Sunday, October 1, 2017

Oct. 1: Mao Zedong Declares China's Founding

This image hangs on the Tiananmen Gate

On this day in 1949, classics writer Chairman Mao Zedong stood on the "Gate of Heavenly Peace" (Tiananmen) and declared the founding of the People's Republic of China--an event which had actually happened about 10 days earlier. Happy birthday, PRC, my home for over 11 years!

(A seriously light day in "classics history," by the way.)

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Sep. 30: The Premiere of The Magic Flute

From a 1793 production of The Magic Flute

On this day in 1791, The Magic Flute, the last-debuted opera by classics composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, premiered in Vienna, Austria, just two months before the composer died at age 35. It is still one of the most-performed operas in the world.

Here's the story: Prince Tamino is attacked by a giant serpent, but is saved by three ladies who work for the "Queen of the Night." He is commissioned to save the Queen's daughter from the clutches of the evil sorcerer Sarastro.

To help him, the servants give him a magic flute, and he acquires a goofy sidekick named Papageno.

When he gets close up to the girl Pamina, he learns that Sarastro is not evil--the Queen, her mother, is! Sarastro has been protecting Pamina.

In order to win the girl, Tamino must pass three tests. Needless to say, he succeeds, and the Queen is so ticked she attempts to overcome Sarastro, and is sent to hell for her troubles.

Okay, maybe reading a summary of the story isn't the best way to experience an operatic masterpiece. But you can find highlights on YouTube!

Friday, September 29, 2017

Sep. 29: The Battle of Auray

Battle of Auray in Froissart's Chronicles

In 1364, English forces defeated the French at the Battle of Auray, bringing to an end the War of the Breton Succession, the first phase of the so-called "Hundred Years' War." It is discussed Book I of classics writer Jean Froissart's Chronicles.

An earlier phase of this same campaign is depicted in the 1596 play Edward III, which is now believed to have been co-written by classics writer Thomas Kyd and a certain "upstart crow" named Shakespeare. William Shakespeare.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Sep. 28: The Birthday of Confucius

A 1687 Latin translation of Confucius

It's the birthday of classics writer and Chinese philosopher Confucius, 2,567 years young today. (See below)

I don't usually mention birthdays in these stories--they're straightforward Calendar entries--but (a) I couldn't find any events with classics tie-ins (except some I've already mentioned, like Pompey and William the Conqueror) and (b) few people in history have had the effect on culture--ancient and modern--that Confucius has had.

Why do east Asians call themselves family name first, then personal? Confucius. He ordered things from higher to lower, and the family comes before the individual.

Why do east Asians have so many words for family? They can distinguish mother's oldest sister's husband from dad's youngest brother--people we just call "uncle." The same reason: order, hierarchy.

If you accept that the populations of China, Japan, and South Korea were all influenced by Confucian thought (never mind the millions more in the Chinese diaspora), then well over a fifth of the people alive today live in cultures directly affected by his thinking.


Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Sep. 27: Champollion Decodes the Rosetta Stone

Champollion dressed as an Egyptian

Back in 1798, some of Napoleon's men in Egypt were re-enforcing a wall in the port town of Rosetta (modern Rashid) when, in the foundation, they happened upon a stone with three blocks of text, the topmost in hieroglyphics, the bottom in ancient Greek and the middle one in a script mistaken for Syriac, but eventually recognized as Demotic (meaning "popular"), the transitional Egyptian writing system used between late Egyptian and Coptic.

This was the famous la Pierre de Rosette: the Rosetta Stone.

Over two decades later, in 1822, the French scholar Jean-François Champollion announced on this day that he had "cracked the code" after years of work.

The key was "simple" (in hindsight): the thre lines were all saying the same thing. Nevertheless, it wasn't until Champollion recognized the use of rulers' names--names that were already known, and could be read in the Greek and the Demotic--that the "key" was turned and the unlocking began.

