The other series I started in the lost spring of 2020 was with Marcus Cribb, Manager at Apsley House, where we discuss the Duke of Wellington. To kick off we went into the Waterloo campaign and have only just emerged out the other side.
The rulers of India are no less beguiling today than they were when, as Manimugdha Sharma says, the emperor Akbar was in vogue amongst Dutch republicans trying to create a new state.
Quite apart from the famed luxury of their courts and the exoticism that so easily transfers to the minds of distant foreigners from dimly imagined mental pictures; the leaders of South Asia often represent something special in the history of the world. The image of enlightened rule.
If we knew them better and compared them with our own past rulers, who would in their right minds not say that Ashoka ranked greater than any handful of English monarchs, not only for his conquests and his rejection of war itself but for his laws? Which are far more in tune with the classical ideal that Western Europeans have tried to harbour and rebuild since the fall of the western Roman Empire, than much of what replaced it.
Who, likewise, could arguably say with any credibility that Akbar the Great could not stand alongside any of the greatest contemporary kings and queens of Europe and not seem a little taller for his enlightened ideals of inclusion and, what Sharma calls the ‘physical and moral courage’ that makes great men beloved.
Though undoubtedly an inspiration to many in the past, since its independence India has rightly been a talisman to those who hold the promise of democracy near and dear to their hearts.
Rightly might citizens of the world’s largest republic revere the history of their march to liberty as a proud emblem to cherish. Therefore it is hardly surprising that the author feels a deep concern as he observes the course his nation is taking, and it should be no less concerning to the world either.
‘we are a medieval people,’ he writes at the end, ‘creating conditions in the country akin to those that prevailed in Akbar’s lifetime, always using past hurt to justify present hate, and therefore needing a medieval monarch to show us the way.’
As he told me over a long and interesting Skype call, it is never good when the rule of a 16th century emperor seems necessary or preferable than a democratically elected official, but if one were to wish for such an autocrat you would want Akbar. When I finished reading this book, I could not help but agree with this assessment.
On further contemplation I realised it is as important for the British to understand the Great Mughal as it is for the Indians.
In the British drive to establish themselves as rulers of India the legacy of the Mughals was a principle tool. Sharma points us to the importance of this element of baton passing by highlighting the importance of tiger hunts in Mughal court society.
In establishing himself as the perfect incarnation of universal kingship, the young emperor entertained his court with lavish hunts. The British would copy these and thus lend themselves to an image of shadow puppetry that is today a cypher for British rule in India.
It might be said that the British used Akbar and his dynasty as something as a template on which they could more easily assimilate themselves into the role as India’s overlords, they even took up some of his crusades, such as trying to abolish sati.
Nevertheless as the author told me, the idea of intolerance between Hindus and Muslims in India was encouraged to some degree by the British, who fostered the idea of the Mughals being foreign tyrants replaced by the enlighten rule of the Europeans.
Akbar by contrast strove to separate religion from society’s primary consciousness, and remove it as a source of division. Today it is this legacy of the British that is still causing the trouble and the lessons of Akbar are hard to learn from as a result.
There aren’t many writers that can make the past more present than Manimugdha Sharma can. The author has a hawk eyed knack of seeing across history, finding the similarities to the present and threading them together in a comprehensible narrative.
In saying that, one could say that this isn’t so much a biography of Akbar, but an investigation of the echo chamber of history. Sharma looks at the world and hears the echoes of distant resonance.
Allahu Akbar is a graceful read, with each paragraph revealing some detail of interest. Softly humorous and finely detailed, with sometimes wry, always sharp observations on the interplay of historical and modern issues.
One discovers in reading about the life of an extraordinary monarch that India’s politics have not changed very much. Sharma observes that candidates still attempt to vilify and deify through visual media, in the Mughal courts this was done through art and literature, whereas today it is done with much less subtlety and often exaggerated incompetence by keyboard warriors.
The results are nevertheless the same and the motives little removed from when Akbar was alive; to make governments and leaders seem untainted and untarnished as opposed to their opponents.
As a controversial figure in modern India, Akbar suffers from the stigma of being a Muslim emperor in a country with a Hindu majority and his indelible place in his country’s history, especially the interpretation of it, seems at times tenuous.
Akbar’s early reign was a dark time, filled with brutal battles, political murders and betrayals. Akbar, sought to establish himself as a king in both name and practice, and he projected this aura very effectively, not only once he regained his throne but as he was doing so, and the author does not shy away from his subject’s more unvarnished or inglorious exploits.
