Beware the Ides of March

By 47 BC, Julius Caesar had defeated his opponents in Rome. Those who had posed a threat to him were dead, either killed in battle, executed, or made to commit suicide. He still had enemies he knew, but those to whom he had displayed leniency were both beaten and subjugated. He was the power now in Rome not the Senate and in February, 44 BC, he declared himself Dictator for Life.

There were many however, who had pledged their allegiance with scant sincerity. Two men in particular, Brutus and Cassius, believed it was their responsibility to act and the course of action they decided to take – assassination.

With as many as 60 Senators involved in the plot it was difficult to keep their plans secret but Caesar dismissed the rumours  and ignored the warning he received to ‘Beware the Ides of March.’

Nicolaus of Damascus, a close friend of King Herod, was not present in Rome at the time of Caesar’s murder but he knew many of those who were involved. This is his account of events as they were told him:

“The conspirators never met openly, but they assembled a few at a time in each others’ homes. There were many discussions and proposals, as might be expected, while they investigated how and where to execute their design. Some suggested that they should make the attempt as he was going along the Sacred Way, which was one of his favourite walks. Another idea was for it to be done at the elections during which he bad to cross a bridge to appoint the magistrates in the Campus Martius; they should draw lots for some to push him from the bridge and for others to run up and kill him. A third plan was to wait for a coming gladiatorial show. The advantage of that would be that, because of the show, no suspicion would be aroused if arms were seen prepared for the attempt. But the majority opinion favoured killing him while he sat in the Senate, where he would be by himself since non-Senators would not be admitted, and where the many conspirators could hide their daggers beneath their togas. This plan won the day.”

“His friends were alarmed at certain rumours and tried to stop him going to the Senate-house, as did his doctors, for he was suffering from one of his occasional dizzy spells. His wife, Calpurnia, especially, who was frightened by some visions in her dreams, clung to him and said that she would not let him go out that day. But Brutus, one of the conspirators who was then thought of as a firm friend, came up and said, ‘What is this, Caesar? Are you a man to pay attention to a woman’s dreams and the idle gossip of stupid men, and to insult the Senate by not going out, although it has honoured you and has been specially summoned by you? But listen to me, cast aside the forebodings of all these people, and come. The Senate has been in session waiting for you since early this morning.’ This swayed Caesar and he left.”

“Before he entered the chamber, the priests brought up the victims for him to make what was to be his last sacrifice. The omens were clearly unfavourable. After this unsuccessful sacrifice, the priests made repeated other ones, to see if anything more propitious might appear than what had already been revealed to them. In the end they said that they could not clearly see the divine intent, for there was some transparent, malignant spirit hidden in the victims. Caesar was annoyed and abandoned divination till sunset, though the priests continued all the more with their efforts.

Those of the murderers present were delighted at all this, though Caesar’s friends asked him to put off the meeting of the Senate for that day because of what the priests had said, and he agreed to do this. But some attendants came up, calling him and saying that the Senate was full. He glanced at his friends, but Brutus approached him again and said, ‘Come, good sir, pay no attention to the babblings of these men, and do not postpone what Caesar and his mighty power has seen fit to arrange. Make your own courage your favorable omen.’ He convinced Caesar with these words, took him by the right hand, and led him to the Senate which was quite near. Caesar followed in silence.”

“The Senate rose in respect for his position when they saw him entering. Those who were to have part in the plot stood near him. Right next to him went Tillius Cimber, whose brother had been exiled by Caesar. Under pretext of a humble request on behalf of this brother, Cimber approached and grasped the mantle of his toga, seeming to want to make a more positive move with his hands upon Caesar. Caesar wanted to get up and use his hands, but was prevented by Cimber and became exceedingly annoyed.

That was the moment for the men to set to work. All quickly unsheathed their daggers and rushed at him. First Servilius Casca struck him with the point of the blade on the left shoulder a little above the collar-bone. He had been aiming for that, but in the excitement he missed. Caesar rose to defend himself, and in the uproar Casca shouted out in Greek to his brother. The latter heard him and drove his sword into the ribs. After a moment, Cassius made a slash at his face, and Decimus Brutus pierced him in the side. While Cassius Longinus was trying to give him another blow he missed and struck Marcus Brutus on the hand. Minucius also hit out at Caesar and hit Rubrius in the thigh. They were just like men doing battle against him.

Under the mass of wounds, he fell at the foot of Pompey’s statue. Everyone wanted to seem to have had some part in the murder, and there was not one of them who failed to strike his body as it lay there, until, wounded thirty-five times, he breathed his last. ”

 

 

The Death of Lord Nelson

Lord Horatio Nelson was a British hero long before the moment of his greatest triumph. His victories at the Battle of the Nile and Copenhagen had seen to that. He had the affection of the people even if his very public affair with the married Emma Hamilton, a woman of dubious repute, had scandalised polite society and left his own wife abandoned and humiliated. It made him not entirely trusted as a man of doubtful character but when Napoleon Bonaparte threatened to add Britain (that Nation of Shopkeepers) to his list of conquests he was the one man his country could turn to.

On 21 October, 1805, at Cape Trafalgar off the Spanish coast his British Fleet engaged the combined Fleets of France and Spain. Outnumbered and outgunned he would compensate for the disparity with daring and audacity. Aware that the French Admiral Villeneuve was wary of him following their earlier encounter at the Nile when he captained one of the few French ships to avoid destruction or capture Nelson decided stretch his nerves to breaking point. He would forego the usual broadside bombardment to attack head-on in two parallel columns penetrate the French line, surround and destroy piecemeal in a close quarter engagement all guns blazing.

It was a plan unorthodox, unpredictable, daring, and brilliant – it had that Nelson Touch.

On the day of the battle Nelson, contrary to the advice of his Captain’s who claimed it made him too clear and obvious a target, chose to wear his Admiral’s uniform. He had earned the right he said, and it was good for morale.

The attack began with a signal to his ships, “England expects that every man will do his duty.”

