became the new ruler of the Han Empire, the Kushan forces were thoroughly put in their place by Ban Chao, and were sending tribute payments to the Han.

Ban Chao’s next great promotion came in 91, when he was named Protector of the Western Regions. He carried out his duties from a headquarters in the location known today as Kucha, in the Xinjiang region of China. From there, the general continued to protect and expand the Han’s interests in central Asia through diplomatic and military means. He even tried to send a man named Gan Ying to make official contact with the Roman Empire in the year 97, but Gan Ying only made it to the Persian Gulf before he lost his nerve or was blocked by unhelpful forces, causing him to abandon the mission. Ban Chao remained at his post as the Protector of the Western Regions until the year 102, when his sister successfully petitioned for the general to be allowed to return to eastern China. Within the year, Ban Chao died in the city of Louyang, within the Hanan Province.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Top picture attribution: (Two gentlemen engrossed in conversation while two others look on, a Chinese painting on paper near Luoyang, Henan province, dated to the Eastern Han Dynasty (25–220 AD). [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

  • Transnationalism in Ancient and Medieval Societies: The Role of Cross-Border Trade and Travel by Michael C. Howard. North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2012. 
  • https://www.britannica.com/biography/Ban-Chao 
  • https://www.travelchinaguide.com/silk-road/history/banchao.htm 
  • https://www.britannica.com/biography/Mingdi 
  • https://www.britannica.com/biography/Zhangdi  

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Alexander The Great And The Tragedy Of The Marmares

At least two ancient biographers of Alexander the Great, Diodorus Siculus (1st century BCE) and later Arrian (c. 86-160 CE), wrote that the Macedonian conqueror passed through a mountain known as Mount Climax during his campaign in southwestern Anatolia. The exact location of the mountain is disputed. Some point to the region of Marmaris in southern Turkey. More convincingly, others claim that Mount Climax is a part of the Antalya Mountains, to the east of Marmaris. Either way, this particular event occurred in the mountainous region of southern Anatolia.

Sometime between 334 and 333 BCE, Alexander the Great marched his army northward from the port city of Phaselis (in the modern Antalya region of Turkey) through a pass in the mountains, with his aim being to reach Pamphylia. While Alexander’s army traveled through the narrow paths in these steep mountains, the troops were likely pressed into unusually thin columns. According to Diodorus Siculus, it was in this rugged, mountainous terrain, while the invading troops were in a vulnerable formation, that a local tribe known as the Marmares made the unfortunate mistake of raiding Alexander’s army.

The raid carried out by the Marmares was a success. They overwhelmed the rear of Alexander’s column and made off with livestock, supplies and even captives. With loot in hand, the Marmares withdrew to their mountain fortress, known as the Rock—a fortification they perceived to be impregnable.

Regrettably for the Marmares, Alexander—who without the ambush may have let the tribe live in peace—now sought vengeance for the loss of life among his men and to save face for his damaged military renown. Unwilling to let the Marmares get away with what could be considered a victory over his forces, the great conqueror rallied his men for battle and laid siege to the tribal mountain fortress at the Rock. Apparently, it only took two day’s of Alexander’s relentless onslaught against the Rock’s walls for the Marmares to realize they had no hope of surviving the siege.

At this realization of impending doom, the elders in the fortress supposedly decided that the women and children that were sheltered in the fortress should be killed rather than left to be enslaved by Alexander’s army. As the story goes, the majority of the warriors in the tribe agreed with the decision and somberly went home to their respective dwellings to spend the remainder of their quickly-diminishing time with their families. Unfortunately for many of the women and children among the Marmares, the warriors apparently could not go through with what they had planned while staring into the eyes of their beloved families—these people decided to use a more detached method of killing. Therefore, some of the warriors were said to have cruelly locked their families in their homes and burned them alive.

