Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Zhang Tang’s Disturbing Campaign Of Justice Against A Thieving Rodent




Zhang Tang was born in the region of Du (modern Xi’an, Shaanxi Province, China) sometime in the 2nd century BCE. His family was humble, but had ample possibilities for mobility. This was in large part due to his father’s work as an aid to a government official in Chang’an, the Capital City of the Han Dynasty. While his father was away, young Zhang Tang was tasked with watching over the family home.

Even with the passage of time, great leaps in technology and significant cultural changes, the children of ancient eras played and behaved almost the same as the children of today. Therefore, just as modern kids enjoy using their imaginations to pretend to be doctors, or soldiers, or super-heroes, so too did little Zhang Tang enjoy acting out his dream job—an imperial law official of the Han Dynasty. According to peculiar pieces of folklore preserved by Grand Historian Sima Qian (c. 145-90 BCE), young Zhang Tang was disturbingly serious about his play sessions as a pretend judge.

One bizarre tale about Zhang Tang’s childhood was set during one of those spans of time when he was appointed as the honorary man of the house while his father was off working in Chang’an. In particular, the commuting father was strict about the security of his pantry—if anything was missing from the larder, nothing would save Zhang Tang from his father’s wrath.  Unfortunately, although young Zhang Tang had obsessively learned everything he could about imperial law, he was in no way a skilled watchman or guard. Therefore, to the boy’s horror, a stealthy rat had sneaked into the home and had made off with a prized cut of meat while he was distracted.

When the exhausted father returned home, he immediately realized that something was missing. He must have been really looking forward to eating the stolen morsel, for the father was reportedly so furious that he cruelly gave Zhang Tang a beating for his negligence. Later on, the boy was clearly still dwelling on the rat and the beating when he decided to play his next session of imaginary lawman. Fully throwing himself into the role, young Zhang Tang devoted himself to hunting down the greatest criminal living in the confines of his family’s estate—the thieving rodent.

Acting as an investigator, Zhang Tang tracked down the hole where the rat lived. To the horror of his family, the boy then excavated the rat den and captured the thief. He even discovered evidence of the crime—there were still scraps of the prized meat that were uneaten. With the rodent and evidence in his possession, Zhang Tang had everything he needed to launch the greatest make-believe law case of his bizarre childhood.

Following imperial law and court etiquette to the letter, the boy charged the rodent with committing a heinous crime and put it on trial. It was an incredibly thorough procedure. According to the tale, he even interrogated the rodent and recorded its squeaks as a confession. Sima Qian brilliantly and vividly described the uncanny, disturbing scene: “He then proceeded to indict the rat, beat it until it told its story, write out a record of its words, compare them with the evidence, and draw up a proposal for punishment. After this he took the rat and meat out into the yard, where he held a trial, presented the charges, and crucified the rat” (Shi Ji 122). When the boy’s father heard of his son’s odd trial and subsequent execution of the poor rodent, he was not concerned in the least. Instead, according to the peculiar piece of folklore, the father was extremely impressed.

As Sima Qian presented it, this was the event that set off Zhang Tang’s career in law. When the boy’s father saw his son’s interest and skill in court proceedings, he sent Zhang Tang to study legal documents. As he grew up, Zhang Tang went on to become a successful member of the Han court, reaching positions such as commandant of justice and imperial secretary to Emperor Wu. He gained a reputation as a wise, albeit manipulative, government official. Zhang Tang became one of the emperor’s favorite counselors, but he ultimately committed suicide in 116 BCE after being accused of corruption.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (Funerary Sculpture of an animal (rat) of the Twelve-Year Chinese Zodiac (Shengxiao), c. Yuan Dynasty, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

Sources:
  • 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/personszhangtang.html  

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Did Ancient Greeks And Romans Explore Iceland?



Iceland did not become a permanent place of settlement until the 9th century. The first inhabitants that built a long-term community on Iceland predominantly came from Norway, and later descendants of the original settlers were convinced that their ancestors’ exodus from the old homeland was a form of protest against the growing authority of King Harald Finehair (ruled approximately 860-940). It is clear that the Norsemen were the first settlers to turn Iceland into a long-term home. Yet, the question of if they were the first people to discover the island is another story. In fact, it is possible that Iceland may have been located by a Greek explorer as early as the 4th century BCE and that Romans had this information at their disposal during the time of the Roman occupation of Britain.

