October 9, 768 Holy Roman Empire

The French Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire remarked that “This agglomeration which was called and still calls itself the Holy Roman Empire was neither Holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire”.

In Medieval Europe, most of the government powers that mattered were exercised by a chief officer to the King, the “Mayor of the Palace”.  This Maior Domus, or “Majordomo” was created during the Merovingian Dynasty to manage the household of the Frankish King.  By the 7th century, the position had evolved into the power behind the throne of an all but ceremonial monarch.

In 751, the Mayor of the Palace forced King Childeric III off the throne and into a monastery.  He was the younger son of Charles “The Hammer” Martel and his wife Rotrude, destined to become sire to the founding father of the European Middle Ages.  He was Pepin III, “The Short”.

The Hammer
Charles “The Hammer” Martel who Saved Europe from an Invasion by the Ummayad Caliphate in 732 at the Battle of Tours

Pepin’s first act as King was to intercede with King Aistulf of the Lombards, on behalf of Pope Stephen II. Pepin wrested several cities away from the Lombards, forming a belt of central Italian territory which would later become the basis for the Papal States.  In the first crowning of a civil ruler by a Pope, Stephen anointed Pepin “Patricius Romanorum” (Patrician of the Romans) in 754, naming his sons Charlemagne and Carloman as his heirs.  This was the first vestige of a multi-ethnic union of European territories which would last until the age of Napoleon – the Holy Roman Empire.

Pepin died on campaign at age 54, his sons crowned co-rulers of the Franks on October 9, 768. Three years later, Carloman’s unexpected and unexplained death left Charlemagne undisputed ruler of the Frankish kingdom.

images (3)Charlemagne led an incursion into Muslim Spain, continuing his father’s policy toward the Church when he cleared the Lombards out of Northern Italy.  He Christianized the Saxon tribes to his east, sometimes under pain of death.

Pope Leo III was attacked by Italian enemies in the streets of Rome, who attempted unsuccessfully to cut out his tongue.  For the third time in a half-century, a Pope reached out to the Frankish Kingdom for help.

Pope Leo crowned Charlemagne “Emperor” on Christmas day in the year 800, in the old St. Peter’s Basilica. The honor may have been mostly diplomatic, as the seat of what remained of the Roman Empire remained in Constantinople.  Nevertheless, this alliance between a Pope and the leader of a confederation of Germanic tribes, was nothing short of a tectonic shift in western political power.

By the time of his death in 814, Charlemagne was “Pater Europae”, the Father of Europe.  German and French monarchies alike have traced their roots to his empire, ever since.

The title fell into disuse with the end of the Carolingian dynasty, until Pope John XII once again came under attack by Italian enemies of the Papacy.  The crowning of Otto I began an unbroken line of succession, extending out eight centuries. Charlemagne had been the first to bear the title of Emperor.  Otto I is regarded as the founder of the Holy Roman Empire, the date of his coronation in 962, as its founding.

Holy Roman Empire, 972-1000
Holy Roman Empire, 972-1000

Henry III deposed three Popes in 1046, personally selecting four out of the next five, after which a period of tension between the Empire and the Papacy lead to reforms within the church.

Simony (the selling of clerical posts) and other corrupt practices were restricted, ending lay influence in Papal selection.  After 1059, the selection of Popes was exclusively the work of a College of Cardinals.

The Papacy became increasingly politicized in the following years.  Pope Gregory decreed the right of investiture in high church offices to be exclusive to religious authorities.  Great wealth and power was invested in these offices, and secular authorities weren’t about to relinquish that much power.

Schism and excommunication followed.  Urban II, the Pope who preached the first crusade in 1095, couldn’t so much as enter Rome for years after his election in 1088.  The “anti-pope” Clement III ruled over the holy city at that time, with support from Henry IV.

The Kingdom had no permanent capital, Kings traveled between multiple residences to discharge their duties.  It was an elective monarchy, though most Kings had sons elected during their lifetime, enabling them to keep the crown within the family.  Many of the dynastic families throughout history have their origins in the Holy Roman Empire.  The Hohenstaufen, Habsburg and Hohenzollern among the Germanic Kings, the French Dynasties of the Capetian, Valois and Bourbon, as well as the Iberian dynasties of the Castilla, Aragonia and Pamplona y Navarre.HRE 1500

The French Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire remarked that “This agglomeration which was called and still calls itself the Holy Roman Empire was neither Holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire”.