After the deed was done, the warriors of the Marmares did not take their own lives. Instead, they somehow snuck out of the fortress and slipped by the besieging army, never to be heard from again.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Top picture attribution: (Alexander the Great, 100 B.C.E. – 100 C.E. marble, 3 1_2 x 2 x 1 1_2 in. (8.9 x 5.1 x 3.8 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 54.162, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

  • Alexander the Great by Philip Freeman. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2011. 
  • http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Diodorus_Siculus/17B*.html 
  • https://www.britannica.com/biography/Arrian 
  • https://www.britannica.com/biography/Diodorus-Siculus 

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

The History of Paper Is Anything But Blank

It is amazing just how much we know about the history of stationery. Papyrus was the first popular light medium for writing. It was used in the Middle East and Europe after tablets and clay fell out of fashion. Papyrus production is believed to have begun around 3500 BCE in Egypt, and eventually became a sought-after item in the Greco-Roman world. Ancient Roman sources such as Pliny the Elder (c. 23-79 CE) suggested that a shortage in papyrus shipments from Egypt led to the eventual rise of another form of stationery—parchment.

Although parchment grew in popularity after papyrus, it had already been around for a very long time. As far as we know, parchment was first produced sometime during the Fourth Dynasty of Egypt (approximately 2613-2465 BCE). This material was created from animal skin that had been stretched out, scraped clean and dried free of unwanted moisture. Parchment had a few advantages over papyrus. For one, parchment did not mold and rot as papyrus did in the more humid regions of Greece and Italy. Even more importantly, parchment could be folded for more complex codices and books, while papyrus would snap and crack under the same stress. It is uncertain exactly when parchment overtook papyrus, but the Greek city of Pergamon is believed to have begun producing parchment in either the 3rd or the 2nd century BCE, during the reign of Eumenes I or Eumenes II.

In East Asia, another type of stationery was produced that would eventually displace parchment. The distant ancestor of modern paper is believed to trace well back before the production of Egyptian papyrus.  Based on the discovery of ancient stone tools, archaeologists and anthropologists have proposed that people in Southeast China may have begun producing barkcloth fabric from the beaten fibers of paper mulberry trees (Broussonetia papyrifera) as early as the 6th and 5th millennia BCE. Yet, this was far from our conception of paper. At first, the barkcloth was used for clothing and other aesthetic purposes, but, after thousands of years, it was utilized for writing. In the traditional folklorish account of the birth of paper, a man named Cau Lun (or Ts’ai Lun) is often given credit with the invention of paper in 105 CE. He is said to have created paper by mixing paper mulberry tree fibers with other substances, such as bast (a fiber from the phloem, or vascular tissue, of a plant) and discarded scraps of netting and hemp. Despite this story, many historians and archaeologists believe that this type of paper production in China began as early as the 1st century BCE. In corroboration of this, archaeologists digging near Dunhuang in Gansu Province found Buddhist writings on paper that was dated to around 8 BCE. Whatever the case may be, historians do not believe that paper stationary became a truly popularized item in China until the 3rd century CE. From China, papermaking traveled to Korea, and from there, it journeyed to Japan.

The expanding Islamic empires of the 8th century CE were responsible for spreading the use of paper westward. The first papermaking facility near the civilizations built around the Mediterranean Sea was constructed in Baghdad in either 793 or 794. There, the paper was made from more readily available fibers other than those from the paper mulberry tree. As a result, the paper from Baghdad was thicker, but less costly. Eventually, new paper mills were created in the Middle East and Europe. The cities of Damascus and Cairo were quick to pick up on papermaking. Similarly the Muslim-controlled city of Xàtiva, Spain, opened up a paper mill around 1120. Fabriano, Italy, also constructed its own paper mill in 1264, signaling that the use and production of paper was becoming more popular in non-Islamic Europe. England was probably one of the stragglers in local paper production, with a mill that opened up as late as 1588, in the town of Dartford.

Despite its rise in Europe and the Middle East, paper long remained an expensive and luxurious commodity that was not easily accessibly for all people. It would take industrialization and the invention of new machinery in the 19th century for paper to be mass-produced economically for the use of mankind.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Top picture attribution: (Collage of The Edwin Smith papyrus (left), Barkcloth clothing from Yunnan Province, China (Center), a vellum page from the Codex runicus (right), all [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

  • Transnationalism in Ancient and Medieval Societies: The Role of Cross-Border Trade and Travel by Michael C. Howard. North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2012.  
  • https://www.britannica.com/topic/papermaking 
  • https://www.britannica.com/technology/paper  
  • http://www.anthropology.hawaii.edu/people/faculty/bae/pdfs/2014-li-et-al-qI-in-press.pdf

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

The Miraculous Corpse Of King Oswald Of Northumbria

Upon the death of King Aethelfrith of Northumbria in 616, the throne of the kingdom fell to Aethelfrith’s brother, Edwin. When the new king took power, the late Aethelfrith’s young sons were forced to seek asylum outside of Northumbria. One of these sons, Oswald, found shelter on the island of Iona, part of the Hebrides archipelago off the coast of Scotland. At Iona, the resident Irish monks, led by a man named Aidan, converted Oswald to the Christian religion.

