Monday, April 30, 2018

Emperor Gaozu Of Han Dynasty China Died After He Refused To Let A Doctor Treat His Wounds

According to the ancient historian Sima Qian (145-90 BCE), the first emperor of the Han Dynasty felt that Heaven was guiding his destiny. The unlikely man who became the first emperor had reason to feel that higher powers were guiding his fate—his rise to power was truly remarkable.

The founder of the Han Dynasty was born around the middle of the third century BCE in the small city of Feng, which falls within the larger district of Pei. He was a peasant from an unremarkable lineage, although propaganda later proposed that he might have been fathered or blessed by a dragon. The man’s name was Liu Bang, but Sima Qian and other Han scholars respectfully referred to him as Liu Ji, as they thought using his actual name was acting too familiar and therefore taboo.

When he reached adulthood, Liu Bang refused to join his parents in their simple lifestyle. Instead, he pursued a career as a government official under the Qin Dynasty. He started as the head of small villages in the vicinity of Pei, but when revolts began to erupt throughout China in 209 BCE, Liu Bang seized the opportunity and joined the rebels. When the rebellion spread to Pei, the local Qin magistrate was killed. With a power vacuum and an army laid before him, Liu Bang rallied local support and proclaimed himself to be the Governor of Pei.

Liu Bang coordinated with other rebellious leaders to topple the Qin Dynasty. The future emperor personally entered the Qin heartland in 207 BCE and accepted the surrender of the last Qin Dynasty ruler, Ziying. Nevertheless, Liu Bang was not the rebellion’s top dog—with the fall of the previous dynasty, all of the rebel leaders began to fight amongst themselves. The most likely contender to reunite China was Xiang Yu, the brilliant military leader who was the commander-in-chief of the various rebel forces. Over a span of years, the rebel leaders divided into the factions of Liu Bang and Xiang Yu. Although Xiang Yu was the better military strategist, Liu Bang was the more talented diplomat and administrator. In 202 BCE, Liu Bang and his allies finally defeated the military of Xiang Yu, prompting the fallen leader to commit suicide. On February 28, 202 BCE, Liu Bang assumed the title of Supreme Emperor and was thereafter referred to by ancient historians as Emperor Gaozu.

Although he had attained the highest power, Emperor Gaozu was plagued by rebellions and plots. Between 197-196 BCE, an uprising was organized by Qing Bu, the king of Huaiyin. By 195 BCE, Qing Bu’s rebellion was still ongoing. Although Emperor Gaozu had initially responded to the revolt by personally leading a force to crush the rebels, he decided to hand over control to his generals in 195 BCE and take a tour of Pei before returning to his capital at Chang’an. He probably decided to leave the campaign early because of a wound he received while fighting Qing Bu’s forces. According to Sima Qian, Emperor Gaozu had been hit by a stray arrow during one of the battles against the rebels. The wound apparently was healing fine while the emperor was in Pei, as he was lively enough to sing and feast with the locals, but by the time he returned to the capital, Emperor Gaozu had fallen severely ill.

Concerned about the emperor’s health, the empress summoned the most talented physician available to heal the ailing ruler. After evaluating his patient, the doctor apparently proclaimed that the emperor could indeed be cured. At this point, according to Sima Qian, the emperor looked back over his great fortune in life and decided to leave his fate not to a doctor, but to Heaven, which had elevated him from a lowly peasant to become Supreme Emperor of China. Therefore, the emperor paid the doctor, but refused to undergo any treatments. Unfortunately, Heaven decided that it was Emperor Gaozu’s time to die—the emperor succumbed to his wound on June 1, 195 BCE.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (Medieval depiction of a Ming Emperor, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

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

Sunday, April 29, 2018

The Mythical Hero, Sigurd The Volsung, Had A Bad Habit Of Cutting His Enemies In Half

Spoken tales of the dragon-slayer, Sigurd, were around long before anyone took the time to write the legend down into a textual format. Even though the oldest surviving written accounts of Sigurd (or Siegfried in Germanic legend) date to the 13th century, carvings that depicted scenes from Sigurd’s adventures were produced as early as the 10th century. The age in which the mythical Sigurd was supposed to have lived was called the Migration Period, an era which has been given an approximate date of being between the years 300 and 700 by modern historians. In particular, the character of Sigurd was set in the late 4th and 5th century, because a character named Atli, inspired by Attila the Hun (d. 453), was said to have been a contemporary of Sigurd.

