Friday, January 23, 2015

Lessons from Honorius

It was on this day in 393 AD that Emperor Theodosius the Great proclaimed his son Honorius "co-emperor" of the Roman Empire. Honorius was only eight-years old at the time but he would go on to have one of the most disastrous reigns in Roman imperial history, a far cry from that of his father. Emperor Theodosius had reunited the Roman world, being the last caesar to rule both east and west, defended the frontiers, established Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire and generally had quite a glorious reign. Emperor Honorius, on the other hand, would preside over the first sacking of Rome by the barbarian hordes when Alaric the Visigoth captured the Eternal City in 410 AD. How could this have happened?

There were many contributing factors of course but one that stands out was the lack of an effective commander to lead the Roman legions against the enemy. Yet, such a man had existed previously in the reign of Emperor Honorius and that was the vociferous warrior Stilicho. A 'Romanized' barbarian himself (he was half-Vandal), Stilicho had defended Italy from the barbarians with remarkable ability, rushing from one danger point after another to defend the Italian heartland of the Roman Empire from attack after attack. He was one of the most remarkable generals of Roman history. He was also the Emperor's former guardian and his father-in-law. However, a particular dishonest official managed to convince Honorius that Stilicho was plotting against him and so Honorius had Stilicho executed. Thus the Roman Empire lost its most talented general at a time when such a man was sorely needed.

What lesson can be learned from this? The lesson is compounded by the fact that this was not an isolated incident. Later, Emperor Valentinian III had another talented Roman general, Flavius Aetius, executed. It was Flavius Aetius who defeated Attila the Hun at the Battle of Chalons-sur-Marne. The point is that, in its declining years, the Roman Empire had ceased to value men of talent and proven success. On the contrary, such men were plotted against by lesser men who feared them because of their talent. They saw them as rivals rather than as valuable assets to defend the Roman world. We can see, with the sack of Rome, where such selfish attitudes ended. Today, it seems many have the same mindset, glorifying the mediocre and treating the talented and successful with contempt rather than appreciation. This is something that should be stopped, otherwise we shall all end up like Emperor Honorius, bereft of talent and with an empire crumbling around him.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Assault on Anzio

It was on this day in 1944 that the bloody Battle of Anzio began in World War II. This was part of the Allied "Operation Shingle" which came about because of the stalemate in Italy caused by the determined defense of the German 'Gustav Line'. The Anglo-American forces were having no luck breaking through and so British Prime Minister Winston Churchill came up with the plan for an amphibious landing behind the Gustav Line at Anzio which would threaten the German position from behind and force them to retreat or crush their army between two Allied attacks. However, the overall Axis commander, Luftwaffe Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, was a very clever general while the Allied commanders gave less than their best performance, lacking in coordination, aggressiveness and confidence. The result was the Battle of Anzio which was a bloodbath for the Allies. Eventually, of course, they did break out, Rome fell to U.S. Army forces and the Germans retreated to the new 'Gothic Line' farther north, however, Anzio had still been a very costly disaster. The Allies lost several thousand more total casualties than their Axis enemies. Because the initial landing force was relatively weak, it could only hold its ground and wait for reinforcement. In the meantime, Kesselring was able to use interior lines to move Axis forces into position on the high ground surrounding Anzio very quickly and effectively, turning the Anzio beach into a shooting gallery that decimated the Allied forces. If the initial push had been stronger, and thus able to be more aggressive, it might have gone very differently.

