January 16, 27BC Republic

“Many Romans themselves put the key turning point in 133 BC. This was the year when a young aristocrat, Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus, held the office of ‘tribune’ (a junior magistracy which had originally been founded to protect the interests of the common people). As one ancient writer put it, this was when ‘daggers first entered the forum”. – BBC

According to legend, Romulus and Remus were the sons of Rhea Silvia, the daughter of King Numitor of Alba Longa, a mythical city located in the Alban Hills southeast of what would become Rome.  Numitor was deposed by his younger brother Amulius, who forced Rhea to become a vestal virgin so that she would not give birth to rival claimants to his throne. She however, was already pregnant by the war god Mars, destined to give birth, to twins.

Romulus and Remus, by Rubens

Learning of the birth, Amulius ordered the infants Romulus and Remus drowned in the Tiber river. The twins survived, washing ashore at the foot of the Palatine hill, where the two were suckled by a she-wolf.

Later discovered by the shepherd Faustulus, the boys were reared by he and his wife. Much later, the brothers became leaders of a band of young shepherd warriors. On learning their true identity, the twins attacked Alba Longa, killed King Amulius, and restored their grandfather to the throne.

Romulus and Remus founded a town on the site of their salvation, the traditional date being April 21, 753BC. Romulus later murdered his brother after some petty quarrel, making himself sole ruler of the settlement which he modestly called “Rome”, in his own honor.

Except, the whole story, is nonsense. Much like a centurion with a cell phone.

It’s more likely that first three hundred years were a scrap for survival. If anyone had time to write down a serious history, it’s been lost.

Sparse factual material was embellished by later generations with some facts exaggerated or invented outright, while the more embarrassing episodes, were “disappeared”. This early or Regal period is said to be a time of six Kings, benevolent rulers all except for the seventh, a cruel tyrant known as Lucius Tarquinius Superbus.

According to legend, Tarquin was overthrown by public uprising, around 509/510BC. Etruscan civilization, dominant over the Italian peninsula since 900BC, had begun to lose hold. A series of wars would see the ascension of the Latin League (albeit temporarily), at the expense of the Etruscan league. The siege of Veii in 396BC brought the ancient Etruscan city into the Roman orbit.

The last remnants were absorbed in 27BC as Republic morphed into Empire, but now I’m getting ahead of the story.

Rather than restoring the monarchy, the Romans replaced the kingship with two annually elected magistrates, or Consuls. The Republic, was born.

The historian Livy tells us, the first 200 years of Republic was a never ending struggle between two social orders: Patricians and Plebeians. The privileged classes, and the common citizen.

The republic built a governing system of three branches with checks and balances and a strong aversion to the concentration of power.

The executive branch or Consuls (usually two) were primarily Generals, whose job was to lead the republican military in war. In times of national emergency, Rome would appoint a dictator in place of Consuls, a military leader entrusted with supreme command for no more than six months.

The Senate consisted of 300 who served, for life. Primarily an advisory body, the Senate focused mostly on foreign policy but exercised considerable jurisdiction over civil affairs, as the Senate controlled the treasury. At first exclusive to ex-consuls and other members of the Patrician class, the Senate would later open to members of the Plebian class.

Last came the Assemblies, the most democratic branch of Republican government, of which there were four.

Within fifteen years, the crushing debt of endless wars and the excesses of the publicani, the ruthless, usurious contractors hired by the state to collect taxes, brought the Plebeians to open revolt. There was talk of assassinating a Consul. The Plebs seceded in 493BC in much the same way, as a modern labor strike. With the economy ground to a halt, the popular ex-consul Agrippa Menenius was sent to negotiate, resulting in a direct representative of the common man, in the Assembly. This was the Tribune of the Plebs of which there were two, and later ten.

With their physical person sacrosanct, anyone who laid a hand on them was subject to death, the Tribune of the Plebs was uniquely able to propose and veto legislation and to rescue commoners, from the hands of Patrician magistrates. Several important offices opened to the Plebs by the 4th century BC, up to and including that of Consul, and Dictator

The working classes left the city en masse, leaving the wealthy elite, to fend for themselves.