According to The Saga of the Volsungs (written in 13th-century Iceland), Sigurd was born in Denmark, but descended from the Volsung tribe, which was said to have controlled some land in France. Like the similarly legendary Yngling family, the Volsungs were supposedly able to trace their ancestry back to the high-god of the Norse religion, Odin. As such, Sigurd and other members of his family were often portrayed as having superhuman abilities. Sigurd, himself, was described as being a brown-haired man of unequaled strength and height. Along with his physical prowess, Sigurd also had the gift of foresight, as well as an extensive knowledge of magic, and he even acquired a power that let him understand birds.

In addition to all of these mighty attributes, Sigurd was also equipped with the great sword, Gram, which he had forged from the broken pieces of an ancestral sword handed over to the Volsungs by Odin. When Gram was completed, it was said to have been seven “spans” long and was sturdy enough that Sigurd could chop through an anvil without cracking or denting the blade. The hero’s own natural might, combined with the durability of Gram, turned Sigurd the Volsung into an unstoppable force on the battlefield.

With such power, Sigurd enjoyed dispatching his opponents with a flair of showmanship. In particular, Sigurd had a fondness for cutting people in half. At least three named characters in The Saga of the Volsungs experienced this unpleasant fate. Sigurd’s peculiar habit played a prominent role in his battle against the sons of Hunding, of which, only two sons were named—Hjorvard and his brother, King Lyngvi. During the bloody battle, Sigurd sliced Hjorvard in two and dramatically cut Lyngvi straight down the middle, slicing through the king’s helmet and mail coat. Even in his final death scene, Sigurd had to chop just one more person in half. According to the tale, Sigurd’s brother-in-law, Guttorm, stabbed the hero while he was sleeping. After waking up to find that he was mortally wounded, Sigurd picked up Gram and threw it at his assassin. The sword spun through the air and happened to slice Guttorm across the waist, cutting him in two. Having halved another man, Sigurd died calmly in his bed, his wife in his arms.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (Sigurd with the sword, Gram, by Johannes Gehrts (1855–1921), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

  • The Saga of the Volsungs, by an anonymous 13th-century Icelander, translated by Jesse L. Byock. New York: Penguin Classics, 1990, 1999.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

The Frankish Scholar, Einhard, Saved The Genre Of Secular Biographies

Even though biographies of secular figures, such as state leaders, had been a common genre of texts in the classical period, the practice had fallen out of favor during the early Middle Ages. By the time the Frankish scholar, Einhard, was born around the year 770, the Christian church had all but reserved the biographical format for the purpose of documenting the lives of saints. Comments on un-sainted kings could still be found in historical annals, recording events year-by-year, or in other forms, such as poetry inspired by heroic deeds. A few decades before the birth of Einhard, Bede gave admirable attention to secular affairs in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People (completed in 731), but it was too broad in scope, and too shallow in intimate detail, for the secular sections to fit the bill of a biographical account.

Einhard joined the court of Charlemagne sometime during the early 790s, and by 796, he had become a highly respected member of Charlemagne’s scholarly circle. Sometime during his time with Charlemagne and the royal heirs, Einhard was inspired to write down a detailed account of the great king’s life and death. While today this idea seems natural, in his own time, Einhard’s determination to write solely about a secular king would have seemed almost revolutionary. There were very few, if any, contemporary biographies about state rulers that Einhard could use as a model for his own work. Instead, he had to reach back to ancient 1st-and 2nd-century Rome in order to study the formulas used by the famous biographers, Plutarch and Suetonius. Einhard latched onto Suetonius’ Lives of the Caesars, in particular, using the ancient series of biographies as a rubric for his own account of Charlemagne.

