The Assassination of Domitian

Titus Flavius Domitianius was born the youngest son of Emperor Vespasian in 51 CE.  This was prior to his father’s rise to emperor of Rome.  (For more on Emperor Vespasian, please see this post )  His older brother, Titus, and his father were close, leaving Domitian on the outside looking in.  After a stunning turn of events, Vespasian became emperor and passed the throne to his oldest son Titus on his death.  Titus was groomed as Vespasian’s heir, and it was assumed Titus would marry and pass the throne on to his sons.  Domitian was relegated to being a patron of the arts, and was none too happy about it.  However, fate took a turn.  Domitian was set to be the emperor’s black sheep brother when Titus died suddenly.  The little known and lesser cared for brother was now the Emperor of the Roman Empire.

The beginning of his reign was a bit ominous as he spent hours alone in a room killing flies with a stylus.  This account comes from Suetonius, who reported a general quipped “not even a fly” was with the emperor.  However, he shored up support with army by raising their pay and financing campaigns along the Rhine and in Dacia.  Domitian ended up ruling for fifteen years, the longest since Emperor Tiberius.   He maintained power and popularity,  but showed a staggering contempt for the Senate.  He hated the aristocratic families who make up its ranks and went out of his way to humiliate them.

In 90 CE, Cornelia the head of the Vestal Virgins was accused of being unchaste. This was a crime against the State as the Virgins had to remain pure to tend the sacred flame to protect the city.  (For more on Vesta, please see this post: )  Cornelia was found guilty and was walled alive and her alleged lovers beaten to death.  In this climate of unrest, treason trials were put on for members of the Senate.  The consul Flavius Clemens was killed and his wife Flavia Domitilla was banished for “godlessness”.  This was just his sister and brother in law.  Even the heads of Domitian’s beloved praetorian guards, Petronius Secundus and Norbanus, we’re accused.  No one was safe.  Someone had to act.

As the fifteenth anniversary of his reign approached, according to Suetonius an astrologer predicted the emperor would die around midday on September 18th.  Naturally,  Domitian was nervous and restless but settled down to try to accomplish something.  Petronius Secundus and Norbanus had recruited Stephanus, an ex-slave of Flavius Clemens’ banished widow, to do the deed.  Stephanus approached Domitian with a dagger concealed his bandages from a fake wound.  They fought with Stephanus wounding Domitian in the groin, but he was also fatally wounded.  Both died on the palace floor.  The last Flavian emperor was dead.  He was denied a state funeral and his name removed from state buildings.


Arachidamia of Sparta

The Greeks did not have a good track record on women’s rights in the ancient world.  However, there was an anomaly in a strange place.  The city-state of Sparta was not generally a tolerant place.  Men were expected to give life long service to the military and boys were separated from their families to build esprit de corps.  A coming of age ritual was killing a slave and not getting caught.  It was a messed up place. (For more on the Spartans, please see these posts: and )  However,  women there were given extraordinary rights.  This was because the men were off fighting and the women were left to take care of everything else.  Spartan women were quite formidable.   Arachidamia was one such woman.

She was born in Sparta in the third century BCE and in due time became the wife of Eudamidas I and bore him a son, the future Archidamus IV. Not much is known about her until Sparta came under attack by the forces of Pyrrhus of Epirus in 273 BCE.  Pyrrhus was a legendary general, whose reputation gave even the Spartans pause.  Although he was at the end of his career, Pyrrhus had agreed to come out for one last hurrah by a rival contender for the Spartan throne.  The king and the bulk of the army were off fighting somewhere else.  This was a slam dunk.

The Spartan Gerousia, or council of elders, knew they were outmanned and outgunned and started to make plans.  They decided it would be best to send the women and children to the relative safety of Crete and then mount a defence of the city.  The Gerousia discussing this proposal when Arachidamia let them know she had other plans.  She marched in with a sword and asked the men how the expected Spartan women to survive the destruction of their city.   She declared every woman and child would step up to the defense.

And they did not falter.  Part of the defense plan was to dig a trench parallel to Pyrrhus’ army’s camp.  Arachidamia organized the women and children to dig, and the completed at least one third of it themselves.  It was in the nick of time as Pyrrhus attacked with 20,000 men and 5,000 elephants.  But Sparta was ready.  During the heat of the battle, some of the women pulled wounded to safety and nursed them while others fought alongside the men.  Together,  the pushed back the enemy and saved Sparta.  Pyrrhus fled to Argos and was beheaded by a falling statue.  I want to believe a Spartan woman pushed it, but that is completely my own fiction.