Fascinating elements are to be found at practically every turn, from the typical accounts of intrigue and conflict to personal things as well. Quite apart from the flowing prose of his chroniclers and his fine accomplishments, Akbar, can be seen as a coarse man, a soldier and a sportsman as much as diplomat or a courier. His language was the language of military camps and peasants and he wore coarse clothing and enjoyed it.
He mixed this with the piety of his father, which was devout, but not extremist, and he showed regret at the death of his enemies and when he could not show mercy as a beneficent, almost paternal, overlord.
Above all the great strength of the emperor was his attempt to create a unified and inclusive state that sought to draw the best out of the religions and philosophies of the world.
He was as some have said, a man of reason before the age of reason, and the people who have the will to effect change and not only that but apply such ideals are worthy of notice.
This is why Akbar is important, not only to India, but to the world, which is increasingly becoming a more insular place and in desperate need of uniting figures to admire.
Despite her poor understanding of who Akbar really was it is telling that when Elizabeth I, herself a persecutor of catholics like many of her dynasty, wrote to Akbar that it was his humanity that had spread even to her distant shore. Note she did not speak of the conquests and might of this descendent of Timur and Genghis Khan, but his humanity.
If that proves anything it proves that even in times of uncertainty, we don’t have to fear the foreign and the other.
In the warfare that had developed out of many year’s conflict in Europe and its colonies, were 3 broad area of the combat system, most numerous were the infantry, supported by the artillery, guns, both large and small, finally, performing the tasks of reconnaissance, providing a screen of pickets (sentries) and scouting off the battlefield as well as lightning fast strikes and flanking manoeuvres in battle, were the cavalry.
Wellington himself served 2 years in the cavalry, from 1789 to 1791 with the 12th Light Dragoons. Service in the Army as an officer was through a complicated system of purchasing promotion, that was open to exploitation. The design behind it meant that the offer of promotion on merit alone was relatively rare, as it was hoped to favour those from a aristocratic background. A officer’s commission in the cavalry was particularly fashionable, with bold uniforms, a flamboyant reputation and the chance to seek glory and favour in a famous cavalry charge, meant that a commission in a cavalry regiment cost more than in the a line infantry regiment.
The purpose of this article is to provide a overview of Wellington’s “British” cavalry regiments. As Spanish, Portuguese and “foreign” (Émigré regiments in British service) would have differences in their structure which may be covered at a later date. Each regiment would have varied on the number of men & horses sent on campaign, but a common structure was laid out.
For a British cavalry regiment during the period, it was formed round a single regiment. Unlike the infantry regiments, which would typically be formed of 2 Battalions, but could be many more in some cases, a cavalry regiment was a single unit.
The typical Regimental structure:Colonel of a regiment (General – Major General overseeing Administrative duties, promotions and supplies, such as uniform purchasing.)1x Lieutenant Colonel (with 1 additional space on the list, he would be able to promote to General rank and serve away, the other would be the Commanding Officer of the Regiment) 2x Majors10x Captains across 10x Troops100 ‘Troopers’ Per Troop. This was reduced to 80 men in December 1805.(Trooper referred to: Private – Corporal. N.b. Lance Corporal was only a regimental rank & stood as part of regimental standing orders, likely to received no/little extra pay)2 Lieutenants & 1 Cornet (equivalent to 2nd Lieutenant) per Troop.5 Serjeants per Troop (N.b. to tradition spelling of Serjeant with a J in the Cavalry)1 Trumpeter Serjeant Major with 10 Trumpeters (1 per Troop for passing orders) Regimental staff consisting of: Paymaster, Adjutant, Veterinary surgeon, Surgeon and 2 assistant surgeons.Plus a Serjeant Major (RSM), Paymaster Serjeant, Saddler Serjeant, Farrier Serjeant & Armourer Serjeant, along with a cadre of farriers.1x Quarter Master. (N.b. previously there was rank of Quatermaster Serjeant per troop, this developed into a Troop Serjeant Major.) With a strength of just over 1,000 men and the same again of horses (around 1,064 would have been needed per regiment), this was found to be unrealistic. Officers were permitted time away from regimental duties, such as adjutant to other units, staff officers, leave and even serving as sitting Members of Parliament common.
Along with this, there were always, casualties, sickness, missing (including desertion which was unfortunately common in the non-commissioned ranks) and with the strains of a long war, recruitment was a problem. The recruitment problem contributed to the December 1805 decision to formally reduce a regiment to 800 men plus staff, even then there was difficulty recruiting enough men, but more trouble was had in finding enough horses to mount the men. The high demand persisted meaning higher prices were asked for by horse-breeders for the cavalry mounts.The decision to lower the regimental number to around 860, meant that a typical number serving in a regiment overseas could be around 400-600 men. This was usually supplemented by leaving 2 to 4 Troops at home to train new recruits and horses.
