Saturday, 27 February 2010

Alexander the Great prepares to invade the Persian Empire

With his army and fleet gathered, Alexander was almost ready to leave for Asia. First, however, there was the giving of gifts and awards that was traditional for a Macedonian king about to set off to war.

Such occasions were usually lavish both in terms of the ceremonial and the gifts given. Alexander, however, was in a rather embarrassing situation. His father had left him debts of about 500 talents. In part those had been paid off by the sack of Thebes, but Alexander was spending around 3,000 talents a year on his army at a time when the Kingdom of Macedon produced only around half that in taxes. The gold mines of Thrace produced another 1,000 talents, while tribute from subject tribes and kingdoms produced a few hundred more. It can be seen that the finances of the Kingdom of Macedon were shaky to say the least. By the spring of 334bc Alexander’s known debts totalled about 200 talents.

It is difficult to be certain exactly how this translates into modern money. In terms of bullion, 200 talents of silver coin would today fetch around £600,000 or so. However, Alexander lived in a world that was basically agricultural and had an economy based on land, services and goods more than on money, which was then a fairly new invention. Certainly his contemporaries considered the debt to be enormous.

Alexander had just 70 talents in cash to take with him to pay the army, bribe Persian officials and pay expenses. This would not last him long on campaign. He could not, therefore, afford to hand out money to his commanders, nobles and officials. Instead he chose to hand out farms, estates and even entire villages from the royal estates. He went further, giving at least some of his nobles the tax revenues from ports and districts for the coming years. He was, in effect, pledging the future revenues of his kingdom. The scale of the gift giving may not have been unprecedented, but the types of gifts given were without parallel.

Perdiccas, one of Alexander’s inner circle of Macedonian noblemen, was taken aback by what he was seeing. “But your majesty,” he protested, “what are you leaving for yourself?”

Alexander replied simply “My hopes”.

“Very well then, “ said Perdiccas, “those who serve with you will share those too.” He returned the gifts that Alexander had given him, and a few others followed suit.

Even so, Alexander had by this ceremony passed the point of no return. If he did not conquer in Asia and obtain new territories, new tax incomes and much loot then he and the Kingdom of Macedon would be bankrupt. This dire financial situation soon became known outside of Macedon, and news of Alexander’s potential bankruptcy reached Asia Minor long before he did himself.

Some time in the first half of May, Alexander gave the order to set out.

This is an extract from Alexander the Great at the Battle of the Granicus by Rupert Matthews

Thursday, 25 February 2010

The Outbreak of the Hundred Years War

On the outbreak of war between England and France in 1337 few disinterested observers could have any doubt about the likely outcome. France was going to win – and win easily.

The mere size of the two kingdoms alone gave France a massive advantage. Although it is impossible to be accurate, the population of France at this time was over 20 million, that of England barely 7 million. France also had a clear advantage in terms of wealth. The towns and cities of France were closely integrated into the trading networks that were becoming firmly established across the continent.

The southern cities of Lyons, Marseilles and Toulouse were locked into the complex trading networks of the Mediterranean. Hundreds of merchant galleys plied the sea trading European grain and furs for oriental spices and silks or African gold and ivory. The great trade fair of Lyons, in particular, was a thriving and bustling centre for international trade. In northern France, Paris was the largest city in Europe north of the Alps, and Rouen was not far behind.

The trading networks and access to markets encouraged a developing economic picture. The rich, light soils of the areas north of the Seine were ideal for growing grains. The farmers here had moved into bulk grain production, turning over almost all their lands to growing wheat and barley for sale in the market towns. With the cash generated the farmers could buy in fruit, meat and other products that they no longer grew on their own land. Similar specialisation was taking hold elsewhere, making a more effective and efficient use of manpower.

By contrast England was less economically advanced. Most farmers still worked mixed farms growing grain, fruit and meat. Even where soils were not particularly good for grain, wheat was still grown. This made for less efficient farming. The only specialist product of England was wool, and while this made fortunes for all concerned in the trade it represented only a  fraction of England’s farmland.

