Wednesday, June 27, 2018

The Misdirections Of The Spartan King Agesilaus II Against The Persian Satrap, Tissaphernes

Agesilaus II was the Eurypontid monarch of Sparta who ruled from 400-360/359 BCE. In the first few years of his reign, world events pushed him into a confrontation with Tissaphernes, a Persian satrap with whom the Greeks had a long history.

Tissaphernes entered the historical record around 415 BCE, when he dismantled a rebellion by a troublesome Persian satrap named Pissuthnes. After the rebellious satrap was executed, Tissaphernes was appointed the new governor of eastern Anatolia, overseeing the regions of Lydia and Caria.

In his role as satrap of those regions, Tissaphernes aligned with Sparta around 413 BCE to push Athenian influence out of Anatolia. Persia, of course, kept the lands that the Athenians relinquished. Yet, the campaigns still tremendously helped Spartan interests in the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BCE). Even though his alliance with Sparta helped Tissaphernes reclaim almost all of the Greek settlements in Anatolia, the satrap was worried about the dangers that a victorious Sparta could pose to Persia. Therefore, he strove to be the least effective ally he could be, often withholding troops, ships and information from his Spartan allies. This policy eventually drew the ire of the Persian King of Kings, Darius II (r. 423-404 BCE), who decided to give his full support to Sparta around 407 BCE.

Darius II eventually removed Tissaphernes from office and instead put his son, Cyrus the Younger, in charge of governing Lydia. Tissaphernes began to rise back to power after the death of Darius II in 404 BCE. The throne passed to Artaxerxes, the brother of Cyrus the Younger, and the siblings did not get along. By 401 BCE, Cyrus the Younger rebelled. Cyrus was killed in the battle of Cunaxa (401 BCE), and in the aftermath of the battle, Tissaphernes was reinstated as the satrap of Lydia and Caria.

Many of the Greek settlements in Anatolia had joined the rebellion of Cyrus the Younger, and they refused to rejoin the Persian Empire even after Cyrus’ death. This was the world that King Agesilaus II faced when he took the throne in 400 BCE.

Sparta sent multiple armies to aid the Greeks in Anatolia against the Persians. Two commanders, Thibron and Dercylidas, were fairly ineffective in their campaigns. Finally, King Agesilaus II decided to personally lead a larger force against Tissaphernes.

The Spartan king supposedly gathered his forces at Ephesus and attempted to resolve the situation with diplomacy. When negotiations failed, he readied his army to march. He announced openly that he planned to march against southern Anatolia, to raid the region of Caria. He even supposedly had supplies and markets set up southward along the planned route, so that his troops would be well provisioned as they moved. All this visual and verbal information eventually leaked back to Tissiphernes, who promptly moved his forces to defend the south.

Unfortunately for the Persian satrap, it had all been a trick. When Agesilaus II readied his men, he did not have them move south, but instead marched north and east, raiding into Lydia and Phrygia. As Tissaphernes had relocated his troops south, Agesilaus met very little resistance and his troops suffered few casualties.

In 395 BCE, Tissaphernes saw eerily similar signs coming from the Spartan army. He heard reports that King Agesilaus II was planning to move north against Lydia. Again, supply depots and markets were being preemptively organized by the Greeks; this time they were being placed along the roads leading toward the Lydian capital of Sardis. Remembering Agesilaus’ last raid, Tissaphernes positioned his troops in the opposite direction of the signs. Instead of defending Lydia, he moved his forces south to protect Caria.

Agesilaus II and the Spartan army, however, did exactly as they announced and marched toward the Lydian capital of Sardis. When Tissaphernes realized he had been tricked yet again, he frantically rushed his forces northward to intercept the Spartans. In his haste, the satrap failed to keep his forces together and he allegedly arrived on the fields of Sardis without any infantry. King Agesilaus II pounced on the tired and unbalanced army, inflicting an embarrassing defeat on Tissaphernes. The loss did not only harm Tissaphernes’ lands, but also irreparably tattered his own reputation. After the Battle of Sardis in 395 BCE, the Persian King of Kings, Artaxerxes, lost all confidence in Tissaphernes and had the unfortunate man executed within the year.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (Attic Greek wine-mixing bowl, circa 450 B.C., [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

  • On Sparta (Life of Agesilaus), by Plutarch excerpted from his Parallel Lives, translated by Richard J. A. Talbert. New York: Penguin Classics, 2005.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Harald Hardrada Allegedly Conquered A Sicilian Town By Pretending To Be Dead