The Holy Roman Empire became bogged down in struggles of succession in the 18th century. There was the War of Spanish Succession. The War of Polish Succession. The Wars of Austrian Succession and of German Dualism. The Holy Roman Empire peaked in 1050, becoming increasingly anachronistic by the period of the French Revolution. The last Holy Roman Emperor was Franz II, Emperor of Austria and Germany, who abdicated and dissolved the Empire in 1806, following the disastrous defeat of the 3rd Coalition by Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte at Austerlitz, in 1804.

Napoleon sarcastically commented that the German states were always “becoming, not being”. Ironically, the policies of “the little corporal” directly resulted in a rise of German nationalism, clearing the way to a united German state in 1870.  The polity which emerged would humble the French state in two World Wars.

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September 25, 1066 Stamford Bridge

Of 300 ships which had arrived on the 20th, the battered remnants of the Viking army needed only 24 to sail away.

Edward the Confessor, King of England, went into a coma in late 1065, having expressed no clear preference for a successor.  Edward died on January 5, 1066, after briefly regaining consciousness and commending his wife and kingdom to the “protection” of Harold, son of Godwin, the powerful Earl of Essex.

Anglo-Saxon Kings didn’t ordinarily pick their own successors, but their wishes carried import.  Nobles of the Witenagemot, the early Anglo-Saxon predecessor to the modern parliament, appear to have been in Westminster to observe the Feast of the Epiphany.  Convening the following day, the council elected Harold Godwinson, crowning him King Harold II.

For some, Harold’s quick ascension was a matter of administrative convenience and happenstance.  Others saw it as evidence of conspiracy.  A usurpation of the throne.  Edward’s death touched off a succession crisis that would change world history.

Harold’s younger brother Tostig, Earl of Northumbria, believed he had his own claim to the throne. His animosity for his brother would prove fatal for them both.  After conducting inconclusive raids that spring, Tostig went to a Norman Duke called William “the Bastard”, looking for support. William had his own claim to the English throne, and had openly declared his intention to take it.  The Norman Duke had no use for King Harold’s little brother, so Tostig sought the assistance of the King of Norway, King Harald “Hardraada”, the name translating, literally, as “hard ruler”.

Battles of 1066Tostig sailed for England with King Harald and a mighty army of 10,000 Viking warriors, meeting the northern Earls Edwin and Morcar in battle at Fulford Gate, on September 20.

The encounter was a comprehensive defeat for the English side.  When Harald came to Stamford Bridge five days later, he expected only formal capitulation and tribute.

Meanwhile, King Harold was at the head of an army in the south, anticipating William’s invasion from Normandy. My military friends will appreciate what happened next; Harold marched his army north, traveling day and night, covering 185 miles in four days, on foot, completely surprising the Viking army waiting at Stamford Bridge.

The Vikings must have looked at the horizon and wondered how a peace party could raise that much dust, only to learn that they faced a new army.

Believing they were there to accept submission, Harald’s army had left half its number behind to watch the ships, along with their armor.

Stamford Bridge

During the height of the following battle, one giant Viking warrior, a Berserker, stood alone at the top of Stamford Bridge. Swinging the great two-handed Dane Axe, this giant of a man had slain something like 40 English warriors, lying dead in heaps around him, when one of Harold’s soldiers floated himself under the bridge, spearing the Viking warrior from below.

The savagery of the battle can only be imagined. Before the age of industrialized warfare, every injury was personally administered with a bladed or crushing weapon of some kind. 5,000 of King Harold’s soldiers would be dead before it was over, about a third of his force. Two thirds of King Harald’s Vikings died that day, about 6,000, including Harald himself and his ally Tostig. So many died in that small area that 50 years later, the site was said to have turned white with the sun bleached bones of the slain.

Of some 300 ships arriving on the 20th, the battered remnants of Harald’s Viking army needed only 24, to sail away.

Stamford Bridge is often described as the end of the Viking invasions of England, but that isn’t quite so. There would be others, but none so powerful as this.

The Norman landing King Harold had been waiting for took place three days later at Pevensey Harbor, just as his battered army was disbanding and heading home for the Fall harvest.  The Anglo Saxon army would march south again, meeting the Norman invader on October 14 at a place called “Hastings”. King Harold II took an arrow in the eye that day, thus becoming the last of the Anglo Saxon Kings.

lovellhastingsstitched
Battle of Hastings, by Tom Lovell

Thenceforward and forever, William the Bastard would be known as William “The Conqueror”.

