Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Augustus’ Shocking Inspiration For The Temple Of Jupiter Tonans

People often say that they are “struck” by ideas. Augustus, sole ruler of Rome from 30 BCE to 14 CE, had an experience like this yet; for him, it was less figurative and much more tangible. According to Augustus’ ancient biographers, he had an intense experience in 26 or 25 BCE, around the time that he was fighting the Cantabri and Astures people in Spain. In Cassius Dio’s (c. 163-235) more tame account of the story, Augustus heard a distant crash of thunder, followed by a dream of the god, Jupiter. In Suetonius’ (c. 70-130+) more lively version of the story, Augustus was confronted with much more than the mere sound of rumbling thunder—instead, he watched with horror as a bolt of white-hot lightning smote an unlucky torchbearer who was standing nearby. The lightning not only turned the torchbearer into a crisp, but it also apparently scorched parts of the litter in which the startled Augustus was sitting. According to Suetonius, the experience was so frightening for Augustus that he developed a great fear of lighting and thunderstorms. His fear was allegedly so intense that he wore protective amulets and fled into underground shelters during heavy storms.

Whatever the real truth may have been, Augustus was inspired to construct a temple for Jupiter on the Capitoline Hill in Rome around the time of the Cantabrian campaign. When construction was completed around 22 BCE, it was regarded as one of the most beautiful and impressive architectural works in the capital city. Suetonius included it in his list of the three most magnificent public works produced during the reign of Augustus. The building was fittingly titled the Temple of Jupiter Tonans, or the Temple of Jupiter the Thunderer.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (Image of Lightning in a nigh storm, by user Free-Photos [Public Domain] via

  • 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. 

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

The Morbid Loyalty of King Tian Heng’s Followers

Tian Heng was one of many unlucky kings of ancient Qi. His family had successfully rebelled against the Qin Dynasty during the widespread rebellions of 209 BCE, and they had managed to stake their claim to the region of Qi even though the powerful hegemon of the rebel forces, Xiang Yu, tried to take the kingdom away from the Tian clan and hand it over to another prominent rebel.

In the struggle to keep Qi independent, Tian Heng lost several kinsmen. King Tian Rong, the first Tian king of Qi, was defeated by Xiang Yu in a battle at Chengyang around 205 BCE. Power then passed to Tian Guang, but his land was quickly invaded by the Kingdom of Han in 204 BCE. King Tian Guang was captured and executed by the general, Han Xin, and Han forces consequently occupied the kingdom of Qi during 203 BCE. Tian Heng assumed power after the fall of his kinsmen and tried to push the Han forces out of Qi. Nevertheless, he was defeated by a Han Army at Yingxia and was forced to flee from his kingdom.

Tian Heng received shelter from Peng Yue, another rebel warlord who was trying to keep his claim to Liang intact during the civil war between the king of Han (future Emperor Gaozu) and the king of Chu (Xiang Yu). When Tian Heng learned that the forces of Han had defeated and killed Xiang Yu in the battle of Gaixia (202 BCE), he fled to an island off the coast of Peng Yue’s domain, as he feared that Emperor Gaozu would label him an enemy of the state. Just over 500 loyal followers reportedly journeyed with Tian Heng to stay with him on his island refuge.

According to the Han historian, Sima Qian (c. 145-90 BCE), Emperor Gaozu eventually sent a messenger with a pardon to the island, clearing the refugee king of any wartime transgressions. Tian Heng did not believe the pardon—during his heyday, he had once participated in the boiling alive of a Han diplomat—and he refused to leave the island. When Emperor Gaozu heard of Tian Heng’s reservations, he sent the messenger back to the island with even more incentives to lure the king out of hiding. Tian Heng was told that the emperor’s pardon was genuine and that he could expect to be granted the noble title of marquis. The messenger also hinted that the Emperor might even have been willing to restore Tian Heng as king of Qi.