For hours the two Fleets battered away at each other while Nelson coolly observed the bloody and confused melee from the quarter-deck of his Flagship HMS Victory alongside Captain Hardy. But it was a dangerous place to be especially since the Victory had become entangled with the French Redoubtable and the sharpshooters of both ships high in the rigging were fully engaged.

Dr William Beatty was a physician aboard the Victory who helped tend to the Admiral’s wounds and would not long after the battle provide a detailed account of the day’s events:  

“Lord Nelson and Captain Hardy walked the quarter-deck in conversation for some time after this, while the enemy kept up an incessant raking fire. A double-headed shot struck one of the parties of Marines drawn up on the poop, and killed eight of them; when his lordship, perceiving this, ordered Captain Adair, to disperse his men round the ship, that they might not suffer so much from being together. In a few minutes afterwards a shot struck the fore-brace-bits on the quarter-deck, and passed between Lord Nelson and Captain Hardy; a splinter from the bits bruising Captain Hardy’s foot, and tearing the buckle from his shoe. They both instantly stopped; and were observed by the Officers on deck to survey each other with inquiring looks, each supposing the other to be wounded. His lordship then smiled, and said: ‘This is too warm work, Hardy, to last long;’ and declared that ‘through all the battles he had been in, he had never witnessed more cool courage than was displayed by the Victory’s crew on this occasion.’

About fifteen minutes past one o’clock, which was in the heat of the engagement, he was walking the middle of the quarter-deck with Captain Hardy, and in the act of turning near the hatchway with his face towards the stern of the Victory, when the fatal ball was fired from the enemy’s mizzen-top. The ball struck the epaulette on his left shoulder, and penetrated his chest. He fell with his face on the deck. Captain Hardy, who was on his right (the side furthest from the enemy) and advanced some steps before his lordship, on turning round, saw the Sergeant Major of Marines with two seamen raising him from the deck; where he had fallen on the same spot on which, a little before, his secretary had breathed his last, with whose blood his lordship’s clothes were much soiled. Captain Hardy expressed a hope that he was not severely wounded; to which the gallant Chief replied: ‘They have done for me at last, Hardy.’ – ‘I hope not,’ answered Captain Hardy. ‘Yes,’ replied his lordship; ‘my backbone is shot through.’

Captain Hardy ordered the seamen to carry the Admiral to the cockpit. . .

His lordship was laid upon a bed, stripped of his clothes, and covered with a sheet. While this was effecting, he said to Doctor Scott, “Doctor, I told you so. Doctor, I am gone;” and after a short pause he added in a low voice, “I have to leave Lady Hamilton, and my adopted daughter Horatia, as a legacy to my country.” The surgeon then examined the wound, assuring his lordship that he would not put him to much pain in endeavouring to discover the course of the ball; which he soon found had penetrated deep into the chest, and had probably lodged in the spine. This being explained to his lordship, he replied, “he was confident his back was shot through.”

The back was then examined externally, but without any injury being perceived; on which his lordship was requested by the surgeon to make him acquainted with all his sensations. He replied, that “he felt a gush of blood every minute within his breast: that he had no feeling in the lower part of his body: and that his breathing was difficult, and attended with very severe pain about that part of the spine where he was confident that the ball had struck; for,” said he, “I felt it break my back.” These symptoms, but more particularly the gush of blood which his lordship complained of, together with the state of his pulse, indicated to the surgeon the hopeless situation of the case; but till after the victory was ascertained and announced to his lordship, the true nature of his wound was concealed by the surgeon from all on board except only Captain Hardy, Doctor Scott, Mr. Burke, and Messrs. Smith and Westemburg the assistant surgeons.

The Victory’s crew cheered whenever they observed an enemy’s ship surrender. On one of these occasions, Lord Nelson anxiously inquired what was the cause of it. When Lieutenant Pasco, who lay wounded at some distance from his lordship, raised himself up, and told him that another ship had struck, which appeared to give him much satisfaction. He now felt an ardent thirst; and frequently called for drink, and to be fanned with paper, making use of these words: fan, fan and drink, drink.

He evinced great solicitude for the event of the battle, and fears for the safety of his friend Captain Hardy. Doctor Scott and Mr. Burke used every argument they could suggest, to relieve his anxiety. Mr. Burke told him ‘the enemy were decisively defeated, and that he hoped His lordship would still live to be himself the bearer of the joyful tidings to his country.’ He replied, ‘It is nonsense, Mr. Burke, to suppose I can live: my sufferings are great, but they will all be soon over.’ Doctor Scott entreated his lordship ‘not to despair of living,’ and said ‘he trusted that Divine Providence would restore him once more to his dear country and friends.’ — ‘Ah, Doctor!’ replied lordship, ‘it is all over; it is all over.

An hour and ten minutes however elapsed, from the time of his lordship’s being wounded, before Captain Hardy’s first subsequent interview with him. . . They shook hands affectionately, and Lord Nelson said: ‘Well, Hardy, how goes the battle? How goes the day with us?’- ‘Very well, my Lord,’ replied Captain Hardy. . . ‘I am a dead man, Hardy. I am going fast: it will be all over with me soon. Come nearer to me. Pray let my dear Lady Hamilton have my hair, and all other things belonging to me.’ . . .Captain Hardy observed, that ‘he hoped Mr. Beatty could yet hold out some prospect of life.’ – ‘Oh! no,’ answered his lordship; ‘it is impossible. My back is shot through. Beatty will tell you so.’ Captain Hardy then returned on deck, and at parting shook hands again with his revered friend and commander.

His Lordship became speechless in about fifteen minutes after Captain Hardy left him. . . and when he had remained speechless about five minutes, his Lordship’s steward went to the surgeon, who had been a short time occupied with the wounded in another part of the cockpit, and stated his apprehensions that his Lordship was dying. The surgeon immediately repaired to him, and found him on the verge of dissolution. He knelt down by his side, and took up his hand; which was cold, and the pulse gone from the wrist. On the surgeon’s feeling his forehead, which was likewise cold, his Lordship opened his eyes, looked up, and shut them again. The surgeon again left him, and returned to the wounded who required his assistance; but was not absent five minutes before the Steward announced to him that ‘he believed his Lordship had expired.’ The surgeon returned, and found that the report was but too well founded: his Lordship had breathed his last, at thirty minutes past four o’clock; at which period Doctor Scott was in the act of rubbing his Lordship’s breast, and Mr. Burke supporting the bed under his shoulders.

