Wednesday, May 22, 2019

The Ancient Dance-Off Of Mercenaries Outside Of Cotyora

A Greek mercenary company known to history as the ‘Ten Thousand’ joined the rebellious Cyrus the Younger in a revolt against the Persian King Artaxerxes II in 401 BCE. Within the year, however, the rebel prince was dead and the mercenaries found themselves stranded near Babylon, with Persian armies and hostile local militias in all directions. Despite the original mercenary leaders being arrested and executed, the Ten Thousand managed to continuously break through roadblocks, mountain ambushes, and guarded river crossings, eventually reaching the eastern end of the Black Sea by 400 BCE. Xenophon—the philosopher, historian and accomplished mercenary—was a leading member of the Ten Thousand, and he later documented their story in his Anabasis Kyrou, translated as Cyrus’ March Up Country or The Expedition of Cyrus.

Upon reaching the Black Sea, the mercenaries gained some more room to breathe. Earlier, in Mesopotamia and the mountains of Armenia, the mercenaries had been constantly pursued by Persian or local armies. On the Black Sea coast, however, the mercenaries were seemingly able to pick and choose their fights. Yet, as the mercenary company was always foraging the countryside for provisions (and loot), there was still plenty of conflict between the warriors-for-hire and the inhabitants of the lands through which they were marching.

The Paphlagonians, an Anatolian people who lived near the Greek colonial city of Sinope, were one of the many regional powers that the mercenaries irritated as they foraged along the Black Sea coast. The mercenary company encountered the Paphlagonians near the city of Cotyora, where, according to Xenophon, the mercenaries stayed for forty-five days. The Ten Thousand (now actually about 8,600) quickly overstayed their welcome, and diplomats from Cotyora’s ally, Sinope, sailed over to keep the mercenaries in line. With a mixture of threats and diplomacy, the mercenaries convinced Sinope and its allies to lend them a fleet of ships so that they could sail back to Greece. Yet, while the mercenaries waited for their transports, the foraging and pillaging continued.

As Xenophon described it, “while they continued to wait, the Greeks supported themselves either by buying food from the market or by plundering the territory of the Paphlagonians” (Anabasis Kyrou, Book 6, section 1). The Paphlagonians, however, did not relinquish their resources without a fight. They repeatedly set up ambushes against the Greek raiders during the day, and at night they attacked any scavenging parties that made the mistake of resting in Paphlagonia. The conflict was tiresome for both sides. Therefore, when the Paphlagonian leader sent diplomats to negotiate a non-aggression pact, the mercenaries eagerly accepted the proposal and held a feast in honor of the Paphlagonian ambassadors.

The feast outside of Cotyora was one of the more charming scenes of life and humanity presented in the Anabasis Kyrou. To start off the revelries, a libation was poured out for the gods, then, between eating and drinking, they sang songs together, accompanied by musicians playing pipes. With wine flowing and music playing, the diverse band of mercenaries decided to have a dance-off of their different cultural dances.

A pair of Thracians were the first to jump to their feet and dance to the sounds of the pipes. According to Xenophon, the Thracians unsheathed their blades and began jumping in time with the music. As they jumped, they took turns jabbing at each other with their swords. The dance ended with one of the two dancers pretending to be stabbed. The ‘wounded’ Thracian put on quite the show, falling to the ground with dramatic flair. When the dancer was done acting out his death scene, his Thracian comrades lifted him up and carried him away, all the while singing battle songs.

Next to dance was a group of Aenianians and Magnesians from the Thessaly region of Greece. They put on a show, called the karpaia, which was even more choreographed than the one performed by the Thracians. Xenophon described the scene as a mock highway robbery where the dancers played the part of a farmer and a thief. Accompanied by the pipe music, the dancers acted out the encounter between assailant and victim, then rhythmically went to battle in time with the tune. The dance apparently had a bit of improvised acting at times, for Xenophon claimed that the victor between the farmer and the thief varied in each performance. Nevertheless, in the dance that Xenophon witnessed, the thief won the battle and stole the farmer’s possessions.

After the dancing thief’s success, an acrobatic Mysian from northwest Anatolia stepped forward to showcase a blend of physical exercise and Persian dance. He carried a shield in each hand and used them in all of his dances. Sometimes, he held the shields out to his sides, as if fending off two attackers. Other times, he had both shields defending a single direction. When the shield shadowboxing was over, the Mysian (still wielding his shields) began rolling around in somersaults. Finally, he began a strenuous dance involving squats and the clashing of shields, all in time with the music, of course.