September 20, 451 Attila the Hun

Nestorius, Patriarch of Constantinople, described Rome’s Hun problem, succinctly.  “They have become both masters and slaves of the Romans”.

In the 5th century, the migration of warlike Germanic tribes across northern Europe culminated in the destruction of the Roman Empire in the west.  That much is relatively well known, but the “why”, is not.  What would a people so fearsome that they brought down an empire, have been trying to get away from?

The Roman Empire was split in two in the 5th century and ruled by two separate governments.  Ravenna, in northern Italy, became capital to the Western Roman Empire in 402, and would remain so until the final collapse in 476.  Constantinople, seat of the Byzantine empire and destined to become modern day Istanbul, ruled in the East.

Attila BronzeVast populations moved westward from Germania during the early fifth century, and into Roman territories in the west and south. They were Alans and Vandals, Suebi, Goths, and Burgundians. There were others as well, crossing the Rhine and the Danube and entering Roman Gaul. They came not in conquest:  that would come later. These tribes were fleeing the Huns:  a people so terrifying that whole tribes agreed to be disarmed, in exchange for the protection of Rome.

Rome itself had mostly friendly relations with the Hunnic Empire, which stretched from modern day Germany in the west, to Turkey and most of Ukraine in the east. The Huns were nomads, mounted warriors whose main weapons were the bow and javelin. Huns frequently acted as mercenary soldiers, paid to fight on behalf of Rome.

Rome looked at such payments as just compensation for services rendered.  The Huns looked at them as tribute, tokens of Roman submission to the Hunnic Empire.Atilla_fléau_de_dieu

Nestorius, Patriarch of Constantinople, described Rome’s Hun problem, succinctly.  “They have become both masters and slaves of the Romans”.

Relations were strained between the two powers in the time of the Hunnic King Rugila, as his nephew the future King Attila, came of age.

Rugila’s death in 434 left the sons of his brother Mundzuk, Attila and Bleda, in control of the united Hunnic tribes. The brothers negotiated a treaty with Emperor Theodosius of Constantinople the following year, giving him time to strengthen the city’s defenses. This included building the first sea wall, a structure the city would be forced to defend a thousand years later in the Islamic conquest of 1453, but that is a story for another day.Attila

The priest of the Greek church Callinicus wrote what happened next, in his “Life of Saint Hypatius”. “The barbarian nation of the Huns, which was in Thrace, became so great that more than a hundred cities were captured and Constantinople almost came into danger and most men fled from it. … And there were so many murders and blood-lettings that the dead could not be numbered. Ay, for they took captive the churches and monasteries and slew the monks and maidens in great numbers“.

Bleda died sometime in 445, leaving Attila the sole King of the Huns.  Relations with the Western Roman Empire had been relatively friendly, for a time.  That changed in 450 when Justa Grata Honoria, sister of Emperor Valentinian, wanted to escape a forced marriage to the former consul Herculanus.  Honoria sent the eunuch Hyacinthus with a note to King Attila, asking him to intervene on her behalf.  She enclosed her ring in token of the message’s authenticity, which Attila took to be an offer of marriage.

Attila_in_Gaul_451Valentinian was furious with his sister.  Only the influence of their mother Galla Placidia convinced him to exile rather than have her put to death, while he frantically wrote to Attila saying it was all a misunderstanding.

The King of the Huns wasn’t buying it, and sent an emissary to Ravenna, to claim what was his.  Attila demanded delivery of his “bride”, along with half the empire, as dowry.

In 451, Attila gathered his vassals and began a march to the west. The Hunnic force was estimated to be half a million strong, though the number is probably exaggerated. The Romans hurriedly gathered an army to oppose them, while the Huns sacked the cities of Mainz, Worms and Strasbourg. Trier and Metz fell in quick succession, as did Cologne, Cambrai, and Orleans.

The Roman army, allied with the Visigothic King Theodoric I, finally stopped the army of Attila at the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains, near Chalons.   Some sources date the Battle of Chalons at June 20, 451, others at September 20.  Even the outcome of the battle is open to interpretation.  Sources may be found to support the conclusion that it was a Roman, a Gothic or a Hunnic victory.