Harald “Hardrada” Sigurdsson was the brother of the saint-King, Olaf II (r. 995-1030), and he would eventually become the last great Viking warlord of Scandinavia. Even though that was in Harald’s future, it took him a long blood-stained time to realize his destiny of becoming king of Norway. In the year 1030, Harald had to flee from his homeland after his brother, King Olaf, was killed by rebels in the battle of Stiklestad. For more than a decade, Harald stayed in a self-imposed exile, honing his military skill by becoming a successful mercenary commander, first employed by the Russ and then by the Byzantine (Eastern Roman) Empire.

In the service of the emperors at Constantinople, Harald Hardrada led mercenaries in campaigns that took him to places such as the Caucuses, Jerusalem, Bulgaria and Sicily. Harald’s military talents were best showcased in the Sicilian campaign. There, Harald Hardrada commanded a section of the army headed by the skilled general, George Maniakes, who, from 1038 to around 1041, brought most of the island of Sicily back under the control of Constantinople. The Greek historians, such as Michael Pseullus and John Skylitzes, largely erased Harald from their accounts of the Sicilian campaign. At most, they would acknowledge that foreign mercenaries were present on the island and that Harald, or “Araltes” as the Greek scholars would sometimes call him, accomplished some impressive feats while on Sicily. They, however, reserved their highest praise for George Maniakes, who, by 1039, had conquered most of the island, and was said to have personally captured thirteen Sicilian cities.

Scandinavian sources gave more credit to Harald for the Sicilian campaign. Snorri Sturluson (c. 1179-1241), in his saga about King Harald’s career, wrote of four impressive sieges that Harald orchestrated in Sicily. Unfortunately, Sturluson did not provide any names for the four towns, and the accounts could very well be more folklore than fact. Nevertheless, the tales about Harald’s achievements in Sicily showcase his military ingenuity and gives insight into the fearsome reputation that he achieved in 11th-century Europe.

In the Sicilian campaign, Harald often had too few troops to directly storm a town, so he had to either starve his enemies into submission, or defeat them with cunning. In the case of Harold’s fourth siege, ingenuity was apparently the only available option—the town was too well defended for an assault and too well supplied for a prolonged siege. To add to the frustration, Harald Hardrada fell ill while he was camped outside the city’s walls.

Whether or not he was truly sick is unknown. Did his weakened condition give him inspiration, or was it all a ploy from the beginning? Sturluson did not provide an answer in the saga. Whatever the case, Harald stopped making appearances and stayed in bed. If someone wanted to talk, they had to seek the bedridden commander in his tent. Something was so visibly amiss that even the besieged townspeople believed that Harald was gravely ill.

After more time had passed and Harald still had not been seen or heard, death was on everyone’s minds. Eventually, the grief-stricken mercenaries requested a parlay with the townspeople, proclaiming that their leader was dead. The soldiers explained to the townspeople that Harald had been a Christian prince of Norway, the brother of Saint Olaf, and on his deathbed he had wished for his body to be put to rest in one of the town’s beautiful churches.

As the story goes, the townspeople did not want to deprive the Christian prince of a proper funeral, so they agreed to entomb the body inside their city. Sturluson left much of the agreement vague, but the funeral was apparently quite the ceremonious spectacle. The clergymen of the town were said to have shown up in their robes to the entrance of the gate. There, the clergymen awaited an honor guard of Harald’s best soldiers, who respectfully carried a large coffin on their shoulders. They brought the morbid box out from the mercenary camp and approached the audience at the gate. It is unclear what they had planned—whether the soldiers would have been let inside the town, or if the coffin would have been handed over to the townspeople. It does not matter, the funeral never reached that point.

As the Scandinavian honor guard solemnly marched toward the open gate, their steps became more purposeful and their speed began to gradually increase. When they finally reached the gate, the procession of grieving Scandinavians had transformed into a band of hardened soldiers determinedly charging toward the open doors.  Before the townspeople could react, the mercenary honor guard jammed the gate open with the wooden coffin that they had been carrying. Then, they readied their weapons and kept the gate clear until the whole of Harald’s army came rushing through the open gate into town. Harald supposedly showed no mercy to the inhabitants of the town or to the plentiful wealth that was stashed inside. The loot that Harald Hardrada acquired from this and other conquests gave him such riches that he was able to purchase half of Norway from his nephew, King Magnus the Good, in the year 1045.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (14th-century depiction of the Funeral of Jeanne of Bourbon, wife of Charles V, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

  • John Skylitzes. A Synopsis of Byzantine History: 811-1057, translated by John Wortley. Original text c. 11th or early 12th century. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010.
  • King Harald’s Saga, by Snorri Sturluson, translated by Magnus Mangusson and Hermann Pálsson. New York: Penguin Books, 1966, 2005.  