When Einhard composed his Life of Charlemagne sometime between 817-827, he jolted life back into the genre of secular biographies. Despite criticism from contemporary saint biographers, Einhard’s small text quickly became one of the most popular written works of the Middle Ages. Before the end of the 9th century, Einhard’s work prompted new biographical works to emerge. Notker the Stammerer produced his own biography of Charlemagne (written between 883-887) in response to Einhard and, across the English Channel, a Welshman named Asser wrote a biography (c. 893) about the famous Anglo-Saxon ruler, King Alfred the Great.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (Portait of Jean Mielot, by Jean Le Tavernier (–1462), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

  • Two Lives of Charlemagne, by Einhard and Notker the Stammer, translated by David Ganz. New York: Penguin Classics, 2008.
  • Asser’s Life of King Alfred and Other Contemporary Sources translated, introduced and denoted by Simon Keynes and Michael Lapidge. New York: Penguin Classics, 2004.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

The Last Feat Of The Warrior-Harpist, Aristonicus

By the end of 329 BCE, or the beginning of 328 BCE, Alexander the Great had conquered a large territory, spanning from Greece and Egypt in the west of his empire all the way through Persia, Parthia and Bactria in the east. Alexander’s troops were also in Sogdiana, but the region was not yet pacified. Two Persian King of Kings had already fallen, including Darius III (330 BCE) and Besus (229 BCE), but a former vassal of Persia, Spitamenes of Sogdiana, was still at large, keeping his homeland in open revolt against Alexander the Great.

Hellenistic forces rampaged through Sogdiana trying to subdue the population and capture its leader. Feeling the pressure, Spitamenes fled to the north, where he found shelter with the Massagetae tribe of Scythia. While Alexander’s forces terrorized Sogdiana, Spitamenes led his reinvigorated forces, along with Scythian reinforcements, down into Bactria, where he caught the unsuspecting garrisons off guard. In particular, Spitamenes targeted the town of Zariaspa, the place where Alexander had set up camp before renewing his campaign in Sogdiana. The city was fairly well fortified, but the garrison mostly consisted of injured or sick troops. Among the people in the town were some notable figures, most importantly Aristonicus, a talented harp player, and Peitho, the son of Sosicles. Since the town was guarded, albeit by sickly or recovering soldiers, Spitamenes decided not to attack, but he did manage to pull off an impressive theft of Zariaspa’s supply of livestock.

This was an insult that the rag-tag band in Zariaspa could not tolerate. Aristonicus and Peitho rallied the healing troops and managed to gather around eighty men fit enough to fight. With this small force, Aristonicus and Peitho marched out of the town, intending to pursue the enemy. Miraculously, the war band from Zariaspa caught up with a small detachment from Spitamenes’ army. Aristonicus and Peitho ambushed the isolated camp and actually recovered a large portion of the stolen livestock. After the victory, the Hellenistic fighters began driving the animals back toward town.

Unfortunately, Spitamenes had heard of the attack and had set up an ambush of his own somewhere along the route to Zariaspa. As Aristonicus and Peitho herded the animals home, their small force lost any semblance of order or discipline. Therefore, they were totally unprepared when they stumbled into Spitamenes’ trap. In the ensuing massacre, the majority of the Hellenistic troops were killed. According to the historian Arrian (c. 90-145+), sixty-seven of the original eighty Hellenic warriors died in the ambush. Peitho was one of the few who survived to be captured by Spitamenes, although what happened to him after his capture is uncertain. The harpist, Aristonicus, had a less fortunate fate, and was killed in battle after reportedly mounting a heroic last stand.

