Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Lycius—A Small Performer With A Giant Voice

When Augustus (sole rule c. 30 BCE-14 CE) took power in Rome, he extended Julius Caesar’s policy of continually hosting extravagant spectacles to keep the people happy, or at least distracted. While writing about such Augustan entertainments and performances, the Roman scholar, Suetonius (c. 70-130), mentioned a little showman who made a big impact on the Roman masses.

Lycius was a member of the equestrian order, a Roman equivalent of a knight. Even though the Senate banned the equites (members of the equestrian order) and other noblemen from being public performers, they apparently made an exception for Lycius and let him continue entertaining.

The physical description of Lycius can vary from manuscript and translator, with some saying he suffered from dwarfism, and others claiming he was a child still under two feet in height. Nevertheless, all versions agree that he was short in stature and reportedly weighed about seventeen pounds. Lycius’ size, however, was not what packed the stadiums and amphitheaters—despite his small stature, Lycius had a tremendously powerful and beautiful voice.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (Roman mosaic from the Antiochia House of the Evil Eye. [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

  • The Twelve Caesars by Suetonius, translated by Robert Graves and edited by James B. Rives. New York: Penguin Classics, 2007.
  • https://spectacularantiquity.wordpress.com/case-studies/public/dwarfs-in-the-arena/ 
  • https://www.britannica.com/biography/Augustus-Roman-emperor  

Monday, July 30, 2018

The Ancient Spartan Attitude Toward “Cowards”

In the 6th century BCE, Sparta started to become noticeably more militant and frugal than their neighboring Greek cities. These changes were attributed to a semi-mythical man named Lycurgus, who lived anywhere from as early as the 9th century BCE up to the 6th century BCE, when the changes in Sparta became visible. Whatever the cause, Sparta’s culture changed dramatically, with Spartan citizens strategically banned from doing manual labor so that they could devote more time to training their bodies and minds for war. King Agesilaus II of Sparta (r. 400-360 BCE) was said to have explained the Spartan culture for war in an interesting way to his allies. During a meeting of his coalition forces, Agesilaus gathered the allied troops together and told them all to stand up if their profession was announced. After shouting many jobs—potters, smiths, carpenters, builders, laborers, etc…— the Spartans soldiers were the only warriors still sitting down, as soldiering was their sole profession.

With this attitude and mindset, cowardice was not tolerated in Sparta. They had such pride in their military might that they did not build a defensive wall around their city, and they allegedly bragged that none of their women had ever seen the smoke from an enemy campfire. They also teased other Greek cities about how few foreign dead were found near Sparta, for few could, or would, attack the Spartan homeland, whereas heroic Spartan dead were scattered throughout Greece. From the 6th century BCE until the early 4th century BCE, Sparta’s arrogant mindset was backed by spectacular military victories, which increased Spartan pride and created an illusion that the Spartans were unbeatable on the battlefield.

With such pride and devotion to war, the Spartans had little pity for the man who did not meet the high standard that was demanded of a Spartan warrior. Evaluation began as soon as a Spartan was born. According to the Greek-Roman historian Plutarch (c. 50-120 CE), Spartan newborns were brought to a meeting called a lesche, where the elders would determine the fate of the child. If healthy, Plutarch wrote that the child would be approved for upbringing and granted a portion of land. If the elders disliked what they saw, the newborn was allegedly condemned to abandonment at Apothetae, “the place of rejection,” located near Mount Taygetus. If infants were not spared for weakness, neither would grown adults be spared for cowardice. Sparta’s fluid definition for cowardice did not just describe a person who failed to face their fears, but also applied to soldiers who fought bravely in a battle but survived when the Spartan leadership and citizenry thought they should have died in a final last stand.

As long as Sparta kept alive its reputation as an undisputed infantry power, most Spartans could accept such a view on cowardice. After all, the Spartans thought themselves to be unbeatable on a pitched battlefield, so they presumably believed dramatic final stands would be the rare exception, not the norm. With such confidence in their armed forces, the Spartans thought that the only honorable way to fight was to win the battle or to literally die trying. That meant that if a lone Spartan warrior survived while his comrades died in battle, the rest of the Spartan community would call that survivor a coward.