The debate revolves around Pytheas, a 4th-century BCE citizen of the Greek settlement at Massilia (Marseilles) in ancient France, then known as Gaul. During the last decades of the 4th century, Pytheas set sail from Massilia and sneaked his way through the Carthaginian strait of Gibraltar to enter the Atlantic Ocean and began thoroughly exploring the lands far to the north of the Mediterranean Sea. During his travels, Pytheas kept detailed notes on the geography he encountered and the people that he met. When he returned from his expedition, he published a text that was reportedly titled, On the Ocean.  Unfortunately, his original version of the book has been lost. Nevertheless, numerous Greek and Roman historians attested to the existence of the Pytheas and his book. Through these later scholars, pieces of the lost text were preserved through quotation, critique and summary. By piecing together the commentary of historians such as Pliny the Elder, Strabo, Polybius, Diodorus Siculus, Timaeus and Eratosthenes, we know most of the regions where Pytheas was said to have traveled.

According to the fragments and summaries of Pytheas’ journey, he began by leaving the Mediterranean Sea through the Strait of Gibraltar. He then traveled up the Iberian Peninsula and continued along the French coast, eventually rounding Brittany. Pytheas then crossed the English Channel and traveled along the west coast of England, Wales and Scotland. On that stretch of the journey, he also reportedly explored the smaller islands of Britain, such as the Hebrides and Orkney.

It is around this time that Pytheas may have discovered Iceland. From somewhere on the north tip of Britain, the Greek explorer set sail and traveled toward Arctic waters for six days. His exact trajectory is not known, but after the six days, Pytheas sighted land near a “congealed” or “sluggish” sea, terms that possibly suggest icy water or the North Atlantic Current. Based on this evidence, scholars believe that Pytheas either reached Iceland or Norway at the end of his six-day trek from Britain. Whatever he found, Pytheas labeled it “Thule” and eventually departed the mysterious landmass for the British Isles. If he had not already seen Norway by this point, then he possibly saw Norwegian land on the next phase of his journey. Pytheas allegedly sailed into the Baltic through the North Sea and perhaps explored the coast of what is now Poland. At this point, however, Pytheas decided to start his return-trip home to Massilia and did not venture farther into the sea.

When the Romans began their conquest of Britannia under Emperor Claudius in the year 43, their maps were still influenced by Pytheas’ discoveries. Leading up to and during the time that Julius Agricola was governor of Britannia (r. 77-84), Roman influence had spread over England and Wales, as well as into significant portions of Scotland. In the year 83, Agricola sent a Roman fleet to explore the north of Britain. In their travels, the Roman sailors explored Orkney (which they called the Orcades) and found another island that they believed was Pytheas’ Thule. Yet, most scholars do not believe that the Roman expedition of 83 ever reached Iceland or Norway. Instead, it is thought that the Romans found Shetland and misidentified it as Thule.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (detail of a cup interior showing a frieze of five boats in contest. Attic black-figured cup, ca. 520 BC. From Cerveteri. [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

Sources:

Monday, February 18, 2019

The Revenge Of King Theuderic I Against Clermont


Theuderic I and his brothers, Chlodomer, Childebert and Chlotar jointly ruled the empire of the Franks after the death of their famous father, King Clovis (r. 481-511/513). Although they were co-rulers of the empire, they operated from separate kingdoms and, despite their coordination together in military campaigns against foreign threats, the brothers were also known to be quite conniving when it came to internal politics in the Frankish Empire. This was made most clear by the fate of King Chlodomer’s children after his death in 524—two of his sons (Theudovald and Gunthar) were murdered and a third (Chlodovald) was forced into a monastery so that Theuderic, Childebert and Chlotar could divide their late brother’s kingdom amongst themselves. Miraculously, the brothers rarely took up arms against each other, but that did not stop them from being paranoid. Additionally, as each brother was covetous of the brothers’ domains, a false rumor of a monarch’s death was a very serious affair and could be deadly for the king’s children.

One such false rumor of a regal death apparently occurred in 531, while Kings Theuderic and Chlotar were campaigning against Thuringia. Although the war was going extremely well and both kings were safe, troubling gossip began to spread that Theuderic had died. In the event of the king’s death, Theuderic’s kingdom was supposed to pass to his son, Theudebert. Yet, many knew that succession could be a tricky subject and that the late king’s last will and testament might not be respected.

Spurred on by the rumor of Theuderic’s death, the region of Clermont-Ferrand decided to prepare for the inevitable political struggle. Surveying their option of lieges, the leadership in Clermont apparently did not rank Theuderic’s son, Theudebert, high on their list of preferred rulers. Therefore, the people of Clermont were said to have invited King Childebert to take control over the Clermont-Ferrand district.

