Places In History: Villa Adriana at Tivoli

Some 18 miles outside of the great city of Rome lies one of the greatest, but lesser known, remains of the Empire, the Villa Adriana at Tivoli.  The ruins of this beautiful palace and its gardens are among the most beautiful places I have ever visited.  The complex served as a retreat from the pressures of governing for the Emperor Hadrian.  The palace was constructed during the 110s CE and is known for combining many of the architectural achievements of Egypt, Greece, and Rome.  It wonderfully combines waterworks, landscaping, and architecture in a truly astonishing way.  Take a look at the pictures below and, next time you are in Rome, get out of the city for a bit and visit this striking UNESCO World Heritage site.

Featured Image. “The Canopus.” CC BY-SA 3.0.
The Emperor’s Abode: Hadrian’s Villa.Discover Italy.
Villa Adriana  (Tivoli).” UNESCO.
Canopus.” Public Domain.
Mosaic Floor.” By Jastrow – Own work, Public Domain.
Maritime Theatre.” By Tango7174 – Own work, GFDL.
Villa Adriana.” By AlMare – Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5.
Approach to Villa Adriana.” CC BY-SA 3.0.

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TDISH: Crossing State Lines to Kill

On May 30, 1806, one of the most divisive and controversial individuals in American history, the future-president Andrew Jackson, fought a duel with an attorney from his home state of Tennessee.  The lawyer, Charles Dickinson, got on Jackson’s bad side by questing the latter’s honor over the results of a wager on a horse race.  At the time, Andrew Jackson was a general in the Tennessee state militia and a leading landowner in the growing city of Nashville.  Upon hearing that his honor was impugned, Jackson challenged Dickinson to a duel which was quickly accepted.  A problem arose since Tennessee had recently banned dueling, so the two men traveled a short distance north into Kentucky to resolve their dispute.

On the morning of the 30th, both men stood apart and prepared to kill.  Dickinson shot first.  He hit the future president in the chest, breaking several ribs.  The bullet lodged just inches from Jackson’s heart.  With his shot taken, Dickinson stood honorably as Jackson aimed his weapon and fired at his opponent.  Dickinson was struck in the stomach and, slowly, over many hours, succumbed to his wounds and died.  Jackson’s actions caused quite a stir in Nashville where people were scandalized by the behavior of one of their leading citizens.  Also, the wound he sustained in the duel never properly healed and caused him  quite a substantial amount of chronic pain over the rest of Jackson’s life.

Featured Image: “Andrew Jackson.” By Thomas Sully –, Public Domain.
Andrew Jackson.” American History. University of Gronigen, Netherlands.
Emery, Theo. “Killed in a Duel, Then Lost in the Earth.New York Times. 17 December 2007.

TDISH: The Fall of Constantinople

May 29, 1453 is one of the most significant dates in world history.  On this date, 563 years ago, the greatest city of Christendom, Constantinople, fell to Ottoman armies.  This event marked the end of the great Byzantine Empire, heir to Rome.  To learn more about this momentous event (and its ties to popular culture) check out this episode of the History Buffs Podcast in which I make a guest appearance: King’s Landing & Constantinople.

Featured Image: “Siege of Constantinople.” By Attributed to Philippe de Mazerolles – Bibliothèque nationale de France Manuscript Français 2691 folio CCXLVI v [1], Public Domain.
Mehmed the Conqueror.” By Gentile Bellini – The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH., Public Domain.
Mehmed at the Siege of Constantinople.” By Fausto Zonaro –, Public Domain.
Siege of Constantinople.” By © Sémhur / Wikimedia Commons, FAL.

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Places in History: Hattusa

In the highlands of north central Anatolia is located the capital of a long-forgotten civilization that, even today, is relatively little-known.  This site, Hattusa, was the center of the Hittite state that dominated much of modern Turkey and Syria during the second millennium BCE.  Hattusa was occupied from the third millennium BCE and went through several stages of occupation – each built atop the ruins of a previous settlement.  The most impressive remains date from the 16th – 11th centuries BCE when the city became the capital of the mighty Hittite empire.  The origins of the Hittite Empire remain lost to the mists of history, but their capital demonstrates an advanced state of city-building and urban planning.  The city was surrounded by a wall with five gates, the most famous of which are called the “Lion Gate” and the “Sphinx Gate” – so named due the sculptures that adorn them.  Hattusa was unknown to historians and archaeologists until it was first discovered in 1834.  The site has been under excavation for much of the 20th and 21st centuries – interrupted primarily by the two World Wars.  It was named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1986 due to its historical importance in the history of Western Asia.

