January 18, 532 Nika Riot

Modern sport has seen its share of fan passion rising to violence, but the worst “futbol hooligan” pales into docility, compared with the crowd come to watch the chariot races. Imagine the worst fan violence of the modern era combined with aspects of street gangs and political organizations, each faction holding positions on the issues of the day and attempting to sway public policy by shouting slogans, between races.  

Chariots go back to the earliest days of the Roman Republic, coming down from the ancient Greeks by way of the Etruscan empire. The mythical abduction of the Sabine women was carried out, while the Sabine men watched a chariot race. While Romans never used them as weapons of war, chariots were used in triumphal processions, pulled by teams of horses, tigers or dogs, even ostriches.

What the Greeks regarded as an opportunity for talented amateurs to rise within their chosen sport, the Romans saw as entertainment. A class of professional drivers rose to meet the demand.

roman-chariot-raceLook up the Highest Paid Athlete of All Time and you’ll be rewarded with the knowledge that Michael Jordan amassed career earnings of $1.85 Billion, according to Forbes Magazine.  Steve Forbes and Michael Jordan alike may be surprised to know.  Spanish driver Gaius Appuleius Diocles amassed an astonishing 35,863,120 sesterces, equivalent to $15 Billion, today.  Not bad for a man whose name suggests he probably began as a slave, freed by a guy named Gaius Appuleius.

The Hippodrome of the Byzantine era (from the Greek Hippos: Horse and Dromos: Path, or Way) was already the center of sport and social activity in 324.  That was the year Emperor Constantine moved the seat of the Roman Empire east to Byzantium, calling the place, Nova Roma. New Rome.  The name failed to catch on and the city came to be known as Constantinople.

f285a884c132221b7abbb5958de2452dThe age of Constantine saw enormous expansion of the city which bore his name, including enlargement of the Hippodrome to an impressive 1,476-feet long by 427-feet wide with a seating capacity of 100,000.  By way of comparison, the Empire State Building is 1,454-feet from sidewalk to the very tip of the spire.  Mercedes Benz Stadium in Atlanta, home of Super Bowl LIII, has a rated capacity of 71,000 spectators.

There were four teams or “factions” (factiones), distinguished by the color of their uniform: Red, Blue, Green and White, and echoed by the colors worn by their fans.  Twelve chariots would enter each race, three from each faction. Golden-tipped dolphins were tipped over, to count the laps. Each race ran seven.f9fb0a187c6e429d1e9b2c84e723043bA raised median called a spina ran down the center, adorned with stone statuary and obelisks. Ganging up to drive opposing handlers into the stone median or the stands, whipping opponents and even hauling them out of their chariots was not only permitted, but encouraged.

It was the racetrack, or circus and the sport of chariot racing, that truly put the Fanatic in Fans. There are tales of poisoned horses and drivers. Lead tablets and amulets inscribed with curses, spiked through with nails and thrown from the stands. One such curse read:

I call upon you, oh demon, whoever you are, to ask that from this hour, from this day, from this moment, you torture and kill the horses of the green and white factions and that you kill and crush completely the drivers Calrice, Felix, Primulus, and Romanus, and that you leave not a breath in their bodies.

Racing chariots were as light as possible and extremely flimsy, to increase speed. With no suspension, even a bump could throw a driver into the path of oncoming teams. Clogs were built into lattice floors, to hold the driver’s feet. Teams of two (biga), three (triga) and four (quadriga) horses were common, but teams as large as six were not unheard of.

Though rare, ten-horse teams were known to take the field.

While Greek drivers held the reins in their hands, Roman charioteers wrapped them around the waist. Unsurprisingly, any driver thrown out would be dragged to death or trampled, unless able to cut himself free.

Crashes were frequent and spectacular, often killing or maiming driver and horse alike. Such wrecks were called naufragia, a Latin word translating as ”shipwreck”.  As many as forty chariots crashed in one catastrophic pile-up, near Delphi.ba90ba114005e082444846ca7ff751f7Modern sport has seen its share of fan passion rising to violence, but the worst “futbol hooligan” pales into docility, compared with the crowd come to watch the chariot races. Imagine the worst fan violence of the modern era combined with aspects of street gangs and political organizations, each faction holding positions on the issues of the day and attempting to sway public policy by shouting slogans, between races.

Distinctions between politics and sport, all but disappeared.  Emperor Vitellius, a fan of the Blue faction, had citizens put to death in the year 69 for talking trash about his team. Ten years later, one fan threw himself on the funeral pyre of his favorite driver.

In 531, fans of the Blues and Greens were arrested for murder, following riots which broke out during a chariot race. The killers were sentenced to death and most were executed but two, escaped. On January 10, 532, the two men one Blue and one Green had taken refuge in a church, surrounded by an angry mob.

Emperor Justinian, a supporter of the Blues, was beset with problems. The war in the east was not going well with the Persians and at home, rampant corruption and public fury over confiscatory tax policy.  Now this.  Justinian resorted to that time honored technique to pacify the turbulent masses.  Bread and Circuses.  He announced a chariot race.

Bad idea.

