This day in History: August 19, 14 AD – “Have I played the part well? Then applaud as I exit”

Posted by Croesus     Category: History

Two thousand yeas ago, the man born Gaius Octavius died as Imperator Caesar Divi Filius Augustus.   History remembers him as the first Roman Emperor.  At birth the soon to be orphaned scion of an equestrian Roman house was not marked for greatness.  However, the young man’s maternal grandmother happened to be the sister of Julius Caesar. As the childless Caesar rose in the political firmament, the potential future of young Octavius rose with him.

Upon the assassination of Caesar, the young Octavius discovered that he had been declared Caesar’s primary heir and adopted son.  Rejecting more cautious advice Octavius would accept his inheritance, becoming  Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus, and upon the deification of Caesar by the Senate in 42 BC, Imperator Caesar Divi Filius – the son of a god.

In the ensuing decades the young Octavian would show himself to be an excellent politician, first allying himself with Caesar’s enemies the Optimates against Mark Antony, then forming the Second Triumvirate with Antony and Marcus Lepidus, allying with Antony to defeat Brutus and Cassius at Philippi, forcing Lepidus into retirement and then winning the final showdown against Antony and Cleopatra in the last war of the Roman Republic.

In 30 BC Octavian stood supreme in the Roman world.  He was not a great general, but was capable of finding and trusting men like Marcus Agrippa.  Prior to his final victory over Mark Antony he had shown extreme ruthlessness in eliminating threats.  Later in life he would send his only child into exile and the time of his death his only surviving grandson would be in prison.  Where he excelled was in his administrative and political acumen.

The statue known as the Augustus of Prima Porta, 1st century Source: Wikipedia

The statue known as the Augustus of Prima Porta, 1st century
Source: Wikipedia

Unlike Julius Caesar he avoided the appearances of aspiring to becoming a monarch and made a great show of returning power to the Senate.  In 27 BC the Senate proclaimed him Augustus and Princeps, the first citizen of Rome.  For the rest of his life Augustus made a show of respecting Republican norms even as power was concentrated in him.  In this he was aided by the elimination of any rivals during the long civil war and the loyalty of the army and military veterans.  By settling his veterans on confiscated land,  Augustus was able to reward them and trim down the size of the army.  The Senate was also given control over certain pacified provinces, maintaining the republican facade.  His revenue reforms stabilized the financial condition of the Empire and abolished private tax farming.

Other than a purported conspiracy in 22 BC, Augustus would rule the rest of his reign in peace with no major threats to his power – and any perceived threats would be ruthlessly eliminated.

Augustus never went on campaign after the defeat of Mark Antony.  However, as the map below shows he aggressively expanded the frontiers in his reign.  His stepsons Tiberius and Drusus played a major role in Rome’s expansion along the Rhine and the Danube.

Extent of the Roman Empire under Augustus. The yellow legend represents the extent of the Republic in 31 BC, the shades of green represent gradually conquered territories under the reign of Augustus, and pink areas on the map represent client states; however, areas under Roman control shown here were subject to change even during Augustus' reign, especially in Germania. Source: Wikipedia

Extent of the Roman Empire under Augustus. The yellow legend represents the extent of the Republic in 31 BC, the shades of green represent gradually conquered territories under the reign of Augustus, and pink areas on the map represent client states; however, areas under Roman control shown here were subject to change even during Augustus’ reign, especially in Germania.
Source: Wikipedia

On the diplomatic front, he recovered the Eagles lost to the Parthians at Carrhae by negotiations.  However, Roman expansion into Germania came to an abrupt halt after the disastrous defeat at the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest.  The rest of his reign would be spent consolidating the gains of earlier wars.

The last years of Augustus were darkened by uncertainty over the succession.  Tiberius had proved himself to be an extremely competent general, but his marriage to Augustus’ daughter Julia had failed (in contrast to the successful marriage between his brother Drusus and Antonia (the daughter of Mark Antony and niece of Augustus)).  Embittered by Augustus’ preference for younger and less qualified heirs of his own blood, he withdrew into exile in 6 BC.  However, after the deaths of Augustus’ grandsons Lucius in 2 AD and Gaius in 4AD Tiberius was recalled and formally adopted as full son and heir. By 12 AD he had essentially been proclaimed co-princeps.

When Augustus died he famously uttered the phrase above, a reference to the play-acting his imperial role required.  However, officially it was proclaimed that his last words were “Behold, I found Rome of clay, and leave her to you of marble.”  This may have been a metaphorical reference to the strength of the empire on his death.  His long reign was a major factor in the success of the Principate, that we now call the Roman Empire.  At the time of his death most of the residents of the Empire could not recall any other form of government and the Republic was associated with chaos and civil war.

In 8 BC the Roman month of Sextilis was renamed Augustus (i.e. August) in his honor just as Quintilis had previously been renamed Julius (i.e. July).  Many of the major events of his life occurred in that month and he died in the month named after him.

The name Augustus would live on as the primary title adopted by every other Roman Emperor (along with Caesar, which soon became the title of the Emperor designate).  While the life expectancy of Senators and members of the imperial family would remain low, the Empire itself would remain free of civil war until the aftermath of the death of Nero in 68 AD.

The part had been bloody, but it had been played well by the soon to be deified Emperor.

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This day in history – July 28, 1914 – “The war to end all wars” begins

Posted by Croesus     Category: History

When Gavrilo Princip assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and his wife in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914 few people thought a European war likely.  Franz Ferdinand had not been popular, but there was deep sympathy for the aged Emperor Franz Joseph for the latest tragedy of his long reign.  There was no sympathy of Serbia, agents of whose government had planned the assassination.  Serbia’s patron Russia was still licking its wounds from its defeat at the hands of Japan a decade earlier and its military modernization was not ready.  Russia’s ally France was content to wait until the Russian steamroller could flatten Berlin.  Great Britain had no desire to be sucked into a war on the continent.  Germany was a sated power in Europe and had no reason to want war.

And yet a month later the armies of Europe were mobilizing for a war unlike any previous war in history.

The problem lay in Vienna.  In the preceding decade Serbia had turned from being an Austrian client to a pain in the rear end due to Serbian dreams of leading a united state containing all South Slavs.  Such a state could only come at the expense of Austria, and tensions had been exacerbated by the Austrian annexation of Bosnia in 1908.  For Vienna this was a golden opportunity to lance the Serbian ulcer.  Austrian intransigence was fueled by the casual manner in which German Kaiser Wilhelm II promised them his support.

As a result, the Austrians pressed an ultimatum on the Serbs, designed to cause a war.  The Serbian government was isolated and agreed to all but one point of the ultimatum – that Austrian police officials be allowed to operate freely in Serbia.  For a brief moment, it appeared that the Serbian compromise would prevent war.  However, the Austrians claimed that the failure to accept the ultimatum left it no choice but to declare war.  This led to a Russian warning that it would not sit by while Austria attacked Serbia.

At 11:00 am on July 28, 1914 the Austrians declared war on Serbia.  The dominoes started to fall.  Russia started to mobilize, Austria decided to ignore the Russian threat, Germany then declared war on Russia on August 1 and France on August 3.  When Belgium refused to allow German troops to march across its territory, Germany declare war on Belgium as well.  As a result the British declared war on Germany on August 4.  Italy, an ally of the Germans and the Austrians refused to declare war claiming that their alliance was defensive.  The following year seeing greater scope for aggrandizement, Italy declared war on its erstwhile allies.

The war allowed lesser powers a chance to try to improve their lot.  Still seething at the humiliation of the Second Balkan War, Bulgaria joined Germany and Austria-Hungary (i.e. the Central Powers in 1915).  The Ottoman Empire joined the Central Powers in late 1914.  Romania declared war on the side of the Allies in 1916.  Greece would be racked by turmoil between pro-German and pro-British camps resulting in the deposition of King Constantine I and a declaration of war against the Central Powers.

As the war commenced, there was an astonishing naivety about what war entailed.  Europe had not had a general long drawn out war since the Napoleonic Wars ended in 1815.  The wars in the previous century had been local or short or both.  As a result, war plans were drawn up on paper by generals who had not faced hostile fire.  The American Civil War had given some hints about the impact of new technology old old methods of fighting.  If these lessons had been learnt, they had been forgotten.  Most of Europe went to war thinking it would be over by Christmas.  It would last four brutal years with casualties unfathomable at the start.

At the end, the pre-war order collapsed.  The empires of Germany, Russia, Austria-Hungary and the Ottomans dissolved.  Poland re-emerged as a new state.  Central Europe was now littered with new states carved out of the ethnic groups of the old Hapsburg domains.  The Bolsheviks seized power in Russia.  The losers of the war Germany, Hungary, Bulgaria were embittered at reparations and the loss of territory.  Victors like Italy and Japan were disappointed by the meager gains of victory.  France and Britain were exhausted and bankrupt.  The United States lapsed back into isolationism.

Popular conceit at the time termed the Great War the “War to end all Wars.”  A generation later, Europe would be at each others throats in another global conflagration and the war would go down in history as World War I.

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From Anatolia to Sindh: the rapid spread of money in the middle ages

Posted by Croesus     Category: Numismatics

Given the iconoclastic nature of Islam, images on Islamic coins are rare, but yet not unknown.  Many of them were inspired by classical representations (like the bronzes of the Artuquids, Zangids and other Atabegs in the region) or survived when the coinage in question succeeded a pre-Islamic variety (like the Arab-Byzantine and Arab-Sassanid series or the Islamic successors to the bull and horseman Shahi Jital).

Graven images are not unknown in the coinage of the Seljuqs of Rum.  However, between 1240-1243 Sultan Kaykhusraw II (reigned 1237-1246) introduced a rather unusual coin – the so called “lion and sun” dirhem.


SELJUQ OF RUM: Kaykhusraw II, 1236-1245, AR dirham (2.86g), Sivas, AH638, A-1218, lion & sunface, star left of sunface, Source: Stephen Album Rare Coins

SELJUQ OF RUM: Kaykhusraw II, 1236-1245, AR dirham (2.86g), Sivas, AH638, A-1218, lion & sunface, star left of sunface,
Source: Stephen Album Rare Coins


We have no records as to why this unusual coin was minted.  It is not uncommon and is a favorite of collectors.

The Lion and Sun motif is itself deeply rooted in the history of the region – notably Mesopotamia and Iran.  However, the Sultanate of Rum never ruled those territories.  There are also connections to the zodiac, since in Islamic astrology the Lion is in the house of the sun.

Romantics like to believe that the imagery refers to the Sultan’s beloved Georgian wife Tamar.  In this interpretation the Sun represents Tamar and the lion the Sultan.  Alternatively, it may represent her sun sign.

All of this is speculation.  What we do know that for a few years in his short reign, Kaykhusraw II minted these unusual coins.

The mintage of these coins appears to have terminated when the great disaster of his reign occurred.  On June 26, 1243 the Seljuq armies led by Kaykhusraw II were annihilated by the Mongols at the Battle of Köse Dağ.  The Sultan held on to his throne in vassalage to the Mongols and promising annual tribute.  However, the glory days of the Seljuqs were over.  Kaykhusraw II died a broken man three years later leaving three minor sons.  Absent a competent successor, the Sultans became playthings of their advisers and the Seljuq state disappeared by the end of the century.

The reign of Kaykhusraw II by itself is a cautionary tale of a powerful monarch humbled at the height of his power and the coin is an interesting memento for his reign, but for the discovery of a unique coin minted a few years later thousands of miles away.