So, dear reader, don’t go after the home of formidable woman.  You’ll end up stomped.


Eclipses- Historical Harbingers

Total solar eclipse Photo Credit- By I, Luc Viatour

If you’ve been anywhere near the news, you would have seen that a solar eclipse happened in the continental United States yesterday.  I have to admit it was a pretty amazing experience as I was lucky enough to be in the path of totality.  As the sky went dark and the crickets started chirping, I thought about what it must have been like for those in the past.  They didn’t have the benefit of NASA and other scientists telling us that this was normal, the Sun would come back and to wear protective glasses.  How did people through the ages deal with eclipses?

One of the first references we have of an eclipse is from a series of circular and spiral shaped petroglyphs at the Loughcrew Megalithic Monument in County Meath, Ireland.  This is near the passage tomb of New Grange, which is also from around the same time.  (For more on New Grange, please see this post )  These date back to around 3340 BCE, and scientists have calculated that a solar eclipse occurred on November 30, 3340 BCE.  According to Irish archaeoastronomer Paul Griffin, the monument was in the path of totality, meaning the entire solar disc was obscured.  Decoding the carvings on the rock, Griffin was able to deduce they were recording the eclipse, making it one of the first records of such an event.  Inside the monument, the charred remains of 48 humans were found.  It has been hypothesized this was a human sacrifice to “bring back” the Sun from the underworld.  

The Chinese and Babylonian cultures began to predict eclipses with high accuracy.  The Babylonians believed an eclipse was an evil omen for the ruler.  The Chinese believed the Sun was being eaten by a large dragon during an eclipse.  An ancient book of documents called the Shu Ching, described the eclipse in October 22, 2134 BCE.  The emperor charged two astronomers, Hsi and Ho, to predict the eclipse so archers could be stationed to defend the Sun from the dragon.  Unfortunately for Hsi and Ho, they got massively drunk and failed to alert the warriors and were beheaded for dereliction of duty.  Similar mythology describing the Sun as being stolen is found around the world, but it was not always a dragon to blame.  The Vietnamese people believed the Sun was being eaten by a giant frog, and the Norse people blamed a wolf.  In Korea, they believed dogs were stealing the Sun.  Because of this, many cultures gathered together to bang drums or even pots and pans to scare away whatever was trying to steal or eat the Sun.

On the other side of the world, the Inuits believed the Sun goddess Malina walked away after a fight with her brother Anningan, the Moon god.  An eclipse happened when Annigan caught up with his sister.  The Pomo, another Native American tribe, believed a bear got into a fight with the Sun and took a bite out of it. The bear was apparently hungry and went on to take a bite out of the moon two weeks later, explaining why there is a lunar eclipse usually two weeks after a solar one.  In the Africa, the Batammaliba tribe in Benin and Togo, believed the Sun and the moon were at war and the only way to keep them from permanently damaging each other was to end human conflicts.

Eclipse Icon at Loughcrew 3340 BCE Photo Credit-

The ancient Greeks also believed that an eclipse was an omen of evil tidings.  Historian Herodotus tells of an eclipse on May 28, 585 BCE that prompted a cease fire between the Lydians and the Medes.   In the middle of the Battle of Halys, the sky turned dark and the battling armies took this as a sign the gods wanted them to stop.  A truce was negotiated and the battle was renamed the Battle of the Eclipse.  Another eclipse changed the course of Greek history.  At the height of the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta, and eclipse occurred on August 27, 413 BCE.  At that time, the Athenians were attempting to dislodge the Syracusans from Sicily.  Their commander, Nicias, was extremely superstitious and postponed the fleet’s departure because of the eclipse.  This gave the Syracusans enough time to stage another attack in which the Athenians were defeated.  This marks the beginning of the decline of Athenian dominance in the region.