This leaves the modern and traditional sub-units. Principally, the “Squadron”. Unlike in the modern army, a squadron wasn’t a standing unit, but still a common one. Usually formed of 2 Troops, with the senior Captain in command (occasionally a Major in place for tasks deemed important by the Commanding Officer).
The squadron allowed for 2 Troops to support one another and proved a useful structure. For example if a regiment was sent to the Peninsular, then a single squadron would often be maintained at the depot, to recruit, train, provide replacement and break in new horses. Often when orders came for campaign a given number of squadrons for a regiments was requested, leaving much to the colonel to decide on who to send.
Secondly, under the Troop level, was “The Squad”, these were kept separate and each commanded by a Serjeant, leaving the common administrative work to NCOs meant the officers were relieved of some mundane orders, however it was regulated that the officers were to check their men at “meal times”. So this left a structure of: Regiment – Squadron – Troop – Squad.
Welfare of the horses for paramount to the regiment, for every sick or lame mount a soldier could not perform their duties. The Royal Veterinary College had only been founded in 1791, so the requirement to have a Veterinary surgeon in each regiment was forward thinking from the Army’s commanders at Horse Guards, ensuring a better provision for the mounts at home and on campaign.
Farriers, under the Farrier Serjeant were part of the Troop, but with additional duties. Typically strong men, made bigger by the work of beating steel. They developed a role to care for the horses, along with riding instructors; there was a wealth of knowledge of equine science and welfare. For example, foreign forage was found to cause illness if fed immediately to the horses, so it was mixed into food brought from Britain, whilst on campaign, weaning them onto local food so to acclimatise them to their new feed.
There was well documented knowledge of experience of equine diseases and illnesses that would be well cared for. Sometime at the grumbling of infantry soldiers who thought the horses sometime had better care than they did.Recruits and training; Although Horse Guards set out guidelines for training the way new recruits were instructed was a matter for each individual regiments. Recruits were trained as part of the Troop, under the instruction of the NCOs.
A Special cadre of “rough riders” were kept with the depot to break in newly bought horses, with that came a special pay. For new officers, horse riding was thought to be an essential skill, but they also paid a small sum to the Sergeant in the role of master at arms, for sword and sabre practice.
General John Le Marchant, after having observed the British Cavalry’s inferior skills at arms in the lowland campaigns of the 1790s wrote a new doctrinal book, as well as redesigning the swords. Before this, swords were purchased by the Regimental Colonel, leading to a myriad of designs, across a variety of qualities.
What followed was the 1796 Pattern Light Cavalry Sabre and the 1796 Pattern Heavy Cavalry Sword (for respective designations of light and heavy cavalry troops). Le Marchant thought that British swordsmanship had reminded him of “someone chopping wood”.
His thoughts and practices were turned into a drill manual, becoming The Rules and Regulations of the Sword Exercise of the Cavalry (Released in 1796 also). This led to a rapid improvement of the close combat ability of the British cavalry, using Le Marchant’s manual, each man would learn the key 6 offensive cuts, along with guard positions and downward strokes, all formalised. The 6 cuts centred round a circle, representing an enemy’s face, rather than wildly hacking at the upper torso that had been ineffective before.
.It is also worth noting here the 2 main branches of cavalry; heavy and light. The distinctions meant different uniforms and swords, but meant little in the way of duties and both types were armed with pistol and carbines. In theory the light cavalry rose slightly smaller horses and were purposed for scouting and pickets (sentry). But heavy cavalry frequently often see themselves used in that role. Also it was the heavy cavalry that were meant to execute fierce charges on the battlefield, but light cavalry would see heavy action and carry out brilliant charges, such as the combat at Villa-Garcia. Wellington himself paid little attention to the designation of the cavalry role, compounded by the fact he was often calling for more cavalry (of either type), he used regiments as convenient, without regard to their official classification.
Light cavalry was made up of a mixture of “Light Dragoons” and “Hussars”. It wasn’t until after Waterloo in 1815 that regiments converted to become lancers. The heavy cavalry were “Dragoons” or more elaborately “Dragoon Guards” along with the Life Guards and Royal Horse Guard regiments (which formed the Household Cavalry).
Sources: “Gallantry and Discipline. The 12th Light Dragoons at War with Wellington” by Andrew Bamford”So Blood a Day. The 16th Light Dragoons in the Waterloo Campaign” by David J. Blackmore”The Cavalry that Broke Napoleon. The King’s Dragoon Guards at Waterloo” by Richard Goldsbrough” Wellington’s Peninsular Army” Men-at-Arms series, by James Lawford.