The Mongol invasion of Persia in the early 13th century devastated the region.  In destroying the Kharvazemian Empire they reduced the great urban centers of the region into mountains of skulls.  The eastern part of the region was already in turmoil.  The assassination of Sultan Mu’izz al-Din Muhammad in 1206 abruptly terminated the Ghurid Empire.  Having no sons, the Ghurid Empire fragmented among his Turkish slaves as regional kingdoms sprouted in Delhi, Multan, Ghazni and Bengal.  The Kharvazemians conquered Afghanistan in the next decade, but had not consolidated their gains before the Mongols invasion.  While the Kharvazemian Sultan Ala ad-Din Muhammad II fled to the Caspian Sea his heir Jalal ad-Din Mingburnu desperately tried to rally the Empire in the East.  Defeated at the Battle of the Indus and denied an alliance by Sultan Iltumish of Delhi he plundered Sindh before heading back to Persia and his ultimate end in Azerbaijan.

Having eliminated the Kharvazemian empire the Mongols left some garrisons in the region, but Sindh and the neighboring areas were in turmoil.  In the aftermath of the defeat of Nasir-ud-din Qabacha by Iltumish an adventurer called Hasan Qarlugh gradually took control of the region.  Transferring his vassalage from Delhi to the Mongols, he took advantage of the weakness of the Delhi Sultanate following the death of Iltumish to consolidate his rule.  He was succeeded in 1249 by his son Nasir al-din Muhammad who tactfully balanced Delhi and the Mongols to hold on to power. In the long run this was unsustainable and the dynasty was eliminated by the Mongols in the 1260s.

At some point in his reign, Nasir al-din Muhammad minted the coin below.

QARLUGHID: Nasir al-Din Muhammad, 1249-1259, AR dirham (2.55g), NM, ND, A-L1817, previously unknown type, published on Zeno as #120013, in December 2012 (this specimen, believed to be unique), 1 testmark, VF, RRRR. Obverse has name nasir al-dunya wa'l-din in Arabic above the lion, the reverse has his name & patronymic in Nagari script (sri mahamada hasana karaluka). This is the first reported silver coin for this ruler, Nasir al-Din Muhammad and previously an unknown type. This specimen published on Zeno as #120013, in December 2012 and believed to be unique. Source: Stephen Album Rare Coins

QARLUGHID: Nasir al-Din Muhammad, 1249-1259, AR dirham (2.55g), NM, ND, A-L1817, previously unknown type, published on Zeno as #120013, in December 2012 (this specimen, believed to be unique), 1 testmark, VF, RRRR. Obverse has name nasir al-dunya wa’l-din in Arabic above the lion, the reverse has his name & patronymic in Nagari script (sri mahamada hasana karaluka). This is the first reported silver coin for this ruler, Nasir al-Din Muhammad and previously an unknown type. This specimen published on Zeno as #120013, in December 2012 and believed to be unique.
Source: Stephen Album Rare Coins


The inspiration for the coin is obvious.  Yet the coin is different.  It is bilingual (not unknown in the region) with inscriptions in Arabic and Nagari.  Prior to this the only other known coins for this ruler were his copper jitals (which also carry inscriptions in Nagari).  This is a unique coin and the mintage was probably low.  It was minted within a decade after the Seljuq series and appears to be derived directly from that series – albeit with cruder celatorship and with local flavor added.

It is interesting to speculate how a Seljuq prototype reached Sindh.

Trade is an obvious choice.  With land trade routes disrupted by the Mongol invasion sea trade routes are a probable option.  In addition, Kaykhusraw II paid the Mongols tribute in the aftermath of his victory.  This probably speeded the dissemination of the Lion and Sun dirhem into international trade routes.  What is striking how quickly the Qarlughid imitation appears to have been minted.

In an age where modern nation states try to restrict the hobby of numismatics on the grounds of “cultural patrimony” this coin serves as an example of the basic fact - coins were meant to be circulated and traveled long distances.  This is why Roman coins have been found in South India (and imitated there), 4th century Roman Bronzes were imitated in Sri Lanka and Islamic coins have been discovered in Northern Europe.

Trade and taking a fancy to an unusual coin appears to have inspired an obscure Sultan in Sindh to imitate a coin minted by a dead Sultan thousands of miles away in Anatolia.



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This day in history – The Ides of March 44, B.C. – The Assassination of Julius Caesar.

Posted by Croesus     Category: History

The acquisition of empire ultimately spelled doom for the Roman Republic.  After destroying Carthage, conquering Macedonia and thrashing the Seleucids the Roman Republic ruled the Mediterranean world.  The remaining states that retained their independence lay supine before Roman might.  One king even willed his kingdom to the Romans on his death.  However, the acquisition of empire weakened the civic bond on the Republic.  Armies in the field were more loyal to the general who earned them their loot than the cranky patricians in the Senate.  As time went by Generals were unwilling to submit to Senatorial authority and the machinations of their enemies.  The last decades of the Republic were a grim time where politicians vied for power playing off the Senate, army and the Roman mob against each other.

At the beginning of 44 B.C. one man reigned supreme.  Having destroyed his great rival Pompey at the battle of Pharsalus, humbled the Kingdom of Egypt and mopped up the Pompeian remnants in North Africa Julius Caesar showed clemency to the survivors.  The Senate proclaimed him dictator for life and allowed his face to appear on the coinage (a first for Rome).  Caesar was king in all but name, but technical power still resided with the Senate.  Rumors abounded that Caesar meant to declare himself king.

As a result a group of Senators calling themselves Liberators conspired to eliminate Julius Caesar.  Rumors of the conspiracy started to circulate and Caesar’s impending departure for war with Parthia accelerated the timeline.  On the Ides of March, the assassinate Caesar as he arrived at the Senate, then meeting at the Theater of Pompey.   Caesar was stabbed 23 times his last words allegedly being the Greek phrase “καὶ σύ, τέκνον;” (transliterated as “Kai su, teknon?“: “You too, my son?” in English).

When the conspirators marched to the Capitol proclaiming their deed and telling the Roman people of their freedom, they were met with silence.  Caesar had been popular with the mob, and they were outraged that a group of aristocrats killed Caesar.  The assassins had to flee the city as the Caesarians rallied around Mark Antony and (to his chagrin) Caesar’s 18 year old great nephew Octavian – who was proclaimed his primary heir in his will.

Ironically the assassins accelerated the fall of the Republic.  Power in Rome fell to the Second Triumvirate – which unlike its predecessor was a formalized legal institution.  The assassins were eliminated at the Battle of Philippi.  A decade later the triumvirs would go to war after which Octavian would stand at the top of the Roman world.  In 27 BC the Senate would proclaim him Augustus, and princeps (first citizen – the root of the word that evolved to prince).  While Augustus maintained some of the forms of the Republic, this date is considered the start of the Augustan principate – what we call the Roman Empire.

The assassination of Caesar may be the most famous assassination in the ancient world.  It was commemorated by possibly the most famous coin of the ancient world.  Starting with Caesar, his heirs Antony and Octavian did not scruple to place themselves on the coinage.  Interestingly Brutus followed suit – an act not emulated by his co-conspirator Cassius.  Brutus also issued a coin commemorating the assassination.

EID MAR ("Ides of March") denarius, issued by Marcus Junius Brutus in 43/42 BC. The obverse of the coin features a portrait of Marcus Brutus. The inscription reads BRVT IMP L PLAET CEST, which means Brutus, Imperator, Lucius Plaetorius Cestianus. Lucius Plaetorius Cestianus was the moneyer who actually managed the mint workers who produced the coin. The two daggers on the reverse differ to show more than one person was involved in the slaying. The cap is a pileus (liberty cap) that in Roman times was given to slaves on the day of their emancipation – freedom from slavery. In the context of the assassination, Brutus is making it clear the killers were defending the Republic and its people from Caesar’s grasp at kingship. (Source: Wikipedia)

EID MAR (“Ides of March”) denarius, issued by Marcus Junius Brutus in 43/42 BC. The obverse of the coin features a portrait of Marcus Brutus. The inscription reads BRVT IMP L PLAET CEST, which means Brutus, Imperator, Lucius Plaetorius Cestianus. Lucius Plaetorius Cestianus was the moneyer who actually managed the mint workers who produced the coin. The two daggers on the reverse differ to show more than one person was involved in the slaying. The cap is a pileus (liberty cap) that in Roman times was given to slaves on the day of their emancipation – freedom from slavery. In the context of the assassination, Brutus is making it clear the killers were defending the Republic and its people from Caesar’s grasp at kingship. (Source: Wikipedia)

This is one of the few specific coin issues mentioned by a classical author, Cassius Dio who in his Roman History 47. 25, 3 states: “Brutus stamped upon the coins which were being minted his own likeness and a cap and two daggers, indicating by this and by the inscription that he and Cassius had liberated the fatherland.”

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300: Rise of an Empire – history infantilized into fiction (with spoilers)

Posted by Croesus     Category: History

300: Rise of an Empire is replete with so many head slap worthy whoppers, that I had to stop before they resulted in a concussion.  I went into the theater expecting that history would be shredded…the result surpassed my exceptions.  The end product easily surpasses the collection of whoppers in Mel Gibson’s Braveheart.  It is a pity that Hollywood seems incapable of producing historical epics without infantilizing them to the lowest common denominator.

The movie is not really a sequel.  Most of the action runs parallel to the 2006 film 300, dedicated to the cult of Thermopylae. The move is a narration by Gorgo, the widow of Leonidas who utters the first historical whopper as soon as the movie commences.  A run down of the movie and its myriad inaccuracies is below:

  • “They hate us for our freedoms”

The movie commences with Gorgo channeling her inner George W. Bush indicating that Darius I launched the first Persian invasion of Greece a decade earlier due to his hatred of Greek freedom.  The premise itself if laughable and conveniently whitewashes the casus belli the Persians had against Athens from the Ionian Revolt.

In 499 BC the Greek cities on the Ionian coast revolted against the Persians.  The Athenians who had just become a democracy by overthrowing their tyrant Hippias were sucked into this conflict.  Facing Spartan intervention to restore Hippias, the Athenians briefly even acknowledged Persian overlordship.  Failing to regain power with Spartan help Hippias fled to the Persians whose satrap Artaphernes (brother of Darius I) advised the Athenians to take him back.  The Athenians refused and decided to join the Ionians in open war (egged on by the Milesian tyrant Aristagoras whose initial successes promised an easy victory).  However, the Ionian revolt exposed the vulnerability of the Greek hoplites to the Persian missile cavalry.  Athens quickly abandoned the Ionians and the Ionians were crushed by 493.

The Persians then launched their first invasion of Greece to punish the Athenians for daring to support the revolt (and from the Persian perspective ignoring their previous acknowledgment of Persian overlordship).

  • What the heck happened to the Greek phalanx?

Before proceeding to the next bout of alternative history, it appears that the phalanx seems to have disappeared from Greek military tactics in the movie.  This is puzzling given the exposition given by Leonidas to Ephialtes in the previous movie about the need to maintain the cohesion of the shield wall. (Video below:)

Yet in this movie the Greeks cheerfully break the phalanx for individual battle heroics as if they were gladiators from the Starz TV show Spartacus.  Even more amusingly they fling around their heavy bronze shields without showing any signs of exhaustion.  These truly are Supermen.

