April 21, BC753 The Founding of Rome

Romulus and Remus founded a town on the site of their salvation, the traditional date being April 21, 753BC. Romulus later murdered his brother after some petty quarrel, making himself sole ruler of the settlement. He modestly called the place “Rome”, after himself.

According to legend, Romulus and Remus were the sons of Rhea Silvia, the daughter of King Numitor of Alba Longa, a mythical city located in the Alban Hills southeast of what would become Rome.  Numitor was deposed by his younger brother Amulius, who forced Rhea to become a vestal virgin so that she would not give birth to rival claimants to his title. However, Rhea was already pregnant by the war god Mars, and destined to give birth to Romulus and Remus.

Romulus and Remus, by Rubens

Learning of the birth, Amulius ordered the infants drowned in the Tiber river but, the pair survived, washing ashore at the foot of the Palatine hill where the two were suckled by a she-wolf.

download (84)Later discovered by Faustulus, the boys were reared by the shepherd and his wife. Much later, the twins became leaders of a band of young shepherd warriors. On learning their true identity, the twins attacked Alba Longa, killed King Amulius, and restored their grandfather to the throne.

Romulus and Remus founded a town on the site of their salvation, the traditional date being April 21, 753BC. Romulus later murdered his brother after some petty quarrel, making himself sole ruler of the settlement. He modestly called it “Rome”, after himself.

No new town would last long without women, so Romulus invited the neighboring Sabines to a festival, where he kidnapped their women. A war ensued, but the Sabine women persuaded the Sabine men away from seizing the place. They drew up a peace treaty, merging the two communities under the joint rule of Romulus and the Sabine king, Titus Tatius.

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The Romulus and Remus mythology developed in the 4th century BC, the exact date of the founding set by the Roman scholar Marcus Terentius Varro, in the first century BC.

There would be six more kings of Rome, the last three believed to be Etruscan. The Roman Republic was formed around 509 BC, and ended around the time of the murder of Julius Caesar in 44BC.

The Roman Imperial period which emerged would later split in two, ending in the final dissolution of the Western Roman Empire on September 4, 476, when Romulus Augustus, the last Emperor of the Western Empire, was deposed by the Germanic chieftain, Odoacer.

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The Eastern Empire, originally known as Byzantium, would last for another thousand years. The end came on May 29, 1453, when the capital city of Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks, who came to call the city “Istanbul”.

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Constantinople
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April 6, 1933 New Beer’s Eve

The night before Prohibition was repealed, April 6, 1933, beer lovers lined up at the doors of their favorite public houses, waiting for their first legal beer in thirteen years. 

Given the right combination of sugars, almost any cereal will undergo simple fermentation, due to the presence of wild yeasts in the air.  It seems likely that our cave-dwelling ancestors experienced their first beer, as the result of this process.

Starch dusted stones were found with the remains of doum-palm and chamomile in the 18,000-year old Wadi Kubbaniya in upper Egypt.  While it’s difficult to confirm, University of Pennsylvania archaeologist Dr. Patrick McGovern says, “it’s very likely they were making beer there”.

Chemical analysis of pottery shards date the earliest barley beer to 3400BC, in the Zagros Mountains of Iran.

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Tacitus maligned the bitter brew of Germanic barbarians.  Wine seemed better suited to the sensibilities of the Roman palate.  Nevertheless, the letters of Roman cavalry commanders from the Roman Britain period, c. 97-103 AD, include requests for more “cerevisia“, for the legionaries.

In North and South America, native peoples brewed fermented beverages from local ingredients, including agave sap, the first spring tips of the spruce tree, and maize.

Pilgrims left the Netherlands city of Leiden in 1620, hoping not for the frozen, rocky soil of New England, but for rich farmland and a congenial climate in the New World.   Lookouts spotted the wind-swept shores of Cape Cod on November 9, 1620, and may have kept going, had there been enough beer.  One Mayflower passenger wrote in his diary: “We could not now take time for further search… our victuals being much spent, especially our beer…

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Prior to the the drum roaster’s invention in 1817, malt was typically dried over wood, charcoal, or straw fires, leaving a smoky quality which would seem foreign to the modern beer drinker.  William Harrison wrote in his “Description of England” in 1577, “For the wood-dried malt, when it is brewed, beside that the drink is higher of colour, it doth hurt and annoy the head of him that is not used thereto, because of the smoke“.

Smoky flavor didn’t trouble the true aficionado of the age.  When the Meux Brewery casks let go in 1814 spilling nearly 400,000 gallons onto the street, hundreds of Britons hurried to scoop it up in pots and pans.  Some even lapped it up off of the street, doggy-style.

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1,389 were trampled to death and another 1,300 injured in a stampede for the suds, when someone thought the beer had run out at the coronation of Czar Nicholas II, in 1896.

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The 18th amendment, better known as “prohibition”, went into effect at midnight, January 16, 1920. For thirteen years it was illegal to import, export, transport or sell liquor, wine or beer in the United States.