The messenger finally coaxed Tian Heng to leave the island refuge, but the king of Qi had no intention of acknowledging Emperor Gaozu as his ruler. Accompanied by two loyal followers, Tian Heng traveled by carriage to meet the emperor at Luoyang. He halted his carriage, however, when he was still a short distance away from the city. As the story goes, Tian Heng pulled his two followers aside and instructed them to bring his head to the emperor. After giving them their orders, the fallen king of Qi proceeded to cut his own throat.

After the deed was done, the two followers finished the job of removing Tian Heng’s head and brought the macabre trophy to Emperor Gaozu. The emperor, for his part, was apparently moved by Tian Heng’s final actions. The two followers who delivered the head were promoted to the rank of colonel in the Han Army. Furthermore, Emperor Gaozu tasked 2,000 soldiers with constructing a kingly burial mound for Tian Heng. The two followers who had brought the head watched as their king was entombed, and, once the funeral was complete, they allegedly dug two holes in the side of the mound. When the holes were complete, the followers supposedly killed themselves so as to stay with their leader.

Later on, Emperor Gaozu sent another envoy to Tian Heng’s island, thinking that if the rest of the followers were like the two who had brought the head, then the island would be a treasure trove of worthy men. Unfortunately, Emperor Gaozu had correctly predicted that the men on the island would have the same resolve of the two that had accompanied Tian Heng. When the emperor’s envoy arrived on the island, he allegedly discovered that news of Tian Heng’s death had already reached the island and that all of the 500 refugees living there had committed suicide.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (Image from "An authentic account of an embassy from the King of Great Britain to the Emperor of China," c. 1797, [Public Domain] via Flickr and Creative Commons).

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

Monday, August 27, 2018

The Fall Of Charlemagne's Uncle, Grifo

Grifo was one of four known sons fathered by Charles Martel, the powerful mayor of the palace who held more influence and might than the Merovingian monarchs he supposedly served. When Charles Martel died in 741, his land and influence were split between his sons. One of the sons, a certain Bernard, was, for the most part, excluded from succession as he had joined the church. That left three other sons, Pippin (III) the Short, Carloman and Grifo, to jostle for their inheritance.

It is unknown how much land, if any, was formally allotted to Grifo, Charles Martel’s youngest son. Nevertheless, the author of the continuation of the Chronicle of Fredegar reported that Charles Martel had a special affection for Grifo. Possibly inspired by this relationship, and backed by his mother Swanahilde, Grifo raised an army in an attempt to become the sole ruler of the Franks, or at least to seize more land and influence for himself.

Grifo, however, was no match for Pippin and Carloman, especially when the two brothers worked together. They mustered their own armies and coordinated a siege against Grifo’s headquarters at Laon. Before 741 ended, Pippin and Carloman successfully crushed their brother’s army and took Grifo into custody. Carloman took responsibility for keeping an eye on his brother—he sent Grifo to Neufchâteau, in the Ardennes Mountains, where he remained under arrest for years. Swanahild, Grifo’s supportive mother, was also seized and locked away in a convent at Chelles.

Grifo was finally released around the year 747, when Carloman retired from political life and became a monk. Upon his release, Grifo quickly showed that he had not lost any of his ambition during his years of captivity. According to the Royal Frankish Annals, Grifo immediately traveled to Saxony, a constant hotbed of resistance to the Franks. When Pippin the Short learned that his brother was raising another army, he mobilized his own force and confronted Grifo in 747. The two brothers had a standoff at the River Oker, but they made peace before any blood was reportedly spilled.

Even after being thwarted for a second time by his brother, Grifo still was not willing to give up on his ambitions. In 748, with the forces he had gathered in Saxony and support from a count named Suidger, Grifo invaded the region of Bavaria, where he usurped power from his nephew, Duke Tassilo III, and captured his own sister, Hiltrude, the duke’s mother.  

This was too much for Pippin to condone—before the end of 748, he marched his army into Bavaria, removed Grifo from power and restored Tassilo to his position as duke. Interestingly, Pippin the Short still was willing to show a little generosity to his brother. Although he removed Grifo from Bavaria, Pippin reportedly softened the blow by granting his brother a fiefdom of twelve counties in Neustria.