It was a tense and angry crowd that arrived at the Hippodrome on January 13.  By race #22 chants of “Blue” and “Green” were changed to angry shouts, directed at the Emperor.  “Nίκα! Nίκα! Nίκα! (“Nika” translating as “Win!” “Victory!” or “Conquer!”).

Fury boiled over and anarchy turned to Riot.  The Royal Palace was laid siege over the next five days and the city, laid waste.  Even the magnificent Hagia Sofia, the foremost church in Constantinople, was destroyed.

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Now a mosque in Istanbul, the beautiful Hagia Sofia was destroyed during the Nika riots of 532 and later rebuilt, by Emperor Justinian.

Rioters proclaimed the Senator Flavius Hypatius as their new Emperor and demanded the dismissal of key advisers.  Soon Justinian himself prepared to flee for his life.  He surely would have done so if not for his wife, the formidable Empress Theodora.

“Those who have worn the crown should never survive its loss”, she declared. “Never will I see the day when I am not saluted as empress.  Who is born into the light of day must sooner or later die; and how could an Emperor ever allow himself to be a fugitive.”

The avenue of escape lay open to the Emperor but Theodora’s words, cut deep.  Not to be deterred, the Empress closed the door on escape.  “Royalty is a fine burial shroud” she said.  “The Royal color Purple makes a fine winding sheet.”

Dwzr7yJUUAEA9MYWith spine thus restored, Justinian formulated a plan.  The popular eunuch Narses was sent with a bag of gold, into the lion’s den.  Small and slight of build, unarmed but for those coins, Narses entered the Hippodrome and went directly to the Blue section.  On this day in 562 Hypatius was in the very act of coronation when the eunuch spoke.  Narses reminded the Blues that Hypatius was a Green while Justinian himself, supported their team.

Gold was distributed among the Blues and the trap was sprung.  As Blue team supporters streamed out of the Hippodrome, Imperial troops led by the Generals Belisarius and Mundus fell upon the crowd, killing some 30,000 Blue and Green alike.jerusalem-distrThus ends one of the great “backfires” in political history.  Senator Hypatius was put to the sword and those who had supported the pretender, sent into exile.  Justinian I would rule another 33 years, rebuilding Constantinople, muzzling the Senatorial Class which had caused him such grief and reconquering lost territories, in Italy.

Wealthy estates were confiscated outright and races were suspended for a period of five years.  None were left to stand against this Emperor for a long and fruitful reign.

January 2, 1819 Time Me, Gentlemen

Florence Nightingale explains in her Notes on Nursing, “there are many physical operations where ceteris paribus (all else being the same) the danger is in a direct ratio to the time the operation lasts; and ceteris paribus the operator’s success will be in direct ratio to his quickness”.

With the invention of gunpowder in the year 142, the Chinese of the Eastern Han Dynasty had a handy if somewhat noisy way, to scare off evil spirits.

The first millennium of the common era was a time of ever improved and more efficient ways for humans to slaughter one another, from the gunpowder slow match of 919 to the fire bombs and gunpowder propelled fire arrows of the Southern Tang, of 975.

The Wuwei Bronze Cannon of 1227 may be the first such weapon in all history.  By 1453, the terrifying bombard of the Ottoman Turks were capable of hurling stone balls up to 24.8-inches in diameter, more than enough to shatter the formerly impregnable Theodosian Walls of Constantinople.

Huge siege cannon used in the final assault
Ottoman siege cannon, 1453

For a thousand years, gunpowder weapons large and small businesses and a inflicted massive injury to the human frame, resulting in damage beyond even the skills of the modern surgeon.  Often the only answer was amputation, seemingly by the bushel basket.

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General Dan Sickles leg, destroyed by a 12-pound ball at Gettysburg, 1863

The carnage of the gunpowder era experienced something of a golden age in the 19th century.  Projectiles traveled at a bone-shatteringly slow pace compared with the high velocity weapons of today while innovations such as percussion caps, shrapnel shells and breech loading weapons geometrically increased the rate of fire.

It’s been said the most common objects removed from the bodies of front-line soldiers, were the shattered bones and teeth of the next man in line.

This was a time before anesthesia, when the speed of the surgeon’s knife spelled the difference in the pain experienced by the patient, to say nothing of the poor unfortunates’ chance of survival.  Florence Nightingale explains in her Notes on Nursing:  “there are many physical operations where ceteris paribus” (everything else being the same) “the danger is in a direct ratio to the time the operation lasts; and ceteris paribus the operator’s success will be in direct ratio to his quickness“.

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Robert Liston’s surgical instruments

First came the burly assistants, to hold down the writhing victim


.  In skilled hands the surgeon’s knife could cut all-round in a single stroke, through skin and muscle and sinew clear down to the bone before the saw completed the work of separation.  Screams of agony rent the air as veins, flesh and arteries were cauterized with red-hot irons, vitriol (sulfuric acid) or boiling hot tar.  Should the victim survive the experience the wound would then be sewn shut.  God help the poor soul if there was any infection left after all that.