Absorbing, humorous and written with a soft, almost confidential, way, the story of a Navy Officer’s quest to increase the knowledge about the fate of Sir John Franklin and his crew is essential lockdown reading.
Right now all of us are in need of strong voices, that talk confidently of mental and physical fortitude, which guide us in how we can achieve our goals. Ernest Coleman’s book which details his four remarkable expeditions to uncover the truth behind some of the Franklin expedition’s biggest myths can help us get into that necessary expeditionary mindset and at the same time brigs and authentic light to this historical maritime disaster.
In tackling much debated explanations such as death by lead poisoning and cannibalism, Coleman is frank and straightforward rather than scholarly in his approach. This imbues the reader with a confidence in his common sense and capability (and rigorous testing of the written evidence) to present and interpret his findings.
Half travelogue, half history, half exploration log, No Earthly Pole is replete with its own sense of adventure and struggle. Before the book is half over Coleman half kills himself clinging on to a ATV trailer and becomes his own worst enemy during an isolated march across King William Island, where he ended up existing on hot chocolate and fisherman’s friends for ten days while he awaited rescue.
Getting followed by a film crew intent on making him sing at every possibility was another singular achievement. But that aside, there is also the endless cycle of expedition, followed by lecture tours, followed by fundraising, which is the tempo of this book. It is a realistic facet of all such memoirs of expeditions; that those who undertake them are necessarily locked into this pattern in order to forward their projects, the latter two being often more challenging than the actual expedition.
Not every expedition was a blinding success, and none could be considered outright failures, but most importantly, none were finished up without benefit. And that is an important queue for us to follow. The truth of all expeditions of a historical and archaeological nature is that very often a great deal of work goes into saying, ‘well, we know it’s not here at least.’
But Coleman’s hardships are borne with a true spirit of enterprise, for as Shackleton said, a man must shift his objectives, as soon as the last one disappears. It is how we move on. Yet sometimes peril and isolation can seem overwhelming. In one particularly striking moment, which can be used to exemplify the highs, lows, dangers and humour of this book, the author, alone and exhausted heard his own voice lulling him to lie down and drift into restful oblivion.
He fought this siren song off by debating the merits of, what was at the time a hot button issue for the Church of England; the acceptance of female ministers. Through rigorous debate he kept himself from harm, and his demons were put to flight, but he ended up deciding that he was against co-educational bible college curriculums. When, afterwards, he told a churchman of his inner struggle and how he overcame it, Coleman was told that to the mind of his correspondent, God seemed to have accepted that change was the best way, to which Coleman replied; ‘and who do you think I was talking to?’
I am writing this to tie into what would have been the 251st Birthday of Arthur Wellesley, the 1st Duke of Wellington, on 1st May 1769.
A Disputed Birth
The birth of the future Duke of Wellington, in itself has some interesting nuances in that some facts are still disputed. It is widely accepted that the 1st May is his birthday, his own father and mother wrote that it was the 1st May and Arthur himself celebrated it on this day. However; the baptismal register of the Parish of St Peter, Dublin records Arthur’s christening on 30th April 2 days before his birth. One possible explanation for this was that, sadly 2 of the Earl and Lady Mornington’s children had died in infancy, including a Arthur Wesley (the family name was changed later to Wellesley in order to Anglicise it), who dies in 1768 aged 6 or 7. As such there may have been some haste to baptise their second Arthur (the future Duke of Wellington) with some haste, in case he should die without having received such a blessing. There was already a surviving eldest son, Richard Wellesley and a second son William. In the baptismal register it is possible, albeit less likely, that the parish officials did not know what the date was. There is at least a little likelihood that these records have been falsified, either intentionally or otherwise. The entry above is dated 23rd April and the entry following is dated 24th May; all are in the same handwriting.
There is also a dispute ongoing about the place of birth, Mornington House, Dublin, or Dangan Castle, County Meath, the two family homes, town and country respectively. It is almost certain that the baby Arthur was born in Dublin as this is widely agreed upon, however some sources exist about whether the family were actually in residence there at that time, because the house may have been in the process of renovation until the summer of 1769, which would put Dangan Castle, the family seat, as a strong contender, it was also where the 2 eldest brothers were born, which is often proposed by local historians and the tourist trade. Dangan Castle is now, sadly a “romantic” ruin. Other sources have provided over 9 different locations in which Lady Mornington may have been in May 1769 and given birth to the infant Arthur, but the family (including the 9th Duke) maintain now, that it was in Dublin.
