Thursday, October 17, 2019

Gnaeus Marcius Coriolanus And His Revenge Against Rome

Gnaeus (or Gaius) Marcius, according to tradition, was a Roman aristocrat and military leader who lived in the earliest days of the Roman Republic. He was considered a member of the Marcii patrician family in Rome, and ancient historians such as Livy and Plutarch painted Gnaeus Marcius as a staunch, hot-headed member of the patrician faction, as well as a hardliner in favor of suppressing the commoners by any means. It is possible, however, that Gnaeus Marcius’ family originated outside of Rome—it has also been proposed, based on his nickname “Coriolanus,” that Gnaeus Marcius’ ancestors may have actually come from the city of Corioli. Yet, ancient tradition explained his nickname in a different way. Whatever the case, Gnaeus Marcius, himself, was said to have been entrenched in the ruling class of the early Roman Republic.

An ongoing power struggle between the power-hungry oligarchic aristocrats and the liberty-loving masses of the fledgling republic was not the only dangerous situation faced by Rome in the first decade of the 5th century BCE. They were also threatened by the encroaching forces of the Volscians and Aequians. Naturally, the Romans mustered their own military to meet this new threat on the battlefield, and Gnaeus Marcius was one of the officers among the forces of Rome. He made a name for himself in the first clashes between Rome and the Volscians, and particularly showed his prowess during the Roman assault on Corioli, dated to 493 BCE. At the time, Gnaeus Marcius was not in a position of high command in the Roman army, but this did not stop him from leading his own personal band of troops right through the entrance of Corioli to secure a Roman victory. According to tradition, it was this battle that earned Gnaeus Marcius the name “Coriolanus.”

Eventually, the Romans and Volscians settled into a short truce. This temporary halt of hostilities, according to Livy, might have been caused by famine in Rome and an epidemic in Volscian lands, debilitating both sides of the conflict. Boosted by his wartime fame, Gnaeus Marcius Coriolanus began rising higher in the political ranks, and his ruthlessness in war was allegedly matched by his bloodthirstiness in his political maneuvering as a patrician against the masses. He was said to have treated the common people of Rome as if they were an opposing city under siege, starving them from precious food unless they relinquished more and more power to the oligarchs. Such tactics made Coriolanus extremely unpopular among the Roman masses, so unpopular that the other patricians in Rome were willing to throw their comrade under the proverbial bus when the leaders of the commoners began some political maneuvers of their own. Ultimately, a trial was launched against Coriolanus in which (in person or in absentia, depending on the source) he was sentenced to an indefinite banishment from the city of Rome.

Angry at both the masses (for prosecuting him) and the patricians (for abandoning him), the exiled Coriolanus marched with purpose to join the very people he had made a name fighting against—the Volscians—and pledged himself to seeking revenge against Rome. Despite his past violent actions against the Volscians, Coriolanus somehow worked his way into the good graces of a certain Attius Tullius, who is said to have been one of the most prominent Volscian leaders of the time.

Attius Tullius was not only able to have Coriolanus accepted into the Volscian community, but he also managed to encourage the Volscian warriors to trust the Roman refugee in military matters. According to tradition and legend, by the time war between the Volscians and Rome resumed around 490 BCE, Coriolanus had gained such respect and trust among the Volscian communities that he was chosen to lead their military forces against the Romans. He masterfully led the Volscians in two annual campaigns, in which he carved away large swaths of land from Roman control. Livy gave a concise list of Coriolanus’ conquests:

“[Gnaeus] Marcius [Coriolanus] first marched for Circeii, expelled the Roman settlers, liberated the town, and handed it over to Volscian control; he captured Satricum, Longula, Polusca, and Corioli, all places recently acquired by Rome; then after taking over Lavinium, he marched across country into the Latin Way and took Corbio, Vitellia, Trebium, Labici, and Pedum. Finally he marched on Rome and took up a position by the Cluilian Trenches five miles outside the walls” (History of Rome, 2.39).