During the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 –’71, one surgeon amputated 200 shattered limbs in one 24-hour period, a nearly unbelievable average of one every seven minutes.  Perfectly healthy fingers were occasionally severed in the gore and confusion.

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A 19th-century surgical illustration detailing amputation at the thigh. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. H/T Military-History.org

This was the world of the “Fastest Knife on West End”, a Scottish-born physician who, on this day in 1819, had just embarked on the first year of a medical career which would last until his death, in 1847.

Robert Liston, always the showman, would stride into the operating theater and call out, “Time me Gentlemen.  Time me”.  English surgeon and author Richard Gordon, an expert on Robert Liston, describes what that looked like:

“He was six foot two, and operated in a bottle-green coat with wellington boots. He sprung across the blood-stained boards upon his swooning, sweating, strapped-down patient like a duelist, calling, ‘Time me gentlemen, time me!’ to students craning with pocket watches from the iron-railinged galleries. Everyone swore that the first flash of his knife was followed so swiftly by the rasp of saw on bone that sight and sound seemed simultaneous. To free both hands, he would clasp the bloody knife between his teeth”. 

16944174-0-image-a-45_1565084128752Liston once amputated a leg in 2½ minutes from incision to suture but accidentally severed the poor bastard’s testicles, in the process.

On another occasion, he amputated a leg in 2½ minutes while severing the fingers of one assistant and piercing the coat of an observer.  The spectator was so terrified at the blood and so certain that his own vital organs had been pierced, he died right then and there from heart failure.

Both patient and assistant later died from hospital gangrene, a common problem in the days before Joseph Lister.  To the best of my knowledge, Robert Liston remains the only surgeon in history to achieve 300% mortality, on a single procedure.

October 7, 1571 Lepanto

Cross and Crescent met on this day in 1571, near a place called Lepanto. It’s been called “the Battle that saved the Christian West”. The Ottoman empire had not lost a major naval battle, since the 14th century.

Following the Islamic Conquest of Constantinople in 1453, the Ottoman Empire  massively expanded under the Ottoman Sultan Selim I, “Selim the Grim”.  1516 – ’17 alone saw an expansion of some seventy per cent of Ottoman landmass, with the conquest of large swaths of the Arabian peninsula, historic Syria, the eastern Mediterranean and Egypt.

Selim’s son and successor would become the tenth and longest-ruling Ottoman Sultan in 1520, until his death in 1566. He was “Süleiman the Magnificent”, in Turkish the “Law Giver”, a man who, at his peak, would rule over some fifteen to twenty million subjects, at a time when the entire world population numbered fewer than a half-billion.

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Suleiman I, “The Magnificent”

By 1522, Süleiman had managed to expand his rule to Serbia, placing the Ottoman Empire in direct conflict with the Habsburg monarchy, early predecessor to what we remember from WW1, as the Austro-Hungarian empire.

The Catholic states of Europe were plunged into a morass of their own at this time, wracked by the beginnings of the Protestant Reformation, and by a series of wars for hegemony over the formerly-independent city-states of the Italian peninsula.

Italy_1494_AD.pngThe “Italian wars” of the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries pitted no fewer than eight separate Christian alliances against one another, between forces of the Valois and Habsburg monarchies, the Holy Roman Empire and various Italian republics. In time, republican Venice was alone in retaining her independence, aside from minor city-states such as Lucca and San Marino.

Venice attempted to check Ottoman expansion into the eastern Mediterranean until 1540 when, exhausted and despairing of support, signed a humiliating capitulation with Suleiman I.

This, the second of three conflicts between Venice and the Ottoman Empire, left the republic without her former buffer territories in Greece and the Serbo-Croatian territories of Dalmatia.

Hurrem Sultan, better known as “Roxelana”, was probably kidnapped from the Polish principality of Ruthenia, and sold into the slave markets of Istanbul, given by the Valide Sultan (legal mother of the Sultan and chief consort to Selim I), to her son Süleiman.

Roxelana-Wife-Of-SuleimanRoxelana is unique in all Ottoman history, rising from Harem slave and Sultan’s concubine, to Süleiman’s legal wife and “Queen of the Ottoman Empire.” It was she who began a 130-year period of female influence over the male line known as the “Sultanate of Women” when, though born to slavery, the wives and mothers of the Sultan wielded extraordinary political power over  affairs of the Ottoman Empire.

She was instrumental in driving the unlikely ascension of her son Selim II to the Sultanate, following the death of his brother Mehmed from smallpox, and the murders of his half-brother Mustafa and brother Bayezid, in coordination between himself and his father.

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The Walls of Famagusta

Surrounded as it was by Ottoman territory, the eastern Mediterranean island of Cyprus had long been “in the wolf’s mouth”, as one contemporary historian described it.

The island had long been a major overseas possession of the Venetian republic. The Turkish invasion force of 350-400 ships arrived on July 1, 1570, carrying somewhere between 80,000 to 150,000 men. First capturing the coastal cities of Paphos, Limassol and Larnaca, the Ottoman force moved inland to lay siege to Nicosia, the largest city on the island. The siege would last forty days, resulting in the death of some 20,000 residents and the looting of every church, public building and palace.