Oswald ended his exile around 633, after his uncle, King Edwin of Northumbria, was defeated and killed in battle by a coalition army led by King Cadwallon of Gwynedd and King Penda of Mercia. After letting his homeland stew for a while in civil war, Oswald returned to Northumbria, seized the throne and immediately gained prestige by killing King Cadwallon, around 634, in a battle near modern Northumberland. At the height of his reign, King Oswald (r. 633-642) ruled a sprawling domain consisting of Northumbria, which was made up of Bernicia (approximately modern Durham, Northumberland and Firth of Forth), Deira (Yorkshire) and Lindsey (Lincolnshire)), as well as other pieces of England, Wales and Scotland.

After King Oswald took power, he invited Aiden and the Irish monks from Iona to preach in his kingdom. The king gave the priests access to Lindisfarne as their headquarters, and Aidan became the region’s first bishop. The monks were thankful of King Oswald’s kindness, and at some point Bishop Aiden allegedly grasped the king’s arm and prayed, “May this hand never wither with age” (Bede, Ecclesiastical History, Book 3, Chapter 6). This random prayer allegedly turned out to have much more power than Bishop Aidan may have guessed.

In 642, King Oswald was killed by King Penda of Mercia during a battle that occurred near modern Oswestry, in Shropshire County. After the battle, Penda had the fallen king’s body dismembered and displayed on stakes. Although Oswald was dead, his story was far from over. From this point on, the tales about the king’s mutilated corpse becomes really strange.

After the gruesome death of Oswald, the king’s brother, Oswiu (or Oswy) took the scattered pieces of his brother that he could find and sent the separate remains to be enshrined in various churches. According to Bede, Oswui’s daughter, Queen Osthryd of Mercia, found more bones of Oswald in the late 7th century and had them transported to Bardney Abbey, in Lincolnshire. As the story goes, the monks were hesitant to bring the remains into the abbey because of some old prejudice or grudge they held against the late king, so they left the cart holding the remains outside of the abbey. Yet, during the night, the bones of King Oswald were apparently lit up like a spotlight by a luminous beam that was bright enough to be seen by all in Lincolnshire. Acknowledging the blatant divine hint, the monks received the remains and washed the bones. They then dumped this used water out into their cemetery. Supposedly, any material that the water touched—be it soil, stone or dust—miraculously became imbued with the power of exorcism. Also, after Oswald’s remains were properly enshrined at the abbey, merely visiting the tomb could supposedly lead to miraculous healing.

Pieces of King Oswald’s body were spread far and wide. King Oswiu sent Oswald’s head to Lindisfarne. What was found of his body was sent to Bardney Abbey (because of the story above) and Gloucester. A piece of the king was even shipped to the region of Frisia. The veneration of Saint King Oswald spread throughout much of Europe, leaking from the British Isles into places such as France, Holland, Germany, Switzerland and parts of Italy. Oh, and if you remember the story about Bishop Aiden touching King Oswald’s hand and proclaiming that the limb would never age, Venerable Bede (673-735) attested that the impeccably preserved severed arm of Oswald could be found within a church located in modern Bamburgh, England.

Despite the bizarre dissemination of King Oswald’s dismembered remains, the bones of the king were not the main source of the miracles that his death reportedly spawned. Most of the miracles connected to King Oswald, or at least the majority of the ones that Bede collected for his History of the English People, were focused more on dirt and soil that had touched the remains or blood of Oswald.

According to Bede, the place near Owestry, where Oswald was slain by King Penda, became so imbued with holiness that the grass and plant life on the spot was visibly greener and more vibrant than the rest of the landscape surrounding it. Like the powerful dust and soil hit by the water at Bardney Abbey, the earth at the spot of Oswald’s death allegedly had potent healing abilities. As Bede told it, you needed only walk over the spot to be cured of all sorts of illnesses, from seizures to plague.