Portable stills went on sale within a week, and organized smuggling was quick to follow. California grape growers increased acreage by over 700% over the first five years, selling dry blocks of grapes as “bricks of rhine” or “blocks of port”. The mayor of New York City sent instructions on wine making, to his constituents.

Smuggling operations became widespread, as cars were souped up to outrun “the law”. This would lead to competitive car racing, beginning first on the streets and back roads and later moving to dedicated race tracks.  It’s why we have NASCAR, today.

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Organized crime became vastly more powerful due to the influx of enormous sums of cash.  The corruption of public officials was a national scandal.

Gaining convictions for breaking a law that everyone hated became increasingly difficult. There were over 7,000 prohibition related arrests in New York alone between 1921 and 1923.  Only 27 resulted in convictions.

download (65)Finally, even John D. Rockefeller, Jr., a lifelong teetotaler who contributed $350,000 to the Anti-Saloon League, had to announce his support for repeal.

It’s difficult to compare rates of alcohol consumption before and during prohibition.  If death by cirrhosis of the liver is any indication, alcohol consumption never decreased by more than 10 to 20 per cent.

FDR signed the Cullen–Harrison Act into law on March 22, 1933, commenting “I think this would be a good time for a beer.”  The law went effect on April 7, allowing Americans to buy, sell and drink beer containing up to 3.2% alcohol.

A team of draft horses hauled a wagon up Pennsylvania Avenue, delivering a case of beer to the White House – the first public appearance of the Budweiser Clydesdales.

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“Dry” leaders tried to prohibit consumption of alcohol on military bases in 1941, but military authorities claimed it was good for morale. Brewers were required to allocate 15% of total annual production to be used by the armed forces. So essential were beer manufacturers to the war effort, that teamsters were ordered to end a labor strike against Minneapolis breweries.  Near the end of WWII, the army made plans to operate recaptured French breweries, to ensure adequate supplies for the troops.

18 states continued prohibition at the state level after the national repeal, the last state finally dropping it in 1966. Almost 2/3rds of all states adopted some form of local option, enabling residents of political subdivisions to vote for or against local prohibition.  Some counties remain dry to this day.  Ironically, Lynchburg County, Tennessee, home to the Jack Daniel distillery, is one such dry county.

Beer toastThe night before Roosevelt’s law went into effect, April 6, 1933, beer lovers lined up at the doors of their favorite public houses, waiting for their first legal beer in thirteen years.  A million and a half barrels of the stuff were consumed the following day, a date remembered today as “National Beer Day”.

So it is that, from that day to this, April 6 is celebrated as “New Beer’s Eve”.  Sláinte.

For every wound, a balm.
For every sorrow, cheer. 
For every storm, a calm.
For every thirst, a beer. – Irish toast, author unknown

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March 18, 37 AD Little Boots

Around the year AD 14 or 15, the youngest son of the Roman war hero Germanicus found himself growing up around the Legions. As a boy of just two or three, little Gaius Caesar accompanied his father on campaigns in the north of Germania. Centurions were amused to see the boy dressed in miniature soldier’s uniform, including the boots, the “Caligae”, and the segmented Roman body armor – the “Lorica Segmentata”.

Around the year AD 14 or 15, the youngest son of the Roman war hero Germanicus found himself growing up around the Legions. As a boy of just two or three, little Gaius Caesar accompanied his father on campaigns in the north of Germania. Centurions were amused to see the boy dressed in miniature soldier’s uniform, including the boots, the “Caligae“, and the segmented Roman body armor – the “Lorica Segmentata”.

Soldiers of the Legions called him “Little Boots”, after the tiny soldier’s boots the boy liked to wear in camp.  In Latin, “Caligula“.  He’s said to have hated the name, but it stuck.

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The Roman historian Suetonius writes that Germanicus was poisoned on the orders of Emperor Tiberius, who viewed the general as a political rival. Caligula’s mother Agrippina was denied permission to remarry, for the same reason. Agrippina was later exiled, as were her sons Drusus and Nero, while Caligula was remanded to the island of Capri and the personal custody of Tiberius, himself.

One observer spoke well of Caligula during this period, saying “Never was there a better servant or a worse master.” Suetonius believed the boy to be vicious and cruel, a natural actor who suppressed his hatred for the man responsible for the death of his family.  The historian writes that, when Tiberius brought Caligula to Capri, it was to “… prove the ruin of himself and of all men, and that he was rearing a viper for the Roman people and a Phaethon for the world.”

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The Fall of Phaeton, by Sebastiano Ricci

Phaethon, according to Greek mythology, was the child of the sun God Helios. As a boy, Phaethon was permitted to drive the sun chariot for a day, but couldn’t control the horses. With the earth in danger of being burned by the runaway sun, the God Zeus was forced to strike the chariot with a thunderbolt, killing the boy in the process.

Suetonius appears not to have been a fan.