Plutarch wrote of at least six ways that the so-called cowards were ostracized by the Spartan community:
  1. They were disqualified from holding a Spartan office.
  2. Women were discouraged from marrying a man who was labeled as a coward.
  3. It was deemed disgraceful for a Spartan man to marry a close female relative of an accused coward.
  4. Accused cowards were commanded to live in a shabby and unwashed state. 
  5. Accused cowards supposedly were forced to maintain an odd physical appearance. This supposedly included a requirement to shave off half of their mustaches and to wear easily recognizable patchwork cloaks. 
  6. Finally, Spartan citizens could apparently strike and beat accused cowards without fear of repercussion or reprimand. 
In the 4th century BCE, Epaminondas, a gifted military leader from Thebes, finally forced the Spartans to reevaluate their treatment of the so-called cowards. Epaminondas wrecked havoc in the Peloponnesus for several years, shattering Sparta’s carefully cultivated illusion of invincibility on land. The Thebans defeated a Spartan army at Tegyra (c. 375) and later won an even more significant battle against Spartan forces at Leuctra, in 371 BCE. Epaminondas followed that up by invading the Peloponnesus and besieging the city of Sparta, itself, not once, but at least twice in separate campaigns, the first in the winter of 370-369 BCE, and the second in 362 BCE. Facing so many defeats, countless Spartan warriors could have been classified under Sparta’s definition of cowardice. Therefore, to reassure his men and to avoid a mutiny, King Agesilaus II gave his defeated troops a pardon.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (Statue of an Ancient Spartan, [Public Domain] via maxpixel.net).

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

Sunday, July 29, 2018

The Supernatural Nursery Room Of Augustus

Shortly after Augustus’ death in the year 14, the Roman Senate declared him to have ascended to divinity and an order of priests and priestesses was formed to begin maintaining sacred rites in his honor. In addition to this, geographical locations that played important roles in Augustus’ life were not only deemed to be historical landmarks, but also were venerated as sacred land.

Among the list of regions viewed as sacred were some of the places where Augustus had spent his childhood. The Roman scholar, Suetonius (c. 70-130+), wrote that a shrine was built on the place where Augustus was born. Yet, one of the most peculiar of the baby Augustus’ sacred sites was a nursery with a fearsome reputation for supernatural power.

According to Suetonius, Augustus was raised near the region of Velitrae in a country mansion owned by his grandfather. In the mansion was a small room that looked similar in size to a food pantry. Food, however, was not kept in that room—it was instead a nursery for Augustus, the first emperor of Rome.

After Augustus’ death and deification, the small nursery was treated with great honor. According to Suetonius, people were urged not to enter the nursery wantonly or without a genuine, urgent cause. In addition, visitors were expected to undergo some rite of purification before entering the sacred nursery. Surprisingly, despite the honor shown to the room, the nursery (and the mansion encompassing it) reportedly remained privately owned, so there were no guards to ensure that respect was shown. Even so, the lack of security was not a problem because, according to legend, the nursery had its own otherworldly protectors.

In short, the nursery had a reputation for rampant supernatural hauntings. Many of the incidents in the room were fairly psychological—people would enter the room, only to flee from the nursery because a sudden sense of overwhelming terror flooded their thoughts after they had crossed the doorway. The supernatural protectors, however, did not only tinker with emotions. In other reported hauntings, the nursery guardians were much more physical.

Suetonius recorded an odd piece of folklore about the nursery, in which an unnamed owner of the Velitrae mansion decided to spend the night in the haunted room. Several motives were proposed, including that the owner wanted to test the rumors, or that he was ignorant of the room’s reputation and simply wanted to spend a night in a historic landmark. Whatever the case, the unseen protectors of the sacred site apparently became infuriated with this new owner, who had prepared himself a temporary bed in the venerated nursery of Augustus. As the story goes, the disrespectful mansion owner was grabbed by an invisible force in the middle of the night and ingloriously hurled out of the nursery with such force that he was found half dead the next morning, with all of his bedding strewn around him.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (Brutus haunted by the ghost of Caesar, by Edward Scriven  (1775–1841), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

  • The Twelve Caesars by Suetonius, translated by Robert Graves and edited by James B. Rives. New York: Penguin Classics, 2007.
  • The Roman History by Cassius Dio, translated by Ian Scott-Kilvert. New York: Penguin Classics, 1987.  

