March 17, 432 Saint Patrick’s Day

Interestingly, Patrick is listed among the 10,000 or so Roman Catholic Saints, although it seems he was never actually canonized by a pope.

Born Patricius (Latin) or Pádraig (Modern Irish Gaelic), “Patrick” was a late fifth century Roman subject living in Great Britain. Kidnapped at the age of 16 and brought to Ireland, he was enslaved for 6 years before escaping.  He later returned to Ireland as an ordained priest, to minister to Irish Christians, and to convert others to Christianity.  Patrick would go on to become Bishop of all Ireland, and one of their primary Patron Saints.

Interestingly, Patrick is listed among the 10,000 or so Roman Catholic Saints, although it seems he was never actually canonized by a pope.

Saint PatrickSaint Patrick’s Day is observed on March 17, the date generally agreed to correspond with the date of his enslavement in 432, and with his death in 460. The date is celebrated in Ireland as both a liturgical and non-liturgical holiday, where in some diocese it is both a solemnity and a holy day of obligation. Outside of Ireland, the day has become a general celebration of all things Irish.

The legend that St. Patrick banished the snakes from Ireland likely springs from his work in converting the pagans of his day, many of whom wore snake tattoos on their arms. This idea is supported by a Gallic coin of the time, which carries on its face the Druidic snake.

Be that as it may, today Ireland has no snakes, a trait that it has in common with Antarctica, New Zealand, Iceland, and Greenland.

Another legend involves a walking stick of ash, which Patrick carried with him wherever he went. He would thrust this stick into the ground wherever he was evangelizing. At the place now known as Aspatria, (ash of Patrick), the message took so long to get through to the people there that the stick took root.

The shamrock which came to symbolize the day was seen as sacred by many in pre-MedievalMonkChristian Ireland, with its green color evoking rebirth and eternal life. The three leaves symbolize the “triple goddess” of ancient Ireland. Patrick is said to have taught the Irish about the Holy Trinity, using the three leaves of the shamrock to illustrate the Christian teaching of three persons in one God:  the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Most of the rest of Europe would suffer barbarian invasion from the fifth century onward, plunging into what are known today as “The Dark Ages”.  Almost alone, cloistered monks in the monasteries of Ireland, spiritual descendants of St. Patrick, acted as repository for Christian civilization, at a time when such advancement was almost extinguished elsewhere. It’s been said of this period that the Irish saved civilization. Who knows, they may have done just that. Happy St. Patrick’s Day.

March 15, 44BC Ides of March

Here’s where the story becomes Really interesting. The last words “Et tu Brute” were put in his mouth by Shakespeare, 1,643 years after the fact.

The history of Rome may be drawn into two parts, the Republic and the Imperium. Since 509BC and the overthrow of the Monarchy, the Republic operated based on 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, best remembered for its long line of Emperors.

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 man thus proscribed 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.

Proscriptions

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 they 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.

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.Did you know

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 was 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. 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.

Caesar 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.

first_triumvirateThe partnership was doomed to fail, given the egos and animosities of the three. Crassus was killed in 52BC as Pompey became increasingly hostile to his co-ruler, who was 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 him 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.

Caesar emerged victorious, declaring himself Dictator for Life, 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.

According to Plutarch, Julius Caesar arrived at the Senate on March 15, 44BC. Tillius IdesOfMarchKnife640Cimber 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 Caesar, “Why, this is violence!” Casca pulled a dagger and stabbed at the dictator’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 was fatal.

Here’s where the story becomes Really interesting. The last words “Et tu Brute” were put in the Dictator’s mouth by Shakespeare, 1,643 years after the fact. No eyewitness account of his assassination survives today, though a more contemporary source recorded the Greek words “Kai su, teknon?” as Brutus plunged the dagger in. “You too, 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.

March 13, 1942 US Canine Corps

It’s K-9 Veteran’s Day. March 13, 2017. I could tell you no other story today, half as fitting as this.

The history of war dogs is as old as history itself.  The war-dogdogs of King Alyattes of Lydia killed some of his Cimmerian adversaries and routed the rest around 600BC, permanently driving the invader from Asia Minor in the earliest known use of war dogs in battle.

King Molossus of Epirus, grandson of the mighty Achilles, used a large, powerfully built breed specifically trained for battle. Today, “molosser” describes a body type more than any specific breed.  Modern molossers include the Mastiff, Bernese Mountain Dog, Newfoundland and Saint Bernard.

Ancient Greeks, Romans and Egyptians often used dogs as sentries or on patrol. In late antiquity, Xerxes I, the Persian King who faced the Spartan King Leonidas across the pass at Thermopylae, was accompanied by a pack of Indian hounds.

