A Podcast Update

So, sorry about the delays in getting a new episode out. We’really a family run show and there has been some big events in our life recently and the cast has had to take a back seat.  I should be getting the show back up and running soon! 


HSF: A King, A Priest, and A Countess Walk Into A Castle

In the dead of winter, Pope Gregory VII was far from the comforts of his palace in Rome.  In Gregory_VIIfact, he was high in the Apennine Mountains in Northern Italy on his way to Augsburg, Bavaria to attend a gathering of dignitaries of the Church meant to solve a dispute with the King of Germany and Holy Roman Emperor, Henry IV.  Gregory and his entourage stopped to recover from their arduous journey thus far at the Castle of Canossa.  This fortress was one of the strongest mountain keeps held by Countess Matilda of Tuscany, nominal vassal of Henry and ally of Gregory in the ongoing dispute.  But we are getting a bit ahead of ourselves.  Who are these people and what is this dispute?  Let’s go to know each of them a little better.

Pope Gregory VII was born Hildebrand of Sovana who became a monk in medieval Tuscany.  As his career progressed, Hildebrand rose quickly through the ranks of the Church and soon played a key role in the election of Pope Alexander II.  Hildebrand and Pope Alexander were both members of a movement meant to reform the Church, looking to get rid of practices such as clerical marriage and simony, which is the purchase of religious office.  Upon Alexander’s death, as the people and clergy of Rome gathered at the St. John Lateran Basilica to mourn their leader, a great cry went up, “Let Hildebrand be Pope!” even though he had not yet even been ordained a priest, let alone a bishop.  The Church leaders in Rome recognized in Hildebrand an incredibly popular figure and recognized the people’s proclamation – making Gregory VII one of seven Popes elected by acclamation (out of 266 recognized Popes in history).  In the weeks before he donned the papal tiara, Gregory was ordained as a priest and elevated to the bishopric.  His zeal for Church reform was only just beginning and now he had the power to really do something!

Henry IV was the third member of his family to become King of Germany and Holy Roman Emperor, after his grandfather, Conrad II, and his father, Henry III.  His family had traditional been the Dukes of Franconia – a region of modern Germany just north of Bavaria.  Henry’s Heinrich_4_g.jpgfather died when he was young boy just shy of six years old.  As such, he was raised to the title of Holy Roman Emperor at a very tender age.  Now, the Holy Roman Emperor was certainly a significant power, but the authority was not at all absolute.  As soon as he was old enough to assert personal power, Henry IV made it his life’s goal to consolidate the power of his position and his family.  The German provinces were a loose confederation of duchies, counties, princedoms, baronies, etc. held together primarily by religion – the “holy” of the Holy Roman Empire.  Much of the Holy Roman Emperor’s power came from the influence he held over the bishops of his territory and Henry only wanted to extend that influence!

Matilda of Tuscany was the youngest of three children of the powerful House of Canossa who ruled much of what is now Northern Italy as vassals of the Holy Roman Emperor.  Upon the death of her father and two older siblings, Matilda became the last member of her family and, as such, her husband, Godfrey the Hunchback, Duke of Lorraine also became the Margrave of Tuscany.  Matilda and Godfrey’s marriage was a rocky one.  Their only child died in infancy and Godfrey spent most of his time in Lorraine (in northern Germany) while Matilda was home in Italy.  Godfrey was assassinated while on campaign against the Duke of Saxony on behalf of his liege, Henry IV in one of the most embarrassing ways possible.  He was run through while “answering the call of nature.”  This left Matilda the last remaining option to rule over Northern Italy and she did so brilliantly, becoming La Gran Contessa – the Great Countess. Now a power in her own right, Matilda declared her support, not for Henry, but rather for Pope Gregory, whose reforms struck a chord with the Countess.  The stage was now set for one of the great conflicts of the early Middle Ages.

Reggio_Emilia_posizione.pngAmong Gregory’s first actions once elevated to the papacy was to confirm his predecessor’s edict banning a widespread practice called “lay investiture.”  Now, I know that at this point your eyes are probably rolling into the back of your head if you’ve ever heard this term before.  It is up there with eye-glazing topics from history such as paradigm shifts and tariffs, but trust me – some people get really excited about these boring concepts and do ridiculous things to support their positions and that is what we have going on here.  Lay investiture is the practice in which officials in the Catholic Church were given their position (“invested”) by the ruler of the state in which their diocese was located.  While, theoretically, this could be done for any Church official from the lowly parish priest to the most influential bishop, European rulers tended to only focus their time investing men (and it was always men) into the most powerful positions – bishops of important towns and cities, abbots of wealthy monasteries, etc.  By filling these positions with men the king or local lord could trust, they ensured the cooperation of the vast majority of Christian leadership within their domain, since all lower members of the clergy reported to this appointee.  It’s not a big stretch to see what the Pope, supposedly the head of the Catholic religion across all political lines, would find this to be problematic, a challenge to his authority.

Gregory’s confirmation and enforcement of the ban of lay investiture infuriated the Holy Roman Emperor, Henry IV, who relied on the loyalty of his bishops to run his empire.  Things came to a head when Gregory sent Henry a letter protesting the Emperor’s attempt to influence the installation of a new bishop for the ever-influential city of Milan.  The Pope meant to remind Henry that, even though he was an emperor, he was still subject to papal decrees.  Henry, of course, disagreed.  Gregory wrote, “We marvel exceedingly that you have sent us so many devoted letters…calling yourself a son of our Holy Mother Church and subject to us in faith…and yet in action showing yourself most bitterly hostile to the canons and apostolic decrees in those duties…It would have been becoming to you, since you confess yourself to be a son of the Church, to give more respectful attention to the master of the Church, that is, to Peter, the prince of the Apostles.”  If Henry had been cowed by such a letter, this would not be much of a story, and his response struck right at the issue in the salutation in which he said, “Henry, king not by usurpation, but by the pious ordination of God, to Hildebrand, now not Pope, but false monk.”  The Emperor clearly states that he does not recognize Gregory’s papacy – in face he even refused to use the Pope’s papal name.  Henry argues that, due to Gregory’s unusual election, the Pope is not legitimate and that, therefore, his word carries no weight.

As you can probably imagine, this was not the response Gregory was looking for – so he sent yet another letter to Henry declaring him excommunicated and unfit to receive the Sacraments, which, removed him from the grace of the Church that was integral to salvation.  Simultaneously, Gregory called on all good Christians in Henry’s realm to seek to depose such an evil ruler.  Henry’s response only escalated the tension further writing to the German bishops urging them to use their influence to unseat “Hildebrand (a monk indeed in habit), so-called pope who…presides in the Apostolic See not with the care of a pastor but with the violence of a usurper and from the throne of peace dissolves the bond of the one catholic peace.”  So to summarize, we now have, after a fury of ever escalating letters, the most powerful Church leader and the most powerful temporal leader in Europe having deposed one another.  The stage was now set to see who would blink first.

