Category Archives: Ancient History

Mithridates – The Poison King of Pontus.

Today we join our tale right at it’s conclusion – the year 63 BC. The setting, the kingdom of Pontus – a once powerful Black Sea empire – now a region of Eastern Turkey. Mithridates VI Eupator paces the floor – if you’ll pardon my self plagiarism – like a caged Barbary Lion. Like Hannibal, Mithridates spent decades at war with Rome. Roman imperialism was the great evil of his time – an evil which must be stopped, whatever the cost. Now admittedly, nothing regarding Mithridates is ever cut and dried. The renowned freedom fighter was also a genocidal despot. A paranoid megalomaniac, raised to believe a series of comets and other omens marked him out as a messiah. Saviour of the East. King of Kings. 

Legitimately tracing his lineage back to both Alexander the Great and Persian King of Kings, Cyrus the Great, he worshipped these men. He wanted nothing more than to emulate their conquests. 

Mithridates grew up reading of all manner of legendary figures – and not just mythical tales of Amazonians, the Golden Fleece, and Prometheus’ punishment for bringing fire to Earth – all of which allegedly happened in his back yard. He idolised real figures; like Antiochus III of Syria; Attalus, the poison king of Pergamon; Aristonicus, the rebel leader of the ‘citizens of the sun’, who  carried out a years long guerrilla war with Rome. He recalled Jugurtha, the Berber King of Numidia – who fought Rome, but was defeated and paraded in chains before thousands of jeering Romans.

Unquestionably he knew of Hannibal – who proved Rome could be beaten – but ultimately ended up in a room much like this – pacing, contemplating a poison vial – as he too, now was.  

Mithridates was no Hannibal. For one he brought this on himself. The Roman, Pompey the Great marched into Asia to finish him – but judging him, if not dead then a spent force – left to conquer the Levant. He was free and clear so long as he kept out of Rome’s way. His own people, in the city of Pantikapaion, were the ones surrounding him. Baying for his blood. They refused to send more loved ones off to die in his wars. The latest plan – to cross the Italian alps like Hannibal – was the final straw. By day’s end, his son Pharnaces would be king. 

Accompanied by his two youngest daughters, and bodyguard, Mithridates gave a sip of fast acting poison to each of the girls, then took the rest himself – and then….. Well we’ll come back to that.  

Mithridates was born 135 BC, in Sinope, a wealthy port city on the edge of the Black Sea. Legend has it his birth coincided with a particularly bright comet passing through the sky – something many augurers read as an omen the child would be a great conquerer. He received the kind of classical education reserved for the wealthy – and showed a talent for botany and languages. He was also a gifted athlete – with a love of high risk pursuits.

In his teens his father, Mithridates V, died suddenly at a state banquet. Many suspected his mother, Laodice, of poisoning the king. The newly crowned Mithridates VI worried he’d meet the same fate as his father, so he ran away into the forests. Accompanied by an entourage, he travelled the length of his kingdom, meeting all the chieftains, the movers and shakers in the land.  Many nights they slept under the stars, and hunted for their meals. They played the tourist, going to sites where Alexander, or Xenophon, or mythic heroes like Hercules did legendary things. Learning the lay of the land, and of the myriad cultures of the polyglot kingdom – he was off on the original ‘grand tour’. 

At this time he became increasingly fixated on poisons and toxins – Pontus was full of things that could kill you – beyond his mother, and the obvious – like snakes and scorpions, even the ducks and honey in parts of his land were toxic enough to put you in a coma. Fearful of dying as his father had, he began a years long quest to develop an antidote to protect him from all poisons. 

At around 23 years of age, he returned to Sinope. In his absence, Laodice made an alliance with Rome, and was living a rather sumptuous lifestyle while the people struggled under heavy Roman taxation. In this time Rome had alliances – or flat out conquered several states in the near east making them the overlords of what was then considered Asia.  The Romans heavily taxed many of these places, and with bureaucrats and soldiers, came thousands of merchants looking for profit in the east. They were an insular lot, who thought themselves superior to the locals. They brought industrial levels of slavery with them – many of the slaves former citizens of the very places these Romans settled in. Mithridates, who notoriously hated the Romans, caught the zeitgeist and swept back into power. In what started as a bloodless revolution, he took the reigns and rescinded all agreements with Rome. He dealt with his father’s alleged murderers, got rid of Roman taxes – and the people rejoiced. On the home front he married his sister – something far more acceptable those days – and had a couple of kids together. They would fall out later, after his wife, also called Laodice, tried to kill him. Mithridates ordered her execution.

In 88 BC, Mithridates masterminded an incident which altered the course of his life – and had the follow through played out differently – would have changed world history to this day in ways we can only imagine. To this day it stands as one of history’s worst terrorist attacks. For months, Mithridates plotted with dozens of near eastern leaders to attack all Romans and other Italians in the region. The attack would occur simultaneously in dozens of cities – by thousands of locals. All Italians would be massacred. How he communicated with dozens of leaders is a mystery – suggestions include envoys with the orders tattooed on the backs of their heads, hidden under hair till they arrived – and instructions written on pigs’ bladders – carefully stuck to the insides of vases. More remarkably, of the thousands involved – no-one spilled the beans to Rome.  

The Temple of Artemis

On an unspecified date in May 88 BC, thousands of people from all walks of life took up arms and turned on Rome. In Pergamon – Rome’s capital in Asia – Roman settlers fled to the Temple of Asclepius. In many cities, they fled to temples, believing the mobs would fear the wrath of the Gods. Mobs burst into the temples that day – in Pergamon executing all, up close and personal, with bows and arrows. In Ephesus, Romans took refuge in the Temple of Artemis. A similar scene played out, this time they were cut down with swords, knives, and sundry other weapons. In Adramyttion, they were forced into the sea and drowned. In Caunus, the large slave population gathered the Romans around the statue of their god Vesta, then methodically slaughtered then – starting with children, then moving to the women – then finally the men. 