Coriolanus’ siege of Rome in 488 BCE is an event shrouded by legend and folklore, therefore the tale becomes more odd and vague at this point. As the story goes, the Volscians decided not to assault Rome, itself, but instead settled in for a siege. Coriolanus parked his army near the city and set about systematically ravaging the surrounding countryside. According to tradition, he spared the estates of certain patricians, either due to some small residual sympathy for the patrician class, or more likely, as a piece of psychological warfare meant to drive a wedge between the suspicious commoners and the oppressive oligarchs of the Republic.

While under siege, Rome reportedly became quite an unstable place. Conspiracy theories abounded in the city when the commoners discovered that the estates of the republic’s oligarchs were left untouched while the property of the poor and powerless was raided. Such suspicious thoughts, according to tradition, led the commoners in the Roman military to mutiny, leaving the Republic with inadequate troops to drive off the Volscians by force. With military support shaky, the Roman Republic resorted to diplomacy. According to Livy, Rome sent two separate professional diplomatic missions to the Volscian camp, and when both of these failed, they also sent an additional mission of priests in hopes of swaying Coriolanus to relent from his siege. This group, too, did not accomplish their task. When the diplomats and priests failed, one last group went out to meet with the commander of the Volscians. This final diplomatic effort was reportedly led, oddly enough, by Coriolanus’ mother, wife and children, who, for whatever reason, had not joined him in his exile. From this last set of unique diplomats, Coriolanus faced an unbearable attack—he was scolded by his mother, faced pouts from his wife, and was sobbed at by his children. According to the traditional tale, this was too much for Coriolanus and he led his army away from Rome.

After his withdrawal from the city, Coriolanus faded into history. Many different tales about his death were told, but none of them were definitive. Some, such as Dionysius of Halicarnassus and Plutarch, claimed that Gnaeus Marcius Coriolanus was quickly executed by Attius Tullius and the Volscians after his failure to continue the siege of Rome. Livy, for his part, merely stated that Coriolanus’ fate was unknown, but also went on to claim that Fabius Pictor, Rome’s first historian, had stated that Coriolanus lived to become an old man amongst the Volscians, spending the rest of his days in exile.

Picture Attribution: (Illustration of Coriolanus being confronted by his family, painted by Soma Orlai Petrich (1822–1880), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

Written by C. Keith Hansley

  • The History of Rome by Livy, translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt. New York: Penguin Classics, 2002.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

The Peculiar Life Of The Chained Recluse, Saint Hospicius

Hospicius was an obscure holy man who spent his final years in the vicinity of Nice, France. His age and land of origin are unknown, but details of his later life and saintly deeds were recorded by Hospicius’ contemporary, Bishop Gregory of Tours (c. 539-594), who wrote the influential History of the Franks. By the time Bishop Gregory took notice of Hospicius, the latter clergyman had become a complete recluse, living in a walled-off tower in Nice. The tower apparently had no entrances or exits except windows, through which supplies and supplicants could reach the holy man.

Hospicius was an ascetic in both dress and diet. For sustenance, he reportedly lived off only bread, boiled roots, dates and water. As for his clothing, he allegedly wore an uncomfortable combination of metal chains wrapped around his body, over which was worn an additionally aggravating hair shirt. It is uncertain exactly when Hospicius adopted this punishing diet and wardrobe, but once he did commit himself to such an excruciating existence, he reportedly did not relent until he was on his deathbed.

With his spiritual mind and monkish appearance, Hospicius gained a great reputation for saintly acts and holy power. People seeking divine remedies to their problem would wander to the recluse’s tower, hoping that Hospicius could perform a miracle through a window of his walled-off abode. According to the list presented by Gregory of Tours, Hospicius was credited with exorcising multiple demons from various people, as well as healing one man who had been blind since birth and curing another who had been struck deaf and dumb by a terrible fever. In another lauded episode from the saint’s life, Lombard raiders reportedly found Hospicius’ tower and, as there were no doors, they climbed up the structure and broke through the roof or a window. Upon glimpsing at the chained-up, emaciated man in a hair-shirt, the Lombards first assumed that he was a prisoner. Yet, when Hospicius began preaching to them and healing their ailments, the raiders quickly deduced the saint’s occupation. The raiders were reportedly so impressed by the holy man, that they left him in peace, and a few of the Lombards even converted from their Arian Christian beliefs to Hospicius’ own Roman Catholicism.