“Food for powder”
It’s fair to say, that Arthur was not a natural student. Following in his brother’s footsteps, he was sent to Eton, but unlike them, he did not settle in naturally and was thought to have learnt relatively little. This young Arthur stood out from his brothers, who were already progressing in their careers, Richard was sent to Christ Church, Oxford and excelled as a scholar, William entered a career in the Royal navy as an officer. Young Arthur did have his father’s passion for music, Lord Mornington is thought to have composed some pieces (a dance survives in his name, though it could be dedicated to him). Arthur we know played the violin, like his father and grandfather before them and had hopes to be a musician of sorts.
It was Arthur’s inability to excel academically and fit into his surrounding that caused his mother to lament: “I vow to God I don’t know what I shall do with my awkward son Arthur. He is food for powder and nothing more.” Powder referring to gunpowder, Anne, his mother thought his fate was to join the army and probably die in some obscure battle. She was at least half right. Shortly after starting Eton, Garret Wesley, the Earl of Mornington died, giving the family some financial worries, along with the title passing to Richard as eldest son. They decided to send Arthur at first to a school in Brussels, where he picked up French quickly, apparently speaking the language with a slight Belgian accent for the rest of his life. From there, a military career apparently chosen for him, he was sent on to France. It was in the French, Angier Military School that this young Arthur learnt the basics needed to become a Army officer.
By this point, with Richard having assumed the title of Lord Mornington and sitting in Parliament, William was commissioned in the Royal Navy and a elected Member of Parliament, younger brothers, Gerald Valerian was destined for the clergy with the youngest, Henry still at Eton, Arthur now found his natural habitat. The course at Angers proved not too difficult for Arthur Wesley, it consisted of, fencing, riding, dancing, French grammar, mathematics and the science of military fortifications. Arthur did well at dancing, fencing and riding, important skills for a young gentleman, he relaxed into the life, playing cards and walking his dog, a white terrier called Vick around the medieval town.
By the time he returned home in 1786, aged just 17, with the skills to equip him in a military life (along with being fluent in French), he agreed with his mothers derisory advice and embarked on a career in the army. He offered a commission in the 73rd (Highland) Regiment but the family used influence, to transfer him to the 76th (Hindoostan) Regiment with a promotion to Lieutenant and then a transfer to the 41st Regiment so he could take up duties in Ireland as the Lord-Lieutenant’s aide-de-camp based in Dublin castle.
It is from here the man that would be, Wellington, a Lieutenant of now only 18 years old began a life in the army full of bureaucracy and administration, which would lead to a political career and fast advancement which would see a brilliant journey as commander in the filed in Flanders, then India, before the now famous Battles of the Napoleonic wars.
A young boy, with little talent outside of languages, riding and music who would become, arguably the greatest military talent of the age, if not the greatest ever in Europe.
The Wesley family originally hailed from Rutland, England and moved (as the Colley or Cowley family in around 1500) they are described as Anglo-Irish, to label them as “Irish” would be anachronistic and unhelpful. With this Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington never did utter the quote “Though a man maybe born in a stable, that does not make him a horse” or words to that effect. This was probably said by Daniel O’Connell (‘The Emancipator’) or one of O’Connells close relations.
Wellington: A Personal History: Hibbert, C.
The Great Duke: Bryant, A.
Wellington: The Path to Victory 1769-1814: Muir, R.
Wellington: the Place and Day of his Birth Ascertained and Demonstrated. Murray, J. (1852)
A difficult topic, but one that is often ‘dismissed’ by Francophile historians as too common, was the French Army’s behaviour towards the civilian population when it invaded a country. Here the focus is on Spain & Portugal, though there were cases in many other invasions, Napoleon had already encouraged his troops to loot and kill after sieges in Italy and after the siege of Jaffa he ordered thousands of captive civilians killed at bayonet point (in order to save ammunition) For examples in Russia see: https://www.lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v31/n23/geoffrey-hosking/peasants-in-arms)
This is not to say that the British Army behaved angelically, though allied and invited to liberate Portugal & Spain from Napoleon’s aggressive expansionism. The retreat to Corunna in 1809 ‘remains a dark chapter in the history of the British army’ (Charles Esdaile), and the sacking of Ciudad Rodrigo, Badajoz and San Sebastian were abysmal incidents, which caused Wellington to fly into a rage and order the hanging of perpetrators on the spot. The differential factor is that the French were ordered to use the murder (and worse) and fear as a weapon as well as individual crimes and on the whole the British Army at least tried to convict those caught and Wellington was clear on harsh punishments for any crimes committed on their allies.