In Tralles, a mercantile town, local leaders didn’t want to get their hands dirty. They hired a Paphlagonian mercenary named Theophilus, and his gang to do the hit. They rode in to town looking something like a biker gang,  herded the Romans into a temple, then painted the walls with their blood. And on it went. Genocidal acts in dozens of towns and cities, aided by local hatred for Rome. Somewhere in the order of 80,000 Romans were murdered that day. 

Initially, things looked great for Mithridates. The massacre sparked an economic depression in Italy. Rome, already fighting the ‘social war’ with several Italian states, broke into a civil war proper – as the consul Lucius Cornelius Sulla made a play for dictator. The path was clear for Mithridates to take over all of Asia Minor. From there he would expel Rome from Greece. His army swept through the Turkish kingdoms of Bithynia, Phrygia, Ionia, Mysia, Lycia, Cappadocia… Many Greek city states welcomed him as a liberator, and flocked his side to help. Athens threw off the Roman yoke of oppression, led by the philosopher Athenion. Rome couldn’t retaliate – they already had too much going on. For a while Mithridates looked unstoppable. This all soon changed.    

Rhodes was the first stumbling block. In the wake of Alexander the Great’s passing, the island nation became a respected military and trading power. In 305 BC they proved their toughness after Macedonia laid siege to the island. Rhodes hung in there as the Macedonians hit them with massive siege engines, 180 foot long battering rams.. you name it. Macedonia finally gave up, abandoning weapons and siege engines. Rhodes sold the abandoned gear for scrap, making enough to construct the Statue of Liberty sized Colossus of Rhodes with the proceeds. 

When Mithridates besieged Rhodes in 88 BC, the colossus was long gone – it fell into the sea after an earthquake in the 260s BC. Rhodes’ tenacity, however, remained in spades.

 Mithridates landed in the first wave – tasked with taking out the smaller towns and setting up a base. The people of Rhodes were all safely behind the capital’s defensive walls. The towns outside the walls razed, the fields cleared. With no home base, and only the supplies brought with them, they hunkered down and waited for the rest of the army to arrive. Very few of them would make it to Rhodes. First, his navy were caught in a violent storm, and several ships were lost. Next, Rhodes sent out their Admiral, Damogorus with a small but experienced fleet of much quicker biremes. They sunk several more Pontic vessels before departing. 

Next Mithridates army ruined their assault on the city. The plan was a group sent into the hills to look for the navy would light a signal fire from a hilltop, when it was time to attack. Rhodes caught wind of this and lit a fire of their own. An ill-prepared army charged early, and were mown down. Then there was the Sambuca. A Sambuca is a large ramp, usually sailed up to defensive walls on the front of a ship, then lowered onto the wall. Soldiers then run up the ramp at the enemy. Mithridates Sambuca was an unwieldy contraption with catapults at it’s base, and so big it needed two ships to carry it. It collapsed under it’s own weight, taking the ships with it. Unceremoniously defeated, Mithridates turned tail and sailed for Pontus. 

A Sambuca

This incident set the tone for much of the Mithridatic Wars. While he commanded much larger armies – leadership was poor. They trapped themselves in indefensible places. They fought like 4th century BC Greek hoplites while 1st century BC wars were best fought like Roman legions. Rome, in the meantime, regained their footing under Sulla, who funded an expedition by raiding, first Roman – then Greek temples. Greece fell to Sulla in 86 BC, following the battles of Chaeronea and Orchomenus. A peace treaty was verbally agreed to in 85 BC, the treaty of Dardanos – Mithridates handed all his conquests back to Rome, or their original Roman puppet rulers. He gave up much of his navy to Rome, and incurred a massive fine. A second Mithridatic war soon followed. Lucius Licinius Murena, tasked with re-establishing Rome’s Asian territories started a war with Pontus in 83 BC. Mithridates was far better prepared, and this war ended inconclusively after Sulla ordered Murena out of Asia. 

Mithridates had learned a lot from the first war – but he also made a powerful ally in his new son in law – Tigranes the Great, King of Armenia. 

We’ll come to the third, and final war in a moment. Let’s talk about peace and the home front. In peace time the court of Mithridates was abundant in all things. Leading the festivities the King of Kings himself. On any given night there was a great feast. The entertainment could be anything from Greek plays, to sporting events to the hottest bands in the empire. Drinking and eating contests were frequent – ancient sources tell us no-one could out eat or out drink Mithridates. The king was in the midst of the merriment – often surrounded by his harem of beautiful women from across his kingdom. There was often a point in the evening when the feast took a darker turn. 

Some unlucky prisoner would be brought forth, and forced to drink poison. All would look on as the human guinea pig died. Mithridates would then perform his party trick. A servant would pour him a glass of the same poison – and he would gleefully imbibe. Legend has it his years of paranoia he’d meet the same end as his father bore fruit. Over years of trial and error, having poisoned a great many criminals and prisoners of war – the Kings of kings – the Poison King, had developed an antidote to most poisons. Every day the king took a vial of his ‘mithridatium’ to fend off the poisoners. Though the recipe is now lost, some people believe the Romans did get their hands on it – and several Emperors took it daily. Theriac, a Greek supposed panacea which remained popular till the 19th century may well have been mithradatium. If there is anything most people know about Mithridates it is mithridatium – the British poet A.E. Housman writing in his epic poem, A Shropshire Lad.