Featured Image: “Great Temple.” By Bernard Gagnon – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0.
Hattusa.”(Flickr/CC BY 2.0)
Hattusa.” By China Crisis, CC BY-SA 2.0.
Lion Gate.” By Bernard Gagnon – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0.
Hattusa.” Ministry of Culture and Tourism. The Republic of Turkey.

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TDISH: A Modern Ghost Town Burning

On May 27, 1962, workers at the dump in Centralia, Pennsylvania lit a fire to burn up some trash – a normal part of their routine.  However, that day was to be anything but normal.  As the workers set the fire, gases rising to the surface from the massive coal seam that lay just below the men caught fire which then caused the coal itself to be ignited.  Despite the best efforts of local and state officials, the fuel source – the coal itself – was just too large for the fire to be brought under control.  As of today, fifty-three years later, the fire still burns underground.  It has killed the majority of vegetation in Centralia and the noxious fumes released by the blaze have caused the vast majority of the once-thriving town to move on.  Today, there is little left of Centralia – much of it has been demolished by officials to keep squatters from moving into the abandoned buildings.  Scientists expect the fire to continue burning for up to 250 more years!

Featured Image: “Smoke Rising from the Centralia Fire.” By Mredden at the English language Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0.
Krajick, Kevin. “Fire in the Hole.” Smithsonian Magazine. May 2005.

The Emperor’s Greatest Fear

On a warm May day, a young boy of thirteen from the dry, dusty edge of the great Middle Kingdom was suddenly thrust into manhood.  The man the boy had always known as father – the boy’s parental parentage was always a bit murky – died.  While for any teenager, the death of a parent is a big deal, the dead father was none other than King Zhuangxiang of Qin.  The boy was now King Zheng of Qin.

Qin_toursThankfully, King Zheng was not left entirely alone to navigate the treacherous seas of Chinese politics.  You see, he rose to the throne in the midst of a period of Warring States.  The Zhou Dynasty, which had been in power, at least nominally, was in its death throes.  The many smaller states of China had been fighting amongst themselves for dominance.  By Zheng’s ascension, this fight had been going on for almost 250 years and had seen many small states swallowed up by more powerful neighbors.  There were still seven leading states fighting for hegemony, of which Qin was only one.  The young king and his state would almost certainly have been swallowed up by this unforgiving maelstrom had it not been for Lü Buwei, the dead king’s chancellor who would serve as regent until Zheng reached maturity.  Rumors swirled that Zheng was not really the dead King’s son at all, but rather that of the court minister, which may account for some of the loyalty shown to the young man by Lü Buwei.

Another possible explanation for this loyalty is that Lü Buwei was in the midst of a not-so-secret affair with the Queen Dowager, Zheng’s mother and wife of the dead King, Zhao Ji.  What better way to date above your station than by propping up your lover’s son?  Engaging in an illicit tryst with the Queen Dowager when the monarch is a boy is one thing, but the ever-practical Lü Buwei broke off the affair as Zheng neared maturity – best to not mix business and pleasure once the boss could do something about it!

Zhao Ji, however, was not a woman to be put aside lightly, even in a patriarchal society like Qin.  Lü Buwei had to tread lightly so as not to offend this powerful woman.  Now, Zhao Ji had a reputation around the court as a connoisseur of men – she had large appetites and knew how to sate them.  The Chancellor had not gotten into his position by accident and knew how to manipulate situations to his advantage.  He therefore arranged to have a more appealing lover than himself presented to the Dowager Queen.  Lü Buwei arranged to bring in some entertainment for Zhao Ji featuring Lao Ai, a man who was so well-endowed that he was compared to a cart axle.  Suffice it to say, Zhao Ji was intrigued by this young man and she arranged for him to enter the royal household disguised as a eunuch.  In short order, this thin ruse fell apart when the king’s mother found herself pregnant.  In short order, she and her new lover had two new sons.