Monday, June 25, 2018

A King Of Ancient Zhao Was Apparently Killed Because Of His Sister’s Rude Behavior

In ancient Chinese history, people often died in unusual ways and because of odd circumstances, but the fate of King Wu Chen had a peculiarity that made it stand out from other downfalls during his age. According to Sima Qian (c. 145-90 BCE), author of the Records of the Grand Historian, King Wu Chen lost his life because his sister behaved impolitely on a road.

Wu Chen lived in one of the most chaotic times of ancient Chinese history. In 209 BCE, a commoner named Chen She began a rebellion against the Qin Dynasty. After years of suffering under the Qin regime’s strict oppression, the Chinese people were immediately drawn to Chen She’s movement. Revolts popped up in numerous Chinese regions and Chen She was able to position himself as a hegemon, or arch-rebel, acting as the leader of the resistance against the Qin Dynasty. Wu Chen, the man mentioned at the start of the article, was one of Chen She’s early followers.

After earning the arch-rebel’s admiration and trust, Wu Chen received from Chen She an army of 3,000 men, plus some advisors, and was ordered to seize control of the Zhao region. The advisors served Wu Chen well, and they convinced him to try a policy of leniency to win over Zhao. By letting Qin officials keep their titles and status, Wu Chen was reportedly able to take over thirty cities by talking them into joining the rebel cause.

Wu Chen had several skilled and ambitious advisors with him, most notably Zhang Er and Chen Yu, who would both become kings at some point in the rebellion. As the advisors liked Wu Chen more than Chen She, they argued that Wu Chen should not give away land in Zhao to another man, but rather that he should keep it all for himself. After some thought, Wu Chen agreed with his advisors and proclaimed himself to be the king of Zhao. Chen She grudgingly recognized Wu Chen’s title, but still expected the upstart king to follow the orders of the rebellion’s high command.

The king of Zhao once again consulted with his advisors on what to do. They advised Wu Chen to ignore Chen She’s demands and to focus on expanding his kingdom, thereby helping himself while also aiding the rebellion. Agreeing with his advisors, Wu Chen sent out generals to seize control of the regions of Yan, Shangdang and Changshan.

The man in charge of taking Changshan was Li Liang, perhaps one of the Zhao king’s most competent generals. While the expedition to Yan embarrassingly ended in mutiny and Wu Chen being momentarily captured, Li Liang contrastingly subjugated the region of Changshan without much fuss or issue. Pleased with the general’s results, the freed Wu Chen sent Li Liang to capture another swath of territory, this time asking him to take Taiyuan. When Li Liang arrived at his location, he realized that Qin reinforcements had already secured the area, so he headed back to Zhao to get more troops. Despite there not being any major battles, the Qin forces somehow recognized Li Liang, possibly because of military service prior to the rebellion. Whatever the case, Li Liang soon received a letter from a Qin official, claiming that if the general switched sides in the war, he would be pardoned for his part in the rebellion and would receive a good position in the Qin regime.

According to Sima Qian, Li Liang was not swayed by what he read. He continued back toward Handan, the capital of Zhao, intending to strengthen his army for the Taiyuan campaign. Even so, the letter showed Li Liang that he had another option, even if the realization was only made subconsciously.

As Li Liang neared the city of Handan, he noticed a carriage, accompanied by 100 horsemen, that was heading up the road. As the carriage was flying the royal colors of Zhao, Li Liang thought that King Wu Chen was approaching. To show deference and respect, Li Liang and his officers dismounted from their horses and bowed by the side of the road as the carriage rolled past.

Little did Li Liang know that the king was not in the carriage. Actually, it was the king’s sister, who, according to Sima Qian, was still drunk from a drinking party that she had recently attended. Not recognizing the soldiers, or noticing the high status of the their commanding general, the king’s sister only sent one of her horsemen to acknowledge Li Liang with a generic statement of royal thanks. Li Liang took this gesture to be a personal insult and even worse, he believed he had been humiliated and disgraced in front of his army and officers.