Grifo, however, could not be contained to Neustria. Still in 748, he fled to Duke Waifar of Aquitaine, a man who would later prove to be one of Pippin’s greatest rivals. After that, little is known about Grifo’s actions. His name finally made a reappearance in the records around 753, at which time the wayward prince met with a violent end in Gascony, or while allegedly trying to travel to Lombardy.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (Painting of 9th century Franks, by Albert Kretschmer c. 1882, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

  • Carolingian Chronicles: Royal Frankish Annals and Nithard’s Histories, translated by Bernhard Scholz and Barbara Rogers. Ann Arbor Paperbacks / University of Michigan Press, 1972.
  • Two Lives of Charlemagne, by Einhard and Notker the Stammer, translated by David Ganz. New York: Penguin Classics, 2008.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

The Allegedly Fatal Study Sessions Of Seleucus, A Scholar From The Reign Of Tiberius

According to the Roman biographer, Suetonius (c. 70-130+), Emperor Tiberius (r. 14-37) read daily and liked to quiz his dinner guests on trivia from the subjects he had studied that day. Apparently, a certain scholar named Seleucus was a frequent guest at Tiberius’ table and he would astound the emperor by being able to answer every question that Tiberius asked. Such knowledge and memory, however, did not come naturally to Seleucus. Instead, before he ever had a meal with Tiberius, Seleucus reportedly talked to the emperor’s servants and questioned them about what Tiberius was currently reading. With these helpful tips from the servants, Seleucus would then thoroughly study the books in question so he could answer any of the emperor’s questions.  Unfortunately for the scholar, word of Seleucus’ pre-dinner studies reached Tiberius’ ear. The emperor interpreted this as cheating and promptly cut off all contact with the scholar. Suetonius even alleged that Tiberius later forced Seleucus to commit suicide.

As for the identity of the Seleucus in the story, there happened to have been a prominent scholar with that name who likely lived during the reign of Tiberius. His name was Seleucus “Homericus” of Alexandria. He seemed to have been best known as a scholar of language—he wrote a piece on the Greek language and another on proverbs that could be found in Alexandria. Seleucus of Alexandria was also a prolific biographer and a writer of literary critiques who commented on the works of many scholars and poets. Nevertheless, other than his name and bibliography, most of his writings only remain in fragments, and little is known about the actual life of Seleucus of Alexandria. As a result, he is a plausible, but not proven, fit for Suetonius’s story.

It is possible that this story is simply folklore or rumor about Tiberius’ strange reign. After all, Suetonius’ style was dominated by stories that portrayed the personalities of his subjects, and he sometimes used rumor and satirical songs as a source to get a glimpse of public opinion toward a figure. Furthermore, Suetonius’ enthusiasm and focus seemed to decrease after he completed his biographies of Julius Caesar and Augustus—his accounts on the rest of The Twelve Caesars are shorter and less detailed. Nevertheless, much of the information recorded by Suetonius was truthful, either as historical fact, or, at least, it was genuinely what many Romans believed.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (The Great Library of Alexandria, c. 19th century, by O. Von Corven [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.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

The Laurel Wreaths That May Have Doomed Julius Caesar

In the final year of his life, Julius Caesar reportedly had several odd incidents involving laurel wreaths. It is possible that he may have even staged some of the events to test the reaction of the masses to the possibility of him becoming king. These odd episodes, along with Caesar’s vitriolic essay against his deceased enemy Cato, were some of the key blunders in public relations that led to the dictator’s eventual assassination.

One of the first incidents did not involve a wreath, but, instead, a ribbon. While Caesar prepared for an invasion of Parthia, he had his agents spread a prophecy from the Sibylline Books that claimed only a king could conquer the Parthians. In support of this prophecy, a ribbon was mysteriously tied around the head of a statue of Caesar in the Forum. As the Romans believed ribbons to be an eastern symbol of kingship, the masses, and especially the Senate, understood and feared what was being suggested. Two Tribunes of the Plebeians, named Epidus Marullus and Caesetius Flavus, had the ribbon quickly removed from the statue.