When Tiberius died on March 16 AD 37, many believed his passing to have been hastened by a pillow, in the hands of the Praetorian Guard Commander Naevius Sutorius Macro.  Tiberius’ estate and titles were left to Caligula and Tiberius’ own grandson, Tiberius Gemellus.

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Busts of Caligulas Parents, Germanicus (left) and Agrippina the Elder

On this day in the year 37, the Roman Senate annulled the will of the Emperor Tiberius, proclaiming 24-year-old Caligula, Emperor. After years of purges and treason trials, Caligula’s ascension to the throne was a welcome breath of fresh air.  The son of the war hero Germanicus was in charge.  What could go wrong.  All of Rome erupted in paroxysms of joy, proclaiming Caligula to be the first emperor Ever, admired by “all the world, from the rising to the setting sun”.

160,000 animals were sacrificed in three months of public jubilation.  The Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria described the first seven months as “completely blissful”.

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Map of the Roman Empire and neighboring states during the reign of Gaius Caligula (37-41 AD).

Caligula’s first two years were relatively peaceful and prosperous.  The Emperor provided lavish gladiatorial games for the entertainment of the people, and abolished the sales tax.  He granted bonuses to the military and destroyed Tiberius’ papers, declaring the treason trials of his hated predecessor a thing of the past.  Too late for his own family, Caligula recalled those who had been sent into exile.  The bones of  his mother and brothers, were deposited in the tomb of Augustus.

The obelisk at St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City, originally erected in Alexandria in BC 30-28, was transported to Rome and erected in the year AD 40, where it stands to this day.  The “Piazza San Pietro Obelisk” is the only such monument to have survived from Roman times.

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Piazza San Pietro Obelisk

In AD39, Caligula suffered a severe and prolonged illness, in which he hovered between life and death for over a month. It may or may not have had anything to do with his subsequent behavior, but the man who emerged from that illness was widely believed to be insane.

The Emperor performed a spectacular stunt by ordering a temporary floating bridge to be built, using ships as pontoons, stretching for over two miles from the resort of Baiae (pronounced BAY-eye) to the neighboring port of Puteoli. Though Caligula could not swim, he rode his favorite horse, Incitatus, across the bridge, wearing the breastplate of Alexander the Great.  Tiberius’ soothsayer Thrasyllus of Mendes predicted that Caligula had “no more chance of becoming emperor than of riding a horse across the Bay of Baiae”.  Little Boots, had proven otherwise.

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In case you’re wondering, Incitatus was the same horse whom Caligula appointed as priest, and planned to make a Consul of Rome, the top elected official of the Roman government.

In time, what seemed like mere eccentricities became terrifying and erratic. Caligula regularly made senators run alongside his chariot.  He’d order executions on a whim – common man or foreign dignitary – it didn’t matter.  At the Roman games, he once had an entire crowd section thrown into the arena, to be eaten alive by wild animals.  He said he was bored.

Caligula began to appear in public, dressed as various Gods and demigods:  Hercules, Mercury, Venus and Apollo.  He wished to be worshipped as “Neos Helios” – the New Sun.  He’d refer to himself as a God when meeting with politicians. He built temples for the worship of himself, where the heads of statues were replaced by his own likeness.

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Death of Caligula at the hands of his own Praetorian Guard

Later stories of wanton hedonism, cruelty, and sexual depravity may be exaggerated, but none seem to be without a grain of truth.  Roman politics often associated poor government policy, with insanity and sexual perversity.

Little Boots was murdered by his own Praetorian Guard in AD 41, like his predecessor Julius Caesar, stabbed thirty times in a conspiracy led by a man named Cassius. Stricken with grief and outraged by the murder, Caligula’s Germanic guard turned the scene into a bloodbath in a raging assault against conspirators, Senators and innocent bystanders, alike.

Most historians dismiss the floating bridge story as a myth.  No archaeological evidence has ever surfaced, to prove the story true.  Caligula’s two “pleasure barges”, extracted from the bottom of Lake Nemi, are a different story.

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The Pleasure Barges of Caligula (inset, Bronze Medusa)

Locals had long known of the presence of a wreck at around 60-ft. deep in the extinct volcano-turned Lake, some twenty-five miles from Rome.  Occasionally, fishermen and treasure hunters would use grappling hooks, to bring up souvenirs.

The Fascist Dictator Benito Mussolini had heard of the legend, and ordered the lake drained.  One wreck turned out to be two in 1927 when, for the first time in 2,000 years, the “pleasure barges” of Emperor Caligula saw the light of day.

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Benito Mussolini attends the inauguration “Il Museo delle Navi Romane” – the Museum of Nemi.

Dubbed Prima nave (the 1st ship) and Seconda nave, the former measured 230-ft., the latter 240.  The lavish furnishings included hot and cold running water, cedar planking with jewel encrusted prows, vessels of gold and silver and bathrooms of alabaster and bronze.  There were hand-operated bilge pumps and a platform rotating on ball bearings:  perhaps to rotate a great statue, or maybe it was a deck crane, for loading supplies.  There were glass mosaics in the floors and marble décor, stone statuary and gilded copper roofs.  One wreck bore a lead pipe, bearing the inscription “Property of Gaius Caesar Augustus Germanicus”.