The Christian gospels tell of the sky darkening during the day at the time of Jesus’ crucifixion.  Some archaeoastronomers believe that Jesus’ death coincided with a solar eclipse and have tried to use this to pinpoint the exact date.  There are historical records of solar eclipses in the year 29 and 32, but no one has proof of which date is correct.  Following along with the bad omen belief, another solar eclipse affected the life of Louis the Pious.  He was the third son of Charlemagne and inherited the Holy Roman Empire.  It is reported he witnessed the eclipse on May 5, 840 and was convinced it was a warning of impending punishment from God and died of fright soon after.  This plunged the kingdom into civil war for three years.  There was also said to be an eclipse right before the death of Henry I of England on August 2, 1133, which reinforced the superstition that eclipses were bad omens for rulers.  The solar eclipses on January 8, 1777 and again on June 24, 1778 was bad news for George III.  The one in 1777 proceeded the American victories at Trenton and Princeton, and the one in 1778 proceeded the victory of the Americans at the Battle of Monmouth.

Despite the beliefs and myths, the ancients were able to use information about eclipses to further scientific knowledge.  Aristotle observed the shadow of the Earth on the moon was curved and hypothesized the Earth was round.  Another Greek astronomer named Aristarchus used a lunar eclipse to estimate the distance of the Moon and Sun from the Earth.  Yet other astronomers observed the existence of the Sun’s corona during a total solar eclipse.  Astronomers Liu Hsiang, Plutarch and Leo Diaconus were pioneers in eclipse data.  However, it was not until 1605 that Johannes Kepler gave a scientific description of a total solar eclipse.  The first In modern times, Sir Arthur Eddington tested Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity.  During the May 29, 19191 solar eclipse he confirmed that starlight bent around the Sun by measuring the position of certain stars.  This was predicted by Einstein’s theory that massive objects caused distortions in space and time.

We no longer have the same superstitions about eclipses, but it is thought to be a time of change.  A nice way to put it is ending patterns that do not serve and beginning new healthy ones.  Enjoy the skies in good health and good spirits!


Insula Tiberina-  The Island in the Middle of the Tiber

Tiberina island Photo Credit- Getty Images

In the center of the Tiber River, the Tiber Island, or Insula Tiberina in Latin, has always been a place connected to the founding of Rome.  Legend says that it was created when Roman citizens expelled Tarquinius Superbus , or Tarquin the Proud in Latin.  Citizens through the wheat sheaves they had stolen from the the king into the river.  Supposedly, the dirt and the silt accumulated around the wheat in the river and formed the island.  Another legend says it was built on the ruins of an ancient ship.  However, these are just legends as the island was present as a crossing place for the Tiber since prehistoric times.   It is the world’s smallest inhabited island, being only the length of three football fields.  

It became a place of healing in the the third century BCE.  According to Roman historian Livius, in 293 BCE Rome was hit by a plague and none of their doctors could find a cure.  After consulting the Sybilline books, they sent a delegation to the Greek city of Epidaurus, site of the largest shrine to Asclepius, the god of healing.  The priests there sent the Romans home with a symbolic representation of Asclepius, which was a sacred snake.  They carried the snake home, but their boat ran aground at Tiber Island.  The snake escaped unharmed curled around a tree branch.  The delegation decided the snake had selected the island as the site for a temple to Asclepius, which was constructed in 291 BCE.  The temple was complete with a pit full of snakes sacred to the god, which were fed and attended by priests.  The island became so entwined with the journey and temple, it was remodeled to resemble a ship.  Travertine marble was added to the banks in the mid to late first century to more closely resemble a ship and an obelisk was erected in the middle to symbolize the ship’s mast.  Although the island was most identified with Asclepius, there were other shrines to Roman gods as well.  By the second century BCE, there were shrines to Jupiter Jurarius, Semo Sancus Dius Fidius, Gaia, Faunus,Vejovis,Tiberinus, and Bellona.  Faunus was said to protect women giving birth, and to this day the hospital on the island has a well respected maternity ward.

Next to the temple was a large portico, where a strange diagnostic practice was put into play.  Patients were subjected to being in the cold and without food for several

Tiberina Island Photo

days so they could be purified.  This was called the “incubatio” and after they were admitted to the hospital had to recount their dreams to the priests for interpretation.  After Roman times, this practice was abandoned, but the hospital still exists on Tiber Island.  The “Fatebenefratelli”, which means “do well or do good, brothers”, was established in the 16th century to serve pilgrims, the poor and the sick.  “Fatebenefratelli” was the litany which the monks of the Order of St. John Calibytis, who founded the hospital, would sing as darkness fell.  The island served as a place of quarantine for plague victims and other sick people.  The Temple to Asclepius was replaced by the Basilica of St Bartholomew on the Island during the Middle Ages as well.

