Friday, 20 March 2015

Today's the Day

Anniversaries & Events in Academia & Elsewhere

March 20

This day in 235, Maximinus Thrax was proclaimed Roman Emperor, the first foreigner to hold that office, which may be one reason why the snooty and aristocratic Senate didn’t much care for him. The fact that he was also a huge great powerful bullyboy of an illiterate peasant who had risen through the ranks purely via his overwhelming strength and an undisguised what-are-you-going-to-do-about-it-then-mate attitude only made them even more inclined to look down their noses at him. At least, they would have done, had he not been eight feet six tall, something which made that physically impossible, not to mention highly inadvisable. And so, very reluctantly and with extremely bad grace, they acquiesced and found themselves being lorded over by Gaius Julius Verus Maximinus Augustus or “Maximinus the Thracian.” Though he wasn’t actually from Thrace, this probably being no more than a vindictive piece of propaganda thrust upon him by disgruntled senators, seeing that the name of Thrace ultimately comes from thrasso, meaning to trouble or stir up, thus dubbing him Max the Troublemaker. Though never actually to his face, of course. Mind you, it was about right, seeing he was pretty much what the senators had always suspected him to be: a right common Barbarian and an especially nasty piece of work, whose reign led directly to the Crisis of the Third Century, during the fifty years of which they shipped emperors like there was no tomorrow (for many of whom there wouldn’t be, not once they’d been assassinated) and the end of Classical Antiquity. Don’t worry, though: Late Antiquity soon popped up to take its place.

The story goes that Maximinus was sitting there minding his own business and his flock (he was a shepherd originally) when along comes Septimius Severus (one of the few emperors to die of “natural causes,” though this definition does include “plague,” “struck by lightning” and “fumes”) with his army and spots this monumentally huge guy watching over a band of sheep so decides an impromptu session of wrestling is called for. When Maximinus has seen off sixteen of the very burliest amongst the soldiers and while they’re still catching their breath, he then races Septimius’s horse before taking on a further seven hefty legionnaires (well, legionaries, to be strictly accurate), who go much the same way as their colleagues, at which point, all things considered, they think it’s probably best if he quits the shepherding and goes soldiering with them. Which he did, rising through the ranks until Alexander Severus (grandson-in-law of Septimus) promoted him to Supreme Commander of the Imperial Army, from which position there was only one logical step left in his rapid upward progression. As luck would have it, just such a vacancy did arise, thanks to Alexander’s convenient death when he was hacked to death by the Legio XXII Primigenia, who coincidentally happened to be working for Maximinus at the time and who then handily elected him Emperor in his place.
However, Maximinus’s reputation soon began to plummet badly, mainly because he was brutal, malicious and paranoid (if you can be said to be paranoid when your five predecessors have all been bloodily slain, mostly by their own soldiers, and you would be too eventually), with the public being especially cruel about his prominent brow, huge great hooter and lantern jaw (he also sweated profusely, just for good measure), referring to him as “Cyclops.” Hardly surprising he was a tad on the moody side. (He may well have been a sufferer of acromegaly, or gigantism, the physical features and phenomenal strength being characteristics of the condition). It was also said that his sandals were twice the size of the regular army issue, he wore his wife’s bracelet as a thumb ring, crushed rocks in his fists, knocked out a mule with a single punch, and devoured forty pounds of meat and eighteen bottles of wine at every meal, though this may be no more than the wild exaggerations of twenty three bruised and battered legionaries hanging round the taberna desperately trying to explain how they’d all been beaten up by the one bloke in a single go.