Nor was it merely a matter of population and wealth. As we shall see France had a large and highly respected army. The latest weaponry, latest tactics and most efficient supply systems were recognised as being those of France. Young knights and nobles from across Europe would volunteer to serve in France to learn the arts of war. As they grew older many of these men felt a residual loyalty to the French crown and were willing to serve the French king if asked. Thus the French king was able to call upon manpower reserves even greater than France itself could provide.

Not that anybody really expected the war that had broken out in 1337 to amount to much. It was confidently expected that there would be some skirmishing, maybe a campaign or two and then a peace deal would be patched up. At first, it seemed that this was exactly what was going to happen.

Having declared war, Edward seemed to accept that he stood no chance of defeating France on his own. After sending some English troops south to bolster the defences of Aquitaine, Edward threw himself into a diplomatic mission aimed at gaining allies for the conflict with France.

Perhaps naturally, he turned first to his in-laws in Hainault. Duke William was happy to parade his men for action, having first taken a considerable sum of English silver to pay his expenses. The Duke of Brabant was likewise willing to take Edward’s side and muster his forces for war, again so long as Edward was paying the bill. The Count of Flanders was less enthusiastic, despite the fact that his cities depended for their wealth on regular imports of English wool. The Count owed allegiance to King Philip and was not one to break an oath, even when the majority of his own people disliked the whole idea of rule by the French king.

Perhaps Edward’s greatest diplomatic achievement was to persuade the Holy Roman Emperor Louis (or Ludwig) IV to appoint him Imperial Vicar for the lands west of the Rhine. The title gave Edward the theoretical rights to marshal the lands of the Holy Roman Empire in that area for war. In practice, as with so much about the Holy Roman Empire, it was an empty title that depended on the willingness of local rulers to obey. It did, however, give Edward a legal right to be hovering off the northern borders of France with an army.

By the summer of 1339, Edward felt ready to strike.

This is an extract from The Battle of Crecy, A Campaign in Context by Rupert Matthews.

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Gladiatorial Armour

Throughout the seven centuries during which gladiators fought in Rome there were changing fashions in equipment, armour and fighting methods. Some of these were popular for only a short time, others persisted for generations. All the ways of fighting and types of equipment were designed to thrill the audience and make the games as spectacular as possible. Their usefulness to the gladiators themselves was at best incidental.

Whatever the type of gladiator, the design of their armour followed a general pattern. The head and neck were usually heavily protected by metal helmets which would have been proof against almost any weapon used in the arena. The legs were protected by metal greaves on the shins and often by leather or fabric padding on the thighs. The arms were also protected by armour of one sort or another. The body, however, was generally left bare. This is in direct contrast to the usage of armies throughout the pre-firearms age. Soldiers tended to wear armour that protected their bodies, while often leaving the limbs unarmoured.

The way in which gladiator armour was set out shows the demands of the games. The audience wanted to witness a thrilling combat between skilled fighters and expected it to last for some time. Fights are thought to have gone on for 15 or 20 minutes as three or four combats to the hour seems to have been normal.

Such a contest was unlikely if the legs or arms were vulnerable to weapons. A quick stab to the opponent’s sword arm could have rendered him incapable of carrying on the fight but would not necessarily have caused serious damage nor put his life at risk. It was to avoid these minor but disabling injuries that the armour to the arms and legs was used. Leaving the torso unarmoured, however, made this the obvious target for an attacking gladiator. Scoring a hit on the torso is more difficult in combat than striking the limbs. To make a hit would have required skill of a high quality. Also desirably, from the Roman point of view, a blow to the torso was life threatening and would certainly have ensured plenty of blood flow from a wound.

By keeping the limbs covered and the torso exposed, gladiators were encouraged to put on the type of show the crowd wanted to watch. High levels of skill would necessarily have been on display because the unskilled gladiators would have been dead. Combats were unlikely to have been cut short by a chance wound to a limb and so would have lasted long enough for the audience to be satisfied. And, when a wound was inflicted, the crowd had the added excitement of seeing plenty of blood and knowing the wound might prove fatal.