Childebert had not been involved in the Thuringian campaign with his brothers and therefore had no information to disprove the gossip that Theuderic was dead. Consequently, he eagerly took the bait and agreed to take control of Clermont. Childebert reportedly traveled to the district and was on the verge of occupying the city when messengers arrived with news that Theuderic was still very much alive and had just returned home from Thuringia. After discovering the truth, Childebert slipped away from Clermont as quickly as he could and spent the rest of his year attacking Visigoths in the south of France.

When King Theuderic learned of Clermont’s attempted defection, he was extremely angry. In fact, Gregory of Tours (c. 539-594) reported that Theuderic raised his army and launched a punitive campaign against the disloyal district in 532. The furious king and his army entered Clermont and hunted down the leaders who had invited Childebert to take control. He then was said to have attacked fortresses in the region that had garrisons of questionable loyalty. Among his targets were the fortress of Vollore and the forces at Chastel-Marlhac. Along with besieging local forts, Theuderic reportedly let his army ravage the district. Gregory of Tours wrote, “The army ran riot through the whole region, attacking everything, destroying everything” (History of the Franks, Book III, section 12). When Theuderic had finished meting out revenge on the local population, he placed a trusted kinsman named Sigivald in charge of a loyal garrison and tasked them with keeping an eye on Clermont.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (15th-century depiction of Childebert and Clotar from BL Royal 20 E I, f. 47, [Public Domain] via picryl.com and Creative Commons).

Sources:
  • The History of the Franks by Gregory of Tours, translated by Lewis Thorpe. New York: Penguin Classics, 1971.
  • https://www.britannica.com/biography/Theodoric-I-king-of-Reims 
  • https://www.britannica.com/biography/Childebert-I  

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Julius Agricola's First Year As Governor In Britannia And The Submerged Invasion Of Mona



Roman Britannia was ruled by a succession of three great governors in the 70s and early 80s. The first was Petulius Cerialis (r. 71-73), who had some success in curtailing the power of the Brigantes, one of the most powerful peoples in Britain. Although he could not force the Brigantes to fully submit, Cerialis’ governorship was considered a great success. Next, came Julius Frontinus, who governed Britannia between the years 73 and 77. He was something of a polymath and wrote various texts on subjects such as engineering and warfare. He was known to have campaigned in England and Wales during his tenure as governor and his most notable feat was the conquest of the Silures of southern Wales. With such leaders setting the stage, the next governor of Roman Britannia would have a tough act to follow.

In the year 77, Julius Agricola arrived in Britannia to take up the office of governor. Agricola had a decorated résumé—he was the governor of Aquitania from 74-76 and had held the office of suffect consul of Rome in 76 before being sent to govern Britannia. Agricola also had plenty of military experience in Britain. He had served with Governor Suetonius Paulinus during the devastating revolt of Boudicca in 60 or 61. Later, Emperor Vespasian sent Agricola back to Britannia to take up the command of the Twentieth Legion, a post he held from 69 to 73. With such administrative experience, as well as his knowledge of Britain’s geography and people, he was an ideal pick for the job of running Roman operations in Britannia.

For his inaugural year as governor of Britannia, Agricola was eager to prove that he was just as able a warrior as his predecessors. Therefore, he immediately picked up where Governor Frontinus had left off and launched an invasion into Wales soon after taking up his governorship in the year 77. Whereas Frontinus had conquered land in the south of Wales, Agricola targeted un-subdued peoples in central and northern Wales, most notably the Ordovices. Spurned on by reports that the latter group in Wales had annihilated a Roman cavalry squadron, Agricola marched his forces into the territory of the Ordovices and, according to the historian Tacitus, “slaughtered almost the entire nation” (Agricola, section 18).

Despite the subjugation or destruction of the Ordovices in 77, Agricola was not yet done with his inaugural campaign. Instead of marching back to the more secure regions of Roman Britannia, he moved his forces to the northwest. When his army reached the shoreline, only the narrow Menai Strait separated Agricola from his goal—the troublesome island of Mona, now known as Angelsey. Yet, there was a problem. Agricola had begun his campaign as purely a land invasion of Wales and his decision to attack the island came as an impromptu afterthought. Consequently, he had no ships with him when he reached the shores of the Menai Strait. Although Agricola was determined to subdue the rebellious island of Mona, he had no way to transport his troops over the strait.

Unfortunately for the islanders, Agricola found a solution to his dilemma. As the legionnaires and auxiliaries serving in Roman Britannia were drawn from various regions of the empire, Agricola had at his command warriors with all sorts of diverse backgrounds and specializations. One such community that was represented in Agricola’s auxiliary forces was the Batavi, a Germanic people from the Netherlands region who were known to excel at swimming and aquatic warfare.

