Wednesday, January 9, 2019

The Promising Life And Bizarre Death Of King Edmund I Of England



Edmund I was the half-brother and successor of King Æthelstan (r. 925-939). It was a tough act to follow, as Æthelstan was the first king of Wessex to claim authority over the whole of England. Yet, instead of being lost in his brother’s long shadow, Edmund I learned from Æthelstan’s success. He even played a leading role in one of the key events in Æthelstan’s reign—the Battle of Brunanburh (c. 937), in which the forces of England triumphed over a coalition of Britons from Strathclyde, Scandinavians from Ireland and York, as well as the army of Scotland, led personally by King Constantine II. King Æthelstan died only two years after that decisive battle, passing the baton of rule to his eighteen-year-old brother, Edmund.

Although Edmund ascended to the throne of a unified England, he would quickly discover that the north had not lost the will to fight. As soon as news of Æthelstan’s death spread, a man named Olaf Guthfrithson usurped power in Northumbria. The upstart Northumbrian king, however, died in 942. Nevertheless, King Edmund’s problems were not over yet. Although one troublesome Olaf had died, a different Olaf was still causing problems for Edmund. Olaf Sihtricson was the son of a former king of Northumbria. He attempted to wrest his family’s domain back from Edmund and, by 943, went on the offensive by capturing Tamworth. Yet, before the end of the year, Edmund launched his own campaign and had the Northumbrian rebels on the run. Olaf Sihtricson was nearly captured at Leicester and he reportedly allowed himself to be baptized in an attempt to placate King Edmund. The show of religious assimilation supposedly put Olaf and Edmund on friendly terms, but friendship did not stop King Edmund from deposing Olaf Sihtricson and reclaiming Northumbria for England by 944. King Edmund continued his string of victories by conquering Strathclyde in 945.

King Edmund also showed promise in international politics. He gave the freshly conquered region of Strathclyde to King Malcolm I of Scotland in exchange for a military alliance in 945. That same year, Edmund also meddled in French affairs by helping negotiate the release of his nephew, Louis IV of France (r. 936-954), who had been imprisoned by a powerful duke. With a growing network of powerful friends to match his expanding lands, young Edmund seemed to be on the precipice of a golden age. Yet, in 946, Edmund was suddenly and bizarrely cut down at the height of his power.

On May 26, 946, King Edmund was celebrating the feast of Saint Augustine at his estate in Pucklechurch, Gloucestershire. The king had guests over for the event, but one particular attendee present for the festivities had not been invited. His name was Liofa or Leofa, and he had been outlawed or exiled by the king at some time in the past. For unknown reasons, the outlaw decided to crash King Edmund’s party. The medieval sources gave little information as to why he was there and it is vague whether or not Liofa’s actions that day were premeditated or spontaneous. Whatever the case, the king and the outlaw fatefully crossed paths during the celebration. After being discovered, Liofa pulled out a blade and attacked King Edmund. Despite having won many battles and conquered several kingdoms, Edmund could not win in his final struggle against the single outlaw, Liofa. At only twenty-five years of age, King Edmund I was randomly stabbed to death and the crown passed to his brother, Eadred.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Source:
  • The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle translated by Benjamin Thorpe in 1861 and republished by Cambridge University Press, 2012.
  • https://www.britroyals.com/kings.asp?id=edmund 
  • https://www.britannica.com/biography/Edmund-I 
  • http://www.nndb.com/people/761/000093482/ 
  • http://www.englishmonarchs.co.uk/saxon_9.htm 
  • https://www.britannica.com/biography/Athelstan 
  • https://www.britannica.com/biography/Olaf-Guthfrithson 
  • https://www.britannica.com/place/Strathclyde 
  • https://www.britannica.com/biography/Constantine-II-king-of-Scotland 
  • https://www.britannica.com/biography/Louis-IV-king-of-France  