The Mysian was succeeded by a group of Greek Arcadians—they, along with the Achaeans, were the most populous demographic of the mercenary army. Dressed to impress in their best armor, the Arcadians launched into a religious song and dance that was usually meant to be done in ceremonial processions. As with the other performances, the dancing Arcadians were accompanied by the untiring pipe players. The Arcadians may not have been as imaginative as the others in their choice of dance, but the Paphlagonians nevertheless found it entertaining. This would have been the final dance of the feast if the Arcadians and the Mysian had not plotted one last performance—one that would be the crowd favorite, by far.

One of the Arcadians had with him a professional dancing-girl. The Mysian obtained permission from the Arcadian to dress the dancing-girl in a brilliant set of armor, a shield, and presumably a weapon. The Arcadian agreed and the dancing-girl was equipped in war gear and brought before the feasting mercenaries. With the eyes of the warriors on her, the dancer gracefully threw herself into her own rendition of the famous Pyrrhic dance, one of the most popular war dances of the Greek world. The mercenaries greatly enjoyed watching the dancing-girl’s performance, or perhaps they simply enjoyed watching her. Nevertheless, according to Xenophon, she received the loudest applause of the night. The Paphlagonians, it was said, found her war dance to be so convincing that they were certain that she fought alongside the mercenaries during battles.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (A Pyrrhic Dance painted by Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836–1912), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).


  • Anabasis Kyrou (The Expedition/Upcountry March of Cyrus) by Xenophon and translated by Robin Waterfield. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

The Battle Of The Einars In the Snæfellsnes Peninsula

According to the Book of Settlements (Landnámabók), a man named Sigmund Ketilsson lived on the southwestern end of the Snæfellsnes Peninsula in Iceland. He lived during the Age of Settlement (approximately 860-930) and claimed for himself the land between what the Landnámabók calls Hellishraun and Beruvikurhraun. Within his territory, he chose Laugarbrekka as his seat of power and built a farm there, where he lived with his wife, Hildigunn, and three sons, Einar, Breid and Thorkell. The eldest son was Einar and, as he inherited control of his father’s farm, he became known as Einar of Laugarbrekka. Unfortunately, little is known about the lives of Einar’s brothers, Breid and Thorkell. Besides his family and his farmhands, Sigmund was fairly isolated in his section of Snæfellsnes. Yet, he did sell some land to a neighbor named Lon-Einar, who lived nearby. Sigmund and Lon-Einar both had sizable parties of loyal farmhands, but there seemed to be peace between the neighbors while Sigmund was alive.

When Sigmund died, however, Lon-Einar began to encroach on his neighbor’s territory. At some point after Sigmund’s death, Lon-Einar gathered a crew of six henchmen and traveled to Laugarbrekka, where the widow Hildigunn was still living. What Lon-Einar did there is vague, but perhaps he made some sort of pass at Hildigunn, or as the Landnámabók curiously stated, he “summoned Hildigunn for sorcery” (Landnámabók, Stulubók manuscript, chapter 75). Whether or not he genuinely needed her help with magic, or if he wanted to make a different kind of passionate magic with her, Hildigunn was stricken with disgust by his proposal. When she later told her sons of Lon-Einar’s request, they, too, were outraged. The new head of the late Sigmund’s household, Einar of Laugarbrekka, promptly rounded together a warband of farmhands and slaves and set out with his well-armed party to hunt down Lon-Einar.

Lon-Einar was still accompanied by his six companions when he was confronted by the group from Laugarbrekka. The meeting between the two parties did not go well and words quickly turned to blows. Soon, there was a full-blown battle between the sides of the two Einars. Yet, the fight was apparently one-sided. After four of Lon-Einar’s companions were slain, his last two henchmen fled from the scene. Yet, Lon-Einar, himself, reportedly stood his ground and dueled Einar of Laugarbrekka. The two were evenly matched, but Lon-Einar was wearing loose pants that day and, while trying to pull up his falling breeches, he received a fatal blow from Einar of Laugarbrekka. Meanwhile, the two men who had fled the scene of the battle were hunted down and killed.

Einar of Laugarbrekka returned home with a complete victory. The Landnámabók, unfortunately, did not record Hildigunn’s reaction or what her life was like after the battle. The book did, however, claim that a slave named Hreidar distinguished himself during the Battle of the Einars, and that Einar of Laugarbrekka gave Hreidar freedom, as well as ownership over however much land the freedman could fence off in three days.