When Maximinus appointed his own son, Maximus, as Caesar and then started taxing folk until they squeaked, the senators decided something must be done. So they persuaded an ancient old man, Gordian I, to be leader, who only agreed so long as his son, Gordian II, was ruler with him, the latter heading off to Carthage to give Maximinus what for, only to be killed there, which old man Gordian then got to hear about and promptly hung himself. Having taken on Rome’s Most Provenly Dangerous Job, they had lasted just twenty two days at it. Undismayed by this, and most likely bricking it in case a furious Maximinus got wind of their treachery, the Senate then turned to the unlikely pairing of Pupienus and Balbinus, both elderly, neither one of whom trusted the other an inch and, all in all, about as much use as lead-lined swimming trunks. Both sank without trace, once the Praetorian Guard got within a sword’s swing of them. They’d managed three months in post. Meanwhile, Maximinus was stamping his way Romeward bent on vengeance and got as far as Aquileia, which he decided was crying out for a spot of besieging, blissfully unaware that the inhabitants had tons of food supplies whilst his own troops had none whatsoever. Added to which, they got more than a little disheartened by the fact that every time they tried to scale the city walls, they ended up with boiling oil being poured onto them. And still nothing on the table come teatime. They were fed up. Or, rather, they weren’t, which was half the problem. So the only recourse left to them was to turn to those ever-public-spirited sorters out of tricky political situations, the trusty Praetorian Guard, whose next move caught everyone by surprise. Actually, no it didn’t; they simply did what they did best and crept up on Maximinus & Son while they slept, viciously slaughtered them and then carted their heads off to Rome on spears. 238 was known as the Year of the Six Emperors, Gordian III (aged only thirteen) then making up the numbers by taking the job on, though he did last six years at it. And then he was murdered …
20 March 1345 was the day that the Black Death was created. No word of a lie. Oh, it’s all very well for you to scoff and sneer and have half a mind to believe all this newfangled bunkum spouted by those Norwegian scientists with their Blame It On The Gerbils Campaign but let’s look at the facts, shall we? For a start off, gerbils are not native to Norway but, on the other hand, there most decidedly is a well-known rodent that glories in the name of rattus norvegicus. Or the Norway Rat. Or the Norwegian Rat. Or the Brown Norway Rat. Sounds fishily like the Norwegians are trying desperately to wriggle out of something they’re feeling rather guilty about here and we still haven’t forgiven them for Bjork yet. OK, she was technically from Iceland but, then again, nobody’s trying to blame Black Death on the Norwegians either, so what exactly is it they’re getting so overly worked up about? As we’ve already stated, the Black Death was created on this day in 1345 and you can check with the Paris Consilium, if you do have any lingering doubts, plus Boccaccio gives it a mention in the Decameron too. What happened was that this Paris Consilium, a group of forty nine medical masters at the University of Paris (none of them Norwegian), were asked by King Philip VI of France to answer just one simple question: “This Black Death thing, lads: what’s that all about then?”

Philip VI also happened to be known as Phil the Fortunate, which does seem a shade overoptimistic, seeing that, when he posed his question in October 1348, one third of his subjects, including his own wife, had just been wiped out by said plague and a good few others had also been put paid to when he lost the Battle of Crecy. The Consilium got straight down to it and, having almost immediately ruled out Norwegian gerbils as the culprits, decided the most likely thing was a conjunction of Saturn, Jupiter and Mars under the moist sign of Aquarius that had taken place on 20 March 1345, following solar and lunar eclipses. Obvious really, once it’s been pointed out, but they were also able to cite Aristotle, no less, who’d reckoned that a coming together of Saturn and Jupiter was sure to spell disaster, and Albert the Great (the Catholic bishop and saint, not to be confused with Alfred the Great, though neither of them did any cake-burning, as it turns out), who said Jupiter and Mars getting together could only mean plague, Jupiter being hot and wet and just the qualities you need for rotting and putrefaction to make a bold show of it. The Black Death killed about twenty five million people in the end. No wonder it’s illegal to keep a gerbil in California.