As is so often the case among royal houses, multiple sons led to conflict.  Since the birth of the new princes, Zheng had grown to maturity and took control over Qin government with Lü Buwei as his chief advisor.  Lao Ai and Zhao Ji, however, decided that they wanted the power over Qin for themselves and their new sons and so they plotted against Zheng in an attempt to overthrow him.  Before the scheme could come to fruition, several loyal retainers of the king caught wind of the plot and brought word to their lord.  Zheng had the conspirators arrested and he pronounced his judgement.  Lao Ai was castrated, removing his greatest asset, and then tied to five horses which were then driven in different directions.  Lao Ai met his end being torn limb from limb in front of the Queen Dowager, his lover.  Zheng could not bring himself to kill his mother, but he had her two illegitimate sons killed and exiled her to a remote nunnery where she lived out her days.  In Zhao Ji’s unheeded pleas for the lives of her younger sons, she implicated Lü Buwei in the plot, saying that he had brought Lao Ai to the palace in the first place.  Zheng’s wrath quickly fell onto his retainer who was exiled to a remote corner of Qin.  Lü Buwei drank a poison cocktail rather than live with the shame of banishment.  This traumatic series of events made it clear to the young king that he could trust no one and that the only way to retain his power was through ruthless means.  This would serve as a lesson that Zheng would never forget.

Upon the downfall of Lü Buwei, the Chancellorship was open and Zheng would fill it with Li Si, an influential legalist writer and politician whose ideas supported the young king’s experience that power needed to be held onto with a firm grasp.  During this period, Qin military supremacy began to become apparent as Zheng’s armies defeated one enemy state after another.  As Qin armies threatened the northeastern state of Yan, Zheng once again faced betrayal.  The prince of Yan feared for his state’s safety and called forth some of his most esteemed retainers to try to find a plan to put an end to the threat.  One of Zheng’s former generals, a man named Fan Wuji who had betrayed his Qin masters and had taken up residence in the now-besieged Yan, was among the group, as was Jing Ke, a scholar from a state that had already been ravaged by Qin armies.  The group determined that the only way to effectively rid Yan of the Qin menace was to kill Zheng – but how to do it?  He trusted no one and would not countenance weapons in his presence except for those he carried.  Gaining an audience with the very cautious king would be difficult indeed.  Jing Ke opined, “If only we had something Zheng wanted.”  All eyes turned to Fan Wuji, on whose head Zheng had put a price.  The former general nodded – if by his death the world was rid of the Qin menace, his death would be a noble one, indeed.  He proceeded to slit his own throat and his co-conspirators cut off his head to deliver to Zheng.

Jing Ke was elected to deliver Fan Wuji’s head to the court of Qin, posing as a Yan turncoat.  Along with the head, the scholar carried “secret” maps showing the troop deployment and fortifications of Yan.  However these maps contained something unusual, inside the tube with the rolled documents was a small poison-tipped dagger.  Jing Ke made his way to the Qin court Assassination_attempt_on_Qin_Shi_Huangand, using the former general’s head as an entrance ticket, was allowed into Zheng’s presence to present the king with his secret maps.  The king stood by at a table waiting as the spy unrolled the maps.  As Jing Ke revealed the dagger, he reached out and grabbed the hem of Zheng’s robe with one hand and struck out at the king with the dagger in the other hand.  Zheng, who had now realized what was happening, leapt backwards so the dagger passed harmlessly through the king’s cloak.  Zheng’s ministers stood by helplessly – no one but the king was armed and his long sword was useless in such a close quarters attack.  Zheng continued to retreat from his assailant and ducked behind a pillar in the midst of the throne room.  Jing Ke stumbled as he passed the pillar which gave the king room enough to draw his sword with which he struck out at the would-be-assassin.  His first blow struck home, disarming Jing Ke, but Zheng was not done – in his fury he hacked at the scholar stabbing him eight more times before Jing Ke lay dead in the midst of the Qin court.  First a coup attempted by his mother and now an assassination attempt through treacherous means.  Zheng’s distrust of others only grew.

