Friday, 26 June 2015

Today's the Day

Anniversaries & Events in Academia & Elsewhere

June 26

June 26 gets started way back in 221, when Roman Emperor Elagabalus adopted his cousin Alexander Severus as his heir. Which was nice of him. Though this turns out to be mainly a futile attempt to put the brakes on his plummeting popularity, which hadn’t been that high to begin with. As it goes, he was never called Elagabalus in his own lifetime, his name being the rather splendid Sextus Varius Avitus Bassianus, though he changed it to Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus when he got to be top bod in Rome at the age of only fourteen. He was a Syrian (the Romans didn’t much care for Syrians back then, though it didn’t stop them ending up with some of them as leaders) and he’d happily been spending his time as high priest of the sun god Elagabal when, all of sudden, he found he’d become Emperor. What happened was that, in 217, Emperor Caracalla (another Syrian) was relieving himself by the roadside when one of his own men took a swing at him with a sword and cut him off in his prime. Luckily, on hand to step into the breach was his Praetorian prefect, Marcus Opellius Macrinus, also chief suspect in the Comfort Break Assassination case, which didn’t go down any too well with Caracalla's folks back home. It was about this time that Sextus Varius discovered that, according to his mum (who should know), he was the illegitimate son of Caracalla, so he was rightfully the one who should be in charge, not some seedy Praetorian toilet murderer. Meanwhile, Caracalla's aunt, Julia Maesa, had been stirring things up with the Third Legion and had successfully persuaded them to revolt, mainly through her showing them all her cash and them being easier to bribe than a Cabinet minister, all of which resulted in the Battle of Antioch in which Macrinus hightailed it out of there at top speed, abandoning his troops to their fate. Didn’t do him much good, mind, because he was soon caught up with and promptly executed for being a thoroughly bad egg, at which Elagabalus was declared Emperor by the commander of the revolting Third Legion.

Sadly, they soon discovered that what they’d landed themselves with was something even more revolting and were repenting their decision before they ever got back to Rome. Hardened Romans they may have been, the sort of folk who didn’t turn a hair at scourging and crucifixion, but they now found themselves utterly appalled by the sexual antics of their new ruler. For a start off, he liked nothing better than a session of all-over epilation, followed by the slapping on of some make-up and a wig, and then hanging around the tabernas to see what luck might throw his way, all while he was sporting an audacious selection of mixed silks, when he was wearing anything at all. Then he lavished favours on his male courtiers, declaring a blond charioteer, Hierocles, to be his Caesar (and husband!), whilst another “husband”, the athlete Aurelius Zoticus, was appointed Master of the Bedchamber. Though it wasn’t all just jobs for the boys: his mother and grandmother had by now become the first women to be allowed into the Senate (thus striking a blow for equality, which must’ve gone down like a cup of hemlock with the rest of the assembly), both being granted the title Augusta (Empress) before getting on with the actual running of the show, thus leaving Elagabalus’ hands free to concentrate on his degeneracy.

For form’s sake, the young lad then decided he’d best get himself a proper wife and so he married one Julia Cornelia Paula, though he soon got fed up with her and plumped for a Vestal virgin instead, Julia Aquilia Severa, whom he raped first, just so’s she’d know what she was letting herself in for, all of which outraged Rome, though mainly because the Vestals were supposed to stay celibate for thirty years and, if they did fall off the wagon, it was burying alive for ‘em. Which tends to prove a bit ticklish when there’s an Emperor involved. No sooner had the rumpus over that one died down than he was at it again, taking a third wife, Annia Aurelia Faustina, who, as luck would have it, had recently become a widow, thanks to Elagabalus having had the foresight to see that her hapless spouse was conveniently executed beforehand. But, would you Adam & Eve it, not long after that he decided he didn’t want her anymore either and went back to his Vestal ex-virgin for a bit before hitching himself to a further two women somewhere along the way, though their names aren’t even recorded, possibly because everyone assumed that by the time they’d carved them into the tablet, he’d’ve changed his mind again.