As for Einar of Laugarbrekka, he married a woman called Unn, and they had two daughters, named Hallveg and Arnora. When he eventually died, Einar of Laugarbrekka was buried in a grave near the burial mound of his father, Sigmund. Plant life around Einar’s grave, the Landnámabók insisted, always remained green in both summer and winter.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (A scene from Njal's Saga, by the artist Andreas Bloch (1860–1917), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).


  • The Book of Settlements (Sturlubók version) translated by Hermann Pálsson and Paul Edwards. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 1972, 2006.

Monday, May 20, 2019

The Liquor Heist Of Archdeacon Vigilius

A fleet of merchant ships sailed into the port of Marseilles around 574 to unload a cargo of fine liquor and oil, all neatly packaged in jars that were stowed securely on the ships. The early 570s were a stressful time for the Franks—they suffered a plague in 571 and faced raids from the newly-arrived Lombards out of Italy, while simultaneously being bogged down by courtly intrigue and civil war between the Frankish co-kings. The merchant ships entering Marseilles, however, were lucky enough to sail into port during a period of peace. The ships dropped anchor, and, after a span of time had elapsed, a well-connected local trader arrived at the docks to inspect his merchandise. Upon the merchant’s arrival, however, the workers told him horrible news—a thief had struck before or during the time when cargo was being unloaded and stored. It was not a paltry theft, either; to the merchant’s horror, he was told that no less than seventy jars of liquor and oil were missing.

The trader was outraged, and, as a man of wealth and influence, he devoted great resources to finding the culprits responsible for the liquor heist. Informants and witnesses soon began providing the merchant with names of people who had been acting suspiciously around the docks and warehouses. Curiously, the suspects were all associates of a local churchman—a high ranking one, no less. When the merchant completed his investigation, he accused one man of being the mastermind of the liquor theft. His suspect was Archdeacon Vigilius, yet, although the merchant firmly believed that Vigilius was the crime boss, his witnesses could only link the archdeacon’s servants and accomplices to the crime.

Archdeacon Vigilius, when he became aware of the charge, apparently gave a public statement in which he claimed, “No one who is a member of my household would ever dare to do such a deed” (Gregory of Tours, History of the Franks, 4.43). Nevertheless, the stolen merchandise (or whatever was left of it) was discovered on the archdeacon’s property. Even after the stolen liquor and oil was recovered, Vigilius refused to confess in any way that he or his servants were responsible for the heist. Seeking justice, the frustrated trader decided to use his connections and went to speak with the governor of the region, a man named Albinus. The merchant’s argument must have been persuasive, for the governor ultimately agreed to arrest Archdeacon Vigilius.

Amazingly, Governor Albinus’ arrest of Archdeacon Vigilius would become as big of a scandal as the original liquor heist. Bishop Gregory of Tours (c. 539-594), our source for this peculiar tale, claimed that Albinus shocked the people of Marseilles by arresting Archdeacon Vigilius on Christmas day, placing the churchman in custody while the man was taking part in a Christmas service. Gregory of Tours described the scene:

“On Christmas Day the Archdeacon put on his alb and, when the Bishop entered the church, invited him, as the custom is, to proceed to the altar and at the proper moment to celebrate Mass according to the ritual of this holy occasion. Albinus thereupon rose from his seat, seized the Archdeacon and dragged him out of the church, punching him and kicking him, and then locked him up in prison” (History of the Franks, Book 4, Section 43).

Public arrest and rough handling was not the only way that the archdeacon was punished. He also faced a reported fine of 4,000 gold pieces. Yet, other high profile figures were also forced to pay fines in the aftermath of the arrest. Governor Albinus’ bizarre timing and handling of the arrest was a Christmas present for his political rivals. A certain Jovinus, the governor’s predecessor and bitter enemy, reported the incident to King Sigebert of the Franks (r. 561-575), insisting that such embarrassing and improper conduct should be punished. The king reportedly agreed with Jovinus and fined Albinus 16,000 gold pieces for the Christmas day arrest.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.