In theory, the Tribune of the Plebs brought representation for the common citizen. In practice, such powers in the hands of demagogues, would bring about the death of the Republic.

By the 5th century, the people of Gaul (modern-day France, parts of Belgium, western Germany and northern Italy) migrated south to the Mediterranean coast. Disaster struck in 390BC as war bands of the Gallic Chieftain Brennus swept out of the north, easily defeating Roman defenses at the river Allia and capturing and sacking much of Rome, itself.

The sack of Rome doesn’t seem to have been the disaster, described in Roman legend. Little archeological evidence exists to support the idea of a sustained sack and burning of the city. Very possibly, Brennus and his band were headed south to sign on as mercenaries, in service to Dionysius of Syracuse.

Maybe all they wanted was the sort of plunder easily carried away. Like the gold they were paid to get out of town which they happily did, following a 7-month siege.

There followed forty years of hard fighting in Latium and Etruria to restore the power of Rome. Be that as it may, the Gallic bogey man would live on in the Roman psyche.

The Latin war of 340-338BC ended in victory for the Republic, placing Rome in control of central Italy. The next three decades saw the conquest and colonization of the Samnites to the north and the Greek principalities, to the south. By 275BC, Rome was master of all Italy.

Meanwhile, a child was born in Carthage some 1,500 miles to the south, who would rock the Roman world. His name was Hamilcar Barca.

The 3rd century BC was a time of endless military campaign for the Roman Republic, no fewer than 68 of them.

Outward expansion inevitably brought the Republic into conflict with the other major Mediterranean power of the age, the ancient Phoenician seafaring civilization long since settled in north Africa, called Carthage.

Hamilcar Barca was a great general in the first of three wars between Rome and Carthage, the longest continuous conflict and the greatest naval war, of antiquity. The 1st Punic War went badly for Carthage and ended on harsh terms, including the loss of that famous navy. Hamilcar died in 228BC most likely drowning in the Jucar River but he lived on in a way, in the form of the Roman’s worst nightmare – Hamilcar’s sons sworn to eternal hate for Rome, Hasdrubal, Mago and possibly the greatest field commander in history, the general Hannibal.

In 218BC, Hannibal crossed into hostile Gaul at the head of 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 almost half of his force before entering Italy that December.

The first of several major battles took place on December 18, 218BC, on the banks of the Trebia River. The army of Hannibal was near invincible, defeating Roman legions in one major engagement after another. Trebia, Lake Trasimene, Cannae: where Hannibal annihilated nearly down to the man, the largest Roman army, ever assembled. For sixteen years, Hannibal’s Carthaginians 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.

By the 1st century BC, Roman power all but encircled the Mediterranean, from modern-day Spain to Syria, from Normandy to North Africa.

Such diverse, conquered peoples proved ever more difficult to govern as troops were stationed literally everywhere, ready to use force, if necessary. In Rome itself, citizens suffered under a government that always seemed to be looking, elsewhere. Roman made goods and produce became ever more expensive as locals found themselves unable to compete, with the provinces. Many migrated to the city where, increasingly, those in public service sought to placate the masses with handouts, and lavish entertainments.

In the late first and early second centuries (AD), the Roman poet Juvenal spoke of the period in his Satires, of a population no longer dedicated to the sacred birthright of public service, of civic engagement, preferring instead panem et circenses. Bread and circuses.

In the end, the Republic died by its own hand, a victim of internal politics.

In the middle years of the Republic, legionaries were required to serve out entire campaigns, regardless of length. Larger homesteads could always count on the labor of slaves while smaller farms were left in the hands of wives and children. These often went bankrupt, properties bought cheaply by an increasingly wealthy and avaricious, upper class.

According to Plutarch, “[W]hen Tiberius on his way to Numantia passed through Etruria and found the country almost depopulated and its husbandmen and shepherds imported barbarian slaves, he first conceived the policy which was to be the source of countless ills to himself and to his brother.”

Tiberius and his brother were the Gracchus brothers, important populist politicians of the late Republic. Tiberius, a hero of the 3rd Punic war, instituted reforms redistributing lands, back to the poor. Tiberius became a hero to the poorer classes and hated by the wealthy, so much so that he and 300 supporters were beaten to death with stones and clubs, in 132BC.