By Mid-September, the Ottoman cavalry arrived outside the last Venetian stronghold on Cyprus, the east coast port city of Famagusta.

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Marcantonio Bragadin

At this point, Venetian defenders numbered fewer than 9,000 men with 90 guns, pitted against an invading force swelled by this time to over 250,000 with some 1,500 cannon.

The heroic defense of Famagusta would hold out for eleven months, led by the Venetian lawyer and military commander, Marcantonio Bragadin. By the following August, five major assaults had cost the lives of some 52,000 invaders, including the first-born son of the Turkish commander, Lala Kara Mustafa Pasha. Bragadin’s command was reduced to 900 sick, starving and injured defenders who, like local civilians, were begging him to surrender.

According to the customs of the time, negotiation before a city’s defenses were successfully breached allowed for terms of surrender, whereas the lives and property of a city taken by storm, were forfeit.

Terms of safe passage were agreed upon by the survivors yet, on presentation of the city, Bragadin was seized by Lala Mustafa Pasha, his ears and nose cut off, and thrown into a cell.

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1570-1576 Titian’s Flaying of Marsyas. Researchers speculate that Bragadin’s flaying provided the inspiration for this painting.

A massacre followed in which every Christian left alive in the city, was murdered. Bragadin himself was later removed from his cell, his untreated wounds raging with infection.  He was skinned alive in the public square and his hide stuffed with straw, reinvested with full military insignia and sent with the heads of his officers to Istanbul, as a gift to Sultan Selim II.

Pope Pius had tried since 1566, to put together a “Holy League” to oppose the Ottoman invasion. In the end, Marcantonio Bragadin was betrayed, put to death in the most hideous manner, imaginable. Yet, the heroic defense against impossible odds of September 17, 1570 to August 5, 1571 gave a coalition of Christian maritime states time to assemble naval forces, in numbers sufficient to defend the Mediterranean coast.

The Crescent met the Cross on this day in 1571 near a place called Lepanto, in what’s been called “the Battle that saved the Christian West”.  The European side was outnumbered, with 212 ships and as many as 40,000 soldiers and oarsmen, to a Muslim force numbering 278 vessels and as many as 50,000 soldiers and oarsmen.

The Ottoman empire had not lost a major naval battle, since the 14th century.

What the Holy League lacked in numbers however, was made up in equipment, and experience. The Christians possessed some 1,815 guns, to fewer than half that number on the Ottoman side.

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Ten thousand would be lost to the Christian side, compared with four times that number, for the adversary.  The Ottoman fleet was crushed, losing 200 ships burned, sunk or captured, compared with 17 for the Europeans.

While the European victory at Lepanto put a halt to Muslim expansion into the western Mediterranean, zero lost territory was regained while the Sultan solidified his control, over the east. The Ottoman fleet was rebuilt within six months, including some of the largest capital ships, then in existence.

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Ottoman Empire, Expansion. H/T Britannica.com

Grand Vizier Mehmed Sokullu, Chief Minister to Sultan Selim II went so far as to taunt the Venetian emissary Marcantonio Barbaro, that the Christian triumph at Lepanto amounted to little:  “You come to see how we bear our misfortune. But I would have you know the difference between your loss and ours. In wresting Cyprus from you, we deprived you of an arm; in defeating our fleet, you have only shaved our beard. An arm when cut off cannot grow again; but a shorn beard will grow all the better for the razor”.

October 5, 1789 The Women’s March

Encouraged and egged on by revolutionary agitators, these market women and not a few men, plundered the city’s armories for weapons and marched on the the Hôtel de Ville (the City Hall of Paris) carrying kitchen blades, farm implements and anything else which would serve, as a weapon.  The mob swelled to as many as 10,000, before turning to the royal palace at Versailles, some thirteen miles away. 

We hear a lot this pre-election season, about “Left” and “Right”. “Liberal” and “Conservative”.

The terms have been with us a long time, originating in the early days of the French Revolution. In those days, National Assembly members supportive of the Monarchy sat on the President’s right. Those favoring the Revolution, on the left. The right side of the seating arrangement began to thin out and disappeared altogether during the “Reign of Terror”, but re-formed with the restoration of the Monarchy, in 1814-1815. By that time it wasn’t just the “Party of Order” on the right and the “Party of Movement” on the left. Now the terms began to describe nuances in political philosophy, as well.

Imagine you are there, from the beginning. The year is 1789. Your politics are middle of the road, maybe a little to the left. Now imagine that, in the space of two years, your nation’s politics have shifted so radically that you find yourself on the “reactionary right”, subject to execution by your government.

And your personal convictions have never changed.

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Cartoon of the period depicting the “3rd Estate” (Commoners) carrying the 1st (Clergy) and 2nd (Nobility) on his back

In medieval France, major constituent parts of French society broke into “Three Estates” being the Clergy (1st), the Nobility (2nd) and a 3rd Estate encompassing common women and men.

French society of the late 18th century found itself at a crossroads of tectonic events, any one of which carried with it the potential for societal upheaval.

Culturally, the “Age of Enlightenment” brought with it an elevation of “Reason” at the expense of tradition, and a diminution of the Monarchy and the Catholic Church.