As the year progressed, Henry IV began to feel more and more pressure from his nobles and bishops to give in to the Pope for the sake of his realm.  His subjects were being born 800px-Canossa_ruins.jpgunbaptized and dying without Last Rites.  The Emperor’s intransigence was consigning his people to Hell.  So Henry sent off yet another letter (the last one for this story, I promise!) inviting the pontiff to a council in the city of Augsburg over which Gregory would preside and the bishops of Germany would decide the conditions of the Emperor’s surrender.  The Pope accepted this offer with glee and set off for the Bavarian city from Rome.  It is on this journey that we started our story.  Pope Gregory is staying for a short time in a fortress of one of his most faithful supporters, Matilda of Tuscany.  It was here at the Canossa Castle deep in the Apennine winter that a fateful, and unplanned (for Gregory, at least) showdown occurred.

Henry slipped away from his realms with a very small group of loyal retainers and made his way across the snow-covered Alps to make his way to Canossa.  He hoped to see Gregory and to throw himself upon the Pope’s mercy in the hopes of getting a better outcome at the coming council.  It was a classic move of negotiating before the official negotiations so as to have more control over the results.  Gregory, however, was not going to make it easy on the Henry.

Canossa-gate.jpgOn January 25, Henry and his attendants arrived at the gates of Canossa Castle in the midst of a raging alpine blizzard.  They were shoeless and dressed in the clothes of a penitent, wearing a hair-shirt as a sign of their unworthiness.  Pope Gregory learned of their arrival immediately, comfortably ensconced in the Castle and was put into a quite awkward diplomatic situation.  He was clearly in a position of power and had his adversary in a very weak spot.  He could have sent Henry packing back to Germany with a reminder that they already had an agreement to determine his fate at the coming council.  However, Gregory was not just a world leader; he was also the lead pastor of Christendom and one of his charges had taken on the guise of a penitent and was asked forgiveness.  As Christ’s representative on Earth, Gregory had more than politics to consider; he also had souls to worry about.

Gregory was not going to bend quickly to this unexpectedly humble move from Henry.  For Hugo-v-cluny_heinrich-iv_mathilde-v-tuszien_cod-vat-lat-4922_1115ad.jpgthree long days, the pontiff pondered what to do, regularly conferring with his ally, Matilda, who had no love for her nominal overlord, Henry.  As the Pope, Countess, and their attendants sat debating in front of the roaring fireplaces and feasted in Canossa, Henry and his few men stayed knelt in prayer in the driving snow wearing only their wretchedly uncomfortable hair shirts and without shoes.  For three days and nights, they fasted and unmistakable sign of their penitence.  After the three days had passed, Gregory sensibilities as a spiritual leader and shepherd of souls overcame his political nature – Henry was granted entrance to Canossa.  Upon entering the fortress, he was treated to full diplomatic niceties – dressed in fine clothing, fed well, and warmed by the welcoming fires.  After a series of discussion between Gregory and Henry, in which Henry pronounced his deepest regrets for undermining papal authority, the two men, along with their hostess, celebrated Mass and received Communion – lifting Henry’s excommunication and that of the entire Holy Roman Empire.  Gregory, however, refrained from lifting Henry’s deposition.  In the eyes of the Church, Henry was no longer damned, but neither was he an emperor.

However, in doing his duty and bringing Henry back into the Christian fold, Gregory encountered some unintended consequences.  By lifting the excommunication, Gregory removed the largest (and in most cases the only) issue the nobility of the Holy Roman Empire had with Henry.  They returned to him in droves, professing their loyalty and only asking that he be careful not to risk their souls again in unnecessary conflict with the Holy See.  One of Henry’s most powerful nobles, however, used the opportunity to declare that he was seeking the throne and, in so doing, sparked civil war within the Empire.  This man, Rudolf of Rheinfelden, was the Duke of Swabia and brother-in-law to the Holy Roman Emperor – both men being married to sisters from the House of Savoy.  Rudolf used his influence throughout Germany and a history of dissatisfaction with Henry’s rule in Saxony to launch a rebellion against his erstwhile lord.  As the war dragged on, Gregory decided to once again enter the fray and, siding with the rebel Rudolf, excommunicated Henry yet again, expecting similar results.  This time, however, the nobility loyal to Henry were not prepared to abandon their king.  Henry was their legitimate ruler and this excommunication due to fighting a rebellious vassal smacked of insincere politics, not religious necessity.  Gregory’s excommunication was viewed as invalid across Germany.

Once Henry had dealt with Rudolf and the troubles at home, he once again turned on the Pope, but this time, from a position of much greater power.  Henry marched on Rome.  Matilda of 800px-Chateau-saint-ange-tibre.jpgTuscany stayed loyal to Pope and, despite being massively outnumbered, her troops harried Henry’s forces as he marched south.  But despite Matilda’s attempts, Henry reached Rome and took the Lateran Palace, Gregory’s official residence.  The Pope was forced to make an ignoble retreat to the Castel Sant’Angelo on the shores of the Tiber.  Now in almost full control of Rome, Henry IV called a council of bishops who were loyal to him and had them name a new pope – Clement III.  So, now, we had two popes.  The ever-devout Matilda continued to work for Gregory and succeeded in finding him allies among the Normans, a large force of whom made their way to the first city of Christendom and forced Henry to withdraw back to Germany.

So, it seems like Gregory won, despite numerous setbacks, however, one final twist remained.  The ever-fickle people of Rome despised the Pope’s Norman allies and forced them to leave the city and, at the same time, exiled Gregory – who fled to the monastery at Monte Casino, south of Rome.  It was here that Gregory died less than a year later.  On his deathbed, Gregory withdrew all excommunications he had ever made – except those upon Henry IV, Holy Roman Emperor and his puppet pope, Clement III.