  • Darius was not mortally wounded at Marathon

The depiction of Marathon is on par with the rest of the movie.  For starters, Darius was not present at Marathon, needless to say he did not receive a mortal would there.  The Great King would die peacefully in his bed in 486 BC.  Themistocles did fight at Marathon, but he did not command.  Militiades is credited with the Athenian strategy at the battle.  The Greeks did not attack while the Persians were disembarking.  Both armies stood facing each other for a few days – the Athenians unwilling to expose their flanks to the Persian cavalry as they waited for the Spartans to show up, the Persians not willing to attack the Athenian defensive position.  Then the Athenians broke the standoff by suddenly charging the Persians, possibly due to the Persian cavalry being embarked onto their ships for a flanking attack on the city of Athens itself.  The lightly armored Persian infantry was no match for the Athenian phalanx and the Athenians won a great victory.

Yet the war was not won, since the exhausted Athenians had to march back to Athens to prevent the Persians from landing.  Seeing the opportunity lost, the Persians sailed away.  Marathon was a major victory for the Greeks since it demonstrated the Persians were not invincible – yet it must be noted that the hoplites had not yet proven their worth against the Persian cavalry.

Contrary to the assertions in the movie Darius did not warn his heir Xerxes I to leave the Greeks alone.  He was planning a new invasion, this time to be led by himself.  However, a revolt in Egypt delayed it and he died before it could be launched.  Xerxes would then launch the invasion.

The new movie contains a mystical explanation for Xerxes turning into a 10 foot tall, depilated creature in tights replete with body piercings.  Words fail me in describing this paranormal transformation.

  • The cult of Thermopylae

Over the years the Battle of Thermopylae has morphed into this history changing epochal event due to Spartan valor alone. Read more…

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This day in history – January 10, 49 B.C. – “Alea iacta est” – start of the Great Roman Civil War

Posted by Croesus     Category: History

Politics in the Roman Republic was a brutal business.  The rivalry between the patricians was accentuated by the class divisions between patricians and plebeians.  Yet these were manageable so long as the Republic was confined to Italy.  However, Rome’s victories in the Punic Wars with Carthage and the ensuing wars with Macedonia and the Seleucid Empire turned the Republic into an Empire.

By the middle of the second century BC, Rome was the pre-eminent power in the Mediterranean.  Carthage and its Empire in North Africa, Spain and Sicily were annexed.  Macedonia was now a Roman province and Greece had accepted Roman supremacy.  The Seleucids had been expelled from Asia Minor which was now ruled by Roman clients.  The Seleucids and the Ptolemies of Egypt while nominally independent did not dispute Rome’s preeminence.

This military success led to the ultimate collapse of the Republic.  The Republic (and for that matter the later Empire) never solved a basic problem – how to control the loyalty of armies in the provinces.  Soldiers in the field tended to offer their first loyalty to their commanding general (the dispenser of loot), rather than a bunch of querulous Senators in Rome.  At the same time the social tensions in Rome were getting worse.  The aristocracy had got rich on the loot in the provinces.  However, this prosperity was not flowing downwards.  With an influx of slaves peasants were being forced off the farms into unproductive idleness in the cities where jobs were scarce.  Attempts by the brothers Gracchi to enact land reform led to their lynching.

The tensions erupted into civil war in the beginning of the first century.  It started first with the Social War – a revolt of Rome’s Italian allies.  It next broke out between the supporters of the populist general and military hero Gaius Marius and the representative of the aristocracy Sulla.  For the first time in Roman history a general marched his army into Rome.  Sulla’s victory in the civil war led to brutal proscriptions of his enemies.  However, his constitutional reforms were largely eliminated after his death.  His primary legacy was to make it clear that it was the army and not the Senate that controlled Rome.

Factional squabbling recommenced after Sulla’s death in 78 – interrupted briefly by the Spartacus revolt and the reorganization of the Eastern Mediterranean by Sulla’s protege Pompey.  In 60 BC saw an attempt to overcome the factional strife when Julius Caesar helped create an alliance between the two most powerful men in Rome – Pompey and Crassus.  The First Triumvirate was sealed by the marriage of Caesar’s daughter Julia to Pompey.   The arrangement was ultimately doomed to failure.  Crassus envious of Pompey’s previous military glory tried to obtain some of his own by initiating an unnecessary war with Parthia.  It resulted in his death at the battle of Carrhae in 53 BC.

Meanwhile, Caesar won military glory by conquering Gaul – a military success that dwarfed any of Pompey’s previous triumphs.  Julia’s death in childbirth in 54 BC accelerated Pompey’s move to the side of the old aristocracy who detested the populist Caesar (who himself was a political heir of Marius – his aunt’s husband).

In 50 BC as Caesar’s proconsular governorships of the Gallic provinces (which gave him immunity from prosecution) expired, the Senate forbade him from running for consul (the highest civilian office in Rome that also granted him immunity from prosecution) in absentia.  He was also ordered to disband his army.  The command was akin to asking Caesar to commit suicide since his enemies were waiting to prosecute him for his alleged crimes as governor.

Caesar’s armies were at the Rubicon, the border of the Roman province of Italy.  Crossing the Rubicon was an act of treason and a declaration of war.  However, the Senate had left him no choice in the matter.

Plutarch and Seutonius (contemporaries of each other) disagree whether Greek or Latin was the language used for the famous phrase.

Ἑλληνιστὶ πρὸς τοὺς παρόντας ἐκβοήσας, «Ἀνερρίφθω κύβος», [anerriphtho kybos] διεβίβαζε τὸν στρατόν.

He [Caesar] declared in Greek with loud voice to those who were present ‘Let the die be cast’ and led the army across.

— Plutarch, Life of Pompey, 60.2.9


Caesar: … “Iacta alea est”, inquit.

Caesar said … “the die has been cast”.

— Suetonius, Vita Divi Iuli (The Life of the deified Julius), 121 CE, paragraph 33

The die was indeed cast in the game of thrones and Caesar ordered his army across the Rubicon – unwittingly adding two phrases to our lexicon.

The resulting Civil War led to the triumph of Caesar and his proclamation as dictator for life.  He showed clemency to many of the Pompey supporters he defeated, but many of them were unwilling to support a quasi-king.  This led to the assassination of Caesar and more civil wars, until Caesar’s great nephew Octavian stood alone among the rubble.  Now renamed Augustus he would proclaim himself Princeps (first citizen) and transform the Roman Republic into the state we now call the Roman Empire.


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This day in history – January 5, 1762 – The Miracle of the House of Brandenburg

Posted by Croesus     Category: History

A death of a middle aged woman in St. Petersburg changed history.  In 1762 towards the end of the Seven Years War, Prussia was on the verge of collapse.  Having lost his last Baltic port and with his army almost annihilated, Frederick the Great at times seriously contemplated suicide.  The consequences for Prussia were dire.  Starting with the Great Elector, over the previous 100 years the Electors of Brandenburg had established one of the finest armies in Europe, acquired the royal crown in Prussia and seized the rich province of Silesia from the Hapsburgs.  Now Frederick’s implacable foe the Tsarina Elizabeth (daughter of Peter the Great) was on the verge of humbling the Prussian upstart.  In addition to the loss of Silesia, Frederick also faced the prospect of the loss of his royal title and the prestige his House had accumulated.  

And then the “Miracle of the House of Brandenburg” occurred.

Empress Elizabeth by Vigilius Eriksen (source Wikipedia)

Empress Elizabeth by Vigilius Eriksen (source Wikipedia)

On January 5, 1762 (December 25, 1761 under the Julian Calendar) the Tsarina died unexpectedly.  Her notoriously pro-Prussian successor Peter III promptly removed Russia from the war giving a gasping Prussia time to catch its breath and drive the Austrians from Silesia.  Even though Peter III was deposed by his wife Catherine II a few months later and Russia reentered the war, the interval had changed the strategic position on the ground.

In the resulting peace treaty Prussia retained Silesia and gained the prestige of having fought off the far larger states of France, Austria and Russia.  Prussia had forced itself into the ranks of the major powers of Europe and would expand further during the partitions of Poland.  The Congress of Vienna expanded the Prussian state further by giving it a slice of Saxony, the Rhineland and Westphalia.  This enhanced Prussian state would be the focus of nationalistic German aspirations.  The unification of Germany under the militaristic Prussian state would have additional consequences in the 20th century.

The Prussian state still had to overcome the incompetence of Frederick’s next three successors and survive a series of crises and disasters in the Napoleonic wars.  But a neutered Prussian state stripped of Silesia and the economic bounty that province provided, without the reinforcement of the state institutions by Frederick after the war and forced to accept a humiliating peace could have fallen back into the second tier status of previous German contenders Bavaria and Saxony.

With a disastrous defeat in the Seven Years War, Prussia may have ended up a bit player rather than a prime mover in the partitions of Poland.  Prussia may not have been able to prevent Joseph II‘s attempted acquisition of Bavaria which would have significantly enhanced the German component of the rickety Hapsburg monarchy.  The absence of a Prussian counterweight to Austria would have altered the contours of German history.

While the nationalistic movements in the 19th century would likely still have created a German State, it would likely have been very different than the militarized Prussian Empire Bismarck cobbled together.  It could have ended up as a looser grouping of powers under Austrian hegemony (a reorganized Holy Roman Empire), or a Germany divided between the protestant North and East and the Catholic South and West.  It is not clear any German state other than Prussia or Austria would have had the heft to unify Germany.

And it happened because of a death in St. Petersburg.

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This day in history – December 25, 1914 – Christmas Truces across the Western Front

Posted by Croesus     Category: History

It was one of the few heartwarming events to occur in the bloody quagmire of the trenches of the Western Front.  Word War I was originally supposed to be a war that would be over by Christmas.  By Christmas it was clear that the fighting was not going to end any time soon.  

On Christmas Eve along stretches of the Western Front the guns went silent to the dismay of the generals in headquarters.  It started on Christmas Eve with Germans and British troops singing Christmas carols.

On Christmas day there was open fraternization across the trenches.  Soldiers exchanged schnapps, cigarettes and chocolates with each other.  They even played football (soccer).

British and German troops meeting in no man's land during the unofficial truce (British troops from the Northumberland Hussars, 7th Division, Bridoux-Rouge Banc Sector)

British and German troops meeting in no man’s land during the unofficial truce (British troops from the Northumberland Hussars, 7th Division, Bridoux-Rouge Banc Sector)

The truces lasted through Christmas night though it continued until New Years day in some sectors. Similar truces occurred among the French and German lines and even on the Eastern Front between the Austrians and the Russians.

Over the next week news of the truces leaked to the press to generally positive coverage in Britain.  Censorship in France suppressed the news and the reaction of the German press was muted.

The continuing bloodbath on the Western Front along with firmer directives from higher authorities reduced the recurrences of the truces in 1915.  The introduction of chemical warfare in 1916 and the increasing dehumanization of the enemy resulted in the end of such truces until the war went on to its bloody end.

The far greater civilian casualties of Word War II have dulled the memories of the horrific body count of combatants in World War I.  But the Christmas Truces endure in public memory as a shining moment of a time when soldiers took a break from the slaughter to celebrate their humanity, and received cinematic homage a few years ago.

Joyeaux Noel.  Feliz Navidad. Merry Christmas.

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This day in History – December 25, 1066 – William the Bastard is crowned King of England

Posted by Croesus     Category: History

The Norman Conquest is considered an epochal moment in English history – with good reason.  Until the conquest England was firmly a part of the Scandinavian cultural sphere – four English Kings in the eleventh century had been Danish.  The Normans may have started out as Viking marauders but by 1066 had been absorbed into French culture.  The Conquest reoriented English politics to the south and permanently dragged English interests into continental Europe.