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Brass rings recovered in 1895, were fitted to the ends of cantilevered beams that supported each rowing position on the seconda nave. H/T Wikimedia for this image, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9949784

On the night of May 31, 1944, US army shells hit the museum, causing little apparent damage but forcing a German artillery unit, to move.  Two hours later, smoke was seen coming from the windows.  The concrete shell of the Nemi Museum was spared by the fire.  The two priceless archaeological artifacts housed inside, were destroyed.  Official reports blamed German sabotage.  German newspaper editorials blamed Allied bombing.

During the retreat through Italy, German soldiers burned some 80,000 books and manuscripts of the Royal Society of Naples, out of spite. It’s easy to believe they torched the two Nemi Ships, as well.  Like Emperor Caligula himself 2,000 years before, the Italian dictator Mussolini died by violence, at the hands of his own countrymen.

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“The remains of the hull of one of Caligula’s two “pleasure barges” recovered from Lake Nemi. Workers in the foreground give an indication of scale”. H/T, Wikipedia for this image
If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

 

March 15, 44BC  The Ides of March

The Roman calendar tracked the phases of the moon (or tried to), and didn’t count the days from first to last. Instead, Romans counted backward from three fixed points: the Nones (5th or 7th, depending on the length of the month), the Ides (13th or 15th), and the Kalends (1st of the following month).

The history of Rome may be drawn into two parts, the Republic and the Imperium. Since the overthrow of the Monarchy in 509BC, the Republic operated based on a separation of powers, checks and balances, and a strong aversion to the concentration of power. Except in times of national emergency, no single individual could wield absolute power over his fellow citizens.

A series of civil wars and other events changed that in the 1st century, BC.  The Republic was dead by the 30s BC, leaving Imperial Rome in its wake, a period best remembered for its long line of Emperors.

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Proscriptions of Sulla

Gaius Julius Caesar was born into this chaos, a son of the prestigious Julian Clan. In 82BC, the 18-year-old Caesar survived the “proscriptions” of the Dictator Sulla, in which the names of as many as 4,700 “enemies of the state” were nailed to the wall of the Roman Forum. Any proscribed man was immediately stripped of citizenship and all its protections. Anyone killing a proscribed man was entitled to keep part of his estate, the rest going to the government.  Rewards were paid for information leading to the death of anyone thus proscribed.

At the age of 25, Caesar was kidnapped and held for ransom by Cilician pirates, a group which may be described as the Isis of its time. Caesar laughed on learning that his ransom was set at only 20 talents of silver, and demanded his kidnappers hold out for 50.  He would yell at this band of killers for talking too loud while he was trying to sleep. He’d write poetry and read it to them, calling them “savages” if they were insufficiently appreciative of his work.

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For 38 days, Caesar joined in their games and exercises.  As if he were their leader, instead of their prisoner.  Caesar promised these pirates that he would come back and crucify them all, and he said it with a smile.

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The pirates thought it uproariously funny, but Caesar was as good as his word. The fifty talents were raised, and the captive was released.  He made good on his promise, raising a force sufficient to enforce his will and bringing his former captors to Rome.  There he had them all crucified, but not without a moment of kindness.  Caesar style.  He slit their throats, ending the ordeal of crucifixion by hours, if not days.

Caesar lost his hair at an early age, about which he seems to have been self-conscious. It’s probably why we see him depicted with the wreath on his head, but baldness didn’t seem to bother the women in his life.

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Caesar seems to have been quite the ladies’ man, having a son with none other than Queen Cleopatra of Egypt. One story has him being handed a note while speaking at the Senate. Caesar’s arch rival Cato (the younger) demanded to know the contents of the letter, loudly accusing him of complicity in the “Catiline Conspiracy” to overthrow the government. At last Caesar relented, reading out loud what turned out to be a love letter – a graphic one – written to him by Cato’s own half-sister Servilia Caepionis.

agrippinaCaesar rose through the ranks, organizing a coalition of three to rule the Republic. It was the first such “Triumvirate”, combining the popular general Pompey “The Great”, Crassus, the wealthiest man in all of Rome, and the rising young general and politician, Julius Caesar himself.

The partnership was doomed to fail, given the egos and animosities of the three. Crassus was killed on campaign in 52BC as Pompey became increasingly hostile to his co-ruler, then on campaign in Gaul.  A string of military successes against Celtic and native Germanic tribes caused Caesar’s popularity to soar, posing a threat to the power of the Senate and to Pompey himself.

The Senate ordered Caesar to resign his command and disband the army, or become an enemy of the state.  Everyone knew what it meant when Caesar crossed the Rubicon River at the head of that army, in 49BC. It meant Civil War. To this day, to “Cross the Rubicon” means to take a step which cannot be reversed.