Featured Image: “Countryside Outside of Canossa.” By Hm8011 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0.
Image 1. “Pope Saint Gregory VII.” By user:GDK – Own work: unknown 11th century manuscript, Public Domain.
Image 2. “Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV.” Public Domain.
Image 3. “Location of Canossa Within Modern Italy.” CC BY-SA 3.0.
Image 4. “Ruins of Canossa Castle.” By Paolo da Reggio – Own work, CC BY 2.5.
Image 5. “Henry IV at the Gates of Canossa Castle.” Public Domain.
Image 6. “Matilda of Tuscany and Henry IV.” Public Domain.
Image 7. “Modern Picture of Castel Sant’Angelo.” By 0x010C – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0.
Morrison, Karl F, ed. The Investiture Controversy: Issues, Ideals, and Results. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1971
Tierney, Brian. The Crisis of Chruch & State: 1050 – 1300. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1964.
Wood, Susan. The Proprietary Church  In the Medieval West. Oxford University Press, 2006.

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“A King, A Priest, and A Countess Walk Into A Castle.” by Andy Smyser is licensed under CC By 4.0. https://historyisstrange.com/2016/07/22/hsf-a-king-a-priest-and-a-countess-walk-into-a-castle.

A Holy Journey and the New Midas

Along the shores of the great river that ran through his domain in the great city of Timbuktu, the emperor of the greatest power in Western Africa sat with a humble blacksmith.  Since time The_Mali_Empire.jpgimmemorial, blacksmiths were the most renowned of tradesmen in the region – they brought the solid metals taken from the earth and changed them into something new, something useful.  This wonders of transition of metals was not something to be taken for granted.  By applying heat and using technical expertise these commoners achieved miracles.  As such, the other residents of Western Africa viewed them with awe – clearly they had skills that tapped into the world of the supernatural.  It was for this reason that this nervous, trembling man sat before his emperor – the wealthiest man in the world, Mansa Musa.  Musa was the ruler of the great Empire of Mali and controlled both the gold and salt trades – two of the most in-demand and hard-to-get commodities in the medieval world, and, as such, had built a personal store of wealth unheard anywhere else.

Mansa Musa was planning the most important personal quest of his life – his required pilgrimage to Mecca, the Hajj.  You see, Musa was Muslim and, as any good Muslim knows, completing the Hajj is one of the Five Pillars of the faith.  But the Emperor had not called for this blacksmith for his skills in metallurgy, but rather for his connection to the supernatural.  Musa wanted to consult the genies that inhabited his realm to find the propitious time for him to begin this most holy of journeys.  Yes, that’s right – Mansa Musa was consulting native, supernatural, dare I say, “Pagan” beings about the best time to leave on the Hajj.  Clearly, the orthodox monotheistic views of Islam had not quite made their way to Mali at this point in any amount of strength.

This was clearly an abnormal situation for both the Emperor and the blacksmith.  In normal circumstances, Mansa Musa would have been seated on his grand throne made of ebony and decorated with ivory.  He would have held a golden bow and quiver of arrows – the symbols of 1024px-Fortier_372_Timbuktu_Djingereber_Mosque.jpgroyal authority in Mali – and been sheltered by a large parasol topped with a golden falcon.  Musa wouldn’t even have spoken to a commoner – he would whisper to his jeli, his chief spokesman, who would pronounce the Emperor’s words to those gathered.  Today, however, the throne remained empty as the Emperor watched as the blacksmith sat on the ground and threw a handful of cowrie shells onto a woven straw mat.  The diviner then interpreted the pattern the shells made when they landed on the mat and pronounced that the most auspicious time for Mansa Musa to leave on his journey would be the on the Saturday, the 12th.  A Saturday, the 12th, would not occur again for another nine months – in February, so the Emperor would have to wait.

While to modern ears, nine months might seem like a long time to wait, for Mansa Musa this was not a big deal.  In fact, it was quite nice – he would be able to be sure that everything was in order, both at home and for his journey.  During the subsequent months, the royal servants were busy preparing to meet all the needs and wants of a royal procession across the barren Sahara desert that separated Mali from the Muslim holy city of Mecca.

The caravan would include a large number of horses for Mansa Musa and his senior wife, Inari Kanute, to ride – horses were much more expensive in the arid landscape than were camels, and thus were reserved for royalty.  Both of the royals took along hundreds of servants each to help them with their daily routines.  The procession includes thousands of camels and donkeys each laden with food, water, and other supplies that would be needed for the journey to be a success.  Rumor has it that the caravan included 80 camels loaded with nothing but gold dust to use on the journey.  Mali’s control of the gold mines of Western Africa meant that the empire had no shortage of the precious metal that was in constant demand in the rest of the world.  This ensured that Mali’s emperor was one of the world’s wealthiest and most influential men – it’s the Golden Rule – the one with the gold makes the rules.

On Saturday, February 12, Mansa Musa and his massive entourage started their long and 800px-Mali1974-151_hgchallenging journey across the shifting sands and rocky outcrops of the Sahara desert.  Their guides were Sanhaja nomads – the People of the Veil, so named for the cover they wear over their faces nearly constantly.  The Sanhaja were camel herders and knew the oases of the deep desert better than anyone.  They were required companions on any trans-Saharan journey – be that for trade, religious rituals, or war.  Even with these expert guides, the journey was fraught with peril.  Sandstorms could blow up from the west very quickly.  Entire caravans were known to enter a sandstorm to never be seen again.  Thankfully, no such tragedy struck Mansa Musa’s hajj entourage.

The caravan arrived on the outskirts of Cairo, Egypt in July after a journey of five months and camped outside of the city near the magnificent ancient pyramids.  It was here that the first notable challenge of the journey arose.  The Mamluk sultan of Egypt, An-Nasir Muhammad, expected all distinguished visitors to present themselves to him and to prostrate themselves Great_Sphinx_of_Giza.jpgbefore him.  Mansa Musa, however, was not used to be such displays of submission.  As such, the caravan stayed outside of the city while the Malian ruler debated how to proceed.  After several days of diplomatic back and forth, a solution was reached – Mansa Musa entered into the presence of the sultan and bowed into the sujud – the position of prostration that Muslims enter during their daily prayers and declared, “I make obeisance to Allah who created me.”  Thus, both great rulers saved face.  Mansa Musa did not need to submit to the Mamluk sultan, nor was the sultan insulted.

While in Cairo, Mansa Musa bestowed great gifts on the city.  He gave An-Nasir Muhammad 40,000 dinars and the sultan’s deputy and other courtiers 10,000 dinars each.  The merchants in the great bazaars of Cairo also gouged the visitors, charging them as much as five times the normal cost for goods.  But Mansa Musa and his entourage did not care – they were from Mali, the richest place on Earth.  The caravan stayed in Cairo for three months and then proceeded to leave for the holy cities of Mecca and Medina.  The large pilgrimage did not leave just a memory behind.  They had spent so much gold and so saturated the market in Egypt that the price of gold was depressed for up to twelve years after they left.  Mansa Musa was so generous that he led Egypt into a deflationary depression!  Just think about that!  How much would you have to spend to bring the value of the dollar down – not just a blip – but of twelve long years?