Apparently a Pyrrhic victory, Chalons was one of the last major military operations of the Roman Empire in the west. The Roman alliance had stopped the Hunnic invasion in Gaul, but the military capacity of Roman and Visigoth, both, was destroyed. The Hunnic Empire was dismantled by a coalition of Germanic vassals at the Battle of Nedau, in 454.

800px-De_Neuville_-_The_Huns_at_the_Battle_of_Chalons
“The Huns at the Battle of Chalons” from page 135 of A Popular History of France From The Earliest Times Volume I of VI (en:Project Gutenberg e-text). Illustration by A. De Neuville (1836-1885). img url: http://www.gutenberg.org/dirs/1/1/9/5/11951/11951-h/images/135.jpg

Attila would return to sack much of Italy in 452, this time razing Aquileia so completely that no trace of it was left behind. Legend has it that Venice was founded at this time, when local residents fled the Huns, taking refuge in the marshes and islands of the Venetian Lagoon.

Attila died the following year at a wedding feast, celebrating his marriage to the young Ostrogoth, Ildico.  The King of the Huns died in a drunken stupor, suffering a massive nosebleed or possibly esophageal bleeding.  The Hunnic Empire died along with Attila the Hun, as he choked to death on his own blood.

September 9, 490BC Marathon

‘With you it rests, Callimachus, either to bring Athens to slavery, or, by securing her freedom, to be remembered by all future generations…We generals are ten in number, and our votes are divided: half of us wish to engage, half to avoid a combat. Now, if we do not fight, I look to see a great disturbance at Athens which will shake men’s resolutions, and then I fear they will submit themselves. But, if we fight the battle…we are well able to overcome the enemy.’

200 years before the classical age of Greece, King Darius I, third King of the Persian Achaemenid Empire, ruled over an area stretching from North Africa to the Indian sub-continent, from Kazakhstan to the Arabian Peninsula.   Several Anatolian coastal polities rebelled in 499BC, with support and encouragement from the mainland city states of Athens and Eritrea.

Achaemenid_Empire
Achaemenid Empire

This “Ionian Revolt” lasted until 493BC.  Though ultimately unsuccessful, the Greeks had exposed themselves to the wrath of Darius.  Herodotus records that, every night before dinner, Darius required one of his servants three times, to say to him “Master, remember the Athenians“.

Darius
Darius I

The Persian “King of Kings” sent emissaries to the Greek city states, demanding gifts of earth and water, signifying Darius’ dominion over all the land and sea. Most capitulated, but Athens put Darius’ emissaries on trial and executed them.  Sparta didn’t bother with a trial.  They threw Darius’ ambassadors down a well. “There is your earth”, they said. “There is your water”.

Athens and Sparta were now effectively at war with the Persian Empire.

2507 years ago, Darius sent an amphibious expedition to the Aegean, attacking Naxos and sacking Eritrea.   A force of some 600 triremes commanded by the Persian General Datis and Darius’ own brother Artaphernes then sailed for Attica, fetching up in a small bay near the town of Marathon, about 25 miles from Athens.

An army of 9,000-10,000 hoplites (armored infantry) marched out of Athens under the leadership of ten Athenian Strategoi (Generals), to face the 25,000 infantry and 1,000 cavalry of the Persians.  The Athenian force was soon joined by a full muster of 1,000 Plataean hoplites, while Athens’ swiftest runner Pheidippides was dispatched to Lacedaemon, for help.Pheidippides

The festival of Carneia was underway at this time, a sacrosanct religious occasion during which the Lacedaemonian (Spartan) army would not fight, under any circumstance.   Sparta would be unavailable until the next full moon, on September 9.  With 136 miles to Marathon, Spartan reinforcement was unlikely to arrive for the next week or more.

The Athenian force arrived at the Plain of Marathon around September 7, blocking the Persian route into the interior.

Facing a force more than twice as large their own, Greek Generals split 5 to 5 whether to risk battle.

Greco Persian

A “Polemarch” is an Athenian civil dignitary, with full voting rights in military matters.  General Miltiades, who enjoyed a degree of deference due to his experience fighting Persians, went to the Polemarch Callimachus, for the deciding vote.

The stakes are difficult to overstate.  Arguably, the future of Western Civilization hung in the balance.