 

 

 

 

A Mexican Remembers the Alamo

In 1835, Texas belonged to Mexico but there was a growing sense in the region that it needn’t be so. A recent influx of Americans with their clearly defined notions of liberty and Mexicans already resident disgruntled at the autocratic rule of General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna saw tensions mount and following a series of skirmishes with the Mexican Army it was forced to abandon the region. Their absence saw an expression of anger become a fully-fledged movement for independence. But the Mexicans would be back.

Santa Anna had no intention of entering into negotiation with those he considered little better than pirates and by early 1836 he had returned with a fresh, fully-equipped and formidable army determined to crush the rebellion. The Texians, a rag-tag collection of regular soldiers, volunteers, and adventurers were nevertheless just as determined to be free.

By the last week of February, Santa Anna’s army stood before the Mission Station known as the Alamo, a broken down, ramshackle old Church and its surround that had been hastily fortified for defence. Inside were some 200 mostly volunteer fighters under the command of William Barret Travis.  Also at the Alamo were two legendary figures of the West, Jim Bowie and Davy Crockett. Their presence would make for an exhaustive mythology intended for the most part to praise but also to demean.

Santa Anna would offer no quarter and those defending the Alamo would die to a man, whether some did so less heroically than others is irrelevant in that they were all killed in the cause they were fighting for. There are then few descriptions of the fighting from the Texian side other than the memories of the women and non-combatants who survived.

This account is from a serving Officer in Santa Anna’s army:

“On this same evening, a little before nightfall, it is said that Barret Travis, commander of the enemy, had offered to the general-in-chief, by a woman messenger, to surrender his arms and the fort with all the materials upon the sole condition that his own life and the lives of his men be spared. But the answer was that they must surrender at discretion, without any guarantee, even of life, which traitors did not deserve. It is evident, that after such an answer, they all prepared to sell their lives as dearly as possible. Consequently, they exercised the greatest vigilance day and night to avoid surprise.

On the morning of March 6, the Mexican troops were stationed at 4 o’clock, A.M., in accord with Santa Anna’s instructions. The artillery, as appears from these same instructions, was to remain inactive, as it received no order; and furthermore, darkness and the disposition made of the troops which were to attack the four fronts at the same time, prevented its firing without mowing down our own ranks. Thus the enemy was not to suffer from our artillery during the attack. Their own artillery was in readiness. At the sound of the bugle they could no longer doubt that the time had come for them to conquer or to die. Had they still doubted, the imprudent shouts for Santa Anna given by our columns of attack must have opened their eyes.

As soon as our troops were in sight, a shower of grape and musket balls was poured upon them from the fort, the garrison of which at the sound of the bugle had rushed to arms and to their posts. The three columns that attacked the west, the north, and the east fronts, fell back, or rather, wavered at the first discharge from the enemy, but the example and the efforts of the officers soon caused them to return to the attack. The columns of the western and eastern attacks, meeting with some difficulties in reaching the tops of the small houses which formed the walls of the fort, did, by a simultaneous movement to the right and to left, swing northward till the three columns formed one dense mass, which under the guidance of their officers, endeavoured to climb the parapet on that side.

This obstacle was at length overcome, the gallant General Juan V Amador being among the foremost, meantime the column attacking the southern front under Colonels Jose Vicente Minon and Jose Morales, availing themselves of a shelter, formed by some stone houses near the western salient of that front, boldly took the guns defending it, and penetrated through the embrasures into the square formed by the barracks. There they assisted General Amador, who having captured the enemy’s pieces turned them against the doors of the interior houses where the rebels had sought shelter, and from which they fired upon our men in the act of jumping down onto the square or court of the fort. At last they were all destroyed by grape, musket shot and the bayonet.

Our loss was very heavy. Colonel Francisco Duque was mortally wounded at the very beginning, as he lay dying on the ground where he was being trampled by his own men, he still ordered them on to the slaughter. This attack was extremely injudicious and in opposition to military rules, for our own men were exposed not only to the fire of the enemy but also to that of our own columns attacking the other fronts; and our soldiers being formed in close columns, all shots that were aimed too low, struck the backs of our foremost men. The greatest number of our casualties took place in that manner; it may even be affirmed that not one fourth of our wounded were struck by the enemy’s fire, because their cannon, owing to their elevated position, could not be sufficiently lowered to injure our troops after they had reached the foot of the walls. Nor could the defenders use their muskets with accuracy, because the wall having no inner banquette, they had, in order to deliver their fire, to stand on top where they could not live one second.

The official list of casualties, made by General Juan de Andrade, shows: officers 8 killed, 18 wounded; enlisted men 52 killed, 233 wounded. Total 311 killed and wounded. A great many of the wounded died for want of medical attention, beds, shelter, and surgical instruments.

The whole garrison were killed except an old woman and a negro slave for whom the soldiers felt compassion, knowing that they had remained from compulsion alone. There were 150 volunteers, 32 citizens of Gonzales who had introduced themselves into the fort the night previous to the storming, and about 20 citizens or merchants of Bexar.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Death of the Borgia Pope

Long before Rodrigo Borgia became Pope Alexander VI on 11 August, 1492, he already had a reputation for corruption both financial and otherwise. It was said that he had bribed his way to the Papacy and had sired as many as ten children by the many mistresses he had at his beck and call, though he recognised only four.  Indeed, there were few vices his many enemies were not willing to attribute to him among them fraud, murder, and incest. Political chicanery and the ruthless grab for power were the hallmark of his time in office and to be an enemy of the Borgia’s was to establish a case for retribution both against oneself and one’s family. It was rarely ignored.