This day in 1616 sees Sir Walter Raleigh being freed from the Tower after thirteen years of imprisonment. The first thing to remember about this historical character is that these days we’re supposed to pronounce it Raleigh, to rhyme with “poorly”, not Raleigh as in “valley.” It seems that, until 1581 anyhow, he spelled it either Rauley or Rauleygh and then decided, for no apparent reason, to start calling himself Ralegh. But never ever Raleigh, though that didn’t stop the good folk of North Carolina misspelling their capital in honour of him: Raleigh. The next thing to recall about him, after pointing out he never laid down any cloaks to keep queenly feet dry of puddles (we’d’ve told her to “walk around, ma’am”), is that, although he’s listed mainly as an English Landed Gent, writer, poet, soldier, politician, courtier, spy, and explorer, he was, in fact, a hardened gaolbird, 1616 being his second stretch inside. Having managed to worm his way into the good books of Elizabeth I, not least by sailing to America and naming Virginia after her (she being the Virgin Queen, of course, and didn’t seem to mind who knew), such shameless toadying reaped its traditional reward in 1585: he was knighted. In 1588, he was at it again, this time helping to keep Devon free of Armada, though his role in the actual fighting was a quite minor one, his vessel taking a bigger part in the action than he ever did, being the flagship of the fleet under the command of Lord Howard. The ship, commissioned by Raleigh, was originally called the Ark Ralegh, the tradition then being to name vessels after their owners (quite what that implies about Drake’s Golden Hind is probably best left unpondered) but, in 1587, the Queen had “purchased” her for a huge sum (Raleigh never saw a penny of it, being massively in debt to her for previous voyages) and so she became the Ark Royal. Potless as ever he may have been, but his star was still very much in the ascendency, especially where the monarch was concerned.

And then, in 1591, he went and blew it. By marrying a woman called Elizabeth Throckmorton. Or Throgmorton. With a maiden name like that, you can see why she’d’ve wanted to get hitched at the first half-decent drop of a hat, though that wasn’t the actual blunder of the move. Nor was it her being eleven years his junior or the fact that she was not really quite so maidenly after all, seeing she was decidedly on the pregnant side at the time. It all boiled down to the matter of her being a lady-in-waiting of the Queen’s and that they’d undertaken the ceremonials on the quiet, without telling her or even asking her permission, though it wasn’t until the following year that Elizabeth got to hear about it and, having been callously denied her slice of the wedding cake, she was understandably more than a bit miffed. Enough to have them both sent to the Tower to have a long hard think about what they’d done. Poor old Walter would languish there until early 1593 and, having spent so long amongst the worst cutthroats and villains in England at that time, he did the only thing a fallen man in such a position could do: he became a Member of Parliament. It would be years before he would return to favour with the Queen, though he and his wife always remained devoted to each other, having two more sons, Walter and Carew, the first one, Damerei (parents can be so cruel), having died in 1592 of plague. As well as his son, Raleigh’s dad was also called Walter so, even though England was no longer under threat from a Spanish invasion, it looked in imminent danger of being overrun by Walter Raleighs.
Meanwhile, the doughty mariner beguiled his doghouse days by heading off on various trips and, in 1594, having heard of a “City of Gold” in South America and the legend of “El Dorado”, he sailed away to hunt for it. Sadly, however, it proved naught but myth and he would have had just as much success if he’d simply stayed at home and put his energies into searching for fairies at the bottom of the garden. And then disaster struck when, on 23 March 1603, Elizabeth I breathed her last and, in her place, along came the dour and slovenly James I (James VI of Scotland), who didn’t view Raleigh any too kindly at all, though this was a man who, it is said, had a distinct preference for “brae Scots laddies wi’ handsome faces and firm buttocks,” so what chance did a wizened old salty sea dog have in such circumstances? To make matters worse, our Walter had gone and gotten himself somehow embroiled in the Main Plot, a conspiracy to get rid of James and replace him with Arabella Stuart (her father being brother of Lord Darnley, second husband of Mary, Queen of Scots and himself father of James I, so you can see how complicated and incestuous it was all getting), whereas the Bye Plot (which is why the Main Plot gets its name) was merely a bunch of disgruntled Catholics and Puritans wanting to kidnap James in order to improve their own lot. Naturally enough, James I was not best pleased and, even though Raleigh categorically denied any involvement and defended himself stoutly in court (papers found nearly four hundred years later would prove he’d been fibbing again), the verdict was a guilty one. And so, by July 1603, Raleigh once again found himself banged up, though at least the King had spared him the block. And there he would stay until 20 March 1616, though he did manage to use the time productively, writing his first volume of The Historie of the World and by (somehow) conceiving his son Carew.