The armour made for the gladiators was special not just in its distribution on the body but also in the way it was designed. In theory many gladiators wore armour and carried arms based on those of distinct nationalities, such as Samnites, Gauls or Thracians. In fact the equipment was exaggerated for effect and often decorated with excessively showy plumes and crests that would not have been used by real soldiers.

This is an extract from The Age of Gladiators by Rupert Matthews.

Sunday, 21 February 2010

The Battle of Pinhoe, Devon, in the year 1001

After being repulsed, but not defeated, at Lydford in 997 the Norwegian Vikings spent the winter in a fortified camp at the mouth of the Tamar. Rather than face the Devon militia they then headed east to continue with their strategy of moving quickly to strike at unprepared areas before making off in their ships and avoiding any local armies which could be mustered.

In 998 the Norwegians attacked Dorset and the Isle of Wight, in 999 they plundered Kent and in 1000 contented themselves with living off food and beer extorted under threat of violence in East Anglia. They began the campaigning season of 1001 by attacking Hampshire. A battle was fought at Dean, where the Vikings killed 81 Englishmen, including the county’s High Reeve, Leofwine. Although the English fled, the Vikings had suffered losses and chose to get out while they could. In around July they returned to Devon.

This time they did not raid the valley of the Tamar, but instead landed at Exmouth. There they constructed a fortified base where their beached ships could be securely guarded against the Devon men. Only then did the Vikings begin their raiding.

The first strike was successful. A force of Vikings went by sea to the River Teign, rowing up the broad estuary to reach the fortified town, or burgh, of Teingnton, now Kingsteignton. The attack achieved total surprise, the burgh being taken and burned without trouble. The Vikings moved on to loot and burn surrounding villages and manors for several days without interference.

On their return to base the Vikings found a force of ships approaching along the coast from the east. The ships were filled with armed men and the two fleets approached each other warily. The newcomers turned out to be a force of Danish mercenaries commanded by the famed Viking raider Pallig Tokesen, who was married to Gunhild the sister of King Sweyn Forkbeard of Denmark with whom Ethelred had a treaty of friendship. Sweyn claimed overlordship of Norway and was engaged in a long-running feud with King Olaf of Norway so there was little friendship between Pallig and the Norwegians.

This Pallig and his men had been hired England’s King Ethelred the Unready and given the task of cruising off the southern coasts of England to protect them against the hit and run tactics favoured by the Danes. Ethelred was presumably of the opinion that he should set a thief to catch a thief but, as so often, he proved to be a poor judge of character.

Although Ethelred had paid Pallig in cash, and given him a comfortable manor on which to live, he chose to join the Norwegians instead of fighting them. The size of the combined Viking force is not entirely clear, but was probably around 4,000 or 5,000 men all told. Feeling emboldened by the newcomers, the Viking force rowed up the River Exe to attack the wealthy city of Exeter.

The city was, however, ready for the attack. It was still surrounded by its Roman walls, which had been kept in good repair over the centuries since the legions had left. As soon as the Vikings had arrived the inhabitants of the nearby villages had, according to the usual English plan for local defence, fled to the city taking with them all their livestock and valuables. The walls were now manned by the men of the area. The Vikings, as usual, mounted a display of their armed might and then demanded instant surrender or payment of tribute. The defenders refused. Unable to do much against stone walls, the Vikings clambered back into their ships and returned to their base at Exmouth.

The invaders next move was to begin a determined and thorough sacking of the Exe Valley. The livestock and moveable wealth of the area might have been safe inside Exeter, but the buildings, standing crops and various amounts of tools and equipment were not. The Vikings spread out and moved north from Exmouth methodically destroying everything they could find but could not carry off as loot. Topsham went up in flames, so did Clyst St Mary. Then the Vikings moved on to Pinhoe, a small village just northwest of Exeter. It came as something of a shock to find the county army of Devon mustered just outside the village.