With Athens behind them now defenseless, its every warrior here on the plain of Marathon, Miltiades spoke.  ‘With you it rests, Callimachus, either to bring Athens to slavery, or, by securing her freedom, to be remembered by all future generations…We generals are ten in number, and our votes are divided.  Half of us wish to engage, half to avoid a combat. Now, if we do not fight, I look to see a great disturbance at Athens which will shake men’s resolutions, and then I fear they will submit themselves. But, if we fight the battle…we are well able to overcome the enemy.’

With less than a mile between them, the two armies had faced one another for five days and five nights.  On September 12, 490BC, the order went down the Athenian line.  “At them!”

Marathon ChargeWeighed down with 70lbs per man of bronze and leather armor, the Greek line likely marched out to 200 yards, the effective range of Persian archers.  Greek heavy infantry closed the last 200 meters at a dead run, the first time a Greek army had fought that way.

Persian shafts flew by the thousands, yet the heavy armor and wooden shields of the hoplite formation, held.  Bristling with arrows yet seemingly unhurt, the Greek phalanx smashed into the Persian adversary, like an NFL front line into an ‘Antifa” demonstration.

Tom Holland, author of Persian Fire, describes the impact.  “The enemy directly in their path … realized to their horror that [the Athenians], far from providing the easy pickings for their bowmen, as they had first imagined, were not going to be halted … The impact was devastating. The Athenians had honed their style of fighting in combat with other phalanxes, wooden shields smashing against wooden shields, iron spear tips clattering against breastplates of bronze … in those first terrible seconds of collision, there was nothing but a pulverizing crash of metal into flesh and bone; then the rolling of the Athenian tide over men wearing, at most, quilted jerkins for protection, and armed, perhaps, with nothing more than bows or slings. The hoplites’ ash spears, rather than shivering … could instead stab and stab again, and those of the enemy who avoided their fearful jabbing might easily be crushed to death beneath the sheer weight of the advancing men of bronze“.

Darius’ force was routed, driven across the beach and onto waiting boats.  6,400 Persians lay dead in the sand, an unknown number were chased into coastal swamps, and drowned.  Athens lost 192 men that day, Plataea, 11.

Marathon Battle

In the popular telling of this story, Pheidippides ran the 25 miles to Athens and announced the victory with the single word “Nenikēkamen!” (We’ve won!”), and dropped dead.

That version first appeared in the writings of Plutarch, some 500 years later.  It made for a good story for the first Olympic promoters, too, back in 1896, but that’s not the way it happened.

Herodotus of Halicarnassus, described by no less a figure than Cicero as the “Father of History”, tells us that Pheidippides was already spent.  No wonder.  The man had run 140 miles from Athens to Lacedaemon, to ask for Spartan assistance.

Despite the exhaustion of battle and the weight of all that armor, the Athenian host marched the 25 miles back home, arriving in time to head off the Persian fleet.  The Spartans arrived at Marathon the following day, having covered 136 miles in three days.

Though a great victory for the Greeks, Darius’ loss at Marathon barely put a dent in the vast resources of the Achaemenid Empire.  The Persian King, would return.

September 8, 480BC (est.) Thermopylae

Simonides’ famous encomium to the dead was inscribed on a commemorative stone at Thermopylae, atop a hill on which the Greeks made their final stand. “Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by, that here, obedient to Spartan law, we lie.”

In 490BC, Persian King Darius I sent an amphibious expedition into the Aegean, only to be defeated by a far smaller force of Athenians at the Bay of Marathon.

As Achaemenid Emperor, leader of the most powerful state of his time, King Darius I was sovereign over 21 million square miles and more.  He had more to deal with than a handful of malcontents in the Peloponnese.  At the moment, Darius had an Egyptian revolt to put down, but the “King of Kings'” would be back.  He had a score to settle with the Greeks.   King Darius died before he was through, so it was that the Persian King Xerxes would return to finish what his father had begun, ten years earlier.

In 480BC, news of a massive Persian army on the move reached Lacedaemonia, principal region of the Spartan state.  De facto military leaders of the Greek alliance, the Spartans were then celebrating the religious festival of Carneia.  Spartan law forbade military activity at this time, the same reason they had shown up late at Marathon, ten years earlier.   Spartan leaders went to the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, for advice.