No less notorious was the lavish lifestyle and the many parties (which some described as little better than orgies) that now became part and parcel of everyday life in the Vatican. It seemed to many that his sacred duty as a successor to St Peter and God’s Representative on Earth were but secondary to his pursuit of pleasure and relentless self-aggrandisement. Yet for all the hedonism he was one of the most effective men ever to sit upon the Petrine Throne. He successfully guided the Papacy through troubled times while both securing its position and enhancing its power. Mother Church would in the end owe him a great deal but this did not mean that his passing would be greatly mourned, and it wasn’t.

Johann Burchard worked within the Vatican overseeing official ceremonies and functions. Frequently in the presence of the Pope he witnessed his final illness and the moment of his death. This is his account of the Borgia Pope’s demise and its immediate aftermath:  

“On Saturday morning, August 12th, the pope felt unwell, and at about three o’clock in the afternoon he became feverish. Fourteen ounces of blood were taken from him three days later and tertiary fever set in. Early on August 17th, he was given some medicine, but he worsened and at about six o’clock on the following morning, he made his confession to Don Pietro Gamboa, the Bishop of Carinola, who then celebrated Mass in His Holiness’s presence. After he had made his own communion, he gave the pope the Host as he sat in his bed and then completed the Mass. The service was also attended by five cardinals – Serra, Francesco Borgia, Giovanni Castelar, Casanova and de Loris of Constantinople – to whom His Holiness stated that he felt ill. At the hour of Vespers he was given Extreme Unction by the Bishop of Carinola, and he expired in the presence of the datary, the bishop and the attendants standing by.

Don Cesare, (the Pope’s illegitimate son), who was also unwell at the time, sent Michelotto with a large number of retainers to close all the doors that gave access to the pope’s room. One of the men took out a dagger and threatened to cut Cardinal Casanova’s throat and to throw him out of the window unless he handed over the keys to all the pope’s treasure. Terrified, the cardinal surrendered the keys, whereupon the others entered the room next to the papal apartment and seized all the silver that they found, together with two coffers containing about a hundred thousand ducats.

At four o’clock in the afternoon, they opened the doors and proclaimed that the pope was dead. In the meantime, valets took what had been left behind in the wardrobe and the apartments, and nothing of value remained except the papal chairs, some cushions and the tapestries on the walls. Throughout the whole of the pope’s illness, Don Cesare never visited his father, nor again after his death, whilst His Holiness for his part never once made the slightest reference to Cesare or Lucrezia.”

Burchard helped dress the Pope’s leaving it in a courtyard before leaving to attend to other business:

“I returned to the city after eight o’clock in the evening, accompanied by eight of the palace guards, and in the vice-chancellor’s name I ordered Giovanni Caroli the messenger, on pain of losing his office, to go with his fellow messengers to inform all the clergy in Rome, secular priests and monks alike, that they must assemble early next morning at five o’clock in the papal palace for the funeral procession from the Sistine Chapel to the Basilica of St Peter’s. Two hundred tapers were prepared for those who would assemble for the pope’s funeral.

Next morning, I had the bier brought into the Sala del Pappagallo and there set down. Four confessors recited the Office of the Dead as they sat on the window-frame with their hands resting on the pope’s litter, which was supported by paupers who stood at hand gazing at the body. I placed a folded mattress on the bier and covered it with a fine new pall of bright purple brocade i With the help of three others, I took hold of the bier and moved it into a position between the high altar and the papal seat so that the pope’s head was close to the altar. There we shut the bier in behind the choir. The Bishop of Sessa, however, wondered if the ordinary people might not climb up to the body there, which would cause a great scandal and perhaps allow somebody who had been wronged by the pope to get his revenge. He therefore had the bier moved into the chapel entrance between the steps, with the pope’s feet so close to the iron door that they could be touched through the grill. There the body remained through the day, with the iron door firmly closed.

After dining, the cardinals appointed for the task and with the aid of the Chamber clergy made an inventory of the valuables and the more precious moveable goods that had belonged to Alexander. They found the crown and two precious tiaras, all the rings which the pope wore for Mass, the credence-vessels for his use in celebrating and enough indeed to fill eight coffers. Amongst all these things were the golden vessels from the recess of the apartment adjoining the pope’s bedroom about which Don Michelotto had known nothing, as well as a small cypress box, covered in strong cloth and containing precious stones and rings to the value of about twenty-five thousand ducats. There were also found many documents, the oaths of the cardinals, the bull for the investiture of the King of Naples, and a great number of other bulls.

In the meantime, the body of the pope had remained for a long time, as I have described, between the railings of the high altar. During that period, the four wax candles next to it burned right down, and the complexion of the dead man became increasingly foul and black.

Already by four o’clock on that afternoon when I saw the corpse, again, its face had changed to the color of mulberry or the blackest cloth and it was covered in blue-black spots. The nose was swollen, the mouth distended where the tongue was doubled over, and the lips seemed to fill everything. The appearance of the face then was far more horrifying than anything that had ever been seen or reported before.

Later after five o’clock, the body was carried to the Chapel of Santa Maria della Febbre and placed in its coffin next to the wall in a corner by the altar. Six labourers or porters, making blasphemous jokes about the pope or in contempt of his corpse, together with two master carpenters, performed this task.

The carpenters had made the coffin too narrow and short, and so they placed the pope’s mitre at his side, rolled his body up in an old carpet, and pummelled and pushed it into the coffin with their fists. No wax tapers or lights were used, and no priests or any other persons attended to his body.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Caesar Crosses the Rubicon

The River Rubicon which runs from the Apennines to the Adriatic Coast near Rimini may not be geographically significant. It hardly cuts a swathe through the landscape but it would nonetheless lend its name to one of the most significant events in history.

In his ten years as Governor of Gaul Julius Caesar had enhanced his military reputation to the point where it outshone even that of his former friend and now great rival Pompey who de facto ruled in Rome. In doing so he had amassed a vast fortune which he used to buy influence and support in the city.

With Gaul subdued and his return imminent the Senate in Rome acted to curb Caesar’s ambitions.  He was ordered to resign his command, disband his army, and return to civilian life. If he refused then he would be  declared an Enemy of the People and every Roman citizen would be obliged to do him harm. Moreover, Pompey was charged with enforcing the edict should it be ignored.