Politically, the “Commons” had evolved into a caste of its own, with its own goals and a desire for parity, with the 1st and 2nd Estates.

Economically, the French state carried massive debt at this time, a condition made worse by French support of the American Revolution of a decade earlier.  The Nobility refused to accede to the tax demands of King Louis XVI.

The situation was precarious for the King that May, when Louis XVI summoned the Estates-General.   Having reached an impasse, the Commoners reconstituted themselves into a “National Assembly” that  June, demanding a personal audience with the King, for the purpose of drawing up a Constitution.

The National Assembly converged on the Estates General on June 20, only to find the door locked. What followed was hysterical, duplicitous or both, as the King and the Royal Family were in formal mourning at this time, following the death of the Dauphin; the heir apparent to the french throne.  Traditionally, political matters were held at such times, until the King came out of mourning.

It was yet another custom, about to be thrown out the window.

Finding the chamber locked and under guard, all 577 members of the National Assembly converged on an indoor tennis court. All but one put their names to a solemn oath, the “Tennis Court Oath”, swearing “not to separate, and to reassemble wherever circumstances require, until the constitution of the kingdom is established”.

image-placeholder-title.jpgThe oath itself was a revolutionary act.  Unlike the English Parliament, the Estates-General were little more than an advisory body, whose authority was not required for Royal taxation or legislative initiatives.  The oath taken that day asserted that political authority came from the people and their representatives, not from the monarchy. The National Assembly had declared itself supreme in the exercise of state power, making it increasingly difficult for the monarchy to operate based on “Divine Right of Kings”.

Riots followed as Leftist and reformist factions coalesced from anarchy to a coherent movement against the monarchy and the French Right.

Paris was “intoxicated with liberty and enthusiasm,” in July, when French revolutionaries converged on that age-old and hated symbol of the monarchy:  the Bastille. The fortress was guarded at this time by 82 “invalides”, veteran soldiers no longer fit for service in the field, and 32 Swiss grenadiers under the command of Governor Bernard-René de Launay, son of the previous governor.

The attackers – vainqueurs de la Bastille – numbered 954. Negotiations dragged on until the crowd lost patience, crowding into the outer courtyard and cutting the chain that held the drawbridge. Firing broke out as the bridge slammed down, crushing one unlucky vainqueur, while a nearby force of Royal Army troops did nothing to intervene. 98 attackers and one defender died in the fighting. The mob murdered another 7, after their surrender.

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On this day in 1789, hundreds of French women ransacked the markets of Paris, angry over the scarcity and the high price, of bread.  Encouraged and egged on by revolutionary agitators, these market women and not a few men, plundered the city’s armories for weapons and marched on the Hôtel de Ville (the City Hall of Paris) carrying kitchen blades, farm implements and anything else which would serve as a weapon.  The mob swelled to as many as 10,000, before turning to the royal palace at Versailles, some thirteen miles distant.

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The women’s march, hailed and encouraged by onlookers, making its way toward the Palace at Versailles

Arriving soaking wet from a driving rain, the angry mob converged on Versailles demanding political reforms and a constitutional monarchy.  The confrontation was ugly, violent.  Marie Antoinette herself narrowly escaped destruction, fleeing down a secret passage to the King’s chambers.

The King himself agreed to address the crowd,  from his balcony. “My friends,” he began, “I will go to Paris with my wife and my children.”  It was a fatal error.

The insurrection at Paris raced across all of France as the “Great Fear” spread across the countryside. The absolute monarchy which had ruled for centuries was over within three years.  Louis himself lost his head to the guillotine in January, 1793. 16,594 went to the guillotine under “the Reign of Terror”, led by the “Committee of Safety” under the direction of Parisian lawyer Maximilian Robespierre. Among them was Queen Marie Antoinette herself, who never did say “let them eat cake”.  The Queen’s last words on mounting the scaffold were pardon me, sir, I meant not to do it.   She had accidentally stepped on her executioner’s toes.

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Execution of Louis XVI

As many as 40,000 were summarily executed or died in prison awaiting trial before the hysteria died down. Robespierre himself lost his head in 1794.

The Napoleonic Wars which followed resulted in a Corsican artillery corporal-turned Emperor, fighting (and winning), more battles than Hannibal, Caesar, Alexander the Great and Frederick the Great, combined.

The saddest part of the whole sad story, may be the son of Louis and Antoinette, Louis-Charles, Duke of Normandy.  The boy was King Louis XVII in name only, thrown into a stone prison cell at the age of 8.  He would die there, miserable, sick and alone, at the age of 10.   

The whole exercise, seems pointless. The Bourbon Dynasty was back in power, within twenty years.

September 1, 911 The Royal “We”

Without exhuming a whole lot of bodies, there’s no knowing who the illegitimate child was along those five-hundred years of “Royalty”. Nineteen links in the chain. Suspicion centers on John of Gaunt (1340 – 1399), the alleged son of Edward III, but whose Real father may have been a Flemish butcher.