That William the Bastard would have been the man to do this was inconceivable at his birth.  The bastard of Robert Duke of Normandy and his mistress (a tanner’s daughter), he unexpectedly became Duke of Normandy as a child when his father departed on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem never to return.  William was tempered by a tumultuous childhood where he fought off attempts to depose him.  In the 1050s he emerged as the most powerful feudal lord in Northern France even defeating his liege King Henri I, who had helped (probably to his regret) William hold on to his duchy in his childhood.

His eyes turned to England.  His cousin Edward the Confessor was childless.  Even though William had no genealogical claim to England, he cherished hopes that Edward would name him his heir.  In Edward’s last years the only other male from the royal house was his great nephew Edgar, still a child.  The likely successor was the most powerful man in the Kingdom – Earl Harold Godwinson.

In 1064 Harold was shipwrecked off the French coast and detained by William.  He was freed after William tricked him to swear on holy relics to support William’s succession to the English throne.  Complicating matters in 1066 was the impending invasion of Harald Hardrada of Norway – what would be the last Viking invasion of England.

With two invasions likely the English magnates supported Harold for the crown over the young Edgar.  William’s invasion was delayed by weather, but Hardrada was the first to invade landing in the North.  He defeated the Northern Earls at the Battle of Fulford (the last time a Scandinavian army defeated the English) and captured York.  But the newly crowned Harold II moved north faster than expected.  Taken by surprise, Hardrada was defeated and killed at the Battle of Stamford Bridge.

Location of major events during the Norman conquest of England in 1066

Location of major events during the Norman conquest of England in 1066

Harold II did not have time to savor his victory for news reached him of William’s arrival on the southern coast of England.  Historians can disagree on whether Harold should have waited to gather his forces instead of rushing down with his exhausted to troops to attack the Normans head on.  But march down he did.  The Battle of Hastings was a disaster for the English.  Harold and his brothers were killed and the English fyrd was shattered.

Yet the English did not submit immediately.  The young Edgar Aethling was proclaimed King with the support of the Northern Earls.  He would never be crowned.  The Northern fyrd had not recovered from Fulford.  As William captured Winchester (and the royal treasury) and marched on London, Edgar’s support crumbled.  Stigand Archbishop of Canterbury was the first to submit.  He was soon followed by the young Edgar and the Northern Earls Edwin and Morcar.

The coronation did not run smoothly.  As Archbishop Ealdred of York asked the crowd whether they accepted William as King, the assembled Normans and Saxons shouted their approval in both languages.  The troops William had posted outside the church fearing an assassination attempt set fire to the houses around Westminster Abbey.  Chaos ensued in the abbey and riots broke out outside.  The clergy completed the coronation in the smoke and confusion, but the chaos did not endear William to his subjects.

William is crowned king by Archbishop Ealdred: a scene from the Bayeux Tapestry.

William is crowned king by Archbishop Ealdred: a scene from the Bayeux Tapestry.

William the Bastard was now King of England – a conquest that marked him in history as William the Conqueror.

The effects of the conquest have been debated.  The Anglo-Saxon elite were the biggest losers.  Many (including Edgar Aethling) went abroad and served as mercenaries – notably in the Byzantine Empire.  Many of the instruments of government were unchanged given the greater sophistication and centralization of England over Normandy.  William and his heirs would rule one of the most efficient and prosperous realms in Europe, which financed their ambitions in France.  The French monarchy resented that its overmighty vassal was even mightier and for the next 150 years pursued a policy to break the power of the Anglo-Norman monarchy – a task finally accomplished in the early 13th century.

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This Day in History – November 11, 1918 – All Quiet on the Western Front

Posted by Croesus     Category: History

On the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918 the guns finally fell silent across the battlefields of Europe.  It had been termed the “War to end all Wars” and until the onset of the next round of bloodletting a generation later would be referred to as “The Great War.”  Today it is referred to as World War I and as the remaining handful of veterans die the horrors of this war are largely forgotten.

For more than four years the Great Powers of Europe had battered themselves bloody on the fields of Europe and the Middle East.  The war outside these theaters (unlike World War II) was largely cursory.  The German colonies across the globe – other than German East Africa where Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck carried on “the greatest single guerrilla operation in history” – fell fairly easily.  Brilliant military victories were won along the Eastern Front, in Mesopotamia and Syria.  Yet the war is largely remembered for the bloody stalemate in the trenches of Northern France.

The war saw the unrestricted use of chemical weapons (which almost claimed the life of a Corporal serving in a Bavarian regiment of the German Army), the first combat in the air and use of aerial bombardment.

After the dramatic Anglo-German naval race before the war, the war at sea was somewhat of an anti-climax.  Having built a large and expensive Navy, the German Admiralty was unwilling to risk it being sent to the bottom of the ocean in a single afternoon.  Likewise, the British were aware that their survival depended on control of the sea and were unwilling to risk it on the vagaries of combat.  So the German Navy stayed in port and the British erected a strangling blockade that gradually starved Germany.  After the tactically indecisive Battle of Jutland where the Germans failed to break through and the British passed up an opportunity to destroy the German fleet, Germany relied on a strategy of unrestricted U-Boat warfare which alienated American public opinion and contributed to America’s entry on the side of the Allies in 1917.

1917 saw great convulsions in Russia.  The Tsar was forced to abdicate in March and a second revolution in November prompted by the failure to withdraw Russia from the war brought the Bolsheviks to power.  Russia then lunged into civil war and the Bolsheviks withdrew from the Great War under the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in 1918.

Germany then made one final effort to knock France out of the War before American troops could enter the fray in earnest.  They failed.  By September Germany’s allies were collapsing.  Bulgaria signed an armistice on September 29.  The Ottoman Empire followed suit on October 30.  Austria-Hungary signed an armistice on the Italian front on November 3.  At the same time the German Navy mutinied and the ensuing unrest led to the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II on November 9 and his flight to the Netherlands (where he remained until his death in 1941).  The other German princes soon tendered their abdication and the German Republic was proclaimed.

On November 11 at 5:00 am an armistice was signed stipulating a ceasefire at  “the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.”

First page of the New York Times on 11 November, 1918

First page of the New York Times on 11 November, 1918

In a fitting epitaph to the pointless deaths on the Western Front, American Henry Gunther was the last man killed in combat.  He died a minute before the armistice, charging a bunch of surprised German soldiers who knew the armistice was about to take effect with his bayonet.  Gunther was the last of 10 million soldiers and about 7 million civilians who died in the war.

With the guns silenced turmoil was about to be unleashed across Europe.  That day the hapless Emperor Karl I of Austria issued a proclamation relinquishing “every participation in the administration of the State.”

Karl I's declaration of 11 November 1918

Karl I’s declaration of 11 November 1918

He issued a similar proclamation for Hungary two days later.  Karl was careful to avoid the term abdication and unsuccessfully tried to reclaim the Hungarian throne twice before his death in exile in 1922.

The next few days saw the re-emergence of the state of Poland with the proclamation of the Second Polish Republic.  The new state would soon be embroiled in border conflicts with its neighbors and more serious war with Bolshevik Russia.

Germany, Bavaria and Hungary saw unsuccessful attempts to create Communist republics – all of which were suppressed by force.

The attention of Europe would soon turn to Versailles where the Great Powers attempted to redraw the map of Europe.  Their ineptitude all but guaranteed another war.

While Western Europe gradually withdrew to an exhausted peace and America retreated into isolation, war continued elsewhere.  Civil War in Russia continued for a few more years.  Mustafa Kemal led a successful fight to create a Turkish state from the ash heap of the Ottoman Empire and thwarted a Greek attempt to create a Greek Empire in Asia Minor.  The artificially drawn borders of the Middle East would cause turmoil (and still do today).

The map of Europe changed dramatically too.  The Romanov, Hapsburg, Hohenzollern and Ottoman Empires were gone.  Poland was resurrected.  The Hapsburg ethic nightmare was replaced in the Balkans by the ticking time bomb of the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (soon renamed Yugoslavia).  Czechoslovakia, Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia and Finland were the new independent states to grace the European map.  The German colonies were divided among the victors – the Chinese possessions to Japan, East Africa to Britain, Cameroon divided among Britain and France, Togo to France.  Italy (whose contributions to the war were largely inglorious) was disgruntled with its rewards (Austrian Tirol and Trieste), a state of mind that encouraged unsustainable ambitions in the future.  Hungary lost 2/3rds of its territory resulting in another unhappy nation in the heart of Europe.  The greatest resentment would be in Germany which was saddled with unrealistic war reparations, lost its imperial possessions along with Alsace and Lorraine and saw the Rhineland and the Saar occupied.  Nationalist resentment and economic turmoil gave an opportunity to the aforementioned corporal to seize power.

These horrors were now in the future.  The silencing of the guns would for now be celebrated and remembered as “Armistice Day,” “Remembrance Day” and “Veterans Day.”  All was quiet on the Western Front.

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This day in History – October 9, 1446 – The Hangul alphabet is published in Korea

Posted by Croesus     Category: History

Today is Hangul Day in Korea.  In commemorating their alphabet, Koreans acknowledge the remarkable script designed exclusively to fit the language. Like many countries in East Asia, Korea was heavily influenced by Chinese culture.  However, the Chinese characters were cumbersome when applied to Korean.  As a result only in elites were literate.

To solve this problem, King Sejong introduced the Hangul script 567 years ago to encourage Korean cultural identity and expand literacy.  Just how the script was derived is a matter of debate.  The traditional account indicates that the shapes of the consonants are approximations of the shapes of the most representative organ needed to form that sound.  Another theory suggests that the ‘Phags-pa script derived by a Tibetan monk for the Mongol Yuan dynasty of China was adapted for the Korean language.  The Mongols being deemed uncouth barbarians and long since driven out of China any open acknowledgment of such roots would have been offensive to the literati.

The official commentary accompanying the introduction of the script proclaimed:

“A wise man can acquaint himself with them before the morning is over; a stupid man can learn them in the space of ten days.”

Regardless of the accuracy of the boast, the Hangul alphabet does appear to have met its intended goal of improving literacy, perhaps too well.  In 1504, King Yeonsangun banned the use of Hangul after commoners put up posters mocking him.  The Confucian literary elite opposed the script deeming it a threat to their status.  However, the script revived in the 16th and 17th centuries and was adopted in official documents in 1894 as a nod to rising Korean nationalism.  Yet literary snobs still used Chinese and the majority of Koreans at this point were still illiterate.  The Japanese banned Korean literature in their attempts at forced assimilation during their occupation of Korea  The script returned after the independence of Korea at the end of the World War II.

Hangul is now the official script of both North and South Korea.

