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”.

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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…