Sunday, August 26, 2012

Pope John Paul I - Urbi et Orbi

It was on this day in 1978 that Albino Cardinal Luciani was elected to the See of Peter, taking the name Pope John Paul I, the last Italian to date to occupy the papal throne.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Famous Italian-Texans

Large scale Italian immigration to the United States usually focused on the big cities of the eastern seaboard in New York, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and so on. However, Italian-Americans have left a mark on other areas as well, including the state of Texas. In 1880 it was an Italian-American businessman who came up with the idea of linking New York and Texas by railroad. This was Count Giuseppe Telfener who got together with his father-in-law D.E. Hungerford and John MacKay (a Nevada silver baron) to form the “New York, Texas & Mexico Railway Co.” Telfener was a veteran railroad man who had already built a 350-mile railroad in Argentina. This was, of course, a much more grand and ambitious enterprise and also an opportunity to establish Italian colonies in Texas. Some 1,200 Italian laborers were brought in to law the first section of tracks between Victoria and Rosenberg. Telfener hoped that these Italian workers would eventually send for their families and settle down along the railroad in Texas. The sight of this Italian army of railroad workers caused the locals to nickname the track “the Macaroni Line”.

However, there were problems with the new railroad. Just importing the workers and building the first section of track had cost the New York, Texas & Mexico Railway Company some two million dollars. Only 92 miles of track had been laid and half of the workforce had already quit because of sickness and poor conditions. What was a crisis became a total disaster in July of 1882 when Texas ordered a halt to all railroad construction in the state. The problem was a rather major bookkeeping error by which Texas had issued land grants for about 8 million more acres than were available. Oops! Math can sure be a pain. However, Count Telfener did not let that get him down. He still ran trains on the 92 miles of track he had already put down in Texas until 1884. The next year his track was bought by the Southern Pacific company so that the old “Macaroni Line” is still around today, running through towns which bear the name of the family of Count Giuseppe Telfener. There is Telferner (yeah, they spelled his name wrong), Inez (named after his daughter), Edna (named after his other daughter), Louise (his sister-in-law) and the towns of MacKay and Hungerford named after his business partners.

Another Italian to leave his mark on Texas was the artist and sculptor Pompeo Coppini, originally from Tuscany. He came to Texas for a visit in 1902 and decided to stay, opening up an art studio in San Antonio and making his home right there in the “Alamo City”. He was promptly hired to sculpt a monument, a larger-than-life statue of Dr. Rufus C. Burleson, the late President of the prestigious Baylor University. Coppini was happy to take the job but had a very hard time finding a suitable model to work off of. No one seemed to fit the part. Finally, however, he found his man -a drunken bum he discovered on the street. This was the model who Coppini used to sculpt the statue of a very strict and religious Baptist professor. However, everything worked out and Coppini did a masterful job with the widow of the late professor saying that the statue was the spitting image of her husband. One cannot help but wonder if she had any idea who the model was?

Culture came to north Texas thanks to Italian innovation. It started with Antonio Ghio who owned and operated a dry goods store in Jefferson, Texas from 1867 to 1873. When the locals refused to allow Jay Gould to build a railroad through Jefferson, Ghio decided business prospects would be better elsewhere and he moved to Texarkana. In that famous city, Antonio Ghio helped organize a Catholic Church and supported the establishment of a Catholic education system. With business flourishing he also brought the first railroad to Texarkana, built an artificial gas plant and an opera house to give the area some refinement and Italian culture. In 1884 he opened a second theatre and three years later the attraction of Spring Lake Park. Anthony Ghio was elected Mayor of Texarkana, serving three terms, was married and had eight children. One of his granddaughters, Corrine Griffith-Marshall was one of the first big American movie stars in the early days of the silent pictures.

There are many others who could be named. Italians have been in Texas since the earliest colonial days, especially those from Naples and Sicily as both were, at the time, under the Spanish Crown. Prospero Bernardi was an Italian-Texas who fought in the battle of San Jacinto where Texas won her independence. Francesco (Frank) Qualia came from northern Italy to Del Rio and established the oldest winery in Texas in 1883. Sam Lucchese, an Italian-Texan, became the maker of the finest and most famous cowboy boots in the state. Antonio Mateo Bruni, from Emilia-Romagna, became one of the most successful ranchers and businessmen in south Texas and Bruni Park in the border city of Laredo is named in his honor. Communities have come and gone or assimilated to the point that few recognize them but Italian festivals are still part of the annual calendar in Texas cities like Houston, Bryan, Dallas and Fort Worth. The Order of the Sons of Italy also has a branch in Texas, based in San Antonio, appropriately known as the Pompeo Coppini Lodge. There website can be visited here.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Odoacer, King of Italy

It was on or about this day in 476 AD that the German chieftain Odoacer was proclaimed rex Italiae by his troops after his revolt overthrew Emperor Romulus Augustulus, usually considered the last of the Western Roman Emperors. However, many people have a mistaken view of Odoacer and how he behaved after he and his mutinous forces deposed Emperor Romulus. Odoacer, although his rule was based on power, had the belated support of the Roman Senate and he claimed to be using his authority on behalf of the Emperor Julius Nepos, exiled Western Roman Emperor who had been replaced by Emperor Romulus through the betrayal of his father, Orestes, who had been in the employ of Julius Nepos (after having been a chief lieutenant of Attila the Hun). Although his rule was mostly unquestioned, Odoacer usually only claimed to be the agent of Julius Nepos or, after his time, the Eastern Roman Emperor who still claimed sovereignty over the whole of Italy. Eventually he did get involved in the Byzantine intrigues of the west and was at first successful in the war that followed, conquering Austria. However, the Eastern Emperor told Theodoric the Goth that he could be King of Italy with imperial blessings if he could defeat and kill Odoacer. After fighting his way onto Italian soil Theodoric invited Odoacer to a banquet where he was poisoned and killed in 493, clearing the way for the reign of King Theodoric the Great.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Every Girl Loves a Soldier

Emperor Theodosius the Great

Emperor Theodosius I, a native of Spain, was a great statesman and a devout Christian. His father was executed for treason in 375 but Theodosius' talent ensured that he was recalled after the unprecedented Roman defeat by the Visigoths at Adrianople, where Emperor Valens was killed on the field of battle. Theodosius was made a general and sent to defend the border by Emperor Gratian, the Roman Emperor who officially dropped the title "Pontifex Maximus" from the imperial list, surrendering it to the Pope. Theodosius proved himself to be a bold and brilliant commander, firmly defeating the Goths and reestablishing Roman control over the region. Because of his success, Gratian named Theodosius Emperor of the East on January 19, 379. Theodosius finished up the Goths, concluded peace with them and brought greater unity to Eastern Rome by defeating and executing the traitor Magnus Maximus who had usurped the throne of Emperor Gratian.

With this, Theodosius became the sole Emperor of Rome; it would be the last time in history that one man who rule over both the east and the west. He then began a long association with the great Bishop Ambrose of Milan and mutual respect soon grew between them. Their relationship would be the foundation of the Church and State ideal for Christendom. Coming from the east, where the Church tended to be slightly more subservient, and being a Roman Emperor after all, Theodosius and Ambrose soon came into a slight conflict. Once, while at mass, St Ambrose sent a deacon to request that Theodosius stop sitting among the clergy and move in with the congregation saying, in a very brilliant remark, "The Emperor is in the Church, not over it". When the bishop opposed a policy, the Emperor was insulted and for a time refused to deal with St Ambrose at all.