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Shortly before his assassination in BC 44, Caesar was named dictator perpetuo rei publicae constituendae, the first time such a title had ever been made permanent. Nothing was more repugnant to traditional Roman sensibilities, than the idea of a dictator for life.   Caesar’s days were numbered.

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“Lupercalia Incident”, February, BC 44.

In BC 44, Marcus Antonius (Mark Antony) was elected co-consul with Caesar, the highest elected political office of the Roman Republic.  During the festival of Lupercalia, Antony twice attempted to place the laurel wreath on Caesar’s head, twice to be rejected.  “The people give this to you though me” Antony said, as the stunned crowd stood silent.  Twice, Caesar removed the crown, saying “Jupiter alone of the Romans is King.”

Many believed the episode to have been a “trial balloon”, engineered to assess the public’s reaction.

A month earlier, the soothsayer Spurinna had “predicted the future by examining the internal organs of sacrificial animals.” Spurinna said that Caesar’s life “might come to a bad end,” warning that “his life would be in danger for the next 30 days.”

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The Roman calendar tracked the phases of the moon (or tried to), and didn’t count the days from first to last. Instead, Romans counted backward from three fixed points: the Nones (5th or 7th, depending on the length of the month), the Ides (13th or 15th), and the Kalends (1st of the following month).

According to Plutarch, Julius Caesar arrived at the Senate on March 15, 44BC. Tillius Cimber presented him with a petition, as Senators crowded around. Cimber grabbed the Emperor’s shoulders and pulled down his tunic. “Ista quidem vis est!” said the Dictator for Life, “Why, this is violence!” Casca pulled a dagger and stabbed at Caesar’s neck. Caesar turned and caught him by the arm. “Casca, you villain, what are you doing?” Frightened, the Senator shouted “Help, brother!” in Greek “adelphe, boethei!” In seconds the entire group was striking at the dictator. Caesar attempted to get away but, blinded by his own blood, he tripped and fell. The men continued stabbing at him as he lay defenseless on the steps of the portico. According to Eutropius, 60 men participated in the assassination. Caesar was stabbed 23 times, though only one wound would prove fatal.

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Here’s where the story becomes Really interesting. Like the warning to “Beware the Ides of March”, Caesar’s last words, “Et tu Brute” were first introduced by William Shakespeare, 1,643 years after the fact. No eyewitness account of the assassination survives today, though a more contemporary source recorded the Greek words “Kai su, teknon?” as Brutus plunged the dagger in. “And you, my child?”

Marcus Junius Brutus (the younger) was the son of the same Servilia Caepionis, above. Brutus was 41 at the time of the assassination, Caesar 56. It is unlikely though not impossible, that Brutus killed his father that day. The affair between Brutus’ mother and Caesar, had carried on for years.

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Military campaigns of the General Caesar
If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

March 7, AD321 The Unconquered Sun

On March 7, AD321, Constantine I “The Great” decreed Dies Solis – Day of the Sun or “Sun-day”:  “On the venerable day of the Sun let the magistrates and people residing in cities rest, and let all workshops be closed”.

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The cithara or kithara (Greek: κιθάρα, kithāra, Latin: cithara) was an ancient Greek musical instrument in the lyra family of instruments

For two thousand years, a popular story has told the tale of Emperor Nero, playing the fiddle while Rome burned. Far be it for me to leap to the defense of a man who ordered the murder of his own wife and mother, except in the name of historical accuracy. The viol class of musical instruments, to which the fiddle belongs, didn’t come along until the 11th century. If Nero played anything it was probably a Cithara, a heavy wooden instrument with four to seven strings.

At least five versions come down to us about the Great Fire of 64AD, and the Emperor’s role in it. The Roman historian Tacitus tells us that Nero sang about the fall of Troy while the city burned, but admits there were no witnesses.

Cassius Dio and Suetonius ask us to believe, in their turn, that Nero a) secretly sent guys out to burn the city, b) openly did so and watched from the tower of Maecenas while singing and playing the lyre, c) the fire was started by an obscure religious sect called “Christians”, d) Nero sent his guys out after all, but sang and played his lyre from a private stage and e) the fire started by accident while Nero was thirty-five miles away at Antium, and the emperor rushed back to help the now-homeless people of Rome.

images (26)Be that as it may, three things are certain. First, The fire burned for six days, utterly destroying three of the 14 districts of Rome, and severely damaging seven others.  Next, Nero used the excuse of the fire to go after the Christians, having many of them arrested and executed. Last, the Domus Aurea (“Golden Palace”) and surrounding “Pleasure Gardens” which the emperor built on the ruins, would be the death of Emperor Nero.

Between AD65 and 68, Emperor Nero built a vast palace complex over an area of more than 200 acres, linking existing buildings on the Palatine Hill with the Gardens of Maecenas and other imperial properties on the Esquiline hills, and adding a grand colonnaded approach and vestibule surrounding an artificial lake.