The carriage incident prompted Li Liang to rebel against the kingdom of Zhao. Both the general’s staff and common soldiers apparently sympathized with their leader, so Li Liang’s army followed him into rebellion. Li Liang sent assassins after Wu Chen’s sister and then marched the rogue army against Handan, laying siege to the city while the king was still inside. He successfully captured Handan and executed King Wu Chen. After taking the capital, Li Liang attempted to confront another Zhao army, commanded by Chen Yu, but this time he was defeated. After his defeat, Li Liang fled and joined the Qin army.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (A section from the Silk Princess painting from Dandan-oilik (Place of Houses with Ivory), a Buddhist sanctuary in Khotan; from Xinjiang, China, 7th-8th century AD. [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, June 24, 2018

The Medieval Tale Of A Supposed Demon-Possessed Priest Who Stuck Out His Tongue Whenever He Neared A Church

Numerous stories of supposed witchcraft can be found in the pages of The Malleus Maleficarum, a 15th-century treatise on witchcraft and demonology. The authors of the text, Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger, were theologians, Dominican friars and inquisitors sanctioned by the unsavory Pope Innocent VIII (r. 1484-1492). In the book, they systematically described the abilities of witches and demons, recorded stories of witchcraft, provided believed remedies for those afflicted by spells, and even gave judicial advice on how to prosecute suspected witches. While the inquisitors based the bulk of their inferences on scripture and the words of saints, they also included some odd episodes from their own lives, in which they thought they witnessed scenes of witchcraft or demonic possession. One of these stories featured a devout priest who, despite his piety, was allegedly forced by a demon to stick his tongue out at churches.

According to The Malleus Maleficarum, either Heinrich Kramer or James Sprenger had a bizarre encounter in Rome during the time of Pope Pius II (r. 1458-1464). At some point during that interval of years, Kramer or Sprenger (the authors did not specify) met two pilgrims from the town of Dachov, in Bohemia. It was a father and son duo, with the son being a promising young priest from that town. Yet, something was seriously wrong—the priest believed he was possessed by a demon.

The inquisitor claimed that the priest knew exactly why he had been possessed. Apparently, the youthful clergyman had tried to bring a powerful witch back to the path of righteousness, but she, in turn, cursed the priest by leaving an evil charm buried in the shade of a tree. The spell somehow made the priest vulnerable to demonic possession and he was subsequently invaded by an evil spirit, which would not leave until the witch’s charm was removed. As the priest doubted that he would locate the evil charm, he decided to seek help in Rome.

Interestingly, the inquisitor did not at first believe the priest to be possessed. The man was humble, polite and seemed completely normal during the interview with the inquisitor. Noticing the inquisitor’s disbelief, the priest said that the demon only interfered if he approached a church or pondered religious thoughts, making it impossible for the clergyman to prepare or deliver a sermon. After hearing this information, the inquisitor decided to take the possessed priest on a tour of Rome’s plentiful religious establishments.

The inquisitor brought the priest to some of the places thought to be most holy in the city of Rome, including the so-called Holy Pillar of the Scourging in the basilica of Saint Prassede all’esquilino and the supposed spot where Saint Peter was executed. When the possessed priest reached these venerated spots, he allegedly became wild and would stick out his tongue. When he was not wagging his tongue at the churches, the possessed clergyman would also scream. In one of the more peculiar scenes from the story, the priest even bit a pillar in the Church of St. Peter that supposedly originated from the Temple of Solomon. The inquisitor tried a few exorcisms at the above-mentioned holy sites, but he could not cure the priest.

Although the inquisitor found himself unfit to do the job, the possessed priest was apparently saved by a wandering bishop who entered Rome after being displaced by the expansion of the Ottoman Empire. The bishop supposedly succeeded in exorcising the demon after powering himself up with a forty day fast on bread and water.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (A discolored statue of a clergyman (via in front of a smoky background (via, all [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

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

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

The Disturbing Childhood Of The Saga Character, Grettir The Strong

Several figures described in the Icelandic sagas had very gruesome and cruel childhoods involving abuse and violence. Perhaps the darkest childhoods belonged to the 10th-century Viking poet, Egil Skallagrimsson, and the 11th-century wandering warrior, Grettir the Strong. The former of the two allegedly was already a killer at the age of seven, and he loved to play malicious pranks. As for Grettir, he supposedly became a killer later on in his youth, but his childhood was actually much more disturbing than that of Egil. Whereas Egil killed on impulse and emotion, Grettir grew up with all the signs of a soon-to-be serial killer, starting with animal cruelty and working his way up to murder.