In another account, possibly another version of the story mentioned above, a laurel wreath with a white fillet was draped over the head of a statue of Caesar while the dictator was away from Rome, attending the Latin Festival of Jupiter Latiaris, which was held at the Alban Mount. The same tribunes, Marullus and Flavus, once again had the wreath removed from the statue’s head and arrested the person who had placed it there. The tribunes also reacted negatively when somebody in a crowd shouted out Caesar’s affiliation with a respected family (through a grandmother)—the clan in question was the Marcii Reges family, with reges being the plural form of rex, or “king.” Caesar skillfully deflected the comment, by responding “my name is Caesar, not King” or “No, I am Caesar, not King” (Suetonius, Twelve Caesars, Divus Julius: section 79). The persistent Tribunes, Marullus and Flavus, brought about their own downfall when they moved to prosecute anyone caught laying wreaths on statues or calling out regal titles. Caesar responded poorly to this move, and he ultimately had both of the Tribunes kicked out of the Senate.

Another incident occurred on February 15, during the Lupercalia, a festival that had some connection to the she-wolf (lupa) that, according to myth, raised Romulus and Remus. During the festivities, Mark Antony apparently attempted to crown Caesar multiple times with a wreath or diadem. After observing the crowd’s reaction, Julius Caesar eventually had the crown sent to a temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus.

Even though Caesar never accepted a crown or ribbon in the stories mentioned above, the powerful senators in Rome could not shake the feeling that Caesar had an ambition for kingship. Their suspicion of the dictator was deepened even more by some of the changes Caesar had made in Rome since his ascension to power. Of the many titles and privileges that Caesar accepted, the most annoying to the senators were the statue he supposedly placed alongside the sculptures of ancient Roman kings, and especially two alleged golden thrones that Caesar had made for himself to sit upon in the Senate House and the tribunal. With actions like this, it is easy to see why so many senators feared the future plans of Julius Caesar and joined the conspiracy to end his life.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (Statue of Julius Caesar [Public Domain] via Skitterphoto and

  • The Twelve Caesars by Suetonius, translated by Robert Graves and edited by James B. Rives. New York: Penguin Classics, 2007.
  • Julius Caesar by Philip Freeman. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2008.

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

The Wrath Of The Carolingian King Pippin III Against Duke Waifar Of Aquitaine

Pippin III was the first official king of the Carolingian Dynasty, although his family had long ruled over the Franks from their hereditary position as mayors of the palace. In the year 750, after acting as mayor of the palace for nine years, Pippin III finally usurped the title of king from Childerich, the last Merovingian puppet monarch, and did so with the support of Pope Stephen II. The pope’s support of Pippin marked the close relationship between the Carolingian Dynasty and the Papacy. As a result of this relationship, Pippin would fight many wars on behalf of the church and the pope. In addition, learning from how easily he had dethroned the weak Merovingian kings, Pippin and his descendants would rule their vassals with an iron fist.

Of all the nobles in King Pippin’s sphere of influence, Duke Waifar of Aquitaine (r. 744-768) was arguably the monarch’s greatest annoyance. Pippin had shown an interest in Aquitaine as early as the year 742, when he and his brother, Carloman, launched a joint invasion of the region (then controlled by Waifar’s father, Hunald) and seized at least one castle.  Several years later, in 748, Duke Waifar personally earned the displeasure of the future Carolingian king when he gave shelter to a man named Grifo, who happened to be the rebellious and wayward brother of Pippin III.

Excluding the Grifo incident, Duke Waifar and Pippin were able to coexist for well over a decade. The Royal Frankish Annals, covering events from 741-829, made little mention of Duke Waifar until the year 760. At that point in the annals, however, the duke began to make constant appearances in the yearly entries.  It is actually surprising that it took so long for Pippin III and Duke Waifar to come to blows, for the duke was the type of person that the Carolingian king loathed the most—an obstinately independent-minded noble and an alleged opponent of the church.