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The Evolution of the Map of Europe

Posted by Croesus     Category: History

Stumbled across the clip below charting the evolution of the map of Europe after 1000 AD.  While the Treaty of Verdun in 843 AD set the framework for the eventual borders of France, Germany and the lands in the middle they squabbled over for the next 1000 years, there was a lot of movement along the rest of the map.  In Spain you can see the collapse of the Caliphate of Cordoba and the Reconquista.  At the same time you see the gradual consolidation of the Spanish Kingdoms starting with the union of Leon and Castile, the union of Aragon and Valencia and finally the creation of modern Spain after the marriage of Ferdinand of Aragon to Isabel of Castile.  You see the gradual fragmentation of France and Germany.  However, France recovers much faster while Germany does not unite until the 19th century.  In the East the might Byzantine Empire gradually crumbles and is replaced by the Ottoman Empire which is swept away after the war.  The various Balkan states break away from the Byzantines, only to be swallowed by the Ottomans until they regain independence in the 19th century.  Kievan Rus is overrun by the Mongols until the Principality of Muscovy creates the Russian Empire.  Scandinavia goes thru assorted attempts at political union before separating out into its constituent cultures.  England and Scotland are surprisingly stable until they unite after the death of Elizabeth I.  Poland reaches the height of its glory during the Polish-Lithuanian union only to disappear off the map. It emerges after World War I only to be suppressed again during World War II and then re-emerging with borders moved west after the war.  Finally you see the evolution of the current map after the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of Yugoslavia.  Enjoy the clip below:

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This day in History – August 26, 1071 – Battle of Manzikert

Posted by Croesus     Category: History

In its approximately 1000 years of history the Byzantine Empire had suffered a number of military disasters.  It survived the loss of Egypt, Syria and North Africa to the Arabs.  It fended off multiple sieges of Constantinople by the Persians, Arabs, Bulgars and other tribes.  The Empire survived the Slavic migration into the Balkans in the 6th century.  It survived the defeat and death of the Emperor Nikephoros I at the hands of the Bulgars in 811 AD.  Each time with the Empire on the verge of collapse a new ruler or dynasty would revive imperial fortunes.  The most spectacular revival came during the long reign of the Macedonian Dynasty (867-1056 AD).   Taking advantage of the disintegration of the Abbasid Caliphate Byzantine arms pushed into Syria and recovered Armenia.  The military glory culminated in the reign of Basil II the Bulgar Slayer who eliminated the First Bulgarian Empire and restored Byzantine rule over the Balkans.  Through the marriage of his sister Anna to Vladimir I of Kiev he completed the Christianization of the Rus and spread Byzantine culture into that region.

It was not to last.  Basil II died unmarried and childless in 1025.  His weak successors lacking his military ability starved the army of funds.  Palace coups to seize the crown became the norm in the next 50 years.  Gradually the hard fought military frontiers began to crumble.  The remnants of Justinian’s conquests in Italy were gradually whittled away starting in the 1040s.  The Pechenegs started raiding the northern frontiers and gradually the frontiers in Asia also came under attack.

When disaster struck in 1071, the Byzantine Empire was having one of its depressingly frequent bouts of instability.  Emperor Romanos IV had ascended the throne by marrying the widow of his predecessor Constantine X Doukas and placing her children under his protection.  The rest of the Doukas clan resented the interloper and their loss of power and were as events showed waiting to stab the Emperor in the back.

Romanos had been chosen to deal with a pressing military crisis in the east.  For the preceding century the Turkish tribes from the steppes had been pouring into Iran and Iraq and had reduced the once mighty Abbasid Caliphate to vassalage. By 1067 the Seljuk Turks had captured Armenia.  Even though the Turks were ready for a truce since they were more interested in attacking their schismatic religious rivals the Fatimid Caliphate in Egypt, the Emperor decided to attempt retaking Armenia.

After a long exhausting march across Asia Minor the Emperor decided to take the fortress of Manzikert.  The Byzantine Army was not the disciplined army of Basil II and was full of mercenaries and scheming noblemen.  Even worse the Emperor had no idea that the Seljuk Sultan Alp Arslan was close by.  The Turks on the other hand were aware of Byzantine troop movements.  Unaware of the presence of the Turks the Emperor split his army of 70,000 in half sending a detachment to attack Khliat while he proceeded to Manzikert.  This detachment appears to have been destroyed and at any event played no further part in the coming disaster.  On August 23 the Emperor retook Manzikert but discovered Seljuk troops close by.  By August 25 it was clear this was the main Seljuk army.  Rejecting a final peace embassy, the Emperor decided to fight a battle and crush the upstart Turks once and for all.

The Battle of Manzikert was a confusing affair.  While the center occupied the Seljuk camp the left and right wings were harassed by the hit and run tactics of the Seljuk horse archers.  Unable to force a battle the Emperor decided to withdraw at the end of the day.  This gave Andronikos Doukos who commanded a detachment on the right an opportunity to betray the Emperor.  Rather than covering the withdrawal he marched back to the camp at Manzikert.  This threw the Byzantines into confusion giving the Seljks a chance to attack.  The remainder of the right wing was destroyed, the left wing fled.  The Emperor in the center was surrounded, wounded and captured.

The captured Emperor was brought before the Sultan Alp Arslan where the conversation below between the two rulers allegedly took place:

Alp Arslan: “What would you do if I were brought before you as a prisoner?”
Romanos: “Perhaps I’d kill you, or exhibit you in the streets of Constantinople.”
Alp Arslan: “My punishment is far heavier. I forgive you, and set you free.”


Yet even with total victory, the Seljuk Sultan was anxious to attack the Fatimids and offered the Byzantines generous terms.  The treaty left Anatolia source of much of Byzantine military manpower intact and the Emperor was released on the promise of an annual ransom.

Manzikert did not have to be the seminal defeat in the history of the Byzantine Empire.  Much of the Byzantine army and generals were safe.  The Turks had moved on to other plans.  But what happened next is what resulted in the eventual collapse of Byzantium.

The traitor Andonikos Doukas marched back to Constantinople and proclaimed Romanos’s stepson Michael VII as Emperor and Romanos deposed.  The unfortunate Romanos was blinded and died a painful lingering death when the wound became infected.  The scholarly Michael VII proved unfit for the situation.  Court intrigues and attempted coups became common.  In the ensuing decade with Constantinople distracted by civil war the Byzantine position in Anatolia collapsed.  By the time Alexios I Komnenos seized the throne in 1081 almost all of Anatolia was lost to the Turks and Byzantium was no longer able to protect pilgrims to to the Holy Land.

This eventually led to the famous appeal to the Pope for help, resulting to Alexios’s unpleasant surprise in the First Crusade.  Alexios, his son John II and grandson Manuel I were able to recover the coastal strip of Anatolia.  However the Komnenian restoration never recovered the Anatolian heartland and were unable to expel the Turks from the region.  The Turks would resume their advance in the 13th century (after Byzantium was further weakened by the Fourth Crusade) and would eventually drive the Empire entirely out of Anatolia.

It was not obvious at the time, but Manzikert due to its aftermath turned out to be one of the most pivotal battles in history.

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This day in History – August 21, 1959 – the American Flag gets its 50th Star

Posted by Croesus     Category: History

Hawaii was an unusual candidate for American statehood.  The Kingdom of Hawaii had long been under American influence (though it tried to play the Americans off against the British).  However, its economy was eventually dominated by the emigre Americans and Europeans.  In 1887 they forced King Kalākaua to accept the Bayonet Constitution - the monarchy’s powers were curtailed, property requirements were instituted for the right to vote (restricted to Hawaiian, American and European males) and Asians were stripped of the vote.  Queen Liliuokalani’s attempt to reverse this in 1893 led to her overthrow by the American business elite aided by the American minister to Hawaii.

President Cleveland refused to recognize annexation, but his successor McKinley maneuvered annexation in 1898.

For the next 60 years Hawaii would be a US Territory with appointed governors.  The final transition to statehood had to overcome the opposition of Southern segregationists appalled by the thought of a non-white Senator.  However with 93% support for statehood, the Hawaii Admission Act was enacted on March 18, 1959 leading to the admission of Hawaii as a state (and the 50th star on the American Flag) on August 21.

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This Day in History – August 15, 1947 – “At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom”

Posted by Croesus     Category: History

India’s long struggle for freedom came to its bittersweet conclusion on August 15, 1947.  The day itself was chosen by the last Viceroy to coincide with V-J Day that concluded World War II.  India’s struggle for independence was unique at the time in being largely non-violent – though the rising surge of unrest in the British Indian Army from Subhash Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army during World War II followed by the Royal Indian Navy mutinies in 1946 played an under-appreciated role in convincing the British that it was time to leave.  Ultimately British rule in India rested on a foundation of collaborationist locals – the princely states, the police and above all the army.   The mutinies in the East India Company’s army followed by the uprising in 1857 had shaken British rule to its core.  Now exhausted by war, bankrupt and surviving on American aid Britain simply lacked the means to hold on to the Jewel in the Crown.  Most British statesmen other than the delusional imperialist to the bitter end Winston Churchill understood this bitter reality.  The victory of the Labor Party in the 1945 General Elections had made Indian independence a fait accompli. Labor had promised Indian independence.  The only issue was how to grant it.

It was here that the sweetness of independence turned bitter and bloody.  The Muslim League led by Mohammed Ali Jinnah insisted on a Muslim majority state – Pakistan.  While there were Muslim majorities in the provinces along British India’s western provinces and in East Bengal, about the same number of Muslims were scattered across the rest of the subcontinent.  In the North West Frontier Province many Pashtuns dreamt of eliminating the Durand Line and reuniting with Afghanistan – an issue that still creates bitter relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan today.

Finally the decision was made – the provinces of Sindh, Baluchistan and the Northwest Frontier would go to Pakistan.  Punjab and Bengal would be partitioned.  The princely states would have the choice of independence but were strongly encouraged to join either India or Pakistan – only three Junagadh, Hyderabad and Kashmir would not cooperate causing headaches after independence and in the case of Kashmir to this day.  Partition (and the departure of the Hindu Sindhi community) resulted in the displacement of 12.5 million people.  Even worse, the final boundary for Punjab was not announced until August 17 leaving its residents in limbo on independence day.  Communal violence caused the loss of life of hundreds of thousands of people.

It was in this element of uncertainty that India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru delivered his famous speech to the Indian Constituent Assembly.  The video below shows the most famous lines that start the speech.

The whole speech itself is worth a read and is pasted below:

Long years ago we made a tryst with destiny, and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge, not wholly or in full measure, but very substantially. At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom. A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance.

It is fitting that at this solemn moment we take the pledge of dedication to the service of India and her people and to the still larger cause of humanity.

At the dawn of history India started on her unending quest, and trackless centuries are filled with her striving and the grandeur of her success and her failures. Through good and ill fortune alike she has never lost sight of that quest or forgotten the ideals which gave her strength. We end today a period of ill fortune and India discovers herself again.

The achievement we celebrate today is but a step, an opening of opportunity, to the greater triumphs and achievements that await us. Are we brave enough and wise enough to grasp this opportunity and accept the challenge of the future?

Freedom and power bring responsibility. The responsibility rests upon this assembly, a sovereign body representing the sovereign people of India. Before the birth of freedom we have endured all the pains of labour and our hearts are heavy with the memory of this sorrow. Some of those pains continue even now. Nevertheless, the past is over and it is the future that beckons to us now.

That future is not one of ease or resting but of incessant striving so that we may fulfil the pledges we have so often taken and the one we shall take today. The service of India means the service of the millions who suffer. It means the ending of poverty and ignorance and disease and inequality of opportunity.

The ambition of the greatest man of our generation has been to wipe every tear from every eye. That may be beyond us, but as long as there are tears and suffering, so long our work will not be over.

And so we have to labour and to work, and work hard, to give reality to our dreams. Those dreams are for India, but they are also for the world, for all the nations and peoples are too closely knit together today for anyone of them to imagine that it can live apart.

Peace has been said to be indivisible; so is freedom, so is prosperity now, and so also is disaster in this one world that can no longer be split into isolated fragments.

To the people of India, whose representatives we are, we make an appeal to join us with faith and confidence in this great adventure. This is no time for petty and destructive criticism, no time for ill will or blaming others. We have to build the noble mansion of free India where all her children may dwell.

The appointed day has come – the day appointed by destiny – and India stands forth again, after long slumber and struggle, awake, vital, free and independent. The past clings on to us still in some measure and we have to do much before we redeem the pledges we have so often taken. Yet the turning point is past, and history begins anew for us, the history which we shall live and act and others will write about.