The death of Hospicius came around the year 581. His lifestyle of self-punishment, with the minimalist diet, as well as the daily wardrobe of chains and a hair shirt, had a devastating effect on the saint’s body. Due to years of constant chaffing, irritation and sores caused by the chain, Hospicius’ body was said to have been visibly “alive with worms” (Gregory of Tours, History of the Franks, VI. 6). As the day of the sickly saint’s death was approaching, Hospicius reportedly had a precise prophecy about his own demise, which convinced him to make arrangements so that his body would be discovered quickly after his time had come. Through his window, the recluse signaled a messenger and sent the person off to inform Bishop Austadius of Nice to arrive at the tower with a crowbar (to break into the structure) after three days, for at that time Hospicius would be dead. On the day of his death, Hospicius was said to have finally removed his chain and died while laying peacefully on a bench. As instructed, the bishop soon broke into the tower, recovered the body, and gave the saint an honorable burial.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (15th-century painting of Simeon Stylites, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

  • The History of the Franks by Gregory of Tours, translated by Lewis Thorpe. New York: Penguin Classics, 1971.

Sunday, September 29, 2019

The Tale Of Thurid The Sound-Filler

Thurid the Sound-Filler was a prominent woman who lived around the time of the Icelandic Age of Settlement (c. 860-930). Before her eventual move to Iceland, Thurid made a name for herself in the region of Halogaland, the northernmost section of medieval Norway. While there, she astounded her neighbors by showing an uncanny ability to locate and cultivate schools of fish. In one particularly lauded incident, Thurid relieved Halogaland from the ravages of a famine by guiding fishermen from the various towns and cities in the region to great fishing spots in the local waterways and inlets. With Thurid’s knowledge and guidance, fishing in Halogaland became so easy that the fjords and sounds seemed to be filled with fish—hence her epithet, the Sound-Filler.

For whatever reason—be it the rise of King Harald Finehair (r. 860-940), the lure of free land, or some other unknown cause—Thurid the Sound-Filler decided to leave Norway and begin a new life in Iceland. She claimed land in the northwest region of the island and settled down to raise a family. She was evidently the undisputed matriarch of her household, as she specifically was reported to have held dominion over her land, and the name of her husband has been lost to history, as he was apparently the least interesting of the pair.

While Thurid the Sound-Filler lived in Iceland, she continued her fish-finding ways, much to the joy of her fisherman neighbors. She was particularly helpful to the Ísafjörður Bay region, where plentiful fishing grounds were discovered with her help. According to the Book of Settlements, the people of the Ísafjörður area were so thankful for Thurid’s help that each household in the region gave her a hornless ewe as a show of gratitude.

As Thurid’s list of successes and accomplishments grew, her neighbors began to suspect that there was something more to her talents than raw instinct and knowledge. Rumors circulated that she had supernatural gifts, such as the ability of prophecy and an education in magic. Such gossip, however, did little to harm Thurid’s reputation. Since she lived in a pre-Christianized Iceland, such rumors likely boosted her renown.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (Tristan and Isolde painted by Herbert James Draper (1863–1920), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

  • The Book of Settlements (Sturlubók version) translated by Hermann Pálsson and Paul Edwards. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 1972, 2006.