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

The Horrid Fate Of Photios, An Admiral From Arab-Controlled Crete

In the year 872, Sa’id, the Arab ruler of Crete at the time, sent a naval commander named Photios to ravage the lands controlled by Constantinople, the imperial seat of power that ruled the remnants of the Roman Empire in the east. With a reported fleet of well over thirty heavy and light ships, Photios pushed deep into the Aegean Sea, raiding as far as the Hellespont, now known as the Dardanelles. The demographic composition of his crewmen is largely unknown, but medieval sources often described his armada simply as being a Cretan fleet. Similarly, the vessels he used were of Greek design, such as the koumparia (a warship/merchant freighter hybrid), myoparon (heavy, rounded ship) and galleys. Using this fleet, Photios ravaged the coast, capturing wealth and enslaving people as he went.

While the rampaging fleet was still in the northern Aegean, the imperial navy made its response. A fleet led by Niketas Ooryphas intercepted Photios near the Gallipoli Peninsula, at a place called Kardia. There, the imperial navy employed its famed super-weapon, Greek Fire, to deal a catastrophic blow to Photios and his raiders. The Greek Fire, a virtually inextinguishable liquid flame that could burn even on water, reportedly destroyed twenty of the Cretan ships. Photios, however, was not one of the dead—he and other survivors of the battle escaped from the imperial navy and headed toward the Peloponnesus.

Despite his defeat, Photios still had fight left in him. By 873, he had rebuilt a makeshift fleet, supposedly by recruiting pirates or commandeering their ships. With this revived force, Photius began raiding the western coast of the Peloponnesus. When news of the raids reached Constantinople, Niketas Ooryphas was sent once again to hunt down the Cretans. Ooryphas supposedly hauled his ships onto land and carried them across the Isthmus of Corinth in order to surprise Photios by approaching from the north instead of the south. Some historians doubt if Ooryphas actually crossed the Isthmus of Corinth, but, whatever the case, he did catch the Cretans by surprise.

The second battle between Photios and Ooryphas was even more devastating for the Cretans than the first. This time, the destruction of Photios’ fleet was total—his ships were burned or sunk, with Cretan survivors swimming to shore in hopes of escaping the clutches of the imperial navy. Nevertheless, Niketas Ooryphas captured the bulk of the scattered Cretan crewmen, including Photios, himself.

The captives would face a much worse fate than those who had perished in the earlier battles. Niketas Ooryphas apparently had the captured Cretans executed using several hellish methods. Some he supposedly flayed or ripped to death. Others he reportedly lowered into boiling pitch.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (12th-century Image from an illuminated manuscript, the Madrid Skylitzes, showing the Byzantine navy use Greek fire against the fleet of Thomas the Slav, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).


Tuesday, July 24, 2018

In 1861, Several U.S. Newspapers Implied That General William Tecumseh Sherman Was A Lunatic

Although Sherman held the high rank of colonel at the start of the United States Civil War, he was still fairly untested in battle. Like many other famous U. S. Civil War military leaders, he had served in the army during the Mexican-American War (1846-1848), but unlike other future generals, Sherman spent almost all of that war away from the frontlines, doing such tasks as recruiting or hunting down deserters. So, when Sherman first began commanding troops in battle at the start of the Civil War, very few Union generals knew just how good or bad a leader Sherman would be in the field. Unfortunately, Sherman, himself, was one of the doubters of his own ability.

The first year of the Civil War, 1861, did nothing to improve Sherman’s self-confidence. That year, he commanded a brigade in the embarrassing First Battle of Bull Run.  In that battle, Union troops advanced against a strongly-positioned rebel force. The general lack of discipline in the Union and Confederate armies at the beginning of the war gave a clear advantage to the Confederacy in the battle of Bull Run. When Sherman and other leaders pressed their men to attack the rebel lines, the Union forces were thrown into disarray by an onslaught of Confederate gunfire. After the Confederate forces had stopped the Union advance, they launched a counter-attack, which threw the Union soldiers into panic and defeat. Watching the Union army flee from the battlefield did little to encourage Sherman’s self-confidence.