The Senate attempted to placate the Plebs by enforcing Gracchus’ land reforms but, ten years later, Tiberius’ younger brother and heir to his populist politics Gaius, would share the fate of his brother.

The Gracchi were gone but the animus between Populares and Optimates, had never been greater.

The first of several civil wars began in 88BC with a struggle for power between two men.

Elected Consul an unprecedented seven times, Gaius Marius implemented military reforms, transforming the loyalty of the soldiery from the republic, to their commander. Lucius Cornelius Sulla was the ambitious son of a Patrician family.

Outmaneuvered by Marius for supreme command of the 1st war against King Mithradates of Pontus (eastern Turkey), Sulla gathered his allies and marched under arms, against Rome. It was an unprecedented act of hostility duplicated by Marius himself and his allies, on Sulla’s return to Pontus. The murderous “reforms” of Marius and his Populares paled in comparison to the second return of Sulla and his Optimates.

Imagine finding your name on a list published by your government, knowing that meant you were “proscribed”. Whosoever of your fellow citizens who found and killed you, was entitled to your worldly possessions. The names of as many 4,700 “enemies of the state” were nailed to the wall of the Roman Forum during the “proscriptions” of the Dictator Sulla.

Forty years later, a General’s marching on Rome at the head of an army was still an act of war, though hardly “unprecedented”. With the words “the die is cast”, Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon river on January 10, 49BC, igniting another civil war. Caesar emerged victorious in early 44BC to be appointed, “Dictator for Life”. The very idea was an affront to traditional Roman sensibilities. Caesar was murdered by a cabal of Senators on March 15. The “Ides of March“.

Caesar’s killers believed they were saving the Republic but their actions, had the opposite effect. The assassination sparked a period of civil war and political instability from which Octavian, the adopted son of Julius Caesar, emerged victorious over Marc Antony and his Greek princess ally turned Egyptian Queen, Cleopatra.

Octavian was crowned the first emperor of Rome on January 16, 27BC and given the honorific title, “Augustus”. The Republic was dead. The era of Empire, had begun.

September 28, BC551 The Power of an Idea

Many of the man’s teachings are as fresh and meaningful today as when he himself trod the earth, 2½ thousand years ago.

A boy was born this day in the Zou state of eastern China, a region now known as the Shandong Province. 

The year was BC551.  He was born into the class of Shi, one of four loose castes or “categories of people” comprising the social structure of ancient China and represented by “gentry scholars”.  Kǒng Fūzǐ (Master Kǒng) was educated in the “six arts”:  Traditional Rites, Music, Archery, Chariotry, Calligraphy and Arithmetic, the mastery of which was believed to represent a state of perfection known as junzi, or “respectable person”.

Kǒng’s father Kǒng He died when the boy was three. He was raised in poverty by his mother, Yan Zhengzai.  Even as a teenager, the boy showed a voracious appetite for learning, a trait which would serve him well, in later life.

Kǒng Fūzǐ worked a number of government jobs through his twenties such as bookkeeper and caretaker for sheep and horses and finally, “Minister of Crime”. He is best remembered not for his political career however, but as the learned teacher, scholar and philosopher, his name transliterated by a 16th-century Jesuit missionary as…Confucius.

 Confucius’ teachings emphasized personal and governmental morality, uprightness in social relationships, respect for family and the veneration of ancestors.  2,500 years later, countless tidbits of conventional wisdom begin with the words “Confucius say“.

Many of the man’s teachings are as fresh and meaningful today as when he himself trod the earth, 2½ thousand years ago.

A disciple called Zi Gong once asked: “Is there any one word that could guide a person throughout life?” Centuries later, the master’s response would find voice in the great Jewish scholars Hillel and Philo of Alexandria, and in the writings of Plato, Aristotle, Isocrates, and Seneca. We in the West, know it as “The Golden Rule”. The Teacher replied: “How about ‘reciprocity’! Never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself.”