From Cairo, Mansa Musa and his followers made their way across the Sinai Desert and down the coast of the Red Sea to reach Mecca.  Upon arrival to the city, the Emperor and all his attendants entered into a state of ihram – purity – in which they would remain throughout the Hajj.  Gone were the ornate robes of royalty; replaced by simple white garments and sandals.  Also at this point, the men and women from the caravan would have divided – they would not see each other again until after the Hajj was complete.  No matter who the pilgrim was – Emperor or slave – they all looked the same, emphasizing everyone’s unity before Allah.  Mansa Musa was now just one of thousands of white-clad pilgrims visiting the holiest site of Islam.

Upon ritually putting on of purity, the Emperor made his way to the Masjid al-Haram, the Great 800px-Kaaba_2Mosque, and began the Tawaf ritual.  He circled the Kabaa seven times touching al-Hajar al-Aswad, the Black Stone, on each pass.  The Kabaa was, and still is, the holiest site of Islam – it is here that Muslims face to pray no matter where they are in the world.  The Black Stone dates back to the time of Adam and Eve, the first humans and is the eastern cornerstone of the Kabaa.  Mansa Musa would then complete the sa’ay – running seven times between the hills of Safa and Marwah.  These were the hills upon which the ancient patriarch, Ibrahim (Abraham in the Judeo-Christian tradition) left Hagar, Ibrahim’s second wife (or concubine in the Judeo-Christian tradition) and her son, Ismael.

Mansa Musa then made his way five kilometers outside of the city of Mecca to Mina, the Tent Hajj_locations_and_ritesCity.  Not that five kilometers was anything after travelling over 4500 kilometers (as the crow flies, which in this case, it most certainly did not) from Timuktu to the Holy City.  He spent the first night of the Hajj here deep in prayer housed in a humble tent.  On the second day of the pilgrimage, the Emperor made his way to the Plain of Arafat a barren stretch of desert some 20 kilometers from Mecca.  Here the Emperor listened to Imam’s delivering sermons at Jabal al-Rahmad, the Mount of Mercy, where the prophet Muhammad delivered his last sermon.  Mansa Musa stood all afternoon into the evening in the ritual of atonement known as “standing before Allah.”

After dark, Musa travelled back towards Mina to prepare for the morning’s next ritual – the Ramy al-Jamarat – the Stoning of the Devil.  Mansa Musa threw seven small stones at one of the three pillars standing at the site meant to keep Satan and temptation away.  He then returned to the Great Mosque and circled the Kabaa seven more times to complete his Hajj.

The men and women of the caravan rejoined outside of the city feeling refreshed and renewed by their demonstration of their devotion to Allah.  For the vast majority of the people in Mansa Musa’s caravan, this would be their only trip to Arabia and, as such, they continued on to the second city of Islam – Medina.  Here they visited the Mosque of the Prophet which contains Muhammad’s tomb.

Despite completing such a holy journey, Mansa Musa’s return home was anything but smooth.  First of all, he had spent all his gold and, as such, had to borrow more.  Knowing full well that he could afford it, financiers in Arabia and Egypt loaned the Emperor gold at an exorbitant rate of interest.  On top of this, Mansa Musa attempted to return to Cairo without hiring a guide and succeed in getting lost in the vast, barren Sinai Desert where they wandered for days without water.  The caravan was harried by Bedouin raiders who captured anyone who strayed from the main group to be sold off as slaves.  Eventually, Mansa Musa and his entourage arrived at the Gulf of Suez and were rescued.  As many as one-third of his caravan had perished or been taken as slaves on this fraught leg of the journey.  The rest of the trip, however, has without incident – having picked up guides at Cairo.

The Hajj.” National Geographic video.
Conrad, David C. Empires of Medieval West Africa: Ghana, Mali, and Songhay. Facts on Files: New York, 2005.
Crossen, Cynthia. The Rich and How They Got That Way: How the Wealthiest People of All Time – from Genghis Khan to Bill Gates – Made Their Fortunes. Crown Business: New York, 2000.
Featured Image: “Mansa Musa.” Attributed to Abraham Cresques, Public Domain.
Image 1. “Map of Mali Empire.” By Gabriel Moss – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0.
Image 2. “Djinguereber Mosque, Timbuktu.” By Edmond Fortier (1862-1928) – Downloaded from http://www.dogon-lobi.ch/historical2.htm, Public Domain.
Image 3. “Taureg Herders.” By H. Grobe – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0.
Image 4. “Great Pyramid and Sphinx at Giza, Outside Cairo.” By Br0m from Oslo, Norway – sphinx and cheops, CC BY-SA 2.0.
Image 5. “The Kabaa in Mecca.” By Zakaryaamr at the English language Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0.
Image 6. “The Hajj.” By User:AsceticRose, CC BY-SA 3.0.

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“A Holy Journey and the New Midas.” by Andy Smyser is licensed under CC By 4.0. https://historyisstrange.com/2016/06/26/a-holy-journey-and-the-new-midas.

HSF: Port Arthur: A Tragedy of Errors

On a cold, dark night in February, 1904, Vice Admiral Oskar Victorovich Stark and the other elite members of the Russian East Asian society were gathered aboard the Admiral’s flagship to Oskar_Victorovich_Stark.jpgcelebrate the birthday of Stark’s wife.  The ship, the Petropavlovsk, was one of 16 ships that lay at anchor in the harbor of Port Arthur, Manchuria – a recently acquired naval facility acquired by the Russians from the weak Qing Dynasty of China.  Stark and his superior, viceroy of the Far East, Evgenii Alekseev, knew that there were tensions between their country and that Far Eastern island upstart, but they did not feel the need to worry.  The glorious Russian Empire controlled a full sixth of the land on Earth.  Little, resource-poor, and recently arrived on the world stage, Japan couldn’t pose a threat to Russia, could it?