Monday, December 31, 2018

The Wild Tale Of Asiaticus



The Vitellii were a family of vague origins that had risen to a position of prominence by the 1st century. Whether the Vitellii were founded by an ancient Latin king or a poor freedman cobbler (both origins were recorded by Suetonius), the family eventually joined the senatorial class and received distinguished government and military appointments. One such high-status member of the Vitellii family, named Lucius, married a noblewoman by the name of Sestilia, and from their union was born Aulus Vitellius, a future emperor of Rome. By the time of Vitellius’ birth in year 12, his family had become considerably wealthy. The family fortune allowed Aulus Vitellius to enjoy chariot races and dicing with wild abandon—these pastimes would get him into the good graces of Caligula (r. 37-41), Claudius (r. 41-54) and Nero (r. 54-68). The wealth of the Vitellii also meant that the family could own slaves. The name of one of these slaves was Asiaticus, and his life would become an extraordinarily wild ride.

Tacitus and Suetonius, two major ancient historians who covered the events of the 1st century in their works, made mention of the slave known as Asiaticus. Unfortunately, of the two scholars, only Suetonius decided to write about Asiaticus’ backstory.  Tacitus’ account confirmed the general arc of Asiaticus’ life—recording how his life began and ended. Yet, it was Suetonius who added more depth to the story by listing several bizarre events from the slave’s life. Regrettably, Suetonius also often used gossip and satire as his sources, and he sometimes did not tell the reader when he was citing dubious evidence. Therefore, it is difficult to determine what is truth, what is exaggeration, and what is an outright falsehood in the tale of Asiaticus. So, as always, enjoy the story, but view Suetonius’ historical accuracy with caution.

According to Suetonius, Asiaticus was a slave that saw to the needs of Vitellius. Although the two were supposedly as close as a master and a slave could be, Asiaticus was not content with captivity. He ran away and started a new life in the city of Puteoli, where he set up shop as a drink vendor. Yet, this taste of freedom was very brief. Asiaticus was somehow discovered and consequently brought back in chains to Vitellius. The relationship between master and slave had obviously deteriorated, and Asiaticus refused to be made docile. His obstinacy became so great that Vitellius eventually sold the slave to a gladiator school. Asiaticus was trained to fight and was scheduled for his first bout when Vitellius began to have a change of heart—before Asiaticus could face combat in the arena, Vitellius bought him back from the gladiator school. After this action, the two seemed to build a working relationship or, possibly, even a friendship.

Rome fell into chaos in the year 68 and Asiaticus profited from the hard times. Multiple governors rebelled against Emperor Nero. The pressure was too much for Nero and he eventually committed suicide. Galba became the new emperor by June (68 CE) and he appointed Vitellius to be his governor of Lower Germany in December of that same year. According to Suetonius, Vitellius freed Asiaticus before departing to take up his governorship in Germany.

The year 69 came to be known as The Year of the Four Emperors, and Asiaticus’ former owner would be one of those four contenders. Vitellius rebelled against Galba on January 2, but before he could claim Rome, another man named Otho launched a military coup. Otho became emperor on January 15, but Vitellius still was on the march and did not intend to turn back. The army of Vitellius defeated the new emperor’s forces at Betriacum (on April 14), prompting Otho to commit suicide on April 16. The Roman senate recognized Vitellius as emperor three days later. According to Suetonius, one of the earliest actions taken by Vitellius on his first official day as emperor (April 19) was to raise his former slave, Asiaticus, to the social rank of equestrian, and he gave him a gold ring as a sign of the freedman’s new status. In addition, Asiaticus became one of Vitellius’ chief advisors on government policies. On that cheerful note, Suetonius ended his commentary on the life of Asiaticus.

Although Asiaticus had made a remarkable climb to power (from runaway slave, to gladiator, to an equestrian and chief advisor of an emperor), he unfortunately joined the camp of the third ruler to claim the throne in the Year of Four Emperors.  As the title of the year suggests, one more person would launch a bid for the throne in the year 69. The last challenger was Vespasian, commander of Roman forces in Judea since the year 66 or 67. With support of most of Rome’s eastern provinces on his side, Vespasian sent his forces against Vitellius. The troops forced their way into Rome by December 19, and Vitellius was executed on December 20 or 21, in 69 CE.