Pinhoe in 1001 was a small rural village but is now a suburb of Exeter that grew up in Victorian times around the railway station built on the main line from Exeter to London. The Vikings reached the village as they marched north. The English army was almost certainly gathered on Beacon Hill to the north. From this naturally defensive position they could look south over the Clyst Valley up which the Vikings were advancing. If the invaders chose to push deeper into Devon the English could cut them off from their base. Clearly the Vikings needed to defeat the Devon county army if they were to gain anything much from their stay in the area. They paused to loot Pinhoe and set fire to the buildings, then sat down to eat a meal before pushing on to face the English in battle.

It was somewhere on the open hillside above the River Clyst north of Pinhoe that the Battle of Pinhoe was fought. Details of the fighting are scarce, though it is possible to reconstruct the outline of what happened.

The English had been camped on the hilltop, perhaps trusting to the strength of the position to deter an attack. In terms of numbers we do not know how many Englishmen were present. However they were led by the High Reeve for Devon, Kola, and his deputy Eadsige was also present. This would indicate that the main army for Devon was assembled.

There were, at this date, around 8,000 families for taxation purposes in Devon. These could probably put into the field some 2,000 properly equipped warriors who had some form of training for battle. In theory all men were liable for military service in local defence, but it was probably the more select fyrd, or militia, that were present at Pinhoe. Some of these men would have been on duty elsewhere, not least on the walls of Exeter, but even so some 1,500 English warriors must have been there on the day of battle.

This means that the English were outnumbered by perhaps 2:1 by the Vikings. The Vikings had the advantage not only of numbers but also of being better trained and more used to battle as well as forming a coherent unit that had been together for some years of campaigning.

The Vikings attacked uphill without hesitation and, although details are lacking, they seem to have been successful in their first charge. The English fought well, but they eventually gave way and fled back toward the safety of the walls of Exeter. Neither of the English commanders was killed. This would indicate that the withdrawal was made in good order as the death or capture of enemy leaders was usually a key ambition of a Viking army.

Although they won the day – “The heathens had the power of the battlefield” as one contemporary chronicle puts it – they gained little. As soon as the battle was over they returned to their ships at Exmouth. Within days the temporary alliance broke up. Pellig led his ships hurriedly east to London to make his peace with King Ethelred while the Norwegians moved to the Isle of Wight where they established a new fortified camp for the winter.

It must be presumed that although they lost the battle, the men of Devon had inflicted such losses as to cause the Vikings to leave the county.

After the battle a small chapel was built on the spot where the English bodies had been buried. This was replaced by a more substantial church in the 13th century - it is still there to mark the site of the fighting. 

This is an extract from Battlefield Walks Devon by Rupert Matthews

Thursday, 18 February 2010

Arthur "Bomber" Harris takes over RAF Bomber Command 1942

In taking over Bomber Command when he did, Harris enjoyed more luck that he imagined. On the face of it, this was not a good appointment for a career officer. Loss rates had been growing steadily during 1941, for little apparent effect on the German war effort. The debacles of the great Berlin raid and the Channel Dash were still fresh and even the advent of the new heavy bombers had proved to be a big disappointment.

Underlying these drawbacks, however, Bomber Command was on the brink of transformation. The new training regimes were beginning to deliver a steady flow of well trained crews to squadrons, new types of bomb were becoming available and new aircraft were coming into operations. But it must be admitted that the biggest change of all was Harris himself.

At this stage in his career, Harris had many years of sometimes arduous service behind him. He had been in Rhodesia when World War I broke out enjoying a varied career as gold miner, cattle herder, big game hunter and, finally, tobacco farm manager - all by the age of 21. He joined the local regiment as soon as war was declared and spent the following months taking part in the invasions of German African colonies. When those campaigns ended he volunteered for the Royal Flying Corps and travelled to England to join a nightfighter squadron protecting London from the dreaded Zeppelin bomber airships.