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Reconstruction of the Domus Aurea, of Nero

One of the Great Wonders of antiquity, Nero’s “Golden house” was ruinously expensive, 300 rooms of dazzling white marble with pools in the floors and fountains splashing in corridors. There were jewel-encrusted walls and ivory clad columns.  An enormous vaulted ceiling lay underneath the dome of the main dining room, with an ingenious mechanism cranked by slaves, making the ceiling revolve like the heavens, as  rose petals dropped and perfume was sprayed on assembled diners.

Suetonius described the complex as “ruinously prodigal”. Nero himself would say nothing further on the palace’ dedication, save to say that he “had at last begun to live like a human being”.

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Artist’s rendering of the Colossus of Nero holds a rudder on the globe, symbolizing his dominion over land and sea.

At the center of it all, Nero built his Colossus Neronis, a giant gilded bronze statue – of himself.  Sources place the thing at 98′ to 121′ tall, roughly equal to the statue of liberty, from her feet to her crown.

With all of Italy “thoroughly exhausted by contributions of money” and “the provinces ruined”, the Emperor himself was roundly hated.  In June AD68, Nero learned that he’d been tried in absentia, and condemned to death as an enemy of the Roman people. Preparing himself for suicide, Nero muttered “Qualis artifex pereo” (“What an artist dies in me”).

Nero’s profligacy was a severe embarrassment to his successors.  Within a decade, the palace and its complex was stripped of its marble, jewels, and ivory embellishments.

Within forty years, most of the grounds were filled with earth and built over, replaced by the Baths of Titus, and the Temple of Venus and Rome. Vespasian drained the lake and built the Flavian Amphitheatre, but Nero’s Colossus, lived on.

In 69, Emperor Vespasian added a sun-ray crown and renamed the thing Colossus Solis, a dedication to the Roman sun god Sol Invictus (“Unconquered Sun”), patron of the legions and official Sun God of the later Roman Empire.

Around 128, Emperor Hadrian moved the statue from the Domus Aurea to just outside of the Colosseum, with a little help from the architect Decrianus, and 24 elephants. Emperor Commodus removed the head and replaced it with a likeness of his own, but the head was restored after Commodus’ death, and so it remained.

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The Arch of Constantine, the last and largest of the Triumphal Arches of Rome and dedicated in AD315, was carefully positioned to align with Sol Invictus, so that the Colossus formed the dominant backdrop when approaching the Colosseum via the main arch.

Six years later, March 7, AD321, Constantine I “The Great” decreed Dies Solis – Day of the Sun or “Sun-day” – as the Roman day of rest (Codex Justinianus 3.12.2):  “On the venerable day of the Sun let the magistrates and people residing in cities rest, and let all workshops be closed. In the country however persons engaged in agriculture may freely and lawfully continue their pursuits because it often happens that another day is not suitable for grain-sowing or vine planting; lest by neglecting the proper moment for such operations the bounty of heaven should be lost”.\

2000 years later Constantine’s day of rest remains, but the colossus of the Unconquered Sun is gone. The last known reference in antiquity dates back to the Calendar of 354, the earliest illuminated manuscript containing full page illustrations.

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Saint Bede of northumbria

It may have been destroyed during the Sack of Rome in 410, or perhaps it toppled in one of a series of 5th century earthquakes, its metal scavenged. There is evidence that Sol Invictus outlived the western Roman Empire and survived into the early middle ages. Bede the Venerable, an English monk from the monastery of St. Peter in Northumbria, wrote sometime circa 672–735: “As long as the Colossus stands, Rome will stand, when the Colossus falls, Rome will also fall, when Rome falls, so falls the world“.

Today, nothing remains of the Colossus of Nero, save for the foundations of its pedestal at the second location, near the ruins of the Colosseum.

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February 18, 1977 Plain of Jars

A map of the world is dotted with such ancient stone megaliths, from Easter Island in the South Pacific to the Carnac Stones of France, and the stone spheres of Costa Rica.  Among all of them, there is no story more mysterious, or more tragic, than the Plain of Jars.

Yonaguni Island, the westernmost inhabited island of the Japanese archipelago, lies about 60 miles across the straits of Taiwan.  The place is a popular dive destination, due to (or possibly despite) a large population of hammerhead sharks.

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In 1987, divers discovered an enormous stone formation, with angles and straight lines seemingly too perfect to have been formed by nature.   If this “Yonaguni Monument” is in fact a prehistoric stone megalith, it would have to have been carved 8,000 to 10,000 years ago when the area was last dry,  radically changing current ideas about prehistoric construction.

A map of the world is dotted with such ancient stone megaliths, from Easter Island in the South Pacific to the Carnac Stones of France, and the stone spheres of Costa Rica.  Among all of them, there is no story more mysterious, or more tragic, than the Plain of Jars.