True, ten years ago, Japan had defeated massive China in a war.  Quite the upset.  But China was an ossified power, stuck in the past – not a modern military force with many recent wars under its belt, like Russia.  True, Japan was still smarting from the diplomatic defeat they suffered after beating China.  The Japanese military had won control over large portions of the Korean peninsula and the Liaodong Peninsula, including Port Arthur where the Russian fleet sat.  In a master-stroke of diplomacy, the Russian government put pressure on Japan to be lenient on China – allowing Japan to maintain its unofficial sphere of influence over Korea and its territorial gains to the south, but the northern Liaodong Peninsula stayed with the Chinese.  How selfless of the Russians, right?  Helping their weak neighbors to the south to avoid losing a key piece of territory.  Well, not so much.  Just a few short years after this intervention on the side of the Middle Kingdom, Russia coerced the Qing Emperor to lease them the Port Arthur portion of the peninsula for a period of 25 years.  The Japanese were not happy with this development – clearly the Russians had kept Japan from taking control of the Liaodong because the Russians wanted it for themselves.  From their foothold in the warm water port at Port Arthur and from their Eastern headquarters in Vladivostok, the Russians extended their sphere of influence to cover much of Manchuria – a resource-rich land that the Japanese sorely coveted.  The stage was set for tension and perhaps war.

As Admiral Stark and his friends celebrated his wife’s birthday, the Russian sailors were on a slightly heightened state of alert – but they were not expecting any sort of action.  Two destroyers patrolled the surrounding sea while the remaining ships were at anchor at the entrance of the harbor.  They were assisted by the light provided from the ships at anchor and the lighthouse on the shore.  Otherwise, however, the Russians deployed no security measures.  No antitorpeo netting or any other defenses.  Admiral Stark was more concerned that his ships would collide with their neighbors in the dark sea than an attack.  Stark, however, was not playing with all in the information.  Two days earlier, Japan had recalled its ambassador to St. Petersburg an action that, given the tensions between the two countries, worried a combat commander.  Stark never received word that this had happened.

Out in the waters of the Yellow Sea between the Korean peninsula and China, two fleets of Japanese war vessels were at sea.  One of the fleets sailed into the port of Inchon, outside of Seoul to control the Korean coast. The second fleet commanded by Vice Admiral Togo Tōgō_Heihachirō.jpgHeichahiro headed for Port Arthur with the goal to damage Russian naval options in the Pacific and to limit its capability during the planned war.  The Japanese fleet was divided into three flotillas – the first sailed in close to the harbor – protected by a late-rising moon, which meant the night was very dark.  The first four Japanese ships fired six or seven torpedoes at the Russian fleet: scoring three hits.  The second two flotillas were much less successful.  They had lost the element of surprise because they were late arriving at the harbor.  They had lost contact with the first after two ships had collided causing confusion.  As they came close to Port Arthur, the Japanese ships fired their torpedoes, but doing so under duress, they were unable to hit their targets.  Despite having near-perfect sneak attack conditions – a clear, dark night with light seas and the ability to get close without being detected – the Japanese attack was of limited success.  Only three torpedoes caused any damage, but failed to sink any ships or to cause many casualties.  Two of the damaged ships were battleships, the Retvizan and the Tserarevich.  The third was a cruiser, the Pallada.  All three ships were put out of action for a few weeks.  Despite the near comedy of errors that struck the Japanese fleet as they approached Port Arthur and the meager results, the assault on Port Arthur was a clear victor for Japan.  Russian morale plummeted – the soldiers and sailors in Port Arthur were stunned.  No one had expected the attack.  This gave the Japanese the time they needed to build up the strength they would need to win the upcoming conflict with Russia over Chinese Manchuria.

The Russian army in Manchuria was led by the Minister of War, General Aleksei Nikolaevich Kuropatkin who held an outstanding reputation as a soldier and an administrator.  He was not, however, a tactical leader.  His indecisiveness was to cost the Russian army over and over again.  His counterpart on the Japanese side was Field Marshall Oyama Iwao, who demonstrated a tactical brilliance that allowed his armies to routinely out-maneuver his adversary.  Oyama had served as a military attaché to the Prussian army and he followed a distinctively Prussian mode of military operation – emphasizing superior firepower and maneuverability.

The Japanese strategy was to cut off Port Arthur from all communication and chance of relief by 800px-Assaut-Kin-Tchéou.jpgblockading it by sea and by occupying the peninsula north of the city.  As such, Japanese forces were landed on the Korean Peninsula and marched north to Yalu River which divides Korea and Machuria.  By late April the Japanese troops stared across the river, high with spring melt, at the Russian foes.  The Prussian training of the Japanese officers showed during the artillery barrage that marked the start of the battle.  Russian guns were woeful overmatched and were quickly silenced by the Japanese counterparts.  Japanese troops were then order to ford the river in close order under heavy fire from the Russian infantry.  Hundreds were wounded in the crossing, many so badly that they were swept away down river and drowned.  But, the Japanese organization unnerved the Russian troops, who were already nervous of their foe following the sneak attack at Port Arthur.  With strong artillery shelling at their backs, the Japanese forced the Russians back.  General Kuropatkin of the Russians was furious with his field commander for not withdrawing sooner in the face of superior numbers.  In a clear demonstration of his indecisiveness, Kuropatkin had also ordered his subordinates to stand firm.  With contradictory orders such as these, it’s no surprise the Russian officer corps was less than effective.

Once they crossed the river into Manchuria, Field Marshall Oyama directed his forces to cut the railway that connected Port Arthur to the rest of Russian territory far to the north.  As Oyama’s troops advanced, the Russian high command – Viceroy Alekseev and General Kuropatkin could not have been on more different pages.  Alekseev wanted to save Port Arthur at all costs from being cut off by the Japanese.  Kuropatkin was worried about the well-being of his most elite troops – the ones that would be most likely to be of great use should the tide of war be turned – his Cossack cavalry.  Neither of these stances should be surprising: the navy-man Alekseev wanted to save the port and the army-man Kuropatkin wanted to preserve his troops.  However, with no one, save the tsar thousands of miles away in St. Petersburg, over them, the two leaders entered a bickering match instead of fighting the enemy.  Taking advantage of this, the Japanese forces slowly made their way across the Liaodong until, at the end of July they had succeeded in cutting of Port Arthur entirely.

Meanwhile, the Russian naval forces bottled up in Port Arthur harbor were not sitting by waiting to be rescued.  Admiral Stepan Makarov had replaced the disgraced Admiral Stark after Макаров,_Степан_Осиповичthe sneak attack and the new commander, too, took the Petropavlovsk to be his flagship.  Makarov enjoyed an outstanding reputation for being an intelligent and energetic admiral.   Shortly after taking command, a Russian destroyer was attempting to sneak into Port Arthur harbor when it was cornered by Japanese vessels.  The cruiser dispatched to help the troubled ship only succeeded in picking up five survivors.  The rest of the destroyer’s crew was captured.  Makarov was furious and sailed out of the harbor with two battleships and three cruisers, meaning to take the fight to the Japanese.  In his haste to meet the enemy, Makarov did not take any precautionary measures to avoid traps set by the Japanese to prevent such an escape.  The Petropavlovsk struck an underwater mine which caused the magazine on the mighty ship to explode – splitting the battleship in two.  Makarov and most of his crew went down with the ship in a matter of minutes.  Moments later, the 1024px-Petropavlovsk1899Kronshtadtsecond battleship also struck a mine and started to list badly.  The accompanying cruisers thought they were under attack by submarines and started to fire indiscriminately into the water.  Now the issue is – the Japanese had no submarines in the water that spring – not just in the waters around Port Arthur but anywhere.  Their first submarines would not come online until December of that year.