There was a king reigned in the East:
There, when kings will sit to feast,
They get their fill before they think
With poisoned meat and poisoned drink.
He gathered all that springs to birth
From the many-venomed earth;
First a little, thence to more,
He sampled all her killing store;
And easy, smiling, seasoned sound,
Sate the king when healths went round.
They put arsenic in his meat
And stared aghast to watch him eat;
They poured strychnine in his cup
And shook to see him drink it up:
They shook, they stared as white’s their shirt:
Them it was their poison hurt.
—I tell the tale that I heard told.
Mithridates, he died old.

Now, back to the Mithridatic wars. I couldn’t hope to cover this all in detail in the confines of a 20 minute episode – but here’s the main points. One thread that runs through Mithridates wars is his belief he should be the overlord of the neighbouring kingdom of Bithynia. Mithridates was once an ally of their King Nicomedes III. They fell out. After the first Mithridatic war, Bithynia was handed back to Rome’s puppet king Nicomedes IV – who died in 74 BC – leaving Bithynia to the Romans. Rome was tied up with an uprising in Spain, led by the rogue general Quintus Sertorius. This was all Mithridates needed to march an army into Bithynia, and reclaim the land. To add to the chaos, a Thracian slave called Spartacus led an uprising in Italy itself at around the same time. As often the case, the war played well for Mithridates, till Rome could afford to give him all their attention – then it turned ugly very quickly.

Several other nations, including his allies in Armenia, were drawn into this conflict. When the war began, Mithridates was in command of an army of 300,000 soldiers. The Roman generals were far too good for his army, however – and he would conclude with a band of a few thousand guerrilla fighters – engaged in hit and run surprise attacks on Rome. Tigranes’ empire would be brought to heel by Rome, for their part in the war. Hundreds of thousands of people would die. The Roman general Lucillus had control of Pontus, then lost control in 67 BC following the Battle of Zela. Rome responded by sending in Pompey the Great – fresh from victories against Sertorius in Spain, unfairly claiming victory over Spartacus, and cleaning up the growing piracy problem in the Mediterranean. Pompey proved too much for Mithridates and soon all the poison king had was a small band of fighters (including his new partner, a real life ‘Amazonian’, a Scythian warrior named Hypsicratea) … and a tiny kingdom of the Bosphorus – in modern day Crimea.In 66 BC Pompey pursued Mithridates to the foothills of the Caucasus mountains. Not expecting a man now in his late 60s to be capable of crossing the Caucasus, Pompey had a handful of ships cruising the edge of the Black Sea for the group. He then took his army to the Levant, to conquer new lands. 

But survive he did. He crossed through the Scythian Keyhole, and marched into Pantikapaion. Unlike Hannibal, he could have lived the rest of his life in peace – but in 63 BC Mithridates started to plot another invasion. This time he’d assemble another army of tens of thousands of local sons, with a few Scythian and Sarmatian daughters – they would march till they reached the River Danube – then follow it down to the Italian Alps. He planned, once again, to emulate the great Hannibal. Little did he know the people would riot, and he’d be copying Hannibal in a completely different way. 

To bring our tale full circle. Mithridates is in the tower. His daughters have passed on. Mithridates, on the other hand, paces the room – in the hope an increased heart rate will speed up the poison. He paces the room, sweaty, clammy, a little woozy – but it appears impervious to whatever toxin is racing through his system – be it arsenic, hellebore, hemlock, belladonna or the toxic ducks which swam in the Black Sea. Out of options, Mithridates turned to his bodyguard, Bituitus – and begged to be put to the sword. He knew his end would be many times worse if the angry mob got a hold of him. Within days, his body would be shipped to Pompey, just to let Rome know they won.  

Sometimes a Tale concludes, and I’ve got some bit of insight, some moral. I’m not sure I really do here. Don’t mess with Imperial Rome? It goes without saying, though I think a lot of ‘barbarian’ peoples were morally right to resist – though through lack of firepower – or expertise, things were always going to end badly for them. If I had a full hour to tell this story, then maybe it’s all about omens, and not taking them too seriously (check out the ‘prelude’ I wrote to this tale a few weeks ago for an example). Maybe this is a tale of obsession, and knowing your stop loss point? Mithridates obsessive drive to be like his mightier ancestors, combined with an obsessive hatred of Rome led him to genocide, and a series of wars costing hundreds of thousands of lives. He lost everyone he loved. Obsession destroyed a great empire – only not the one he expected it to. Likewise his obsession to not die as his father did, ultimately, worked only too well.  

Hannibal in Bithynia

Today’s tale is set in the Asiatic town of Libyssa, in Bithynia – on the periphery of what is now Turkey. The date, some time around 182 BCE. Hannibal Barca, perhaps one of the all time great generals in world history is pacing the room like a caged Barbary Lion. His life, from the age of nine had lead to this point – ever since his father made him take an oath he would “Never be a friend of Rome.” At the time Rome was a republic with it’s greatest days ahead of it. The tough, militaristic state had yet to really flex – to show what they were capable of. Carthage, was already a superpower, but one on the decline. The two powers had come to blows over the Carthaginian island of Sicily, now part of modern Italy. For 23 years the two superpowers butted heads. They fought on land and sea – and finally the young lion, the Roman republic, got the better of Carthage.

Hannibal’s father, Hamilcar, had been present at the Peace of Lutatius; where Carthage was ordered out of Sicily for good, to be peaceful to Syracuse and her allies, to pay 56 tons of silver over 20 years as reparations, and to hand over their weapons. A leading general in the war against Rome, Hamilcar agreed to all terms bar one – he and his men refused to disarm under any circumstances. Peace had been a relative term for Carthage, As soon as the first Punic war ended, Hamilcar was sent out to quash several rebellions from their own people. The unsightliness of it left him with a lifelong hatred of the Romans – which he passed on to his young son.