Grettir’s Saga, one of many sagas produced in medieval Iceland that skillfully wove together history, folklore and mythology, surprisingly spent fairly few pages describing the childhood of the saga’s namesake. Despite the brevity of the summary, the anonymous 14th-century author of the saga presented several disturbing events that occurred in Grettir’s upbringing in Bjarg, a settlement located in northern Iceland.

In the sagas, Grettir the Strong was the son of Asmund Grey-Streak and Asdis. In his youth, Grettir was described as a redheaded, handsome lad with a squarish and freckled face. He was reserved in action and quiet in speech. Although he grew to be one of the strongest people in Iceland, few of his neighbors knew his true strength, for Grettir rarely exerted himself.

Asmund began giving his son tasks on the farm when Grettir was ten years of age. The boy’s laziness and quick temper did not mesh well with the work that his father assigned, so the mischievous Grettir began using cruelty to avoid his chores.

For his first job, Grettir was put in charge of a flock of fifty full-grown geese and an additional number of young goslings. The boy disliked everything about his assigned task. He thought the job was unimportant. The geese refused to be herded and he found the gosling extremely agitating. Unfortunately for the birds, they had been put in the safekeeping of a psychopath. After a very short period of time, some concerned neighbors came to Grettir’s father, reporting that all of Asmund’s geese now suffered broken wings and all of the goslings had been slaughtered. When confronted, Grettir confessed to killing and maiming the geese, and he even delivered the confession in verse.

Asmund quickly decided that his son needed a job that required less responsibility.  Grettir was given the harmless and simple task of scratching his father’s back while he relaxed by the fire. The boy disliked this job, but during the summer, Asmund rarely stayed by the fire and therefore did not want his back scratched often, allowing Grettir to laze about. Yet, as summer began to shift to autumn, Grettir’s father began demanding his fireside massages. Once that began, Grettir found the job to be obnoxious. After accumulating an unhealthy amount of pent-up annoyance, Grettir decided not to scratch his father’s back with his hands, but instead grabbed a wool comb and dragged the rough prongs down Asmund’s back. After that incident, Asmund understandably reassigned his son to a different chore.

Asmund next made the unwise decision to place Grettir in charge of the horses. The task would not be too difficult, as Asmund possessed a talented mare, named Kengala, which supposedly had the ability to predict the weather. When the day would be nice, the mare led the horses out to graze. If a storm was approaching, she would stay in the stables and the other horses would follow her lead. All Grettir had to do was open the doors, watch over the herd, and give them feed and water. It was a job Grettir liked much better than the earlier task of back scratching.

There was little to complain about while he worked with the horses during the summer and autumn, but when winter rolled in, Grettir began to find the horses annoying—an emotion he did not handle well. Asmund’s prized horse, Kengala, had other traits besides weather prediction. When there were no storms, she liked to go out to graze early in the morning and would stay out until night had fallen. This was only a minor inconvenience to Grettir during the summer and autumn, but once it was winter, the young delinquent found freezing all day in the fields to be unlivable. As he frequently did in his youth, Grettir used cruelty and bloodshed to solve his problem. The boy took a knife into the stable and, hopping onto Kengala’s back, flayed off the horse’s hide from spine to flank. After that, Kengala could not stand the feeling of the sun on her mutilated back and therefore stayed indoors. When Asmund eventually went to check on his prized horse, he found her in such a pitiable state that he had to put her down.

As Grettir progressed into his early teens, humans began to join the boy’s long list of victims. When he reached the age of fourteen, Grettir was invited by his brother to join a ball game in which many of the boys from northern Iceland would be playing. Grettir was paired up against a certain boy named Audun, who was several years older. While they played, Audun hit a stray ball that flew way over Grettir’s head. Grettir silently went and retrieved the ball without comment. He nonchalantly carried the ball back to Audun, but when he reached his opponent, Grettir clubbed him hard enough in the face to cause blood to flow. The two grappled each other to the ground, but Grettir lost the fight, as he was the younger and weaker of the two. Before any serious injuries or deaths occurred, Grettir’s brother arrived and put a stop to the fight.