The island was also called “between two bridges” by the Romans as the island served as a center point for several bridges.  The Fabrican is Rome’s oldest bridge, built in 62 BCE.  It was enhanced by a medieval tower, the Torre dei Caetani, in the 10th century.  On the opposite side is the Cestium bridge, which connects the island with the Trastevere neighborhood.  It was built in 42 BCE.  There are remains of another bridge, which has long since gone.  The Aemilian bridge was built in 179 BCE, and rebuilt in stone in 142 BCE.  It was the first stone bridge in Rome.  However, it did not survive the Tiber’s currents and floods was destroyed in 1598.  It is called Ponte Rotto (broken bridge) and there is only one surviving arch still showing.


Prester John


Prester John from Hartmann Schedel’s Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493

In the time of the crusades, Europeans were looking for any allies in their battles against the Muslims for the Holy Land.  Medieval writings often feature a fabulously wealthy Christian king in the East.  This was Prester John.  He was believed to be a member of the Nestorian Church, which was an independent Eastern Christian church that did not fall under the purview of the patriarch in Constantinople.  He was supposed to be an ally against the Muslims for the crusaders to take advantage of.

The story of Prester John was first recorded by Bishop Otto of Freisling Germany in his Chronicon published in 1145.  It was based on a report from Bishop Hugh of Gerbal in Syria to the papal court at Viterbo, Italy.  According to the story recorded in the Chronicon, Prester John was a powerful Christian king who was the descendant of the Magi who visited the Christ Child.  He was also said to be a formidable fighter who defeated the Muslim kings of Persia in battle taking their capital of Ecbatana.  The only reason he did not recapture Jerusalem was because he could not cross the Tigris River.  There was no more on the story until a letter appeared in 1165.  Copies of a letter from Prester John to the Byzantine emperor Manuel I Komnenos began circulating.  In this letter, Prester John’s kingdom is described as having crystal clear rivers of emeralds, massive amounts of gold, majestic animals and the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel.  This myth also morphed into having Prester John’s kingdom being next door to the Garden of Paradise.  A good ally to have.  This letter were so persuasive that Pope Alexander III sent a return letter addressed to Prester John in 1177.  It was being taken east by Alexander’s personal physician Philip.  It is addressed to “the illustrious and magnificent king of the Indies and a beloved son of Christ.”  Nothing more is mentioned of Philip or what happened to him and the letter.

However, all of this was fictional.  It is thought that the battle being referred to was fought between the Mongol khan Yelu Dashi and the Seljuk sultan Sanjar in 1141.  The Mongol khans who fought in this battle were not Christians, but Buddhists.  However, many of their followers were Nestorian Christians.  It’s also possible that Europeans that were unfamiliar with Buddhists may have assumed they were another sect of Christianity.  The letter published in 1165 was fiction, however, it was translated from its original Latin into a variety of languages and distributed throughout Europe.  Then word returned from the Fifth Crusade that Prester John’s grandson, King David, was fighting the Saracens.  The problem?  It wasn’t King David conquering all these lands.  It was the Mongol ruler Genghis Khan.  They tried to bend this new development around the legend by saying one of his favorite wives was a Nestorian Christian and that he was tolerant of other religious faiths as long as they didn’t make trouble.  However, this didn’t really fit the narrative and the legends moved away from Prester John being a central Asian king.

Some additional legends, linked Prester John to kingdoms in Africa even though the original story placed him in Asia.  Marco Polo had discussed Ethiopia as a Christian land fueling the rumors.  In the 15th century, Italian and Portuguese explorers began searching for Prester John in Africa.  Portuguese explorers began connecting a kingdom in present-day Ethiopia with Prester John’s realm.  They made contact with the kingdom of Zara Yaqob, and decided this kingdom was the source of the wealth of Solomon.  Prester John was identified with the negus, or emperor, of the kingdom.  In fact, ambassadors from Zara Yaqob attended the Council of Florence and identified as representatives of Prester John.  They were extremely confused.

By this time, the legend was dying out as exploration of Africa and Asia by the Europeans were not finding this fabled kingdom.  However, the legend did inspire generations of explorers, soldiers and dreamers