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There is an apocryphal story about the artist Giotto.  The pope wanted a new artist and organised job interviews.  Giotto inscriped a perfect circle freehand and got the job.

Today is Pi Day because March 14th in the USA is annotated as 3/14 and these are the first three digits of Pi.

Pi is important because it is the number that describes a circle.  You need Pi to calculate the Radius/Diameter and the circumference of a circle.

Pi is a beautiful number because it seems to have no end.  A bit like a circle.

The eternal circle has become the symbol of a perfect marriage, as reflected in a wedding ring.

A more mystical symbol of eternity is the  ouroboros, a snake/dragon eating its own tail.  A symbol of life, death and rebirth.

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Heard about the Horde Hoard?

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In the early 5th Century a horde of barbarians were led by their King, Alaric, to the City of Rome.  These were the Goths.  Just to be clear the Goths did not look exactly like the people in the photograph above, but I looked online for a representation of the Barbarian Goths.  Most of the images of the Sack of Rome are romantic fantasies of the 19th century.  They are about as accurate a depiction of Alaric and his people as the photo above.  So if you can’t be historically accurate then at least be funny.

So you have now heard about the horde, but what of the horde hoard?  When the Goths sacked Rome in 410 AD, it was on August 24th, about 2:30 PM and it was not at all the barbarian rampage that the romantics like to conjure up.  Alaric and his people were largely if not wholly Christian, albeit Arian Christians, who were considered to be heretics by the Niceans.  But let’s not go there.

Anyhow, Alaric told the Romans, and his own folk, that Christian Churches were safe.  Any Romans hiding in a Christian Church were safe.  But private residences and pagan temples were fair game.  So the Goths went methodically through the city and amassed a hoard of treasure worthy of Smaug; the dragon from the Hobbit.

Then Alaric decided to march south to Calabria.  He had the idea to sail his people to Africa and create a Gothic Kingdom there years before the Vandals got the idea.  But he was unlucky with the weather and his fleet of ships was wrecked.  Alaric himself picked up an illness and died shortly afterwards in the town of Cosenza, and here is where the tale of the treaure hoard gets really interesting.

Laden down with treasure the Goths wanted to honour Alaric with a grand tomb.  But they felt that the locals would loot any mausoleum the moment they marched North.  So they hatched a plan.

They enslaved a work gang of local Italians and forced them to change the course of the river Busento.  The riverbed was excavated and a tomb was built into the bed of the river.  Alaric was placed in the tomb with his burial treasures piled high around him.  The tomb was sealed, the river was returned to its course and hey presto the treasure was hidden.

The Goths then slaughtered the slaves to ensure the location of the tomb was never revealed, before marching off to a new home in Southern France.

To this day the tomb of Alaric has not been found.  Where is Indiana Jones when you need him?

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Dodgy depiction of Alaric and his Goths

 

A hateful son

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Now that the Covid-19 media apocalypse is upon us here in Ireland I am taking a moment to think about the boy who gave us the name for next month.

The painting above is the Benjamin West 1795 “Death on a pale horse” which depicts the Biblical four horsemen of the apocalypse, Pestilence, War, Famine and Death, riding successively horses coloured white, red, black and pale.

In the ancient world disease killed more armies than battle, and was a constant companion of any assembled army.  Famine followed in the wake of every army as they stripped the land bare of food, like a plague of locusts.  Death of course is the bride of war.

So it is interesting to look at the parallels between the apocalyptic horsemen and the earlier Greco-Roman depictions of the Roman Mars (for whom we name March) and his Greek origination as the God Ares.

Homer, in the Illiad, quotes Zeus as calling Ares the god most hateful to him.  Such a thing to say to your own son!

The Greeks, for all their warlike tendencies, had a suspicion of unbridled passion.  They saw Eros (uncontrolled love) as a form of madness.  In Ares they saw the passion needed to succeed in battle, but they also saw the brutality.  Untamed aggression was achieved by letting slip the reins of mental discipline.

Like the later four horsemen Ares travelled in a gang of four.  Himself, the God of war, accompanied in his chariot by his two sons Phobos (Fear) and Deimos (Terror) and his daughter/lover Enyo (Discord).  Indeed it was Enyo who started the Trojan war.  But that’s a different story.