  • The History of the Franks by Gregory of Tours, translated by Lewis Thorpe. New York: Penguin Classics, 1971.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

The Athenian Catastrophe At Eretria

In 411 BCE, the once-mighty Athens was in a dire state. Two years prior, Athens had lost tens of thousands of lives (including a few of its greatest generals) and over a hundred ships in their ill-fated expedition to Sicily. Now, with Peloponnesian strength growing and Persian interest in the massive Greek civil war increasing, a group of Athenian officers launched a remarkably ill-timed coup. In 411, conspirators in military and political spheres overthrew the Athenian democracy and, through assassination and intimidation, succeeded in setting up a group of oligarchic leaders in Athens, calling themselves the Four Hundred. Yet, the oligarchs underestimated the pro-democracy passion of the Athenian military and also did not take into account the jealousy that would be felt by the lower ranking oligarchs who were unsatisfied with the power they were allotted after the coup. Ultimately, although the Four Hundred did indeed capture Athens, they were bitterly opposed by the Athenian military (which camped at Samos). At the same time, disgruntled and disillusioned oligarchs plotted against their superiors.

In was at this time, while the Athenian military was in rebellion against the oligarchic government, and while the Athenian people were terrorized by the thoughts of government informants and assassins, that a reported fleet of forty-eight Peloponnesian ships sailed past Athens. The enemy fleet continued along the shoreline of Attica, heading up to the Gulf of Euboea and eventually anchoring in Oropus, on the southern coast of the gulf. The Athenians rightly feared that the Peloponnesian fleet would cut off their access to Euboea and could inspire revolts against Athens in the region. The fear was so powerful that the rival oligarchic factions worked together to mobilize ships to drive off the Peloponnesians. Yet, since the proper Athenian military refused to acknowledge the oligarchs, the city of Athens could only manage to mobilize thirty-eight ships, manned by inadequately-trained sailors and undistinguished officers, and sent them off without much in the way of rations.

The Athenian fleet of thirty-eight ships pursued the Peloponnesians into the Gulf of Euboea. As the Peloponnesians had anchored on the southern shore, the Athenians instead sailed to the north and stopped at the Euboean city of Eretria. With no food onboard their ships and no supply-line set up, the Athenian sailors disembarked and wandered through Eretria in search of food. According to the historian and Athenian general, Thucydides (c. 460-400 BCE), the Eretrians had all of their food stockpiled inland, far away from the coast. Yet, the locals began cooking and serving this food for the Athenians in houses near the inland storehouses.

Although the Eretrian picnic for the Athenian sailors may have seemed friendly, it was all a calculated trap. After Athens suffered its catastrophe in Sicily, many cities under Athenian authority reached out to the Peloponnesians for support in potential rebellions against Athens. Eretria was evidently one such city that wanted to be free from Athenian control. Unfortunately for the Athenian sailors, the Eretrians had been in contact with the Peloponnesian fleet in Oropus and had coordinated a plan on what to do if the Athenians should drop anchor at Eretria. With everything going as planned, the Eretrians somehow signaled to the Peloponnesians, perhaps with smoke from their cooking fires, indicating to the fleet in Oropus that the Athenians were distracted and away from their ships. Seeing this signal, the Peloponnesian fleet set sail and crossed over to the harbor of Eretria before the Athenians ever realized that their foes were on the move.

When the Athenian commander, a certain Thymochares, finally saw that the Peloponnesians were just outside the harbor, he pulled his sailors away from their meals and herded them frantically back to the ships. The surprised and unprepared Athenian fleet sailed out to meet the Peloponnesians and were said to have held their ground for some time. Yet, the Athenian defenses eventually began to give way, and then shattered completely. The defeated sailors fled in at least three directions: some toward a nearby Athenian fort in Euboea, others toward Chalcis, and a third group unfortunately returned to Eretria. By this point, however, the Eretrians were no longer pretending to be friendly, and they slaughtered the unfortunate Athenians who fled back to the city.

According to Thucydides, the Athenian oligarch fleet lost at least twenty-two of their thirty-six ships in the disastrous sea battle at Eretria. In the aftermath of the battle, nearly all of the Euboean cities rebelled against Athens. Yet, the disaster did have one benefit for Athens—it was ammunition that lesser members of the oligarchy could use against the leading oligarchs. Before the end of 411 BCE, the so-called Four Hundred was overthrown and was replaced by the more inclusive Five Thousand, which could be joined by any Athenian man who had the means to purchase a full set of heavy infantry hoplite gear. The Five Thousand became more democratic through reform and eventually gained the approval of the Athenian military, reuniting the city of Athens with its armed forces.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (Triremes depicted in Ship: The New Student's Reference Work, v. 4, 1914, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).