The Russian admiralty was not the only one, however, to have bad luck testing the limits of these relatively new maritime warfare methods – remember we are only about 50 years removed from the American Civil War where lumbering ironclads like the Monitor and Merrimack faced off.  These battleships and cruisers had much higher capabilities than the Japanese_battleship_Hatsuse.jpgships that had come before.  On May 15, shortly after the death of Makarov, one Japanese cruiser rammed another in dense fog – sinking the latter.  This was only to be the start of Admiral Togo’s bad day.  As the day progressed, a convoy of three Japanese battleships was being delivered to Togo by Rear Admiral Nashiba, the Hatsuse struck a Japanese mine and sunk almost immediately.  Alarmed at the results of the poor visibility, the remaining ships in the fleet attempted to turn back, but another battleship, the Yashima, struck yet another mine and sank later after being towed to safety.  You’d think that losing two-thirds of his charge to friendly mines would have made Nashiba’s day bad enough, but it got worse.  Commanding his remaining battleship and accompanying vessels from a dispatch ship, Nashiba ran aground in the fog.  Despite these almost comic mishaps, the blockade held – aided hugely by the fact that the Russian battleships damaged in the sneak attack had not yet come back online.

Throughout the summer and fall of 1904, Japanese forces continued to besiege the Russian Russian_soldiers_stand_over_trench_of_dead_Japanese.jpgdefenders in Port Arthur.  The siege of the city would prove to be the greatest tragedy of the war to this point.  With around 100,000 Japanese troops surrounding some 50,000 Russians in defensive positions, the sheer size of the operation was immense.  As with any siege, the defenders must find ways to get supplies in or they weaken to a point where they are not able to stand up against the enemy any longer.  This was the fate that met many of the Russian soldiers in Port Arthur.  When they finally surrendered in January 1905, the Russians had lost some 30,000 men.   The Japanese, however, had thrown line after line of men against the Russian defenses.  Being slow to grasp the differences that machine guns made to warfare, the Japanese officers led many men to their deaths.  Some 60,000 Japanese soldiers lost their lives in the capture of Port Arthur.  The real tragedy is that, having successfully, besieged the city, the port was not a militarily significant target any longer.  Taking the city served no real purpose towards finishing the war.  It was mostly just an operation of prestige – an exercise in regaining the face lost 10 years earlier when the Russians talked the Japanese into giving up this valuable piece of land.  Finally, Japan had this foothold in Manchuria back in their hands – wrestled from a much larger enemy.

Asakawa, K. The Russo-Japanese Conflicts: Its Causes and Issues. Kennikat Press: London, 1970.
Schimmelpenninck Van Der Oye, David. Toward the Rising Sun: Russian Ideologies of Empire and Path to War with Japan. Northern Illinois Press: 2001.
Steinberg, John W. All the Tsar’s Men: Russia’s General Staff and the Fate of the Empire, 1898 – 1914. Woodrow Wilson Center: Washington, DC, 2010.
Westwood, J.N. The Illustrated History of the Russo-Japanese War. Sidgwick & Jackson: London, 1973.
Featured Image: “Map of Port Arthur.” Public Domain.
Admiral Stark.” By Автор репродукции: Здобнов Дмитрий Спиридонович – http://photoarchive.spb.ru:9090/www/showChildObjects.do?object=2501737391, Public Domain.
Field Marshall Togo.” By Unknown, Public Domain.
Japanese Soldiers Attack the Russians.” By loki11 – Le Patriote Illustré, Public Domain.
Admiral Makarov.” By unknown; photo retake by George Shuklin – State museum of political history of Russia, Public Domain.
Petropavlovsk.” By Неизвеитен. – Архив фотографий кораблей русского и советского ВМФ., Public Domain.
Hatsuse.” Public Domain.
Siege of Port Arthur – Japanese Casualties.” By Underwood & Underwood, Inc. – This image is available from the United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID ppmsca.07944.  Public Domain.

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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 – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Qin_tours.jpg 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 – http://www.kuniyoshiproject.com/Warrior%20triptychs%201839-1841,%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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The Good Goddess Profaned

On a chilled December evening in the Year of the Consulship of Silanus and Murena, the noblewomen of Rome were preparing to gather at the home of the pontifex maximBust_of_Gaius_Iulius_Caesar_in_Naplesus, the high priest of Roman religion, to celebrate the sacred rites of Bona Dea, the Good Goddess.  This annual religious festival was always celebrated in the home of one of Rome’s most influential magistrates and this year was no different.  The pontifex maximus was none other than Julius Caesar whose political career was on the rise and this momentous celebration clearly showed just how important he had become.  His days of conquering Gaul, defeating Pompeius Magnus, and being named dictator for life were still well in the future.  But despite the honor being done to him by having this celebration hosted at his home and the fact that he was high priest, Julius Caesar would not be participating in those night’s events.  Not only would he not participate, but he was not even allowed in the house.  That afternoon, Caesar had packed his bags and left his home for the evening, along with all his male servants and even the male cats and dogs.  It was a night for the women of Rome.

This was to be a particularly special Bona Dea festival, imbued with even more sanctity than in other years because Caesar’s house was no ordinary Roman villa.  He lived with his wife, Pompeia, and his mother, Aurelia, in the domus publica, the public house – official residence of the high priest.  Unlike the villas of the Roman elite on the famous hills, the domus publica was in a valley amid the hills in the Forum along the Via Sacra, the Sacred Road.  The Forum dominated Roman civil and religious life.  It was here that the Senate met.  It was here that the (male) citizens voted.  It was here that Via Sacramany of the most important temples to the Roman gods were located.  Among these temples was the Temple of Vesta – home of the Sacred Hearth and Eternal Flame of Rome.  This flame was continuously tended by the famous Vestal Virgins, Rome’s most elite group of priestesses.  In the one house surrounded by these monumental works of Roman architecture was where the women of the most important families of the Republic would gather this evening to celebrate one of the most sacred rites for the safety and well-being of the city.