The-Oracle-of-Delphi-Apollo-Talks-2
The Temple of Apollo, at Delphi

The Oracle at Delphi was a seer, usually selected from among epileptics, as the Greeks believed seizures were evidence that the person was in touch with the Gods. A careful ritual was observed, before the Priestess would speak.  First she would bathe in the Castalian Spring, before drinking from another stream. A priest would then pour ice water over a goat, to determine the presence of Apollo. The goat’s shivering was understood to indicate that the God was present, and that he had invested his powers in the Oracle. If the signs were fortuitous, the Oracle would then inhale the gas emitted from a chasm near the temple.  With volcanic gasses rising from the ground beneath her, the “Pythia” would then mount to the Tripod.  Only then would she speak.

Priestess of Delphi
Oracle at the Temple of Apollo, at Delphi

“Hear your fate”, she said. “O dwellers in Sparta of the wide spaces.  Either your famed, great town must be sacked by Perseus’ sons, or, if that be not, the whole land of Lacedaemon shall mourn the death of a king of the house of Heracles. For not the strength of lions or of bulls shall hold him, strength against strength; for he has the power of Zeus, and will not be checked until one of these two he has consumed.”

For King Leonidas of Sparta, the meaning was clear.  He himself would have to die, to fulfill the Oracle’s prophesy.

Leonidas gathered up a small blocking force of 300 Spartan Peers, all of them “Sires”. This was understood to be a suicide mission. Leonidas wanted only those warriors who would leave behind, a son.

Several Greek city states were technically at war with one another in 480BC, but that was dropped, as preparations were made for a two-pronged defense. An allied Greek navy would meet the Persian triremes at the straits of Artemisium, while an army of Hoplites, Greek heavy infantry, would meet the Persian army at the narrow pass known as the “Hot Gates”.  Thermopylae.

Thermopylae topoThe 300 marched out at the head of an allied army of 7,000, to meet a Persian army which modern estimates put at 100,000 to 150,000. A native of Trachis told the Spartan General Dienekes, that Persian archers were so numerous their arrows would block out the sun. “Good”, replied Dienekes. “Then we shall fight in the shade”.

When the overwhelming Persian army demanded the Spartans lay down their arms, Leonidas’ response was short and sweet.  “Molon Labe”, he said.  Come and get them.

The two armies collided, on or about the 8th of September, 480BC.  Thermopylae, a mountain pass delineated by the Phocian Wall on one side and the Aegean Sea on the other, measured the width of two carts abreast. Great piles of Persian dead choked the pass by the end of the 9th, but nothing that Xerxes could throw at the Greek heavy infantry could break their phalanx.

A traitor to his people then rose among the local population, Ephialtes of Trachis, who led the Persians through a narrow path to come around behind the Greek line.

ThermopylaeKnowing he was betrayed and would soon be surrounded, Leonidas sent most of the allied soldiers away.  They would be needed for the battle yet to come.

On day three, King Leonidas was left with his 300 Spartans, 700 Thespian allies, and an unreliable contingent of 400 Thebans.  True to form, the Theban band defected en masse to the Persian side, at the earliest opportunity.  Still, the hordes of Xerxes were unable to break through the Greek line, even on two fronts.  They backed off and rained down arrows from a distance, until no Greek was left standing.

Artemisium devolved into a meaningless stalemate, yet the Greek alliance had demonstrated itself more than capable of standing up to the mightiest empire of its time.   Athens, lacking the manpower to fight simultaneously on land and sea, abandoned their city to be burnt to the ground.  The regrouped Greek Navy crushed the Persians at Salamis.  The last Persian invader was driven off the Greek mainland the following August, following the Greek victory at Plataea.

Simonides’ famous encomium to the dead was inscribed on a commemorative stone at Thermopylae, atop a hill on which the Greeks made their final stand.  The original stone is gone now, but the epitaph was engraved on a new stone in 1955.

“Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by, that here, obedient to Spartan law, we lie.”

battlefield-of-thermopylae

September 5, 1698 Death and Taxes

There have always been taxes, but over the years some governments have come up with truly imaginative ways to fleece their citizens.

It’s been said that there are only two sure things in life. None of us get out of here alive, and the government thinks it’s entitled to what you earn. Or something like that.

There have always been taxes, but over the years some governments have come up with truly imaginative ways to fleece their citizens.

In England, there is a “Telly Tax” paid in the form of a television license. There’s good news though; you only have to pay half if you’re legally blind. This is in addition to the council tax, income tax, fuel tax, road tax, value added tax, pasty tax, national insurance, business rates, stamp duty, and about a thousand other taxes. But hey, the health care is free.