Attila the Hun went to war with a pack of hounds, as did the Spanish Conquistadors of the 1500s.

Sallie statue
Sallie’s likeness rests at the foot of a statue in Gettysburg, looking out for the spirits of “her boys” for all eternity

A Staffordshire Bull Terrier named Sallie “joined up” in 1861, serving the rest of the Civil War with the 11th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry.  At Cedar Mountain, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, and Spotsylvania, Sallie would take her position alongside the colors, barking ferociously at the adversary.

Abraham Lincoln spotted Sallie from a reviewing stand in 1863, and tipped his hat.

Sallie was killed at Hatcher’s Run in February 1865.  Several of “her” men laid down their arms then and there to bury her, despite being under Confederate fire.

messengerdog
WWI Messenger Dog

Dogs performed a variety of roles in WWI, from ratters in the trenches, to sentries, scouts and runners. “Mercy” dogs were trained to seek out the wounded on the battlefield, carrying medical supplies with which the stricken could treat themselves.

Sometimes, these dogs simply provided the comfort of another living soul, so that the gravely wounded should not die alone.

By the end of the “Great War”, France, Great Britain and Belgium had at least 20,000 dogs on the battlefield, Imperial Germany over 30,000. Some sources report that over a million dogs served over the course of the war.

duncan-rin-tin-tin
Lee Duncan & Rin Tin Tin

The famous Rin Tin Tin canine movie star of the 1920s was rescued as a puppy, from the bombed out remains of a German Army kennel, in 1917. (Read more about him, Here).

GHQ of the American Expeditionary Force recommended using dogs as sentries, messengers and draft animals in the spring of 1918, however the war was over before US forces put together any kind of a War Dog program.

America’s first war dog, “Sgt. Stubby”, went “Over There” by accident, serving 18 months on the Western Front before coming home to a well-earned retirement.

sgt_stubby_5
Sgt. Stubby

On March 13, 1942, the Quartermaster Corps began training dogs for the US Army “K-9 Corps.” In the beginning, the owners of healthy dogs were encouraged to “loan” their dogs to the Quartermaster Corps, where they were trained for service with the Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard.

The program initially accepted over 30 breeds of dog, but the list soon narrowed to German Shepherds, Belgian Sheep Dogs, Doberman Pinschers, Collies, Siberian Huskies, Malamutes and Eskimo Dogs.

WWII-era Military Working Dogs (MWDs) served on sentry, scout and patrol missions, in addition to performing messenger and mine-detection work. The keen senses of scout dogs saved countless lives, by alerting to the approach of enemy forces, incoming fire, and hidden booby traps & mines.

ChipsThe most famous MWD of WWII was “Chips”, a German Shepherd assigned to the 3rd Infantry Division in Italy. Trained as a sentry dog, Chips broke away from his handler and attacked an enemy machine gun nest. Wounded in the process, his singed fur demonstrated the point-blank fire with which the enemy fought back.  To no avail.  Chips single-handedly forced the surrender of the entire gun crew.

Chips was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, Silver Star and Purple Heart, the honors later revoked due to an Army policy against the commendation of animals. It makes me wonder if the author of such a policy ever saw service beyond his own desk.

Of the 549 dogs who returned from service in WWII, all but four were able to return to civilian life.

Over 500 dogs died on the battlefields of Vietnam, of injuries, illnesses, and combat wounds. 10,000 servicemen served as dog handlers during the war, with an estimated 4,000 Military Working Dogs.  261 handlers paid the ultimate price.  K9 units are estimated to have saved over 10,000 human lives.

War dog memorial Univ. Tenn.
War dog memorial, University of Tennessee

It’s only a guess, but, having an MWD handler in the family, I believe I’m right:  hell would freeze before any handler walked away from his dog. The military bureaucracy, is another matter. The vast majority of MWDs were left behind during the Vietnam era. Only about 200 dogs survived the war to be assigned to other bases. The remaining dogs were either euthanized or left behind as “surplus equipment”.

In 2011, a Belgian Malinois named “Cairo” accompanied the Navy SEAL “Neptune Spear” operation that took out Osama bin Laden.

Today there are about 2,500 dogs in active service.  Approximately 700 deployed overseas. The American Humane Association estimates that each MWD saves an average 150-200 human lives over the course of its career.

Nate & Zino
Nate & Zino

NPR’s “Here & Now” broadcast an excellent segment out of their Boston affiliate WBUR in 2014, when our son-in-law Nate was reunited with “Zino”, the Tactical Explosives Detection Dog (TEDD) with whom he served in Afghanistan.