In the aftermath of the battle, President Abraham Lincoln rushed over to the demoralized troops, making appearances and delivering speeches to raise the spirits of the defeated soldiers. Interestingly, in a conversation with Abraham Lincoln, Sherman bluntly asked to be kept in a subordinate military position, as he did not trust himself with a superior command.

After the First Battle of Bull Run, Sherman was transferred to work under General Robert Anderson, who was leading the defense of the area around Louisville, Kentucky. Not long after he arrived, however, Sherman was placed in the position that he feared—General Anderson resigned his command because of mental stress and Sherman (now a Brigadier General) took over the defense of Kentucky.

While in this position, Sherman had an unfortunate meeting with the Secretary of War, Simon Cameron. The secretary had brought along a party of various people to accompany him on the tour of Louisville, and several of them were non-military personnel. When Sherman wanted to discuss private war matters, Secretary Cameron bluntly refused to dismiss any of the men who had accompanied him to Louisville. Therefore, Sherman locked the door and told Cameron about the situation in Kentucky while the other men were still present.

In particular, Sherman wanted the Secretary of War to have reinforcements diverted to Kentucky. Sherman argued that he had only about 18,000 soldiers to defend over 300 miles, while other Union generals, such as McClellan and Fremont, had much more manpower to defend smaller amounts of land. He concluded that he needed at least 60,000 men (about the same amount as Fremont) to mount a feasible defense against a possible Confederate attack. While Sherman’s staff and comrades in the room agreed with him up to this point, his next comment would catch them, and the Secretary of War, all off guard. For whatever reason—possibly due to his lack of self-confidence or an overestimation of Confederate strength—Sherman threw out a huge estimate of soldiers that he thought he would need during the climax and final stages of the war. He told the crowd in the locked room that he would need 200,000 men to carry the war from the defensive stage to that of the offensive. In Sherman’s defense, he was one of the first generals on either side of the Civil War to realize how bloody and destructive the conflict would become. Even so, Sherman would later complete his famously devastating “march to the sea” with an army of only around 62,000 soldiers.

Unfortunately for Sherman, one of Secretary Cameron’s companions in the confidential meeting was a reporter for the New York Tribune, so, naturally, newspapers quickly published out-of-context reports about Sherman requesting 200,000 soldiers for the defense of Kentucky. Several news outlets began releasing regular articles that consistently labeled Sherman with all sorts of unflattering names, such as crazy, mad and insane. Not long after the news stories began, Sherman was relieved from his command in Kentucky and transferred to work under Major-General Halleck in the Department of the Missouri. It was what Sherman wanted—to be back in a subordinate role—but his sudden removal from Kentucky optically reinforced the claims of the newsmen.

The newspaper harassment continued to plague Sherman even after he arrived in St. Louis, Missouri. Sherman was so stressed by all of the negative attention that it prompted him to eventually request twenty days of leave to spend with his family. Major-General Halleck justified his support for this time off in an unfortunate letter to the then Union commander-in-chief, General McClellan. Halleck wrote, “I am satisfied that General Sherman’s physical and mental system is so completely broken by labor and care as to render him, for the present, unfit for duty; perhaps a few weeks’ rest may restore him.” Yet, other than that one line of unflattering wording, General Halleck was a great help to Sherman, both personally and professionally. Most importantly, General Halleck put Sherman in a position to work with Ulysses S. Grant. Together, Grant and Sherman were able to help each other overcome their individual problems and imperfections, resulting in both leaders becoming military legends.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (Photograph of General William Tecumseh Sherman, taken between 1865 and 1880, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

  • Memoirs of General W. T. Sherman by W. T. Sherman. Delaware: Renaissance Classics, 2012.
  • https://www.britannica.com/biography/William-Tecumseh-Sherman 
  • https://www.britannica.com/event/First-Battle-of-Bull-Run-1861 
  • https://www.britannica.com/biography/Simon-Cameron 
  • https://www.history.com/topics/american-civil-war/william-t-sherman  

Monday, July 23, 2018

Aristotle Did Not Believe That Modesty And Humility Were Virtues

In his text, The Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle (c. 384-322 BCE) created a system of moral behavior that is known as Virtue Ethics. He wrote that achieving a virtuous lifestyle takes time and practice—virtue, for him, was not something you were born with, but rather it was a proper state of mind and action that a person must impose on themselves. He warned that many people would find it difficult to live by a code of virtue. Nevertheless, he also promised that those who persisted in trying to live virtuously would eventually find themselves practicing virtue by habit.