However, Emperor Theodosius was nothing if not a zealous son of the Church, in fact it was his methods rather than his principles which most often brought him into controversy with the Bishop of Milan. He was a Roman Emperor, lifted from the field of battle to assume the purple, and he knew one way of dealing with enemies: harsh severity. In 390 the action occured which caused the event for which Emperor Theodosius is most famous. The capital city of Macedonia, Thessalonica, one of the greatest cities in the Roman world, rose up in rebellion against the Emperor. Their was a riot, mobs stormed government buildings and the Roman commandant was stoned to death. The Emperor was enraged, St Ambrose tried to calm him and advise forgiveness, but this was not the way Roman soldiers were used to acting. Traitors had to be made example of. Emperor Theodosius issued his order for a reprisal, but after wrestling with his conscience, recalled the command. Alas, it was too late, and the order was carried out. All of the people of Thessalonica were invited to the stadium for games, a sign of reconciliation perhaps. Once inside however, the exits were sealed and imperial troops stormed in and for the next three hours massacred 7,000 Thessalonians, men, women and children.
In an act many modern bishops could learn from, St Ambrose sent Theodosius a confidential letter informing him that this act of cruelty had caused him to be excommunicated and that he should not present himself for communion. He reminded the emperor about the holy King David, who had also sinned but repented and was restored to God's favor. Until Theodosius did the same, he was cut off from the Most Blessed Sacrament. St Ambrose wrote to him, "I dare not offer the sacrifice, if you determine to attend. For can it possibly be right, after the slaughter of so many, to do what may not be done after the blood of only one innocent person has been shed?" The Emperor was torn by this; he felt great saddness and remorse, yet it went against centuries of Roman tradition for the Emperor to lower himself before any man or confess to an error of any kind. He passed a new law that punishment must wait 30 days after one is condemned, but still the bishop insisted that the Emperor do public penance before being reconciled fully with the Church. Finally, in an unprecedented and truly historical event, Theodosius, the exalted Caesar, Emperor of Rome, came to the basilica, solemnly removed all of his imperial regalia and symbols of rank, knelt before the simple bishop and confessed his sin before all present. He did penance from October until December showing full humility and repentance before he was totally reconciled with the Church and allowed to recieve Holy Communion. It was an important act that set the precedent for the final superiority of the Church in spiritual matters, even outranking the Emperor himself.

The event seems to have quite an impact on Theodosius. He said later that, "I know of no except Ambrose who deserves the name of bishop". In 391 Emperor Theodosius officially made Rome a Christian Empire, closing down all of the remaining pagan temples, outlawing pagan worship and making Catholicism the official state church. His official declaration stated that the religion of Rome would be that, "which Holy Peter delivered to the Romans...and as the Pontiff Damasus manifestly observes it." The following year there was another rebellion, this one backed by the promise of a pagan emperor, which Theodosius was able to put down. He also insisted on Catholic orthodoxy, being a strong opponant of the spread of Arianism. He passed laws against heresy and saught with all of his power to make Rome a strictly orthdox, Catholic state, united by one Church and one Emperor. However, he was never again harsh with his enemies. According to the historian Sozomen, "He did not desire to punish, but only to frighten his people, that they might ponder, as he did, Divine matters". As part of his effort to ensure true religious teaching throughout the empire, earlier in 381 he had called the Council of Constantinople, the fisrt since Constantine's Council of Nicaea. It's main purpose was to show the error of the Arian heresy.

Emperor Theodosius the Great died in 395. He left a legacy matched by few others in Roman history. The Empire had been reunited, internal subversion suppressed, external enemies repelled, paganism abolished, and religious unity through the Catholic Church. Rome was united, strong and religiously sound. At his funeral, St Ambrose delivered the oration, a brilliant tribute to a great Christian Emperor called "De obitu Theodosii".

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Italian Albania

The Italian occupation of Albania is one of the more misunderstood aspects of a period in which a great deal is misunderstood. Italy and Albania had a long history together, going back to ancient times. The old Roman Republic had settled on the Albanian coast even before the north of the Italian peninsula was under Roman control. Italian rule returned in the fifteenth century as the Albanian coast came under the control of the Republic of Venice (as did most of the Adriatic coast) until the Venetians were pushed out, centuries later, by the Ottoman Turks. In 1908 the Albanians revolted against Ottoman rule but were suppressed. However, they were not pacified and it was the defeat of the Ottoman Empire by Italy in 1911-1912 that inspired the last Albanian uprising which forever removed Turkish power from the region and established, at least temporarily, Albanian independence. In 1913 Albania was recognized as an independent country though most countries recognized that Italy had a ‘special relationship’ with the emerging state. Not long after, Albania began to fall apart after the onset of World War I. It was the Kingdom of Italy that came to her rescue.

Italians in Albania, World War I
Austria-Hungary, Serbia and Greece all sent forces to try to claim large pieces of Albanian territory, in the case of Greece, not always with the approval of the central government. The Kingdom of Italy sent a large expeditionary force to Albania in 1915 that pushed the invading Greeks out of southern Albania. The last of the Greeks were expelled in 1916 and a “neutral zone” was established across the frontier to protect Albanian independence which Italy took as its special concern. Greece later joined the Allies and helped in defeating Bulgaria and the Italian army in southern Albania pushed northward, expelling the last occupying forces (Montenegrins) from northern Albania by the end of the war. In the past, the major powers of Europe had, more than once, told Italy to look to Albania as a colony but in the aftermath of the First World War the Kingdom of Italy became the guarantor of Albanian independence, effectively Albania was an Italian protectorate. It was self-governing but relied on Italy for protection and for most of the money which funded the rebuilding of Albania after so many years of war and being an almost forgotten Turkish backwater.

Zog I
In the aftermath of World War I and the coming to power of the self-proclaimed King Zog of Albania, Italy was by the far the largest investor in Albania and loaned vast amounts of money to Albania to keep the country afloat. The sanctions imposed on Italy by the League of Nations over the war with Abyssinia further highlighted the importance of Albania for Italy due to the oil wells there. Italy, particularly Mussolini, was determined to never be at the mercy of an international organization that could starve the country of the resources that were vital to it. So, it should not really have been surprising when, after all of the investment and all of the loans Italy had given to King Zog to develop Albania, only to have him say he would not be paying these back that Italian forces were sent in to occupy the country. It should also be said, in all honesty, that when this actually happened, the occupation of Albania was not something that the bellicose Mussolini had planned out ahead of time. In fact, it could hardly have happened at a worse time for Italy. The default on the loans came the very month that the Spanish Civil War had ended and the Italian economy had already been pushed to the limit by intervention there and the war in Abyssinia along with the international sanctions that went with it. On top of all of that came the announcement from Zog that Albania would not be paying Italy the money they owed and it was only then that action was taken.

King Vittorio Emanuele III
For his part, King Vittorio Emanuele III warned against the occupation because of the destabilizing effect it might have on Italian relations with the rest of Europe. He worried, quite correctly as it turned out, that as Mussolini angered Britain and France it pushed Italy closer to Germany and made the country too dependent on a disreputable regime. But, Italian interests had to be secured, particularly the oil wells at Devoli which Albania had already given Italy access to. There was also the unstable element of the self-proclaimed King Zog. He had fought his way to the top of political power in Albania and, as his biographer Jason Hunter Tomes wrote, “unable and frankly unwilling to have much faith in any group of his people, Zog strove to keep all classes in unstable equilibrium. Through hours of hideously convoluted talk, he obsessively manipulated his assorted underlings (nearly all older than himself) in an effort to exercise personal control from seclusion”. Today he is most remembered for the brevity of his reign and for his place in the Guinness Book of World Records for being the heaviest smoker in history, sucking down 225 cigarettes a day.

Many other powers had been worried about the erratic rule of Zog and most of the Albanian people were kept in discontent and disarray. More liberal minded people were aghast at his promotion of himself to royal status while traditional Albanians were outraged by his abolition of Islamic law and marriage to a Catholic Hungarian-American. His great love of poker did not endear him to the population of a country whose religion forbids gambling. His government was rife with feuds and intrigue, there had been numerous attempts on his life and he maintained power by setting the feudal tribes against each other which meant that he had many enemies but who had little time to strike at him. Nonetheless, he lived a paranoid and reclusive existence, afraid to go out in public. There were also those nationalists in the country who sought to unite with the Albanian populations in neighboring countries to create the “Greater Albania” they had so long dreamed of. All of this made the various foreign ministries of the European powers extremely nervous that the misrule of Zog would cause Albania to be the spark to ignite another powder keg in the Balkans. As a result of all of this, there was little genuine outrage when Italy began to move against Albania which had long been recognized as a de facto Italian protectorate anyway.