Their story ends well, but that isn’t always the case. Many have been left behind, no longer qualified to travel on military transport after being “retired” on foreign soil.

In 2015, Congressman Frank LoBiondo (R-NJ) and Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO) introduced language in their respective bodies, mandating that MWDs be returned to American soil upon retirement, and that their handlers and/or handlers’ families be given first right of adoption.

LoBiondo’s & McCaskill’s language became law on November 25, when the President signed the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). It’s a small step in recognizing what we owe to those who have stepped up in defense of our nation, both two legged and four.

Boston’s NPR Station WBUR broadcast a segment on Nate & Zino’s reunion, if you’re interested in listening to it.  It’s a great story.

 http://hereandnow.wbur.org/2014/03/21/soldier-dog-reunion 

February 14, 269 Valentine’s Day

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

In 269, Roman Emperor Claudius II Gothicus 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.claudius-gothicus

That Roman men were refusing to join his legions could only mean that they were too devoted to their wives and families, Claudius’ solution was to ban engagements and marriages.

Valentinus was a Roman priest at this time.  He 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.

This Emperor of barbarian birth came to like his prisoner, for whom things could have gone much better, but for one critical mistake. Valentinus tried to convert the pagan Emperor to Christianity.

owe-marriage-to-saint-valentineHe was condemned to be beaten to death with clubs and beheaded, the sentence carried out on February 14, 269.

Legend has it that Valentinus befriended his jailers’ daughter, at one point miraculously restoring the blind 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 the 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 February 14 as a day when birds come together to find a mate: “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, and Pope Gelasius decreed February 14th to be a celebration to honor his martyrdom, in 496.
The date is also significant of the pagan festival of Lupercalia, carried out from February lupercalia-large13-15 in honor of the goddess Februata Juno. Greek historian Plutarch 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.”

There are, in fact, about a dozen St. Valentines, the most recently beatified being St. 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.

So, take your pick. With all those St. Valentines, you can celebrate St. Valentine of Viterbost-valentine-the-legend on November 3, or maybe you’d like to get a head start with St. Valentine of Raetia on January 7. Maybe you’d prefer the only female St. Valentine (Valentina), a virgin martyred in Palestine on July 25, A.D. 308.

The Eastern Orthodox Church celebrates St. 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, but don’t tell them. Once a year is more than enough for some of us to remember.

January 22, 2000 A Hole in the Head

To prove the point, to his own satisfaction if to no one else, Hughes drilled a hole in his own skull on January 6, 1965, using a Black & Decker electric drill

It’s called “Trepanation”, possibly the oldest surgical procedure for which we have archaeological evidence. Trepanation involves drilling or scraping a hole into the human ancient-peruvian-trepanationhead, and seems to have begun sometime in the Neolithic, or “New Stone Age” period. One archaeological dig in France uncovered 120 skulls, 40 of which showed signs of trepanning. Another such skull was recovered from a 5th millennium BC dig in Azerbaijan.  A number of 2nd millennium BC specimens have been unearthed in pre-Colombian Mesoamerica; the area now occupied by the central Mexican highlands through Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and northern Costa Rica.

bronze_age_skull_from_jericho_palestine
Bronze age skull

Hippocrates, the Father of Western Medicine, described the procedure in detail in his treatise “On Injuries of the Head,” written sometime around 400BC. The Roman physician Galen of Pergamon expanded on the procedure some 500 years later. Archaeologists discovered 12½%, of all the skulls in pre-Christian era Magyar (Hungarian) graveyards, to have been trepanned.

The procedure has obvious applications in the treatment of head trauma, though it has been used to treat everything from seizures to migraines to mental disorders. During medieval times, the procedure was used to liberate demons from the heads of the possessed and to cure an assortment of ailments from meningitis to epilepsy.

trepan-posterTrepanation took on airs of pseudo-science, many would say “quackery”, when the Dutch librarian Hugo Bart Huges (Hughes) published “The Mechanism of Brainbloodvolume (‘BBV’)” in 1964. In it, Hughes contends that our brains drained of blood and cerebrospinal fluid when mankind began to walk upright, and that trepanation allows the blood to better flow in and out of the brain, causing a permanent “high”.

To prove the point, to his own satisfaction if to no one else, Hughes drilled a hole in his own skull on January 6, 1965, using a Black & Decker electric drill. He must have thought it proved the point, because he expanded on his theory with “Trepanation: A Cure for Psychosis”, as well as an autobiography, “The Book with the Hole”, published in 1972.