After the Great War, Harris opted to stay in the RAF, becoming a squadron leader in India. In the 1920s he decided that night bombing would play a major role in any future war and trained his squadron, No.58, in the necessary skills. He was then trained at the Staff College for staff jobs, taking up the command of RAF Intelligence and then Operations. It was while in these posts that Harris developed his already clear grasp of technical matters to the point where he could understand quickly what any boffin was trying to explain to him - and then pose questions that often drew out the advantages and disadvantages of the scheme.

In 1938 he was sent out to command the RAF in Palestine and Transjordan, but the hot dry climate affected his health so he was soon back in Britain to take up command of 5 Group of Bomber Command. He commanded the Hampden-only Group until November 1940, after which he was sent out to the USA to liaise with American companies and government officials about the purchase of aircraft supplies for the British war effort.

He came to take over Bomber Command with a reputation for technical skill, knowledge of night missions, administrative skill and, above all, a grim determination to get the job done - no matter what that job was. If the staff at Southdown were worried about any aspect of their new commander it was his well known lack of affability. Harris was not one for jokes, pep talks, socialising or being friendly. So far as Harris was concerned he was there to do a job, and so was everybody else. So long as everybody got on and did their jobs properly he was content. He wanted men who knew what they had to do and how to do it. Harris saw little need for the morale-boosting tours of stations that other senior commanders indulged in. As a squadron commander he had dreaded such visits as an upset to his routine and, now that he was head of Bomber Command, he assumed his subordinates would take a similar view. That is not to say that he did not take a close and detailed interest in his command and his men - he did. It was just that he saw no need to interfere if everything was going well. If a man or unit did particularly well he would let them know that he had noticed, and if they did badly he would let them know that he had noticed that as well.

One of the key features of Harris’s command that everybody at Southdown noticed instantly was that he did not live on the base. He took up the option of a family house three miles away where he lived and indulged his only known hobby: cooking. In some ways this was a relief for his staff. Once Harris had gone home everyone could relax without worrying if the Air Officer Commanding was about to walk around the corner.

With a few exceptions, Harris ran a generally happy command. His men knew that he trusted them to do their work competently and responded accordingly. The fact that he was known to keep an eye on everyone ensured that all staff tightened up their act. The new atmosphere of determined professionalism soon spread down the command structure to infect all stations, units and squadrons. After Harris arrived Bomber Command was transformed.

This is an extract from RAF Bomber Command at War by Rupert Matthews.

Friday, 12 February 2010

Horatius at the Bridge 505bc

In 509bc Rome became a republic, a move that would have profound impact on the army and on Rome’s methods of waging war. The most immediate result of the overthrow of the seventh King of Rome, Tarquin the Proud, was to plunge Rome into a war for which she was not prepared.

Tarquin had always been a high-handed monarch who paid little attention to either law or custom in Rome. He becalm king by marrying the daughter of King Servius Tullius, then murdering his father-in-law and seizing power with the aid of a gang of tough henchmen. Unlike earlier kings who had listened with respect to the debates in the Senate, a body composed of the senior men of the richest and noblest families in Rome, Tarquin rarely bothered turning up to meetings. When the results of votes or debates were reported to him, Tarquin ignored them and ran the government as he pleased.

Tarquin’s eventual downfall came when his son, Sextus, raped Lucretia, wife of a distinguished nobleman named Tarquinius Collatinus. Lucretia gathered together the men of her own family and that of her husband and made a speech calling for revenge on Sextus and on Tarquin. She then pulled out a dagger she had hidden in her dress, declared that she could not live with the dishonour done to her and stabbed herself in the heart. Unable to obtain justice through the king’s courts, Collatinus conspired with a fellow nobleman, Lucius Junius Brutus, to drive Tarquin into exile. Their chance came when Tarquin led a small force to scout a route to attack the nearby city of Ardea. As soon as Tarquin was outside the city, his henchmen were overpowered and the city gates shut against him.