The night’s events were to be hosted, as usual, by the adult women of the hosting household – Pomepia and Aurelia, Caesar’s wife and mother.  This was certainly no relationship of equals – the mother-in-law clearly dominated her daughter-in-law.  Aurelia was one of Rome’s most respected matrons – a Roman of Romans.  In the generations to come, she was to be upheld as an ideal of Roman matronhood – intelligent, beautiful, and Julia_caesarisunwaveringly devoted to advancing her son’s political career.  Aurelia also took primary responsibility for raising Caesar’s daughter, Julia, whose mother, Cornelia, his first wife, had died after an illness when the girl was just five years old.  Caesar adored his only daughter and Aurelia’s role in raising the girl eternally endeared her to her son.  During the Consulship of Silanus and Murena, Julia was a fourteen year old girl and absolutely adored her grandmother, who ran the day-to-day life of the Caesar household.

Pompeia, on the other hand, was no one’s idea of an ideal Roman woman.  She was vain and flighty and much too concerned with the material trappings of life for the politically savvy Pompeia-Q_PCaesars.  Her marriage to Julius was one of political expedience and certainly no love match.  Pompeia was forever competing for attention with the beloved Julia, the adored Aurelia, and the mourned Cornelia.  Despite being the official materfamilias – mother of the family – of the Caesar family, Pompeia’s de facto role was very limited and she was full of resentment.  Pompeia was the granddaughter of the long-deceased, but still renowned dictator, Lucius Cornelius Sulla and was used to being treated with all the deference and respect that goes along with being the family of such a feared figure.  However, she had little of the natural intelligence and political acumen that her grandfather, husband, and mother-in-law possessed.  This, coupled with her spoiled upbringing, led to Pomepia frequently butting heads with Aurelia over the running of what was supposed to be her household.  She was Caesar’s wife! That was supposed to come with certain benefits.  His power increased by the day, and by rights, Pompia’s prestige should rise accordingly.  But, instead, it was her sainted mother-in-law and Caesar’s dead wife whose stature grew, not hers.

Tonight, however, Aurelia and Pompeia had to put their differences aside for the good of Rome.  The festival of Bona Dea was integral for the survival and the well-being of the Republic.  The women of Caesar’s house, including all the female servants, were busy preparing for the upcoming celebration.  As you might expect from Caesar and all the other men leaving the house, Bona Dea was a goddess who would not suffer the presence of a man, or anything male, for that matter.  Because of this, the servants busied themselves covering the vibrant frescoes that adorned the walls of the house.  Some of these elaborate paintings depicted male figures, including some of the gods of Rome.  Bona Dea would not tolerate even the representation of men at her festival and this was for the good of Rome – everything had to be done perfectly.

Shortly before the festival was set to begin, the Vestal Virgins arrived.  As Rome’s highest order of priestesses, they would be officiating the rites and were there to make sure everything was in order before the rest of the women arrived.  The Vestals were in a cheerful mood when they arrived at the domus publica.  Not only was it one of the most important nights of the year, but they had a nice little added bonus this year.  They lived in the Temple of Vesvestalsta, which meant that in most years they had to climb the Palatine, or whichever hill the house that was hosting the celebration stood.  This year, however, they just had to go next door.  On a chilly December evening, not having a long walk was certainly a plus.  They were admitted to the house by two maids – Aurelia and Pompeia’s hand servants.  These two servants were trusted completely by their respective mistresses.  Aurelia’s maid was an older woman who was known for being quite stern and serious.  Her mistress was among the most influential women in the city and the maid reflected this power with her presence.  Pompeia’s maid, however, was a young, capricious girl who delighted in frivolity and wine.  Tonight would have aspects that suited both servants and both mistresses perfectly.

The Vestal Virgins brought with them all the religious trappings and offerings that would be needed for the night’s celebrations.  The younger Vestals carried with them jugs, some filled with milk and some with wine, and jars filled with honey.  The elder Vestals carried a bronze serpent, one of Bona Dea’s symbols.  In ancient Rome, all of these objects – milk, wine, honey, and snakes – represented fertility, the production of the Earth.  When this is paired with the many women who would be present, who represented the fertility of the Roman people, the importance of the festival becomes clear.  Rome was obsessed with fertility.  At the time of the Consulship of Silanus and Murena, Roman socieRoman Amphoraty was marred by many civil and military conflicts.  The many deaths of Roman soldiers in battle, combined with a high infant mortality rate, fertility was integral to the survival of the Republic.  Without fertile fields, fertile animals, and fertile women, Rome would cease to exist.  Keeping Bona Dea happy was integral to keeping Rome fertile and, therefore, for the continued existence of the Republic.  Rome’s well-being relied on the night going off without a hitch.

In a Roman villa in another part of town, as Rome’s most influential women arrived at the domus publica, one of Rome’s most divisive and controversial young politicians was planning to throw a wrench into the whole proceedings.  This man was Publius Clodius Pulcher, a man who had a troublemaker’s personality who routinely looked to stir things up among Rome’s elite and to turn these scandals to his advantage.  Clodius’ idea for tonight and the Bona Dea festival would be the biggest stunt he would ever pull.  In his dressing room, Clodius applied a thick layer of makeup, donned a woman’s wig, and put on women’s clothes.  He had acquired a flute to bring with him.  All of this he did so that he could sneak into the festival, disguised as a common flute girl – part of the musical entourage for the rites.  He had been planning this for days and had even drafted PompeiaHerkulaneischer_Meister_002b’s maid into his plan.  As Roman nobility was a relatively small group, Clodius’ servants were well acquainted with the servants of Caesar’s household and were able to help him in his plot.  Pompeia’s impulsive maid was easily persuaded to help Clodius.  She knew that her mistress was unhappy in her marriage and this controversial young man was among Rome’s most handsome and among younger circles had a reputation of being quite an accomplished lover.  Clodius’ plans were twofold and he would be successful whether he was caught or not.  First, Pompeia was much younger than her husband and was very beautiful, and Caesar was not at home.  The wife of the mighty Caesar would be quite a notch on his bedpost – he certainly was not looking for anything more than sex, but like so many young men, what could possibly be more important?  Even if he was caught, Clodius knew that his behavior would throw the entire city into a frenzy and would make his name known to everyone.  While seducing Pompeia would inflate his stature among his young peers, getting caught would make him one of the most infamous people in the city.

