Friday, 15 January 2016

Today's the Day

Anniversaries & Events in Academia & Elsewhere

January 15

This day back in 69 was a pretty good one, if you happened to be Marcus Salvius Otho Caesar Augustus, that is, seeing he got to be Emperor of Rome then. Though, given his staggering propensity for making the most stupendous blunders, instead of hailing him as Caesar Imperator, maybe they should simply have called him the Gaffer. His rise to eventual power all began when he started cosying up to the then top bod, who just happened to be a bloke called Nero. Which was probably his first mistake. Seeing that Nero was the sort of chap who often took the joke that little bit too far. By murdering his mother, for one. And his step-brother, Britannicus, for another. Oh, and when the light was getting a tad murky out in the garden of an evening, by having Christians dipped in oil and set on fire, so he could see what he was doing (which was butchering Christians mainly). Not forgetting also the fact that he married a young castrated boy called Sporus. Which was utterly outrageous, seeing he was already married, to a woman called Statilia Messalina. And a bloke called Pythagoras, as it goes (though not the maths boffin). He does all that, mind, plus throws in the upside-down crucifixion of Peter the Apostle and the beheading of Paul, and yet what is it that everyone first thinks of on hearing the name Nero? That he’s the blighter that “fiddled while Rome burned.” Rome did indeed have a great fire during the year 64 but, rather inconveniently, the fiddle wasn’t actually invented until the tenth century. So you can’t believe everything you read, can you? Also, while we’re on the subject, nobody ever mentions the fact that Nero came away with prizes from the Olympic Games of 67, in the chariot-racing and acting competitions (separate events, in case you’re wondering). Not that he actually won, mind, though that doesn’t really matter much, not if you’re an Emperor with his reputation and there just happens to be a large vat of dipping oil standing by ready, to ease the judges towards the right decision.

At first, Otho’s luck was very much on the up, as he manages to pull himself an absolute stunner in the bridal stakes, in the shapely form of Poppaea Sabina, though he’s barely got her back down the aisle when matters take a decided turn for the worse. Before he even knows where he is, she’s giving him all kinds of earache and grief about introducing her to that strapping, manly and better-looking mate of his: Nero. Come on, lads, even if the old ball and chain has got a tongue on her that could strip the varnish off a gatepost, which of us is actually going to take a chance like that? Well, it’d be asking for trouble, wouldn’t it? Cue blunder number two, as Otho settles for the quiet life by doing as he’s told and, before you can say “you’re your own worst enemy, Otho,” she’s in Nero’s bed and he finds himself banished to remote Lusitania (Spain, basically). Little Poppet does get her comeuppance in the end, however, when Nero (allegedly) kicks her to death while she’s pregnant with their child, though you could just as easily believe he beat her to death with his violin, couldn’t you? At least it leaves Nero free to marry his second wife. And his young castrato. And that bloke Pythagoras too. So it all works out all right in the end.

Except that things go pear-shaped for Nero at that point, when Otho’s neighbour and mate, Galba, revolts against the Emperor, so the understandably still-highly miffed Otho decides he’ll tag along and see how things work out. Besides which, not only had he spotted that Galba was banging on in years and childless (so he’d be needing an heir if he became Emperor, wouldn’t he?), but the astrologers had been filling Otho’s head with all kinds of baloney about how “we predict a glittering future for you, young man,” and generally egging him on. Unhappily, astrologers then were about as reliable as they are today and, almost at once, Galba named somebody else to take over instead, which is rather a bodyblow to our man, as it goes, so he resolves to take matters into his own hands. Strapped as he is for cash, he still manages to enlist the help of the ever-fickle Praetorian Guard (Galba hadn’t bothered to pay them) and, on 15 January 69, they all yomp over to the Forum and put Galba and his successor out of business, leaving Otho to take his place. Just for good measure, and to finally get to thumb his nose at Nero, he takes the young boy, Sporus, to be his own intimate lover. All sorted.

Except. (You knew there was an except coming, didn’t you?) Except that this just happened to be Year of the Four Emperors, with our man being only number two and it’s still only January. The signs weren’t looking any too good for Otho, were they? To cap it all, some commander called Vitellius over in Germany has decided that the current Emperor isn’t really up to the mark and that Rome could do worse than get itself a new one instead. Say Vitellius, for instance. So he starts stirring up rebellion and, before anyone knows what’s what, he and his cohorts are bearing down on Italy, which pleaseth Otho not one bit. Despite the warnings of omens and prophecies – “things aren’t looking all that clever for you, Otho, old lad” – and the fact that it’s now 14 March (Ides of March Eve), our man does what he always does in such a sticky situation: blunders his way into an even stickier one. His experienced officers urge patience – “whatever you do, don’t get drawn into battle” – at which Otho promptly gets drawn into battle. And gets pasted. Still, Vitellius was never a one for bearing a grudge and is perfectly willing to call the whole thing a draw and let’s all be mates, why don’t we (so long as he still gets to be Emperor, of course). Naturally enough, a sensible compromise isn’t quite good enough for our Otho, not when he can gaffe his way out of it, it’s not. So he slips away to his tent and stabs himself in the heart with a dagger. To prevent his country descending into civil war and because “it is far more just to perish one for all, than many for one.” Even this last wish goes typically belly-up when some of his soldiers are so impressed that he’s finally done the decent thing (especially for an ex-drinking buddy of a fiend like Nero) that they honour the occasion by flinging themselves on his funeral pyre, many perishing for one after all.