To some, Confucianism represents a continuation of an aboriginal Chinese religion, dating back some three thousand years.

Confucius himself claimed to have invented nothing, that he was only transmitting ancient ideas, but European admirers such as Voltaire saw in his teachings not the endless inheritance of “noble virtue” but a “meritocracy” of a sort which would have been familiar to the American founding fathers. A belief system in which the virtuous commoner who cultivates the teachings of the master was a superior being, better in every way to the shameless and wastrel sons of kings.

Such thinking took hold during the mid-Tang dynasty (AD618 – 907) in the form of “Imperial Examinations”, and lasted until the late Qing reforms of 1905. In theory, Confucian meritocracy took the form of written examinations, necessary to enter the civil service. In practice, the three-tiered examination produced a vast unemployable class among those holding the shengyuan or basic degree, while the highest or jinshi achieved degrees of difficulty to be feared as nothing short of savage.

Hong Xiuquan (born “Hong Huoxiu” on January 1, 1814) began studying for the exam, at age 5. By six the boy could recite from memory, the Four Books of Confucianism. Preliminary civil service examinations were easy for a boy who placed first and yet, the third level remained elusive. Years later, Hong Huoxiu took his first stab at the jinshi, an exam which fewer that 1%, ever passed. There was a second attempt at age 22 and a third in 1837 and each time…defeat. It was too much. His was a lifetime’s labor met with failure and the nervous and mental breakdown, was absolute. Hallucinations wracked his body and his mind for weeks and, when he emerged, he did so as the younger brother of Jesus Christ. According to him, quite literally.

Hong set about burning and destroying all the Confucian and Buddhist statues and books he could find, first in his home village and then others. The uprising of the “God Worshippers” would cascade and grow to straight-out civil war. Twenty to thirty million Chinese lay dead by the end of the “Taiping Rebellion”, by some counts as many as 70 million, a death toll only surpassed by World War II, some 100 years later.

Today, a likeness of the Master appears on a marble frieze, located on the courtroom’s south wall of the United States Supreme Court, along with the likes of Hammurabi, Octavian, Moses and Solomon.

Fun Fact: The Analects of Confucius is a written record of the sayings of the philosopher and his contemporaries, compiled in the centuries following his death in BC479. 

In it, a follower called Yen Yüan asked the Master about perfect virtue. Confucius said, “To subdue one’s self and return to propriety, is perfect virtue. If a man can for one day subdue himself and return to propriety, all under heaven will ascribe perfect virtue to him”. 

“I beg to ask the steps of that process”, asked Yen Yüan, to which the Master replied, “Look not at what is contrary to propriety.  Listen not to what is contrary to propriety.  Speak not what is contrary to propriety.  Make no movement which is contrary to propriety”.

The Confucian maxim may have crossed from China to Japan with a Tendai-Buddhist legend, sometime around the 8th century. At the time, the story had nothing to do with monkeys.

In medieval Japanese, mi-zaru, kika-zaru, and iwa-zaru translate as “don’t see, don’t hear, and don’t speak”, -zaru being an archaic negative verb conjugation and pronounced similarly to “saru”, the word for monkey.

The visual play on words, then, depicts Mizaru, covering his eyes, Kikazaru, covering his ears, and Iwazaru, covering his mouth. Although it’s rare to see him anymore, there is a fourth monkey. Shizaru is generally depicted with his arms crossed or covering his privates, the name variously translated as “do no evil”, or “know no evil”.

The first known depiction of the “Three Mystic Apes” appears over the doors of the Tōshō-gū shrine in Nikkō, Japan, carved sometime in the 17th century.

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was a Hindu lawyer, member of the merchant caste from coastal Gujarat, in western India. Today he is known by the honorific “Mahatma”, from the Sanskrit “high-souled”, or “venerable”. He is recognized as the Father of modern India, who brought Independence to his country through non-violent protest. Gandhi owned almost no material possessions at the time of his assassination by a Hindu nationalist on January 30, 1948, preferring instead, a life of simplicity and poverty. Beside the clothes on his back, Gandhi owned a tin cup and a spoon, a pair of sandals, his spectacles, and a carved set of 3 monkeys, reminding him to hear no evil, see no evil and speak no evil.