A story comes down from the Royal Residence of Queen Victoria, of the hapless attendant who told a spicy story one night, at dinner.  You could have watched the icicles grow, as the Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland intoned: “We are not amused“.

VictoriaThe story may be little more than a tale told “out of school”, no better than “a guy told me at the pub” concerning a Queen whose name wasn’t ‘Victoria’ at all but Alexandrina Victoria, after her godfather Tsar Alexander I.

Despite the ‘pluralis majestatis’, the ‘Royal We’,  Vicky herself is said to have been an enjoyable companion if not exactly a zany funster.  At least in private.

The “Grandmother of Europe” never was given to public displays of mirth.  The Queen’s lighter side would forever remain, Victoria’s secret.  Yet for the rest of us, the lives of the Royals of history may seem very amusing, indeed.

Roman Emperor Caligula, so-called for the tiny soldier’s boots, the Caligae (“Little Boots“), the boy liked to wear on campaign with his father, famously appointed his horse Incitatus, Consul of Rome.  At least he planned to do as much.   Elagabalus ranked his Imperial cabinet according to the size of his officer’s ummm, never mind.  Charles VI, “the Beloved and the Mad”, King of France from 1380 to 1422, would sit motionless for hours on-end, thinking himself made of glass.

Russian Emperor Peter III was married to the formidable Catherine the Great, though all that greatness seems not to have rubbed off on ol’ Pete.  Given as he was to playing with toy soldiers in bed, it’s uncertain whether the Royal Marriage was ever consummated. A mean drunk and a child in a man’s body, one story contends that Peter held a full court martial followed by a hanging on a tiny gallows of his own construction, for the rat who chewed off the head of one of his precious toy soldiers.

There are those who contend the infamous Jack the Ripper, was a member of the Royal family.

The warlike men who sailed their longboats out of the north tormented the coastal United Kingdom and northwestern Europe, since their first appearance at Lindisfarne Monastery in 793.

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Lindisfarne Castle

These “Norsemen”, attacked Paris in early 911. By July, the “Normans” were holding the nearby town of Chartres under siege. Normans had burned the place to the ground back in 858 and would probably have done so again, but for their defeat at the battle of Chartres, on July 20.

Even in defeat, these men of the North presented a formidable threat. The Frankish King approached them with a solution.

King Charles III, known as “Charles the Simple” after his plain, straightforward ways, proposed to give the Normans the region from the English Channel to the river Seine. It would be the Duchy of Normandy, some of the finest farmlands in northwest Europe, and it would be theirs in exchange for an oath of personal loyalty, to Charles himself.

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Rollo “The Walker”

The deal made sense for the King, since he had already bankrupted his treasury, paying these people tribute. And what better way to deal with future Viking raids down the coast, than to make them the Vikings’ own problem?

So it was that the Treaty of Saint-Clair-sur-Epte was concluded on this day in 911, when the Viking Chieftain Rollo pledged feudal allegiance to the King of Western Francia.

Rollo was called “The Walker”, because the man was so huge that no horse could carry him. He must have been some scary character with a two-handed battle axe.

At some point in the proceedings, the Viking chieftain was expected to stoop down and kiss the king’s foot, in token of obeisance. Rollo recognized the symbolic importance of the gesture, but wasn’t about to submit to such degradation, himself.

Rollo motioned to one of his lieutenants, a man almost as enormous as himself, to kiss the foot of the King.  The man shrugged, reached down and lifted King Charles off the ground by his ankle. He kissed the foot, and then tossed the King of the Franks aside.  Like a sack of potatoes.

Treaty of Saint-Clair-sur-Epte

In that moment, the personal dignity of the King of France, ceased to exist. The Duchy of Normandy, was born.

Richard III reigned as King of England from 1483 until his death on August 22, 1485, at the Battle of Bosworth Field. After the battle, the last Plantagenet King was thrown in some anonymous hole in the ground, and forgotten.

For five centuries, Richard’s body was believed to have been thrown into the River soar. In 2012, Richard’s remains were discovered under a parking lot, once occupied by Greyfriars Priory Church.

Mitochondrial DNA, that passed from mother to child, demonstrated beyond the shadow of a doubt that the body was that of King Richard III, the last King of the House of York.

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Mitochondrial DNA

But, there was a problem.

The Y-chromosome haplotypes, those passed through the male line, didn’t match up with the living descendants of the King.

The conclusion was inescapable. Somewhere along the Royal line, the chain of paternal DNA was broken. The proverbial “Mailman” had, er, inserted himself, into the family tree.

If true, that de-legitimizes John’s son Henry IV and everyone descended from him, down to the ruling house of Windsor.

Had such a break taken place in more modern times, the paternity of only a few minor Dukes, would be affected.  Professor Kevin Schurer of the University of Leicester, warned: “The first thing we need to get out of the way is that we are not indicating that Her Majesty should not be on the throne. There are 19 links where the chain could have been broken so it is statistically more probable that it happened at a time where it didn’t matter. However, there are parts of the chain which, if broken, could hypothetically affect royalty.”

Without exhuming a whole lot of bodies, there is no knowing who the illegitimate child was along those five-hundred years of “Royalty”. Nineteen links in the chain. Suspicion centers on John of Gaunt (1340 – 1399), the alleged son of Edward III, but whose Real father may have been a Flemish butcher.