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Deep in the heart of the Indochinese peninsula of mainland Southeast Asia lies the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, (LPDR), informally known as Muang Lao or just Laos.  To the north of the country lies the Xiangkhouang Plateau, known in French as Plateau du Tran-Ninh, situated between the Luang Prabang mountain range separating Laos from Thailand, and the Annamite Range along the Vietnamese border.

Twenty-five hundred to fifteen-hundred years ago, a now-vanished race of bronze and iron age craftsmen carved stone jars out of solid rock, ranging in size from 3 ft. to 9 ft. or more.  There are thousands of these jars, located at 90 separate sites and containing between one and four hundred apiece.

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Most of these jars have carved rims but few have lids, leading researchers to speculate that lids were formed from organic material such as wood or leather.

Lao legend has it that the jars belonged to a race of giants, who chiseled them out of sandstone, granite, conglomerate, limestone and breccia to hold “lau hai”, or rice beer.  More likely they were part of some ancient funerary rite, where the dead and the about-to-die were inserted along with personal goods and ornaments such as beads made of glass and carnelian, cowrie shells and bronze bracelets and bells.  There the deceased were “distilled” in a sitting position, later to be removed and cremated, their remains then going through secondary burial.

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Map of Laos showing Xieng Khouang province, location of the Plain of Jars

These “Plain of Jars” sites might be some of the oldest burial grounds in the world, but be careful if you go there.  The place is the most dangerous archaeological site, on earth.

With the final French stand at Dien Bien Phu a short five months in the future, France signed the Franco–Lao Treaty of Amity and Association in 1953, establishing Laos as an independent member of the French Union. The Laotian Civil War broke out that same year between the Communist Pathet Lao and the Royal Lao Government, becoming a “proxy war” where both sides received heavy support from the global Cold War superpowers.

Concerned about a “domino effect” in Southeast Asia, US direct foreign aid to Laos began as early as 1950.  Five years later the country suffered a catastrophic rice crop failure.  The CIA-operated Civil Air Transport (CAT) flew over 200 missions to 25 drop zones, delivering 1,000 tons of emergency food.  By 1959, the CIA “air proprietary” was operating fixed and rotary wing aircraft in Laos, under the renamed “Air America”.

220px-Plainofjars_1The Geneva Convention of 1954 partitioned Vietnam at the 17th parallel, and guaranteed Laotian neutrality.  North Vietnamese communists had no intention of withdrawing from the country or abandoning their Laotian communist allies, any more than they were going to abandon the drive for military reunification, with the south.

Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Arleigh Burke warned the Joint Chiefs of Staff, “If we lose Laos, we will probably lose Thailand and the rest of Southeast Asia. We will have demonstrated to the world that we cannot or will not stand when challenged”.

As the American war ramped up in Vietnam, the CIA fought a “Secret War” in Laos, in support of a growing force of Laotian highland tribesmen called the Hmong, fighting the leftist Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese communists.

Primitive footpaths had existed for centuries along the Laotian border with Vietnam, facilitating trade and travel.  In 1959, Hanoi established the 559th Transportation Group under Colonel Võ Bẩm, improving these trails into a logistical system connecting the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in the north, to the Republic of Vietnam in the south.  At first just a means of infiltrating manpower, this “Hồ Chí Minh trail” through Laos and Cambodia soon morphed into a major logistical supply line.

In the last months of his life, President John F. Kennedy authorized the CIA to increase the size of the Hmong army.  As many as 20,000 Highlanders took arms against far larger communist forces, acting as guerrillas, blowing up NVA supply depots, ambushing trucks and mining roads.  The response was genocidal.  As many as 18,000 – 20,000 Hmong tribesman were hunted down and murdered by Vietnamese and Laotian communists.

Air America helicopter pilot Dick Casterlin wrote to his parents that November, “The war is going great guns now. Don’t be misled [by reports] that I am only carrying rice on my missions as wars aren’t won by rice.”

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The proxy war in Laos reached a new high in 1964, in what the agency itself calls “the largest paramilitary operations ever undertaken by the CIA.”  In the period 1964-’73, the US flew some 580,344 bombing missions over the Hồ Chí Minh trail and Plain of Jars, dropping an estimated 262 million bomb.  Two million tons, equivalent to a B-52 bomber full of bombs every eight minutes, 24 hours a day, for nine years.  More bombs than US Army Air Forces dropped in all of WW2, making Laos the most heavily bombed country, per capita, in history.

Most were “cluster munitions”, bomb shells designed to open in flight, showering the earth with hundreds of “bomblets” intended to kill people and destroy vehicles.  It’s been estimated that 30% of these munitions failed to explode, 80 million of them, (the locals call them “bombies”), set to go off with the weight of a foot, or a wheel, or the touch of a garden hoe.

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Unexploded cluster sub-munition, probably a BLU-26 type. Plain of Jars, Laos

Since the end of the war, some 20,000 civilians have been killed or maimed by unexploded ordnance, called “UXO”.  Four in ten of those, are children.