Not surprisingly, by 221, pretty much everyone was utterly ticked off with the flouncing adolescent show-off, the Praetorian Guard especially so over his shameless cavorting with his charioteer chum, and the Guard were the sort of brutish he-men you definitely didn’t want to get on the wrong side of, not if you wanted to carry on being Emperor, that is. Old Grandma Elagabalus (Julia Maesa) could see which way the wind was blowing by now and, being mustard keen to cling onto the power that she’d gotten used to by then, she thought the best thing all round would be to have a substitute warming up on the touchline, so she persuaded Elagabalus – presumably only after protests of “Do I have to?” – that he ought to name someone as his heir. Say, Alexander Severus, for instance. Who, coincidentally, just happened to be her other grandson. Amazingly, this was agreed to and came to pass on 26 June 221 and, for about a year, they shared power. During which time, Elagabalus busied himself with several abortive attempts to have his rival bumped off but, when that all came to nothing, he stripped Alexander of his titles, then put it about that the poor lad was at death’s door. Just to see what the Praetorians thought they could do about that. They demanded to see the pair of them in their camp, which the dim-witted Emperor foolishly agreed to for some unknown reason, perhaps just to see what would happen. What happened was that the soldiers loudly cheered Alexander whilst ignoring Elagabalus completely, leading him to suspect that they might, in fact, prefer his cousin, so he then ordered the summary execution of all those who’d done any of the cheering. Not his wisest move under the circumstances, seeing the Guard were hardly likely to execute themselves, were they? Time to beat a hasty retreat out of there before he found himself on the sharp end. Undaunted, however, what he did next was what any self-respecting Roman Emperor would do in his situation: he hid in a box. Alas, they found him and exit the eighteen year old Elagabalus …

Elagabalus’ downfall was not through religion nor sexuality but simply from having a power-mad granny unlikely to be content with sucking on a Werther’s Original but who did have cartloads of dosh with which to outbribe her none-too-bright grandson who, the minute he was safely murdered out the way (guess who was behind that), set about blackening his memory in a vicious propaganda war, often repeated and garnished by later historians (generally big burly beardy sorts, especially the women) displaying their own prejudices against effeminacy. According to B.G. Niebuhr, “The name Elagabalus is branded in history above all others” because of his “unspeakably disgusting life.” All others? What about Caligula, then? Or was that just a straightforward case of proper manly tyranny, the old “at least he got the trains running on time” argument? Some nameless other wrote, “Two hundred years after Pliny, the use of mixed silks was confined to the female sex, till the citizens of Rome were insensibly familiarized with the example of Elagabalus, who, by this effeminate habit, had sullied the dignity of an emperor and a man.” So there we have it: he corrupted the entire Roman Empire through his daring use of silks. What a perfect rotter, to be sure.

Harking back to the old Vestal virgins for one tiny mo’, it seems that burial alive is one of the most widespread human fears – taphephobia, if we want to get clinical about it. Though the fallen virgins weren’t buried alive so much as sealed up in a cave (technically immurement: being walled up to die) with a bit of bread and water so that, if they really were innocent, the goddess Vesta would pop down and save them. Fat chance of that. But someone who, by all accounts, wasn’t at all taphephobic was St Oran, who was living on Iona in 563 time, just when St Columba was having no end of trouble getting his abbey built there, which would be down to the Devil sticking his oar in, of course, so St Oran, being an all-round decent sort, says, “Tell you what, Columba, why don’t you lot bury me alive and that way I’ll become a kind of human sacrifice.” Quite why he thought that might help in any way, shape or form is a mystery that St Oran took to his grave with him, which is where he pretty soon found himself, seeing that Columba decided to take him up on his generous offer and lost no time in piling the earth on top of him. Some goodly while later, they must’ve had second thoughts about the whole burying alive business because they suddenly decided to dig him up and, lo and behold, he’s still alive and kicking, and he’s also got a tale or two to tell of the Afterlife that he’d seen while he’d been down there. “Bad news, lads,” says St Oran, “there’s no Heaven and there’s no Hell either after all. What d’you reckon to that?” What St Columba reckoned, in a not so saintly moment, was that he wasn’t standing for any of that sort of talk, thank you very much, and immediately ordered that St Oran was buried again …