Italian troops occupying Albania
Another point to keep in mind was that this was an occupation rather than an invasion. There were only a handful of casualties and hardly any resistance at all as the Albanian police and soldiers scattered pretty quickly after the Italian troops landed. Almost as soon as it happened, King Zog had already fled and was in a fleet of limousines racing for the border loaded down with gold bars, fancy furniture, designer suites and evening gowns, lavish jewelry and, of course, several crates full of cigarettes. Most were glad to see him go and many Albanians came out to cheer in welcome their so-called “conquerors”. Although publicly many countries condemned this action, it is important to note that most of these same powers were privately relieved that Italy had brought a potentially dangerous situation under control. Even the British Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden, sent Mussolini (a man he despised) a telegram immediately afterwards thanking him for dealing with the situation and promising British support in the future. The only people who were genuinely nervous were the French who feared that, with the Adriatic secured, Mussolini might turn his attentions to recovering Nice, Savoy and Corsica from them.

Nothing of the sort happened of course. The Kingdom of Albania came into personal union with the Kingdom of Italy in the person of King Vittorio Emanuele III. It was an extension of the reign of the House of Savoy, not a political takeover of Albania by Italians, which is an important point to keep in mind. Of course, Mussolini would not have stood for anyone holding power who was opposed to his regime but, unlike most other similar incidents around the world, foreign rule was not imposed on the Albanians. The two viceroys appointed in succession to represent the King in Albania were, of course, Italians but all of the prime ministers of Albania were native Albanians who had been serving in government long before the Italian occupation. The first had even been the prime minister under King Zog, the next was one who had fought on the Turkish side against Italy in the Italo-Turkish War of 1912, yet after Albania was united with Italy even this man was given a seat in the Senate in Rome. The final two prime ministers were also native Albanians and it was the Albanian government, acting on its own, which had voted to depose King Zog (after he fled the country) and themselves voted for union with Italy. Which is not to say, of course, that there were no problems. An Albanian radical attempted to assassinate the prime minister and King Vittorio Emanuele III during a visit to Tirana but was, fortunately, unsuccessful.

Albanian Fascist Party
The military was reformed with 7.000 of the original 10,000 men of the Albanian army forming special Albanian units within the Italian Royal Army. There were six Royal Albanian Army Battalions, two fortress machine gun battalions, a Royal Guard battalion, two legions of Carabinieri and one Albanian MVSN legion. These forces would later take part in the Greek war and the war in Yugoslavia. A customs union with Italy was established along with a tariff union, more subsidies were sent to develop the country and Italian companies began investing heavily in the region. Further development would certainly have followed had it not been for the outbreak of World War II. During the war Albania received reward as well as unfair ridicule. After the initial setbacks of the invasion of Greece, Mussolini primarily blamed the Albanian units for the early defeats and while it is true that the Albanian forces performed quite poorly (some firing on their own men) this was an unfair effort by Mussolini to shift the blame away from his own mismanagement and ill-advised attack. After that, morale -not surprisingly- fell and many Albanians deserted and many units were disbanded.

Italian occupation lasted only a little while longer, until 1943, when Italy withdrew from the Axis. King Vittorio Emanuele III formally abdicated as King of Albania on September 8, 1943 by which time Albania had already been occupied by Nazi Germany with, as before, some Albanians collaborating and others resisting. Yet, it was only during that brief period of union with Italy that the long-held dream of a “Greater Albania” was achieved when the map of the Balkans was re-drawn to include most of Montenegro, parts of Serbia, Greece and other areas in a greatly expanded Kingdom of Albania. Sadly, that was a triumph that was very short-lived. After World War II Albania came under communist control and the rule of the brutal dictator Enver Hoxha, so radical a Stalinist that eventually he alienated Soviet Russia, Red China and Yugoslavia because of his murderous and self-destructive rule. Albania had the lowest standard of living of any country in Europe, yet, hope remains for the future as things have slowly began to recover from the communist era.

Empress St Helena

One of the most honored monarchs of the early Christian era is certainly the Empress Saint Helen or Helena, mother of Constantine the Great, the first Roman Emperor to become a Christian. It is not known exactly when or where Helena was born; some placing her birthplace in modern Turkey while other legends claim she was the daughter of a British king born near modern-day Colchester. The year of her birth has been estimated as sometime between 240 and 250 AD. Nevertheless at some point she met and married the general and future Roman Emperor Constantius I. Whether she was a full wife or a concubine is unknown but sometime after giving birth to their son Constantine (probably in what is now Serbia), Constantius divorced Helena and for a time she lived alone with only her son to comfort her. She never remarried and Constantine grew up very attached and devoted to his mother.

In 306 AD Constantine became Emperor of the Roman Empire. He is famous for reuniting the two halves of the empire and for making Christianity legal. No doubt a leading influence on his life in this direction was his mother Helena who Constantine gave the title “Augusta” in 325. That same year, with official access to the authority that went with that title, she embarked on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to recover what Christian relics she could. Along the way she had a church built in Egypt in honor of the burning bush on Mt Sinai. At Jerusalem she had the Temple of Venus torn down that had been built near the tomb of Christ.

During the excavations involved with this and the founding of a new church on the site she discovered the relics of the True Cross and the nails used in the crucifixion which she carried back to Rome. At the site of her discovery her son later had built the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. She venerated the relics she had found in the private chapel of her palace which was later converted into the Basilica of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem. Among the other relics she found were the Holy Tunic and pieces of the rope which suspended Christ on the cross. She founded a number of churches and monasteries and contributed relics to a number of sites around the Mediterranean world.

St Helen, Empress of Rome, died in 330 AD with her son Constantine beside her. Her sarcophagus can still be seen in the Vatican museum. During her life St Helen was a source of great strength and affection for her son, and her spirituality was doubtless a source of inspiration to him. She was also greatly beloved by the ordinary people for her kindness, her generosity to the poor, the prisoners she liberated and her habit of worshipping with the rest of the Christian community with no finery or special treatment. Both the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches recognize Empress Helen as a saint.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Emperor Tiberius

Tiberius Claudius Caesar is one of the better known but still controversial Caesars which is probably to be expected given that he was only the second Roman Emperor and the successor of the deified Augustus. Considered a bloody tyrant by some, he was certainly, as papal Latinist Father Reginald Foster once said, “a hard man”. Like many ancient monarchs and Roman emperors especially he was a complicated man and something of a mixed bag who also evolved over the years. No one could deny that he was a great general and later a capable ruler. However, much of the criticism of him stems from his later years when he seemed to slip further and further into paranoia and depravity. However, one must also remember that, as with a great many of the emperors of Rome, we depend a lot on the accounts of others in our assessment of these men and all too often these accounts were written by political enemies who may have took liberties with the truth to make their subjects look as bad as possible. Nonetheless, as the heir of Augustus and Emperor of Rome he is significant to the world and Christians remember him as the Emperor who reigned during the ministry of Christ. When Jesus said, “Render unto Caesar…” the Caesar he was speaking of was the Emperor Tiberius.

Tiberius was born on November 16, 42 BC as Tiberius Claudius Nero to his namesake Tiberius Claudius Nero and Livia Drusilla who later divorced his father and married the Emperor Augustus in 39 BC. Tiberius later married his step-sister Julia the Elder and was adopted by Augustus as his official son and heir after which he was known as Tiberius Julius Caesar. Nonetheless, despite these lofty family connections, Tiberius was not an ambitious man who desired power for its own sake. As a man who knew something of the world and the harsh realities of life he had no grand vision of power but realized that its glories came with dangers equally as great if not more so. He was a sober monarch who appreciated the weight of his authority and responsibility and eventually became known as a recluse and as his paranoia increased he became an awesome figure his people feared rather than loved or admired. When his death finally came many Romans rejoiced but given that he was succeeded by his adopted grandson Caligula, they may have eventually regretted their condemnations of Tiberius and happiness at his final end.