I’m not a betting man but, if I were, my money’s on all those old guys, staying in the ground

August 3, 1908 The Old Man of La Chappelle

This wasn’t an “old man” by our standards.  The skeleton is currently estimated to have been that of a man between 25 and 40 years, demonstrating the Hobbesian adage that life was indeed once “Nasty, Brutish and Short”.

In the 17th century, German Reformed Church teacher and hymn writer Joachim Neander enjoyed hiking a certain valley outside of Düsseldorf.  Neander found the beauty of nature inspirational, clearing the writer’s mind and inspiring verses like “See how God this rolling globe/swathes with beauty as a robe…Forests, fields, and living things/each its Master’s glory sings.”

The theologian contracted tuberculosis and died in his thirtieth year but lived on in a way, in the valley which came to bear his name.  Some 200 years later and three years before Charles Darwin published the Origin of Species, workers quarrying Neander Valley limestone discovered an unusual skull.  This was no ordinary head, elongated and nearly chinless as it was, with heavy ridges over the eyes.  Heavy bones found alongside fitted together, albeit oddly.

From top, clockwise:  a) Neander Valley by Friedrich Wilhelm Schreiner, oil on cardboard, 1855, b) original bones discovered the following year, and c)Artist’s conception of what he looked like, H/T Artist: Kennis & Kennis Reconstructions

Archaeological science had much to learn in 1856.  Perhaps future historians and scientists will look back at our time, and say the same of us.  At the time, even to discern fossils from ordinary rock was beyond the ability of many scientists. One common method involved licking the fossil. It was believed if the thing had animal material, it would stick to your tongue.

Despite such misconceptions, scholars of the day had no shortage of theories. This was a lost Cossack, a bowlegged rider suffering from rickets, a painful condition resulting in weak and misshapen bones. To some, the life of pain resulting from such a condition made perfect sense, the bony eye ridges resulting from perpetually furrowed brow.

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British geologist William King suspected something different. Something more radical. This was no aberrant human being nor even a lost ancestor. This was a member of a long lost alternate humanity.   An extinct but parallel species to our own.  King published a paper in 1864 hypothesizing his idea of an evolutionary dead end, naming the long lost species after the poet who had once wandered the valley in which it was discovered. He called it Homo Neanderthalensis: Neanderthal Man.

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“Neanderthal sculptures, named Nana and Flint, at the Gibraltar Museum”. H/T Jaap Scheeren, New York Times

Having no context from which to draw conclusions, King fell back on the pseudo science of phrenology to describe Neanderthal man, along with preconceptions of “primitive” and “savage” races. The image of a stupid and grunting brute emerged from this analysis. King opined that “The thoughts and desires which once dwelt within it never soared beyond those of a brute.” Today we may look at such thinking as itself savage and primitive, but applying modern ideas to earlier times is a dangerous undertaking. Ideas of Eugenics survived well after King’s time, and into the modern era.

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The Old Man of La Chapelle-Aux-Saints reconstructed burial in the Musée de l’Homme de Néandertal, France

On this day in 1908, the brothers Amadee and Jean Bouyssonie found the most complete Neanderthal skeleton to date in a small cave near La Chapelle-aux-Saints, in France.  This skeleton includes the skull, jaw, most of the vertebrae and several ribs, along with most of the long bones of the arms and legs, plus a number of smaller bones from the hands and feet.

French palaeontologist Marcellin Boule studied the remains and envisioned a brutish, hairy and gorilla-like beast with opposable toes and bent spine, walking on bowed legs with bent knees.  Boule’s reconstruction was influential. Decades later, scientists and popular culture viewed Neanderthal as bent and stupid brutes. Boule got it wrong that time but, to his credit, he was one of the first to recognize Piltdown Man as a paleoanthropological hoax.

Subsequent analysis of the “Old Man of La Chappelle” revealed not the bent-over beast of Boule’s imagination, but a fully erect biped, bent with advanced osteoarthritis.

What’s more, massive tooth loss and lack of mobility revealed that this specimen could neither hunt nor scavenge with ease, and would have had great difficulty in chewing his food. This and the unmolested state of the skeleton compared with animal bones found nearby suggest a man greatly cared for by his contemporaries, as well as deliberate burial of the body.

This wasn’t even an “old man” by our standards.  The skeleton is currently estimated to have been that of a man between 25 and 40 years, demonstrating the Hobbesian adage that life was indeed once “Nasty, Brutish and Short”.

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Today, to call someone “Neanderthal” is to insult him as a stupid savage.  It appears our cousin was nothing of the sort.

The hyoid bone at the floor of the mouth serves as a connecting-point for the tongue and other musculature, giving humans the ability to speak. A delicate structure is likely to be lost in most fossilized remains, the first Neanderthal hyoid was only discovered in 1989.