With the fall of Vitellius, the rest of Asiaticus’ story comes from Tacitus. After the conquest of Rome by Vespasian’s forces, there was a purge of the old regime.  The new emperor was conveniently away from Rome so as to escape any blame for the bloodshed. Asiaticus seems to have survived the initial massacre. Yet, his luck did not continue when Mucianus, the governor of Syria, arrived to take command of the pro-Vespasian forces in Rome.  When the new leader renewed the purge, Asiaticus was arrested and executed.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (a resting gladiator painted by José Moreno Carbonero (1860–1942), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

Sources:
  • The Twelve Caesars by Suetonius, translated by Robert Graves and edited by James B. Rives. New York: Penguin Classics, 2007.
  • http://classics.mit.edu/Tacitus/histories.4.iv.html 
  • http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.02.0080%3Abook%3D4%3Achapter%3D11 
  • https://www.britannica.com/biography/Aulus-Vitellius 
  • https://www.britannica.com/biography/Vespasian#ref35013  

Monday, December 10, 2018

Imhotep—The Man Who Engineered His Own Divinity



In the 27th century BCE, there lived an incredible man named Imhotep. He was a commoner who arose to great prominence by impressing King Djoser, the second ruler of Egypt’s Third Dynasty, with his sheer genius in multiple fields of study. Imhotep was evidently a polymath who made groundbreaking discoveries and advancements in areas such as medicine, math, engineering, theology, and even art. The massive impact of his ideas on ancient Egypt was comparable in scope and importance to that of Aristotle in Greece and Confucius in China.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

The Dramatic Life Of The Mercian Queen, Osthryth


Osthryth had such a complicated family life that she could put Shakespeare’s story of Romeo and Juliet to shame. Her father was King Oswiu (or Oswy), ruler of Northumbria between the years 642 and 670. At that time, the Northumbrians had a bitter feud with the Mercians—Oswiu only became king of Northumbria after his brother, King Oswald (r. 634-642), was slain and dismembered by King Penda of Mercia. Oswiu avenged his brother by killing King Penda during the Battle of Winwaed, which occurred in 655. After Penda’s death, Oswiu occupied a portion of Mercia and let the rest remain ruled by a puppet ruler. The puppet, interestingly enough, was a man named Peada, who happened to be a son of Penda.

Despite the wars between Northumbria and Mercia, King Oswiu actively tried to strengthen the bond between the rival countries through marriage. He arranged for at least two of his known daughters to marry sons of King Penda. The puppet ruler of Mercia, Peada, was married to Oswiu’s daughter, Alhflæd. The late king Penda’s youngest son, Æthelred, was married to Osthryth, who was mentioned earlier. Penda had another son, named Wulfhere, who did not marry a Northumbrian princess, but instead wed a woman from Kent.

As Osthryth was married to Æthelred, the youngest son of Penda, both wife and husband likely presumed that they would never sit upon the throne during their lives. As such, the couple followed the path taken by most royal family members that had little to inherit—they devoted their time to the church. Nevertheless, the course of events would take some unexpected turns.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

The Remarkable Tale Of The Kidnapped Noble, Dou Guangguo



Dou Guangguo was from an impoverished noble family based out of Qinghe in Zhao. Even though the rebellion against the Qin regime and the consequential rise of the Han Dynasty under Emperor Gaozu (king r. 206-202, emperor 202-195 BCE) was a time of tremendous social mobility, the Dou family remained of little significance, holding virtually no worth except the noble blood that ran in their veins.

The downtrodden Dou family, however, was given a door to future opportunities during the reign of Empress Dowager Lü, the wife of Emperor Gaozu and the mother of Emperor Hui (r. 195-188 BCE). Either during Empress Dowager Lü’s domineering years over her son’s reign, or in her own sole rule by means of young puppet emperors between 188 and 180 BCE, the empress dowager took an interest in Dou Guangguo’s family. Empress Dowager Lü had many relatives in need of consorts and concubines, so she was always on the lookout for young women from good families who could be integrated into the imperial court. As it happened, Dou Guangguo had an older sister who fit the empress dowager’s requirements. Guangguo was very, very young at the time, but he would later claim to have vivid memories of spending time with his sister, Lady Dou, before she left to become a palace attendant of Empress Dowager Lü.