Pacing in that Bithynian compound, one wonders; did Hannibal cast his mind back to his youth. As a young general, he marched an army of 38,000 infantry, 8,000 cavalry, and of course 38 elephants over the Alps, hitting the Romans where they never saw an attack coming. To cross the alps with an army, and war elephants was madness, utterly suicidal – yet he did it. On the other side, Hannibal’s army wreaked havoc. Though half his army died on the Alps crossing, his remaining force made short work of the Roman’s, time and time again. Ticinus, Trebia, Lake Trasimene. Nothing stood in the way of him sacking Rome itself – other than the fact he left his siege engines in the Pyrenees; and the oligarchs back home refused him the financial backing to build new ones. The war in Italy would eventually wind down to a stalemate.

If, one’s life flashes before your eyes when facing your demise, the battle of Cannae would loom disproportionately large. A masterclass in completely obliterating a much bigger army, military strategists with much greater understanding of such things than myself, still rate Cannae as one of the all-time greatest battles of history. The Romans outnumbered Hannibal and his allies by almost 2 to 1. They were slaughtered at a rate of more than 11 to 1 in the battle. Hannibal’s cavalry encircled the Romans from the outside. Within Roman ranks, a band of 500 ‘deserters’ revealed hidden short swords and cut them to ribbons. Death came from all directions. Pliny would write of 67,000 dead Romans, Polybius of 5,700 dead Carthaginians. In the aftermath, many Roman allies jumped ship. The Romans turned to guerrilla warfare, never again fielding a large army against Hannibal on Roman soil.

The Romans refused all peace treaties, enlisted all their men into military service, and carried on. Carthage’s oligarchs responded indifferently to Hannibal’s requests for the siege engines needed to topple Rome itself. In 202 BC Rome eventually landed a king hit, at Zama, modern day Tunisia. The Roman Scipio Africanus succeeded where Hannibal failed, and the oligarchs declared peace.


Hannibal must have cast his mind back to his middle age, as an avenging, populist politician. He limited the term an oligarch could rule from life, to two one year terms. He taxed them so they would pay their fair share. Just as his reforms were bearing fruit however, the accusation came from Rome that he was colluding with Antiochus III of Syria to overthrow the Roman empire. He would find himself exiled, forced to spend his remaining years on the lam, a soldier of fortune for whoever a. could afford him and b. would be willing to harbor him, knowing Rome could arrive at any time. Antiochus took him in for a while, then Artaxias I of Armenia. For a while he hid out in the pirates’ den which was Crete, before finding employ with Prusias I of Bithynia.

Bithynia would eventually succumb to the Roman yoke, and Prusias would betray Hannibal anywhere between 183 and 181 BC, though they were told to find him themselves. Roman soldiers would track him to his house and demand his surrender. One tale has it, in a ‘live by the sword’ moment, that Hannibal had recently injured his hand by his own sword, and the wound was sceptic. Another tells, in his final moments he downed a vial of poison. Whatever the case, the Romans entered the premises, cautiously, to a deathly silence. The old lion had passed, a note on the table read

“Let us release the Romans from their long anxiety, since it tries their patience too much to wait for an old man’s death.”

Something Wicked This Way Comes – Part One.

Hey everyone go check out https://www.podbean.com/eu/pb-3dtwh-bf85d9 for the First of our Podcasts! The internet tells me people like choice, so I am posting the transcript on here for the readers out there. It’s long so I’m posting in two parts.

Hi folks and welcome to Tales of History and Imagination, my name is Simone. Today’s tale is about a woman named Alizon Device, and her untimely death on 20th August 1612. This is a tale of witchcraft, allegations of murder and of 10 executions. On the teaser for this podcast I quoted the philosopher Bertrand Russell…


Fear is the main source of superstition, and one of the main sources of cruelty. To conquer fear is the beginning of wisdom”


Irrational fear definitely helps explain this story, but it really is only one element. Political opportunism and scapegoating are factors, not to mention the lengths a young outsider will go to just to fit in with the crowd. I should also point out, while witch hunts took a massive number of lives in Europe – the figure I was told when younger of 600,000 dead is now thought an exaggeration, the ballpark is still in hundreds of thousands- In England only around 500 people were executed for witchcraft. That a single case lead to 2% of the countries’ total executions makes the story of the Pendle Witches significant.

We’ll get to the case but first today I’m going to spend a little time looking at how we got to the witch trials in England – and while I want to mention a few European milestones, I’m not jumping into the witch trials at Navarre, and Wurtzburg and such.. it is too deep a rabbit hole. I should also say up front – do I believe in witches? Well, I believe many witches were folk healers with pagan beliefs. And, yes I believe some witches wished people misfortune- but that leaves you a long long way from proving anything supernatural. I do believe the witch hunts were an atrocity.. so, without further ado. Welcome to episode 1, Something Wicked This Way Comes.

[Theme music plays, an excerpt from Ishtar’s ‘The Enemy Within’]

Witches in Antiquity.

So, by way of background.. Tales of Witchcraft go all the way back to antiquity. The old testament of the bible mentions witches. In 1 Samuel, written possibly as early as the 10th century BC, King Saul calls on the witch of Endor to summon the ghost Samuel to help the Israelites defeat the Philistines. The witch instead prophesied the deaths of Saul and his sons, which is what the bible says happened. It should not surprise anyone the writers of the bible didn’t love witches… in Exodus, just after dealing with the 10 commandments, the book states “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live”. If you were to sum up early responses to witches, early people viewed them as frightening, mysterious, but at times useful.