It is a fateful moment for us in India, for all Asia and for the world. A new star rises, the star of freedom in the east, a new hope comes into being, a vision long cherished materialises. May the star never set and that hope never be betrayed!

We rejoice in that freedom, even though clouds surround us, and many of our people are sorrow-stricken and difficult problems encompass us. But freedom brings responsibilities and burdens and we have to face them in the spirit of a free and disciplined people.

On this day our first thoughts go to the architect of this freedom, the father of our nation, who, embodying the old spirit of India, held aloft the torch of freedom and lighted up the darkness that surrounded us.

We have often been unworthy followers of his and have strayed from his message, but not only we but succeeding generations will remember this message and bear the imprint in their hearts of this great son of India, magnificent in his faith and strength and courage and humility. We shall never allow that torch of freedom to be blown out, however high the wind or stormy the tempest.

Our next thoughts must be of the unknown volunteers and soldiers of freedom who, without praise or reward, have served India even unto death.

We think also of our brothers and sisters who have been cut off from us by political boundaries and who unhappily cannot share at present in the freedom that has come. They are of us and will remain of us whatever may happen, and we shall be sharers in their good and ill fortune alike.

The future beckons to us. Whither do we go and what shall be our endeavour? To bring freedom and opportunity to the common man, to the peasants and workers of India; to fight and end poverty and ignorance and disease; to build up a prosperous, democratic and progressive nation, and to create social, economic and political institutions which will ensure justice and fullness of life to every man and woman.

We have hard work ahead. There is no resting for any one of us till we redeem our pledge in full, till we make all the people of India what destiny intended them to be.

We are citizens of a great country, on the verge of bold advance, and we have to live up to that high standard. All of us, to whatever religion we may belong, are equally the children of India with equal rights, privileges and obligations. We cannot encourage communalism or narrow-mindedness, for no nation can be great whose people are narrow in thought or in action.

To the nations and peoples of the world we send greetings and pledge ourselves to cooperate with them in furthering peace, freedom and democracy.

And to India, our much-loved motherland, the ancient, the eternal and the ever-new, we pay our reverent homage and we bind ourselves afresh to her service. Jai Hind [Victory to India].

Indian independence was the first step in the dissolution of the British Empire.  The next year Burma and Ceylon (later Sri Lanka) achieved independence.  In 1948 George VI stopped styling himself Rex Imperator (King Emperor) as he was no longer Emperor of India.  He would nominally remain King of India until 1950 when the Indian constitution went into effect and India became a Republic (and became the first Republic to join the British Commonwealth).

Indian independence was not complete on August 15, 1947.  Starting October 1947 and ending November 1954 the French gradually withdrew from their few remaining enclaves comprising French India.  The Portuguese were not as cooperative and had to be forcibly expelled – from Dadra and Nagar Haveli in 1954 and Goa, Daman and Diu in 1961.  The expulsion of the Portuguese ended the 460 year presence of European states on Indian soil.

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A trip to Machu Picchu – Part I – an ode to phone cameras.

Posted by Croesus     Category: Travel

I never thought I would see the Andes before the Alps or the Himalayas (not counting Simla at the age of 6).  But recently finished a trip to Peru and the one day Inca Trail to Machu Picchu.  Many firsts on this trip – first trip south of the Equator, first trip south of the Rio Grande let alone to Latin America.  Helps to have a fun group to travel with.  Even better when everyone else did most of the heavy lifting in getting the travel agent, hotels etc. taken care of.

With luggage limited and a focus on not bringing stuff to lug in my backpack on the Inca trail my wonderful camera with its 12X Optical Zoom stayed safely at home stateside.  The trusty Google Nexus 4 was used for all the pictures that will appear here.

The reason we visit Inca sites and the reason the Incas moved from being petty Kings of Cuzco to masters of an Empire extending from Equador to Argentina is the reign of one man - Pachacuti Inca Yupanqui (Pachacutec) the ninth Sapa Inca (1438–1471/1472) of the Kingdom of Cuzco.  His military skill started the Inca imperial march thru the Andes and the brief 100 years of Imperial glory until the arrival of the Spanish and small pox.  He appears responsible for encouraging sun worship (Inti) and many of the sites we visit are Solar observatories.  Our visit coincided with the Festival of the Sun (Inti Raymi) a celebration of the Winter Solstice commenced by Pachacutec.

Pachacutec is a national hero in Peru and his statue appears in many places.  A notable one is in Aguas Calientes right next to Machu Picchu – a bit blurred as this for some reason was taken in a hurry.

 Pachacuti Inca Yupanqui at Aguas Calientes, Peru

Pachacuti Inca Yupanqui at Aguas Calientes, Peru

A shiny statue to Pachacutec also stands at the center of the Plaza des Armas in Cuzco.  It also provided a welcome opportunity to muck around with some of the Nexus 4′s camera features and give the picture an “Antique Finish”.

Pachacuti Inca Yupanqui at the Plaza des Armas, Cuzco

Pachacuti Inca Yupanqui at the Plaza des Armas, Cuzco


Pachacuti Inca Yupanqui at the Plaza des Armas, Cuzco (antique finish)

Pachacuti Inca Yupanqui at the Plaza des Armas, Cuzco (antique finish)

However the coolest feature added to the Google Camera in Android 4.2 is Photosphere.  It goes way beyond a normal panorama in stitching together a true 360 degree visual effect.  I discovered the feature only a month before my trip and was lucky to get a great Photosphere of the Plaza des Armas in the morning as Inti Raymi preparations were under way.

However the early success was followed by many failures as I discovered the flaws that can occur when one of the people in the image moves.  A ghost image spoils this shot of Machu Picchu.

However when no people are around it is easy to stitch together a panorama like the inside of this hut at Machu Picchu.

I may use Photosphere more in the future for normal panoramas, though it does seem to suck away a decent amount of battery life.

Not having any pretensions of being a professional photographer, the camera phone did a brilliant job.  These have come a long distance from the feeble thing I remember on my Sony Ericsson candybar phone a decade ago.  As these continue to improve (and particularly if they get optical zooming) they will do to the camera industry what digital cameras did to Kodak.

So I conclude this ode to phone cameras.  It made traveling so much easier.  Pictures came out pretty nice too.

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This Day in History – June 8, 793 – The fury of the Northmen hits England for the first time

Posted by Croesus     Category: History

“A furore Normannorum libera nos, Domine”

(“From the fury of the Northmen deliver us, O Lord”)

This would be the despairing prayer uttered in coming years in churches and monastic institutions around Western Europe.  June 8, 793 is often used to mark the beginning of the Viking age.  A group of Norsemen (i.e. Northmen) suddenly appeared out of the blue at Lindisfarne Abbey in Northumbria, sacked and looted it and slaughtered the monks.

“Never before has such terror appeared in Britain. Behold the church of St Cuthbert, splattered with the blood of God’s priests, robbed of its ornaments.”

- Alcuin of York

The Ruins of Lindisfarne Priory, by Thomas Girtin, 1798

The Ruins of Lindisfarne Priory, by Thomas Girtin, 1798

Since about 500 AD, the land now known as England was divided among the Seven Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms of the Heptarchy:  Northumbria (for a while two kingdoms Deria and Bernicia), Mercia, Wessex, East Anglia, Kent and Sussex – the last two would soon be incorporated into Wessex.  The Anglo-Saxons had been sea raiders in their time as they drove the native British inhabitants of the island back into Wales and Cornwall.  But by the late 8th century they had grown fat with the land and had abandoned their sea raiding legacy.  The rulers of the Heptarchy frequently warred with each other but their armies were now based on the largely farmer levies of the fyrd.

What prompted the Norse to go Viking is unclear.  It is possible that Scandinavia may not have been able to support the native population.  Also just before the invasions, Charlemagne’s Saxon Wars may have added pressure to the pagan populations in the North.  The prospect of looting fat well endowed and undefended abbeys was also likely a temptation too great to pass up.  So a bunch of warriors went raiding.  Adding to their military advantage were their longships that could use sail or use oara and could navigate the oceans and sail in rivers.

The result was devastating.  The Saxon kingdoms were simply not equipped to handle an enemy who could seemingly strike at will.  Weakened by the raids and civil war Northumbria was the first to fall in 867 – and a Viking puppet was placed on the throne.  East Anglia fell to the Great Heathen Army in 869 and its King St. Edmund was killed – and Danish puppets were put on its throne too.  Next was the turn of Mercia whose King Burgred fled to Rome in 874.  The Danes seized the eastern part of Mercia in 877 while the remainder sought the protection of the last remaining Saxon Kingdom – Wessex.  A surprise attack in 878 almost finished off Wessex, but King Alfred the Great managed to raise an army and win a decisive victory at Ethandun.  In the aftermath the Danish leader Guthrum converted to Christianity and in 886 signed a treaty with Alfred dividing England along the old Roman road of Watling Street.

This did not end the invasions.  However, Arthur had found the Achilles heel of the Vikings.  He established a number of fortresses (burhs) along the coast where it was possible to withdraw and wait out the Vikings – who generally did not have the patience for siege warfare.  In France, the Viking ability to merrily sail down rivers was stymied with the construction of fortified bridges at key points.  Under Alfred’s son Edward the Elder and grandson Aethelstan the Glorious, the West Saxons would take the offensive.  In 927 Aethelstan conquered Northumbria uniting England under one King for the first time.

Danish raids would resume at the end of the 10th century during the disastrous reign of Aethelred II the Unraed and in 1016 the Danes would actually conquer England.  However, by then the Viking raids had unwittingly helped create a unified political entity called England.   England would be the first major Western European country to create a unified unitary state.  In most of Western Europe the process would not occur until the 18th-19th century.

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This Day in History- June 7, 1494 – Treaty of Tordesillas

Posted by Croesus     Category: History

In 1493, the year after Columbus sailed west and found “the Indies,” Pope Alexander VI (the notorious Borgia Pope) issued the Bulls of Donation dividing the New World between Spain and Portugal.  The problem was that Portugal felt the Papal grant gave it too little land and prevented their hoped for conquest of India.  So the Iberian states negotiated an amendment to the Papal grant with the Treaty of Tordesillas the following year.  The treaty shifted the Papal line west, allowing Portugal to claim lands in South America that eventually became Brazil.

The concept seems audacious.  Two European powers and the Pope were carving up lands they had never seen.  But there was some logic to the madness.  Portugal had been aggressively exploring the coast of Africa and in 1498 would discover the direct sea route to India.  After Columbus discovered the Americas, Spain was the only other power at the time with the interest and the means to go exploring.

The Papal grant and Tordesillas suffered from many problems.  The first practical one was it did not acknowledge that the Earth is a sphere.  Giving Spain lands to the west of the line and Portugal lands to the East became a problem as both powers raced to discover and claim their lands first.  When Portugal discovered the Moluccas in 1512 and Magellan visited them in his voyage in 1521, it prompted Spain to argue that the dividing line created two hemispheres (and the Moluccas were of course in their hemisphere).  The two powers would resolve this by the Treaty of Zaragoza in 1529 by drawing a line on the other side of the world.

Lines dividing the non-Christian world between Castile (modern Spain) and Portugal: the 1494 Tordesillas meridian (purple) and the 1529 Zaragoza antimeridian (green)

Lines dividing the non-Christian world between Castile (modern Spain) and Portugal: the 1494 Tordesillas meridian (purple) and the 1529 Zaragoza antimeridian (green)

But by then there were other problems with Tordesillas.   As other European powers realized just how large the world was, they had no intention of letting the Pope hand it over to the Iberians – Catholic loyalties went only so far.  “Show me Adam’s will!” was the mocking response of Francis I of France to the Papal edict.  It got worse as England and the Netherlands turned Protestant during the Reformation.  Papal grants of land had meaning for these powers any more.