Soon, people discovered that the power of the spot could be made portable by taking the dirt elsewhere and mixing it with water as a sort of healing potion. As the trick caught on, people began to take scoops of the sacred soil home with them for later use—Bede wrote in his history that, during his lifetime, the constant excavation of soil from the holy spot had turned Oswald’s place of death into what could only be described as a pit.

Besides exorcism and healing, the dirt that came into contact with Oswald’s remains also apparently had another interesting quirk. It was fire resistant. In one of Bede’s miraculous stories, an unnamed Briton wrapped up a clump of Oswald’s soil in a linen cloth for later use. He then took this bag of dirt to a house in a nearby village, where he planned to stay for a while. Upon entering the house, our nameless pilgrim should have worried about the scene he witnessed inside the house—the other residents of the home were holding a feast indoors, centered around a large fire built in the center of a room. All of this (the partiers, feast and fire) happened sheltered by a flammable thatch roof. Nevertheless, the man simply hung his bag of dirt on a nearby beam within the house and then went to partake of the food and drink that was being served by the revelers. Yet, as was bound to happen, a rogue ember from the fire touched the thatch ceiling and engulfed the whole house in flames. The revelers managed to escape but most of the house collapsed—allegedly, the only part of the structure to survive the fire was the beam from which the bag of holy dirt had been hung.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Top picture attribution: (Oswald, King of Northumbria, c.604-41. Stained glass window, All Souls College Chapel, Oxford. [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

  • Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People (and relevant letters), translated by Leo Sherley-Pride, R. E. Latham and D. H. Farmer. New York: Penguin Classics, 2003.
  • https://www.britannica.com/biography/Saint-Oswald
  • http://www.ancient.eu/Oswald_of_Northumbria/  
  • http://www.britannia.com/church/shrines/oswald.html  
  • http://www.englandsnortheast.co.uk/kingoswald.html  
  • https://www.lindisfarne.org.uk/general/oswald.htm 

Monday, October 23, 2017

J. Edgar Hoover Was Extremely Suspicious Of First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt

The longest-serving First Lady of the United States, Eleanor Roosevelt (c. 1884-1962), wife of the longest-serving U. S. president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt (r. 1933-1945), was an incredibly inspiring woman. She was an impressively-prolific writer of books, and she authored an even greater bulk of columns and articles in newspapers and journals. She spent her life in politics, offering her talents to the struggle for civil rights. Altruism was one of her many traits, which inspired her to be a patron for education—the Wiltwyck School for Boys was one of her most notable contributions in this field. In terms of government and representation, Eleanor was also a member of the United States’ first delegation to the United Nations.

Most people, when glancing at the life and accomplishments of Eleanor Roosevelt, would likely conclude that the woman had served her country honorably. Nevertheless, the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, J. Edgar Hoover, was extremely suspicious of her actions and beliefs. Unfortunately for Eleanor, Hoover was not the type of person you wanted to cross. He was basically the monarch of the 20th-century FBI, with an incredible reign over the bureau that lasted from 1924 until 1972, the year of his death.

From the beginning of his tenure as Director of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover was skeptical of Eleanor Roosevelt. His file on Eleanor, labeled 62-62735, officially began in 1924, when Hoover first ascended to power. Technically, the file was just a collection of information—not an investigation—but Hoover was constantly watching for any sign of criminality, compromising behavior or treachery.

The amount of material that Hoover collected on Eleanor Roosevelt is simply baffling. In addition to the reports taken by the FBI surveillance teams that monitored her activities, the file also included much of her political writings, as well as transcripts of her correspondences that were intercepted by Hoover’s men. The majority of the file, around ninety percent of it, was related to her civil rights activism, including recorded conversations that she had with colleagues in that field. For example, in 1943, J. Edgar Hoover bugged a hotel room where Eleanor Roosevelt had a conversation with a student leader (a later Pulitzer Prize winner) named Joseph P. Lash—around 400 pages about Lash were collected by Hoover for Eleanor’s file. When President Roosevelt eventually found out about the recording, and the file that it was entered into, he demanded that Hoover destroy all of the data that had been collected. Hoover, naturally, disregarded this suggestion and continued his inquiry. Nevertheless, Eleanor was now onto Hoover’s methods and protested that his surveillance of herself and her friends was reminiscent of the Nazi Gestapo.