While the bulk of Roman forces loitered on the shoreline, distracting the nervous inhabitant of Mona, Agricola gathered the Batavi warriors, as well as any other strong swimmers in the army, and gave them a special task to accomplish. While the Roman camp drew the gaze of Mona’s spies and defenders, the elite swimmers of Agricola’s army stealthily plunged into the Menai Strait and swam across to the island. They successfully made landfall without being discovered and crept toward their oblivious opponents. As the warriors of Mona had not taken their eyes off of Agricola’s camp, the islanders were irrecoverably shocked when a force of drenched Roman auxiliaries launched a surprise attack on the unsuspecting defenders. The sudden auxiliary charge caused such chaos that the islanders were said to have immediately surrendered to Agricola.

With the conquest of the Ordovices and the surrender of Mona, Agricola completed his first campaign as governor of Britannia. It was the start of a long and successful tenure that would last until 84, when he was recalled to Rome by Emperor Domitian. During his governorship, Agricola pushed Roman Britannia to the height of its power and he is often remembered as the greatest governor of the province.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (A statue of Julius Agricola cropped in front of a Roman Legion from Trajan's Column), c. 16th century, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

Sources:
  • Agricola and Germania by Tacitus and translated by Harold Mattingly and revised by J. B. Rives. New York: Penguin Classics, 2009.
  • http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Cassius_Dio/66*.html 
  • https://www.britannica.com/topic/Batavi 
  • https://www.britannica.com/topic/Brigantes 
  • https://www.britannica.com/topic/Silures 
  • https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/ordovices  

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

The Disappearance Of Jarl Paul The Silent



According to the Orkneyinga Saga (written around 1200), the earldom of Orkney was often co-ruled by multiple jarls. This was made even more complicated during the reign of St. Olaf of Norway (r. 1015-1028), when the Norwegian crown reportedly claimed direct rule of one-third of Orkney. As portrayed in the sagas, the other two-thirds of Orkney was thereafter often ruled by two jarls, who both competed in befriending the Norwegian crown in hopes of gaining the right to administer the king’s portion of Orkney. In some cases, however, a single jarl claimed sole rule over the earldom by outliving or killing his co-rulers. One such person was Jarl Thorfinn Sigurdsson the Mighty (d. 1064), who outlived his brothers and executed a nephew to become sole ruler, although Orkney was once again split among his sons.

If the genealogy of the Orkneyinga Saga is correct, Jarl Paul the Silent was a great-grandson of Thorfinn the mighty. Paul came to power in Orkney sometime after 1117 and shared power with his half-brother, Harald Smooth-Tongue, until Harald mysteriously died at an unknown time. After Harald Smooth-Tongue’s death, Paul the Silent became sole ruler of Orkney and several members of his family were sent into exile. According to the Orkneyinga Saga, Harald’s son (Erlend), mother (Helga), aunt (Frakokk), and sister (Margaret) were all banished from Orkney or otherwise decided to stay in exile.

Although Jarl Paul the Silent had managed to become sole ruler of Orkney, he had several potential rivals who could claim a piece of the earldom. Two were nephews: the aforementioned Erlend and also Harald Maddadarson, the son of Jarl Paul’s sister, Margaret, and an earl of Atholl. Another threat was Rognvald Kali Kolsson, a Norwegian nobleman who was living the life of a merchant and adventurer. Rognvald Kali was related to the ruling family of Orkney through his mother, Gunnhild, who was a granddaughter of Jarl Thorfinn the Mighty. Rognvald Kali’s uncle was also Jarl Magnus of Orkney, who had been executed by the father of Paul the Silent in 1117.

With his lineage and powerful connections in Norway, Rognvald Kali became the predominant threat to Paul the Silent. King Sigurd the Crusader of Norway (r. 1103-1130) reportedly recognized Rognvald Kali’s claim to a piece of Orkney and elevated him to the rank of jarl around 1129. Before Jarl Rognvald Kali could launch an expedition to Orkney, he was delayed by the death of King Sigurd in 1130 and the chaotic politics of succession. Upon King Sigurd’s death, Norway was divided between the late king’s son, Magnus IV, and a self-proclaimed half-brother of Sigurd named Harald IV. Rognvald Kali joined the camp of the latter and did not return his gaze to Orkney until after Harald IV defeated, captured and blinded Magnus IV in 1135.

After receiving King Harald’s blessing, Rognvald Kali set off for Shetland with five or six ships. He also reached out to the nobles that had been exiled by Paul the Silent, such as the late Harald Smooth-Tongue’s sister and aunt, who were both reportedly powerful women in Scotland through marriage. These women were said to have agreed to help Rognvald Kali and mustered around 12 ships from their domains, which they sent off to Orkney. Yet, the target of all these conspirators was no pushover. Jarl Paul the Silent was said to have raised his own fleet of 17 ships and quickly put to use the tried-and-true strategy of divide and conquer. Jarl Paul defeated the ships from Scotland before they could unite with Rognvald Kali’s force. He then sailed for Shetland, where he defeated the Norwegian ships with a surprise assault. Rognvald Kali survived the attack and reportedly returned to Norway with the help of some merchants.