Peter Halvorson, a Hughes follower and director of the International Trepanation Advocacy Group (ITAG), would disagree with that quackery comment. Halvorson trepanned himself with an electric drill in 1972. Today, he explains on his ITAG website (www.trepan.com) that “The hypothesis here at ITAG has been that making an opening in the skull favorably alters movement of blood through the brain and improves brain functions which are more important than ever before in history to adapt to an ever more rapidly changing world”.with-a-drill

On January 22, 2000, Peter Halvorson and Williams Lyons helped drill a hole in a woman’s head for producers of the ABC News program “20/20.” This was in Beryl, Utah, and the television program which ensued, airing on February 10, resulted in criminal charges and arrest warrants for the two men. At the time, the Iron County DA was also considering charges against ABC News reporter Chris Cuomo for aiding in the crime. There is precedent in Utah for such a charge against a reporter. In 1999, KTVX reporter Mary Sawyers (allegedly) provoked a group of Carbon County High School students into using tobacco products for a story on youths and tobacco. Sawyers later stood trial for contributing to the delinquency of a minor in Utah’s 7th District Court of Appeals.

St. Louis neurologist Dr. William Landau wasn’t impressed with Hughes’ brainbloodvolume theory, explaining that “There is no scientific basis for this at all. It’s quackery.” Dr. Robert B. Daroff, Professor of Neurology at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, was a little more to the point. “Horseshit,” he said. “Absolute, unequivocal bullshit”.

January 1, 45 BC Happy New Year

In most English speaking countries, the traditional end to the New Year’s celebration is the singing of “Auld Lang Syne”, a poem written by Robert Burns in 1788 and set to the tune of an old pentatonic Scots folk melody

From the 7th century BC, the Roman calendar attempted to follow the cycles of the moon. The method frequently fell out of phase with the change of seasons, requiring the random addition of days. The Pontifices, the Roman body charged with overseeing the calendar, made matters worse. They were known to add days to extend political terms, and to interfere with elections. Military campaigns were won or lost due to confusion over dates. By the time of Julius Caesar, things needed to change.

emperor-julius-caesarWhen Caesar went to Egypt in 48BC, he was impressed with the way they handled their calendar.  He hired the Alexandrian astronomer Sosigenes to help straighten things out. The astronomer calculated that a proper year was 365¼ days, which more accurately tracked the solar, and not the lunar year. “Do like the Egyptians”, he might have said, the new “Julian” calendar going into effect in 46BC. Caesar decreed that 67 days be added that year, moving the New Year’s start from March to January 1. The first new year of the new calendar was January 1, 45BC.

Caesar synchronized his calendar with the sun by adding a day to every February, and changed the name of the seventh month from Quintilis to Julius, to honor himself. Rank hath its privileges.

Not to be outdone, Caesar’s successor changed the 8th month from Sextilis to Augustus. 2,062 years later, we still have July and August.

Sosigenes was close with his 365¼ day long year, but not quite there. The correct value of a solar year is 365.242199 days.  By the year 1000, that 11 minute error had added seven days. To fix the problem, Pope Gregory XIII commissioned Jesuit astronomer Christopher Clavius to come up with yet another calendar. The Gregorian calendar was implemented in 1582, omitting ten days and adding a day on every fourth February.

Most of the non-Catholic world took 170 years to adopt the Gregorian calendar. Britain and its American colonies “lost” 11 days synchronizing with it in 1752.  The last holdout, Greece, would formally adopt the Gregorian calendar in 1923. Since then, we’ve all gathered to celebrate New Year’s Day on the 1st of January.

boston_time-ball
Boston Time Ball, 1881. Equitable Life Assurance Society building, corner of Devonshire and Milk Street.

The NY Times Newspaper moved into “Longacre Square” just after the turn of the 20th century. For years, New Years’ eve celebrations had been held at Trinity Church. Times owner Adolph Ochs held his first fireworks celebration on December 31, 1903, with almost 200,000 people attending the event. Four years later, Ochs wanted a bigger spectacle to draw attention to the newly renamed Times Square. He asked the newspaper’s chief electrician, Walter F. Painer for an idea. Painer suggested a time ball.time-ball

A time ball is a marine time signaling device, a large painted ball which is dropped at a predetermined rate, enabling mariners to synchronize shipboard marine chronometers for purposes of navigation. The first one was built in 1829 in Portsmouth, England, by Robert
Wauchope, a Captain in the Royal Navy. Time balls were obsolete technology by the 20th century, but it fit the Times’ purposes.

times-square-ballThe Artkraft Strauss sign company designed a 5′ wide, 700lb ball covered with incandescent bulbs. The ball was hoist up the flagpole by five men on December 31, 1907. Once it hit the roof of the building, the ball completed an electric circuit, lighting up a sign and touching off a fireworks display.
The newspaper no longer occupies the building at 1 Times Square, but the tradition 2014 New Year's Eve Waterford Crystal Installationcontinues. The ball used the last few years is 12′ wide, weighing 11,875lbs; a great sphere of 2,688 Waterford Crystal triangles, illuminated by 32,256 Philips Luxeon Rebel LED bulbs and producing more than 16 million colors.  It used to be that the ball only came out for New Year.  The last few years, you can see the thing, any time you like.