Everybody remembers where they were and what they were doing on 26 June 1284 because that’s the day on which the Pied Piper lured a hundred and thirty children away from the little German town of Hamelin. Now, you may think that’s a heck of a specific dating for what is, after all, simply a folklore tale, isn’t it – it was a Monday, by the bye – but, as one website helpfully points out, “it actually happened,” and then, of course, it was also the saints’ day of St John and St Paul, which is why people tended to remember it. That, and the fact that there seemed to be no children hanging about the place all of a sudden. The story goes (granted, some of it’s a tad hard to swallow, but stick with it) that Hamelin was suffering from something of an infestation of rats in 1284 but, as luck would have it, along comes this fellow dressed up to the nines in the most colourful clothing you ever did see, thus making him, almost certainly, the first instance of a dude in recorded history, which is where the name Pied Piper comes from – pied just meaning patched with two or more colours, as in magpie or piebald – though to the Germans he’s the more sinister-sounding Rattenfänger von Hameln (Ratcatcher).

Precisely why he’d turned up in all the fancy threads and armed with some kind of flute when he was only there to deal with the rat situation – you’d’ve thought some overalls and a good stout pair of boots would be more the ticket for that caper, wouldn’t you? – is something best to draw a veil over for now. Anyhow, he says to the mayor that he’ll get rid of all the rats for them, for a price so, naturally enough, the Mayor says right you are, you get on with it, matey. Next thing the townsfolk know – it’s 24 June, incidentally – is the bloke in the fancy dress is blowing away for all he’s worth on his pipe and then out come all the rats to follow him, only to end up in the River Weser, where all but one are drowned. Job done, the Piper goes back to collect his fee, only to find that the Mayor’s completely gone back on his word (they do that sometimes, Mayors, though traditionally only over ticket office closures) and is refusing to stump up the cash (in a kind of Medieval austerity measure), which pleaseth the Piper not at all, so off he stamps, only to turn up again on 26 June but this time wearing – uh-oh! – a red hat! Luckily, all the townsfolk (except the children) happened to be “busy” in the church at the time, so they weren’t around to witness such a shocking and terrifying sight, though it also meant they weren’t around when all the children mysteriously disappeared, meaning all they could do then was blame it on the stranger in the red hat, who did look “a bit foreign, now you come to mention it.” Alas, they were all too upset to think things through properly, otherwise someone would surely have suggested, “Look, why don’t we try burying someone alive, see if that helps at all?”

Some small grain of truth must lurk behind the tale, as there was a stained glass window in Hamelin church telling of it as early as 1300 (long since destroyed), but exactly what we shall never know, thanks in part to all the embellishments that have been added down the years, though there have been theories aplenty. We can probably discount the “the kids disappeared into a mountain” scenario, along with the one that reckons that the Piper was a symbol of the Black Death, which didn’t become popular until about 1346. Also slightly implausible is the one about the Piper being a figure like Nicholas of Cologne, said to have lured many away on a disastrous Children’s Crusade because, no matter the numbers involved, small kiddywinks against whacking great Saracens is only ever going to end one way. William Manchester (whose work contains, it has been said: “the most gratuitous errors of fact and eccentricities of judgment”) thought that the Pied Piper was nothing but some psychopathic paedophile working on a grand scale – sounds like the old “mixed silks” hypothesis again – so that one’s a non-starter too. Most likely, however, is that the “children” actually refers to all the townsfolk and that they were recruited by a landowner to go off and repopulate parts of Eastern Europe, possibly Moravia, Pomerania or even … Transylvania. This might mean that they became the founders of the Gypsy or Romany way of life or, more importantly, that one descendant of the Lost Children of Hamelin was none other than Count Dracula himself. And all because of a red hat.