As the flute-girl Clodius arrived at the domus publica, the Bona Dea festival was fully underway.  Rome’s most important women had all arrived and the Vestals were preparing the sacrificial offerings of wine, milk, and honey on the small altar in the center of the house’s atrium.  Pompeia’s maid met him at the door and he waited in the colonnade while she went to get her mistress.  As he stood there, furtively observing the forbidden rites, Aurelia’s maid approached him and invited him to come inside – to join the festivities and the musicians who were already playing the sacred music.  Clodius just stood there and did not Two_ancient_Roman_bone_flutes_with_six_finger_holes,_Museum_het_Valkhof,_Nijmegen_(Netherlands)_(9567169575)respond, so the maid pressed him further encouraging him to come in.  “I’m fine right here.  I’m waiting for someone,” he replied and as he watched the maid’s face, he realized that he had made a terrible mistake – he wasn’t supposed to get caught so quickly!  Aurelia’s maid’s eyes widened as she heard his clearly masculine voice.  At the same time the music stopped and the room was momentarily reduced to a stunned silence.  After a moment, there was a flurry of activity.  Several women screamed.  Aurelia and the Vestal Virgins flew around covering the sacred objects so they would not be profaned by the man in their presence.  Aurelia’s maid grasped at Clodius to keep him from running away, but he scampered off trying to escape.  His way back through the front door was blocked by a throng of bewildered and furious matrons – so he fled deeper into the house.  As he ran past the servant’s quarters a hand reached out and grabbed the hem of his dress – it was Pompeia’s maid, his ally.  She stashed him in her sleeping quarters and ran off to “help” with the hunt.

Moments later, Aurelia and the Vestal Virgins found Clodius hiding in Pompeia’s maid’s room and angrily turned him out of the house.  Meanwhile, Rome’s elite matrons were hurrying home to inform their husbands, the magistrates, what had happened.  Since the domus publica was in the midst of the Forum, it took them several minutes to reach their houses on the surrounding hills.  As bad news has the tendency to do, many of Rome’s magistrates met their wives at their doors having heard the noise of trouble wafting up from the streets below.  “It was that awful Publius Clodius!” was a refrain heard over and over again around the city.  The leaders of the city made their way down the hills to the Forum where they found a stunned Clodius still trying to remove his disguise upon which he was arrested.  While Rome’s political elite tracked down the renegade, Aurelia, Julia (who at the time was 14), and the Vestal Virgins uncovered the sacred objects and completed the rituals to the offended goddess.  By doing so, they saved a night that could have ended in abject disaster.  Even though the night as a social event and a means of furthering political ties was ruined, the Vestals and the women of Caesar’s household saved Rome from falling wholesale into a state of sacrilegious impiety.

In the investigation that followed, Clodius’ servants were questioned about what they might know and, in so doing, the magistrates of Rome found out about his plot, the collaboration of Pompeia’s maid, and Clodius’ aims at seducing the lady of the house.  Upon these revelations, suspicions of participation fell onto Caesar’s wife.  The people of Rome found it hard to believe that Clodius would undertake such a bold and risky plan without some level of confirmation that Pompeia would be open to the idea of an affair with the young man.  As these ideas grew in strength, Caesar, ever the politician, divorced his wife even though he doubted her participation, saying that “Caesar’s wife must be 800px-Cicero_-_Musei_Capitoliniabove suspicion.”  Clodius, too, faced consequences for his actions.  He was charged with impiety and prosecuted by the famed orator Cicero.  Clodius, however, succeeding in getting himself found not guilty by means of bribing enough of the jury to ensure that the vote went his way.  Cicero was furious when he would out that his prosecution had been so unjustly thwarted and bring Clodius to justice became an obsession.  In return, Clodius tried with all his might throughout his political career to bring down the titan prosecutor.  The fight between Cicero and Clodius went on for about a decade with each man gaining the upper hand at different times, the details of which could easily make another story – and I very well may cover it someday.  But suffice it to say, that Cicero lost his house in the fight when Clodius had it razed to the ground and built a temple on the site.  Attacking a man’s home was as much of an affront then as it is now and this tactic by the younger man further infuriated the Cicero.  The feud would not die away until a full decade later when Clodius was traveling outside of the city of Rome.  His entourage was met by Milo, an ally of Cicero, who also had a major political dispute with the impious Clodius.  What exactly happened that fateful day will never be known, but what is certain is that Milo and Clodius had words and violence broke out.  In the end Clodius laid dead on the road, run through by Milo and his men.  As word made its way to Rome of Clodius’ fate, his interminable adversary, Cicero, made his way to the site where Clodius was slain.  As he surveyed the scene, he could not help but laugh to himself.  A few hundred yards from where Clodius fell, stood a sanctuary dedicated to Bona Dea.  The Good Goddess had had her revenge.

Featured Image – Roman Forum. By DannyBoy7783 (talk) – Own work (Original text: I (DannyBoy7783 (talk)) created this work entirely by myself.), GFDL.
 Figure 1 – Bust of Julius Caesar, by Andreas Wahra – Photo by Andreas Wahra, first uploaded to de.wikipedia GiulioCesare.jpg. Modifications by Wolpertinger und Phrood., Public Domain.
Figure 2 – Modern View of the Via Sacra, CC BY-SA 3.0.
Figure 3 – Medieval representation of Julia, By Published by Guillaume Rouille (1518?-1589) – “Promptuarii Iconum Insigniorum”, Public Domain.
Figure 4 – Medieval representation of Pompeia. By Published by Guillaume Rouille (1518?-1589) – “Promptuarii Iconum Insigniorum”, Public Domain.
Figure 5 – Vestals Tending the Sacred Flame, By Jean Raoux – Own work, Public Domain.
Figure 6 – Roman amphorae, By Sailko – Own work, CC BY 3.0.
Figure 7 – Roman Woman, By Herkulaneischer Meister – Image:Puh213r1.jpg, Public Domain.
Figure 8 – Roman flutes, By Carole Raddato from FRANKFURT, Germany – Two ancient Roman bone flutes with six finger holes, Museum het Valkhof, Nijmegen (Netherlands)Uploaded by Marcus Cyron, CC BY-SA 2.0.
Figure 9 – Bust of Cicero, By Glauco92 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0.
Beard, Mary, John North, and Sion Price. Religions of Rome: Volume 2. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
Brouwer, H.H.J. Bona Dea: The Sources and a Description of the Cult. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1989.
Versnel, H.S. Inconsistencies in Greek and Roman Religion II: Transition and Reversal in Myth and Ritual. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1993.


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“The Good Goddess Profaned.” by Andy Smyser is licensed under CC By 4.0. https://historyisstrange.com/2016/05/11/the-good-goddess-profaned/