Archive for January, 2011

The Great Fire of… Rome?

By: The Scribe on January, 2011

It is likely that many people have heard of the Great Fire of London which swept through the city in 1666 and which burned for four days. Rome also suffered a devastating fire that burned through the city for five and a half days in 64 CE. Like the Great Fire of London, this blaze consumed much of the city of Rome. This was the blaze that earned Nero his nefarious, but untrue reputation. Although he was believed to have been responsible for the fire he would not have been able to fiddle while the city burned, since it took another thousand years for the instrument to be invented.

A bust of the Roman Emperor NeroNero was not a popular Emperor, so it is no wonder that he is held at least partly to blame for the blaze. Nero ruled Rome from 54 to 68 CE. He was known for two main things: his focus on diplomacy and his persecution of Christians. He was also known for executing his mother and stepbrother and as a ruler who was extremely extravagant. It was no wonder that an angry population blamed him for the fire even though he was, according to the accounts of the historian Tacitus, away in Antium at the time that the fire broke out.

The fire destroyed a massive portion of the city and left many people homeless. The city at the time was divided up into fourteen separate districts. Of these, three were completely destroyed by the fire. Seven others were damaged and four were left untouched. When the blaze came under control almost a week after it began, a tenth of the city had been burned by the fire.

This left a large number of people homeless. When Nero returned to the city, he opened up his own residence in order to provide shelter to people who had been burned out of their homes. As the supply of food was also an issue, Nero paid to have food delivered as well.Part of the interior of the Domus Aurea

The city was rebuilt. One new structure was the Domus Aurea, a new palace complex. Some rumors hinted that Nero had actually arranged for the city to burn just so that he could build his majestic new residence but that theory is debated simply because the fire started some distance away from where the palace was built.

One other theory was that Christians had started the blaze. At that time, they were not welcome in Rome and were subjected to horrific treatment at the hands of Nero. Some were thrown to dogs as a way of torturing them for their beliefs. There were also accounts of Christians being set ablaze and used as lighting for some areas at night. Although some Christians did confess to starting the Great Fire of Rome it is suspected that they only did so after being tortured so that they could serve as scapegoats.

Although this was one of the largest fires that Rome experienced there were several others that are worth noting. The fires took place first in 69 CE, during the reign of the Emperor Vitellius and again in 80 CE during the reign of the Emperor Titus.

Timur: Mass Murderer or Patron of the Arts?

By: The Scribe on January, 2011

In the 1300’s, there was one ruler who’s name sent fear throughout Central Asia. He invaded a number of nearby countries in order to expand his territory and in doing so, destroyed entire cities. Timur the Lame, better known as Tamerlane, was born in 1336 CE in the city of Kesh. This was located near the oasis of Samarkand in an area known as Transoxiania. He was a direct descendent of Ghenghis Khan and was driven by the need to rebuild the Mongol Empire that Ghengis had constructed.

A portrait of Timur the Lame aka TamerlaneHe was born to a chieftan of the Barlas tribe. His father owned land and was settled, a very different lifestyle than that lived by his Mongol ancestors. By the year 1360 CE, Tamerlane was beginning to show his skill as a military leader. He commanded the local Turkic tribesmen who lived in the area. He was involved in fighting against several other tribes and rose to importance in the area.

Tamerlane was a brilliant military commander in many ways. He ensured that his troops were provisioned properly for upcoming campaigns and was known to lay in supplies up to two years before his armies went on the move. He was also known for acts of stunning brutality and atrocities the likes of which have not been seen today. His campaigns were successful in part because he used propaganda in order to spread fear among his enemies. They were often very successful and a wave of panic spread before Tamerlane’s armies.

Tamerlane captured the city of Herat in 1383 and went on to take much of Persia as well. He ruled fairly according to many reports but when confronted by any kind of revolt or resistance was known to slaughter entire cities to a man. In the city of Isfahan, Tamerlane built pyramids made from thousands of skulls. He did this in response to a revolt in which several of his tax collectors were killed.

When Tamerlane began his invasion of India, he became truly brutal. He took the city of Delhi in 1398 and when he did, put 100,000 people to death. His troops, while well fed and supplied, were not paid and instead were encouraged to loot the cities that they captured. Loot included precious metals and stones as well as women and horses. Totals suggest that he may have killed as many as fifteen to twenty million people during the course of his military career.A statue of Tamerlane

At the same time that Tamerlane was a vicious and brutal military commander, he also was a strong patron of the arts. He had architects build structures in Samarkand that still stand to this day. Artisans from conquered lands were brought to Samarkand and allowed to work in relative freedom. He was also known for communicating with western rulers and there are still samples of the letters they wrote to each other available today. Tamerlane was popular with western rulers as he was seen as an ally against the armies of the Ottoman Empire that were invading Eastern Europe.

Tamerlane’s reputation lives on even after his death in 1405. He has been viewed as both a monster and a patron of the arts and has been immortalized in a number of books and poems.

Underground Mayan Temples an Entrance To The Underworld?