When word reached Alexander the Great about the battle, he was impressed by Aristonicus’ courage and resolve. In honor of the fallen warrior-harpist, Alexander the Great funded a monument in the musician’s memory. At Delphi, a bronze statue was erected, displaying Aristonicus holding a harp in one hand and clutching a spear with the other.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (Parnassus or Apollo and the Muses, by Simon Vouet (1590–1649) [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

  • The Campaigns of Alexander by Arrian, translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt. New York: Penguin Classics, 1971.
  • 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.  

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Battles Of Insults In Icelandic Sagas

Most cultures seem to have a signature element that they like to add to their literature. The ancient Greeks and Romans enjoyed preparing long and elaborate speeches for their historical characters. The ancient Chinese had a fondness for wise parables and witty proverbs. The medieval Icelanders, too, were no exception. Even though writing sagas did not become popular in Iceland until the 13th century, the Icelandic authors were prolific enough with their literature to create one of the most extensive bodies of medieval European texts, preserving for posterity a great deal of folklore, mythology and history. In their writings, the Icelanders introduced several innovative literary techniques and styles, including the saga structure and skaldic verse. Yet, the focus of this article is an element of Icelandic literature that was a bit more coarse—writers of sagas frequently made their characters engage in verbal battles of wits and insults.

Usually, these debates of insults could be divided into two classifications. If characters randomly met and started spitting insults at each other in a field, the exchange would likely be defined as a senna. If the insult slinging occurred in a more organized environment, perhaps with the contestants sitting around a table, the scene could be labeled a mannjafnađr. Not only did these exchanges create fun dialogue between characters, but the participants in the verbal battles could also refer to pieces of mythology and folklore while insulting their opponents.

In the opinion of the medieval Icelanders, who lived in an age very different from our own, charges of unmanliness or homosexuality were the gravest insults a person could spew. The latter accusation was considered so dire in Iceland that anyone who used that insult unjustly could be outlawed. Even so, the heroes of the Icelandic sagas often used such verbal attacks in their arguments. In fact, in only two paragraphs of dialogue, the character Sinfjotli (from the popular Saga of the Volsungs), used both insults in multiple ways during a senna between him and King Granmar.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (Loki Taunting Bragi in a meeting of Æsir, by W.G. Collingwood (1854 - 1932), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

  • The Saga of the Volsungs, by an anonymous 13th-century Icelander, translated by Jesse L. Byock. New York: Penguin Classics, 1990, 1999.

Monday, April 23, 2018

The Interesting Relationship Between Emperor Gaozu And His Peasant Father

As was expected of a proper Chinaman, Emperor Gaozu showed great respect to his father, known only as the so-called “Venerable Sire” or “Sir Liu”. In fact, according to the historian, Sima Qian (c. 145-90 BCE), the emperor made sure to visit his father at least once every five days as a sign of his filial devotion. Yet, Emperor Gaozu had begun life as a peasant, and therefore his father was also a peasant. As such, after becoming the king of Han around 206 BCE and achieving the rank of Supreme Emperor by 202 BCE, the disparity of social status between Gaozu and his father had grown massively. Nevertheless, the emperor was determined to continue showing respect to his father.

Despite Gaozu’s resolve, the optics of an emperor continually expressing deference to an aging peasant was so troublesome that even the Venerable Sire’s household attendants began to worry about the situation. According to Sima Qian, a steward brought up the issue with the Venerable Sire—he suggested that when the emperor paid his next visit, the Venerable Sire should carry a broom with him while he met with his son. This action, the steward believed, would remind the emperor that the Venerable Sire was a member of the working class, far beneath the status of the imperial throne. When Emperor Gaozu saw his father, broom in hand, he understood the point. The emperor then paid the steward 500 catties of gold and went to work finding a loophole around social customs.

In the end, the emperor allegedly came up with an interesting plan to continue expressing his devotion to his father. As Gaozu, himself, was the “Supreme Emperor,” he proclaimed that his father would henceforth be given the titular title of “Grand Supreme Emperor.” Of course, the rank of Grand Supreme Emperor granted no real responsibilities or authority, but it did give the Venerable Sire enough status that Emperor Gaozu’s visits no longer seemed improper.