 

In most English speaking countries, the traditional end to the New Year’s celebration is
the singing of “Auld Lang Syne”, a poem written by Robert Burns in 1788 and set to the tune of an old pentatonic Scots folk melody. The original verse, phonetically spelled as a Scots speaker would pronounce it, sounds like this:

“Shid ald akwentans bee firgot, an nivir brocht ti mynd?
Shid ald akwentans bee firgot, an ald lang syn?
CHORUS
          “Fir ald lang syn, ma jo, fir ald lang syn,
           wil tak a cup o kyndnes yet, fir ald lang syn.
           An sheerly yil bee yur pynt-staup! an sheerly al bee myn!
           An will tak a cup o kyndnes yet, fir ald lang syn”.
“We twa hay rin aboot the braes, an pood the gowans fyn;
Bit weev wandert monae a weery fet, sin ald lang syn”.
                                        CHORUS
“We twa hay pedilt in the burn, fray mornin sun til dyn;
But seas between us bred hay roard sin ald lang syn”.
                                        CHORUS
“An thers a han, my trustee feer! an gees a han o thyn!
And we’ll tak a richt gude-willie-waucht, fir ald lang syn”.

December 31, 1695 A Tax on Windows

Tax revolts are nothing new. Neither are the many and sometimes novel ways that politicians have concocted to fleece those of us who pay taxes

Somewhere in the English midlands, during the reign of Edward the Confessor, there lay the Kingdom of Mercia. It was 1054 or thereabouts, and Leofric, Earl of Mercia, had a problem. Leofric was the kind of ruler who never saw a tax he didn’t like, his latest the “Heregeld”, a tax to pay for the King’s bodyguard. His wife was Godgyfu, in the Olde English, meaning “Gift of God”.  Today we call her “Godiva”. Take pity on the people of Coventry, she said, they are suffering under all this oppressive taxation.

A guy can only take so much, even if he is an Earl. Tired of her entreaties, Leofric agreed tolady-godiva-statue repeal the tax on one condition; that she ride a horse through the streets of town, dressed only in her birthday suit and her long hair. Lady Godiva took him at his word.  She issued a proclamation that all townspeople stay indoors and shut their windows, and then she took her famous naked ride through town.

The story probably isn’t true, any more than the one about Tom, the guy who drilled a hole in his door so he could watch and lost his sight at what he saw.  But a thousand years later, we still use the term “Peeping Tom”.

Tax revolts are nothing new.  Neither are the many and sometimes novel ways that politicians have concocted to fleece those of us who pay taxes.

bricked-up-windowOn December 31, 1695, King William III decreed a 2 shilling tax on each house in the land. Not wanting to miss an opportunity to “stick-it-to-the-rich”, there was an extra tax on every window over ten, a tax that would last for another 156 years.

It must have been a money maker, because the governments of France, Spain and Scotland followed suit with similar taxes. To this day, you can see homes where owners have bricked up windows, preferring darkness to the payment of yet another tax.

In Holland, they used to tax the frontage of a home, the wider your house the more you

singel-7
Singel #7

paid. If you’ve ever been to Amsterdam, narrow houses rise several stories, with hooks over windows almost as wide as the building itself. Those are used to haul furniture up from the outside, since the stairways are too narrow. The narrowest home in Amsterdam can be found at Singel #7, the house barely wider than its own front door.

You can find the same thing in the poorer quarters of New Orleans, where the “shotgun single”, a home so narrow you can fire a shotgun in the front door and pellets will go out the back, and the “Camelback” (second story out back) are the architectural results of tax policy.

 

shotgunsingle-camelback
Shotgun Single, Camelback

The Roman Emperor Vespasian, who ruled from 69 to 79AD, levied a tax on public toilets.

vespasiani
Vespasiani

When his son, the future Emperor Titus wrinkled his nose, Vespasian held a coin under the boy’s nose. “Pecunia non olet”, he said.  “Money does not stink”.  2,000 years later, his name is still attached to public urinals. In France, they’re called vespasiennes, in Italy vespasiani.  If you need to piss in Romania, you could go to the vespasiene.  History fails to record the inevitable push-back on Vespasian’s toilet tax, but I’m sure that ancient Romans had to look where they walked.