Stories of persecution and execution of witches go way back in antiquity in a number of civilizations – as do stories of turning to witches for assistance. In Ancient Greece for example anyone who was anyone would travel to the Oracle of Delphi for advice on matters of importance. On the flipside you get stories such as the public execution of Theoris of Lemnos and her family in Athens for practicing witchcraft in the 4th century BC. What she did exactly was not recorded by the statesman Demosthenes, but she was believed to practice folk healing, and may, possibly have poisoned someone. Nearly 200 years later Plato would write in his ‘Symposium’ that he saw practitioners of magic as maleficent beings, but tied their powers to the God Eros.

Some earlier philosophers actually courted public belief in their magical powers. Pythagoras had some believing he could be in two places at once, could make predictions, and could bite poisonous snakes before the snakes could bite him. Thales of Miletus surely was risking life and limb a little when he predicted a solar eclipse, and used this knowledge to bring about a truce with the warring Medes in 585 BC. The Medes, thinking it was an open from the gods to cool it stopped. Empedocles was so intent on proving himself supernatural to the locals he jumped into the volcano at Mt Etna, thinking when he disappeared the people would think he flew into the heavens and was a God. When his sandal got thrown back out somehow the people just realized he’d jumped into a volcano, and burned to death… but, we are getting off track a little… so.

In Ancient Rome it was a capital offense to use witchcraft to blight crops, or destroy one’s flocks or herds, but a great many Patricians would privately consult witches for political or military advice. The writer Plutarch is one example of a guy who believed in omens, even if he was suspicious of witches and magicians. Some apparent folk healers and the like of course pitched themselves as miracle workers and messianic types in the Roman empire. One gets the sense Jesus was one of many, presuming his reality, plying a trade in healing the sick, casting out demons, and flashy shows of magic.

The Middle Ages

The rise of Christianity brought changes to the view of witches especially as the religion extended out into Europe and met with pagan religions. While Christianity may have started from “thou shalt not suffer a witch to live” – seen practitioners of any opposing set of beliefs as a threat, but in the 5th Century AD, St Augustine robbed witches of any perceived power by stating belief in witchcraft was primitive superstition, and witchcraft a bit of a nonsense. At a number of church synods, notably at Elvira Spain in 306 and Ankara Turkey in 314 witchcraft had been proclaimed a sin you could take a penance for, rather than something to be executed for. It became the greater heresy to believe in witchcraft than to practice anything resembling witchcraft for much of late antiquity and the early middle ages.

This is not to say there weren’t incidents. Witch hunts clearly occurred during this era, otherwise why make laws banning witch hunts? Charlemagne – the de-facto first Holy Roman emperor, crowned in 800 AD– shocked at news of a spate of recent witch hunts, proclaimed

“If anyone, deceived by the devil, shall believe, as is customary among Pagans that any man or woman is a night- witch and eats men, and on that account burn that person to death… he shall be executed”

In 1100 King Kalman of Hungary banned witch hunts stating “witches do not exist”. The Lombards, of which Charlemagne had once been king, made it clear killing witches would bring dire consequences… A number of other medieval rulers, however did come to see witchcraft as a danger. In 1080 Pope Gregory VII wrote a strongly worded letter to Harald III of Denmark demanding he stop the widespread murder of witches. King Harald had gotten it into his head witches had caused a spate of storms and crop failures. Charlemagne’s son, Louis the Pious called for all witches and sorcerers to be killed. In Scotland Kenneth MacAlpin – the Pictish king often thought the first king of Scotland called for sorcerers and witches to be burned to death, if they attempt to invoke spirits.

In 900AD, the Canon Episcopi, a church document dealing with Pagan beliefs re-iterated St Augustine’s views, witches don’t exist. It stated definitively the bigger crime is the heresy in believing in such things. From here on for the next few centuries though, in an effort to be consistent – the church began to prosecute witches as heretics – mostly imposing fines.

The Road to Malleus Maleficarum

From around 1300 a belief began to grow that witches were engaged in malicious behaviour; meeting in secret covens to have mass orgies, and eat babies. A Christian cult known as the Cathars had become very popular in Southern France and Northern Italy their brand of religion probably having arrived from Armenia, Persia or the Byzantine Empire via Bulgaria. Threatened, the church became less forgiving of anything considered heretical, the Cathars themselves eventually all but annihilated. From the 15th Century stories began circulating that witches made pacts with the devil and were obliged to carry out wicked deeds and spread misfortune. By this time the crusades in the Near East had opened up access to classical texts lost to the west but preserved by Islam, while some of these texts fed a rise in Renaissance occultism among the upper classes of Europe, it also reinforced negative views towards witchcraft among the scholastic movement.

Now, on occasion accusations of witchcraft were political – Pope Boniface VIII, who died in 1303 not long after being kidnapped and released by the King of France – was posthumously tried for witchcraft, among a raft of other, more serious charges. When the Knights Templar became a little too wealthy and powerful, as the first multi-national corporation to speak of and a money lender to kings – King Philip the Fair, the same pope kidnapping king of France arrested and executed them for heresy and witchcraft, on Friday the 13th October 1307. It is clear Philip 4th liked to excuse his own bad behaviour by claiming his enemies were witches.

In 1486 a Dominican monk and inquisitor named Heinrich Kramer wrote an important book called Malleus Maleficarum, “the hammer against the Witches”. It was a huge best seller, second only to the Bible throughout Europe. It laid out an argument for future, and ongoing inquisitions against witches – covens, human sacrifice, deals with the devil.