Later Roman historians liked to portray this as a mass popular uprising against tyranny, but in fact Tarquin was not as unpopular as the later writers made out. Rome stood on the borders of the lands of the Latins and the Etruscans. Although the mass of Roman citizens were Latins, many of the richest men were, like Tarquin, Etruscans. After Tarquin’s fall, several Etruscan families fled Rome, depriving the army of a large proportion of its heavy infantry. Other Etruscans remained in Rome, but still supported the monarchy. One conspiracy of such men was serious enough to have been sealed by a solemn oath made over a human sacrifice. The plotters were betrayed by a slave appaled by the killing, and the incipient coup was crushed.

The exiled Tarquin and Sextus then turned to the Etruscan cities north of Rome and found King Lars Porsenna of Clusium a willing ally. The position of Rome was of great strategic importance as it controlled the best crossing of the Tiber, the boundary between the lands of the Latins to the south and the Etruscans to the north. The Kings of Rome had traditionally been friendly to the Etruscans, Tarquin himself being an Etruscan, but the new Republic seemed intent on forming alliances with the Latins. It would clearly be advantageous to the Etruscan cities if Rome was friendly to them, and Lars Porsenna would benefit personally from having a man on the throne of Rome who owed his position to the army of Clusium.

Gathering a large army of Etruscans from various cities, Porsenna marched on Rome. His army reached the city unnoticed by the Romans who were, as so often, lacking in scouts and good intelligence. Porsenna overran a partially completed fortress on the Janiculum Hill, on the north bank of the Tiber, and led his men in a charge towards the gates of Rome. Acting as guard on the wooden Sublician Bridge over the Tiber was Publius Horatius Cocles, equipped in the full panoply of a hoplite.

As the labourers from the Janiculum fled towards him, Horatius blocked the bridge with his spear and ordered them to cut away at the bridge supports while he “received the enemy as best as one man might”. While the workmen hacked at the timbers, Horatius held the narrow entrance to the bridge, cutting down each Etruscan that came against him. After several tense minutes the bridge collapsed. Horatius flung aside his armour and swam the Tiber to reach the Roman bank. Although the city of Rome was saved by Horatius, the Etruscan army was too strong to be defeated and swiftly occupied the surrounding lands. Rome agreed to a peace which recognised Etruscan dominance, but managed to retain her own status as a republic.

Thursday, 11 February 2010

PUBLISHED TODAY - Atlas of the World at War

Published today: The Atlas of the World at War.
As author of this book I must pay tribute tot he hundreds of top quality maps and illustrations chronicle the fascinating and dramatic history of the world at war from 1750bc to the present day. The maps are truly spectacular and they alone make this book worth the price. The text covers battles, tactics, strategy, logistics, weapons, commanders and analysis of events.

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

The Battle of Coronel 1914

On 23 August 1914 Japan declared war on Germany. Japan had long been friendly to Britain, and wanted to gain possession of German-owned islands in the Pacific.

The Japanese fleet greatly outnumbered the German Far East Fleet at Tsingtao. German Admiral Graf von Spee decided to take his ships to raid widely across the Pacific.

The German cruiser Emden was sent to track down merchant ships. With his other ships, von Spee shelled French bases on Tahiti and cut the trans-Pacific telegraph cable, then headed for Chile to attack merchant shipping.

On 1 November von Spee met a British fleet commanded by Sir Christopher Craddock off Coronel. Spee had two heavy cruisers and three light cruisers.

Craddock had two heavy cruisers and one light cruiser plus a converted merchant ship carrying light guns, but a British battleship lay just to the south.

At first Craddock sighted only one German ship, so he moved to attack. By the time he realised his mistake the fleets were within range of each other.

The German ships opened fire at a range of 11,200 metres, the British replied. It soon became obvious that the German ships were more stable in the rough seas, so their gunners could aim more accurately.

The two British heavy cruisers were targeted by von Spee and were quickly sunk. Admiral Craddock went down with his ship.

The British light cruiser Glasgow and converted merchant ship Otranto, turned south at high speed. They hoped to lure von Spee toward the waiting battleship Canopus.