Around 1136 or 1137, Rognvald Kali returned to Shetland with a reported fleet of 14 ships. This time, the invaders took more time to plan their strategy. One such ploy was to target Jarl Paul’s network of signal fires set up on various islands in Orkney. Rognvald Kali had some of his ships sail up to the islands to trigger the lighting of these signal fires, then retreat without causing any damage. After repeatedly triggering the signal fires over a long period of time, the annoyed men responsible for igniting the signals began to neglect their duties. Taking advantage of this negligence, Rognvald Kali successfully landed his forces on the island of Westray, in northern Orkney, and did so without any signal fires being lit.

Before any bloodshed occurred between Rognvald Kali and Paul the Silent, the local bishop arranged a truce while the different factions negotiated the fate of Orkney. The truce was accepted by both parties, but Jarl Paul’s enemies used it to their own advantage. According to the Orkneyinga Saga, Paul’s sister, Margaret, hired Svein Asleifarson, one of the ablest men then living in the Scandinavian-controlled regions of the British Isles, and sent him on a mission to abduct Jarl Paul the Silent. Svein and the kidnappers successfully infiltrated Orkney and captured Jarl Paul in 1137. They did such a masterful job that no one in Orkney knew what happened next.

The Orkneyinga Saga provided two or three possible outcomes. One version was that Svein Asleifarson brought Jarl Paul to Margaret in Atholl, where she convinced her brother to freely give up his claim to Orkney so that her son, Harald Maddadarson, could become a jarl of Orkney. In this cheerful ending, Paul the Silent lived a quiet life in exile, possibly in a monastery. Yet, the author of the saga also wrote that Jarl Paul may have been imprisoned for life or executed by his captors. With no clear answer, the saga concluded its account of Paul’s life with an eerie statement: “We can’t say which comes nearer the truth, but this much is known, that he never came back to Orkney and he never gained power in Scotland” (Orkneyinga Saga, section 75). With the timely disappearance of Paul the Silent, Rognvald Kali (r. 1137-1158) claimed sole rule over the islands. Yet, not long afterwards, he accepted Margaret’s son, Harald Maddadarson (r. 1139-1206), as a co-ruler of Orkney.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (Social media crop of a Viking Funeral by Carl Schmidt (1858-1923), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

Sources:
  • Orkneyinga Saga, written anonymously approximately c. 1200, translated by Hermann Pálsson and Paul Edwards. New York: Penguin Classics, 1981.
  • Heimskringla, by Snorri Sturluson and translated by Lee Hollander. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1964, 2018. 
  • http://www.orkneyjar.com/history/stmagnus/magcath.htm 
  • https://www.britannica.com/biography/Olaf-II-Haraldsson 
  • https://www.britannica.com/biography/Harald-IV 
  • https://www.britannica.com/biography/Sigurd-I-Magnusson 
  • https://www.britannica.com/place/Scotland/Cultural-life#ref483807  

Monday, February 11, 2019

Queen Deuteria And The Sad, Strange Death Of Her Young Daughter



Theudebert I was the son and heir of King Theuderic I (r. 511-534), ruler of one-third of the Frankish Empire. Theuderic arranged a betrothal between his son, Theudebert, and a Longobard princess named Wisigard—daughter of King Wacho, an early 6th-century king of the Longobards. The betrothal, however, never progressed to marriage during Theuderic’s lifetime. While campaigning against Visigoths in the south of France, Theudebert, met a woman named Deuteria in the fortified town of Cabriéres. It was apparently love at first sight for Theudebert. Despite his ongoing betrothal to Wisigard, the Frankish prince brought Deuteria home and she became his consort for several years.

Bishop Gregory of Tours (c. 539-594), the main source for information on the relationship between Theudebert and Deuteria, was extremely disapproving of the impromptu match. Perhaps, as a clergyman, the bishop disapproved of the disregard that Theudebert showed for his holy betrothal between royal families. If that was not enough, Gregory of Tours also claimed that Deuteria was a widow, a divorcee, or possibly a runaway wife. Whatever the case, Gregory regarded the affair as improper and painted Deuteria as a seductress and a villain.