In 760, Pippin invaded Aquitaine in a punitive military campaign after he had heard reports that Duke Waifar was seizing church land. The campaign ended quickly, with the duke handing over hostages and promising to clean up his act. While the 760 campaign may seem unassuming and undramatic, it was actually the first bout in the so-called Aquitanian War, a bloody feud which would last for nearly a decade.

Instead of changing his ways, Duke Waifar mobilized an army in 761 and marched against King Pippin. The duke’s lofty ambition, however, far outweighed his military capabilities. Pippin and his famous son, Charlemagne, quickly pushed Waifar’s army back and launched a counter-attack against Aquitaine. Before the year’s end, the Carolingians conquered Bourbon, Chantelle, Clermont and other smaller settlements. After halting for the winter, Pippin returned to Aquitaine in 762 and 763, capturing several more cities, including Thouars and Bourges. After that, Pippin took a break from his war effort, or considerably scaled down his campaigning, for the Royal Frankish Annals mentioned no excursions to Aquitaine during the years 764 and 765.

In 766 and 767,  however, the king of the Franks renewed his offensive against Duke Waifar with greater enthusiasm than ever before. In the later year, Pippin captured important cities such as Toulouse, Albi and Gevaudan, as well as several castles at Ally, Turenne and Peyrusse. In 768, Pippin stepped up his game even further, by capturing and executing Waifar’s uncle, Remistagnus. In addition to this, Pippin also captured Waifar’s mother, two sisters and an unspecified number of the duke’s nieces. Shortly after these events, still in the year 768, Duke Waifar met with a violent death. The Royal Frankish Annals simply state that he was killed, and make no mention of a battle or an arrest as the cause, leading many to presume Duke Waifar was assassinated.  

Interestingly, King Pippin III did not outlive his rival by long. Before the end of 768, the victorious Carolingian king contracted a serious illness, reported by Charlemagne’s biographer, Einhard (c.770-840), to have been edema or dropsy. Whatever the case, Pippin III died as a result of his poor health on September 24, 768.

Charlemagne, after succeeding to the throne alongside his brother, Carloman, launched the first war in his kingly career fittingly against Aquitaine. In 769, he invaded the region and forced Waifar’s elderly father, the retired Duke Hunald, to flee to Gascony, where he sought shelter with Duke Lupus. Unfortunately for the Aquitanian refugee, Duke Lupus quickly received an ominous and threatening letter from Charlemagne, which resulted in Hunald being promptly handed over to the king of the Franks.

Written by C. Keith Hansely

Picture Attribution: (Side profile of King Pippin the Short, by François Séraphin Delpech  (1778–1825), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

  • Carolingian Chronicles: Royal Frankish Annals and Nithard’s Histories, translated by Bernhard Scholz and Barbara Rogers. Ann Arbor Paperbacks / University of Michigan Press, 1972.
  • Two Lives of Charlemagne, by Einhard and Notker the Stammer, translated by David Ganz. New York: Penguin Classics, 2008. 

Monday, August 20, 2018

Repeating Muskets Prior To The 19th Century

Many people think that the advent of repeating firearms was a thing of the 19th century—a time dominated, at least in the Americas, by the U.S. Civil War and battles between cowboys and lawmen in the Wild West. While the 19th century was, indeed, a time skyrocketing popularity for repeating weapons, it may be surprising to learn that multi-shot firearms had already been around for hundreds of years.

Before the 19th century, repeating firearms were available for purchase, but were often ignored, as they were expensive to manufacture, difficult to repair and provided little advantage in accuracy over other muskets. The low demand for pre-19th century repeating firearms, however, did not stop ambitious gunsmiths from inventing primitive semi-automatic and automatic weapons. The mechanisms used in these interesting weapons could vary greatly, with some relying on swiveling gun barrels, while others used something akin to a Roman candle design, or even magazines of musket balls that could be individually loaded into a firearm through a contraption similar to those found in later lever-action repeating rifles.