The lords of China understood the message: the emperor’s father was a man who deserved respect. When the so-called Grand Supreme Emperor died in 197 BCE, several of the kings who served Emperor Gaozu attended the funeral.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (Song Dynasty Painting of three men of Confucian, Buddhist and Taoist beliefs, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

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

Sunday, April 22, 2018

The Peloponnesians Gave Their Enemy, Athens, A Large Fleet In The Middle Of The Battle Of Pylos

425 BCE began almost identically to the six years of the Peloponnesian War that came before it. The Peloponnesians launched an invasion of the Athenian heartland in Attica, as they had diligently done almost annually since the war began. At the same time, the Athenians had their fleets moving about the seas of Greece. In particular, a group of forty ships from Athens was en route to Sicily. On a spur of the moment idea, one crafty Athenian general named Demosthenes decided to detour the ships to Pylos, located on the southwest of the Peloponnesus. While the Peloponnesian forces were away in Attica, the crews from the forty Athenian ships spent six days building a fortress in Pylos, securing an invaluable natural harbor in enemy territory. After the fortification was built, Demosthenes was left five ships, with the crews serving as a garrison, before the rest of the fleet departed.

The Peloponnesian army canceled their invasion of Attica as soon as they heard of Demosthenes’ accomplishment and moved their men and ships to confront the fortification at Pylos. They hoped that they could seize the newly built fort before Athenian reinforcements arrived, but they planned ahead for the worst—a large Peloponnesian fleet plugged the natural harbor at Pylos and the besiegers divided their forces between the mainland and a nearby island, called Sphacteria. Despite having a larger army and navy at Pylos, the Peloponnesians could not break Demosthenes’ defenses. Consequently, the siege was still ongoing when fifty ships carrying Athenian reinforcements arrived.

 Noticing that the Spartan ships had not adequately sealed the entrance to the harbor, the Athenian fleet charged the opening and managed to force the Peloponnesians to pull their ships onto the beaches. This defeat caused over 400 Spartan soldiers to be stranded on the island of Sphacteria, cut off from the rest of their army by the Athenian fleet. In reaction to this shift of power, the Spartans called for an armistice in order to negotiate a possible end to the war with Athens. The Athenians agreed to the idea of an armistice, but the terms they wanted to impose were strict—the Spartans were allowed to send ambassadors to Athens and provide rations to their troops stranded on Sphacteria, but in return, they had to hand over all of their ships located near Pylos. Sparta agreed to the terms and handed around 60 ships over to Athens.

Of course, the Spartan ambassadors that traveled to Athens could not convince the Athenians to make peace. After all, the Peloponnesian War would continue for more than two decades. Therefore negotiations ended, the ambassadors left, and the battle for Pylos continued. Unsurprisingly, the Athenians refused to return the 60 surrendered ships to the Peloponnesians. In the end, the Athenians assaulted the island of Sphacteria and killed or captured the soldiers who were stranded there. After the fall of Sphacteria, the Peloponnesian forces withdrew from Pylos, giving the Athenians a significant victory.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (Image of an ancient ship, from John T. Campbell and Edward Keble, 1878-1944, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

  • History of the Peloponnesian War (Book IV) by Thucydides, translated by Rex Warner and introduced by M. I. Finley. New York: Penguin Classics, 1972.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Six Ways The Malleus Maleficarum Claimed Witches Specifically Harm Humans

In the bizarre book, The Malleus Maleficarum (published 1487), inquisitors Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger wrote down the strange beliefs and lore held by witch hunters, commenting on subjects such as monsters, demons, witches and all sorts of spells, charms and curses that they believed could be used against humanity. The powers that they attributed to witches and demonic forces were broad, ranging from the unsubtle magic of controlling weather, to more inconspicuous illusions and emotion manipulation. Yet, the authors of the text thankfully narrowed down the broad array of powers that were supposedly available to witches into six concise categories. Furthermore, the list specifically dealt with the ways that witches could cause harm solely to humans, so it left out supposed spells against livestock or other such incantations that fell out of their scope. Here are the six ways witches could allegedly harm mankind:

  1. Witches had the power to induce evil love between men and women. 
  2. Similarly, witches could inspire or stoke the human emotions of jealousy, hate and envy in order to cause mischief.
  3. Not only were witches said to have the ability to alter emotion, they also were thought to have the power to drive people thoroughly insane.
  4. Witches were commonly thought to specialize in making people infertile. Impotence, barrenness, miscarriages and lack of mother’s milk were often attributed to the activity of witches.
  5. Witchcraft could allegedly cause more physical harm than just infertility issues. Witches were also said to have the ability to harm internal organs by causing disease and illness.
  6. For the final category, the Malleus Maleficarum bluntly stated that witches could use spells and curses not only to injure, but also to kill their victims. 

When writing about the supposed powers that witches could utilize, the authors of the Malleus Maleficarum kept an odd balance. They portrayed the witches as powerful and monstrous, but never hinted that the witches, or the demons that they supposedly received powers from, were more mighty than God. As such, the above six ways of harming humans allegedly did not apply to everyone. The Malleus Maleficarum stated that no witch could harm anyone blessed with God’s grace (including the inquisitors) and that the people who diligently followed the church would face only temptation from witches, not injury. Therefore, the inquisitors made the uncomfortable conclusion that witchcraft was a punishment released on the world by an angry God.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (two witches (Reutlingen- Otmar, 1489), fol. 15r.  Hexenküche, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

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

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Emperor Gaozu Of China Was A Singer-Songwriter

In 195 BCE, Emperor Gaozu, the founder of the Han Dynasty, was returning to his capital city of Chang’an in order to recover from an arrow wound he had received while fighting the forces of a rebel king named Qing Bu. While on the road, the emperor decided to make a detour to the region of Pei. It was a special place for Emperor Gaozu—Pei was where the emperor began his bid for power when he was still a peasant.

When he reached the city of Pei, Emperor Gaozu hosted a feast for the townspeople and gave his old friends and the city’s elders places of honor during the festivities. Between feasts, the injured Emperor Gaozu was said to have given singing lessons to a chorus of 120 local children. During the practice sessions, the emperor had the children learn a very special song. According to the historian, Sima Qian (c. 145-90 BCE), it was a piece allegedly composed by the emperor, himself.

At the climax of one of the feasts in Pei, the emperor reportedly was handed a lute and gave a solo performance of his song. After he completed his rendition, the emperor had the 120 children file in and accompany him for another round of the song. Sima Qian recorded (or possibly invented) a single stanza from the song, a poem about a triumphant ruler returning to his roots. The historian made no comment on the song’s melody or the emperor’s lute playing, but the people of Pei would have been wise to applaud the performance, whether it was masterful or abysmal.

Feeling gracious, Emperor Gaozu named the city of Pei as a bath-town. While the title may sound insulting to modern readers, it was actually a great honor. As a bath-town, Pei was exempt from paying taxes to the capital, although regional authorities could still collect money for local projects. Before leaving, the emperor also promoted the Marquis of Pei, Liu Pi, to the throne of Wu.

Although Emperor Gaozu was healthy enough to feast and sing in Pei, his health quickly declined after returning to the capital. On June 1, 195 BCE, Emperor Gaozu died in his grand Palace of Lasting Joy. Upon the death, Gaozu’s son, Hui, ascended to the throne. In a loving gesture to his father, Emperor Hui had all the regional rulers of China create funerary temples to the late Emperor Gaozu. The second most important of these, only bested by the capital, was the temple housed in the city of Pei. There, Emperor Hui allegedly employed the musical talents of the 120 children that Emperor Gaozu had recently instructed in singing. According to Sima Qian, Emperor Hui made the singing troupe of Pei into a lasting institution and left instructions that new singers be brought in if any of the 120 musicians decided to leave the group.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (Paintings on the north wall of Xu Xianxiu's Tomb of Northern Qi Dynasty, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

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