As for Vitellius, he made it all the way through to 22 December and must’ve been thinking how “this Year of the Three Emperors didn’t turn out so badly after all” when they had him executed. And in came Number Four, Vespasian, who actually made rather a better fist of clinging onto power, right up until the year 79. As you know, not every Roman Emperor came to a sticky end. Alas, however, Vespasian did. He died of a horrible case of the runs … 

A pretty good day for the Tudors, this one, especially in the power-grabbing stakes. 15 January 1535 saw Henry VIII declaring himself head of the Church in England and thus permanently relegating God into a minor clerical role within the Protestant hierarchy, though the “Defender of the Faith” (they still put that on the coins here, even now – FD: fidei defensor) mainly wanted to use the role to get round an obstreperous Pope, who was inconveniently refusing to annul Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon, even though the Bible (Leviticus 20:21) clearly says “If a man marries his brother's wife, it is an act of impurity.” She’d originally been married to his brother, Arthur (who died), of course. Back then, Slippery Hal had the hots for Catherine and had again used the Bible (Deuteronomy 25:5 this time) to justify, even dutify, his marrying her: “Her [dead] husband’s brother shall go in to her and take her as his wife.” Now, with Catherine going to seed and Anne Boleyn flitting seductively about the place, he wanted out. Which sounds very much like a case of “having your Kate and beating it.” Twenty four years to the day later (1559) would see Elizabeth I being crowned as Queen but, by 24 March 1603, the Tudors would be no more. In all, they’d lasted just about as long as the Hundred Years’ War.

We now come to 15 January 1759 and, at long last, some warm and comfy academia to snuggle into where, for a short while, we should be free of blunderers and buffoons, rogues and rapscallions, because this was when the British Museum first threw open its doors to the public. It had been established in 1753 and was largely based on the collections of the physician and scientist Sir Hans Sloane (Sloane Square is named for him, as is Hans Crescent, the sign for that being fixed to one side of Harrods). Having rejected Buckingham House (now Palace) as a site for the Museum, on the grounds of “cost and location,” the far-sighted trustees plumped instead for crumbling Montagu House, even though Bloomsbury’s aristocratic heyday was already in decline, paying the Duke of Montagu (who was desperate to relocate to somewhere chicer) some £20,000 for it. Buckingham House, incidentally, eventually got sold to George III for £21,000 in 1761 but you wouldn’t want to be stuck all the way out there, now would you? 

As it goes, Montagu House at that time actually backed onto open fields, and not just any old fields at that. No, these were the Long Fields, or the Field of the Forty Footsteps, as they were also known, and regularly frequented by duellists wishing to settle their disputes. The traditional story has it that the area bore the prints of forty footsteps – hence the name – where no grass would grow, this being because two brothers, during the Monmouth Rebellion, took opposing sides and so decided to resolve matters in the only sensible way: by shooting each other stone dead. Another version has it that they were actually fighting over the hand (and, presumably, the rest) of a lady, who calmly (and callously) sat on a bank and watched the slaughter from there, giving the distinct impression that, if she were the prize, both brothers got mighty lucky in the end. But that’s the sort of neighbourhood the trustees decided to opt for. 

What with us British being keen as kippers on expanding the old “colonial footprint,” artefacts were soon flooding in from all over the globe, swelling the collections alarmingly. In 1757, George II had already donated the Old Royal Library (about nine thousand books and two thousand manuscripts), along with the right to a copy of every book published in the country so, what with Sloane’s forty thousand books and seven thousand manuscripts, and then George III “presenting” the Rosetta Stone, they were soon pushed for space. So they had to ship stuff out to Kensington’s new Natural History Museum (built on the profits from the Great Exhibition) and, eventually, the books had to go too, off to the Euston Road and the British Library in 1997. The collections now number some eight million pieces. And counting …