What this does mean is that we’ve left ourselves no time at all to even mention that This Day was when King Richard III took the English throne in 1483, something repeated by William IV in 1830 (George VI died that day); or that, in 1817, Branwell Brontë was born, least remembered of those famous siblings but the better poet (the umlaut is spurious, by the bye, seeing the old man was actually an Irishman called Brunty with pretentions towards grandeur). Or that, in 1857, it saw the first investitures of the Victoria Cross (they’re made out of metal from two cannons captured during the Crimean War - 1,358 have been dished out, “For Valour,” three men having won a Bar (second VC), though one collector now has one tenth of them all, “For Wealth,”). Or that the Universal Product Code (that’s the Barcode to the likes of us) was scanned for the first time to sell a product in 1974 (wouldn’t you know it? A packet of chewing gum), or that, in 1977, Elvis Presley gave his last ever concert performance.

Oh yes, and JFK made a speech in Berlin in 1963. Which nobody ever remembers more than the one line of, possibly because it was in German, probably because of the stir it caused: “Ich bin ein Berliner.” Which means, “I am a Berliner,” of course: I am a citizen of Berlin (lucky he wasn’t giving the speech in Frankfurt – or Luneburg, for that matter). Though, unfortunately, a Berliner is also a jam doughnut, which changes the gist rather, seeing that, if you were a citizen of Berlin, you’d simply say, “Ich bin Berliner,” and that, by adding the indefinite article, “ein,” JFK was showing his support to the soviet-surrounded people by claiming to be a jam doughnut. Adherents will say that he was using the phrase in the figurative sense (sounds a bit like clutching at straws from here), in which case the use of ein would be correct, whilst critics reckon that JFK simply made a huge gaffe, though it seems highly implausible that the world’s most powerful man, who was also aware of his deficiencies in the German tongue (he had to note it down phonetically: ish bin ein Bear-leener), would attempt the feat without the aid of someone who knew what they were talking about and, more importantly, what was actually being said (he had two interpreters, one from Berlin). There is a single rational explanation for his use of this phrasing, which is that it allows both interpretations to remain true. Thus, on the one hand, he stands on the steps of the Rathaus Schöneberg gazing out at an audience of some 450,000 to declare that he’s “a Berliner,” meaning “We Germans are all in this together, so let’s slip into some lederhosen and really show these commie blighters what we’re made of!” And, on the other, he is expressing that he is not some fat old dullard soviet like Khrushchev but actually a durn nice regular guy, through use of the doughnut metaphor, thus anticipating the Python classic, “The Writers” (not for the easily offended) by referencing Whistler’s epigrammatic claim that, “His Majesty is like a jam doughnut – his arrival gives us pleasure and his departure only makes us hungry for more.” Which is why JFK suggested he was like a jam doughnut. He had been intending to do the entire sketch during the speech but, fortunately, his advisors were on hand to prevent him, long before he ever told the Berliners that they, “shine out like a shaft of gold when all around is darkness.”

Elagabalus: L'imperatore romano Elagabalo (203 or 204-222). Roma, Musei Capitolini. Foto di Giovanni Dall'Orto, 15-08-2000

The Roses of Heliogabalus: Lawrence Alma-Tadema [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Wise & Foolish Virgins: Friedrich Wilhelm Schadow [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Praetorian Guard (Proclaiming Claudius Emperor): Lawrence Alma-Tadema [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Caligula: Eustache Le Sueur [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

St Columba: By John R Skelton (illustrator) (Henrietta Elizabeth Marshall, Scotland's Story) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Pied Piper Stained Glass Window: By Creator: Augustin von Moersperg [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Pied Piper by Kate Greenaway: Edmund Evans [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Black Death: [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Branwell Brontë, Self Portrait: [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Ich bin ein Berliner Speech: YouTube

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