Emperor Augustus tried to prepare him for power by placing him in important government offices but he always hoped a candidate of his own bloodline would be his heir. Tiberius spent most of his time fighting on the Roman frontiers where he proved himself a very capable general and won a number of victories. He fought the Parthians in Armenia, married the daughter of Marcus Agrippa, fought Galls and Germans, fought barbarians in the French Alps and found the source of the Danube before returning to Rome in 13 BC to become consul and to welcome his first son, Julius Caesar Drusus into the world. When General Agrippa died in 12 BC Rome was stunned but Tiberius and Drusus moved up on the succession list. Great right? Not for Tiberius it seems. Emperor Augustus had him divorce his wife and marry his step-sister Julia the Elder -who turned out to be one of the most “horizontally accessible” women in the Roman Empire. It is really no wonder Tiberius came to associate power and prestige with personal pain and suffering.
Augustus was reportedly reluctant to name Tiberius as his heir but was compelled to for reasons of state. He considered Tiberius too austere and rather off-putting but after the deaths of the other potential heirs, Tiberius was ‘the only game in town’ as it were. He had an excellent military record but no administrative experience when Augustus died and Tiberius became Emperor in 14 AD. This was the first time power in Rome had changed hands based on the hereditary succession of one emperor after another and it was a little tricky. There were rivals to be dealt with, the Senate, which had to bestow the titles of Augustus on his successor and the legions who, in some cases, mutinied and had to be put down. Tiberius dispatched his adopted son Germanicus to handle this, which he did and went on to lead the frontier legions deeper into Germany. Tiberius finally halted any further expansion and called back Germanicus who was still treated to a triumph upon his return. When Germanicus, who was very popular, later died some suspected Tiberius of complicity.

One of his biggest problems was his mother, the Dowager Empress Livia. At one point, he left Rome and went to his island-fortress of Capri just to get away from her. When she died he refused to attend the funeral, stopped the effort to deify her and refused to implement her will. That was in 29 AD, the same year he arrested Agrippina (Germanicus’ widow) and her son Nero after Sejanus (basically Tiberius’ right-hand-man after he left Rome and moved to his pleasure grotto on Capri) accused them of plotting against him. Conspiracies were everywhere and Sejanus himself was later killed for allegedly plotting against Tiberius and replaced by Naevius Sutorius Macro. He would be a key player for the rest of Tiberius’ reign and would play a controversial part in the change of monarchs when Tiberius died. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

It is easy to forget that Tiberius was an effective emperor. At the start of his reign he tried to follow the example of Augustus as best he could. He was attentive in his duties, presided at the senate, attended games and sporting events, handed out gifts and gave charitably on occasion. He took his job seriously but he lacked the social skills of his step-father. He tended to come off as distant, arrogant and intolerant. Eventually he became rather unpopular, especially after his austerity cut into the public entertainment budget. The Romans may have had their bread but they felt cheated on the circus front. When it came to government, although he retained final authority, he largely let the provinces govern themselves and did not interfere in the administration very much. He tried to get along with the senate but was unsuccessful and came to see most of them as potential rivals.

His unpopularity increased after he went into seclusion on Capri and had more senators and so on put to death as he feared conspiracies against him around every corner. His actions on Capri would become legendary and may be somewhat exaggerated but suffice it to say he was in a pretty bad place toward the end of his life and had little hope for the future with his only remaining heirs being his grandson Gemellus, who was too young, and his adopted grandson Caligula -who even early on tended to scare people. His tax increases helped put Rome on firmer financial ground but angered the populace and the constant treason trials made him hated by the senate and probably contributed to stories that his death on March 16, 37 AD may have been unnatural (Macro was accused of suffocating him). When news of his demise reached Rome many people rejoiced and shouted “to the Tiber with Tiberius!” His body had to be taken to Rome under armed escort and cremated by the troops away from public view.

In the end Emperor Tiberius was not deified as Augustus had been but neither was he officially criticized. Despite his unpopularity he had governed effectively. There were no major disasters or problems during his 23 years on the throne and when looked at objectively he seems to have been a basically good ruler who was simply not likeable. One has to wonder if those who criticized him came to miss him after he was gone and Caligula was Emperor. Supposedly, Tiberius spoke of his successor when saying that he was “nursing a viper in the bosom of Rome”. At the start of his reign he said that he would consider himself a success if he governed well and did what was right even if it was unpopular. In that regard history has largely vindicated him though it would be a while before the Romans themselves could see it.

Friday, August 17, 2012

The King and Foreign Royalty

King VEIII with King Edward VIII of Great Britain

The King with Emperor Hirohito of Japan

King VEIII with King Alfonso XIII of Spain

The King with Emperor Haile Selassie of Abyssinia

The King with Prince Nicholas of Montenegro and Family

King VEIII with King Albert I of the Belgians and Families

Emperor Nero

Even those who know next to nothing about Roman Imperial history have at least heard of the Emperor Nero. However, most know him as the monarch who ‘fiddled while Rome burned’ and that he blamed the Christians for setting the fire while actually having done the deed himself. Unfortunately, there is no real evidence that he did commit this crime for which he is most famous. Most sources point to him being less than a ‘good guy’ and yet there can also be little doubt that his reputation has suffered greatly from assumptions being spoken as fact and then embellished over the years in each retelling of his deeds. Countless histories, novels, plays, poems and Hollywood films have nonetheless ensured that the popular image of the Emperor Nero is that of a megalomaniacal, hedonistic, murderous tyrant. The truth, as usual, is likely much more complex.

He was born Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus on December 15, 37 AD in Antium. His father was a well-to-do Roman from a long influential family and his mother was Agrippina, daughter of Germanicus and sister to the notorious Emperor Caligula. As a young child Nero learned how dangerous imperial connections could be. His father died when he was three and Caligula had his mother exiled to the Pontian islands when he was very small. She was not welcomed back at Rome until the reign of Emperor Claudius who married Agrippina in 49 and adopted her son as his own which is when he became known as Nero Claudius Caesar Drusus Germanicus. In 51 AD Emperor Claudius named him heir to the throne and a couple of years later arranged his marriage to his daughter Octavia. With the death of Claudius, Nero became Emperor of Rome when he was just 16-years-old.

The transition went smoothly and a new era seemed to have dawned for the Roman Empire. Nero promised a ‘back to basics’ approach with Emperor Augustus as his model. The senate would have a greater say in national matters, be more respected and the new Emperor would reign with humanity and generosity. He was aided at this time by his teacher, the famous stoic philosopher Seneca. Yet, despite these high words and great promise, the accusations started rather quickly with the death of Britannicus, the natural son of Claudius. A few months into the new reign he dropped dead at an official dinner. Nero said it was epilepsy and had the body cremated the very next day. It was immediately said that Nero had poisoned Britannicus as a rival to his throne after his mother Agrippina turned on him.

This would all seem to make sense, but to use this case as an example, it also tends to ‘smell funny’. Most of this story comes from a single source, Tacitus, who apart from his own prejudices, bases most of his information on the period on earlier accounts written by enemies of the emperors who often seemed in competition to out-do each other in lurid tales of imperial cruelty. In the case of Britannicus we see more of the same; familial hatred, molestation and murder. The account goes so far one is inclined to disbelieve it. If one were to believe every such story it would seem that the Roman Empire was ruled exclusively by insane, murderous, incestuous pedophiles -which would seem to be a fairly far-fetched notion indeed. For Emperor Nero himself, the accusations made against him are multitudinous even if not reaching the extremes of some others.

That for which he has gained the most infamy was the murder of his mother Agrippina in 59. Normally portrayed as an ambitious and scheming woman who sought her own power through that of her son, if Nero is guilty of the crime most attribute to him, it is not all that outrageous as it may sound. Challenging the authority of a ruling Emperor is never a good idea after all. However, aside from this, it must be kept in mind that the numerous attacks, acts of thievery, rape and assorted sexual perversions on the part of Nero are all stories without any facts to back them up and began as simple rumors in his own time. That is not to say that all the stories were false but nor should they all be taken as an absolute certainty. What we do know from numerous accounts is that Emperor Nero was extremely fond of music and the theatre and that he enjoyed singing and playing the lyre. His musical talent is often mocked but this may have been more of a reaction to what many considered behavior ill-fitting a Roman Emperor than a true picture of his abilities.

