Poxy King


Charles VIII of France, who was known by his subjects as Charles the Affable.  For me he is the Monarch of the morbus gallicus, the Sovereign of syphilis, the prince of pox.

In 1494 on the death of his relative he exercised his “right” to the throne of Naples.  In a swift campaign he swept through Italy and seized Naples (on this day in 1495) without a siege.   On the way through Italy his French and Swiss troops deported themselves in the usual manner of invading soldiers and raped their way down the peninsula.

The Italians rapidly formed the League of Venice, or the Holy League in 1495 with support mainly from the Neapolitans, Milan, Venice, the Papal States, the Holy Roman Empire and the Kingdoms of Spain.

There is a “pre-Columbian” theory that syphilis was present in Europe in some form before this point, but it is also known that it was in the New World.  The popular theory is that the Spanish contingent contained some soldiers and sailors who had been with Columbus in the new world.  Or perhaps they shared the same brothels as the Sailors of Columbus before they departed for Italy.

Whatever the origination there is no doubt that the full blown and virulent explosion of syphilis into Europe can be traced to the war in Naples.

In 1495 the French and Swiss were driven out of Italy by the Holy League, but they brought the disease with them.  They raped and pillaged their way back through Italy to France and then brought the disease home.  It spread throughout the world and was initially a highly virulent disease that resulted in early death.  This supports the theory that it came from the New World for the Europe of the 15th Century had no immunity to the illness.

England had the misfortune to join the League of Venice in 1496. By 1497 the disease had reached England and Scotland.

To this day it remains one of the most horrible and contagious diseases in existence.  Modern antibiotics kept it in check for the last 60 years, but now it is having a resurgence in a world of relaxed sexual mores, anti-biotic resistant strains and low immune conditions such as Aids.

The disease recedes in times of peace, but resurges every time there is a major war.  War is the friend of the Sexually Transmitted Disease.

Alexander Mosaic


1st October is the day Alexander finally defeated Darius at the Battle of Gaugamela.  The Greeks and Persians had met at two previous large scale battles.  At Granicus Alexander defeated a combined army of Persians and Greek Mercenaries led by local Satraps (provincial governors).  At Issus Alexander met the king himself, Darius III, and roundly defeated him.  Finally at Gaugamela he smashed the Persian army.  Darius escaped the battle but was murdered by Bessus, one of his Satraps.

The Alexander mosaic above is taken from Pompeii.  Constructed in circa 100BC it was found in the “House of the Faun”.  The mosaic is an extraordinarily detailed piece of work.  It uses free form flowing lines of tesserae to suggest movement and to capture the organic nature of the scene.  The work would have cost a kings ransom and the client was clearly a very wealthy family.

The image itself is held to depict the battle of Issus, showing the moment when the charge of Alexander and his Companion Cavalry smashed into the centre of the Persian line.  Contemporary accounts of the battle are clear about the events that led to the flight of Darius.

I was in Naples in 1986 and made a special trip to see the original in the museum there.  It is now mounted on the wall rather than on the floor.  A reproduction has also been constructed for the original house in Pompeii.  I had just completed my degree in UCD in English and Greek & Roman Civilization.  We had a guest lecture from a classics professor who had devoted years to the study of this mosaic.  He was able to deconstruct contemporary accounts of the battle of Issus and explain to us the exact point of the battle depicted in the Mosaic.

He then went on to explore the mosaic piece by piece, scene by scene in minute detail.  It was a really interesting lecture and one that has stuck in my memory.  In particular I remember him pointing out the reflection of the face of the man lying under the chariot of Darius in the foreground.  He supports a shining shield which reflects the naked fear in his face as he cowers beneath the hooves of the charging horses.

Spanish Flu

Alfonso XIII

Alfonso XIII

What’s in a name?  Diseases are often named after places, and who wants to be remembered for a disease?  Early outbreaks of Syphilis in Europe for instance occured during a French invasion of Italy in 1494.  The French promptly called it the “Italian” disease and blamed it on Neapolitans.  The Neapolitans blamed it on the French soldiers and called it the “French” disease.  The truth is that the strain probably came from the New World, transmitted to Europe by the men who sailed with Christopher Columbus.  Which would make it the Spanish disease.  Or the “Indian” disease since Columbus thought he had found a Western route to India.

Spanish flu was confirmed in the USA in March 1918 in Fort Riley, Kansas.  There is much debate now about the origin of the flu.  What is certain is that it exploded all along the Western Front at the end of World War 1 in the crowded and unsanitary conditions in which troops commonly live.

One theory is that it migrated from the herds of pigs that were kept penned nearby to feed troops.  Another theory arises from a forgotten piece of war history.  Thousands of Chinese coolies were recruited by the allies to provide labour along the western front.  There was an outbreak of H1N1 virus in China around the same time.  Did it originate in Europe and spread to China or vice versa?

In France, England and Germany the wartime propaganda machine was in full swing.  There was no reporting of deaths from flu as this might encourage military action by the enemy.  However Spain was outside of the conflict.  When the Spanish king Alfonso XIII became ill with the flu the pandemic was reported widely, giving the impression that it was rampant in Spain.  As a result it became known as the Spanish Flu.

Now a truly international poet.  Wilhelm Albert Włodzimierz Apolinary Kostrowicki.  Born in Italy to a Polish family he was wounded in WW1 fighting for France and died of the Spanish flu.  He coined the terms “Cubism” and “Surrealism”.

Le Pont Mirabeau; Guillaume Apollinaire

Under Mirabeau Bridge the river slips away
And lovers
Must I be reminded
Joy came always after pain

The night is a clock chiming
The days go by not I

We’re face to face and hand in hand
While under the bridges
Of embrace expire
Eternal tired tidal eyes

The night is a clock chiming
The days go by not I

Love elapses like the river
Love goes by
Poor life is indolent
And expectation always violent

The night is a clock chiming
The days go by not I

The days and equally the weeks elapse
The past remains the past
Love remains lost
Under Mirabeau Bridge the river slips away

The night is a clock chiming
The days go by not I