Caesar received news of the Senate’s decision while at Winter Quarters at Ravenna in Northern Italy. He now faced a stark choice either do as the Senate demanded thereby ending his political career or disobey them and plunge Rome into civil war. T

The law forbade him to lead an army across the River Rubicon and march it south but upon learning that his political allies in Rome had been forced to flee the city he felt he had no choice. With just one Legion at his back he crossed the Rubicon, the die had been cast, he had gone beyond the point of no return.

This is the Roman historian Suetonius’s account of that fateful decision:


“When the news came
 to Ravenna, where Caesar was staying, that the interposition of the tribunes in his favour had been utterly rejected, and that they themselves had fled Rome, he immediately sent forward some cohorts, yet secretly, to prevent any suspicion of his plan; and to keep up appearances, he attended the public games and examined the model of a fencing school which he proposed building, then – as usual – sat down to table with a large company of friends.

However, after sunset some mules from a near-by mill were put in his carriage, and he set forward on his journey as privately as possible, and with an exceedingly scanty retinue. The lights went out.. He lost his way and wandered about a long time – till at last, by help of a guide, whom he discovered towards daybreak, he proceeded on foot through some narrow paths, and again reached the road. Coming up with his troops on the banks of the Rubicon, which was the frontier of his province, he halted for a while, and revolving in his mind the importance of the step he meditated, he turned to those he about him, saying: ‘still we can retreat! But once past this little bridge nothing is left but to fight it out with arms!’

As he hesitated an incident occurred – a man of strikingly noble mien and graceful aspect appeared close at hand, and played upon a pipe. To hear him not merely some shepherds, but soldiers too came flocking from their posts, and amongst them some trumpeters. He snatched a trumpet from one of them and ran to the river with it; then sounding the “Advance!” with a piercing blast he crossed to the other side. At this Caesar cried out, ‘Let us go where the omens of the Gods and the crimes of our enemies summon us! THE DIE IS NOW CAST!’

Accordingly he marched his army over the river; then he showed them the tribunes of the Plebs, who on being driven from Rome had come to meet him, and in the presence of that assembly, called on the troops to pledge him their fidelity; tears springing to his eyes [as he spoke] and his garments rent from his bosom.”

 

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Cleopatra seduces Marc Antony

Julius Caesar’s assassination in March, 44 BC, left his lover and the mother of his son, Cleopatra, vulnerable. She may have been the Queen of Egypt but in Rome she was despised as that barbarian and whore. Even so, in the city at the time of his murder she did not flee immediately but remained long enough to see Caesar’s friend Marc Antony emerge as the new power in Rome.

Cleopatra returned to Egypt to await events aware that having already seduced one great Roman she could seduce another but he would have to come to her.

Antony needed money (he always needed money) but ruling in Rome as part of a triumvirate alongside Caesar’s nephew Octavian and the leading General, Lepidus and with a Senate led by Cicero largely hostile to him his access to funds was extremely limited. Knowing that Cleopatra as Pharaoh of Egypt had wealth in great abundance he had himself made ruler in the East while Octavian ruled in the West and Lepidus governed in Africa.

In 41 BC he summoned Cleopatra to meet with him at Tarsus on the coast of Turkey. She would travel as commanded to do but in a display of grandeur without parallel it was Antony who would stand in awe of her majesty.

Plutarch, the Roman historian in his Parallel Lives written some 150 years after the events he describes provides us with perhaps our most vivid description of Cleopatra and given his Greek origins perhaps a more sympathetic account than would be found elsewhere:

She came, sailing up the river Cydnus in a barge with gilded stern and outspread sails of purple, while oars of silver beat time to the music of flutes and fifes and harps. She herself lay all along, under a canopy of cloth of gold, dressed as Venus in a picture, and beautiful young boys, like painted Cupids, stood on each side to fan her. Her maids were dressed like Sea Nymphs and Graces, some steering at the rudder, some working at the ropes. Perfumes diffused themselves from the vessel to the shore, which was covered with multitudes, part following the galley up the river on either bank, part running out of the city to see the sight. The market place was quite emptied, and Antony at last was left alone sitting upon the tribunal; while the word went .through all the multitude, that Venus was come to feast with Bacchus for the common good of Asia.

On her arrival, Antony sent to invite her to supper. She thought it fitter he should come to her; so, willing to show his good humour and courtesy, he complied, and went. He found the preparations to receive him magnificent beyond expression, but nothing so admirable as the great number of lights; for on a sudden there was let down altogether so great a number of branches with lights in them so ingeniously disposed, some in squares, and some in circles, that the whole thing was a spectacle that had seldom been equalled for beauty.

The next day, Antony invited her to supper, and was very desirous to outdo her as well in magnificence as contrivance; but he found he was altogether beaten in both, and was so well convinced of it, that he was himself the first to jest and mock at his poverty of wit, and his rustic awkwardness. She, perceiving that his raillery was broad and gross, and savoured more of the soldier than the courtier, rejoined in the same taste, and fell into it at once, without any sort of reluctance or reserve.

For her actual beauty, it is said, was not in itself so remarkable that none could be compared with her, or that no one could see her without being struck by it, but the contact of her presence, if you lived with her, was irresistible; the attraction of her person, joining with the charm of her conversation, and the character that attended all she said or did, was something bewitching. It was a pleasure merely to hear the sound of her voice, with which, like an instrument of many strings, she could pass from one language to another; so that there were few of the barbarian nations that she answered by an interpreter.

Antony was so captivated by her, that while Fulvia his wife maintained his quarrels in Rome against Caesar by actual force of arms, and the Parthian troops…were assembled in Mesopotamia, and ready to enter Syria, he could yet suffer himself to be carried away by her to Alexandria, there to keep holiday, like a boy, in play and diversion, squandering and fooling away in enjoyment that most costly, as Antiphon says, of all valuables, time.

Were Antony serious or disposed to mirth, she had at any moment some new delight or charm to meet his wishes; at every turn she was upon him, and let him escape her neither by day nor by night. She played at dice with him, drank with him, hunted with him; and when he exercised in arms, she was there to see.