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

Thursday, May 16, 2019

The Dramatic And Deadly Marriage Of King Alboin Of Lombardy To Rosamund

Alboin became king of the Germanic Lombards in the first half of the 560s and, although he is less well known than the Franks and the Eastern Romans, Alboin was a major player in the late 6th century. Warfare would be the area in which this Lombard king excelled, but he also knew his way around diplomacy. Alboin managed to gain a prestigious marriage to the Frankish princess, Clothsind, daughter of King Chlotar (d. 561) of the Franks. He also was able to maintain a working relationship with the disruptive Avars.

The Lombards had a bitter rivalry with a people known as the Gepids, or Gepidae, who lived around the region of Hungary. In command of the Gepids at that time was a certain King Cunimund, who had the powerful, but unenthusiastic, support of the emperors of Constantinople. For convoluted and obscure reasons, war soon broke out between Alboin and Cunimund around 566. The conflict seems to have played out in two wars, or perhaps two phases of a single war. In the first war or phase, the Lombards gained an advantage against the Gepids, but the threat of an intervention from Emperor Justin II of Constantinople (r. 565-578) brought the two sides to a truce.

By this point, the Lombard king’s first wife, Clothsind, had died and a marriage between Alboin and Cunimund’s daughter, Rosamund, was floated as a means to keep the peace. Yet, the proposal was refused and Alboin may have even kidnapped Rosamund. The subsequent second phase, or second war, was much more destructive—King Alboin called in the Avars to assist him in the war, whereas the ineffective emperor, Justin II, provided little help to the Gepids. Whatever the actual reasons and timeline of the war, all accounts of the conflict between the Lombards and Gepids ended in the same bloody conclusion: King Cunimund was slain and his kingdom was conquered by 567. Sources differ on which army, the Lombards or the Avars, finally killed the king of the Gepids, but Alboin eventually obtained a gruesome souvenir from the person of the late King Cunimund. The 8th-century writer, Paul the Deacon, claimed it was the Lombards who dealt the fatal blow and wrote, “Alboin killed Cunimund, and made out of his head, which he carried off, a drinking goblet” (History of the Lombards, Book I, chapter 27). This skull goblet apparently became something of a Lombard national heirloom, for Paul the Deacon claimed to have seen it with his own eyes: “Lest this should seem impossible to anyone, I speak the truth in Christ. I saw king Ratchis holding this cup in his hand on a certain festal day to show it to his guests” (History of the Lombards, Book II, chapter 28).

With the Gepids defeated, Rosamund, the daughter of the slain king, fell into the hands of Alboin. Despite his killing of her father and turning his head into a cup, King Alboin made the questionable decision to force Rosamund to be his bride. Amazingly, the awkward newlyweds were able to coexist for several years—this was likely made easier by the distraction caused by the huge expedition that was undertaken by King Alboin and his people not long after the marriage. In 568, the Lombard king and his followers packed their bags and invaded Italy en masse. The forces of the aforementioned ineffective emperor, Justin II, were not prepared to face Alboin’s invasion, and, by 572, the Lombards had conquered much of Italy. The Lombard king settled his court in the city of Verona, and it was there that Rosamund finally reached her breaking point. Paul the Deacon described the alleged moment that threw the couple’s strained coexistence out of balance:

“While he [King Alboin] sat in merriment at a banquet at Verona longer than was proper, with the cup which he had made of the head of his father-in-law, king Cunimund, he ordered it to be given to the queen to drink wine, and he invited her to drink merrily with her father…. Then Rosemund, when she heard the thing, conceived in her heart deep anguish she could not restrain, and straightway she burned to revenge the death of her father by the murder of her husband, and presently she formed a plan with Helmechis who was the king’s squire” (History of the Lombards, Book II, chapter 28).

As the final line of the lengthy quote hints, Rosamund had some supporters and sympathizers in the court at Verona who were willing to conspire with her against the king. The sources differ on exactly which method she chose, but they all end in Alboin’s death. Gregory of Tours (c. 539-594), in his History of the Franks, claimed that Rosamund and a servant gave the king a fatal dose of poison. Paul the Deacon, however, painted a more gruesome scene. According to Paul’s account, Rosamund sabotaged Alboin’s sword and let in an assassin while the king slept. Alboin, however, woke up before the assassin could strike. He grasped his sword, but, because of Rosamund’s sabotage, could not draw the blade from its sheath. Alboin then grabbed a foot-stool as a last resort and fended off the assassin’s attacks for a time before he was ultimately dealt a death blow and succumbed to the wound.