The plot by Jing Ke was not to be the only assassination attempt on Zheng’s life.  The next attempt came scant months after the first.  One of Jing Ke’s closest friends was a man named Gao Jinali.  He wanted to avenge his friend so he changed his name and attempted to gain access to Zheng’s court as a lute player.  His plan was foiled, however, when he was recognized as a friend of the dead would-be-assassin.  As punishment for his plot, Zheng had the musician blinded, but would not kill such a talented musician.  Zheng ordered the now blind Jinali to play for him.  The lute player would not let a little thing like blindness keep him from his goal and had a lead pipe hidden in his lute.  When the King came close, Gao Jinali attempted to strike out at him with the pipe, but the blow failed to strike home due to his blindness.  At this time, Zheng had no choice but to execute the artist.  Thus ended the assassination attempt by Gao Jinali with the lead pipe in the throne room.

Shortly after this second assassination attempt, Zheng’s armies completed their conquest of Qinshihuang.jpgthe remaining warring states and, thus, became the first power to unify China.  Upon doing so, King Zheng was no longer an august enough title for the new master of the entire Middle Kingdom.  He created a new title for himself – the name by which he would be known to history – Qin Shi Huang, the Emperor of Qin.  As Emperor, Qin Shi Huang and his legalist, strict Chancellor Li Si would rule China with an iron fist.  Offenses against society were punished harshly – with the convicts often sent away to one of the massive new building projects implemented by the new imperial house.  Some were sent to the East to dig the Lingqu Canal connecting two great Chinese rivers, the Yellow and the Pearl.  Some were sent to the North to build what would, over the centuries, become the famous Great Wall.  All were marked in some way as criminals – often involving either a shaved head as a mark of shame, or for more serious crimes, tattooing on the cheek or forehead advertising to all the individual’s guilt.

Many of these convicts were punished in a way that went over and beyond the level of the crime and, because of this, many people chaffed under Qin Shi Huang’s rule.  It was during this time that the Emperor escaped yet another assassination attempt.  Zhang Liang, who would become an important figure in the Han Dynasty that would eventually overthrow Qin, attempted to kill Qin Shi Huang by having several strongmen through a heavy metal cone at the emperor’s carriage.  The projective was true to its target and succeeded in killing a Qin statesman, but the Emperor was in the next carriage in the procession and escaped once again.  In this case, the would-be assassin eluded capture and went into exile until after Qin Shi Huang’s death.

Having escaped three assassination attempts and a coup, Qin Shi Huang was now fully Xu_Fu_expedition's_for_the_elixir_of_life.jpgsuspicious of others and became obsessed with the idea of preserving his life.  Later in his reign, he began to send expeditions out into the great seas beyond China’s eastern edge in search for the mythical Eastern Islands where the Eight Immortals were supposed to live.  These eight men were sages of great renown who had discovered the elixir of life – the procuring of which had become the Emperor’s deepest desire.  Qin Shi Huang himself travelled from his capital in the West to the Eastern edge of his realm to better oversee the efforts of obtaining this elixir.  While on the search, numerous alchemists came forward with tonics purported to extend life.  Many of these tonics contained what we now know to be poisonous ingredients – including mercury – which, it should come as no surprise hastened Qin Shi Huang’s death, rather than prolonging his life.

Qin Shi Huang died while on his eastern excursion, but his death was hidden from all but the Chancellor and a few of the closest advisors.  Upon an emperor’s death, it was imperative for claimants to the throne to return to the capital to garner support and Li Si’s favorite to replace Qin Shi Huang, second son Huhai, was with him – far away from the capital and had to get back before his older brother found out about their father’s death.  Li Si and Huhai undertook an elaborate ruse in which the corpse of the First Emperor rode through his domains hidden from view in his royal carriage.  Food was delivered to the carriage at every mealtime as were fresh clothes every day.  The journey to the capital took over two months and in the meantime the Chancellor and the Prince continued to issue proclamations using the Emperor’s seal.  As the body began to rot, as all bodies do, the smell became overbearing and would have surely given the ruse away, had Li Si not arranged for two carts of dead, rotting fish to be pulled before and after that of the Emperor to mask the smell.  Nothing suspicious here!  All Emperors like to travel surrounded by dead fish!

Upon arriving back at the capital, Qin Shi Huang’s death was made known and Huhai was named the new emperor, taking the name Qin Ershi.  Qin Shi Huang was buried in a magnificent tomb that had been built throughout his lifetime – even for one who plans to be immortal, having contingency plans like an overly elaborate tomb is a must!  The Emperor was buried with a full army – 8,000 strong of infantry, archers, and chariots fully armed and armored – all made of terracotta.  The resting place of the Emperor itself was placed in the middle of an elaborate series of subterranean rivers and lakes of liquid mercury designed to represent the realms he ruled in life.  These rivers of a highly toxic metal and the rumors of rigged crossbows and other booby traps would make even Indiana Jones think twice about venturing into this tomb.