Environmentalists in Venice, Italy have been pushing a tax on tourism, claiming that the city’s facing “an irreversible environmental catastrophe as the subsequent increase in water transport has caused the level of the lagoon bed to drop over time”. Deputy mayor Sandro Simionato said that “This tax is a new and important opportunity for the city,” explaining that it will “help finance tourism”, among other things. So, the problem borne of too much tourism is going to be fixed by a tax to help finance tourism. I think. Or maybe it’s just another money grab.

As of December 2015, state and territory tax rates on cigarettes ranged from 17¢ per pack in Missouri to $4.35 in New York, on top of federal, local, county, municipal and local Boy Scout council taxes (kidding).  Philip Morris reports that taxes run 56.6% on average, per pack. Not surprisingly, tax rates make a vast difference in where and how people buy their cigarettes.  There is a tiny Indian reservation on Long Island, measuring a few miles square and home to a few hundred people. Tax rates are close to zero there, on a pack of butts.  Until recent changes in the tax law, they were selling 100 million cartons per year.

If all those taxes are supposed to encourage people to quit smoking, I wonder what income taxes are supposed to do?

antarctica-icebound-ship-1Back in 2013, EU politicians were discussing a way of taxing livestock flatulence, as a means of curbing “Global Warming”. At that time there was an Australian ice breaker, making its way to Antarctica to free the Chinese ice breaker, that got stuck in the ice trying to free the Russian ship full of environmentalists.  They were there to view the effects of “Global Warming”, before they got stuck in the ice.

Honest, I wouldn’t make this stuff up.

December 18, 218BC The Great Anxiety of the Romans

As Rome and Carthage became centers of political power and influence, it was inevitable that the two would clash

In 814BC, Phoenician settlers left their homeland on the coast of modern Lebanon, establishing colonial port cities along the Mediterranean coast.  They built safe harbors for their merchant fleets in what is now Morocco, Algeria, Spain and Libya, among others.  The largest they built on the North African Gulf coast of Tunis, calling it “Carthage”, meaning “New City”.

According to legend, the orphaned twin sons of Rhea Silvia and Mars, the god of war, were suckled by a she-wolf on the Italian Peninsula, 61 years later.  Their names were Romulus and Remus.  They would found a city on the site of their salvation, a city which would come to be called Rome.

Carthage and Rome coexisted for hundreds of years, forming a relationship mostly based on trade.  Carthaginian traders were famed in Classical Greece and Rome as ‘traders in purple’, referring to their near-monopoly in the precious Royal Purple dye derived from the Murex snail.  They’re also known for the first “abjad”, (consonant based writing system) to gain widespread usage, the antecedent to almost all modern phonetic alphabets in use today.

As Rome and Carthage became centers of political power and influence, it was inevitable that the two would clash.  Carthage held undisputed mastery of the seas in the third century BC, while the rapid expansion of the Roman Republic brought them into conflict in Sicily, at that time partly under Carthaginian control.

The first of three Punic Wars, from Punicus (latin:  of or relating to Carthage), began in 264BC.  At the time, the Roman Legions were the most powerful land army in the region, while having little to oppose Carthage at sea.  Their introduction of the Corvus, a gangway with a heavy spike mounted to its underside, allowed the Romans to convert sea battles onto their “turf”, as Roman soldiers boarded enemy ships and defeated their crews in hand to hand combat.  It was over by 241BC, with Carthage paying heavy indemnities and ceding much of their territory in the western Mediterranean.

Carthage rebuilt its finances in the following years, expanding its colonial empire in Spain under the warlike Barcid family.  There were several trade agreements between Rome and Carthage, even a mutual alliance against king Pyrrhus of Epirus, while Hamilcar Barca, Strategus of Iberia, expanded influence on the southeastern Iberian Peninsula, near what is now Cartagena (“New Carthage”) Spain.

Eight years earlier, Hamilcar Barca made his then 12 year old son Hannibal swear undying hatred of the Romans.  In 219BC, Rome and Carthage found themselves in conflict over the Roman protectorate of Saguntum, in modern Spain.  The Roman senate demanded that Carthage hand over Hannibal, the Carthaginian oligarchy refused.  In 218BC Rome declared war.

hannibal_route_of_invasionNo longer a maritime power, Hannibal set out in the spring of 218BC, crossing into hostile Gaul (France) and arriving at the Rhône River in September with 38,000 infantry, 8,000 cavalry, and 37 war elephants.  His crossing of the Alps that winter is one of the great feats of military history, costing him almost half of his force before entering Italy in December.