In the Autumn of 1807 Napoleon ordered General Jean-Andoche Junot along with over 24,000 men to invade the neutral nation of Portugal, to end it’s trade with Britain, which it refused to cease (this was an alliance with Britain which dated back to the the 14th Century). No military resistance was offered (The only resistance was offered by the governor of Valenca, who refused to open his gates to the northern column. He only caved in when he found that Lisbon had fallen and the Royal family had already fled to Brazil)
Junot was instructed to seize the property of the 15,000 persons who had fled to Brazil and to levy a 100 million Franc fine on the nation. As it happened, the refugees had carried off almost half of the specie in Portugal and the French were barely able to raise enough money to maintain the occupation army. Nevertheless, the harsh taxes caused bitter resentment among the population. By January 1808 there were open executions of civilians who resisted the heavy handed demands of the French. Meanwhile in Spain, King Charles IV, France’s supposed ally, was forced to abdicate in favour of his son, all of whom were held captive in Bayonne. The remaining children of the royal family were then forcibly ordered to join their parents in France. This led to a spontaneous uprising in Madrid; The Dos de Mayo. What followed was street fighting in different areas of Madrid as the poorly armed population confronted the occupying French troops. There were only a few Spanish military leaders involved, most of whom had been planning a campaign away from the capital and were caught unawares. The uprising was brutally put down by French Troops, street by street, famously having to storm a Spanish artillery barracks which was bravely defended.
The repression following the crushing of the initial rebellion was harsh. A special military commission was created on the evening of 2 May to be presided over by General Grouchy. This commission issued death sentences to all of those captured who were bearing weapons of any kind. In a statement issued that day Murat said: “The population of Madrid, led astray, has given itself to revolt and murder. French blood has flowed. It demands vengeance. All those arrested in the uprising, arms in hand, will be shot.”
These initial executions against cooperation, as in Portugal, or reprisal killings, as in Spain formed a pattern for the French behaviour during the Peninsular War that followed.
As the Spanish uprisings became open revolt against their invaders and evolved into successful Guerrilla War, elements to liberate their nation, the French Army used murder and fear as a weapon, under orders and spontaneously alike.
There is far less detail given in French memoirs, on how they carried out orders to sack villages and spare no one (sometimes enthusiastically as the loot provided a chance for the soldiers to gain great valuables). Joseph de Naylies, a French officer (who later because a Captain in the Eclaireurs of the Imperial Guard) wrote, “we entered the town… which was immediately pillaged and reduced to ash… We burnt [it down] and killed everyone we found there”
Maurice de Tascher, another French officer, but who was related to the Empress Josephine wrote a more harrowing account of the sacking of Cordoba; 30th June 1808:
“The Cathedral and the sacred lives within were not spared, which made the Spanish look upon us in horror, saying out loud that they would prefer we violated their women than their churches. We did both. The convents had to suffer all that debauchery has invented and the outrages of the soldier given up to himself”
The Duke of Wellington wrote of the murder, thefts and worse: “The British people, I’m certain, wouldn’t believe the indecent behaviours of the French after their retreat. I have never seen, nor heard, nor read of such behaviour and am convinced their actions have no equal in world history. You will hear several shocking recounts which should be told to the world at large. They killed all the countryfolk they found. Every day, we found the bodies of women, young and old, who were either stabbed, or shot. Since we were near Condexia, they regularly sent patrols to fetch all girls over the age of 10 to the camp to satisfy the soldiery… Every child we met was in tears, mourning the death of a parent. The houses were systematically burned … They dug up and looted the graves. Two days ago, one of our patrols entered a village where they found 36 corpses, most of whom were in their beds…”
It’s worth noting that the British public and Parliament were already well motivated against Napoleon as a threat towards Britain. The fear of invasion was tangible, especially in London and along the South coast. Wellington was not prone to exaggeration, nor did he often write graphic descriptions of the war he witnessed (for example the aftermath of Waterloo so deeply upset him, that he refused to talk about it), so we can presume his writing is factual.
To the Romans, Jesus, known to them as Christus/Christos, was a troublemaker, and his followers were by turns anathema, evil and mischievous.
For it seemed to them a dark form of mischief making to try and reverse the shame of crucifixion, which was in itself also a promotion of Roman power over enemies of the state, and spin it into something to glorify and celebrate.
As the earliest non-Christian accounts of the followers of Jesus attest, Christianity was seen as only slightly less abhorrent than outright rebellion and a slap in the face to the ultimate power of the Roman state.
The first century AD historian, Tacitus minced no words when he wrote that Christians were evil. He felt that the execution of a man that was to him a complete nobody; a man less than an idea, had been necessary to temporarily quash what he termed a dangerous superstition.
‘Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus,’
[Tacitus, Annales XV].
Many today who would agree, like Tacitus, that belief in Jesus is dangerous superstition, forget that Tacitus too believed in an unseen realm, controlled by forces beyond the reach of man.