Ares had four sure-footed, gold bridled, immortal horses who pulled his chariot; Aithon, Phlogios, Konabos and Phobos (same name as his son).

The Greeks saw Ares as a destabilising force, and saw war as a necessary evil, both to be avoided if possible.  Ares is often ridiculed or embarrased in Greek mythology.

Rome took a different line.  Rome placed Mars in the top 3 of their Gods.  The Romans viewed War as the means to Peace and they treated their god of war with reverence and dignity.  Instead of being incestuously linked to Discord like Ares the Roman Mars is married to Nerio, the Goddess of Valor.

So we can see that the four horsemen of the bible have more in common with the Greek god of war than they do with the Roman Mars.

And now back to the painting.  In a twist of fate it carries its own apocalyptic tale.  When the first American Academy of art burned down a volunteer fireman cut the painting from its frame and saved it from the conflagration.

Happy Birthday Hadrian

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Roman Emperor Hadrian is probably best known for his walls and his beard.  He sits right in the middle of the good times as the 3rd of the five “good” emperors: Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antonius Pius and Marcus Aurelius.

One of the reasons the emperors were considered good is because they chose good successors, not family.  On this measure Aurelius failed and the lot is reduced to four.

Hadrian was the second Spanish emperor after Trajan, he was born 24th January, 76 AD   in Italica, which is just outside modern day Seville in Spain.  I visted in the summer of 1978.  It was hot.  There was no shade and I am no daywalker.  Bring water – wear sunscreen and a hat!

After the expanision of the empire to its greatest extent by Trajan there was a period of consolidation by Hadrian – hence the walls.  The most famous of which spans northern England.  Less famous but equally impressive are the walls erected in Africa.

Hadrian is responsible for naming Palestine.  His reputation amongst the Jews is not very nice and his name in Jewish texts is often followed by “may his bones be crushed”.  This is because Hadrian put down the final Jewish uprising in the Province of Judea – the Bar Kokhba revolt.

If you look at it from Hadrian’s point of view it is clear that the Jews were a major problem and the empire had been fighting revolt after revolt since 66AD and the reign of Nero.

After the Bar Kokhba revolt was put down the Romans pulled down the fortifications from 50 Jewish cities, leaving their populations exposed to danger.  The Roman provinces of Judaea, Galilee and Samaria were reformed and renamed as “Syria Palestina”.  This is seen as a calculated insult, to rename Jewish lands for their ancient enemies; the Philistines.

The Jews date the Diaspora from the end of the war with Hadrian, and it was the spread of the Jewish people accross the Roman Empire that led indirectly to the flowering of Christianity in the Empire.

Hadrian was also openly gay in the modern sense.  He loved all things Greek, earning him the nickname “The Greekling”.  This love extended to his boyfriend Antinous, a Bythinian Greek Youth who was deified by Hadrian when he drowned in the Nile on an Egyptian holiday (not joking).

The poem below is said to have been inspired by a poem of Emperor Hadrian: Animula, vagula, blandula.

Animula; by T.S. Eliot

‘Issues from the hand of God, the simple soul’
To a flat world of changing lights and noise,
to light, dark, dry or damp, chilly or warm;
moving between the legs of tables and of chairs,
rising or falling, grasping at kisses and toys,
advancing boldly, sudden to take alarm,
retreating to the corner of arm and knee,
eager to be reassured, taking pleasure
in the fragrant brilliance of the Christmas tree,
pleasure in the wind, the sunlight and the sea;
studies the sunlit pattern on the floor
and running stags around a silver tray;
confounds the actual and the fanciful,
content with playing-cards and kings and queens,
what the fairies do and what the servants say.
The heavy burden of the growing soul
perplexes and offends more, day by day;
week by week, offends and perplexes more
with the imperatives of ‘is and seems’
and may and may not, desire and control.
The pain of living and the drug of dreams
curl up the small soul in the window seat
behind the Encyclopædia Britannica.
Issues from the hand of time the simple soul
irresolute and selfish, misshapen, lame,
unable to fare forward or retreat,
fearing the warm reality, the offered good,
denying the importunity of the blood,
shadow of its own shadows, spectre in its own gloom,
leaving disordered papers in a dusty room;
living first in the silence after the viaticum.

Pray for Guiterriez, avid of speed and power,
for Boudin, blown to pieces,
for this one who made a great fortune,
and that one who went his own way.
Pray for Floret, by the boarhound slain between the yew trees,
pray for us now and at the hour of our birth.