The first of several major battles took place on this day, December 18, 218BC, on the banks of the Trebia River.  The Roman General, consul Tiberius Sempronius Longus (no relation) allowed himself to be drawn into a trap and crushed.  Two legions were victorious on their part of the battlefield and retreated with honor to the Province of Piacenza, but overall Trebia was a resounding defeat for Rome.

The army of Hannibal was near invincible, defeating Roman legions in one major

hannibal-barca
Hannibal Barca

engagement after another.  Trebia, Lake Trasimene, Cannae; for sixteen years, they were virtually unbeatable, devastating the Italian countryside as Rome drafted one army after another, only to see them crushed yet again.  Meanwhile, Carthage itself was politically divided.  Hannibal never did receive any significant support from home.  In the end, he had to leave Italy to defend his homeland in North Africa.  Hannibal was soundly defeated by his own tactics on October 19, 202BC, at the Battle of Zama, ending the second Punic war under humiliating terms for Carthage.

Carthage was a thoroughly defeated power as Hannibal grew into his old age, but he remained the bogey man whom Rome could not let go.  The Roman Statesman Marcus Porcius Cato, “Cato the Elder”, would end every speech by saying “Carthago delenda est”.  “Carthage must be destroyed”.  Roman mothers told misbehaving children that Hannibal would come and get them if they didn’t behave.

The third Punic War saw the Romans besiege Carthage itself.  The city didn’t have a chance.  Thousands of Carthaginians were slaughtered as the city fell in 146BC.  As many as 70,000 more were sold into slavery.

Hannibal was quite elderly by this time, fleeing from one city to another to escape his Roman pursuers.  Unwilling to be paraded through Rome in a cage, he poisoned himself and died some time later that year.  In a letter found after his death, Hannibal had written “Let us relieve the great anxiety of the Romans, who have found it too heavy a task to wait for the death of a hated old man”.

December 9, 536 Byzantium

Most histories of the Roman Empire end with some event along the 476-586 timeline, but the Roman Empire in the east would live for another thousand years

Politicians love nothing more than to divide us against one another for their own benefit, but that’s nothing new. The tyrant Theagenes of Megara destroyed the livestock of the wealthy in the late 7th century BC, in an effort to increase his support among the poor. It may have been this tactic which drove Byzas, son of the Greek King Nisos, to set out in 657BC to found the new colony of Byzantion.

The Oracle at Delphi had advised him to build his city “opposite the land of the blind”. Arriving at the Bosphorus Strait (“boos poros”, Greek for cow-ford), the narrow channel which divides Europe from Asia, they judged the inhabitants of the eastern bank city of Chalcedon to be blind if not stupid, not to recognize the advantages two miles away on the European side. There they set down the roots of what is today the second largest city on the planet, based on population living within city limits.

Byzantium city leaders made the mistake of siding with Pescennius Niger, a pretender to the Roman throne during the “Year of the Five Emperors”, 193-194AD. Laid siege and virtually destroyed in 196 by the victorious Septimius Severus, the city was rebuilt and quickly regained the wealth and status it had formerly enjoyed as a center of trade.at the crossroads of east and west,

Constantine the Great, Roman Emperor from 306 to 337, established a second residence at Byzantium in 330, officially establishing the city as “Nove Roma” – New Rome. Later renamed in his honor, “Constantinople” became the capital of the Byzantine Empire and seat of the Eastern Roman Empire.byzantine_constantinople

The Roman empires of the east and west would separate and reunite in a succession of civil wars and usurpations throughout the 4th century, permanently dividing in two with the death of Emperor Theodosius I in 395. The Western and Eastern Empires would co-exist for about 80 years.  Increasing barbarian invasions and internal revolts finally brought the western empire to an end when Romulus Augustulus was deposed in 476.

The Ostrogothic Kingdom which came to rule all of Italy was briefly deposed, when the Byzantine General Belisarius entered Rome on December 9, 536. The Ostrogothic garrison left the city peacefully, briefly returning the old capital to its Empire. Fifty years later, there would be too little to defend against the invasion of the Lombards.  By 586, the Western Roman Empire had permanently ceased to exist.

Most histories of the Roman Empire end with some event along this 476-586 timeline, but the Roman Empire in the east would live for another thousand years. With traditions, customs and language drawn more heavily from the Greek than those of the Latin, the Byzantine Empire would last almost until the age of Columbus and the discovery of the New World.  Most of that time it remained one of the most powerful economic, cultural, and military forces in all of Europe.