Here are just a few of the bizarre repeating firearms that were in existence during the heyday of muzzle-loaded weaponry. In the 16th century, the 16-shot wheel-lock was one of the first firearms to use the Roman candle design, where one shot ignited the charge of the next, repeating until the ammunition was expended. In the early 17th century, two separate gunsmiths, named Lorenzoni and Kalthoff, created some of the first magazine-loaded flintlock rifles. During the 18th century, at least three more notable repeating firearms were produced. These included the Joseph Belton 8-Shot Repeating Musket, the Cookson Volitional Repeating Flintlock and the Girandoni Air Rifle. The latter of these weapons was actually carried by Merriwether Lewis during the famous Lewis and Clark surveying expedition into the American West.

Written by C. Keith Hansely.

Picture Attribute: (Battle of Bunker Hill by Howard Pyle  (1853–1911), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).


Sunday, August 19, 2018

The Fate Of King Agamemnon, The Mythical Leader Of The Greeks During The Trojan War

The Odyssey, written by Homer (flourished c. 800 BCE), focused on the long journey home of Odysseus after the Greek victory in the Trojan War and the events happening in his homeland of Ithaca during his absence. Despite this focus, the epic poem also briefly mentioned the fates of other Greek leaders. Through dialogue and plot, the reader (or in Homer’s day, the listeners) learns of how figures such as Nestor, Menelaus and Agamemnon all fared after they returned home from war. While the first two of the above-mentioned people lived out the rest of their days, the last, Agamemnon, was met with a treacherous end.

Agamemnon’s wife, Clytaemnestra (or Clytemnestra), was a stark contrast of character to Penelope, the faithful wife of Odysseus. While Penelope tricked and avoided suitors for the many years while Odysseus was away, Clytaemnestra succumbed to the advances of a seducer named Aegisthus. Not only did she have an affair with the man, but also she conspired with him against her husband. In her defense, however, Homer wrote that the gods were determined to make her fall for Aegisthus.

According to Homer, when Agamemnon returned to his homeland of Mycenae, the treacherous Aegisthus set out to greet the king with all the fanfare he could muster. He picked up Agamemnon with a chariot and transported him back to the palace, where a huge banquet had been prepared to welcome the tired king home. Not suspecting a thing, Agamemnon stuffed his belly with rich food and hazed his mind with splendid wine while dining with his enemies. After the king became thoroughly inebriated, Aegisthus gave a signal and twenty hidden assassins rushed into the room, murdering Agamemnon and all of his loyal followers. A second version of the myth gave Clytaemnestra a much more active role in her husband’s death. The Greek dramatist, Aeschylus (c. 525-455 BCE), rewrote the story so that Clytaemnestra murdered Agamemnon with a knife while he bathed.

After Agamemnon’s death, Aegisthus declared himself to be the tyrant of Mycenae and he successfully managed to keep power for seven years. Aegisthus’ luck, however, ran dry during his eighth year of power, for that year Agamemnon’s son, Orestes, decided to take revenge.  Urged on by the desire for vengeance and given encouragement by the gods, Orestes left from where he had been staying in Athens to kill both Aegisthus and his own mother, Clytaemnestra. Orestes later featured in numerous other myths relating to the consequences of his matricide.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (The Wrath of Achilles, painted by Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

  • The Iliad by Homer, translated by E. V. Rieu and edited by Peter Jones. New York: Penguin Classics, 2014.
  • The Odyssey by Homer, translated by E. V. Rieu and edited by D. C. H. Rieu. New York: Penguin Classics, 2009. 

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

The “Apache Pistol”

In the mid- to late 19th century the bizarre “Apache pistol” was born.  This odd invention was a civilian personal protection firearm that allegedly was developed in France as a self-defense tool against the Parisian street gangs of the time, nicknamed Apaches. So, while snake guns were made to protect civilians from snakes and dog guns were produced to protect people from feral dogs, the “Apache pistol” was invented to protect 19th-century gentlemen from the so-called Apache street hooligans.