Removal of such vast quantities of UXO is an effort requiring considerable time and money and no small amount of personal risk.  The American Mennonite community became pioneers in the effort in the years following the war, one of the few international Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO’s) trusted by the habitually suspicious communist leadership of the LPDR.

urnOn February 18, 1977, Murray Hiebert, now senior associate of the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.  summed up the situation in a letter to the Mennonite Central Committee, US:  “…a formerly prosperous people still stunned and demoralized by the destruction of their villages, the annihilation of their livestock, the cratering of their fields, and the realization that every stroke of their hoes is potentially fatal.”

Years later, Unesco archaeologists worked to unlock the secrets of the Plain of Jars, working side by side with ordnance removal teams.

In 1996, United States Special Forces began a “train the trainer” program in UXO removal, at the invitation of the LPDR government. Even so, Western Embassy officials in the Laotian capitol of Vientiane believed that, at the current pace, total removal will take “several hundred years”.

In 2004, bomb metal fetched 7.5 Pence Sterling, per kilogram.  That’s eleven cents, for just over two pounds.  Unexploded ordnance brought in 50 Pence per kilogram in the communist state, inviting young and old alike to attempt the dismantling of an endless supply of BLU-26 cluster bomblets.  For seventy cents apiece.

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February 14, 269, Valentine’s Day

The Eastern Orthodox Church celebrates Saint Valentine twice, first as a church elder on July 6, and again as a martyr on the 30th.  That would suit the greeting card companies just fine, but don’t tell them.  Once a year is enough for some of us to remember. 

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Bronze likeness of Barbarian Emperor Claudius II, “The Cruel”

In the third century AD, Roman Emperor Claudius II was having trouble recruiting for his legions. To many he was “Claudius the Cruel” which may have had something to do with his problem, but that’s not how he saw it.

To Emperor Claudius, such reluctance could only mean that Roman men were excessively devoted to their wives and families.  The solution was obvious – ban all engagements and marriages.

Valentinus was a Roman priest at this time, who wanted no part of such a silly decree. Valentinus continued to carry out marriages in secret until it was discovered, when he was dragged before the Prefect to answer for his crimes.

Claudius came to like his prisoner, for whom things could have gone much better, but for one critical mistake. He tried to convert the pagan Emperor to Christianity.

Valentinus was condemned to be beaten to death with clubs and beheaded, the sentence carried out on February 14 in the year AD269.

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Valentinus

Legend has it that Valentinus befriended his jailers’ blind daughter, at one point miraculously restoring the girl’s sight. He is said to have penned a farewell note to her shortly before his execution, signing it “From Your Valentine.”

2,000-year-old history is necessarily clouded by legend, and there are different versions of this tale. It’s possible that Valentinus’ story never happened at all.  Little or no evidence exists suggesting romantic celebrations on February 14, until Geoffrey Chaucer’s 1375 “Parliament of Foules,” in which the poet describes the mating habits, of birds:  “For this was sent on Seynt Valentyne’s day, Whan every foul cometh ther to choose his mate”.

Yet, there is concrete archaeological proof that Valentinus lived.  Pope Gelasius decreed February 14th to be a celebration in honor of his martyrdom, in 496.

The date is also significant of the pagan festival of Lupercalia, carried out from February 13-15 in honor of the goddess Februata Juno. Greek historian Plutarch of Chaeronea (46-c.120) described the occasion as follows: “Lupercalia, [when] many of the noble youths and of the magistrates run up and down through the city naked, for sport and laughter striking those they meet with shaggy thongs. And many women of rank also purposely get in their way, and like children at school present their hands to be struck, believing that the pregnant will thus be helped in delivery, and the barren to pregnancy.

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It wasn’t the every-day guys of Rome who would run about oiled and naked, either.  This was the upper crust of Roman society.  Plutarch writes in chapter 61 of his Life of Julius Caesar, that Consul Mark Antony offered Caesar the diadem with the wreath of laurel during the festival of Lupercalia, and Antony was no spectator.   He was taking part in the “sacred running”.  Think about That, the next time your local drama club puts on a performance of Julius Caesar.

There are, in fact, about a dozen Saint Valentines, the most recently beatified being Saint.Valentine Berrio-Ochoa, a Dominican friar who served as bishop of Vietnam until his beheading in 1861. There was even a Pope Valentine, who served about 40 days, sometime around  827AD.

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So, take your pick.  With all those Saint Valentines, you can celebrate St. Valentine of Viterbo on November 3, or maybe you’d like to get a head start with St. Valentine of Raetia, on January 7.  Perhaps you’d prefer the only female St. Valentine (Valentina), a virgin martyred in Palestine on July 25, in the year AD308.

The Eastern Orthodox Church celebrates Saint Valentine twice, first on July 6 as an elder of the church, and again as a martyr on the 30th.  That would suit the greeting card companies just fine, but don’t tell them.  Once a year is enough for some of us to remember.