Why then did the likes of Tacitus, declare the beliefs of Christians to be dangerous, evil and despised? Well I think, Tom Holland is correct in his hypothesis in Dominion that to the Romans, crucifixion represented not only the death of a rebel; painful and excruciating and a shameful way to die, but it was essentially to turn the condemned person into a pawn of the state, a temporarily live exhibition of Roman power.
Thus to glory in a crucifixion was to them incomprehensible, and to deify one who had undergone the most shameful and degrading of public deaths was to spit at Roman power and authority.
Disdain for Christianity’s apparent devotion to the crucified Christos was not restricted to historians like Tacitus, but also to statesmen and lawyers like Pliny the Younger, governor of Pontus/Bithynia from 111-113 AD.
It fell to Pliny to suppress Christianity in his province and wrote a famous letter to the emperor Trajan asking if his procedures for trying denounced as Christians were acceptable.
The majority of people could simply avoid punishment for defiance of the edict banning Christian worship by swearing to the gods of Rome, the deified emperor and offering wine to his image etc, however Pliny felt he had to question further some who said they had stopped being Christians after the promulgation of the edict.
‘Accordingly, I judged it all the more necessary to find out what the truth was by torturing two female slaves who were called deaconesses. But I discovered nothing else but depraved, excessive superstition … the matter seemed to me to warrant consulting you, especially because of the number involved. For many persons of every age, every rank, and also of both sexes are and will be endangered. For the contagion of this superstition has spread not only to the cities but also to the villages and farms.’
The ordinary people, especially in Rome, so it seems, were no less disdainful of the apparent absurdity of revering not only the victim of crucifixion but the cross itself as if it was the throne of a king.
A graffito found on the Palatine Hill in Rome, of uncertain date, (with estimates ranging from the 1st to the 3rd centuries AD,) mockingly caricatured a figure gesturing at cross that bears a man with the head of an ass, with the words scratched in Greek reading: ‘Alexamenos respects god.’
The words of the 1st Century AD Historian Suetonius in his lives of the Caesars are firm on the matter of the legislation enacted under Nero, for amongst the many laws he says the emperor created was that:
‘Punishment was inflicted on the Christians, a class of men given to a new and mischievous superstition,’
Suetonius, Life of Nero.
and in his book on Claudius, he informed his readers that the emperor, hearing that:
‘the Jews constantly made disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus [presumed to be a mishearing of Christos], he expelled them from Rome.’
Suetonius, Life of Claudius.
To return to Tacitus, (reporting that Nero had blamed the Christians for the Great Fire of Rome,) who like Suetonius found the Christian ’superstition’ in Jesus to be ‘mischievous’ but also an abomination, continued that after the death of Christ, the movement:
‘thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judæa, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind.’
Notwithstanding a short break (what’s a millennia and a half between friends ay?), the Olympics has been a part of humanity’s story for the last 2800 years – ish. The start of the Ancient Olympics is usually attributed to the year 776 BC -that’s when the first Olympic Games took place in the town of Olympia; situated somewhere between the city-states of Elis and Sparta on the west coast of the Peloponnese. The first Games consisted of only one event, the Stade race, in which runners had to run 280 meters (or a Stadion, the word we derive ‘stadium’ from). The race was unremarkable, should 20 competitors decide run a Stade race today it would be remarkably similar to a modern sprint – other than the fact that male competitors would all be naked of course. Which would certainly make for some unflattering media coverage, or perhaps a 21st century resurgence of the Stade race would make the Olympics more popular than ever?
There are many other ways that the Ancient Olympics differ to our modern Olympics but this list represents by far the weirdest.
Only Men Could Compete
The Ancient Olympics was both primarily a religious event and also a strictly man only affair. That’s not to say that women couldn’t take part in their own sporting events – they could compete in the Heraean Games, though many of the finder details of this event have been lost to the mists of time – but they were forbidden from entering the Olympics. In fact, if you were a married woman you were prevented from even watching the Olympics. The punishment for ogling the jiggling glutes of the male competitors for a wed woman was severe, if you were caught you’d be thrown off a mountain.
That’s not to say that a woman never won the Olympic Games however. Who achieved this seemingly impossible feat? That would be a Spartan woman called Kyniska, daughter of the Archidamos. Rather oddly, the winner of a chariot race was not the rider, rather it was the owner of the horses who received the glory – enabling Kyniska to win the event, without actually being there. The rider – despite being in command of a rickety chariot pulled by four muscle bound horses over some 12 laps and 14,000 metres – received a grand total of zilch for their efforts.
They Were Stinky. Very Stinky
Today, a country fortunate enough to hold the Olympics must invest millions into creating custom built stadiums. Not only are they perfectly constructed in every conceivable way, providing the ideal environment for the athletes competing within them, they also offer comprehensive comfort for the spectators. Offering food, drink, seating and – most importantly – lots and lots of toilets.