According to the chronology presented by Gregory of Tours, by the time King Theuderic died in 534, his son, Theudebert, had been together with Deuteria long enough for a daughter to be born from their affair (whose name unfortunately was not mentioned by Gregory). Upon hearing of his father’s death, Theudebert momentarily left Deuteria so he could fight against his power-hungry uncles, Chlotar and Childebert, for his inheritance of one-third of the Frankish Empire. After he succeeded in claiming his kingdom, King Theudebert (r. 534-548) retrieved Deuteria and made her his queen. After they were officially married, the couple had another child, a son named Theudebald.

In the late 530s, tragedy stuck Theudebert and Deuteria. Their unnamed young daughter suffered a sudden and bizarre death. According to Gregory of Tours, the incident occurred near the city of Verdun, where a bridge allowed for travelers to safely cross over a river.  According to the story, the young princess was riding in a carriage over that bridge when something spooked the animals that were pulling the vehicle. None of the guards or attendants were able to get the animals back under control and the carriage plummeted off the bridge into the river below. By the time any rescuers could reach the sinking wreck, the king and queen’s young daughter had already drowned. As sometimes happens after the death of a child, the king and queen suffered emotional stress and eventually separated following their daughter’s passing.

Gregory of Tours embellished the story with some peculiar additions. He claimed that the princess’ carriage had been pulled by untamed bulls and that it had not been a tragic accident, but a horrific premeditated murder. Furthermore, he accused the princess’ own mother, Deuteria, of being the mastermind of the plot. As for the queen’s motive, Gregory incredibly wrote that the murder was perpetrated because she feared that King Theudebert would be more sexually attracted to the young princess than to herself. This is an odd motivation, as (incest aside) the princess would have certainly been less than ten years old at the time. After all, the separation of the king and Deuteria reportedly occurred only seven years after the date of the betrothal agreement between Theudebert and the Longobard princess, Wisigard, which was arranged before Theudebert ever met Deuteria or had a child.

Whatever the truth of their daughter’s death, Theudebert and Deuteria did indeed separate soon after the tragic incident occurred. Eventually, Theudebert made good on his delayed betrothal and married the long-waiting Wisigard. Yet, tragedy struck again and Wisigard quickly fell ill and reportedly died around the year 540. Although Deuteria was still alive, and her son, Theudebald, was her ex-husband’s heir, she and King Theuderic never rekindled their relationship.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (The Ox Cart by Vincent van Gogh  (1853–1890),  mixed with figures by Albert Kretschmer c. 1882, both [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

Sources:
  • The History of the Franks by Gregory of Tours, translated by Lewis Thorpe. New York: Penguin Classics, 1971.
  • https://www.britannica.com/biography/Theodoric-I-king-of-Reims 
  • https://www.britannica.com/biography/Theodebert-I 
  • https://www.britannica.com/biography/Theodebald 
  • https://www.revolvy.com/page/Wisigard  

Sunday, February 10, 2019

The Trial Of Rusticus And Senecio



In the year 69, Emperor Vespasian and his Flavian Dynasty came to power after a year of civil war between powerful generals, a period known as the Year of the Four Emperors (Galba, Otho, Vitellius and, finally, Vespasian). After coming to power through such chaotic means, the Flavian Dynasty understandably shed some of the carefully crafted façade of the earlier Roman Principate, and decided to rule more openly as a military dictatorship. Therefore, treason trials were resumed and more restraining measures were put in place against possible threats to the imperial family, especially during the reign of the last Flavian Emperor, Domitian (r. 81-96). Although many people were sentenced to death during the reign of the Flavian Emperors, two executed men named Arulenus Rusticus and Herennius Senecio particularly stood out to contemporary scholars of the age.

Renowned writers of the 1st century, such as Tacitus, Suetonius and Pliny the Younger, all wrote about the case of Rusticus and Senecio. One reason that these specific executions hit the scholars so hard was that they had been acquaintances of Rusticus and Senecio, and, in the case of Pliny, close friends. Additionally, Rusticus and Senecio were sentenced to death as a consequence of the literature that they wrote, and therefore the case directly affected the scholarly and literary community to which Tacitus, Suetonius and Pliny the Younger belonged.

Arulenus Rusticus and Herennius Senecio drew the suspicion of Emperor Domitian after they wrote admiring pieces that honored deceased rebellious senators. Rusticus chose as the subject of his text Senator Thrasea Paetus, who was executed in 66, after years of being a public critic of Emperor Nero. As for Senecio, the individual he idolized in his text was a bit more sensational for the days of the Flavian Dynasty. Herennius Senecio praised Senator Helvidius Priscus the Elder, who was executed in 75 for his outspoken resistance against Emperor Vespasian, the father of Domitian. Such glowing accounts of rebellious senators put Rusticus and Senecio at odds with the Flavian emperors, as well as pro-Flavian senators. Yet, for vague reasons, Emperor Domitian did not only question the loyalty of Rusticus and Senecio, but he also was suspicious of many people connected to the two controversial writers.