Within the year, Asmund decided to send Grettir along with a chieftain called Thorkel the Scratcher so that Grettir could witness the Althing, Iceland’s governing body. Asmund hoped the trip would mature his son, but little did he know that Grettir would be one of the main topics of that year’s deliberations at the Althing. As Thorkel’s party traveled toward the Althing, Grettir misplaced his bag of food. While scouring the land for his bag, Grettir ran into another follower of Thorkel. The man’s name was Skeggi and he, too, had lost his pack of food. They both decided to work together to find their lost belongings. Unfortunately, they had both stored their provisions in similar packs, so when they came across a bag on the ground, both Grettir and Skeggi thought it was their property. To Grettir’s defense, Skeggi reached for his axe first, and it is unlikely that Grettir was armed with anything but a knife at this point. Nevertheless, Grettir disarmed Skeggi by force and then used the man’s own axe to split open his skull, killing Skeggi on the spot. When confronted later by members of Thorkel’s entourage, Grettir confessed to the killing with a clever poem. Once Grettir finally arrived at the Althing, he was sentenced to three years of exile and outlawry for the killing of Skeggi, thus beginning the adventures of Grettir the Strong.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (Kept In. Signed Nicol and numbered 190. Oil on canvas, c. 1871, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

  • Grettir's Saga (anonymous Icelandic saga, c. 14th century) translated by Jesse Byock. New York: Oxford World's Classics, 2009.
  • Egil's Saga (recorded c. 13th century possibly by Snorri Sturluson), translated by Bernard Scudder. New York: Penguin Classics, 2004 edition.  

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Eggs Were Apparently A Powerful Ingredient In Medieval Witchcraft

Two Roman Catholic inquisitors, Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger, wrote a lengthy text that encompassed the church’s view of witchcraft and other demonic forces in 15th-century Europe. Their text, encouraged by the corrupt Pope Innocent VIII, was published around 1487 under the title, The Malleus Maleficarum. The infamous treatise served as the go-to guide for inquisitors and witch-hunters for several centuries.

In the book, the inquisitors wrote about their own experiences, as well as other stories that they heard from their fellow inquisition members. One of the recurring objects they found in supposed witchcraft spells and charms was a favorite culinary staple—the egg. Apparently, the churchmen (and the accused witches) believed that a chicken egg could be used to inflict a target with epilepsy.

The spell could supposedly be brought about in numerous ways. The inquisitors listed out only a few of these methods of delivery in part 2, question 1, chapter 12 of their text. According to them, cursing a victim with epilepsy could be achieved with as much ease as nefariously adding egg to a person’s food or drink. If a witch wanted to have a more dramatic flair, the spell could also apparently be done by breaking into a grave and leaving an egg with a dead body. Not all corpses were equal, though; the body of a witch would allegedly bring about the most powerful results.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (Egg basket [Public Domain] via

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

Monday, June 18, 2018

A Spartan General Claimed He Was Aided In Taking An Athenian Fortress By Athens’ Patron Goddess, Athena

Around 424 and 423 BCE, a skilled Spartan general named Brasidas was causing all sorts of problems for Athens. He had taken an army out of the Peloponnesus and passed relatively unnoticed through Thessaly to link up with King Perdiccas of Macedonia near Mt Olympus. From there, Brasidas set out on an impressive campaign in the regions of Chalcidice and Thrace, where he strove to cause as many rebellions among Athens’ northern allies as he could manage to ignite. Using diplomacy and military pressure, the Spartan general was able to get results. The historian Thucydides, who happened to be one of the Athenian generals pitted against Brasidas, wrote that the silver-tongued Spartan was able to convince several important cities to defect to the Peloponnesian side with the use of only his words and his reputation for leniency. Yet, if Athenian allies were stubborn, he was not afraid to meet them on the battlefield.

One of the last actions that Brasidas took before Athens and Sparta agreed to an armistice in 423 was an attack on a pro-Athenian fortress at Lecythus, a region mainly known for its temple of Athena. The defenders of Lecythus were refugees from Torone, a nearby city in Chalcidice that Brasidas had taken by force. The Spartan commander gave the soldiers at Lecythus two days of peace and during that time he sent them messages, warning that if they did not abandon their fortifications, an assault would be imminent. When the troops of Lecythus remained where they were, Brasidas settled in for a siege.