Von Spee did not pursue the British ships, but instead turned away. The first fleet action between Britain and Germany had ended with a decisive German victory.

This is an extract from 1000 Facts on World War I by Rupert Matthews

Monday, 8 February 2010

Romulus and Remus

The early history of Rome is shrouded in legends and myths. The earliest Romans did not know how to read or write, so they passed down their history as oral tales and poems. Over the years these stories got rather mixed.

Later Romans studied the old tales and legends and checked them against the written histories of the Greek colonies and other nearby states. They used these to put together a coherent account of the first 300 years of so of the history of Rome.

According to this account, Rome was founded by two brothers named Romulus and Remus. The city was founded on what in the modern calendar would be 21 April 753bc. By that date the brothers had already led exciting lives.

Romulus and Remus were the grandsons and heirs of King Numitor of Alba Longa, an Etruscan city. When Numitor’s brother Amulius grabbed the throne by force, he threw the baby brothers into the River Tiber to drown.

However the two boys washed up on a sandbank where they were found by a she-wolf, who gave them her milk to drink. After some time with the wolf, the boys were found by a shepherd named Faustulus who brought them up with the help of his wife Larentia.

When they grew up, the twins became leaders of the local shepherds. They decided to found their own state on the spot where they had been cared for by the wolf, a hill known as the Palatine standing beside the Tiber in the land of the Latins.

Romulus had the job of building a wall around the hill top. Remus said the wall was too low to keep out enemy soldiers. To prove this, Remus jumped over the wall in a single bound. Romulus was furious and killed his brother.

In this way Romulus became the first King of Rome. Romulus then kidnapped all the unmarried women from the nearby town of Sabina to be wives to his band of shepherds.

The Sabine men marched to destroy Rome, but the Sabine women refused to let their fathers kill their husbands.  A treaty of eternal friendship was drawn up between Sabina and Rome.

One day in 716bc Romulus was reviewing the Roman army when a thunderstorm appeared and the king was struck dead by lightning. He was buried beneath a black marble slab at the foot of the Palatine. 

This is an extract from 1000 Facts on Ancient Rome by Rupert Matthews.

Thursday, 4 February 2010

The Trojan War

Troy was a mighty city in the country of Illios in what is now northwestern Turkey. It controlled trade routes to the Black Sea and became one of the richest cities in the world.

Ancient records show that the Trojans fought several wars against raiders from Mycenaean Greece. Archaeologists have found that the city was invaded and destroyed about 1180bc.

According to later Greek legends, Troy was destroyed after a war lasting 10 years. All the kings of Mycenaean Greece joined forces to attack Troy, sailing across the Aegean Sea in a fleet of 1,000 ships.

The Trojan War began when Paris, son of King Priam of Troy, fell in love with Queen Helen of Sparta. Helen's husband King Menelaus asked his brother, King Agamemnon of Mycenae for help.

King Agamemnon summoned all the kings of Greece to join him in the attack on Troy. Among those who came were Odysseus of Ithaca and the great hero Achilles.

When Achilles fought, the Greeks won victories, but after an argument with Agamemnon Achilles sulked in his tent. The Trojans then began to win victories.

When Achilles' friend Patroclus was killed by the Trojan Hector, Achilles left his tent. He killed Hector in single combat then rejoined the fighting. The Trojans fell back behind their city walls.

Odysseus suggested that the Greeks pretend to give up and to go home, leaving behind a large wooden horse as a gift to the gods. In fact the horse contained Greek warriors and the Greek army was only a short distance away.

The Trojans pulled the horse into Troy. That night the hidden warriors leapt out and opened the city gates. Troy was captured by the Greeks.

After the war, Helen went back to Sparta to live with Menelaus. Odysseus got lost and took ten years to get home.  Troy was later resettled, but was never again as rich and powerful as it had been.

This is an extract from 1000 Facts - Ancient Greece by Rupert Matthews

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

What is Maypole Dancing?