In his more public “private” life Emperor Nero divorced his wife Octavia in 62 to marry his mistress Poppaea (whose husband he had appointed governor of Lusitanian -roughly speaking modern Portugal). Octavia was killed soon after but Poppaea did not outlive her by much when Nero supposedly killed her in a rage in 65 after which he married again though the lurid rumors of his romantic escapades continued unabated. Yet, this was the same man who, upon first coming to the purple, agonized over signing his first death warrant and who advanced well respected and learned men in his government. Many of the later government policies that were very unpopular (higher taxes, land confiscation, inflation and treason trials) did not actually originate with Nero but with his scheming minister Tigellinus.

One of the most infamous incidents to which the unpopularity of Nero is attributed was the great fire of Rome in 64. Because the Emperor later built a magnificent palace on land destroyed by the fire many accused him of setting it himself and hence the popular story that Emperor Nero, “fiddled while Rome burned”. Today this is often taken for granted to be a fact based on the circumstantial evidence that Nero built a palace where the fires had burned (a motive) and because he blamed the Christians for it and had many martyred (most famously Sts Peter and Paul). Again, however, there is no solid proof of this and it is also often forgotten that Nero was not in Rome at the time but rushed back upon hearing of the disaster. He organized numerous measures to help the victims such as opening up cheap stores of grain to the public and allowing public buildings to be opened to those who had lost their homes in the fire. He afterward enacted strict regulations to prevent such a disaster in the future and his overall economic situation, like Rome as a whole, suffered terribly because of the fire.

Much of the persecution associated with the reign of Nero likely stems from these money troubles and led to intensified hatred between the senate and the Emperor -a not altogether uncommon occurrence. Still, unlike some emperors, Nero was not a big traveler and stayed mostly at home. His only foreign trip was a grand tour of Greece undertaken not so much for political reasons but for the great esteem in which Nero held all things Greek, finding the somewhat more literary and artistic atmosphere much more to his liking. He wanted to participate in as many Greek customs, festivals and games as possible, all of which he greatly enjoyed but which still lowered his popular image as such exhibitions were considered unseemly for a Roman Emperor.

However, given how unpopular Nero is held to have been, it should be kept in mind that this was largely centered on the senatorial class. In fact, many at the time criticized Emperor Nero for being too obsessed with keeping the favor of the common people. Early in his reign he passed many laws aimed at making life better for the lower classes such as reducing fines, legal fees, protecting the rights of freed slaves, fighting corrupt tax collectors and bureaucrats, made tax records public and even tried to abolish all indirect taxation. Military victories over Parthia made him extremely popular in the eastern half of the empire and when harsh measures provoked the rebellion in Britain of the famous Queen Boudicca, once it was suppressed Nero put a more moderate man in charge of the region. Overall his policies seemed aimed at making the Roman Empire a more traditional, possibly more Greek style of monarchy. Yet, the bias against Emperor Nero was talked about as early as the Romanized Jewish historian Josephus who pointed out that Nero was slandered by many for personal motives having nothing to do with pursuing truth.

In the end, his unpopularity with the senate and anger over his economic policies provoked a rebellion against him. It is often thought that if he had made a bold stand he might have survived but he attempted to flee to the east (where he was more popular and even held to godlike status by some) but even his guards abandoned him. Fearing that he would be captured, humiliated and executed anyway he stabbed himself in the neck on June 9, 68 AD. He was obviously not good in a crisis and his rule became worse over time. He was not an upstanding moral man but he was also probably not the monster he is often portrayed as. Perhaps most infamous for his persecution of Christians, and understandably so, these were a fairly a small minority at the time and most of the other crimes he is accused of are based on rumor rather than fact. He was no model monarch by any means, certainly not, but he was certainly a much more complex individual than is often recognized and not without at least some qualities and actions in his favor.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Louise of Savoy, Duchess of Anjou

Princess Louise of Savoy was one of the most formidable royal women in France who never held the position of Queen-consort. She was born on September 11, 1476 at Pont-d’Ain to Duke Philip II of Savoy and Princess Margaret of Bourbon. From early in life she learned how cruel the world could be and that she would have to be made of tough stuff to make her way in it. At the tender age of seven she lost her mother and was sent to Anne de Beaujeau to be raised. Anne, at that time, was ruling France as regent for her brother King Charles VIII. For Princess Louise, her life was mapped out for her almost as soon as she could be aware of it. Only a few years later, at the age of eleven, she was married to Charles of Orleans, Count of Angouleme on February 16, 1488. This was not uncommon at the time and the two did not live together as man and wife until Louise was fifteen years old. Although he was not a faithful husband, Charles and Louise had a mostly happy marriage, both had a love of learning and deep-seated attachment to each other even if “true love” was not to be found. In 1492 Louise gave birth to their first child, Marguerite d’Angouleme and in 1494 to a son, the future King of France, Francois d’Angouleme. Charles also had two illegitimate daughters; Jeanne and Madeleine, who were raised alongside his own children by Princess Louise.

Despite his infidelities, Princess Louise was truly distraught when Charles fell ill and died in 1495, having caught a chill while out riding. She had faithfully nursed him in his final days and when he died Louise was left a widow at only nineteen years old. For others, this might have been the end of the story, but Princess Louise had a much sharper mind than most supposed and she was determined to do the best she could for her children. After King Louis XII came to the throne, she took her children and relocated to the court and made sure that her children received the very best education, benefiting from the latest flowering of the Italian Renaissance. She was herself very interested in the latest discoveries and took care to keep herself well informed about politics, the diplomatic situation and all the events at court. She was aided in this by her confessor, an Italian Franciscan named Christopher Numar of Forli, who would go on to great fame himself in the Catholic Church, being raised to the Sacred College (against his protests) by Pope Leo X. As her son grew to adulthood, Louise made sure that he remained close to the King. Francis became such a favorite of the King that he arranged the marriage of the boy to his daughter Claude in 1514. It all worked out as had been hoped and King Louis XII chose Francis to be his heir with his wife and Princess Louise as regents.

The following year King Louis XII died and King Francis I came to the throne but, for the moment, it was Princess Louise, mother of the king, who held the most power. Eventually she was given the titles of Duchess of Angouleme and later Duchess of Anjou but one of her first legal battles was over the inheritance of the Duchy of Bourbon which she claimed as did Duke Charles III of Bourbon. In an effort to settle the dispute she offered to marry the Duke who disparagingly refused her. The old saying that, “Hell hath no fury…” was never more true as Louise of Savoy turned her wrath against the Duke, using every bit of influence she had to destroy him and she effectively did. He was exiled, punished for rebellion against the King, lost his lands and titles and was never able to recover them while Louise of Savoy gained all she had claimed. The Duchess of Anjou displayed a great talent in political affairs, an astute understanding of the diplomatic situation and in general a great talent in all areas save the person of her son, King Francis, concerning whom she had a noticeable ‘blind spot’ which should not be considered surprising. She ruled as regent while he son was off leading his armies and it was Louise of Savoy who arranged the magnificent display for the visiting King of England at the “Field of the Cloth of Gold”. It was also Louise of Savoy who managed to scrape up the money for her son to stand for election for Holy Roman Emperor, even though (wisely as it turned out) she thought the effort was a waste.

As, effectively, the most powerful woman in France, Princess Louise tried to secure strong allies for the kingdom. Her attempt to make peace with England in 1524 was not immediately successful but she had more success in reaching out to the Ottoman Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent. She asked for Turkish assistance in freeing her son (King Francis had been defeated by the Hapsburg Emperor Charles V and was being held prisoner in Spain) and for the Turks to launch an attack on the Hapsburg empire in the east to take pressure off of France. In 1529 she succeeded in making peace between France and the Holy Roman Empire as the primary French negotiator of the Treaty of Cambrai (aka the Ladies’ Peace) opposite her sister-in-law Margaret of Austria acting for the Empire. Not long after, the formidable mother of the King died on September 22, 1531. Still sharp and active to the very end she had been studying a comet when she caught cold and eventually passed away. Her valuable properties were left to the French Crown, which would be valuable future assets. Louise of Savoy may not be one of the best known royal figures in French history but she was one of the most astute and formidable women ever to hold a leading position in the Kingdom of France.

