Monday, September 28, 2020

The Execution of Pompey Magnus

The Execution of Pompey Magnus

          Today is the anniversary of the assassination of Pompey the Great on his (almost) arrival in Egypt.  Having lost the Battle of Pharsalus (48 b.c.) to Julius Caesar, he fled to Egypt hoping for refuge and the opportunity to raise a new army.  The Egyptians, knowing that Caesar would be on Pompey’s heals, arranged for his assassination before he reached the shore.  For those of you who enjoyed the HBO series Rome, while Pompey was killed in sight of his wife, there were more assassins than the one depicted, and it took place in the boat, not as Pompey walked to shore.

            It was an ignominious end to an amazing life.  He almost defeated Caesar earlier in the year at the Battle of Dyrrhachium. Previously, with Caesar and Crassus, he had been part of the First Triumvirate.  He was three times Consul of Rome, and three times he was awarded a Triumph. According to Josephus, The Jewish Antiquities, after conquering Jerusalem and settling a dispute as to local control he entered the Holy of Holies of the Temple, but took nothing of its riches.

Today is also the anniversary in 1066 of the arrival of the troops of William of Normandy (soon to be “the Conqueror”) in England. 

Sunday, September 27, 2020

Why Bother?

Why Bother?

On this day in the year 1590, Pope Urban VII passed away. His papacy began on September 15, 1590; he had been Pope for less than 12 days. Prior to his elevation to the Holy See he had a distinguished career as a diplomat throughout Europe, and he was eminently qualified for the position.  He died of malaria.

He did, however, during his short papacy, institute a smoking ban, threatening to excommunicate anyone who “took tobacco in the porch way of or inside a church, whether it be by chewing it, smoking it with a pipe or sniffing it in powdered form through the nose.” The prohibition was ultimately repealed a century later by Pope Benedict VIII.

Urban’s successor, Gregory XIV, would see a pontificate of only ten and a half months.

Friday, September 25, 2020

The Last Viking Invasion of England

The Last Viking Invasion of England

Today is the anniversary of the battle at Stamford Bridge in 1066, it ending, for all intents and purposes, the Viking invasions of England.  Beginning in the 8th century and the famous raid of Lindesfarne (June 8, 793), England had repeatedly suffered both Viking raids and invasions/migrations.  King Canute II (one of only two English kings denominated “the Great”) was an aspect of this chain of events; he was himself Danish.

King Edward the Confessor, who was himself “English” in that he was Anglo-Saxon,  died on January 5, 1066; he was childless.  The crown was assumed by Harald Godwinson.  His dispute with William the Bastard of Normandy over whether Harald had previously agreed to surrender the crown to William would ultimately lead to the Battle of Hastings.  In the meantime, Harald Godwinson had to deal with an invasion from Norway led by another claimant to the throne, Norwegian King Harald Hardrada; Hardrada was supported in this invasion by Tostig Godwinson, Harald Godwinson’s brother. 

Two factors were crucial to the resolution of the Battle of Stamford Bridge.   First, the invading force was dispersed on both sides of the river.  Thus, when the English army attacked the Norse contingent on the south side of the river, they outnumbered their opponent.  Second, the intelligence of the Norse army failed; they did not realize the English army was already present and ready to launch an attack. Another factor whose weight is unknown is that the invading army has days earlier defeated an English army (The Battle of Fulford) led by Earls Morcar (an exiled Northumbrian) and Edwin (Mercia), possibly leading to complacency.

It being a warm day, the invading army had left much of their armor on board their ships.  Initially, the English forces largely massacred the Norse forces on the south side of the river.  They then proceeded to attack over the bridge, an effort that, in what was almost certainly an apocryphal story, was delayed by a single Viking yielding an ax who single-handedly killed some forty soldiers before he was himself slain.  With the English having now crossed the bridge, the two armies again faced one another.  Ultimately, the Norse army would collapse consequent to its lack of armor and the deaths in battle of both Harald Hardrada and Tostig.  The few Normans who survived the battle entered into a truce with Harald agreeing to leave and never return.  While the invading fleet filled some 300 ships, the Norse survivors of the battle were able to return home in only 24 of them.

Harold Godwinson must have welcomed the end of this threat to his seat on the English throne.  Then he learned that the forces of William of Normandy had landed in the south.

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

The Battle of Salamis

The Battle of Salamis

      Today is the anniversary of the Battle of Salamis, which took place in 480 B.C.

      A decade earlier Darius of Persia invaded Greece.  It was the famous victory at Marathon that put an end to that venture.

      Xerxes, successor to Darius, again invaded Greece.  Those of you who saw “The 300” know something of how part of this invasion, namely the first few days, went.  BTW, while parts of that movie conform to the sources (“then we will fight in the shade”), much of it does not.  For example, Sparta had not one but two kings, and Leonidas had already fallen before the final onslaught and destruction of the Spartan force.  Still they had achieved their objective, namely delaying the Persians at Thermophylae.

      At Salamis the Greek fleet attacked that of Persia and won a major victory.  The Persian army, fearing that it would be trapped in Greece, largely withdrew.  The remainder met the Greek army the next year at Plataea.  It was at Plataea that the exhortation with which The 300 opens and closes takes place.  That battle was not the set piece that is indicated in the movie, but it did result in a Greek victory.

      There were no more Persian invasions of Greece.