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

The Adventurous Life of Geirmund Hel-Skin

According to Norwegian-Icelandic tradition, a nobleman named Hjor ruled a domain between Hordaland and Rogaland in Norway around the early 9th century. Hjor often traveled and traded, which eventually brought him to Siberia, where he encountered a dark-skinned woman named Ljufvina. Hjor fancied the woman and wanted her as a wife or concubine. He got his wish, but sources disagree on if their relationship was brokered through a formal agreement with her tribe, or if Hjor simply dragged her to his ship and brought Ljufvina as a captive to Norway. Whatever the case, the two eventually had children, a pair of twin boys—Geirmund and Hamund.

As the story goes, the twins were born while Hjor was away trading or raiding. The boys had their mother’s dark skin tone, and Ljufvina feared how Hjor would react when he saw the appearance of his children. In an act of desperation, she found a maid who had recently given birth to a newborn boy and exchanged her own twins for the servant’s son. It was the maid’s child that Ljufvina was said to have presented to Hjor when he returned from his trip. Hjor, however, was instinctively suspicious and showed little affection for the imposter son. Ljufvina, it was said, eventually had a conversation with a wise local poet and their talk convinced her to bring Geirmund and Hamund to their father. Hjor, to his credit, found the twins to be fine young lads and viewed them much more favorably than the maid’s child.

Hjor gave both twins the nickname ‘Heljarskinn,’ which has been variously translated as Hel-Hide, Dark-Skin, Deathskin, or Hel-Skin. The name presumably likened the boys to Hel, a Norse deity of death, described by the Icelandic scholar Snorri Sturluson as “half black and half a lighter flesh colour and is easily recognized” (The Prose Edda, Gylfaginning, 34). Geirmund and Hamund embraced the name and were known by it for the rest of their lives.

Little is known about Hamund, but Geirmund Hel-Skin’s exploits were better documented. He reportedly managed a powerful domain in Rogaland, either in his own right, or at the behest of his father. The Icelandic Book of Settlements claimed Geirmund “became a warrior-king. He went on Viking expeditions to the British Isles, but ruled a kingdom in Rogaland” (Sturlubók manuscript, chapter 112). Geirmund Hel-Skin seemed to have neglected his duties in Norway to go on prolonged raids, and consequently remained abroad for most of the late 9th century. During his prolonged absence, things began to dramatically change in Norway—King Harald Finehair (r. 860-940) conquered his rival Norwegian kings and, by the end of the 9th century, became the first monarch to unify Norway under a single banner.

When the long-absent Geirmund Hel-Skin realized that his homeland was no longer independent, he decided to abandon Norway and search for a freer land. He and several friends and kinsmen eventually chose to start a new life on Iceland. They sailed to the Breidafjord region of Iceland, on the northwest of the island. There, Geirmund Hel-Skin masterfully used his life savings to claim a large personal domain, founding several farmsteads. With his wealth and influence, he hired a personal army to defend his territory and, if business negotiations with his neighbors failed, to seize coveted land by force. On Geirmund Hel-Skin’s lifestyle in Iceland, the Book of Settlements claimed “Whenever Geirmund traveled between his estates, he used to have eighty men with him. He had a great deal of money, and plenty of livestock….According to learned men, he was the noblest born of all the original settlers of Iceland” (Sturlubók manuscript, chapter 115). When Geirmund Hel-Skin eventually died, his friends and family reportedly gave him an honorable ship burial fit for a king.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (Illustration for Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's "The Saga of King Olaf" from Tales of a Wayside Inn, c. 1899, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

  • The Book of Settlements (Sturlubók version) translated by Hermann Pálsson and Paul Edwards. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 1972, 2006.
  • Heimskringla, by Snorri Sturluson and translated by Lee Hollander. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1964, 2018. 
  • The Prose Edda by Snorri Sturluson, translated by Jesse Byock. New York: Penguin Books, 2005. 

Thursday, August 1, 2019

Norton I—Emperor Of The United States And Protector Of Mexico

In 1819, Joshua Abraham Norton was born to a family of merchants somewhere in Britain. While Norton was still young, his family moved to South Africa, where they set up a successful enterprise. As Norton grew up, he learned the merchant’s trade and joined the family business. Yet, he was not satisfied with the status quo, so when the Gold Rush of 1849 caught the world’s attention, Joshua Norton set sail from South Africa and traveled to San Francisco.