Interestingly, The Nicomachean Ethics reads almost like a Buddhist text, as Aristotle constantly instructs his readers to take a middle path. All of Aristotle’s virtues are on the middle ground between two extremes of a human trait. In the modern world, many people consider modesty and humility to be virtues. Yet, for Aristotle, these were actually extreme behaviors that should be avoided by a virtuous person.

Aristotle highly prized the virtues of sincerity and truthfulness. For him, modesty and humility were actually produced by a deficiency of sincerity. He believed that claiming your worth and importance as being less than what is true did not meet the criteria of sincerity and, therefore, was not a virtuous act. In fact, Aristotle wrote that modest and humble behavior was only appropriate for children. The other extreme on the excessive side of sincerity was boastfulness or arrogance. So, instead of being humble and understating your abilities, or being boastful and overstating your abilities, Aristotle would suggest that you take the middle path and simply be sincere about yourself.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (Marble 2nd century portrait of Aristotle (housed in the Museo Nazionale Romano) in front of a painting of Plato’s Academy by Raphael (1483–1520), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

  • The Nicomachean Ethics (Book IV, chapter ix) by Aristotle, translated by J. A. K. Thomson (Penguin Classics, 2004).

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Julius Caesar’s Wardrobe And His Special Sleeves

When discussing Julius Caesar, most ancient authors (including Caesar in his own war memoirs) mainly focused on the dictator’s military and political maneuverings. The Roman scholar, Suetonius (c. 70-130+), however, was a different type of writer. While most of his peers were eager to study Caesar’s battles and politicking, Suetonius instead glossed over those subjects in favor of more basic topics, such as Julius Caesar’s appearance and wardrobe.

Based on his various sources (memoirs, letters, poems, songs etc.), Suetonius deduced that Caesar was a tall and very well built man with dark-colored eyes. He was apparently very particular about always keeping any stubble on his face cleanly shaved and he took any chance he got to wear a laurel wreath, so as to cover up his balding head.

Suetonius also wrote that Julius Caesar had a reputation for wearing his clothing unusually loose, a habit that supposedly started as far back as the reign of the dictator Sulla (r. 82-79 BCE). In addition, when Caesar began to wear senatorial garb, he apparently made an interesting alteration to the accepted wardrobe—he supposedly had wrist-length sleeves with fringes tailored onto his clothing.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (Painting of Julius Caesar by Clara Grosch c. 1892, in front of a painting of an ancient ruin via pxhere.com, both [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

  • The Twelve Caesars by Suetonius, translated by Robert Graves and edited by James B. Rives. New York: Penguin Classics, 2007.
  • https://www.britannica.com/biography/Julius-Caesar-Roman-ruler  

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

One Of Julius Caesar’s Most Famous Quotes Actually Came From An Ancient Greek Play

In 49 BCE, Julius Caesar rested with his army on the Gaul side of the Rubicon River. By crossing the Rubicon, he would be moving his forces without authorization from Gaul into Italy, officially igniting a rebellion against the Roman Senate and Pompey. To honor the momentous occasion before plunging the Roman Republic into civil war, Julius Caesar reportedly delivered one of his greatest phrases. Suetonius, representing the Latin tradition, claimed that Julius Caesar crossed the river after stating, “the die is cast” (The Twelve Caesars, Divius Julius 32). Plutarch, representing the Greek tradition, instead wrote that Caesar proclaimed, “let the die be cast,” and commented that the phrase was actually a quite commonly-used quote by people who are about to expose their fortunes to peril (Life of Caesar, 32).