Although Gregory of Tours and Paul the Deacon disagreed of the method of Albion’s death, they both concurred that the king was indeed killed around 572 and that Rosamund was the ringleader of the conspiracy. Curiously, they also believed that Rosamund was romantically involved with one or more of her conspirators. According to Paul the Deacon, Rosamund and the aforementioned Helmechis were later married and attempted to lay claim to the kingdom of the Lombards. When this move was rejected by the Lombard nobles, Rosamund and her new husband fled to Ravenna—they brought with them Albusinda, a daughter of the late King Alboin by his first wife, and they also took as much of the Lombard treasury as they could carry. Their choice of Constantinople-controlled Ravenna as their sanctuary has led many scholars to believe that the assassination of King Alboin had imperial backing.

Unfortunately, Rosamund and Helmechis did not live happily ever after. Both Gregory of Tours and Paul the Deacon claimed that the two met unnatural ends, yet, as before, their accounts differed on the fine details of their demise. In Gregory’s telling of events, Rosamund and her accomplice were captured and executed by an unnamed foe, but the Lombards are inferred from the context the passage. Paul the Deacon, however, claimed that Rosamund and Helmechis eventually poisoned each other, and Constantinople seized Princess Albusinda and the Lombard treasury after their deaths.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (Rosamund forced to drink from the skull of her father, by Pietro della Vecchia (1602 1603–1678), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)


  • The History of the Franks by Gregory of Tours, translated by Lewis Thorpe. New York: Penguin Classics, 1971.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

The “Silver Walls” of Zempoala, Mexico

In 1519, during the early stages of Hernán Cortés’ adventures in Mexico, the expedition fleet anchored at a port called San Juan de Ulua. There, Cortés met with two Aztec leaders that the Spanish thought were governors. For more than a week, they talked and exchanged gifts (including a large treasure of gold from Montezuma II and a fine chair from Cortés), until the Aztec leader, Montezuma, apparently ordered his people to abruptly cut off contact with the conquistadors. Yet, although the Aztec governors and their attendants quickly withdrew without notice, another group of local natives covertly sent ambassadors to speak with the Spaniards. The newly-arrived diplomats represented the Totonac people, a network of communities that had been subjugated by the Aztecs but were eager to rebel.

The leading city of the Totonac people was Zempoala (or Cempoala), in the vicinity of what would become Vera Cruz, Mexico. The leader of the city sent a delegation of five men to meet with Cortés in San Juan de Ulua. The diplomats, reportedly wearing golden decorations on their ears and lips, made a good first impression on the gold-obsessed Spaniards. Having obtained Cortés’ attention, the messengers expressed their leader’s eagerness to work with the Spaniards against Montezuma, and they invited the Spanish to visit the city of Zempoala. Cortés agreed to visit, but maintained that he was in a hurry to reach a city called Quiahuitzlan, which had piqued the interest of ships Cortés had earlier sent out to scout the coast. The conquistadors were in luck, for Zempoala was on the route to Quiahuitzlan and the leader of Zempoala knew the leader of the other city well.

Bernal Díaz del Castillo was among the conquistadors who saw Zempoala and he wrote this dramatic description of the community:

“as we came among the houses we saw how large a town it was, larger than any we had yet seen, and were full of admiration. It was so green with vegetation that it looked like a garden; and its streets were so full of men and women who had come out to see us that we gave thanks to God for the discovery of such a country” (The Conquest of New Spain, chapter 45).

It was such a thriving settlement that the Spaniards reportedly nicknamed it the City of Abundance. The ambitious leader of Zempoala was a perfect figurehead for the city, as he, like his large and well-fed city, was reported to have been incredibly obese. As the aforementioned Bernal Díaz explained, “He was so fat that I must call him the fat Cacique” (The Conquest of New Spain, chapter 45). True to his word, that was the consistent name given to the leader of Zempoala in the remainder of Bernal Díaz’s account.

The large leader of the city allowed the Spaniards to stay in some well-maintained buildings in the city courtyard. Cortés sent scouts to check out the lodgings. The wealth of the city and the general lust for gold and silver must have affected one of the scouts, for he rushed back to his comrades to tell them of a remarkable sight. According to him, the walls of their quarters, and those of other buildings in the city, were made of gleaming silver. Sadly, Bernal Díaz made no mention of how this news was received among the conquistadors, but, thankfully for Cortés, his culturally and architecturally aware translators were able stop the infectious rumor from spreading. Doña Marina (Cortés’ translator and mistress) and Aguilar (a priest formerly held captive by the Maya) explained that Zempoala was not a city of silver, but instead had walls covered in bright plaster.