The weapon was like a Swiss Army knife, containing a variety of tools, but it was much less reliable or useful than an actual pocketknife. The “Apache pistol” could be called a pistol because it included a very small pepperbox revolver, with little to no gun barrel, as well as an often dangerously unguarded trigger. Supporting the weak and unreliable weapon was a set of metal knuckledusters, which served as the grip of the gun. Finally, jutting out from underneath the pistol mechanism was a small folding knife, which, when extended, looked like a small bayonet. All in all, it was a weapon that gave the user the option to punch, stab or shoot an assailant, although the weapon was so awkward that the gun wielder may just as likely have cut or shot himself by accident during the brawl. Unsurprisingly, the “Apache pistol” quickly went out of style.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (Apache Pistol photographed by Flickr user Michele M. F., via Creative Commons license 2.0).


Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Four Peculiar Pieces Of Folklore About Augustus’ Childhood

In 63 BCE, Julius Caesar’s niece, Atia, gave birth to Octavius—the one who would succeed Julius Caesar in 44 BCE and be given the title of Augustus in 27 BCE. According to stories and tales recorded by Suetonius (c. 70-130+), young Augustus had an aura of greatness even in his youngest years. The following stories are all likely folklore or embellished rumor, yet they also show the exceptional reputation that Augustus had, or at least the reputation that his propagandists wanted to portray. Regardless of value and historical accuracy, old tales and folklore are worth recording, if not for the sake of preservation, then for the mere pleasure of entertainment.

At the end of his section on Augustus in The Twelve Caesars (sections 94-97), Suetonius listed around twenty-one omens or supernatural incidents that were said to have occurred during the ruler’s life. Some of the most bizarre entries in the list reportedly occurred during Augustus’ childhood and adolescence.

One of the odd events supposedly occurred when Augustus was still a baby. As the story goes, baby Augustus was placed in a cradle for a night on the ground floor of his family’s mansion in Velitrae, located southeast of Rome. When dawn came, a nurse checked on Augustus, only to find that the baby was nowhere to be seen. The family and staff frantically formed into a search party and scoured the property and surrounding community for the missing infant. After some time, one of the searchers investigated a nearby tall tower. Low and behold, the baby Augustus was apparently found lying on his back atop the tower, staring up at the sky as if he was communing with the gods.

A few years later, when Augustus was learning to talk, another bizarre incident was reported to have occurred. As the story goes, little Augustus was lounging or studying somewhere on his family’s Velitrae estate when an army of frogs interrupted the young boy’s peace of mind with their incessant croaking and ribitting. Annoyed, the future autocrat called upon his newfound knowledge of language to loudly order the frogs to be quiet. According to the tale, the frogs immediately obeyed Augustus’ command, and, supposedly, no croaks or ribbits could be heard at that spot even in Suetonius’ time.

During Augustus’ adolescence, when he was able to wander freely, the future ruler of Rome supposedly had another strange encounter with an animal. One day, Augustus was eating lunch beside the Campanian Road when a mischievous eagle swooped down and snatched a piece of bread from the young man’s hand. The eagle, a bird beloved by the Romans, took to the skies, clutching the stolen bread in its talons. Augustus watched the eagle triumphantly fly in circles with its prize, but after a few minutes, the eagle landed once more beside the future ruler and returned the piece of bread to his hand—a powerful omen, indeed.

One more tale, from when Augustus first began wearing senatorial garb, serves as a fitting end to the odd stories from the ruler’s childhood. Augustus apparently did not seek Julius Caesar’s advice on how to wear his tunic and toga—Caesar reportedly always wore his clothing loosely fit. Nevertheless, when Augustus was first allowed to wear a senatorial tunic, he evidently ignored Caesar’s example and wore his clothing with tight tailoring. This decision, however, had embarrassing consequences. According to Suetonius, Augustus accidentally ripped his tunic on the very day he was celebrating his coming of age. The rip was allegedly so extensive that the senatorial garment fell to the floor. Witnesses of this scene supposedly did not laugh or find the spectacle amusing. Instead, they were reportedly afraid, for some interpreted it to mean that the Roman Senate, like the ripped senatorial tunic, would soon be groveling at Augustus’ feet.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (Roman statue of a child, c. 200-300 A.D., held in the L.A. County Museum of Art, [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.