Every spring on village greens up and down Britain a pole is set up and children dance around it, often holding ribbons which are attached to the top of the pole.

The modern form of maypole dancing is very largely the work of the Victorian writer John Ruskin whose theories and examples were followed throughout the country. But Ruskin was drawing on a much older and more robust tradition.

The oldest written references to maypoles come in the 14th century, but since these make it clear they are referring to a generations-old custom it is clear that maypoles were in use much earlier. Indeed, it is generally assumed that the maypole is a pagan symbol which dates back to the days of the English who came to Britain from Germany to destroy the remnants of Roman civilisation and set up their own culture. The theory is given some strength by the fact that similar customs continue in some areas of Germany to this day.

If the maypole did form part of the spring fertility rites, this would explain much about its use and its form. As with other pagan festivals, the spring festival to the great god Frey - whose name survives in the name of the day of the week, Friday - managed to be incorporated into the Christian festivals as the new religion spread. In this case, however, the old festival proved to be too robust to be completely taken over by Easter, the Christian spring festival. Instead the May Day festival survived as very much its own event.

On the first day of May, before dawn, people would get up and make their way into the fields and woods to gather flowers, green branches and, in some areas, hawthorn. These were carried back home to decorate the outside of the houses and to be worn in the hair. Dancing and festivities followed.

Although the details varied from place to place, some common themes occur. The first is the tradition of the Green Man, celebrated in numerous pub names, who wore a suit of green and was covered in green branches and leaves. The Green Man was variously thought to represent the wild wood, the fresh shoots of spring plants or the strength of nature, though he may have been a half forgotten shadow of the representation of Frey himself.

Another common feature in May Day events was the creation of the Queen of May. This young lady was chosen each year, usually as the most eligible spinster or most beautiful young woman in the village. She was crowned with flowers or greenery and treated like nobility for the day.

But most important in many areas was the maypole. Some of these poles could be truly enormous. The maypole set up in Leadenhall Street in the City of London was famously tall and thin. In fact it as so tall that it stood some 10 feet taller than the church steeple itself. The pole was raised early on May Day morning to act as the centre feature of the dancing, drinking and merrymaking of the day. For the rest of the year it was kept suspended on hooks on the front walls of the houses of Leadenhall Street. So famous did the maypole become that the church outside which it was set became known as St Andrew’s Undershaft. King Henry VIII and Queen Catherine of Aragon are known to have taken part in the celebrations on at least one occasion.

As with many survivals of pagan days, the maypole was abolished by the Puritans when they came to power following the Civil War of the 1640s. The great Leadenhall Street pole was smashed and never replaced. When the monarchy was restored in 1660 the maypole returned, but mainly in rural villages and county towns. The great cities seem to have abandoned the May Day events as the people within them grew increasingly separated form the countryside and its traditions.

By the mid-19th century the maypole dancing was in serious decline. The tightly knit village communities which had supported it for so long were fading under the impact of railways, improved roads and the growth of industrialisation. Many Victorians, seeing the squalor of the big cities and the moral decline of the working classes looked to tradition and Christianity to save society. The writer John Ruskin was among those who looked to the old customs which had held rural village societies together as something desirable to be continued in the the emerging age. Among the clearly visible and easy to stage events he attempted to revitalise was the maypole dancing.

Under Ruskin’s lead the maypole once again became the central focus for communities on May Day. However instead of the drunken revelry of the old days, there was a new Christian and family focus. Mostly the new maypoles were danced around by children from the local Church schools. These children were trained to carry out a sequence of complicated steps which wove the ribbons downwards from  the top of the maypole into fantastic shapes and designs.

It is this new, sober, Christian maypole which is seen on so many village greens in our springtimes. Of course, these days it rarely makes an appearance on May Day itself. Instead, the pole is erected on the day of the local village fete, usually held on a Saturday some time in the month so that the local residents with Monday-Friday jobs can attend.

This is an extract from "Everything You Need to Know about the British" by Rupert Matthews.