The line itself was meaningless between 1580 and 1640 when Spain and Portugal were united under one crown.  By the late 17th century both powers had been relegated to second tier and the treaty was meaningless as the French and British clashed in North America and India while the Dutch expelled the Portuguese from Indonesia, Ceylon and South Africa.  Even though the Treaty faded into irrelevance it has still been used by Chile to support its claims to parts of Antarctica and Argentina for the Falklands.

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This day in History – June 6, 1674 – Coronation of Shivaji as Chhatrapati

Posted by Croesus     Category: History

Until the early 17th century the Marathas were known for being hardy peasants, rather than warriors.  It was Malik Ambar the Ethiopian born prime minister of the dying Nizam Shahi Sultanate of Ahmadnagar who recognized their military potential.  Desperately trying to stop the Mughal Empire’s relentless march into the Deccan his Maratha guerrilla army stopped the Mughals in their tracks.  The Mughals would not be able to conquer Ahmadnagar until Malik Ambar’s death.  One of his Maratha generals Shahaji Bhonsle after vainly trying to revive the Ahmadnagar Kingdom took refuge in the neighboring Adil Shahi Sultanate of Bijapur.  His son Shivaji was born in 1627.

Shahaji spent the rest of his career in the service of Bijapur mopping up the remnants of the dying Hindu Vijaynagar Empire in Karnataka.  But his two older sons – Shivaji and Sambhaji raised the flag of revolt against Bijapur.  Sambhaji died young – likely murdered by a Bijapur agent – but Shivaji flourished.  In desperation the Adil Shah arrested Shahaji to bring the young rebel to heel.  Shivaji backed down until his father’s release but with the death of Shahaji in 1665 ended the last restraint the decaying Bijapur Sultanate had on Shivaji.  By then Shivaji had moved to bigger things and had taken on the might of the Mughal Empire.

There are two giant what-ifs in Shivaji’s relationship with the Mughals.  The first came in the 1650s when Aurangzeb son of the Emperor Shah Jahan as viceroy of the Deccan tried to eliminate the Deccan Sultanates of Bijapur and Golconda - an effort blocked by his jealous older brother Dara Shikoh.  It was still early in Shivaji’s career and dealing with the mighty Mughal Empire rather than the decaying Sultanates could have quashed his ambitions.  As it was the Marathas first clashed with the Mughals in this period.  But a clash was postponed when Shah Jahan fell ill precipitating a bloody war of succession that left two sons dead, one in exile (where he would be killed), Aurangzeb on the throne and Shah Jahan a prisoner the rest of his life.

By the time Aurangzeb resumed attention to Shivaji in the 1660s he was far more established – inflicting a humiliating defeat on Aurangzeb’s uncle Shaista Khan.  But the Mughals were too strong and in 1665 Shivaji was forced to submit at the Treaty of Purandar in 1665 – surrendering a number of forts and accepting Mughal over-lordship.  Shivaji and his older son Sambhaji set off to the Mughal court in Agra to formalize the relationship.

Shivaji's portrait (1680-7), housed in the British Museum

Shivaji’s portrait (1680-7), housed in the British Museum

This brings up the second what-if.  Shivaji’s death at this time would have likely ended the Maratha state.  But Aurangzeb did not want to antagonize his ablest general Raja Jai Singh I of Amber who had guaranteed Shivaji’s safety.  A statesman would have used the opportunity to flatter Shivaji and win him over to the Mughal cause.  But Aurangzeb was not Akbar.  He (knowingly or unknowingly) insulted Shivaji by placing him at court with officers of inferior rank.  When Shivaji dared to publicly take offense he placed him under house arrest.  Fearing execution or assignment to the Afghan frontier where the tribes were in revolt, Shivaji feigned illness and started sending sweets to the local temples for his recovery.  One day Shivaji and Sambhaji hid themselves in one of the sweet boxes and escaped.

War did not break out until 1670 when Shivaji recovered all his lost territories.  By 1674 Shivaji chose to formally advertise his independent status by having a formal coronation.  This was a propaganda exercise that distinguished him from other Maratha chiefs and proclaimed to the world his status as an independent Hindu sovereign.

The coronation of Shivaji

The coronation of Shivaji

The coronation on June 6, 1674 was a lavish affair full of religious symbolism- only marred by the death of his mother a fortnight later.  Shivaji assumed the title Chhatrapati – “lord of the umbrella” i.e. paramount sovereign.  While Shivaji raided Mughal territories he never engaged in all out war with the Mughals for the rest of his life.  This may have been because Aurangzeb’s ham-handed meddling in the succession to the Rajput Kingdom of Marwar in 1678 had resulted in all out war in Rajasthan against the kingdoms of Mewar and Marwar.  Shivaji conducted one major campaign in South India in 1676 before his death in 1680.

Shivaji’s last years were troubled.  His son Sambhaji showed all the failings of a son who did not measure up to a great father and even briefly defected to the Mughals.  His other son Rajaram was only 10 years old when he died – which smoothed the accession of Sambhaji.  Shivaji has gone down in Indian history as one of its greatest Kings.  He successfully defied the Mughal Empire and in a life full of war was an able administrator.  He created the state structure that would soon face and survive its greatest test.  Even though he was proudly a Hindu monarch he appears to have been a tolerant ruler for his Muslim subjects – something that appears to have been the norm for most Maratha rulers.

In 1681 Aurangzeb’s favorite son Akbar revolted at the height of the Rajput revolt.  The young prince’s indecisiveness prevented him from toppling his father and changing the course of Indian history.  Akbar fled to Sambhaji’s court and Aurangzeb decided to move south to take personal command setting off a 27 year war.  Akbar eventually fled to Persia but Aurangzeb spent the rest of his life in the Deccan vainly trying to lance his Maratha ulcer.

The Bijapur and Golconda Sultanates were annexed.  Sambhaji was captured and executed in 1689 and his only son Shahu was captured soon after.  But Rajaram was proclaimed Chhatrapati as the state created by Shivaji did not crumble.  The Marathas resorted to all out guerilla warfare which the lumbering Mughals could not combat.  Even Rajaram’s death in 1700 did not end the conflict as his widow proclaimed his young son as Chhatrapati and battled on.   Under Rajaram the Marathas came up with the brilliant idea of allowing their commanders to freelance and claim any Mughal territory they conquered.  The Mughals had no answer to a total war of a type they had never encountered.  In 1704 Aurangzeb tried to personally command sieges but was faced with a situation where a conquest in one place was accompanied by a loss somewhere else.  By 1706 the Marathas were raiding deep into Central India.  Finally in 1707 at the age of 88 he gave up and decided to withdraw.  He died depressed on March 3, 1707.  In the finest Timurid tradition his sons emulated their father and waged a brutal war of succession for the imperial crown.  Two more wars of succession would follow in 1712 and 1713.

In 1719  - barely 30 years after the brutal execution of Sambhaji – a Maratha army appeared at the gates of Delhi to assist the deposition of a Mughal Emperor.  In coming years the Mughal Emperor would be a Maratha pensioner as the Marathas rampaged over North India collecting taxes in his name – none of which made it back to Delhi.  The Marathas would be the pre-eminent power in India for the next 100 years.  It was their defeat by the British in 1818 that guaranteed British supremacy over India.

And it all started with the career of the younger son of a Maratha chieftain whose genius birthed an empire.

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This day in History – June 2, 455 – The Vandals sack Rome earning linguistic infamy

Posted by Croesus     Category: History

They were not the first “barbarian” tribe to sack Rome.  The Gauls first did it in 390 B.C. over 800 years earlier.  The Visigoths sacked the city in 410 A.D. an event that shocked the Roman world.  Atilla’s Huns never got as far south as Rome, but they so th0roughly sacked Aquileia in 452 that the once great city was unrecognizable – (survivors sought refuge in the nearby marshy lagoon and from that defensive position eventually founded the city of Venice).  But the sack of Rome earned the Vandals a spot in infamy and forever associated their name with boorish justified behavior.

It all started with imperial machinations.  By the 450s the Western Roman Empire was on its last legs. North Africa was lost to the Vandals.  Large parts of Southern Gaul and Spain were lost to the Visigoths.  Britain had been abandoned in the aftermath of the Visgoth sack of Rome.  The Emperor Valentinian III had reigned since 425 (coming to the throne at the age of 6) but not really ruled.  Power initially lay in the hands of his mother Galla Placidia and later the general Flavius Aëtius.  It was Aëtius who assembled and led the grand coalition that defeated Atilla’s great invasion of Gaul.  But in 453 Atilla died and the Hunnic Empire dissolved into civil war.  Aëtius at this point was possibly looking at the imperial succession and had his son Gaudentius betrothed to Valentinian’s younger daughter Placidia.  Valentinian had no sons and his older daughter Eudocia was betrothed to Huneric the heir of the Vandal king Genseric.

Always jealous of and threatened by Aëtius, and deluded that he had the ability to rule Valentinian allowed himself to be persuaded by courtiers like Petronius Maximus that the death of Atilla removed the need of Aëtius.  On 21 September, 454 the unarmed Aëtius was killed by Valentinian by his own hand.  The courtier Sidonius Apollinaris is supposed to have remarked:

“I am ignorant, sir, of your motives or provocations; I only know that you have acted like a man who has cut off his right hand with his left.”

It proved prophetic.  On March 16, 455 Valentinian himself was murdered in Rome by two followers of Aëtius.  The aforementioned Petronius Maximus may have been the instigator.  He moved quickly and had the army proclaim him Emperor.  He then sealed his doom by two acts – First, he forced Valentinian’s still greving widow Licinia Eudoxia to marry him.  Second, he broke the engagement of Princess Eudocia and Huneric and married her to his own son.  Appalled at being forced to marry the man who killed her husband, Eudoxia appealed to Genseric for help.

Already furious at the breaking of his son’s betrothal, the Vandal king now had the official excuse to act.  By May, the news of the impending Vandal invasion reached Rome.  The Eastern Empire had refused to recognize Maximus.  His general Avitus (the next Emperor) had been sent to get Visigothic help and had not returned.  Maximus knowing it was useless to oppose the Vandals prepared for flight and was abandoned by his own bodyguard.  On May 31 Maximus was stoned to death by an angry mob as he rode out of the city.  On June 2 the Vandals captured Rome and sacked it.

There is some debate as to how destructive the Vandals were.  They did carry off a lot of plunder.  They also took the Empress Eudoxia and her two daughters – Eudocia was married to Huneric.  Eudoxia and her younger daughter Placidia were ransomed by the Eastern Empire in 461.  Placidia briefly became Empress of the Western Empire in 472 when her husband Olybrius briefly reigned.  Their descendants remained prominent in Constantinople until the next century into the reign of Justinian.

Eudocia became Queen of the Vandals in 477 and eventually left her Arian husband to retire in Jerusalem.  Their son Hilderic was the penultimate King of the Vandals.  His deposition in 530 and murder in 533 gave Justinian his excuse to reconquer North Africa and destroy the Vandal Kingdom.

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This day in History – June 1,193 – Execution of Didius Julianus, Emperor of Rome

Posted by Croesus     Category: History

“But what evil have I done? Whom have I killed?”