Monday, August 13, 2018

The Obliteration Of The Uxian Hill Tribes By Alexander The Great

On October 1, 331 BCE, Alexander the Great dealt a psychological death blow to the reign of the Persian King of Kings, Darius III, at Gaugamela. The Persian ruler had a vast numerical superiority during the battle, and the battlefield, itself, at Gaugamela had been flattened and leveled by workers to further the advantage of the Persian chariots and cavalry. Nevertheless, Alexander marched his seasoned warriors to Darius’ location and beat the Persian King of Kings in a fair fight at dawn. As Darius fled from the battlefield, many Persians knew that their leader had no valid excuses for his defeat—Alexander was simply the superior general.

Instead of chasing after the fleeing Darius, Alexander instead moved to seize nearby vital cities while the Persian ruler was too weak to respond. First, he reached Babylon and from there marched to Susa. Both cities accepted the victorious king into their walls without a struggle. Departing from Susa, Alexander and his army entered the territory of the Uxians, a people who controlled a swath of land between Susa and the city of Persepolis, the Persian capital. The Uxians that lived in the plains region willingly submitted to Alexander. Other Uxians living in the hillsides, however, had no intention of bowing to Alexander. They had not even paid tribute to Darius III, despite living in the heart of the Persian Empire, and as such, the Uxians in the hills stanchly wanted to maintain their independence and even demanded that Alexander pay a toll if he should wish to cross through their land. The hill people, however, failed to realize that the Persian Empire was crumbling and a new empire-builder was in town. Unfortunately for the Uxian hill tribes, Alexander had little patience for rogue, obstinate communities in his growing domain.

According to the Roman historian, Arrian (c. 90-173+), who based his book mainly on the eyewitness accounts of Ptolemy and Aristobulus, the Uxians were informed that Alexander’s army would be heading toward a pass in their territory and that the Macedonian king would hand them their just toll. Of course, Alexander and the hill tribes had vastly different ideas of what was justly deserved.

As the message was traveling to the Uxian hill communities, Alexander sent most of his army, under the command of Craterus, to quickly march for the pass in order to seize the high ground. The Macedonian king, however, did not go with the rest of the army. Instead, he stayed behind with a reported force of around 8,000 men and recruited some guides from Susa who knew the Uxian countryside. After waiting long enough for the hill warriors to abandon their homes for the pass, Alexander had the guides from Susa lead his band of troops to known villages on the hillside. Under the cover of dark, Alexander’s raiding party surprised several defenseless villages, pillaging and killing as they combed through the hills.

After his attack on the hill villages, Alexander rushed with such speed for the pass that he arrived there before the Uxians were present. Alexander, himself, took up a position on the high ground of the pass and sent Craterus’ earlier-mentioned portion of the army to a hidden location at the back of the passage.

When the Uxians finally arrived, Alexander did not wait for diplomacy, but instantly sounded a charge from his favorable position on the high ground. The hill warriors, startled both by Alexander’s aggression and his advantageous position, lost the will to fight and fled back for the safety of the opposite hills. The path they choose to flee, however, brought the Uxian hill warriors directly into the clutches of Craterus’ hidden troops. With the hill warriors caught between the forces of Alexander and Craterus, the battle at the pass quickly turned into a massacre.

After the battle was over, Alexander’s bloodlust apparently cooled, for he supposedly let the survivors of the hill tribes keep their land. Of course, this came with stipulations, such as free passage for Alexander’s army and a regular tribute payment of horses, mules and sheep.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (Alexander and Porus, painted by Charles Le Brun (1619–1690), [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.