J. Edgar Hoover continued to diligently collect information about Eleanor Roosevelt until the year of her death, in 1962. By that point, the file had grown to well over 3,000 pages in length. Among the many suspicions and theories that Hoover had concocted about Eleanor, the most bizarre were his inquiries into her possible ties to communism, militant insurgent groups, and even ties to the Ku Klux Klan. These allegations have been deemed unfounded and were either gossip or statements given to Hoover by Eleanor’s rivals and enemies. On a lighter note, the FBI also collected as many of the threatening letters sent to Eleanor Roosevelt as they could find, some of which the KKK was a sender. As of now, the FBI has released up to 3,271 pages of Hoover’s file on Eleanor—considered one of the largest files in FBI history on a single person.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Top picture attribution: (Informal photo of J. Edgar Hoover, Director of FBI, Dept. of Justice, April 5, 1940, and Photograph of Eleanor Roosevelt taken c. 1932, both [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

  • First Ladies Revealed, S1:E4 (Television Series). Smithsonian, 2017.  
  • http://www.fdrlibraryvirtualtour.org/page09-08.asp 
  • https://vault.fbi.gov/Eleanor%20Roosevelt  
  • http://www.firstladies.org/biographies/firstladies.aspx?biography=33 
  • http://www.paperlessarchives.com/eroose.html  
  • http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/eleanor-fbi/

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

The Ancient Athenians Claimed A Great Snake Was A Guardian Of Their Acropolis

The sacred snake of Athens is an interesting topic of ancient Greece. The idea that a snake lived in the temple of Athena in Athens, and acted as a guard of the acropolis, apparently was prevalent before the Persians ravaged the city in 480 BCE, during the Greco-Persian Wars. The snake, interestingly enough, had a sweet tooth—it was regularly given offerings of honey-cakes. According to The Histories of Herodotus (c. 490-425/420 BCE), this snake influenced many Athenians to abandon their city before the Persians arrived. The majority of the city decided to flee and fight another day after the priests announced that the sacred snake was no longer eating the honey-cake offerings. They interpreted this to mean that Athena had forsaken the city, and had taken the snake with her from the acropolis when she left. When the Greco-Persian Wars were over and the citizens of Athens began to rebuild their acropolis, the sacred snake was said to have made a reappearance and resumed its role as a protector of the city. It supposedly lived in the Erechtheion (or Erechtheum), a temple built between 421-405 BCE, where it continued to eat offerings of honey-cakes.

The identity of the snake is a tricky subject. It was definitely connected to Athena, and, according to myth, may have at one point in time been considered a human demigod. A popular theory is that the snake was connected to the ancient mythical king of Athens, Erechtheus. This king, supposedly raised by Athena, eventually achieved divinity and was worshiped beside the patron goddess of Athens in the acropolis. In an elaboration of this story, the sacred snake of Athens was sometimes seen to be a transformed version of Erechtheus. Other interpretations were that the snake was an incarnation of Erechtheus, or that the snake was a child of the deified king. Nevertheless, in the end, all we really know about Athens’ sacred snake is that it supposedly lived in the acropolis, had a fondness for honey-cakes, and was connected in some way to Athena and Erechtheus.

The enlarged picture below is of Athena standing next to a snake that swallowed Jason (of the Argonauts) when the hero was trying to take the Golden Fleece. The location of the scene is not at the acropolis of Athens, but hey, it contains Athena and a giant snake all in one piece of ancient art.

  (Jason regurgitated by a snake who keeps the Golden Fleece (center, hanging on the tree); Athena stands to the right. Red-figured cup by Douris, c. 480-470 BCE, discovered in Cerveteri (Etruria) and housed in the Vatican Museum, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)

Written by C. Keith Hansley

  • The Histories by Herodotus, translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt and revised by John Marincola. New York: Penguin Classics, 2002. 
  • https://www.britannica.com/topic/Erechtheum 
  • http://www.theacropolismuseum.gr/en/content/erechtheion 
  • https://www.ancient.eu/Erechtheion/ 
  • https://www.britannica.com/topic/Erechtheus-Greek-mythology 
  • http://www.pantheon.org/articles/e/erechtheus.html