In the year 93, Arulenus Rusticus, Herennius Senecio, and even Helvidius Priscus the Younger (son of the senator executed by Vespasian) were all put on trial. Also tried was Fannia, the widow of the elder Priscus, and Fannia’s mother Arria, as well as Arulenus Rusticus’ brother (Mauricus) and wife (Gratilla). At the end of the trials, Rusticus, Senecio and Priscus the Younger were all executed. Everyone else mentioned above survived the trials, but they all were sent into exile and did not return to Rome until after Domitian’s assassination in 96.

For Tacitus, the tragedy was not so much the deaths of Rusticus and Senecio—they knew the risks of challenging an all-powerful regime—but instead the lack of Roman resistance against censorship in literature and oration. Following the execution of Rusticus and Senecio, the literary works that they wrote were gathered and burned by the government. Writing of the Rusticus and Senecio trial, as well of the subsequent burning of their books, Tacitus wrote: “We have indeed left an impressive example of subservience. Just as Rome of old explored the limits of freedom, so have we plumbed the depths of slavery, robbed by informers even of the interchange of speech” (Agricola, section 2).

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (Archimedes before his death with the Roman soldier - copy of a Roman mosaic from the 2nd century, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

Sources:
  • Agricola and Germania by Tacitus and translated by Harold Mattingly and revised by J. B. Rives. New York: Penguin Classics, 2009.
  • 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/Publius-Clodius-Thrasea-Paetus 
  • https://www.britannica.com/biography/Pliny-the-Younger 
  • http://oxfordre.com/classics/view/10.1093/acrefore/9780199381135.001.0001/acrefore-9780199381135-e-3002 
  • http://oxfordre.com/classics/view/10.1093/acrefore/9780199381135.001.0001/acrefore-9780199381135-e-3032  

Thursday, February 7, 2019

King Gundobad Of Burgundy And The Covert Capture Of Vienne



Sometime after the year 500, a Burgundian warlord named Gundobad besieged his own brother in the city of Vienne, France. The trapped brother, whose name was Godigisel, should have known not to let his guard down. After all, in the years before 500, Gundobad had already killed at least one brother, a certain Chilperic. Another sibling, Gundomar, had by then also mysteriously disappeared from the historical record.

The dislike and distrust between the brothers Gundobad and Godigisel was mutual—on the aforementioned date of 500, King Clovis of the Franks entered Burgundy on invitation and fought alongside Godigisel against the forces of Gundobad. The Franks pressed Gundobad into a defensive position, and the battered warlord eventually bunkered down in the fortified city of Avignon. The defenses of the city, however, were stout enough that Clovis decided to accept a promise of tribute from Gundobad in exchange for withdrawing Frankish forces from Burgundy, thereby leaving Godigisel alone with an incredibly angry brother.

Gundobad had been in continuous civil war with his brothers, even before the intervention of King Clovis. Yet, Godigisel’s invitation for the Franks to invade Burgundy brought Gundobad’s bloodlust to a new height. As soon as he recovered from Clovis’ foray into Burgundian politics, Gundobad mobilized his army and marched against his brother. Godigisel must not have employed competent scouts and informants, because Gundobad apparently had little trouble cornering his brother in the city of Vienne. Despite being caught off guard, Godigisel apparently had a sizable garrison in the city. After assessing the situation, Gundobad decided not to assault the city. Instead, he settled down for a siege, content with starving his brother into submission until a better opportunity appeared.  

The siege of Vienne reportedly was lengthy. According to Gregory of Tours (c. 539-594), the city of Vienne began to run out of food, so Godigisel forced all noncombatants to abandon the city.  This move would have dire consequences—among the people forced to leave was a disgruntled engineer. For whatever reason, the engineer was angry at Godigisel and decided to help Gundobad’s forces enter Vienne. One of the traitor’s jobs as an engineer was to work on Vienne’s aqueduct system. He told Gundobad that a small force could covertly make their way into the city through the waterways. The king decided the plan was worth trying and began planning his next assault on the city.

