More Historical Misconceptions (for the first installment see Ex Tempore Vol. III, 1992, pp. 50-62)
Alea iacta est
When crossing the River Rubicon on 10/11 January 49 BC, Gaius Julius Caesar (100-44 BC) reportedly said " alea iacta est " (the dice is thrown), aware that getting his feet wet meant war. Caesar himself does not mention the event in his De Bello Civili , but the Roman historian Gaius Suetonius, writing some 150 years later, shows us that Caesar, a rather cultured fellow, preferred to express himself in Greek (which wasn't all that ancient at the time), making direct reference to a familiar saying from Menanders' "Arrhephoros" ( Athenaios 13, 559E). Thus, the Latin version we read in every history book is but a subsequent translation from the Greek. No matter.
Now, does anyone know where the Rubicon is? In Gaul? Maybe in Asia Minor? Nope -- it's a relatively small stream that flows into the Italian Adriatic, somewhat to the south of Venice. By crossing it from North to South, Caesar did not start hostilities against the Gauls, but encroached into the territories of his competitor General Pompeius. We all know what happened, of course, Caesar's war of aggression succeeded, he marched upon Rome, defeated Pompeius' forces in Spain, sped to Greece, whither Pompeius had fled, routed him at Pharsalus in 48 BC and pursued him down to Egypt, where Pompeius was treacherously slain.
Caesar's fatal ambition, however, won him many enemies, who eventually found the right moment to knife him to death -- but five years later, on the Ides of March, at the Senate House in Rome.
* * * *
Et tu , Brute
There are various versions of this most famous among the legion of "famous last words". Another is Tu quoque Brutus, fili mei ? (Even you, Brutus, my son?), and, of course, the Greek version, which Suetonius gives us: Kai sú téknon (Caesar 82, 2). Who said it? None other than J.C. himself (Julius Caesar, not Jesus Christ, of course) -- or did he? It appears that when the 23 senatorial conspirators slaughtered him (worse than any of the victims in Psycho ), poor Julius did not even have the time to say "Ouch!" (which, admittedly, would have been a less elegant last word) and simply collapsed in silence. So much for this improvement on history. Suetonius embellishes the account of the assassination out of a fundamental sense of justice. Indeed, the historian, in his heart of hearts, was outraged by the olympic ungratefulness of one of the conspirators, Marcus Junius Brutus, who had enormously benefited from Caesar's favour, having received from him the Province of Gallia Cisalpina in 47 BC, and having been named Praetor (magistrate, ranking just below Consul) in 44 BC. After the assassination Brutus fled and was himself killed two years later. He who lives by the sword ... Actually, this should remind us of Mark Twain's apt observation that the main difference between dogs and men is that a dog will not bite the hand that feeds it. The Spaniards have a somewhat less polite refrán for such occasions: cría cuervos y te sacarán los ojos .
* * * *
French nobleman Gilles de Rais has long been considered a prototype for Bluebeard in the 17th century Charles Perrault fairy tale, although the wealthy baron was said to have murdered children, not wives.
Amateur historians gathered in Paris in November 1992 to rehabilitate de Rais, who supposedly dabbled in sorcery and was hanged in 1440. They did what committees usually do and referred the matter upward, writing to President Mitterand demanding that he clear Barbebleu's name.
This, of course, will not detract from Bela Bartok's splendid rendition in his cacophonic Opera.
* * * *
The "Battle" of Nimwegen (Dutch: Nijmegen)
History books still carry the story about a certain battle in the Low Countries, in the town of Nijmegen, in the year 1672.
More recent research reveals that it was not a battle at all, but an ambush or revolt of discontented farmers against the occupying French soldiers and officers, who did not cease requisitioning their pigs and their chickens. One good night the farmers surprised the sleeping French and routed them soundly.
The embarassment to the French was such, that they invented a "battle" against a superior military force, so as to explain away the routing.
This did not stop the Roi soleil from scoring a few victories against the Spanish in the following years and crowning these at the Peace of Nimwegen of 1679. There he got all of Burgundy from the Habsburg Spaniards, but, perhaps because of those unruly Dutch farmers, Louis XIV did not obtain any of the Dutch lands he coveted.