 

 

Retreat from Kabul

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Remnants of an Army by Elizabeth Butler

The painting above immortalised the moment, on the afternoon of Jan 13th, 1842, when Dr. William Brydon reached the British outpost at Jellalabad, 140 km east of Kabul.

He was the first survivor of an army of 4,500 troops and 12,000 civilians who left Kabul on January 6th under a promise of safe passage out of Afghanistan.  For seven days they were set upon by Afghan tribesmen as they tried to struggle through snowbound mountain passes.  Their column was broken up, groups became separated, snipers fired constantly and they were subjected to massed attacks when the terrain permitted.

Brydon arrived at Jellalabad on a horse which collapsed and died when it was stabled.  He had a sword cut on his scalp and was saved more serious injury because his hat was stuffed with pages of a magazine in an attempt to keep him warm.  The paper absorbed much of the sword cut.  He became famous as the “only” survivor, although others subsequently made it back to safety.

The subsequent defence of the fort at Jellalabad became the stuff of legend in the British Army and was celebrated in boys story books for the next century.  The 2,000 men of the 13th foot (Somerset light infantry) held the fort for five months until a relief force reached them.  Under the command of General Robert Sale the troops turned an old ruined fort into a defensible position.  Instead of sitting behind the walls they sortied out to raid the Afghans.  On one occassion they stole a herd of sheep to keep themselves suppllied.  Then they raided the Afghan camp and stole all the supplies.  So successful were they in this that the Afghans gave up and returned to Kabul.  Sale also personally freed his own wife and daughter from captivity.

When the 13th returned to India every garrison on their path celebrated them with a 10 gun salute.  Queen Victoria had them designated as a Light infantry and they were called “Prince Albert’s Own”.

 

From “The Young British Soldier” ; by Rudyard Kipling

When you’re wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains,
and the women come out to cut up what remains,
jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains
an’ go to your Gawd like a soldier.

Happy Birthday Rudyard Kipling

Kipling in 1895

Despite being a nobel prize winning author Rudyard Kipling is a divisive figure in the modern world.  Many of his poems, novels and short stories are schoolboy classics.  But he represents the most obnoxious, biased and jingoistic elements of British Imperialism.   One thing is certain; he was a prolific writer and he has left us a wealth of poetry, not all of which is doggerel.  Born in India, December 30th, 1865, in the days when the sun did not set on the British Empire, and when the world map was a sea of pink, the colour used to pick out the Empire.

 

My Boy Jack? ; by Rudyard Kipling

‘Have you news of my boy Jack? ‘
Not this tide.

‘When d’you think that he’ll come back? ‘
Not with this wind blowing, and this tide.

‘Has anyone else had word of him? ‘
Not this tide.
For what is sunk will hardly swim,
not with this wind blowing and this tide.

‘Oh, dear, what comfort can I find? ‘
None this tide,
nor any tide,
except he did not shame his kind –
not even with that wind blowing, and that tide.
Then hold your head up all the more,
this tide,
and every tide;
because he was the son you bore,
and gave to that wind blowing and that tide!

Battle of Trebia

Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps exhibited 1812 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

JMW Turner: Snow Storm

JMW Turner was a Romantic, part of the art movement that celebrated the magnificence of Nature.  So when he painted Hannibal and his Army crossing the Alps in 218 BC he confined the great army and those famous elephants, to a footnote.  The pride of place is given to Nature, the towering vortex of the Snow Storm.

On December 18th in 218 BC the Alpine weather was not a problem for the Romans.  That was the date when the Legions met the recently arrived Hannibal.  In the Battle of Trebbia he handed the Roman Republic the first of the three enormous defeats they suffered in the Italian Peninsula.

From a Roman Army of 40,000 only 10,000 survived.  Tiberius Sempronius Longus was able to save his core veteran heavy infantry by forming a hollow square and retreating from the battlefield in good order.  The Roman and Allied cavalry were routed by the Numidians.  The Roman light infantry and the Auxiliary forces of allied Celtic tribes were driven into the river and many drowned.  Any surviving Celts probably switched sides and the battle was a recruiting drive for Hannibal.  The fresco below is from the Hall of Hannibal in the Capitoline Museum in Rome.

Hannibal - HISTORY