Emperor Trajan

In any listing of the greatest emperors of western civilization, one name that will certainly make the list is that of the Emperor Trajan. Many remarked on how his behavior seemed to match well his commanding presence. Cassius Dio, consul and historian, wrote of Emperor Trajan that, “His association with the people was marked by affability and his inter-course with the senate by dignity, so that he was loved by all and dreaded by none save the enemy”. That last line is significant for Trajan has certainly been most remembered for his victorious military campaigns more than anything else. Under his rule the Roman Empire reached the peak of its expansion, never before or since would so much of the world be ‘Roman’ as during the reign of Trajan. He was also though, an able administrator, setting up a more normal situation after the innovations of Emperor Domitian, and a great builder who left Rome more glorious than he found it.

He was born Marcus Ulpius Traianus on or about September 18, 53 AD in Spain. His father had an illustrious military and civil career having led the X Legion in the Jewish War, served as consul and as governor of Syria. Young Trajan served with his father in Syria and rose to command the VII Legion “Gemina” in southern Spain. He aided in suppressing a rebellion against Emperor Domitian and so gained imperial favor being successively named praetor and consul. When Nerva became emperor in 96 AD he made Trajan governor of Upper Germany where he was serving when Nerva adopted him as his son and heir. So it was that on January 28, 98 AD that Nerva died and Trajan became Emperor of Rome. With his authority secure he showed his care by first touring the Rhine and Danube frontiers before going to Rome to officially take up the purple.

When he arrived in Rome Trajan was enthusiastically celebrated but made it a point to behave with friendliness and modesty to all, senators and commoners alike. He was an absolute ruler but never treated the people with contempt and patiently dealt with the senate with the utmost respect. Because of this welcome change he had praise and adulation heaped on him from every section of society. Yet, it seems to have had no ill-effects on him as his nature inclined him to disregard flattery. He preferred hunting, hiking and rock climbing and while devoutly religious he preferred to worship privately without show or ostentation. Similarly his wife, Lady Plotina, was described much the same; regal in bearing but modest in dress and unassuming. One would be tempted to suspect sycophancy from all the praise heaped on Emperor Trajan but his many accomplishments prove that praise directed at him was mostly deserved.

As a ruler Emperor Trajan worked tirelessly to defend, expand and improve the empire. He improved the road system, built bridges, established imperial funds to aid the poor (children especially) and remarkably this system of social welfare (first considered by Nerva) worked well and went on caring for Roman children for nearly 200 years. He enacted extensive building programs throughout his reign which left many remarkable monuments such as Trajan’s Forum, Trajan’s Market and, perhaps most famously, Trajan’s Column. This last monument was built to celebrate the military victories in the Dacian Wars and the military victories of Emperor Trajan were many. He was a very skilled military commander and much adored and respected by his troops. He fought three large-scale wars during his 19-year reign as Emperor and the first two were against the powerful Kingdom of Dacia in what is now Romania.

Emperor Domitian had fought the Dacians to a negotiated peace but the Dacian king, Decebalus, was ostentatiously spurning the terms of that peace and Emperor Trajan decided to strike before the situation worsened. In 101 AD the Emperor left Rome to command his legions and inflicted a sharp defeat on the Dacians at Tapae. King Decebalus launched a counter-attack across the Danube that winter but was repelled by the Roman defenders. The next year Emperor Trajan renewed his offensive and fought to the outskirts of the Dacian capital of Sarmizegethusa at which time Decebalus sued for peace. Emperor Trajan spared the Dacians further humiliation but annexed considerable territory to the Roman Empire before returning to the Eternal City for a grand triumph and the award of the title “Dacicus” by the senate.

The peace had not been harsh by Roman standards but nonetheless Decebalus did not seem to learn his lesson. Flouting the terms of their agreement yet again he used the peacetime interlude to rebuild his forces and plan new attacks so that by the summer of 105 Emperor Trajan had to take to the field once again. The Dacians attacked and captured a number of Roman frontier outposts but Trajan had wisely built a large bridge across the Danube which greatly increased the speed with which he could get his forces into striking position. As the imposing Emperor and his battle-hardened legions approached Decebalus was abandoned by many of his allies and he was driven to desperation, even attempting to assassinate Trajan but to no avail. After all of his past antics, this time the Emperor was in no mood to be forgiving. Sarmizegethusa was captured and sacked by the Roman forces, the royal treasury emptied and carried back to Rome and the Dacian king was forced to flee for his life before finally committing suicide. All of Dacia became a Roman province and Trajan’s Column was erected to celebrate the victory.

There was another triumph for the returning Emperor and 10,000 gladiators fought in the long series of games held in celebration. The captured loot Trajan brought back was put to use on his many building projects. For several years there was peace during which time Trajan devoted himself to improving and embellishing Rome. However, the blast of war came again in 114 when the primary rivals of Rome in the east began interfering in the border Kingdom of Armenia. This would put the Parthians on the doorstep of Rome and Emperor Trajan gathered his legions and marched east, drove out the Parthian influence and annexed all of Armenia to the Roman Empire. The following year he turned south and marched into modern-day Iraq and by 116 he had conquered the entire region to the Persian Gulf and captured the Parthian capital near present-day Baghdad. The Roman Empire had reached its peak, stretching from the Persian Gulf to the Atlantic Ocean and Hadrian’s Wall in northern England to the Sudan.

However, Emperor Trajan was beginning to suffer more and more ailments and the strain of such campaigning could not have helped. In 116 he had to suppress an uprising by the Mesopotamians which proved more difficult than expected (imagine that) and the following year an attack on the city of Hatra failed with Trajan himself narrowly avoiding death. Word then arrived that the Jews in Cyrenaica had risen up and the rebellion was spreading to Egypt and Cyprus. There were also rumblings of trouble from the northern frontier. Emperor Trajan left his army in Syria and began the trip back to Rome to take charge of things but fell ill along the way. He suspected someone had attempted to poison him. Nonetheless the result was a stroke which left him half-paralyzed and on August 9, 117 AD the great Emperor died at Selinus in what is now Turkey. His body was taken back to Rome, cremated and his ashes buried in a golden urn at Trajan’s Column.

In his own time and ever since Trajan had been held up as a model Emperor of Rome and an example of everything such a monarch was expected to be; strong, imposing, tolerant and humble, absolute but respectful, harsh when necessary but charitable to the downtrodden, hard working, brave and victorious in war. Noted author Edward Gibbon named him as one of the “Five Good Emperors” and every time a new emperor came to the throne after him the senate would pray, ‘felicior Augusto, melior Traiano’, “may he be more fortunate than Augustus and better than Trajan”. Even after the rise of Christendom in the Middle Ages, despite being a pagan, Christian writers could not consign Emperor Trajan to Hell. Unlike all other pre-Christian Roman Emperors the poet Dante placed Trajan in Heaven and a legend even spread that Pope Saint Gregory the Great raised him from the dead and baptized Emperor Trajan to ensure his place in Paradise. Certainly few other monarchs in history have been so celebrated in their own time and so widely honored for so long since.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Empress Julia Augusta

Livia Drusilla, also known as Julia Augusta, was the first Empress of Rome. Like her husband, the Emperor Augustus, she set the standard by which all subsequent imperial consorts would be judged and she set that bar quite high. Aside from being the wife of Emperor Augustus she was the mother of Emperor Tiberius, grandmother of Emperor Claudius, great-grandmother of Emperor Caligula and great-great grandmother of Emperor Nero. Livia Drusilla was born on January 30, 59 BC, the second daughter of Marcus Livius Drusus Claudianus and his wife Aufidia, a respected, upper class Roman family. In 43 BC her father married her to Tiberius Claudius Nero, who was her patrician cousin and, incidentally, an enemy of the faction of Julius Caesar and his nephew and adopted heir Octavian (later Augustus). A year later she gave birth to her first child, the future Emperor Tiberius. So deeply involved was her father in the plot against Caesar that he killed himself at the battle of Philippi along with two of the main assassins of Caesar. Her husband continued the struggle though, fighting with Marc Antony against Octavian during his rise to power. When Octavian proved victorious Livia Drusilla had to flee, with the rest of her family to Sicily and later Greece.

