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”.
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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…