All that said, in England concerns over witchcraft were not great…. up till the era of the Stuarts. The Tudor king Henry 8th, possibly more driven by a need to enforce loyalty since making himself head of the Church of England, passed a witchcraft act in 1542 which allowed him to confiscate a witches land, and even put them to death. His daughter, Elizabeth 1st changed the law only allowing the death penalty if someone used witchcraft to murder another. These laws appear largely unused.

Daemonologie… and how to drown a cat….

King James I of England, presided over a time of a great number of witch trials, and this is the time our tale is set in. In 1589 James, then just king of Scotland, was betrothed to Anne of Denmark. In Anne’s first attempt to cross the North Sea she was almost scuttled by a violent storm. James then sailed to her with a fleet of ships. The two of them then almost drowned on the way back – with one of James’ ships was sunk on the return voyage.

The Danish admiral who had attempted the first crossing was sure the bad weather was being caused by witchcraft – he had insulted the wife of a Danish official back in Copenhagen and was sure she had hexed them. This was added to by an official investigation, which pointed the finger at Danish minister of finance, Christopher Valkendorff, for having cheaped out on the ships, but he had managed to defend himself by claiming the incident must be down to witchcraft instead. Several prominent women were tortured, eventually owning up to the attempt on Anne’s life, and twelve women were burnt on the stake as a result.

On his return to Scotland, King James called for his own tribunal, and, unsurprising when you use torture to force confession, found a number of witches. Under torture James’ alleged conspirators confessed to tying a dead man’s genitals to a cat, calling on the devil to kill the royal couple, then throwing the cat into the ocean, among other things.

The North Berwick witch trials themselves deserve an episode, especially the tale of Gellis Duncan, a maid working for one David Seaton whose accusation and torture of Gellis seems more driven out of jealousy and a need to control Gellis – who had of late taken to sneaking out of the house at night, and if you can’t openly punish her for meeting up with a paramour then why not punish her for attempted regicide instead right?

James I wrote a treatise against witchcraft, daemonology, in 1591, which though more nuanced than many of the witch trials were, did state witchcraft had been going on for as long as we have existed and advocated for witch trials. When James claimed the English throne he enacted a witchcraft act in England. But did magistrates believe witches were evil? Some yes, some were no doubt company men, willing to do what the boss asked of them. In 1605 William Shakespeare wrote one of the greatest witch hating, propaganda pieces ever in Macbeth – In the a play the virtuous Macbeth is lead astray by three witches to kill the king and take the crown. Misled by the 3 weird sisters and fuelled by ambition Macbeth sinks Scotland into a repressive tyranny, until the forces of good. children of his slain former friend Banquo, helped by a cast Scottish Thanes and English soldiers defeat him and make all well in the world again – Banquo was an ancestor of James by the way.

Now, Lancaster in the North East of England was a lawless borderland, where theft and violence was common. It was a stronghold of a number of underground Catholic churches, churches who came out of hiding briefly in the reign of Elizabeth’s sister Mary, then went underground in Elizabeth’s reign. There were a number of wise women, the types of folk healers often accused of witchcraft. There were two local judges in the area, Sir James Altham- a virulent witch hater, and Sir Edward Bromley, who was desperate to win James I’s favour and be promoted to a better position closer to London.

By 1612 James was king, and concerned Catholics particularly meant to do him harm, sent out orders to the Justices of the peace to make lists of recusants – those who refused to take part in the protestant church proceedings. In Pendle, Lancaster, this order fell on Roger Nowell.
Now this seems a good place to split this script up…

Sorry folks this is a long one… the podcasts ARE wordy. I’ll post part two next week. In the meantime please go take a listen at https://Talesofhistoryandimagination.podbean.com

This Tale is part one of a two part series. To read the rest of this story click here.

Women’s History month 4: Hell hath no fury, like the Trung Sisters.

“Heav’n has no rage, like love to hatred turn’d,
Nor hell a fury, like a woman scorn’d”

  • William Congreve. The Mounring Bride. 1697.

Hi folks welcome to this week’s Tales of History and Imagination. I am taking a bit of liberty with the opening quote a little this week – which if you are wondering is the actual quote we generally get “Hell hath no fury…” from. Congreve, if we have any bibliophiles out there makes great reading, though to date I haven’t read or seen The Mouning Bride …yet (he was a playwright) – but Love for Love, and The Way of the World are entertaining. Today’s blog is not so much about a scorned lover as a vengeful widow… and no, I’m not doing Olga of Kiev…. everyone does Olga. Today I want to look at the tale of the Trung sisters – who briefly saved Vietnam from the yoke of a cruel dictatorship.

If you were to view a map of the world in the second century BC you would see all kinds of borders, and countries which have long since faded into obscurity. If you were casting your eye over a map of South East Asia you would notice a sizeable land known as the Nanyue Kingdom. Made up of most of modern day Vietnam, and the southern Chinese provinces of Guangdong and Guangxi, the Nanyue kingdom was a prosperous land, with it’s own language, culture and traditions. It drew a great deal of wealth from the Red River Delta, and it’s goods sold as far away as markets barely understood in the East at the time like Rome. To the north of the Nanyue there was a rising empire, hungry to expand, and make the most of their neighbours’ spoils – The Han Dynasty in China, at the time most of the way through their second decade – having taken over from the Qin. For decades tensions simmered between the two kingdoms till, in 111BC Emperor Han Wudi ordered six of his armies down the Xi River to assimilate or destroy the Nanyue Kingdom. Under the leadership of Generals Lu Bode and Yang Pu the Han crushed the Nanyue Kingdom, over time extending out past their main centres into the remote villages. They set up 9 commanderies to administer the land, 3 of those established in what is now Vietnam. The Chinese records paint a picture of a liberating army, bringing civilisation to the kingdom. The Vietnamese saw them as cruel, violent overlords with a message of assimilate or die.