When Livia Drusilla returned to Rome after a general amnesty she was pregnant with her second son (Drusus the Elder) when she met Octavian who, despite being married at the time, fell instantly in love with this woman from a family who had long opposed his own. In 39 BC Octavian divorced his wife Scribonia on the very same day she gave birth to his only surviving child; Julia the Elder -who would herself grow up to have a pretty scandalous reputation, but what a traumatic day for Scribonia! Tiberius Claudius Nero divorced Livia who gave birth to his second son only three days before she married Octavian with her ex-husband ‘giving he away’ at the wedding. There was a real attraction between Octavian and his new wife but, as usual, there were some political considerations involved in all of this as well. Tiberius Claudius Nero knew that, despite his efforts, Octavian was the new man in charge, soon to be monarch in charge, and Octavian also knew that he would need an alliance with a member of the patrician class to gain more support amongst the republican elite. Traditionally the common people had been the base of support for Julius Caesar and the rise of his family in Rome. Certainly by the standards of pagan Rome, and really by any standards, they had a very successful and certainly a very enduring marriage which lasted 51 years; as long as they lived.

Not long after Marc Antony was defeated and Octavian became Augustus Caesar, the first Emperor of Rome. He was very careful to tread softly in introducing an imperial monarchy to the traditionally republican Romans and his wife was instrumental in helping him in this regard. They did not live in lavish luxury nor were they extravagant in any of their habits. Livia Drusilla was the model Roman wife but she was also influential, the most trusted advisor of the Emperor and someone who was not shy with her opinions but who often interceded with her husband to get things done and obtain appointments for those she favored. Yet, in their modest home Livia Drusilla was a devoted wife. She made most of the clothes the Emperor wore, attended to the household and set an example by refusing to wear lavish gowns or expensive jewelry but instead being very charitable, very generous and urging the Emperor to show mercy to his enemies and bring people together under the new monarchy. Her husband was so appreciative of her that he gave her financial independence, erected a statue of her for the public to honor and she came to have a sort of secondary court all her own. All across the empire she came to be revered as the ideal Roman wife.

However, the Empress was not without criticism. As with so many of the Roman emperors there were those who tried to portray Livia Drusilla, not just as an imperfect consort, but as a scheming, ambitious and even murderous woman devoted to securing the power of her children, her favorites and herself. However, the fact is that almost all of these accusations are totally baseless with nothing more to back them up but convenient assumption. Emperor Augustus did have his step-son Tiberius married to his own daughter and eventually adopted as his heir but this was a long process and depended on the loss of other candidates that his wife could have had nothing to do with. Even Roman historians who were no great supporters of the imperial monarchy dismiss accusations against Livia as totally unfounded. She was proud, regal, very conscious of her position in the empire and in the public eye but she was certainly no scheming murderess. She had her favorites and tried to advance them as was common at the time and as the wife of Augustus Caesar she was able to accomplish a great deal in this regard and this is probably the source of such accusations.

Although Augustus had not been an entirely faithful husband, Livia had been a very faithful wife and remained so until the death of her husband in 14 AD. She saw her son Tiberius become Emperor of Rome and her late husband deified by the senate. Augustus had left one third of his estates to his wife, the rest to her son and his adopted heir. He extended her official membership into the Julian dynasty and the title of Augusta. Thus honored by both her late husband and her son she was able to live a comfortable life in her remaining years, using the name Julia Augusta, as a very honored and revered figure in Roman life. However, her power and prestige eventually caused a rift between her and her son Tiberius who blocked the senate from granting her the title of ‘Mother of the Country’. Some have asserted that when Tiberius left Rome for his pleasure grotto on Capri it was to get away from his interfering mother. They were still at odds when she died in 29 BC and Emperor Tiberius blocked efforts to grant her further honors by the senate. Her full titles would not be restored until the reign of Emperor Claudius. At that time, in 42 BC, Julia Augusta was deified and statues of her placed alongside her husband in his temple.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The King and His Generals

Count Luigi Cadorna and the King

The King and Marshal Armando Diaz

The King and Marshal De Bono

The King and Air Marshal Balbo

The King and Marshal Badoglio

Emperor Septimius Severus

The future Emperor Septimius Severus, who would be the first Emperor of Rome of African origins, was born Lucius Septimius Severus on the coast of what is now Libya on April 11, 145 AD to Publius Septimius Geta. His family was a provincial one with no immediate relatives holding very high positions and Severus grew up to marry a local girl. He showed talent fairly early on and when he first came to Rome at the age of 18 the Emperor Marcus Aurelius appointed him senator. Other offices came after, helped in part by the commander of the Praetorian Guard who was also from North Africa. He was serving as governor of Upper Pannonia (the general area of modern Austria) when word reached him of the death of the Emperor Commodus and his hour of destiny was upon him.

Two other emperors rose and fell while the Danube legions hailed Septimius Severus as emperor and he marched on Rome. Most came to his side or at least made way for him and when he arrived at the Eternal City the senate quickly recognized which way the wind was blowing and formally bestowed the offices and powers of Emperor of Rome on him in 193. He executed all those who had been involved in the murder of Emperor Pertinax (the successor of Commodus) and the rest were evicted from Rome. In this way he was able to rid himself of the questionable loyalties of the Praetorian Guard and replace them with soldiers he knew he could count on. The following year he marched against Syria where the eastern legions had proclaimed a rival emperor. He dealt with them swiftly and forcefully, smashed them and then in 195 led a punitive expedition against the Parthians for their support of the Syrian governor who had opposed him.

The Emperor was then free to move against his next most serious opposition which came from Clodius Albinus, ironically also from North Africa, who was the governor of Britain. Severus had named him “Caesar” to get him on side during the Syrian rebellion but once that was suppressed he named the seven-year-old boy Caracalla “Caesar” and his future successor in a show of continuation from the Antonine dynasty. Albinus was less than impressed and invaded Gaul with 40,000 men based around the three British legions. Once his war was underway the Germania legion in Spain also declared in support of him. While Septimius Severus was in Rome securing his throne and dealing with legislative issues Albinus continued his rampage, made Lyons his headquarters and came close to taking the Rhineland throughout 196.

By the next year Severus was prepared to respond and marched his legions into Gaul where he met Albinus outside Lyons on February 19, 197. The fighting was fierce and at one point Severus thought defeat was certain and stripped himself of any outward signs of his rank. However, just in time, his cavalry came charging to the rescue, turned the tide and utterly defeated Albinus who shortly thereafter killed himself rather than be captured. Severus showed no mercy to his defeated rival, disgracing his body, sending his head to Rome as a trophy and throwing the corpse into the river along with his wife and children. This is not surprising as Severus had a reputation for being a zealous monarch, not highly educated but certainly intelligent, very generous towards his friends (never forgetting a favor) but ruthless to enemies.

He showed as little mercy to his political enemies back in Rome, systematically eradicating anyone linked to the rebel forces. Because of this the senate feared and distrusted him. The army, on the other hand, adored him as he allowed them much greater freedom (giving them the right to marry and have families), raised their pay and improved their standard of living. He held lavish celebrations to win over the populace but he was soon off to war again with Rome’s longtime rival in the east; the Parthians. He ultimately fought two wars against them following Parthian interference in the affairs of Roman-allied states along the border. The first resulted in a loss of territory which became a Roman province but the second was more thorough and Septimius Severus captured the Parthian capital and absorbed Mesopotamia into the empire. The victory was crushing, total and severe.

After this victory the Emperor went on a little sight-seeing tour, going to Egypt to visit the tomb of Alexander the Great and the pyramids. His age was beginning to show and sickness becoming more frequent yet he could not take life easy. Some years after returning to Rome and devoting himself to civil legislation a group of centurions came forward with information that the commander of the Praetorian Guard, Gaius Fulvius Plautianus, was planning to kill the Emperor and his heir Caracalla to seize power for himself. Was the plot real or engineered? This has been debated ever since but it was especially alarming to Septimius Severus because Plautianus had been his close friend. He had even forced Caracalla to marry Plautianus’ daughter though he had no affection for the girl or her father. The result, in any event, was the swift execution of Plautianus and the exile of his daughter.