In 413, construction began on a formidable system of defensive walls, protecting Constantinople against attack by land or sea. Called the “Theodosian Walls” after reigning Emperor Theodosius II, they were built on the orders of the Roman Prefect of the East, Anthemius, as a defensive measure against the Huns. One of the most elaborate defensive fortifications ever built, the Theodosian Walls warded off sieges by the Avars, Arabs, Rus’, Bulgars and others. This, the last great fortification of anitiquity, would fall only twice. First amidst the chaos of the 4th Crusade in 1203, and finally to the age of gunpowder.

Constantinople, one of the most heavily fortified cities on the planet, fell after a 50-day siege to an army of 150,000, and the siege cannon of Sultan Mehmed II, ruler of the Ottoman Turks.

It was May 29, 1453.  Constantinople, now Istanbul, remains under Muslim rule to this day.

December 5, 63BC The Catiline Conspiracy

Lucius Sergius Catilina was an unsavory character, having murdered first his brother in law and later his wife and son, before being tried for adultery with a vestal virgin

Ever since the overthrow of the Roman Monarchy in 509BC, Rome governed itself as a Republic.  The government was headed by two consuls, annually elected by the citizens and advised by a Senate.  The Republic operated on the principle of a separation of powers with checks and balances, and a strong aversion to the concentration of power.  Except in times of national emergency, no single individual was allowed to wield absolute power over his fellow citizens.

A series of civil wars and other events took place during the first century BC, ending the Republican period and leaving in its wake an Imperium, best remembered for its conga line of dictators.

Lucius Sergius Catilina was a Roman Senator during this period, best remembered for his attempt to overthrow the Republic.  In particular the power of the aristocratic Senate.  He seems to have been an unsavory character, having murdered first his brother in law and later his wife and son, before being tried for adultery with a vestal virgin.

The first of two conspiracies bearing his name began in 65BC.  Catilina was supposed to have conspired to murder a number of Senators on their entering office, and making himself, Consul.  He may or may not have been involved at this stage, but he certainly would be for the second.

In 63BC, Catilina and a group of heavily indebted aristocrats concocted a plan with a number of disaffected veterans, to overthrow the Republic. On the night of October 18, Crassus brought letters to Consul Marcus Tullius Cicero warning of the plot.  Cicero read the letters in the Senate the following day, later giving a series of four speeches:  the Catiline Orations, considered by many to be his best political oratory.

In his last speech, delivered in the Temple of Concordia on December 5, 63BC, Cicero established a basis for other speakers to take up the cause.  As Consul, Cicero was not allowed to voice an opinion on the execution of conspirators, but this speech laid the groundwork for others to do so, primarily Cato the Younger.

The actual Senate debates are lost to history, leaving only Cicero’s four orations, but there was considerable resistance in the Senate to executing the conspirators.  They were, after all, fellow aristocrats.

Armed forces of the conspirators were ambushed at the Milvian Bridge, where the Via Flaminia crosses the Tiber River.  The rest were executed by the end of December.  Cicero’s actions had saved the Republic.  For now.

At one point during this period, then-Senator Julius Caesar stepped to the rostrum to have his say. He was handed a paper and, reading it, stuck the note in his toga and resumed his speech. Cato, Caesar’s implacable foe, stood in the senate and demanded that Caesar read the note. It’s nothing, replied the future emperor, but Cato thought he had caught the hated Caesar red handed. “I demand you read that note”, he said, or words to that effect.  He wouldn’t let it go.  Finally, Caesar relented. With an actor’s timing, he pulled out the note and read it to a hushed senate.

It turned out to be a love letter, a graphic one, wherein Servilia Caepionis described in detail what she wanted to do with Caesar when she got him alone. As if the scene wasn’t bad enough, Servilia just happened to be Cato’s half-sister.

Here’s where the story becomes Very interesting. Caesar was a well-known lady’s man.

Vincenzo Camuccini, "Morte di Cesare", 1798,
The Emperor’s dying words are supposed to have been “Et tu, Brute?”, as Brutus plunged the dagger in. “And you, Brutus?” But that’s not what he said

By the time of his assassination, he had carried on with Servilia for years.  Servilia Caepionis had a son, called Marcus Brutus.  He was 41 on the 15th of March, 44BC.  The “Ides of March”.  Caesar was 56. The Emperor’s dying words are supposed to have been “Et tu, Brute?”, as Brutus plunged the dagger in.  “And you, Brutus?”  But that’s not what he said.  Those words were put in his mouth 1,643 years later, by William Shakespeare.

Eyewitness accounts to Caesar’s last words are lost to history, but more contemporary sources recorded his dying words as “Kai su, Teknon?”  In Greek, it means “And you, my child?”

I’m not convinced that Brutus murdered his father on the Ides of March, in fact I believe it to be unlikely.  Still, it makes you wonder…