In 40 AD, while far spread, there were still enclaves of Vietnamese culture in remote villages. In one such village lived a soldier referred to in the writings as General Lac. The general had two daughters, Trung Trac, and Trung Nhi. The older sister, Trac had fallen in love with the son of the General’s closest friend, the village doctor – the son an up and coming leader called Thi Sach. With both families blessings the two married. While the tales of the Trung sisters do mention both sisters had grown up around a dad who had taught them how to fight, and to lead an army, there is nothing in the tales that states they were engaged in any resistance against the Han before 40 AD. This was the year things changed however, the Han were at the village, they would say to bring, language, and laws, and irrigation. The Vietnamese would say to bring death and slavery. Thi Sach would do his best to raise an army to resist them, but was caught and executed. This was when a mourning bride, Trung Trac, would avenge her husband, and start a revolution in the process.

in 40 AD, still in mounring for her husband, Trac and her sister Nhi would gather a small army, and using all the lessons learned from General Lac, decisevly crush the soldiers sent in to run the village. Women left similarly bareft in four other neighbouring villages soon joined their army. A highly competent army went from town to town, village to village, deposing the Han invaders. The army, composed mainly of women – many widowed by the Han invasions- picked up in number as it went. At it’s height the army was said to be 80,000 strong, led by 36 female generals. In 65 major battles they reclaimed 65 fortresses from the Han, sending what was left of the occupiers scattering back over the border to China. The speed of this must have been remarkable as Vietnamese records state this took not years, but months. After 71 years of occupation the Nanyue Kingdom was again free, united for a time under Queen Trung (Trac). The kingdom would only last for three years.

In the complete annals of Dai Viet, in a section not written till 1479, a chronicler wrote

“Queen Trung reigned for three years. The queen was strong and intelligent… and established a kin gdom…. but as a female ruler could not rebuild the state.” It was clear that the sisters were in the process of rebuilding, they had set up a new capital at Me Linh, now a rural district of Hanoi. There is precious little to make my way through from numerous write ups on the net, apparently very scant detail in the primary sources for that matter, but it does seem that – after the ladies had proven just how formiddable they were in liberating the kingdom, they found misogyny a much harder foe to defeat….. well that, and the Han were not done yet. in 42 AD they sent another army, headed by General Ma Yuan, to recapture the kingdom. In 43 they reached Me Linh, and the Trung sisters, looking to their now, mostly male army for support, found themselves largely deserted. They fell back to the Jin River to regroup, but were soon decisively defeated by the Han. Why did the men scatter, leaving them to the mercy of the Han? Despite past evidence to the contrary, they believed the Trung sisters did not stand a chance.

There are many conflicting tales as to what specifically happened to the sisters. Some accounts have them perishing in battle, others state they were captured, then beheaded. A third, more fanciful claim is they jumped into the river and drowned, their bodies washing up down river where they had mysteriously turned to statues. These same statues are now said to reside in Hanoi’s Hai Ba Trung Temple.

Though there is so very little primary source material in this tale, there is so much could be taken from the tale of the Trung sisters. Hell hath no fury really is the least of it, this is a tale of the potent power of a combination of passion, expertise and diversity, and the deadly risks of letting outmoded ways creep back in. It is also proof positive of the slogan on posters all across New Zealand schools in the 1980s when I was still in primary schools “Girls Can Do Anything” Vietnam would not see any significant self determination till the 12th century.

Thanks folks for tuning in for my weekly ‘Women’s History Month’ blogs.

Originally posted 26th March 2019 on the Tales of History and Imagination Facebook page. Copyright 2019 Simone T. Whitlow.

The Temple of Artemis

Hi folks, just a quick foreword. I wrote the following post in late February 2019, in the wake of American actor Jussie Smollett’s unwise publicity stunt. For future readers, Smollett was on a popular show called Empire, and looking to leverage a rise in white supremacist violence against people of colour, and the LGBTQI+ – both fair descritpors of Mr Smollett- for a little publicity. It backfired horribly when it was revealed he’d paid a couple of acquaintances to rough him up and hang a noose around his neck while pretending to be Trump supporters.

My piece was a musing on the topic of Herostratic Fame – the pursuit of fame at any cost, by any means necessary – and how the act of authorities demanding no-one uttered the name of the Herostratuses generally causes the opposite to happen. This was all good and fine…. until a far right terrorist went on a rampage in Christchurch, New Zealand days after, killing 51 muslim New Zealanders. In the wake of March 15th, the consensus was to not name the killer – To name him makes him a martyr to future shooters, and may inspire future mass shootings.

Sadly, there is a viral element to actions like those of the Christchurch shooter. It has been observed in the actions of mass shooters across the world, and specifically in the USA. In a 2015 article for the New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell wrote Thresholds of Violence – apparently the study of a wave of riots in the 1960s (a far more understandable phenomenon in my books) shone a light on the viral nature, and increasing normalization of mass shooting. It is well worth the read.
One may imagine this little blog post got a LOT of views in the wake of March 15th 2019. The topics may be a little apples and oranges, there may be a bit of a damned if you do, damned if you don’t element to it all. I believe it utterly fruitless if you hope to consign someone like the shooter to the trash heap of history, but in terms of not naming the shooter in the near future – for both crisis management, and humanitarian grounds – absolutely. Do not utter his name.

Were I ever to write on the shootings at some point in the future, I would intend to honour, name and remember both the 51 Muslim New Zealanders who were murdered by a weak, ineffectual man, and the heroes of the day. When writing of the shooter, I’d denounce him for what he is, to quote Christopher Hitchens new commandments a “…psychopathic criminal with ugly delusions”. Future writers will name him. I’d only ask they do not lionize him.