Nebraska, $10 Tax Stamp on Illegal Drugs
Nebraska’s $10 Tax Stamp on Illegal Drugs

Tennessee passed a “Crack Tax” on illegal drugs in 2005, which drug dealers were expected to pay anonymously in exchange for a tax stamp (don’t ask).   The measure was found unconstitutional in 2009, on grounds that it violated the drug dealer’s fifth amendment right to protection from self-incrimination.

Milwaukee attorney Robert Henak became a collector of state drug tax stamps, not long after helping to overturn Wisconsin’s crack tax on similar grounds.

Undeterred, then-Governor Elliott Spitzer proposed a tax on illegal drugs as part of the Empire State’s 2008-9 budget, making the New York the 30th state to pass such a measure.   “Mr. Clean” stepped down in a hooker scandal, amid threats of impeachment by state lawmakers.  The state Senate passed a budget resolution the following day, specifically rejecting the crack tax.

Massachusetts will charge you a “meals tax” on five donuts, but not 6.  Handy to know, next time you want to plow into a box of donuts, in a sitting.

Illinois taxes candy at a higher rate than food. Any item containing flour or requiring refrigeration is taxed at the lower rate, because it’s not candy. So, yogurt covered raisins are candy, but yogurt covered pretzels are food. Baby Ruth bars are candy, but Twix bars are food. Get it?  Neither do I.FART Tax

New Zealand proposed a tax on bovine flatulence in 2003, to curb “Global Warming”.  New Zealand’s farmers made an almighty fuss over a tax on cow farts, and red-faced politicians quietly dropped the proposal.

President Obama levied a 10% tax on indoor tanning in 2010, leading to 10,000 of the nation’s 18,000 tanning salons closing, with a loss of 100,000 jobs. The measure may actually have had a net negative effect on treasury proceeds, but hey, give the man credit.  He figured out how to tax white people.

Indoor Tanning Tax-10

In 1696, England introduced a property tax based on the number of windows in your home. Homeowners bricked up windows to avoid the tax, leaving them ready to be re-Bricked up windowglazed at some future date.

England repealed their window tax in 1851 and France in 1926, but there are still homes with bricked up windows. Perhaps they’re getting ready for window tax version 2.0. Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne proposed just that, as recently as 2012.

At one point, Holland levied a tax on the width of homes. Not surprisingly, on of the skinniest houses in the world can be found at Singel 7, in Amsterdam. It’s a meter across, barely wider than the door.Skinny House

On this day in 1698, Czar Peter I had just returned from a trip to Europe, and he was hot to “modernize” Russia. All those European guys were clean shaven, so Peter introduced a tax on beards.

When you paid your beard tax of 100 Rubles, (peasants and clergy were exempt), you had to carry a “beard token”. Two phrases were inscribed on the coin: “The beard tax has been taken” and “The beard is a superfluous burden”.  Failure to shave or pay the tax might lead to your beard being forcibly cut off your face. Some unfortunates had theirs pulled out by the roots, by Peter himself.

Beard_token
Czar Peter’s Beard Token

When King Henry I reigned over England (1100 – 1135), people who avoided military service were charged a “Cowardice Tax” called a”Scutage”. It was modest at first, but Richard Lionheart’s little brother John raised it by 300% when he became King, charging even his knights in years when there were no wars.  It’s no small part of what led to the Magna Carta.

Often, taxes are used to shape social policy.

CHINESE_COOLIESIn 1862, the California legislature passed a tax on Chinese residents, entitled “An Act to Protect Free White Labor against Competition with Chinese Coolie Labor, and to Discourage the Immigration of Chinese into the State of California.”

The new law levied a tax of $2.50 per month on every ethnically Chinese individual residing within the state, and followed a gold rush era measure levying a tax of $3.00 a month on all Chinese miners.  This at a time when the average gold miner made $6 per month.

Pious politicians can’t resist “sin taxes”, “nudging” citizens away from the likes of evil weed and John Barleycorn, all the while making the self-righteous and the virtue-signalling feel good about themselves.John Barleycorn Must Die

I wonder.  If cigarette taxes are supposed to encourage smoking cessation and taxes on Chinese were supposed to decrease competition from coolie labor, what are income taxes are supposed to do?

Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton introduced the first tobacco tax in 1794, and they’ve been with us ever since.

Federal and state governments both get their vig on a pack of cigarettes, ranging from 30 cents a pack in Virginia, to $4.35 in New York. Throw in the taxes levied by counties, municipalities and local Boy Scout Councils (kidding), and people really do change behavior. Just, not always in the intended direction. There is a tiny Indian reservation on Long Island, home to a few hundred and measuring about a square mile. Their cigarette taxes are near zero and, until recently, they “smoked” about a hundred million packs a year.

European governments levied a tax on soap in the middle ages, leading to memorable changes in personal hygiene, I’m sure.

In ancient Egypt, Pharoah levied a tax on cooking oil.  It was illegal to re-use the stuff, but no worries. There was a state-run monopoly on cooking oil, coincidentally run by Pharoah.

vespasianiIn the first century AD, Roman Emperors Nero and Vespasian levied a tax on piss. Honest.  In those days, the lower classes pee’d into pots which were emptied into cesspools.

Urine was collected for a number of chemical processes such as tanning, and it did a swell job whitening woolen togas. When Vespasian’s son Titus complained about the disgusting nature of the tax, his father showed him a gold coin, saying “Pecunia non olet”. “Money does not stink”.

To this day, Italian public urinals are called vespasiani, in France they’re vespasiennes. And if you need to pee in Romania, you could visit the vespasiene.

My personal favorite might be the long distance tax that used to appear on your phone bill. It began as a “Tax the Rich” scheme, to pay for the Spanish-American war, in 1898.  Nobody ever had long distance phone charges but rich guys, right? The tax was discontinued in 2005, as the result of a lawsuit. We must not be too hasty about these things.

August 25, 1830  Night at the Opera

In 1914, Imperial Germany took a straight line through neutral Belgium into France, believing that Great Britain would never honor a “scrap of paper” signed back in 1839. 

In 1830, what is now Belgium was part of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands, a fusion of territories brought about in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars, formerly belonging to the Dutch Republic, Austrian Netherlands, and Prince-Bishopric of Liège. It was a Constitutional Monarchy,  ruled by the first King of the Netherlands, King William I.

The “Southern Provinces” of King William’s polity were almost all Catholic, and mostly French speaking, in contradistinction to the Dutch speaking, mostly Protestant north.  Many southern liberals of the time thought King William a despot and tyrant, and high levels of industrial unemployment made for widespread unrest among the working classes.la muette

La Muette de Portici (The Mute Girl of Portici) is an opera in five acts by Daniel Auber.  Generally recognized as the earliest of the French Grand Opera, it was first performed at the Paris Opéra on February 29 1828.   During an August 25, 1830 performance, a riot broke out during one particularly patriotic duet, Amour sacré de la patrie, (Sacred love of Fatherland).  Soon it was spilling out onto the street, a full-scale riot spreading across Brussels and igniting other riots as shops were looted, factories occupied and machinery destroyed.

King William committed troops to the southern provinces in an effort to restore order, while radicals asserted control of rioting factions and began talk of secession.  Dutch military units experienced massive desertion of recruits from the southern provinces, and had to pull out.

The States-General in Brussels voted in favor of secession and declared independence, assembling a National Congress while King William appealed to the Great Powers for help. The resulting 1830 London Conference of major European powers came to recognize Belgian independence, and Leopold I was installed as “King of the Belgians”.Leopold_I_of_Belgium

King William made one more attempt to reconquer Belgium militarily, in 1831.  France intervened with troops of its own and the “Ten Days’ Campaign” ended in failure.  The European powers signed the “Treaty of London” in 1839, recognizing and guaranteeing Belgium’s independence and neutrality.

The German Composer Wilhelm Richard Wagner remarked on the events decades later, saying that “[S]eldom has an artistic product stood in closer connection with a world-event”.

In August 1914, Imperial Germany’s plan in the event of war could be likened to one guy against two in a bar fight, (Germany vs France & Russia).  The plan was to take out the nearer one first (France), before turning to face the second.  Imperial Germany took a straight line through neutral Belgium into France, believing that Great Britain would never honor that “scrap of paper” signed back in 1839.

In this German calculations were grievously mistaken.  A regional squabble had begun that June, with an assassination in the Balkans.  That miscalculation would plunge the world into two world wars.