By 1616, it seems that Raleigh had been able to persuade a gullible monarch that, if he gave him a boat, he knew where to look for El Dorado this time and would bring him back a fabulous treasure. Not to mention a flock or two of wild geese as well, no doubt. He did know where to look rightly enough, the trouble being that El Dorado wasn’t actually where it was supposed to be, so he had to head for home emptyhanded, goldless and gooseless. Worse still, his men ransacked the Spanish outpost of San Tomé on the way back, during which Raleigh’s son Walter was fatally shot so, when he did finally reach Blighty, there was an infuriated Spanish Ambassador waiting, keen to enquire what the King might be going to do about such an outrage. In order to keep the peace, James decided it was probably best all round if Raleigh were beheaded after all and so, on 29 October 1618, he was brought to the scaffold to deliver his famous last words: “Strike, man, strike!” A short time later, his favourite pipe and a small tin of tobacco engraved with the inscription (in Latin): “It was my companion at that most miserable time,” were found in his cell, so they buried them with him. Unfortunately, and rather ironically, they then failed to bury the head in with him, that being embalmed and given to his widow, who then carried it around in a bag for the next twenty nine years, after which it was finally reunited with the rest of him.

Sir Walter would later go on to make ninety third in the poll, 100 Greatest Britons, just behind J. R. R. Tolkien. If you are wondering what a convicted and, indeed, ultimately executed felon is doing on such a list, it would seem that, when the poll was undertaken way back in 2002, we Ungreat Britons who were responsible for doing the actual electing can’t have been any too choosy. Either that or (it seems highly unlikely) we simply didn’t know what we were talking about or who it was that we were voting in (so, no change there, then), seeing the final list contains no fewer than five others who met a state-sanctioned death, all of whom beat him in the rankings: William Tynedale (26th, burned, ostensibly for translating the Bible into English, even though they would later use huge chunks of his text for the King James Authorised version, though opposing Henry VIII’s divorce was what really did the damage; Guy Fawkes (30th, “the only man to enter Parliament with the right intentions”); Thomas More (37th, for refusing to acknowledge Henry VIII as Supreme Head of the Church, but mostly for not attending his wedding to Anne Boleyn, beheaded – he did beat Henry in the end, seeing Fat Hal only managed 40th); William Wallace (48th, Scottish rebel that Braveheart is allegedly and very loosely based upon, hanged, drawn and quartered); and James Connolly (64th, Leader of the Easter Rising in Ireland in 1916, shot). Plus there’re two rabid bigots in there, in the shape of Oliver Cromwell (10th, the Drogheda Massacre bloke and regicide-in-chief, also ritually executed after his death) and, bizarrely, Enoch Powell (55th, the Rivers of Blood maniac). Oh, and Boy George too …

But, if you think that’s madness enough, we’ll leave the last word on 20 March to those Archdeacons of Common Sense, the American Supreme Court, who this day in 1991 stood themselves four square with the principles of equality and firmly by the shoulders of Women’s Rights when they decided – nay, voted unanimously – that employers could not exclude women from jobs where exposure to toxic chemicals could potentially endanger a foetus, thus giving them (and their unborn child) the selfsame right as their male counterparts to die by corporate poisoning. We hold these rights to be self-evident …

Maximinus Thrax: By Jastrow (File:Maximinus Thrax Musei Capitolini MC473.jpg) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Septimus Severus: [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Legionaries: By Photo taken by user Caliga10's wife. [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Praetorian Guard (proclaiming Claudius Emperor after finding him hiding behind a curtain): Lawrence Alma-Tadema [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Rattus Norvegicus: By National Park Service [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Philip the Fortunate: [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Raleigh: By 'H' monogrammist (floruit 1588) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Bess Throckmorton: By Robert Peake the Elder (ca. 1551-1619) ( [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Raleigh Smoking: By Frederick William Fairholt [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Raleigh at the Block: By From The Popular History of England: An Illustrated History of Society and Government from the Earliest Period to Our Own Times by Charles Knight. Illustrator does not appear to be credited. (NYPL Digital Gallery) [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Execution of William Tynedale: By John Foxe [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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