In most accounts of the Battle of Anzio, the Italian contribution is left out completely. This is not very surprising considering that the vast majority of the forces engaged were British, American or German. However, there were Italian units involved in the Battle of Anzio and they gave very good service, earning praise from their superiors. Royal Italian Army units loyal to the King were organized into the "Italian Co-Belligerent Army" which fought with the Allies on the Gustav Line but none of these were involved in the Battle of Anzio (though they gave good service and won the respect of the British and American forces that fought alongside them). It was rather, on the Axis side that the only Italian participation occurred at the Battle of Anzio consisting of two battalions from the military forces of the Salo Republic and Italian elements serving with the Germans. These were: the Nembo Battalion of the RSI parachute regiment Folgore led by Captain Corradino Alvino and the Barbarigo Battalion of the Decima Flottiglia MAS, an elite formation that was essentially the private military of the "Black Prince" Junio Valerio Borghese. The battalion was led by Captain Umberto Bardelli. With the Germans there was the 2nd SS Vendetta Battalion and the 29th Italian SS Rifle Battalion.

The Folgore and all the forces of the X MAS were recognized as among the best that the RSI had to offer, however it was the Italian SS forces that first proved themselves at the Battle of Anzio. The Waffen-SS was regarded as an elite amongst the German forces but the Italian units were not considered full-fledged SS troops but were, rather, volunteers attached to the SS. The Battle of Anzio changed all of that. Because of their fierce fighting in the engagement, particularly that of Vendetta under Lt. Colonel Delgi Oddi, Reichsfuhrer-SS Heinrich Himmler (overall commander of all SS forces) ordered that the Italian units be upgraded to full SS status because of how well they proved themselves at the Battle of Anzio in which their effectiveness was praised by several German commanders who were present. Just as the units loyal to the House of Savoy in the Italian Co-Belligerent Army proved themselves effective soldiers on the Gustav Line, so too did those serving with the Axis earn their reputations at the Battle of Anzio.

Monday, January 12, 2015

The Sicilian Revolution of 1848

1848 is known as the year of revolutions and it all started on this day in 1848 on the island of Sicily. It was, in many ways, an attempt to revive the previous constitutional government enacted in Sicily after the French conquest of Italy when the Bourbon Royal Family was forced to flee Naples and relocate to the island. The nobles were able to pressure King Ferdinando IV of Naples (Ferdinando III of Sicily and later Ferdinando I of the Two-Sicilies) to enact a constitution based on the British Westminster model of limited government, constitutional monarchy. However, once Napoleone was defeated and the King restored to his throne in Naples the constitution was promptly abolished. The 1848 Revolution was an attempt to revive that model, along with Sicilian independence but also as part of a grander scheme to create a united federation of Italian states. The uprising was timed to coincide with the birthday of King Ferdinando II of the Two-Sicilies who had early been the hope of the liberals but who later suppressed the advocates of constitutional government in Sicily. That is what the "revolutionaries" of 1848 wanted, a constitutional monarchy under the Bourbons that would be part of a wider Italian federation.

After further rebellions broke out in southern Italy, Ferdinando II did finally agree to having a constitution, however, it was never finalized due to a dispute with the King over his oath of 'office' as it were. Eventually, the Bourbon troops were able to use force to suppress the new government, restore the absolute power of the King and the constitution was, again, discarded. However, the revolution in Sicily in 1848 was noteworthy for having produced an independent government for at least 16 months led by Ruggero Settimo ("Roger VII, a name going back to the Norman Kings of Sicily of the Middle Ages). It also sparked a wave of pro-constitutional uprisings throughout Italy because of its real, albeit short-lived, success. The most prominent was King Carlo Alberto of Piedmont-Sardinia who raised the tricolor flag and enacted a new constitution. Other Italian monarchies did the same but all ended up revoking their constitutions after the crisis had past with the exception of the Savoy monarchy in Piedmont-Sardinia. This was the origin of the nickname of King Vittorio Emanuele II as the "honest king" because he stood by the constitution and did not abolish it as his contemporaries had done.