By: The Scribe on January, 2011

Many ancient civilizations believed in an Underworld or mythical world of the dead. The Greeks had Hades, the Mayans had Xibalba, which translates to “Place of Fear”. A sacred text known as the Popul Vuh contained information on the route that souls would take to reach Xibalba. The Popul Vuh was written on long scrolls using Mayan hieroglyphic script.

The trip to Xibalba was not pleasant or scenic as travelers would need to pass rivers of scorpions, bat filled houses and lots of blood and pus. According to the Popul Vuh, travelers would be guided along this path by a mythical dog which could see in the dark.

A water filled cavern where Mayan temples were foundThe Mayan civilization flourished between 2000 BCE and 250 CE. They were known for many things including their intricate calendar, their system of writing, and the massive stone structures and temples that they built throughout Central America. Their civilization was centered on southern Mexico in areas such as Chiapas, the Yucatan Peninsula and other areas further south. Their influence was felt in civilizations that were spread out through a much wider geographical area. Even after the Spanish arrived they continued to be an influence on the region before vanishing around 900 CE.

Now, archaeologists have found a series of stone temples that they believe may have been constructed by Mayans as a way to reach Xibalba. A total of eleven sacred temples were found tucked into underground caves in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. They were discovered and excavated in 2008. Archaeologists were forced to wear scuba gear in areas as many of the caverns were filled with water. Other caverns had dry chambers in them. Many of the tunnels that led from cavern to cavern were very narrow, making it difficult for archaeologists to move from one cavern to the next. The group of temples even included an underground road that was approximately 330 feet in length.An underground Mayan temple

The temples were not the only thing found in the underground caverns. Archaeologists were able to locate examples of Mayan stone carvings and ceramic offerings that were left for the dead. The system of caves and temples also included human remains as well. It is believed that not only did the series of caves act as a route to Xibalba, they were also used as a repository for human remains due to the sheltering nature of the caves themselves. This would have been especially important after the Spanish arrived.

It appears as though the site was used for some time. One ceramic vase that was found in the system of temples was 1900 years old although the majority of the artifacts were dated to between 700CE and 850CE.

The cave system found in the Yucatan is not the only one of its kind. Others were discovered in cave systems located in Mexico, Guatemala and Belize. Although they are similar, in that there is a series of temples they have different characteristics that are mainly due to cultural differences. All of the sites found used cavern systems that were located deep in jungle areas as a location for temple complexes.

The Immortals- Ancient Persia’s Force of Elite Soldiers

By: The Scribe on January, 2011

The battle of Thermopylae saw 300 Spartans hold back a massive Persian army. But who were the soldiers that faced off against King Leonidas and why were they called The Immortals when they were so obviously mortal? Why were they so feared by the enemies that they went up against?

A frieze from 510 BCE depicting Persian Immortals The information that exists about The Immortals is somewhat sparse. It is known that they were troops that fought for the Achaemenid Empire which ws in power in Persia from 550 BCE to 330 BCE. Persia was a true force to be reckoned with. Although the Persians were nomadic originally, they settled on a plateau in southwest Iran. From there, they expanded outward until finally, under the leadership of Cyrus the Great, the empire stretched from the Indus Valley (the eastern boundary of the empire) to the northeastern border of Greece. During its growth, the Persian Empire managed to absorb Egypt, Macedon and Thrace and had absorbed the Median, Lydian and Babylonian Empires.

It is known that these were the elite troops of the Persian Empire. They had several different functions besides taking on Spartans. One was to act as heavy infantry while on duty with the standing army and the other was to act as part of the Imperial Guard.

Because the unit was expected to act as infantry in the standing army they were outfitted as such. The Immortals carried shields and weapons such as spears, swords, bows and arrows and daggers. These allowed them to be very versatile in combat. They wore scale armor which was topped by rich clothing. The Immortals were elite troops. Because of this they were often showered with gold and this showed clearly in the clothing they wore and the equipment that they travelled with. Unlike other troops, the Immortals were allowed to bring women and servants with them. These non-combatants travelled in covered wagons and were dressed very elaborately. The Immortals even received special food that was not given to the remainder of the army.

The uniform of the Immortals was made up of an embroidered, sleeved tunic, scale mail and trousers. They wore tiaras and soft felt caps on their heads. They were armed with short spears, short swords and bows and arrows. In addition to their scale mail shirts they were protected by a wicker shield that each man carried.A bust of the Greek historian Herodotus

Much of the information we have on this unit comes from the writings of Herodotus, a Greek historian who lived from 484 BCE to 425 BCE. He stated that the Immortals always numbered ten thousand men and that any time there was a vacancy (whether due to illness or death) it was instantly filled. The unit was exclusive and soldiers had to apply to join it. They were only accepted if they were of Persian, Elamite or Median ethnicity.

In addition to the battle of Thermopylae, the Immortals also participated in other battles. In 547, they participated in the conquest of the Neo-Babylonian Empire by Cyrus the great and took part in the Egyptian campaign mounted by Cambyses in 525 BCE. In 520 BCE and 513 BCE, the Immortals also took part in fighting in Scythia under Darius the Great.

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