Whereas the fortunes of Lady Dou were on the rise, young Guangguo would have a drastically different path in life. When Dou Guangguo was four or five years old, he somehow fell into the hands of a group of kidnappers. The criminals presumably gave Guangguo his nickname, Shaojun, as a new identity and then sold him to a family that was in need of a servant.

Young Shaojun, however, must have been a difficult child, for he was ultimately traded or sold to more than ten families before he found a more stable position with a family from Yiyang. The Yiyang family may have owned a charcoal burning business, or just wanted more spare charcoal for their home, because they eventually sent Shaojun (presumably now a young adult) into the forested mountainside to make charcoal alongside around a hundred other workers. While working with the charcoal burners, Shaojun apparently survived a catastrophic embankment collapse that killed most of his comrades. That accident evidently inspired him to seek a practitioner of divination to tell him of his future—the diviner unbelievably told Shaojun that he would one day become a landed noble with the rank of marquis.

Despite the enticing prophecy, Shaojun needed to work until his unlikely fortune came true. He either returned to the family in Yiyang or found employment as a servant with someone else. Whatever the case, he was ultimately sent by his employer to the capital city of Chang’an, arriving sometime after Emperor Wen (r. 180-157 BCE) succeeded to the throne. While there, Shaojun began to hear intriguing stories about Wen’s empress.

From gossip on the street, Shaojun learned that the new empress was of a poor, but noble, family from the Zhao region. She had been lifted out of obscurity to become a palace attendant of Empress Dowager Lü, and was eventually sent with four other women to the kingdom of Dai, where she became a favorite concubine of the imperial prince, King Liu Heng (ruler of Dai, r. 196-180). When Empress Dowager Lü died in 180 BCE, the government ministers supported Liu Heng over the puppet emperor that was left behind by the late empress dowager. After massacring the Lü clan, the Han ministers invited Liu Heng to come to Chang’an and become the new emperor. Liu Heng accepted the offer and was henceforth known as Emperor Wen.

At the time of his ascendance to the throne, Emperor Wen did not have an empress. During his days as the king of Dai, he had chosen a queen, but she unfortunately died and none of her sons lived past their father’s first year of rule as emperor. As such, the ministers quickly urged that Wen should choose an heir from among the sons birthed by his concubines. In 179 BCE, Emperor Wen agreed with his advisors’ suggestions and named his eldest living son, Liu Qi, as his heir and elevated Liu Qi’s mother to the position of empress. The woman in question was Wen’s favorite consort from Zhao and happened to be none other than Shaojun’s older sister, Lady Dou.

After learning of his sister’s fate, Shaojun wrote to Emperor Wen and Empress Dou, telling them of his bizarre background. The letter caught the attention of the imperial couple and they invited him to personally meet with them. In an audience before the emperor and empress, Shaojun told of how his birth name was Dou Guangguo and that he had been kidnapped at around five years of age; that he had been sold by his captors as a servant or laborer and had remained in that line of work ever since. Finally, he reminisced about his memories of spending time with Lady Dou before she became a palace attendant. He recalled how they picked mulberry leaves together and how she had washed his hair with rice-water shortly before departing on her fateful journey to Chang’an. After hearing these memories, Empress Dou confirmed that Shaojun was indeed her long-lost brother.

Upon being accepted by Empress Dou, Shaojun was showered with wealth and given prime real estate in the city of Chang’an. They even sent him several advisors and teachers to show him how to act properly in the imperial court. Finally, during the reign of Empress Dou’s son, Emperor Jing (r. 157-141 BCE), Shaojun was appointed as the marquis of Zhangwu.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (Cooking mural from a tomb in Aohan, c. Liao Dynasty, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

Sources:
  • The Records of the Grand Historian (Shi ji) by Sima Qian, translated by Burton Watson. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993. 
  • https://www.britannica.com/biography/Wendi-emperor-of-Han-dynasty 
  • http://www.womenofchina.cn/womenofchina/html1/people/history/8/7240-1.htm 
  • http://www.chinaknowledge.de/History/Han/personshanwendi.html 
  • http://www.chinaknowledge.de/History/Han/personsdouhou.html