And what was this crucial text about? Because even the ancient Greek is somewhat obscure, exact translation has still not been achieved. But it's essentially a decree in the time of Ptolemy V issued by temple priests at Memphis in 196 BCE. It praises the young king (then just 13 years old) and his goodness--a sort of donation letter?

Some things never change.

Oh, and thanks to Champollion we can read, for example, the Egyptian Book of the Dead and other cool classics.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Sep. 26: Caesar's Victory over Pompey

Theodatus shows Caesar the head of Pompey; etching, 1820

On August 9, 48 BCE, Julius Caesar's faction in the upheaval known as "Caesar's Civil War" was victorious in the "Battle of Pharsalus" over Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, known as "Pompey the Great." Caesar was outnumbered and under-provisioned; Pompey had intended to sit it out, but the Roman senators pushed him to proceed. He lost.

Caesar had won through sheer genius, though he credited his vow to build a temple to Venus Genetrix--not just the form of the goddess Venus as mother, but Caesar's own mythical ancestress. On this day, September 26, 46 BCE (just over two years later), he fulfilled his vow and built that temple.

Three of our classics writers owe their inspiration (in part) to the battle:
  • Caesar himself wrote about it in his Civil War.
  • The Roman poet Lucan wrote an epic poem called Pharsalia.
  • Shakespeare wrote of the aftermath in the first scene of Julius Caesar, where officers scold the people for celebrating Caesar's victory:
Wherefore rejoice? What conquest brings he [Caesar] home?
What tributaries follow him to Rome
To grace in captive bonds his chariot wheels?
You blocks, you stones, you worse than senseless things,
O you hard hearts, you cruel men of Rome,
Knew you not Pompey? Many a time and oft
Have you climbed up to walls and battlements,
To towers and windows, yea, to chimney tops,
Your infants in your arms, and there have sat
The livelong day with patient expectation
To see great Pompey pass the streets of Rome.
And when you saw his chariot but appear,
Have you not made an universal shout
That Tiber trembled underneath her banks
To hear the replication of your sounds
Made in her concave shores?
And do you now put on your best attire?
And do you now cull out a holiday?
And do you now strew flowers in his way
That comes in triumph over Pompey’s blood?
Be gone!
Run to your houses, fall upon your knees,
Pray to the gods to intermit the plague
That needs must light on this ingratitude.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Sep. 25: The Battle of Stamford Bridge

The Battle of Stamford Bridgeby Peter Nicolai Arbo (1870)

Dynastic struggles, one might say, are a bitch. So when Edward the Confessor, the penultimate Anglo-Saxon king of England, died in January 1066, all hell broke loose.

For a time it seemed the likely victor would be Harold Godwinson (literally--his father was named "Godwin") who was Edward's brother-in-law, as his sister Edith had married Edward. To be clear, that was Edith of Wessex. Edith Swannesha (called "Edith the Fair") was Harold's own first wife by common law; his second was Edith (sometimes "Ealdgyth"), the daughter of Ælfgar, Earl of Mercia. For those keeping count, that was two wives and a sister named Edith.

Anyway, Harold's chances were looking good, but he had ticked off his brother Tostig (another Godwinson) by siding with Edward in a dispute and messing with Tostig's power base. Payback being what it is, Tostig teamed up with a Viking named Harald III Hardrada, King of Norway (Hardrada means "Hard Ruler," always a bad sign).

But Harold seemed up to the task--briefly. On this day in 1066, Harold's forces beat Harald (spelling counts, kids!) and Tostig at the Battle of Stamford Bridge, which effectively ended any Viking invasions with any chance of success, although there were a few faltering incursions later.

1066? Hmmm... Why does that sound familiar?

Well, remember when I said Edward was the "penultimate" Anglo-Saxon king? Harold was the ultimate (and not in a good way). Just three weeks later, a French guy named William, since then nicknamed "the Conqueror," snatched Harold's victory from his jaws at a place called Hastings--yes, and all that.

Classics connection? Classics writer Snorri Sturluson recorded the whole thing in "King Harald's Saga," part of the Heimskringla, a collection of sagas about Norwegian kings from legendary times to 1177.