This is how Bernal Díaz presented this amusing scene:

“Our mounted scouts had come to a great square with courtyards where they had prepared our lodgings, which appeared to have been lime-coated and burnished during the last few days. The Indians are so skillful at these arts that one of the horsemen took the shining whiteness for silver, and came galloping back to tell Cortés that our quarters had silver walls. Doña Marina and Aguilar said that it must have been plaster, and we laughed at his excitement. Indeed we reminded him ever afterwards that anything white looked to him as silver” (The Conquest of New Spain, chapter 45).

Cortes eventually left Zempoala and traveled to the city of Quiahuitzlan. The so-called fat Cacique followed the conquistadors to Quiahuitzlan, and there the two Totonac leaders continued to pressure Cortés to aid them in rebellion against Montezuma. Hernán Cortés eventually agreed and soon after founded the Spanish Colonial city of Vera Cruz not far from the location of Quiahuitzlan.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (A city scene from the Conquest of Mexico (Virreinato de la Nueva España), by Miguel Gonzales c. 17th century, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

  • The Conquest of New Spain by Bernal Díaz, translated by J. M. Cohen. New York: Penguin Books, 1963.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

The Melodic Escape Of A Slave From The Burial Mound Of Asmund Atlison

During the reign of Harald Finehair (ruled approximately 860-940), a man named Atli Valason sailed away from Norway and settled in Iceland. Atli had a son named Asmund, who married a woman named Thora and set up farmsteads in Langaholt and Oxl. Asmund apparently became a Viking and acquired slaves and wealth, which were used to build new structures on his land. Among his construction projects was a new hall for his wife’s personal enjoyment at Langaholt. Thora was quite the socialite, and according to the Book of Settlements, “she used to sit on a chair outside and invite every guest to come in for a meal” (Landnámabók, Stulubók version, chapter 72). Although the gregarious Thora no doubt spent a great deal of money entertaining her friends, Asmund managed to die a wealthy man.

Regarding funerary practices, early Scandinavian societies apparently preferred cremation. Yet, around the time of the Viking Age (in which Asmund was living), burials were also rising in popularity. Asmund’s family chose the latest fashion and decided to lay Asmund to rest in a ship and entombed both him and the ship inside a burial mound. Some of his prized possessions were also buried in the mound with him, including, unfortunately, one of his slaves. Although such human inclusions in funerals were sometimes ritually slaughtered, the slave inside of Asmund’s burial mound was apparently buried alive and left to slowly die of hunger and thirst (or else the rest of this tale is a ghost story).

Facing doom and boredom, the trapped slave found comfort in one of humanity’s oldest forms of expression—song. The slave began singing an impromptu song that was written from the perspective of the deceased Asmund, lamenting that the once powerful Viking now was accompanied by only a single lowly slave. According to Icelandic folklore, a passerby was near Asmund’s grave when this song eerily began emanating from the burial mound. According to the Book of Settlements, the anonymous Icelander heard these verses:

“On board my ship
in this stony mound,
no crew here
crowding around me;
far better solitude
than feeble support,
a fine sailor I was once;
that won’t be forgotten.”
(Landnámabók, Stulubók version, chapter 72)

The passerby apparently thought that the singer’s line of “far better solitude than feeble support” was a fair point and conveyed that reasoning to those who were responsible for the grave. According to the Book of Settlements, “After that the mound was opened up and the slave taken from the ship” (Landnámabók, Stulubók version, chapter 72). Unfortunately, no further information was recorded about the ultimate fate of the slave.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (Burial of a Jarl, by Carl Schmidt (1858-1923), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).


  • The Book of Settlements (Sturlubók version) translated by Hermann Pálsson and Paul Edwards. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 1972, 2006.

Monday, May 13, 2019

The Ravaging Of Mycalessus By Mercenaries During The Peloponnesian War

In 413 BCE, Demosthenes led an army of over 5,000 Athenian and allied forces to Sicily in order to reinforce a preexisting siege of Syracuse. A certain band of around 1,300 tardy Thracian mercenaries was meant to be sailing with that army, but when the swords-for-hire arrived in Athens, they found that Demosthenes had already sailed away. The jobless Thracians then renewed the offer of their military services to the city of Athens, which at that time was plagued by the presence of a nearby Spartan stronghold that had recently been built at Decelea, in the Athenian heartland of Attica. Although the Thracians were helpful in countering Peloponnesian raids, the Athenians decided that the mercenary company was too expensive to keep around. Athens eventually forced the Thracians to leave, but as they headed home to Thrace, the mercenaries were paid for one last job.