Monday, September 21, 2020

The Assassination of Flavias Aetius

The Assassination of Flavias Aetius

      Flavias Aetius was the Roman commander at the Battle of Chalons (451), where along with forces of the Visigothic Empire, it under the command of its King, Theodoric , the Huns under Attila were defeated.  Flavias had been appointed magister militum (essentially “supreme commander” of all Roman military forces) by Valentinian III, a particularly weak (and in this era that is saying something) emperor.  While Boethius is oft identified as the last gasp of the Roman Empire’s (or at least its western components’) intellectual life, Flavius Aetius can equally be described as the last of the great western Roman generals.  Gibbons called him the Last of the Romans

      Only three years after Chalons on September 21, 454, Aetius was assassinated by Valentinian.  Within the year, Valentinian would in turn be assassinated by friends of Aetius while Valentinian’s guard watched; the members of the guard had been followers of Aetius. The shrinking remnants of the Western Roman Empire would finally collapse in 476 with the deposition of the last emperor of the Western Roman Empire, Romulus Augustus.

Saturday, September 19, 2020

Theodore of Tarsus


Theodore of Tarsus

      Today marks the anniversary of the death, in the year 690, of Theodore of Tarsus. At the time of his death, he was the Archbishop of Canterbury. Probably you have never heard of him. That’s unfortunate; he led a most interesting life.

      Theodore was born in Tarsus (the same city as was born Paul the Apostle) on the southern coast of what is today Turkey. He grew up at a time of conflict between the Byzantine Empire controlled out of Constantinople and the Sassanid Empire out of what was then referred to as Persia (today’s Iran). At this time, pre-the rise of Islam, most of the Sassanid Empire was Zorastrian (the same religion as Freddy Mercury of Queen).  By the early 600s and the rise of Islam, the Sassanid Empire converted to Islam. As such, through this stage in his life, Theodore had been immersed in classical Persian and then Muslim cultures even as he studied classical Western and Christian studies. Ultimately, he relocated first to Constantinople and then to Rome, where he entered a monastery and continued his studies.

       Following the death, before consecration, of a man intended to be the Archbishop of Canterbury (a certain Wighard), Theodore was chosen by the Pope to fill that vacant See. He was consecrated as the Archbishop of Canterbury in Rome, and at some point thereafter departed for England. Once in England, he took steps with respect to a variety of issues ranging from the calculation on what day Easter should be held to a variety of matters of church discipline. He is well served as a mediator in a number of political disputes. He founded a famous school at Canterbury. Many aspects of his time as the Archbishop of Canterbury are known through Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People.

       Theodore would ultimately die in Canterbury at the age of approximately 88.

      So there you have it. Theodore was born in southern Turkey, lived under both the Persian Sassanid and then the Persian Islamic Empires, studied in Constantinople and then in Rome, and spent over 20 years as the Archbishop of Canterbury. The suggesting the people in the Middle Ages did not travel far from where they were born is simply not accurate.

Saturday, September 12, 2020

Athenian Forces Defeat Invading Persians at Marathon

Athenian Forces Defeat Invading Persians at Marathon

      Today might be the anniversary of the great battle, fought in 490 b.c. at Marathon, at which the forces of Athens defeated the Persian invasion sent by Darius the Great. The exact date of the battle is subject to controversy, although there is something of an alternative consensus on the 21st.

      At the time of the battle, the Persian Empire extended from the western boundaries of what is today India across the Middle East, Turkey and to Southwest Europe.  Darius had decided that the land we refer to today as Greece, inhabited by a variety of city-states, would be next incorporated into his empire.  The fact that various of the Greek city-states were supporting rebellious territories in what is today Western Turkey and the Mediterranean probably had a big role in that decision.  An invasion fleet landed its troops some twenty-six miles northeast of Athens at the Bay of Marathon.  Working with collaborators in Athens, it was thought that the army could be drawn away and destroyed even as the collaborators led an internal revolt, taking control of the city and making it available to Darius.  It would not turn out that way.

      At news of the landing, Athens sent word to Sparta seeking its assistance, the Spartan hoplite troops being the strongest force in the region.  Famously, the Spartans were unwilling to send their forces in light of an upcoming religious festival. In consequence, Athens would stand alone.  The Athenian army, well smaller than that of the Persian forces, camped facing their enemy for over a week.  On the 8th day, seeing that the Persians were re-embarking some troops onto ships and fearing that they intended to launch a direct assault on Athens, the Greek forces attacked.  Although outnumbered, by skillful flanking maneuvers the Greeks were able to envelop the Persian forces.  While the historical records recite what must be grossly inflated figures, certainly the Persians lost in excess of 6,000 men while the Greeks lost fewer than 200.

Although not recounted in the contemporary historic record, a runner, Pheidippides, took off to announce the victory to Athens.  Just over 26 miles later, he entered the city, announced “nickomen” (“victory”) and dropped dead from exhaustion.  Meanwhile, the balance of the Persian army embarked on their ships and set out from the Bay of Marathon with the intent of directly attacking Athens.  The Athenian army force-marched itself back to the city, manning its walls as the Persian fleet approached.  The Persians decided that another attack was not in their best interest and they withdrew.  

     A decade after Marathon, the Persian forces under Xerces, son of Darius, would again invade Greece.  They would ultimately fall victim to the Spartan and allied forces at Thermopylae, the Greek naval forces at Salamis and again the allied forces at Plataea.

            As for the famous runner bring news of victory, probably not.  The runner to Athens after the Battle of Marathon is not supported in the historic record, and is first recorded in the writings of the Roman Lucian. Lucian lived in the Second Century a.d., so generously there were six hundred thirty years between the Battle of Marathon and Lucian drafting the first report of this event.