She played At night she would go rambling with him to disturb and torment people at their doors and windows, dressed like a servant woman for Antony also went in servant’s disguise, and from these expeditions he often came home very scathingly answered, and sometimes even beaten severely, though most people guessed who it was. However, the Alexandrians in general liked it all well enough, and joined good humouredly and kindly in his frolic and play, saying they were much obliged to Antony for acting his tragic parts at Rome, and keeping his comedy for them.”

 

 

 

 

Nero: Persecuting the Christians

On the night of 19 July 64 AD, a fire broke out near the Circus Maximus in the centre of Rome that was to rage for six full days unimpeded devastating the city and leaving hundreds of thousands of people without means, homeless and on the streets. It was the worst disaster to ever strike the city and few could believe it the result of an accident – someone must be to blame?

Despite having done his best to alleviate the suffering by opening up the Imperial Gardens and municipal buildings for use by the destitute, providing temporary shelters, and organising food shipments to the city the rumour soon began to spread that Emperor Nero had started the fire deliberately to clear away obstacles to the building of his opulent and colossal Golden House.

Given Nero’s reputation it was a rumour easily believed so he sought to deflect the blame and he knew a good scapegoat when he saw one – the Christians were a small but rapidly growing religious sect despised by many Roman’s for their arrogance and denial of the Gods.  They were to blame declared Nero and their leaders were arrested and tortured until they confessed to that effect.  Even so, many remained sceptical but Nero being the great impresario he was knew how to overcome such doubts. He would have the Christians killed in the most theatrical manner he could conjure up for the entertainment of the mob.

Many still doubted their guilt regarding the fire but few objected to them being punished.

The historian Tacitus was just a boy in Rome at the time but he remembered the events well and many decades later would write of them in his Annals, or History of Rome:

“Therefore, to stop the rumour, he falsely charged with guilt, and punished with the most fearful tortures, the persons commonly called Christians, who were hated for their enormities. Christus, the founder of that name, was put to death as a criminal by Pontius Pilate, procurator of Judea, in the reign of Tiberius, but the pernicious superstition – repressed for a time, broke out yet again, not only through Judea, – where the mischief originated, but through the city of Rome also, whither all things horrible and disgraceful flow from all quarters, as to a common receptacle, and where they are encouraged. Accordingly first those were arrested who confessed they were Christians; next on their information a vast multitude were convicted, not so much on the charge of burning the city, as of “hating the human race.

In their very deaths they were made the subjects of sport: for they were covered with the hides of wild beasts, and worried to death by dogs, or nailed to crosses, or set fire to, and when the day waned, burned to serve for the evening lights. Nero offered his own garden players for the spectacle, and exhibited a Circensian game, indiscriminately mingling with the common people in the dress of a charioteer, or else standing in his chariot. For this cause a feeling of compassion arose towards the sufferers, though guilty and deserving of exemplary capital punishment, because they seemed not to be cut off for the public good, but were victims of the ferocity of one man.”

 

 

The Execution of Louis XVI

On 21 June 1791, while the National Assembly in Paris toiled long into the night over the articles of a new constitution, King Louis XVI along with his Queen Marie Antoinette and their children fled the city in plain clothes, the curtains of their carriage tightly drawn. Their destination was the royalist stronghold of Montmedy from where they would be safely delivered into the hands of Marie Antoinette’s brother Leopold, Emperor of Austria. But their escort never arrived and stopped in the town of Varennes by the local postmaster who recognised the King from his image on recently issued paper money they were arrested and ignominiously escorted back to Paris. It was clear to many that the King could now no longer be trusted – the Bourbon Monarchy had reached the end of the road.

In September King Louis XVI was deposed and a Republic declared, soon after he would stand trial for his life accused of treason.  Found guilty his fate now lay in the hands of the by now National Convention. Passions ran high and the extremists among them Robespierre and Saint Just demanded his immediate execution while moderates such as Danton argued for exile. When the vote finally came it was closer than anyone could have imagined. While 361 Deputies were in favour of execution, 360 had opposed it – Louis XVI, the former King of France, had been condemned to death by just 1 vote.

At his own request Louis was accompanied the journey to his place of execution by an English priest Henry Essex Edgeworth who had to all intents and purposes become the Royal Family’s confessor.  This is his account of that fateful carriage ride and Louis Capet’s final few hours:

“The King, finding himself seated in the carriage, where he could neither speak to me nor be spoken to without witness, kept a profound silence. I presented him with my breviary, the only book I had with me, and he seemed to accept it with pleasure: he appeared anxious that I should point out to him the psalms that were most suited to his situation, and he recited them attentively with me. The gendarmes, without speaking, seemed astonished and confounded at the tranquil piety of their monarch, to whom they doubtless never had before approached so near.

The procession lasted almost two hours; the streets were lined with citizens, all armed, some with pikes and some with guns, and the carriage was surrounded by a body of troops, formed of the most desperate people of Paris. As another precaution, they had placed before the horses a number of drums, intended to drown any noise or murmur in favour of the King; but how could they be heard? Nobody appeared either at the doors or windows, and in the street nothing was to be seen, but armed citizens – citizens, all rushing towards the commission of a crime, which perhaps they detested in their hearts.

The carriage proceeded thus in silence th the Place de Louis XV, and stopped in the middle of a large space that had been left around the scaffold: this space was surrounded by cannon, and beyond, an armed multitude extended as far as the eye could reach. As soon as the King perceived that the carriage had stopped, he turned and whispered to me, ‘We are arrived, if I mistake not.’ One of the guards came to open the carriage door, and the gendarmes would have jumped out but the King stopped them and leaning his arm on my knee, ‘Gentlemen,’ said he, with the tone of majesty, ‘ I recommend you this good man; take care that after my death no insult be offered to him – I charge you to prevent it.