According to Gregory of Tours, Gundobad attacked Vienne from outside the walls, drawing the attention of the defenders toward the siege camps. While the gaze of defending forces was focused on the army outside, an elite group of warriors followed the engineer’s directions to navigate their way through the aqueduct system, using crowbars to pry away any obstacles in their path. The covert group successfully made their way into Vienne and broke free of the aqueduct. Finally, they sabotaged the city’s gate and signaled for the besieging army to charge. Gundobad’s forces broke open the gate with ease and took control of the town. According to tradition, Godigisel was found and slain inside of a local church. With his capture of Vienne and the death of his brother, Gundobad became the sole king of Burgundy and ruled until his death in 516.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (Lid of the Franks/Auzon Casket, photographed by Wilhelm Viëtor (c. 1901), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

Sources:
  • The History of the Franks by Gregory of Tours, translated by Lewis Thorpe. New York: Penguin Classics, 1971.
  • https://www.britannica.com/biography/Gundobad  

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

The Embarrassing Way An Athenian Fleet Broke Into The Sicilian City of Catana



In 415 BCE, Athens and its allies launched an expedition to Sicily reportedly consisting of over 130 warships, plus more than 100 smaller supply boats. Accompanying the sailors was a combined force of over 7,000 hoplite infantry, skirmishers and even some cavalry. When the expeditionary force reached Italy and Sicily, it met with a cold reception. The Italian cities were extremely suspicious of the Athenians, and they usually gave the expedition members some water and allowed the fleet to anchor offshore, but no more—after this brief show of hospitality, most Italian cities barred their gates and manned their walls. Of all the coastal cities in Italy, Rhegium behaved the friendliest toward the Athenians. It was near that city that the Athenians set up their first prolonged expedition camp. Rhegium also opened up a temporary market from which the Athenians could buy supplies, but like the rest of the Italian cities, they refused to let the foreigners inside their walls.

After resting up near Rhegium, the expedition force turned its gaze to the true target of the campaign—Sicily, especially the city-states of Selinus and Syracuse. The three generals in charge, Alcibiades, Nicias and Lamachus, had differing views on how to make their approach. In the end, Alcibiades convinced his comrades that recruiting Sicilian cities to the Athenian cause was the best first step. Following Alcibiades’ plan, Athenian ships sailed from Rhegium toward Sicily. Yet, just like in Italy, the local city-states gave the newcomers a cold reception. Messina, the city that Athens most wanted to have as an ally, refused to align with the expedition and closed their gates, although they did open up a market for trade. The city of Catana also refused to allow the Athenians inside their walls and told the fleet to keep sailing. Only Naxos allowed the expedition to freely enter their city.

Before long, the Athenian fleet encountered the powerful city of Syracuse. Here, the Athenians laid out the conditions that had to be met to avoid war. The main demand was that swaths of land be returned to Athens’ ally, Leontini. With the ultimatum delivered, the diplomats took a tour of the city and did reconnaissance work. After assessing Syracuse’s strength, the Athenian fleet began backtracking toward the camp at Rhegium, where some of their ships had stayed behind.

When the expedition force returned to Catana, they found the city slightly more willing to negotiate. The leaders of Catana reportedly invited the leading generals of the expedition to come inside the city and talk things over. This offer was accepted and the generals entered the city (presumably with some bodyguards), but left their ships and men nervously waiting outside the walls.

The Athenian generals walked into an interesting situation, to say the least. The city was in a state of disrepair, and even its walls and gates were poorly maintained. Moreover, the leaders of Catana were apparently very unpopular with their people and unrest was on the rise. With their city crumbling and their political power waning, perhaps the local leading party was willing to align with the expedition to maintain power. Alas, we will never know, for the arranged one-on-one meeting between the generals and the ruling party of Catana never occurred.

Not long after the generals had entered the city, the loitering Athenian fleet began to feel restless. Thucydides (460-400 BCE), the main historian of the period, did not provide a motive for the army’s behavior, but it is possible that they feared their leaders were walking into a trap. Otherwise, maybe the Athenians were just fed up with so many Italian and Sicilian cities closing their gates against the expedition. Whatever the case, large numbers of Athenian warriors began gathering by the walls of the city. There, the expeditionary forces saw what their generals had witnessed earlier—the city defenses were in a horrible state. Incredibly, the Athenians were reportedly able to simply push their way through the city gates without using any siege weaponry.

Once the unruly Athenian warriors had broken into the city, they found their generals were safe. In fact, Alcibiades was reportedly giving a speech to the assembled masses of the city when the worried Athenians broke down the front gate. When the generals were found safe and sound, the Athenian forces calmed down and, according to Thucydides, many decided to awkwardly “stroll about in the market-place” (History of the Peloponnesian War, Book VI, section 51).

With Athenian forces suddenly appearing in the city, the leaders of  Catana decided to flee. Alcibiades’ speech to the masses must have been well-received, for the people of Catana agreed to an alliance with Athens and decided to allow (or did not resist) the expeditionary force to build a new camp for their Sicilian campaign near the city.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (Black-Figure amphora depicting Achilles and Ajax playing a board game overseen by Athena, c. 510 BCE, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

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