May 28, 585BC Battle of the eclipse

Dating the historical events of antiquity with any kind of accuracy can be problematic, but not this one.  The “solar clock” can be run backward as well as forward.  Thanks to Herodotus, it’s possible to calculate the date with precision.   May 28 is one of the cardinal dates from which other dates in antiquity, may be calculated. 

On this day in 585BC, ancient precursors of the Iranian and Turkish people squared off for battle, along the banks of the River Halys in Asia minor.  They were the Indo-Iranian Medes inhabiting the west and north-west of modern Iran, and the Indo-European Lydians inhabiting the west of modern Turkey.  The two sides had been at war for 15 years

Sometime during the battle, the sky began to darken.  It wasn’t long before the sun was obliterated, altogether.   Stunned and terrified, the armies ceased fighting and laid down their weapons.Dating the historical events of antiquity with any kind of accuracy can be problematic, but not this one.  The Greek historian Herodotus wrote that the mathematician and astronomer Thales of Miletus predicted the eclipse in a year when the Medians and the Lydians were at war.    The “solar clock” can be run backward as well as forward.  Thanks to Herodotus, it’s possible to calculate the date with precision.   May 28 is one of the cardinal dates from which other dates in antiquity, may be calculated.

Interestingly, this is believed to be the first solar eclipse to be successfully predicted.

It wasn’t the first recorded eclipse of the sun, just the first to be foretold. Two Chinese astrologers lost their heads back in the 22nd or 23rd century BC, for failing to predict one.  Clay tablets from the Babylonian period record an eclipse in Ugarit in 1375 BC. Other records report solar eclipses which “turned day into night” in 1063 and 763 BC.

Eclipse of ThalesPredicting a solar eclipse isn’t the same as predicting an eclipse of the moon.  The calculations are far more difficult. When the moon passes through the shadow of the sun, the event can be seen over half the planet, the total eclipse phase lasting over an hour. In a solar eclipse, the shadow of the moon occupies only a narrow path.  The total eclipse phase at any given point, lasts only about 7½ minutes.

The method used by Thales to make his prediction is unknown. There is no record of the ancient Greeks predicting any further eclipses. It’s possible that he borrowed his methods from Egyptian astrologers, using their techniques of land measurement (geo-metry in Greek), later codified by Euclid and loved by 8th graders, the world over.unnamed-2Be that as it may, for the first time in history a full eclipse of the sun had been predicted beforehand.  The Battle of Halys marked the first time in history, that a war was ended when day turned to night.  Aylattes, King of Lydia and Cyaxares, King of the Medes, put down their weapons and declared a truce and their armies, followed suit.  With help from the kings of Cilicia and Babylon, the two sides negotiated a more permanent treaty.

To seal the bargain, Alyattes’ daughter Aryenis married Cyaxares’ son Astyages.  The Halys River, now known as the River Kızılırmak, was to become the border between the two peoples.

December 5, 63BC The Catiline Conspiracy

Lucius Sergius Catilina was a Roman Senator, 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 own wife, before being tried for adultery with a vestal virgin.

Following the overthrow of the  Monarchy in 509BC, the Rome of antiquity 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 a separation of powers principle, 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.

RomanRepublicFirstCenturyMap

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.

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Lucius Sergius Catilina

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 own wife, before being tried for adultery with a vestal virgin.

Catilina’s second wife, the formidable Aurelia Orestilla, reputedly murdered the Senator’s grown son, for objecting to the match.  The American political commentator and Rutgers professor Leonard A. Cole once said “You are not responsible for what your friends do, but you will be judged by the company you keep“. Seems about right, to me.

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.

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H/T zbrushcentral.com for this astonishing representation, of the second wife of Catilina

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.

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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.

history-catalineAt 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. By the time of his assassination, the Emperor had carried on with Servilia Caepionis, for years. Servilia 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.

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Ciaran Hinds plays Julius Caesar in the series Rome

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

It seems unlikely that Brutus murdered his own father on the Ides of March.  The dates don’t seem to work out. Still, it makes you wonder…

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