As soon as the King had left the carriage, three guards surrounded him, and would have taken off his clothes, but he repulsed them with haughtiness- he undressed himself, untied his neck-cloth, opened his shirt, and arranged it himself. The guards, whom the determined countenance of the King had for a moment disconcerted, seemed to recover their audacity. They surrounded him again, and would have seized his hands. ‘What are you attempting?’ said the King, drawing back his hands. ‘To bind you,’ answered the wretches. ‘To bind me,’ said the King with an indignant air. ‘No, I shall never consent to that: do what you have been ordered, but you shall never bind me.’

 The path leading to the scaffold was extremely rough and difficult to pass; the King was obliged to lean on my arm, and from the slowness with which he proceeded, I feared for a moment that his courage might fail; but what was my astonishment, when arrived at the last step, I felt that he suddenly let go my arm, and I saw him cross with a firm foot the breadth of the whole scaffold; silence, by his look alone, fifteen or twenty drums that were placed opposite to me; and in a voice so loud, that it must have been heard it the Pont Tournant, I heard him pronounce distinctly these memorable words: ‘I die innocent of all the crimes laid to my charge; I Pardon those who have occasioned my death; and I pray to God that the blood you are going to shed may never be visited on France.’

 He was proceeding, when a man on horseback, in the national uniform, and with a ferocious cry, ordered the drums to beat. Many voices were at the same time heard encouraging the executioners. They seemed reanimated themselves, in seizing with violence the most virtuous of Kings, they dragged him under the axe of the guillotine, which with one stroke severed his head from his body. All this passed in a moment. The youngest of the guards, who seemed about eighteen, immediately seized the head, and showed it to the people as he walked round the scaffold; he accompanied this monstrous ceremony with the most atrocious and indecent gestures. At first an awful silence prevailed; at length some cries of ‘Vive la Republique!’ were heard. By degrees the voices multiplied and in less than ten minutes this cry, a thousand times repeated became the universal shout of the multitude, and every hat was in the air.”

                                                                                                                                                      

 

 

 

 

 

 

Witnessing the Blitz

By September 1940, it was clear that the Luftwaffe’s attempt to secure air superiority in the skies over Britain in preparation for Operation Sea Lion, Hitler’s plan for invasion, had been thwarted.  But the attacks on the country would not cease, rather they would intensify. If the British could not be beaten from the skies then they would be bombed from them, massively and relentlessly until the spirit of the people had broken and their will to resist destroyed – it was the tactics of terror.

The first bombing raid on London occurred on 7 September 1940 and did not cease until 11 May 1941. Including 57 consecutive raids both day and night.

Ernie Pyle was a war correspondent who would later report from North Africa, Italy, and the Pacific Theatre where he would later be killed.

In London at the time of the Blitz this is his account of one such raid:


They came just after dark, and somehow you could sense from the quick, bitter firing of the guns that there was to be no monkey business this night.

Shortly after the sirens wailed you could hear the Germans grinding overhead. In my room, with its black curtains drawn across the windows, you could feel the shake from the guns. You could hear the boom, crump, crump, crump, of heavy bombs at their work of tearing buildings apart. They were not too far away.

Half an hour after the firing started I gathered a couple of friends and went to a high, darkened balcony that gave us a view of a third of the entire circle of London. As we stepped out onto the balcony a vast inner excitement came over all of us-an excitement that had neither fear nor horror in it, because it was too full of awe.

You have all seen big fires, but I doubt if you have ever seen the whole horizon of a city lined with great fires – scores of them, perhaps hundreds.

There was something inspiring just in the awful savagery of it.

The closest fires were near enough for us to hear the crackling flames and the yells of firemen. Little fires grew into big ones even as we watched. Big ones died down under the firemen’s valor, only to break out again later.

About every two minutes a new wave of planes would be over. The motors seemed to grind rather than roar, and to have an angry pulsation, like a bee buzzing in blind fury.


The guns did not make a constant overwhelming din as in those terrible days of September. They were intermittent – sometimes a few seconds apart, sometimes a minute or more. Their sound was sharp, nearby and soft and muffled, far away. They were everywhere over London.

Into the dark shadowed spaces below us, while we watched, whole batches of incendiary bombs fell. We saw two dozen go off in two seconds. They flashed terrifically, then quickly simmered down to pin points of dazzling white, burning ferociously. These white pin points would go out one by one, as the unseen heroes of the moment smothered them with sand. But also, while we watched, other pin points would burn on, and soon a yellow flame would leap up from the white center. They had done their work – another building was on fire.

The greatest of all the fires was directly in front of us. Flames seemed to whip hundreds of feet into the air. Pinkish-white smoke ballooned upward in a great cloud, and out of this cloud there gradually took shape – so faintly at first that we weren’t sure we saw correctly – the gigantic dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral.

St. Paul’s was surrounded by fire, but it came through. It stood there in its enormous proportions – growing slowly clearer and clearer, the way objects take shape at dawn. It was like a picture of some miraculous figure that appears before peace-hungry soldiers on a battlefield. 

The streets below us were semi-illuminated from the glow. Immediately above the fires the sky was red and angry, and overhead, making a ceiling in the vast heavens, there was a cloud of smoke all in pink. Up in that pink shrouding there were tiny, brilliant specks of flashing light-antiaircraft shells bursting. After the flash you could hear the sound.

Up there, too, the barrage balloons were standing out as clearly as if it were daytime, but now they were pink instead of silver. And now and then through a hole in that pink shroud there twinkled incongruously a permanent, genuine star – the old – fashioned kind that has always been there.

Below us the Thames grew lighter and all around were the shadows – the dark shadows of buildings and bridges that formed the base of this dreadful masterpiece.

Later on I borrowed a tin hat and went out among the fires. That was exciting too; but the thing I shall always remember above all the other things in my life is the monstrous loveliness of that one single view of London on a holiday night – London stabbed with great fires, shaken by explosions, its dark regions along the Thames sparkling with the pin points of white-hot bombs, all of it roofed over with a ceiling of pink that held bursting shells, balloons, flares and the grind of vicious engines; and in yourself the excitement and anticipation and wonder in your soul that this could be happening at all.

These things all went together to make the most hateful, most beautiful single scene I have ever known.”