Caracalla was glad to be rid of both of them but it was a painful ordeal for the Emperor who, as his health continued to decline, had to watch the peace of Rome be upset by the growing feud between Caracalla and his brother Geta. Each had factions loyal to them, minor troubles were constant, and it seemed everyone in Rome was either for Geta or Caracalla. When trouble broke out in Britain Septimius Severus took the opportunity to bring both brothers with him as he set out on campaign once again with his legions. Yet, by this time the Emperor was so ill and riddled with gout that he had to be carried in a litter. To deal with the British problem Severus determined to start from scratch, reconquering the whole island. Geta was put in charge of the civil administration and Caracalla was dispatched across Hadrian’s Wall into Scotland with the army.

The campaign was going well when the long suffering Emperor Septimius Severus finally died at York on February 4, 211. Abandoning the conquest of Scotland, his sons cremated the Emperor and carried his ashes back to Rome for burial in the Mausoleum of Hadrian. The senate promptly voted him divine status. He was remembered as a great warrior, a generous and attentive friend but an unforgiving and merciless foe. He was tolerant, not overly sensitive of criticism, and as Cassius Dio said, “a man of few words, though of many ideas”. He left behind many monuments and magnificent buildings (few of which sadly remain) and the reputation of a strong and shrewd monarch. Herodian said of him, “No one had ever before been so successful in civil wars against rivals or in foreign wars against the barbarians. For eighteen years he ruled, before making way for his young sons to succeed, bequeathing to them greater wealth than any previous emperor and an invincible army”.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Emperor Caracalla

The death of Emperor Septimius Severus in 211 saw the Roman imperial throne pass to two brothers, his feuding sons; Caracalla and Geta. Popular history has usually condemned Caracalla to the ranks of the “bad” emperors of Rome, a listing which has not always been entirely accurate. To some extent the same may be said of Emperor Caracalla whose reputation has often suffered at the expense of the glorification of his short-lived brother Geta even though there is no real evidence of him being any more worthy of praise than his brother Caracalla was of condemnation. The death of Geta has allowed contemporaries and successive generations to paint him in whatever idealistic fashion they desire while Caracalla lived on to make hard decisions, stirring opposition as well as support and earning enemies along the way.

He was born in Lyons on April 4, 188 AD as Lucius Septimius Bassianus. After his family adopted itself into that of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius his named changed to Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Caesar. The nickname “Caracalla” came from a long hooded cloak of the prince’s design, modified from a style worn by the Celts or Germans, known as a “caracallus”. He had been on campaign with his father when Severus died and he was always a warrior monarch. Septimius Severus had told his sons, “Agree with each other, give money to the soldiers, and scorn all other men”. This was fairly practical advice given how vital the military had become to the Roman Empire though it was fairly naïve of him to think Caracalla and Geta would ever be able to agree on anything. During the final years of the late emperor the two brothers had already begun a rivalry and had attracted their own fiercely competitive respective followers.

Upon the death of Septimius Severus it was, not surprisingly, Emperor Caracalla who first tried to gain sole rule of the empire. Although often criticized for this since there is every indication to believe his father had intended it that way as he had granted Caracalla the title of “Augustus” quite a long time before extending the same honor to Geta. However, Roman mothers could be fairly formidable and the Empress Julia Domna took the side of her younger son and insisted that power be shared. So it was that joint-sovereigns, Emperor Caracalla and Emperor Geta, both returned from Britain with the ashes of their late father to the Eternal City of Rome. Such a system could never hope to be successful and one wonders how anyone could have ever thought it would be. They divided their palace on the Palatine Hill between them, walling themselves off from each other, but that was no real solution. Finally they seized on the idea of dividing the empire between them; Geta taking the east and Caracalla the west but their mother would have none of it.

Not surprisingly, 10 months into their joint reign Geta was dead, supposedly murdered by Caracalla himself in the very presence of their mother. Caracalla told the Praetorian Guard (who he gave a considerable increase in pay) and later the Senate that Geta had tried to murder him and he had only acted in self-defense. Some believed him but the many and powerful supporters of his brother certainly did not and to maintain himself on the throne Caracalla carried out an old-fashioned purge with some estimates as high as 20,000 as the number killed for being partisans of Geta or suspected of sympathy toward him. There was really no way around this sort of thing, it had happened before and was regarded as a necessary evil in such situations. However, relations with the Senate would never be smooth because of this if nothing else and the reign of Caracalla would forever have a somewhat sinister flavor because of the murder of Geta and its aftermath.

To escape this atmosphere of intrigue and resentment in Rome, in 213 Emperor Caracalla set off on a grand tour of the Roman Empire, first visiting the German frontier. He never forgot the advice of his father and was always comfortable in military surroundings. He took good care of his soldiers and his soldiers always adored him for it. Moreover, he impressed them with his own sort of humility. True, his rule was absolute and unquestioned and he would obviously tolerate no dissent from any quarter, but he did not live a pampered lifestyle. He marched on foot alongside his men, he ate the same coarse local food as they did and would even grind his own flour. There was a noticeable morale boost and in the summer of that year the Roman legions won a number of victories against the Germans in several areas, prompting the Senate (which was not of a temperament to heap undue praise on their emperor) to vote Caracalla the title “Germanicus Maximus”.

As he traveled east the Emperor became more and more obsessed with the figure of Alexander the Great, adopting him as his personal hero and role model. Caracalla even obtained some elephants to accompany him and became very harshly disposed toward the disciples of Aristotle after hearing that the philosopher may have been involved in the death of his hero. Beyond this though Emperor Caracalla had an appreciation for Greek history and culture in general and he enjoyed visiting the scenes of great events in Greek history and commemorating Greek heroes. Yet, this tour was not without controversy. The highlight, certainly for Caracalla, was visiting Alexandria where he went to pay his respects at the tomb of Alexander the Great, leaving his purple robe and imperial regalia as tribute to the revered conqueror. However, for some reason lost to history an incident was provoked that led to the Roman troops carrying out a massacre in Alexandria resulting in thousands of deaths. The cause will never be known but the most popular theory again goes back to Emperor Geta and that it was some criticism or accusation concerning the death of Geta that aroused Caracalla’s fury against the people of Alexandria. Whether true or a story invented later to fit pre-established prejudice we may never know.

In any event, while the Emperor was in the neighborhood of the east it would hardly be fitting not to carry on the tradition of waging a war against the Parthians. It had become almost a job requirement (I take power, II eliminate rivals, III celebrate, IV fight the Parthians…) and a recent civil war had left them particularly vulnerable. Emperor Caracalla took the side of one of the factions then turned against them and laid waste to the region east of the Tigris. After returning to northern Iraq and planning further campaigns disaster struck. A plot against the Emperor had been hatched but he could not be warned in time. Suffering from an upset stomach Emperor Caracalla had a rest stop on his way from Edessa to Carrhae on April 8, 217 when one of his guards, the disgruntled Julius Martialis, killed him with a thrust of his sword. The assassin was himself immediately killed and the 29-year-old emperor was cremated and his ashes taken back to Rome and placed in the Mausoleum of Hadrian by his mother. After her death both Empress Julia Domna and Emperor Caracalla were deified by the Emperor Elagabalus.

Today Emperor Caracalla is generally not thought very well of. Reasons why are easy to point to yet it all stems from one misdeed; the death of his brother and to be fair it must be said that so much would not have flowed from that if not for the fact that Caracalla felt so terribly guilty about it which a heartless man would not have done. It is also often forgotten that he was, personality aside, a good emperor. He always took time to hear appeals for justice, he reformed the currency and in the Antonine Constitution of 212 was the first emperor to extend Roman citizenship to all free men across the empire. Rome thus became less a collection of countries ruled by one favored people and more of a commonwealth based on shared laws and loyalties. His most lasting legacy, however, was undoubtedly his building programs and if any average person today recognizes the name of the late emperor it is probably because of the ruins of the magnificent Baths of Caracalla that remain standing to this day.