* * * *
Is Chocolate Swiss?
The discovery of America probably had its greatest long-term impact on the world not because of the vast gold and silver that the Spaniards took with them in their proud galleons, but rather because of their gourmet agricultural imports. Most importantly, perhaps, was the Inca staple: solanum tuberosum (potatoes), of which the Incas had cultivated some 3,OOO varieties in Peru. It probably saved millions of Europeans from starvation, especially in Ireland, Russia and Northern Europe. Who hasn't seen Van Gogh's Potato Eaters ? And who can forget spelling bee Dan Quayle's travail? French fries anyone?
Another great import was corn, also known as maize, which helped eliminate malnutrition rampant in Europe, and which continues to be one of the primary feeds for livestock. Just imagine an American movie house without popcorn!
Yet another: Peanuts, an inexpensive and tasty source of protein. Whether the South American Indians ever tried a peanut butter sandwich? And yet another: Tomatoes. This high vitamin fruit was initially called a "love apple", since optimists attributed to it aphrodisiac qualities. Isn't it enough that it enabled Italians to put tomato sauce on spaghetti and pizza?
For me the most important discovery was cacao. Is life without chocolate imaginable? Just think, before the discovery of America no one had heard of Swiss chocolate! Poor Julius Caesar never tasted it, nor did Cleopatra, Charlemagne, Barbarossa, St.Thomas Aquinas, Jeanne d'Arc, Leonardo!
Julius, we have it better!
* * * * *
Vasco's East Route
A lot of people think that Vasco da Gama (1469-1524) was another New World explorer like Columbus or Amerigo Vespucci. Nothing could be further from the truth. He never went to America. Indeed, he actually did what Columbus was trying to do: find a new trade route to India. The Portugese nobleman sailed East -- not West -- for India, proceeding around Africa's Cape of Good Hope, and taking 10 months to reach India, and twelve months to sail back to Portugal with a precious cargo of Indian spices and jewels.
* * * *
The Transylvanian Count Dracula has been giving thrills and chills to generations since the British author Bram Stoker published his grissly story in 1897.
Dracula, whose corpse rested during the day only to come to life at night as a vampire, never existed. But there is something terribly romantic about the hills and valleys of Transylvania in Romania, where vampires and werewolves could feel at home, thriving by sucking the blood of living persons, who then became vampires themselves.
Taking poetic license into account, we can recognize a historical ancestor of our Count. Indeed from 1420 to 1470 there was a Vlad (Dracul) Tepes, a notable Walachian of princely birth, who spent his life battling against the Ottomans. He, too, was born in Transylvania and made a name for himself as a redoubtable warrior. Three times he was able to reign (the rest of the time he was in a dungeon somewhere). He is reputed to have been very cruel and to have delighted in rough treatment of his enemies -- whether civilians or soldiers. He, for instance, tried to impose taxes on the merchant villages of the Siebenbürgen Saxons, the ethnic Germans that had settled in Transylvania in the 12th century. After the besieged and hitherto prosperous town of Kronstadt (Brashov) surrendered, the town elders and many of the common folk were slaughtered, many of them being killed the slow way: by being impaled and left to rot in the sun. Our Prince Dracula did the same to the Turks, thereby gaining the sobriquet: the Impaler. This may be why the Brit Stoker considered it appropriate in his wild tale of vampires that the only way of killing our hero was to drive a stake through his heart, thus ending the count's nocturnal forays.
By the way, Count Dracula should not be confused with his Swiss cousin Frankenstein, who owes his fame to the wife of Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft, who invented the now familiar monster in her neogothic book published in 1818. Galvanism was the means of assembling our new man made out of corpses from churchyards and dissecting rooms. Now, without wanting to play the advocatus diabol i, one cannot fail but feel sympathy for this poor ugly creature, longing for affection and shunned by everyone. Is it surprising that he ultimately turns to evil and that he brings dreadful retribution on his creator? The young Swiss student Victor Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus, who had usurped God's prerogative by creating or rather assembling life, would yet pay dearly for his impudence.
Now, let it be known, that Victor did not baptize the monster, nor give him a name. But, of course, people go on and give the Swiss student's surname to his most famous creation.