The spectators of the Ancient Olympics had no such luxury, Every four years (that’s an Olympiad) over 50,000 people descended on the ordinarily virtually uninhabited Olympia (a few priests kept things ticking over but that was about it). 50,000 people sat in the hot sun with only a river to poop in. Just imagine the stench. Add to that the fact that 100 oxen would be sacrificed and burnt on the Alter of Zeus in the middle of the festival. There’s one thing for certain, no candle manufacturer will ever be making an overpriced candle infused with the scent of the Ancient Olympics.
A Dead Person Won the Olympics
The Ancient Olympics were a brutal affair, boxing and wrestling were much more violent than the modern versionwe are used to seeing on our televisions today. Though both these blood soaked spectacles paled in gore levels compared to Pankration – the mixed martial arts of the Ancient world.Pankration had only two rules, no biting and no poking out anyone’s eye. Other than that, anything went!
One remarkable account details the final fight of Arrhichionof Phigalia. Arrhichion was trapped in the vice like grip of his formidable opponent. Arms like steely vein covered greasy oil coated pythons were wrapped around his neck, and try as he might Arrhichion could not free himself. As his vision began to fade Arrhichion stamped as hard as he could on his opponent’s foot. The pain was so intense that this unknown fighter released Arrhichion and submitted. The crowd went wild, Arrhichion had overcame the odds and won. But while the crowd went bananas Arrhichion remained unmoving on the sand and dirt. He was dead.
That didn’t dampen the celebration however. Despite being very deceased, Arrhichion was crowned the victor and returned to Phigalia a hero.
More Gore than Ever Before
Arrhichion’s final victory was not the goriest event to take place in the Ancient Olympics, instead that honour would fall to the boxing match between Damoxenos and Creugas. In Ancient Boxing there were no weight classes and the matches were randomly picked. So you could end up with a bout in which one fighter had a significant size and weight advantage over the other. Which reportedly was the case when these Damoxenos and Creugas, two undefeated champions, went up against each other.
Damoxenos was a massive slab of humanity, whilst Creugaswas smaller but incredibly nimble. And a good thing too, with no boxing gloves fighters instead just wrapped their fists in leather; one punch from the giant Damoxenos would have levelled Creugas, and with no rules stating otherwise, the bigger man could keep on punching Creugas in the head – regardless of whether or not if he could defend himself. Either way power vs agility had led to a draw, meaning a ‘klimax’ was enforced. Here each man takes it in turns to hit the other with full force; this is an unprotected blow taking at their liberty. Like some sort of blood soaked penalty shootout the fight ends when only one man is left standing.
Creugas went first, he punched the bigger man in the head as hard as he could. But to little avail, Damoxenos just shrugged off the assault. Then it was Damoxenos’ turn, Creugus braced himself as this terrifying beast punched him with full force with straight fingers into the bread basket. Damoxenos clearly needed a manicure as his sharp nails ripped at Creugas’ skin. Damoxenos then ripped his fingers once more along Creugas’ abdomen, gutting the fighter like a pig and causing his innards to come tumbling out like meat and potato from a freshly bitten pie.
It was all over, Creugus had won. That’s right, Creugus. Damoxenos had been disqualified as the rules of the ‘Klimax’ state one punch at a time only. Sure, Creugas’ guts were getting a sun tan but it was all worth it for that laurel wreath.
The World’s Greatest
These days, in every Olympic event, multiple world records are smashed. Athletes are lucky to hold on to their world record for a decade but it would be unheard of for a competitor to hold a record for fifty years, let alone a hundred. Yet there was one ancient athlete who held his record for over two thousand years. Yes, TWO THOASAND YEARS. This phenomenal specimen of a Homo Sapien was Leonidas of Rhodes.
He first competed in the Olympic Games of the 154th Olympiad in 164 BCE, where Leonidas captured the laurel wreath in three different races; the stadion, the diaulos (a foot face of (400 metres) and the hoplitodromos (a diaulos where the runners wear armour – talk about exhausting!). He then went on to win these three events over the next three consecutive Olympiads. Bear in mind that in the Ancient Olympics there was no second of third place, you were either a winner… or a massive loser.
This astonishing act, of winning twelve individual Olympic victories, was unmatched until 2016; when Michael Phelps, the American swimmer, one his 13th Olympic Gold.
Adrian is a co-owner of Imagining History workshops. Imagining History provides educational history workshops for primary schools that captivate and entertain.
Their interactive sessions combine role-play, storytelling, demonstrations and drama and performance to bring history to life for students.