An international team of researchers analysed this fossil Neanderthal bone using 3D x-ray imaging and mechanical modeling and, it turns out yes.  Neanderthal could not only speak, but was capable of highly complex speech not unlike our own, though his voice was likely high and grating.  Certainly not the base grunting commonly associated with “cave-men”.img_1054neanderthalsm

Shorter in stature and more powerfully built than Cro-Magnon, our direct ancestor and all but indistinguishable from ourselves, Neanderthal bodies were suited to the ice age of the early and middle Paleolithic era.

Neanderthal emerged on the Eurasian landmass between 100,000 and 200,000 years ago.  Possessed of a brain only slightly smaller than Cro-Magnon, Neanderthals walked upright, formed and used simple tools and controlled fire.  They buried their own dead, at least sometimes, and some researchers theorize they built boats and sailed the Mediterranean.  Imperfectly formed tools and weapons found alongside more sophisticated specimens suggest he educated his children.

He might even fit in if you brought him back today, provided you dressed him right.

Despite all that, Neanderthal man is an evolutionary dead end and not our ancestor, though he did “coexist” for a time, with our Cro-Magnon forebears.  It’s possible if not probable the two bred together and produced children, though this was likely your random hookup rather than the result of long-term cohabitation.

Modern DNA analysis suggests the two species even shared some genetic disorders, such as psoriasis, Crohn’s disease and a variety of auto-immune conditions such as Lupus.

image_1481e-NeanderthalResearch suggests that we ourselves carry Neanderthal genes, those among us of Eurasian ancestry.  These genes may have changed our immune systems leaving us vulnerable to diseases such diabetes and cancer.

The idea is not as strange as it sounds. Recently, Sir Richard Branson was in the news, claiming to have looked into his family ancestry. Forty generations back, it turns out that Branson is related to Charlemagne.  That’s no big deal according to Genetecist Adam Rutherford. Speaking at the Chalke Valley History Festival, Rutherford explained that “Literally every person in Europe is directly descended from Charlemagne. Literally, not metaphorically. You have a direct lineage which leads to Charlemagne,” adding “Looking around this room, every single one of you … is directly descended between 21 and 24 generations from Edward III.”

The only difference between celebrities and the rest of us it seems, is the means to prove it.

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Hundreds of generations have come and gone, since our cousin trod the earth.  Perhaps calling someone ‘Neanderthal’ isn’t such an insult, after all.  That might be one of them, peering back from our bathroom mirror.

April 8, 1740 Jenkin’s Ear

For the future Georgia colony, the War of Jenkins Ear was an existential threat.

A series of escalating trade disputes had already taken place between British and Spanish forces, when the Spanish patrol boat La Isabela drew alongside the British brig Rebecca in 1731. After boarding, Commander Juan de León Fandiño accused the British commander of smuggling.  The discussion became heated, when Fandiño drew his sword and cut off the left ear of Captain Robert Jenkins.  “Go, and tell your King that I will do the same”, he snarled, “if he dares to do the same.”jenkins-ear-1

Seven years later, Captain Jenkins was summoned to testify before Parliament where, according to some accounts, he produced his own severed ear in a pickling jar, as part of his presentation.

This and other incidents of “Spanish Depredations upon the British Subjects” were considered insults to the honor of the British nation and a provocation to war.

A squadron of three 70-gun British third-rates was patrolling off the coast of Cornwall on April 8, 1740, when a mast was sighted to the north.  What at first appeared to be a French vessel was revealed to be the 70 gun ship-of-the-line Princesa, when she struck her French colors and hoist the Spanish flag.  Outnumbered 3-to-1, Princesa put up a good fight, but the issue was never in doubt.  She was brought into Portsmouth for repairs, entering British service as HMS Princess in 1742.  What had once been described as “the finest ship in the Spanish Navy”, would serve Her Britannic Majesty for another 42 years.Princesa

For the future Georgia colony, the War of Jenkins Ear was an existential threat.  Spain had laid claim to Florida, when Ponce de Leon first mapped the territory in 1513.  The territory which later became North & South Carolina joined the British Colonies to the north in 1663, leaving the areas in-between in dispute.  James Oglethorpe founded the 13th colony of Georgia as a buffer to Spanish incursion, two years after Mr. Jenkins lost his ear. Battle of Bloody Marsh (Model)

By 1736, Oglethorpe established Fort Frederica on the barrier island of St. Simon, off the Savannah coast.  The Spanish landing force of 4,500 to 5,000 men arrived on St. Simon’s Island in July of 1742, opposed by only 950 British Rangers, Colonial Militia and Indian Allies.

Oglethorpe’s forces attacked a Spanish reconnaissance in force at the Battle of Gully Hole Creek in the early morning hours of July 7, followed by the ambush of a much larger force that afternoon, in what would be known as the Battle of Bloody Marsh.  In the smoke and confusion, the Spanish never did figure out how puny the forces were who opposed them.  These two victories were as big a boost to British morale as they were a blow to that of their adversary.  The last major Spanish offensive into Georgia ended with a complete withdrawal, a week later.

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The conflict which began in 1739 ended in 1748, though major operations ceased in 1742 when the War of Jenkins Ear was subsumed by the greater War of Austrian Succession, involving most of the major powers of Europe at that time. Peace arrived with the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1748.