The uprising also set the scene for First Italian War for Independence, led by King Carlo Alberto with the other Italian states participating against Austria, which was not successful. However, it proved that there was a sizable number of people in Sicily and across the Italian peninsula who favored Italian unification. However, it also brought into contrast the division between those who favored constitutional monarchy and those who favored republicanism. The republicans could point to the revocation of the constitutions in Sicily and across the peninsula as proof that the monarchs could not be trusted to keep their word and that republicanism was, therefore, the only solution. However, the constitutional monarchists could point to King Carlo Alberto and Vittorio Emanuele II who upheld the constitution and argue that the problem was not monarchy but rather the individual monarchs themselves who, rather than coming together in a confederation, should simply be replaced by the King of Piedmont-Sardinia. It was one step on the road to the unification of the country and the creation of the Kingdom of Italy.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Evolution of the Italian Flag

It was on this day in 1797 that the forerunner of the flag of Italy was first adopted; the tricolor flag of the Cispadane Republic. This was a small puppet-state created with the support of the First French Republic after the conquest of northern Italy by the army of General Napoleone Buonaparte. Everywhere the French revolutionary army marched they set up small republics in their own image (as well as planting those ridiculous "Liberty Trees" everywhere) and the Cispadane Republic was one of these, covering mostly what had previously been the Duchy of Milan as well as Modena, Bologna, Ferrara and Reggio Emilia. The Congress of the Cispadane Republic adopted the flag which featured colors probably inspired by the banners and uniforms of the Lombard Legion and the Italian Legion which were red, white and green. The government had been established by Napoleone and the troops were organized to assist the French in their war against Austria. Although it gave opportunity of those of nationalist, pan-Italian ideals, it was in no way a legitimate, sovereign country as ultimate power still lay with the French Republic which would be proven by how successor regimes changed their governing style based on similar changes in France. When the Cispadane Republic was united with the Transpadane Republic to form the Cisalpine Republic, they adopted a more familiar flag:
Flag of the Repubblica Cisalpina
The Cisalpine Republic covered much of northern Italy and what had formerly been the Republic of Venice but it too was a client-state of the French Republic and it was the French who first published the constitution of the Cisalpine Republic. It's flag was inspired by that of the Cispadane Republic but was done in the French vertical rather than horizontal style. In 1802 it changed itself to the Italian Republic with Napoleone as president and adopted a different flag.
Flag of the Italian Republic
The (Napoleonic) Italian Republic did not last long, only from 1802 to 1805 and was basically a vehicle for maintaining French rule over northern Italy. When Napoleone made himself Emperor of the French, republicanism was suddenly no longer fashionable and the Italian Republic was hastily converted into a monarchy for the French Emperor.
Flag of the (Napoleonic) Kingdom of Italy
The Italian Republic became the Kingdom of Italy with Napoleone Buonaparte as King of Italy which was a larger state than its predecessors. It was under the immediate rule of Napoleone's step-son Eugene de Beauharnais who served, with ability, as Viceroy. It was a stylish state but still essentially a dependency of the First French Empire. When France was defeated the Kingdom of Italy did as well as most of its territory was seized by the Austrian Empire.
Flag of the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia
The tricolor flag was used for many years as the preferred symbol of pan-Italian nationalism and patriotic movements struggling for independence. However, it did not become an official national flag again until King Carlo Alberto made it the national flag of the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia in 1848 with the addition of the Savoy arms in the center (the war flag also featured the Savoy crown). Other Italian states did the same in and after 1848 as they adopted constitutional government (though none but the Savoy would uphold them after the crisis was over) with their own special insignia or royal arms displayed in a similar way, such as:
Flag of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, 1848
Flag of the Roman Republic, 1849
Flag of the Kingdom of the Two-Sicilies, 1848
Flag of the Kingdom of the Two-Sicilies, 1860-61
As Italian independence was won and the country was united, the 1848 flag of Piedmont-Sardinia was taken up as the official national flag of the new Kingdom of Italy. On April 15, 1861 the green, white and red tricolor with the Savoy royal arms was legally declared the Italian national flag and remained so until the republican period when both the Salo Republic and the modern Italian Republic made the national flag an empty tricolor, removing the Savoy arms.