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Agincourt Eye

On 25 October, 1415, on a ploughed field made muddy by rain with storm clouds looming overhead a legend was made. Immortalised in the words of William Shakespeare, ‘We few, we happy few, we band of brothers,’ it was St Crispin’s Day and the Battle of Agincourt was about to occur.

Henry V, King of England, was an ambitious man who desired to be King of France also, as was his right. But he had few means by which to do so and on that dull day hungry, sleepless, and soaked to the skin from the night before he stood with his six thousand archers and men-at-arms before an army at least three times the size of his own and led by the flower of the French nobility. With armoured knights in their thousands preparing to grind his little army into the dust annihilation beckoned but he had a weapon the French did not, his Welsh Longbow men. They had proved their worth before and now they would do so again.

Jean de Wavrin, who would later write one of the great Medieval Chronicles was just fifteen years of age when he observed the Battle of Agincourt from the safety of the French Camp, a battle in which both his father and older brother would be killed. Regardless of personal tragedy he would become a great admirer of the English, write one of its first great histories, and fight on its side later in the Hundred Years War. This is his account of the Battle of Agincourt:


“When the battalions of the French were thus formed, it was grand to see them; and as far as one could judge by the eye, they were in number fully six times as many as the English. And when this was done the French sat down by companies around their banners, waiting the approach of the English, and making their peace with one another; and then were laid aside many old aversions conceived long ago; some kissed and embraced each other, which it was affecting to witness; so that all quarrels and discords which they had had in time past were changed to great and perfect love. And there were some who breakfasted on what they had. And these Frenchmen remained thus till nine or ten o’clock in the morning, feeling quite assured that, considering their great force, the English could not escape them; however, there were at least some of the wisest who greatly feared a fight with them in open battle.

The French had arranged their battalions between two small thickets, one lying close to Agincourt, and the other to Tramecourt. The place was narrow, and very advantageous for the English, and, on the contrary, very ruinous for the French, for the said French had been all night on horseback, and it rained, and the pages, grooms, and others, in leading about the horses, had broken up the ground, which was so soft that the horses could with difficulty step out of the soil. And also the said French were so loaded with armour that they could not support themselves or move forward. In the first place they were armed with long coats of steel, reaching to the knees or lower, and very heavy, over the leg harness, and besides plate armour also most of them had hooded helmets; wherefore this weight of armour, with the softness of the wet ground, as has been said, kept them as if immovable, so that they could raise their dubs only with great difficulty, and with all these mischiefs there was this, that most of them were troubled with hunger and want of sleep.

Now let us return to the English. After the parley between the two armies was finished and the delegates had returned, each to their own people, the King of England, who had appointed a knight called Sir Thomas Erpingham to place his archers in front in two wings, trusted entirely to him, and Sir Thomas, to do his part, exhorted everyone to do well in the name of the King, begging them to fight vigorously against the French in order to secure and save their own lives. And thus the knight, who rode with two others only in front of the battalion, seeing that the hour was come, for all things were well arranged, threw up a baton which he held in his hand, saying ‘Now strike’ which was the signal for attack; then dismounted and joined the King, who was also on foot in the midst of his men, with his banner before him.


Then the English, seeing this signal, began suddenly to march, uttering a very loud cry, which greatly surprised the French. And when the English saw that the French did not approach them, they marched dashingly towards them in very fine order, and again raised a loud cry as they stopped to take breath.

Then the English archers, who, as I have said, were in the wings, saw that they were near enough, and began to send their arrows on the French with great vigour.

Then the French seeing the English come towards them in this manner, placed themselves together in order, everyone under his banner, their helmets on their heads. The Constable, the Marshal, the admirals, and the other princes earnestly exhorted their men to fight the English well and bravely; and when it came to the approach the trumpets and clarions resounded everywhere; but the French began to hold down their heads, especially those who had no bucklers, for the impetuosity of the English arrows, which fell so heavily that no one durst uncover or look up.

Thus they went forward a little, then made a little retreat, but before they could come to close quarters, many of the French were disabled and wounded by the arrows; and when they came quite up to the English, they were, as has been said, so closely pressed one against another that none of them could lift their arms to strike their enemies, except some that were in front…

The French knights struck into these English archers, who had their stakes fixed in front of them, their horses stumbled among the stakes, and they were speedily slain by the archers, which was a great pity. And most of the rest, through fear, gave way and fell back into their vanguard, to whom they were a great hindrance; and they opened their ranks in several places, and made them fall back and lose their footing in some land newly sown; for their horses had been so wounded by the arrows that the men could no longer manage them.

The French men-at-arms without number began to fall; and their horses feeling the arrows coming upon them took to flight before the enemy, and following their example many of the French turned and fled. Soon afterwards the English archers, seeing the vanguard thus shaken, issued from behind their stockade, threw away their bows and quivers, then took their swords, hatchets, mallets, axes, falcon-beaks and other weapons, and, pushing into the places where they saw these breaches, struck down and killed these Frenchmen without mercy, and never ceased to kill till the said vanguard which had fought little or not at all was completely overwhelmed, and these went on striking right and left till they came upon the second battalion, which was behind the advance guard, and there the King personally threw himself into the fight with his men-at-arms.

Henry V was winning the battle when he received news that his rear where those taken prisoner were being held was under attack and that French reinforcements were on their way. He could not risk the prisoners being freed and once again taking up arms against him. Regardless of the rich ransom they would bring he ordered their execution:

“When the King of England perceived them coming thus he caused it to be published that every one that had a prisoner should immediately kill him, which those who had any were unwilling to do, for they expected to get great ransoms for them. But when the King was informed of this he appointed a gentleman with two hundred archers whom he commanded to go through the host and kill all the prisoners, whoever they might be. This esquire, without delay or objection, fulfilled the command of his sovereign lord, which was a most pitiable thing, for in cold blood all the nobility of France was beheaded and inhumanly cut to pieces, and all through this accursed company, a sorry set compared with the noble captive chivalry, who when they saw that the English were ready to receive them, all immediately turned and fled, each to save his own life. Many of the cavalry escaped; but of those on foot there were many among the dead.”