When Norton arrived in San Francisco, he had with him assets worth $40,000 of his day’s currency. At first, he played the market wisely. Instead of wasting his money in search of gold, he catered his business to serving the needs and wants of the gold-miners and city-folk. In particular, he focused his efforts on real estate and commodities. The investments paid off, and at the high-point of his career, Norton’s wealth grew to $250,000 in his day’s money.

Perhaps made arrogant by his success, Norton soon became sloppy in his financial practices and schemes. The end—or perhaps the beginning—arrived around 1853, when the price of rice was temporarily very high in San Francisco. In that environment, Joshua Norton made the fateful decision to pour all of his assets into the rice trade. Yet, as soon as he staked all of his fortune on the grain, outside suppliers poured shipments of rice into San Francisco and saturated the market. As the price of rice plummeted, so too did Norton’s fortunes. The would-be rice baron, once worth a quarter-million dollars, was now forced to declare bankruptcy.

Joshua Norton’s bank was evidently not the only thing to break after the failed rice scheme; along with his wealth, he apparently also lost his mind. The man’s insanity, however, only increased his ambitions. Although he once would have been content as robber baron, the new and improved Norton was shooting for the highest title imaginable—emperor.

By 1859, Joshua Norton was ready to launch his coup d’état. A man ahead of his time, he knew that the press was his key to absolute power. Therefore, on September 17, 1859, he announced the creation of his monarchy in a letter to the editor, featured in the San Francisco Bulletin. The royal document stated, “At the peremptory request and desire of a large majority of the citizens of the United States, I, Joshua Norton, declare and proclaim myself Emperor of these United States” (San Francisco Bulletin, September 17, 1859). To educate the public on how he should be addressed, the insane merchant signed the letter as Norton I, Emperor of the United States.

The publication of the edict launched Emperor Norton I into stardom and celebrity. Before long, fans gave the emperor a blue epaulet-adorned uniform, including a matching feathered hat. He was also eventually given a military saber to finish the ensemble. Besides royal garb, the emperor also obtained access to free products and services—bars, restaurants, theaters, and train companies would pay his tabs in exchange for Norton’s imperial endorsement of their businesses.

The newspapers eagerly anticipated the emperor’s edicts, and counterfeited a few of their own between the releases of the emperor’s authentic statements. Although insane, the decrees of Norton I could be quite witty and humorous. As the United States was ripping itself apart in the years leading up to the Civil War, Emperor Norton stepped forward to save the day by announcing that he was henceforth abolishing Congress and imposing his absolute monarchy on the realm. Additionally, when Norton I learned that European powers were meddling in Mexico, the emperor protested by adding “Protector of Mexico” to his title.

Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico, remained impoverished despite his fame and the support of the community. In 1867, he was arrested by a certain Officer Armand Barbier on the charge of vagrancy. This attempted overthrow of the emperor was thwarted, however, when the populace and the press of San Francisco protested in outrage. In the end, Emperor Norton was released and Police Chief Patrick Crowley was forced to take damage-control measures by issuing public apologies. After Norton’s release, the relationship between the emperor and the local government improved. By 1870, the city directory of San Francisco officially listed Joshua Abraham Norton’s occupation as “Emperor.”

Toward the end of his imperial reign, Emperor Norton I had become the center of the tourist industry in San Francisco. Photographs of the emperor were sold, as were fake currencies that bore his name and image. Even dolls depicting the mad monarch could be found in city shops.

On January 8, 1880, Emperor Norton I suddenly collapsed and died while out walking around San Francisco. His adoring fans in the press spread the word of his death and between 10,000 and 30,000 people were said to have attended the emperor’s funeral. He remains a celebrated figure to this day.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (Photographs of Emperor Joshua A. Norton of the United States (c.1819-1880), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).