This piece was originally titled “On Herostratic Fame…” Today I am re-christening it “The Temple of Artemis”.

Hi folks welcome back to Tales of History and Imagination. I’m working from a laptop this week as my tablet is in the shop being repaired – it took a tumble off the work desk over the weekend and needs a new screen. This also means I don’t have Photoshop – sorry if this week’s pictures are a little uninspiring.

This could be listed as a “Tales of History and imagination are all around us” post, the topic jumped into my head in the wake of the Jussie Smollett incident, although it is fair to say his case only loosely fits the purview.

Today we go back to ancient history, to a famous date in 356 BC, to recall the 2nd biggest event of that day.

The Temple of Artemis was built in the Greek Enclave of Ephesus, in what is modern day Turkey. One of Antipater of Sidon’s Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, it had three iterations- a Bronze age temple built in the 7th Century BC and destroyed by a flood, a second iteration paid for by their Lydian overlord, King Croesus (the man who gives us the term, not well used these days “As rich as Croesus”), and a third version eventually demolished for good by Goth invaders in the late 4th Century AD. Our story today is concerned with the second iteration.

Oh, I should mention, Artemis is the Greek goddess of the hunt, wilderness, wild animals, the moon, and chastity- In Rome their version was Diana.

A statue of Artemis

The second temple of Artemis was impressive for its’ time. 115 metres long, 46 metres wide, and 40 metres high – much bigger than the Parthenon, (which is just shy of 70 metres long and 31 metres wide). What also made it impressive was that it was the first Greek temple to be built of marble. Now of course you couldn’t completely build a temple out of marble at the time. There were wooden braces helping to hold it all together, and a wooden roof. There were heroic scenes from Greek mythology on show throughout the temple, including the Amazons, who in Greek legend sought protection from Heracles in Ephesus. At the altar, open to the air, there was a wooden statue of Artemis, possibly carved out of ebony – though I have seen it claimed it was made from cedar. On 21st July 356 BC an incident occurred at the temple. Two things of note happened that day, and I should mention if our protagonist could look into the future 3 or 4 decades I think he would have picked another date. If he could look forward to November 22nd 1963, where very little was being said about the deaths of CS Lewis and Aldous Huxley due to John F Kennedy’s assassination, or 25th June 2009 where Michael Jackson’s death overshadowed Farrah Fawcett’s passing he would have learnt a little something also. Herostratus however was overshadowed by the birth of Alexander the Great. This stress on fame is pertinent to our tale.

In the early morning of 21st July 356 BC, chaos broke out in the streets of Ephasus. A huge cloud of dark smoke rose from the temple. The entire building enveloped in a wall of flame. Someone had climbed up into the rafters and set the place on fire. The historian Plutarch later wrote of the terror and despair as Ephesians

“…ran through the city beating their faces and crying out that that day had brought forth a great scourge and calamity in Asia”.

The destruction of the temple alone was bad enough, what upset the Ephesians more was that such a calamity could happen must mean Artemis had deserted them. Amid the chaos a young man – possibly a foreigner or a slave – of whom very little is known, stands there looking very pleased with himself. He stops panicked Ephesians here and there to comment on how incredible the fire was. The young man happily told all around him, he was the arsonist. He invited them to also admire his handiwork. Herostratus, the young man in question, was soon brought in. Though happy to confess he was tortured just to make especially sure he was the firebug.

Herostratus destroyed the Temple of Artemis because he wanted to do something the world would remember him for forever. Aghast, the Ephesians executed Herostratus, then forbade the utterance of his name for all eternity, a “damnatio memoriae” (condemnation of memory). If the Ephesians could have looked forwards to 2003, they may have moderated this action somewhat.

In 2003 Barbara Streisand sued photographer Kenneth Adelman and Pictopia.com for $50 Million over an unapproved aerial photograph of her oceanside home (one of 12,000 photos taken to document coastal erosion). Her action turned an obscure site with few views and only 6 downloads of the photo (2 of which were by Streisand’s lawyers) viral. Thousands downloaded “image 3850”. The site had close to 500,000 views in the following month. The “Streisand Effect” can have quite the kickback.

The Ephesians never faced the same kickback. Of course they would have other troubles. The aforementioned Alexander the Great would conquer them in his war on Persia. After his death his general Lysimachus tried to relocate them out of existence, which did not go well for him.. but those are stories for another day. Of course people spoke his name, quietly, because he was taboo – and we all like to live a little dangerously. Ancient historians Theopompus and Strabo discuss him by name. Medieval English author Geoffrey Chaucer references the incident in “The House of Fame”. Sir Thomas Browne mentions him by name, pointing to how his name has outlived the names of the judges who sentenced him. Cervantes mentions him in Don Quixote. Herman Melville, of Moby Dick fame wrote in “Mardi, and a Voyage Thither”

“whoso stones me, shall be as Erostratus, who put torch to the temple…”

On 6th October 1939 Adolf Hitler made a speech to the Reichstag, translated

“It is clear to me that there is a certain Jewish international capitalism and journalism that has no feeling at all in common with the people whose interests they pretend to represent but who, like Herostratus of old, regard incendiarism as the greatest success of their lives”

In more recent years he pops up from time to time. The iconiclast and writer Gore Vidal mentions him in the novel Two Sisters. Jean- Paul Sartre wrote a short story on the tale. Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky delves into the tale in his 1979 film Stalker.

I don’t think we use the term enough these days but to seek Herostratic fame means to commit a criminal act for the notoriety.

Originally posted 25th February 2019, before many New Zealanders realized the extent to which far right ideology existed in New Zealand. Edited 2020. Copyright 2019 Simone T. Whitlow, unapologetic leftist, humanist and progressive.