- Last words of Didius Julianus

On those pathetic last words ended the 9 week reign of an Emperor who bought the crown in a public auction, the second in the Year of the Five Emperors.

Didius Julianus came from distinguished breeding.  Raised by the mother of Marcus Aurelius he served with distinction as a commander against invading tribes and as a governor.  In the reign of Commodus he escaped a charge of plotting against the Emperor’s life.

The assassination of the hedonistic incompetent Commodus on December 31, 192 ended a century of stable succession.  At first the highly respected Pertinax was declared Emperor and all seemed to be well. After the extravagance of Commodus reign Pertinax tried to emulate the more dignified Marcus Aurelius.  But he alienated the Praetorian Guard by initially not paying them their expected accession bonus – later rectified from the proceeds of selling off Commodus’s harem of concubines and youths.  Worse from their point of view, he tried treating the pampered Praetorians as soldiers and tried to impose military discipline.  On March 28 they mutinied and killed him.

Then to the disgust of the rest of the Empire they auctioned of the crown.  The two bidders were Julianus and Titus Flavius Claudius Sulpicianus, prefect of the city and father-in-law of the murdered emperor.  Sulpicianus bid from inside the Praetorian camp and Julianus who had arrived after the camp gates were closed bid from outside the ramparts.  Julianus finally clinched the throne with a bid of 25,000 sesterces to every soldier (trumping Sulpicianus’s bid of 20,000 and possibly helped by the fear that Sulpicianus would seek revenge for Pertinax).  The Preatorians acclaimed Julianus Emperor and threatened the Senate into declaring him Emperor.  The population of Rome was furious and jeered Julianus when he appeared in public, even throwing stones.

Sestertius of Didius Julianus

Sestertius of Didius Julianus

The problem for Julianus was that the decision of the Praetorians was not binding on any legion outside of Rome.  Pescennius Niger in Syria, Septimius Severus in Pannonia, and Clodius Albinus in Britain (each commanding three legions) refused to recognize Julianus and were acclaimed as Emperor by their troops.  Severus being the nearest was the most dangerous and Julianus tried to suborn his troops and declared him a public enemy.  Julianus was left with the useless Praetorians who were now desperately drilled to turn them into a fighting force.  It was hopeless.  Severus having bought off Albinus with the title of Caesar (i.e. junior Emperor) advanced into Italy rejecting an offer by a desperate Julianus to share the Empire.  The Praetorians promised no punishment so long as they punished the murderers of Pertinax (which was done with alacrity) abandoned Julianus.  The Senate declared Severus emperor and at his urging declared divine honors of Pertinax and sentenced Julianus to death.

Abandoned by all except one of the prefects and his son in law, Julianus was killed in the palace by a soldier on June 1.  His body was handed to his wife and daughter for burial.  His wife died the following month and his daughter and son-in-law disappear from history.  The Praetorians had their comeuppance.  Severus dismissed them and replaced them with loyal solders from his legions.  He then went on to defeat and kill Niger and Albinus (and their families) to become sole emperor in 197.  Unlike the other contestants in the Year of the Five Emperors, Severus died peacefully in his bed in 211 leaving cynical though wise advice for his squabbling sons: “Be harmonious, enrich the soldiers, and scorn all other men.”  Severus would be the last Roman Emperor to die peacefully in possession of his throne until the death of Claudius II Gothicus from the plague in 270 AD.

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This day in History – May 25, 1659 – Richard Cromwell resigns as Lord Protector

Posted by Croesus     Category: History

The biggest problem Republics have faced thoughout history is establishing a stable succession and transition from power.  That failure ultimately doomed Oliver Cromwell’s Commonwealth of England, Scotland and Ireland.  Richard Cromwell never served in the English Civil Wars.  He was passed over for the first Parliament nominated by Oliver Cromwell.  He displayed no particular aptitude for public life and would probably have lived a happy life as a country gentleman.

But he was Oliver Cromwell‘s oldest surviving son.  His younger brother Henry and his brother in law Charles Fleetwood were far more competent, but on Oliver Cromwell’s death on September 8, 1658 Richard was proclaimed Lord Protector.  It is unclear Oliver ever actually nominated him, though he had involved Richard more closely in state affairs.

Richard Cromwell

Richard Cromwell

The problem for the new Lord Protector was that the Commonwealth was desperately short of funds and none of the factions respected him.  With no military experience he had no control over the army.  The army was suspicious that military cuts would be used to cut costs.  This and other acts of the Parliament against the Army set off a collision between the two legs of the Commonwealth.  Under military pressure Richard Cromwell dissolved Parliament on April 22 and recalled the Rump Parliament on May 7.  By this point Richard was effectively under house arrest.  The Rump agreed to pay off his debts and provide a pension and Richard Cromwell resigned on May 25, 1659.

Richard Cromwell went into exile in July 1660 after the Restoration on Charles II.  He traveled across the continent under pseudonyms and did not return to England until 1680/81.  He lived the rest of his live in peace dying at the age of 85 in 1712 largely forgotten.

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This day in History – May 24, 1976 – The Judgment of Paris

Posted by Croesus     Category: History

It may not have been a beauty contest among goddesses that would lead to an elopement, a 10 year war, the destruction of an ancient city and the eventual formation of the Eternal City.  But this was equally momentous.  On this day the snobbery sustaining the French wine industry took a body blow.  A British wine dealer in Paris decided to have a taste test between wines from Napa California and France.  To the surprise of everyone present French wines did not blow the New World upstarts out of the water and an American Chardonnay won the wine tasting – later termed the Judgment of Paris.  Worse in a series of embarrassing quotes the judges were not aware if they were drinking a French or American wine at a given time. One petulant judge who ranked two American wines at the top tried to demand the return of the ballot.

Now there are some legitimate criticisms of the Judgment of Paris, notably the fact that averaging the scores to declare a winner when there were no set guidelines on how scoring points were to be avoided was statistically flawed.  But the salient point was that French wines no longer had the automatic presumption of superiority.  The French wine industry ignored the taste test and in coming decades its industry would lose ground to more New World upstarts.

The Judgment of Princeton in 2012 must have really stung when wines from (gasp!!!) New Jersey appeared to hold their own against French wines.  Recent studies have shown that the entire industry is ultimately based on a terroir of crap.  Most drinkers including many so called experts struggle to distinguish cheap and expensive wines (the ones generally rated higher) in taste tests.  And the perception of quality i.e. putting a cheaper wine in a bottle with an expensive label may raise wine ratings and the drinker’s satisfaction.

But then to each his own.  The 300% markup helps keep your favorite restaurant in business.

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This day in History – May 23, 1618 – The Defenestration of Prague sparks the 30 Years War

Posted by Croesus     Category: History

Never get into a religious spat in Prague next to an upper story window.  On July 30, 1419 a Hussite mob tossed the town council out of the window of the town hall where many were lynched.  The First Defenestration of Prague set off the Hussite Wars.  It took 20 bloody years for the radical Hussites to be defeated but the Hussites were not completely eliminated.  Needless to say Bohemia turned out to be very receptive to the doctrines of the Protestant reformation.

The decades after the reformation were periods of conflict between the largely protestant Bohemian nobility and their new (and very Catholic) Hapsburg monarchs.  Complicating matters was the right granted to princes of the Empire by the Peace of Augsburg  to impose their faith on their subjects.  Yet the disagreements did not lead to war as the Hapsburg Emperors of the late 16th century chose to give their Bohemian subjects religious freedom.  However matters came to a head in the last years of childless the Emperor Matthias.  His heir was his cousin Ferdinand of Styria who advocated the Catholic counter-reformation and was not disposed towards religious freedom for his Bohemian subjects.  Yet the Bohemian diet elected Ferdinand as King in 1617 (the extinction of the native royal houses of Bohemia, Poland and Hungary in the 14th and 15th centuries had made those monarchies elective).

The initial disagreement of the Bohemian Estates with Ferdinand was whether the religious freedom granted them allowed them to build Protestant churches on crown land.  Ferdinand disagreed and had Emperor Matthias stop the construction and churches and declared the assemblies dissolved.

On May 23, 1618 four Catholic Regents appointed by Ferdinand in Bohemia met with representatives of the dissolved estates in Prague castle.  The protestant lords wished to discover whether the regents were responsible for King Matthias’s order to cease construction of Protestant churches.  Two of the regents thinking they would only be imprisoned admitted their responsibility.  They were wrong.

To make an example of those who would interfere with their religion the two regents and their hapless secretary were tossed out of the third floor window (70 meters high) what was supposed to be to their death.

Woodcut of the Defenestration of Prague

Woodcut of the Defenestration of Prague

Catholics would claim that the three were saved by angels who helped them float down.  Protestants would claim that they survived because they landed in a pile of manure.  They may have been saved by their coats and the uneven castle walls slowing their fall.

The window (top floor) of Prague Castle where the second defenestration occurred. Monument is to the right of the castle tower.

The window (top floor) of Prague Castle where the second defenestration occurred. Monument is to the right of the castle tower.

This event made war unavoidable.  When Matthias died in 1619 the estates deposed Ferdinand and elected Frederick V Elector Palatine and son in law of King James of England as King.  Ferdinand would not take this lying down and his military response and overreaction to his victory would set off the Thirty Years War.

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This day in History – May 22, 337 – death of Constantine the Great

Posted by Croesus     Category: History

For the last 13 years of his life he had been the sole ruler of the Roman Empire.  The path to the throne was bloody.  Elected emperor by his legions on the death of his father Constantius I Chlorus in 306 AD, Constantine spent the next 18 years walking a bloody trail through the civil wars that wrecked Diocletian’s tetrarchy.  The body count along the way included one father in law (Maximian), two brothers in law (Maxentius and Licinius) and his nephew Licinius II.

In 326 came another scandal.  Constantine’s oldest son and presumed heir Crispus who had displayed military brilliance in the final war against Licinius was summarily arrested and executed.  This was followed shortly by the execution of Constantine’s wife and step-mother of Crispus Fausta.  No explanation for the sudden scandalous executions has survived so conjecture has included an adulterous affair between the two or Fausta falsely implicating Crispus in treason to advance the succession for her three sons and being executed in her turn when the deceit was uncovered.

But in the middle of this blood shed Constantine did find time for administrative reforms to try to secure the Empire.  Posterity remembers Constantine for two things.  Embracing Christianity (before the battle with Maxentius) and founding a 2nd Rome Constantinople on the site of ancient Byzantium.  Dan Brown acolytes will also remember him for the Council of Nicea – which was summoned to bring order to Christian doctrine and address Arianism and not crap on women’s rights.   Constantine himself would not be baptized until his death bed and his adoption of Christianity appears to have tried to merge in attributes and iconography of the faith of Sol Invictus – worship of the unconquered Sun – which was popular in the army into Christianity.

Colossal marble head of Emperor Constantine the Great, Roman, 4th century

Colossal marble head of Emperor Constantine the Great, Roman, 4th century

The death of Constantine marks the end of an era.  It would be the last time any emperor would be sole Augustus of the unified Emperor for so long (his son Constantius II was sole Augustus for 11 years but outsourced rule of the West to two cousins holding rank of Caesar).  The Empire would be divided among his three sons Constantine II, Constans I and Constantius II.  There would also be a final imperial bloodbath with the elimination of Constantine’s half-brothers and their sons.  Only two nephews would be spared because they were children – Gallus (briefly raised to Caesar by Constantius II) and his more famous brother Julian the Apostate.  None of these 5 left sons and the male portion of the House of Constantine ended on the death of Julian.  A daughter of Constantius II would marry the Emperor Gratian and die without issue.

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