The defenses that Brasidas faced at Lecythus were not pretty. After Athenian loyalists fled from Torone, they had sought shelter in Lecythus and pulled together whatever defensive structures they could muster in that short amount of time. It must have been a chaotic sight, with makeshift walls and turrets built around and on top of existing structures. Thucydides wrote that the soldiers in Lecythus even constructed a wooden tower on top of a house. Despite the speedy and unorthodox design of the defenses, the odd fortress held up against Brasidas’ attacks. After a day of fruitless attempts to scale the wall, the Spartan general decided that he needed a siege engine to bring down the impromptu fortifications. Nevertheless, Brasidas still announced to his troops that he was willing to pay thirty minae in silver to the one who could breach the enemy’s walls first.

Perhaps, not only human ears listened to Brasidas’ promise. On the next day of the assault, something went terribly wrong for the defenders in Lecythus. The house that they had used as a foundation for their tower proved to be too weak for such a heavy structure. The house collapsed, causing the tower to come crashing down on top of whatever other defensive emplacements were in its path. The spectacle was a great surprise to both sides involved in the struggle, but it definitely affected the defenders in a much more palpable way. Soldiers defending the far side of Lecythus thought that the commotion by the tower had been caused by whatever siege engine the Peloponnesians were constructing. Believing Lecythus to be lost, the defenders began retreating toward their ships.

When Brasidas saw that the defenders were fleeing, he renewed his attack, possibly making use of a gap in the defensive structures caused by the tower’s collapse. Once inside Lecythus, Brasidas slaughtered any defender who had been too slow to seek shelter on the ships.

Remembering the promise that he had made earlier, about paying thirty silver minae to whoever could first breach the walls, Brasidas concluded that it was not a man who had caused Lecythus to be captured, but a goddess. Therefore, Brasidas apparently donated the thirty silver minae to the temple of Athena in Lecythus and, when the fortifications were cleared away, he had all of the land there declared a sacred site of Athena.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (Frederick the Great as Perseus, painted by Bernhard Rode (1725–1797), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

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

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Emperor Otto III Added A Golden Nose To The Body Of Charlemagne

Otto III, born in 980, was an ambitious, but short-lived, emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. He was deemed old enough to rule in 994, at the age of fourteen. His dream was the renewal of the ancient Roman Empire, a passion probably fanned by Otto’s mother, Theophano, an imperial princess from the remnants of the Eastern Roman Empire, centered in the Byzantine city of Constantinople.

Before the turn of the century, Otto III dramatically expanded his influence into Rome. In 996, Otto coerced the church to elect his cousin, Bruno of Carinthia, a man of only twenty-three years, as the next pope. Bruno took the name, Gregory V, and used his papal authority to confer on Otto III the lofty title of Holy Roman Emperor. Almost immediately after Otto left Rome, Pope Gregory was deposed, but the emperor returned to Italy in 997 and, by early 998, he deposed the new rival pope, reinstated Gregory V, and executed the instigator of the resistance. When Pope Gregory V died in 999, Emperor Otto III once again took it upon himself to choose who would be the next head of the church. This time Otto’s own tutor, Gerbert of Aurillac, became pope, taking the name Pope Sylvester II. Around this time, Otto III also made Rome his capital city, a move that unnerved both Germans and Italians.

In the year 1000, Otto III may have wanted some time to reflect. The twenty-year-old emperor took several pilgrimages that year. He went to Gniezno, Poland, to visit the tomb of archbishop Adelbert of Prague. More importantly, he entered the tomb of Charlemagne in Aachen and viewed the great king’s remains. By that point, Charlemagne had been dead for nearly two centuries, so what Otto saw laying in the tomb was quite decayed and shriveled, albeit still decently intact for such an old corpse. According to the tales about Otto’s visit to the tomb of Charlemagne, he trimmed the fingernails of the deceased king, which decomposition had made to seem as if they had grown long. In addition to this, although the body of Charlemagne was still mostly whole, much of the king’s nose had crumbled away. To remedy this, Otto had a golden nose cap fashioned and placed it on Charlemagne’s face. Despite fixing Charlemagne’s countenance, Otto also took with him one of Charlemagne’s teeth as a lucky keepsake. Nevertheless, the relic from the tomb of Charlemagne did not save Emperor Otto III. He died of illness two years later while his empire was faced with revolt.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

  • Two Lives of Charlemagne, by Einhard and Notker the Stammer (Introduction), translated by David Ganz. New York: Penguin Classics, 2008.