Naturally enough, being colonials, most of the objects were acquired in the traditional Empire-building way: that of helping ourselves. At gunpoint, if needs be. Now we find that, astoundingly, some of the original owners are demanding the restitution of their former property, including some of “our” most famous (infamous?) pieces, which is sheer brass-faced cheek really, given that they couldn’t hang on to them in the first place and seeing we also let these folk be part of the Empire, whether they wanted to be or not. Not least among these are the Elgin Marbles. Which are marble but weren’t ever really Elgin’s. This was Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin, a Scottish nobleman and diplomat, plus a charlatan of the first water. In the summer of 1800, he headed off to Athens with a team of artists and modellers to make drawings of the ancient monuments there but, somewhere along the way, he got his mitts on a firman (some kind of decree or other) which, if you translated it broadly enough – and here we can reliably translate “translate broadly” broadly as meaning “saying stuff it doesn’t actually say” – allowed the noble lord to not only put up scaffolding to make mouldings in plaster of the sculpted figures but also to “'to take away any pieces of stone with old inscriptions or figures thereon.” To be fair to Brucie, it was actually his chaplain, Philip Hunt, who did the creative translation but, even so, well handy to have a bent vicar batting for your side at a time like that. Mind you, the bribing of the Ottoman authorities was all down to him, and they let him take whatever tickled his fancy in the way of “old inscriptions and figures” – the chaplain probably thought they were merely tidying the place up – and ship these antiquities off to decorate his mansion in Scotland. Alas, however, he was to fall on hard times and, in 1816, was forced to sell them to the nation for £35,000. And we’ve got a receipt to show we bought them fair and square, which pretty much settles that little dispute, we’d’ve said. Plus, just for good measure, Parliament completely vindicated Elgin’s entire conduct in the affair. So hands off.

Moving on to 1797, we come to one of the most dastardly deeds of despicable devilry ever perpetrated by the hand of man on an English street. Urban terrorism, you might even call it. And the blackguard at the very heart of it all was one John Hetherington, describing himself as a “haberdasher”, who was arraigned before the Lord Mayor on 15 January on a charge of breach of the peace and inciting a riot. This scurrilous and malicious reprobate had had the brass-necked temerity to have “appeared on the public highway wearing upon his head what he called a silk hat” – this being a top hat and he often ascribed as its inventor – “which was of a shiny lustre and calculated to frighten timid people.” The unmitigated scoundrel! Furthermore, officers stated that, “several women fainted at the unusual sight, while children screamed, dogs yelped and a younger son of Cordwainer Thomas was thrown down by the crowd which collected and had his right arm broken.” And, would you credit it, this villain never showed even the faintest sign of remorse over any of it.

That’s more than likely because it never actually happened. Sadly, such is the case herein, despite the fact that this tall tale is still doing the rounds amongst the credulous even now and is likely to pop up if you search online for “the first top hat.” Like we said, you can’t believe all you read. Evidence against includes the suspicious circumstance that, exactly as with Alfred the Great and his burning of the cakes, or bread (well, some alleged bakery product anyway), the story never even put in an appearance until a century after the supposed event and, even then, this one was bandied about by a publication known as “The Hatter’s Gazette,” a bunch of folk who were all as mad as March hares and who quite possibly had a vested interest also. (On grounds of strict fairness, March hares only behave eccentrically and merely temporarily, whereas your hatters did go raving bonkers, thanks to the mercury they used in curing felt – so we should really include all industrial felt producers within our damnation: “Mad as an industrial felt worker” – hope that’s set the record straight and we don’t get any complaints from our hare readership. After all, you know what a punch those perishers can pack come springtime, don’t you?)

In actual fact, it’s a hatter from Middlesex, one George Dunnage, who takes the credit for inventing the top hat in 1793. But, alas, yet again, this is simply another tale told by an idiot, containing no truth in it whatsoever – rather like your average copy of the Daily Mail – other than that he got himself involved by patenting the thing, so don’t let them pull the hat over your eyes. For all our efforts to claim this sartorial piece of headgear as an English innovation, the French had had a hat called a Capotain since the 1590s, not precisely a top hat as such, more the sort of titfer sported by the Pilgrim Fathers and the Powder Treason plotters. The Parisians did finally have the real thing by the 1780s, which was a stroke of luck, coming as it did just in time for the Reign of Terror, meaning that the doomed aristos were at least able to ride the tumbrels in a state of elegance and style befitting their station. And to make one last use of the old cranium, while they still had one. Let’s face it, they hadn’t used it for very much else all the while they’d been lording it over the peasantry, had they?

Finally, bearing in mind all we’ve been saying about not believing everything you read, we now come to 15 January 2001 and an auspicious occasion indeed. For this was the day that Wikipedia was launched upon an unsuspecting world. And thus it was that the Information Superhighway at last got what was basically a hard shoulder where all the breakdowns could be abandoned. Or, to put it another way, it gained an online equivalent of South Mimms Service Station

To be fair, you can use it to look up what cordwainers are. Only it turns out that’s cobblers too …


Nero’s Torches: Henryk Siemiradzki [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons 

Galba: By Wolfgang Sauber (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Otho: Robert van Voerst [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Vitellius: See page for author [CC BY 2.5 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Catherine of Aragon (“A Princess, Possibly Catherine of Aragon”): Michael Sittow (circa 1469-1525) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Hans Sloane: By Stephencdickson (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Montagu House: Wikimedia Commons

George III: Johann Zoffany [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin: Anton Graff [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Cordwainer: By Alma Boyes photo : Oxyman (Own work) [GFDL (, CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or CC BY 2.5 (], via Wikimedia Commons

March Hare: [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Gunpowder Plotters: By Crispijn van de Passe the Elder [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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