The line was a well-known saying because it had been coined centuries before Caesar by the Greek dramatist and comic playwright, Menander (c. 342-291 BCE), who allegedly wrote over a hundred plays during his career. Regardless, what Caesar said at the Rubicon is still debated. Was it coincidence, or paraphrasing, or simply a later embellishment added by commentators? Julius Caesar’s own memoirs only add more questions to the conversation, as he did not deem whatever he said at the Rubicon to be worth recording in his war commentaries.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (Julius Caesar "Crossing the Rubicon" from Abbott, Jacob, 1803-1879, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

  • The Twelve Caesars by Suetonius, translated by Robert Graves and edited by James B. Rives. New York: Penguin Classics, 2007.
  • http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Plutarch/Lives/Caesar*.html 
  • https://www.britannica.com/biography/Menander-Greek-dramatist  

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Hneftafl—A Mysterious Scandinavian Board Game From The Early Middle Ages

Hneftafl (also spelled hnettafl or hnefatafl) was a popular board game that is believed to have originated in Scandinavia or possibly in the northern Germanic lands. Although modern hneftafl games are being sold by nostalgic producers, it likely took a lot of guesswork and improvisation on the part of these companies, for there is very little surviving information on how the authentic hneftafl game was played.

What we do know about the game mainly comes from remnants of the player pieces found in burial mounds and a few brief descriptions of the game found in medieval literature, such as the Icelandic sagas. The game is often compared to chess—they both had light and dark sets of game pieces, and they both had a king that needed to be protected or captured. Hneftafl pieces could sometimes be fairly large in size and they often were made with pegs jutting out underneath, so that the hneftafl pieces could be securely attached to the game board. The pegs must have been fairly long and sturdy, for in one grisly episode from Grettir’s Saga (c. 14th century) the peg from a hneftafl piece was used to gouge out a person’s eye.

Around the time of the crusades, hneftafl’s popularity began to wane under the weight of the skyrocketing rise of chess in Europe. As the northern Europeans converted to chess, hneftafl soon sank to the vague and incomplete shadow that we have of the game today.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (Odin entertaining guests in Valhalla, by Emil Doepler  (1855–1922), [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.
  • http://tafl.cyningstan.com/page/3/the-history-of-hnefatafl  

Monday, July 16, 2018

Emperor Gaozu Of The Han Dynasty Almost Had His Son-In-Law Executed

Zhang Ao was the son of Zhang Er, a politician and general who helped Emperor Gaozu (King of Han c. 206 BCE, emperor r. 202-195 BCE) seize power after the fall of the Qin Dynasty. For his role in Emperor Gaozu’s rise to power, Zhang Er was rewarded with the crown to the kingdom of Zhao, which, of course, was still subservient to the Han emperor. When Zhang Er died in 202 BCE, his son, Zhang Ao, succeeded to the throne of Zhao. His power and prominence increased even further when he married Princess Yuan of Lu, the daughter of Emperor Gaozu and Empress Lü.

Zhang Ao’s relationship with his powerful father-in-law, however, was in no way ideal. Emperor Gaozu did not seem to particularly like the man that his little girl had chosen to spend her life with, so the emperor apparently went out of his way to pick on the king of Zhao. The Han historian, Sima Qian (c. 145-90 BCE), wrote that Emperor Gaozu would rudely laze about in the palace of Zhao, publicly showing his disapproval and indifference toward his son-in-law. King Zhang Ao, for his part, tried to remain as humble as possible, apparently even going to the extent of dismissing his servants and personally serving meals to the emperor.

The sight was so pitiful that even the ministers and generals of Zhao sympathized with their abused king. According to Sima Qian, a group of around ten powerful men, led by Prime Minister Guan Gao, met with Zhang Ao and offered to support the king if he wished to rebel. They also proclaimed that they were willing to hire an assassin to send after the emperor. Sima Qian alleged that Zhang Ao chastised the conspirators and sent them away without granting his blessing, but somehow the conspiracy reached the ears of Emperor Gaozu and the emperor ordered Zhang Ao and his advisors to be arrested.

Sima Qian hinted that many of the Zhao conspirators committed suicide, but at least Zhang Ao and Guan Gao were captured alive. When their king was arrested, several members of the court of Zhao who were not a part of the conspiracy decided to travel to the capital in Chang’an with their heads shaved and dressed like slaves, so that they could show support for their imprisoned liege.