Athens tasked the homeward-bound Thracian mercenaries with the job of spreading chaos in the Spartan-aligned regions of Greece as they traveled back to Thrace.  To help with this mission, the Athenians apparently gave the Thracians an advisor (or possibly a general), as well as a fleet of transport ships. The Thracians sailed these transports along the coast of Greece, intending to sail into the Euboean Gulf, but they took a detour to raid Tanagra, on the borderland between Attica and Boeotia. After rushing back to their ships with the plunder, the mercenaries passed through the Euripus Strait between Euboea and mainland Greece, continuing to sail along the Boeotian shoreline.

Yet, before the Thracians sailed too far from the Euripus Strait, they disembarked on Boeotian soil and began marching inland. For unknown reasons, but perhaps on direction from their Athenian advisor, the Thracians continued marching inland until they reached an uninformed and poorly defended city called Mycalessus. It was a settlement seemingly devoted to farming, with little else of note except a few modest shrines and a large school for boys. Perhaps the city also catered to travelers, for there was a sizable temple of Hermes located only two miles away from the town. As Mycalessus was well inland and not a power player in the region, the people there had unfortunately let their guard down. The city was ill-protected by an inadequate garrison, and, although the city did have walls, the defensive features of the settlement were dilapidated and crumbling. Unfortunately, as the city also apparently had little in the way of scouts or patrols, Mycalessus left its gates wide open and it walls virtually undefended. The city remained in this sorry state as the army of Thracian mercenaries marched ever closer.

Eventually, the mercenaries arrived at the aforementioned temple of Hermes, which lay about two miles out from the city. Even then, the city of Mycalessus apparently still had no knowledge of the danger they were in. The mercenaries spent the night camped by the temple, but once daybreak arrived, they quickly rushed across the two mile stretch to the city and assaulted the unprepared people of Mycalessus. When the mercenaries attacked, the gates were still open, the wall still had gaps, and the garrison of the city was still understaffed. The Athenian general and historian, Thucydides (c. 460-400 BCE), wrote of this event in his History of the Peloponnesian War and his account infers that the city fell without a battle—the mercenaries were able to break in and immediately begin pillaging.

For no stated reason, the mercenary army’s occupation of Mycalessus became a bloodbath. According to Thucydides, “The Thracians burst into Mycalessus, sacked the houses and temples, and butchered the inhabitants, sparing neither the young nor the old, but methodically killing everyone they met, women and children alike, and even the farm animals and every living thing they saw” (History of the Peloponnesian War, Book VII, section 29). As happened with the city’s temples and houses, the boys’ school of Mycalessus was also invaded, and all of the schoolchildren who had gone to class that morning were reportedly massacred by the mercenaries. Thucydides’ sympathy for the city is palpable in his writing. He stated: “Mycalessus lost a considerable part of its population. It was a small city, but in the disaster just described its people suffered calamities as pitiable as any which took place during the war” (History of the Peloponnesian War, Book VII, section 30).

Fortunately for the survivors of Mycalessus, the city of Thebes had a competent intelligence network and learned of the attack quickly. A respected Boeotian commander named Scriphondas mobilized the forces of Thebes and rushed to the aid of Mycalessus. The Thebans caught the mercenaries unawares and unprepared. Some Thracians were still pillaging in the city at the time, while the majority were back out in the field. Upon the arrival of the Boeotians, the mercenaries apparently abandoned any of their comrades still inside the city and began an orderly withdrawal back toward their ships. The main contingent of Thracians was able to escape to the coast by carefully alternating between advance and retreat against the pursuing Thebans. Any mercenaries still inside the city, however, were said to have been killed by the newly arrived Boeotians forces.

When the embattled Thracian mercenaries reached the sea, a problem quickly developed. The Thebans had chased the mercenaries to the coast and the Thracians had not been able to fully embark on the ships before Boeotian archers forced the transports to sail out of arrow range. Many mercenaries found themselves stranded and some were either slain on the beach or drowned as they tried to swim to the transports. Although the majority of the mercenaries had escaped, a reported 250 Thracians died during the Theban counter-attack at Mycalessus or on the beach. The casualties of the Theban relief force was much lighter, with twenty men reported dead. Unfortunately, the leader of the Theban army, Scriphondas, was among the dead.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (Scene depicting Aphrodite saving Aeneas, Etruscan black-figure amphora, ca. 480 BC. Martin-von-Wagner-Museum, L 793, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).


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