Thus, we come to the end of the life of this truly great and truly strange figure from Chinese history – a man who at once was a great Empire builder and, yet, became so obsessed with immortality that he hastened his own death by drinking tonics of poison.


Guisso, R.W.L., Catherine Pagani, and David Miller. The First Emperor of China. Birch Lane Press: Toronto, 1989.
Wood, Frances. China’s First Emperor and His Terracotta Warriors. St. Martin’s Press: New York. 2007.
Featured Image: “Qin Shi Hunag.” By Unknown (18??–18??) – Portal, Jane (Ed.). The first emperor: China’s Terracotta Army. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2007 ISBN 978-0-674-02697-7 (p.29), Public Domain.
Image 1. “Map of Qin China.” By Penarc – trabajo propio (own work), CC BY-SA 3.0.
Image 2. “Assassination Attempt.” By Unknown (18??–18??) – Portal, Jane (Ed.). The first emperor: China’s Terracotta Army. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2007 ISBN 978-0-674-02697-7 (p.67), Public Domain.
Image 3. “Qin Shi Huang.” By Unknown (18??–18??) – Yuan, Zhongyi. China’s terracotta army and the First Emperor’s mausoleum: the art and culture of Qin Shihuang’s underground palace. Paramus, New Jersey: Homa & Sekey Books, 2010. ISBN 978-1-931907-68-2 (p.140), Public Domain.
Image 4. “Searching for Immortality.” By Utagawa Kuniyoshi –,%20Part%20I%20%28T47-T62%29.htm, Public Domain.

Slideshow Images:

Terracotta Army.” By Maros M r a z (Maros) – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0.
Unique Faces.” By Peter Morgan from Nomadic – Detail, Terracotta Warriors, CC BY 2.0.
Close-up of Face.” By Tor Svensson (user Kemitsv on the Swedish Wikipedia) – Originally from sv.wikipedia; description page is (was) here * 2 februari 2006 kl. 17.12 [[:sv:User:Kemitsv|Kemitsv]] 450×600 (40 729 bytes) <span class=”comment”>(Foto: [[:sv:Tor Svensson]] {{GFDL}})</span>, CC BY-SA 3.0.
Remnants of Color.” By Self-made – Self-photographed, CC BY-SA 3.0.
Bronze Chariot.” By Jmhullot – Own work, CC BY 3.0.
MusOpen Symphony. Edvard Grieg. “In the Hall of the Mountain King.” Public Domain.

For More Information:

Roach, John. “Terra-Cotta Army Protects First Emperor’s Tomb.National Geographic.
Lubow, Arthur. “Terra Cotta Soldiers on the March.Smithsonian. July 2009.
Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor.” UNESCO.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

For attribution:

“The Emperor’s Greatest Fear.” by Andy Smyser is licensed under CC By 4.0.


TDISH: War Between the Colonies

So my second episode of History Is Stranger Than Fiction, “The Emperor’s Greatest Fear,” was due out today, but due to life happening, it won’t be out until tomorrow.  Sorry about that!  But here is a nice little tidbit to tide you over until then.

On May 25, 1738, a treaty was signed between two rivals who were warring over contested land.  The treaty involved a recognition of an agreed upon boundary and an exchange of prisoners – all normal treaty stuff, right?  It is, until you realize that the conflict was between Pennsylvania and Maryland.  In 1730, a man named Thomas Cresap sailed up the Susquehanna River from his homestead in northern Maryland into what is now southern York County, Pennsylvania.  Cresap and his gang of men began to seize homesteads from residents already on the land, much to the chagrin of the government of the northern colony.  In response, the sheriff on Donegal, in neighboring Lancaster County, raided Cresap-controlled territory and arrested the “invader,” killing one of Cresap’s men in the process.  This was the only casualty of the so-called “Cresap’s War,” also known as the “Conojocular War.”  The conflict served as the impetus for the surveying of the Mason-Dixon Line that marks the border of Pennsylvania and Maryland to this day.