Guan Gao apparently testified that Zhang Ao was innocent, saying that while the conspirators had indeed plotted against the emperor’s life, the king of Zhao had vehemently disapproved of the plan. The Prime Minister of Zhao’s speech convinced the interrogators and the emperor, resulting in the release of Zhang Ao. For his truthfulness, Emperor Gaozu allegedly also pardoned Gauan Gao, yet when the prime minister received confirmation that Zhang Ao had been freed, he committed suicide.

Although Zhang Ao did not face any serious punishment, he was apparently removed from the throne of Zhao. Sill, the husband of the emperor’s daughter could not be left landless. As such, after his release from jail, Zhang Ao was quickly named as the Marquis of Xuanping and his descendants with Princess Yuan became the Kings of Lu.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (A Chinese garden gathering painted by Xie Huan, circa 1437, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

  • The Records of the Grand Historian (Shi ji) by Sima Qian, translated by Burton Watson. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.
  • http://www.chinaknowledge.de/History/Han/personszhangao.html  

Sunday, July 15, 2018

The Murderous Krypteia of Ancient Sparta

Like most countries that depended on oppressed laborers, the free citizens of Sparta were far outnumbered by the subservient Helots (similar in nature to medieval serfs), who performed all of the manual work required by the state. As such, the Spartans were always in fear of a Helot revolt, as it would threaten national security and shatter the Spartan economy. One of the unpleasant results of this fear was the Krypteia. Unfortunately, surviving information on the Krypteia is vague, yet what we do know is extremely unnerving.

Plutarch wrote the most detailed description of the Krypteia in his biography of Lycurgus, included in his Parallel Lives. Even though his account is the clearest, it still leaves many questions unanswered. According to Plutarch, the Krypteia was some sort of institution that operated from the shadows to oppress the Helots. In the account, he was unclear as to whether the Krypteia was a large-scale government organization (like a secret police) or if the Krypteia was simply an initiation test given to talented Spartan trainees. Either way, the Spartan youths and their instructors were said to have played a significant role in the Krypteia.

According to Plutarch, agents of the Krypteia were the most intelligent and talented of the Spartan youths. The training overseers would periodically send out these elite trainees, armed with daggers and provisions, to infiltrate the countryside. While on their missions, these agents would allegedly spend their days hiding and resting, but once the sun fell, they would allegedly prowl for Helots and sometimes go on a murdering rampage. The assassins were said to target the strongest, most admired, members of the Helot population—the very ones that could lead potential revolts against Sparta.

An event reported by Thucydides (c. 460-400 BCE) to have occurred in Sparta around early 424 BCE is often mentioned in regards to the actions of the Krypteia. It was a time when the morale of Sparta was very low—in 425 BCE, the Athenian general, Demosthenes, audaciously constructed, and successfully defended, a fortress at Pylos, located on the southwestern coast of the Peloponnesus. Not only did the Athenian general protect his newly built fortress from a Peloponnesian attack, but he also captured over a hundred Spartan officers that had camped on a nearby island. According to Thucydides, the loss at Pylos, as well as other Athenian victories, made the Spartans worry about a possible Helot uprising. Thucydides alleged that, in the aftermath of Pylos, the Spartans sent out messages, asking for the Helot community to send their strongest and most productive members of their community to an unnamed temple, where they would receive rewards for their efforts. These chosen Helots, supposedly 2,000 in number, were wreathed with garlands and paraded around the temple grounds. Yet, not long after the ceremony, all 2,000 of the elite helots were said to have died of mysterious causes.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (Three Spartan Boys Practicing Archery, by Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg (1783–1853), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

  • On Sparta (Life of Lycurgus), by Plutarch excerpted from his Parallel Lives, translated by Richard J. A. Talbert. New York: Penguin Classics, 2005.
  • History of the Peloponnesian War (Book IV) by Thucydides, translated by Rex Warner and introduced by M. I. Finley. New York: Penguin Classics, 1972. 
  • https://www.britannica.com/topic/helot#ref1175