Tuesday, 28 April 2015

"That famous monarch vanished from the world.“ The End of the Parthian Empire in 224 CE

28 April 224 CE, halfway between Tehran and Basra, the Parthian Kingdom ended with the defeat and death of its last King Artabanus V in the Battle of Hormozdgān at the hands of Ardashir (Artaxerxes) I, who subsequently founded the Sassanid Empire.

“So all the wise one day, when fight was fiercest, Asked quarter, and Ardshír charged from the centre; Arose a clashing while the arrows showered. Amidmost of the mellay Ardawán Was ta'en, and for his crown gave up sweet life. The hand of one Kharrád seized on his bridle, And bare him captive to the atheling. Ardshír saw him from far. King Ardawán Lit from his steed, his body arrow-pierced, His soul all gloom, and Sháh Ardshír commanded The deathsman: “Go, seize on the great king's foe, Cleave him asunder with thy sword, and make Our evil-wishers quail.”So did the deathsman:That famous monarch vanished from the world.“

(Ferdowsi “The Shahnameh”)

The Statue of Parthian Nobleman, National Museum of Iran,
one of the most famous pieces of Parthian art, maybe depicting General Surena,
the victor of the Battle of Carrhae in 53 BCE (Between 200 BCE and 200 CE)

They were probably a sub-tribe of the Scythians, the antique catchall term for the Indo-Iranian horse nomads of the steppe beyond the Black and the Caspian Sea. Once called the Parni, they became known as Parthians when they were led by their prince Arsaces into Parthia, a region on the border of modern Iran and Turkmenistan around 250 BCE, then a Hellenistic part of one of the successor states of Alexander the Great’s conquest, the Seleucid Empire. Over the next hundred years, the Parthians adopted Hellenistic culture and customs, spoke Greek and took over large parts of Persia between the two poles of the decaying Seleucid Empire in the west and the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom in the East, located somewhere between the Syr Darya, the Hindu-Kush and the Indus. At least we assume that they did, since there are so few original sources. What we know about the Parthians was more often than not written down by their enemies, chiefly the Romans with whom they clashed for the first time at Carrhae in 53 BCE, where the Parthian General Surenas ended Crassus’ attempt of playing Caesar with a bang. It was the gory prelude of centuries of war along the borders, usually beginning with the Romans crossing the Euphrates, capturing Mesopotamia, spreading themselves too thin, getting their supply lines cut, usually coming to grief in skirmishes with the Parthian horse soldiers, archers and knights, and finally having to abandon their conquest and withdraw back across the river into Roman Syria. Roman accounts of their Parthian enemies depend on the political intention of the respective authors but usually vary between the description of effeminate, over-civilised wastrels and half-wild, horse-loving barbarians. In fact, the Romans met their match beyond the Euphrates and even if the Parthians never abandoned their tribal structure and had organised their empire – probably - in quasi-feudal, quasi-independent and often Greek speaking principalities in contrast to centralised Imperial Rome, their achievements in terms of civilisation as well as warfare were considerable. And by mid-3rd century CE, they were as exhausted as the Romans.

The Sassanid relief at Naqsh-e Rustam showing the investiture of Ardashir I at the hands of the higher divine spirit of the old Iranian religion, Ahura Mazda, himself (on the right, the rider with the high crown)

decided disadvantage of decentralised, quasi-feudal structures is that every local princeling at the back of beyond believes himself to be the next king-of-kings or, at the very least, an absolute monarch in his own domain and entitled to revolt against any form of central authority. It happened on a regular basis during the rule of the Parthian Arsacid dynasty, with the House of Suren, the House of Karen, House Mihran and the other four of the Parthian feudal clans, as well as other satraps of less illustrious provenance being in a state of continuous insurgency. Thus, the revolt of Ardahsir of the Bazrangi clan, lord of the Persis in the southwestern part of the modern Iranian Fars province, around Persepolis, the heartland of the ancient Persian Achaemenid dynasty, was nothing extraordinary. When Ardahsir conquered the Kerman province and crowned himself king, Artabanus V, the actual Arsacid ruler of the Parthian Empire, that this was going too far, though, and felt that something had to be done. Artabanus was himself an old revolt and campaign hand. He came to power after overthrowing his brother Vologases back in 208 CE and having fought the Romans under Caracalla and then Macrinus to a standstill in 217, enforcing their customary retreat back across the Euphrates. In short: Artabanus was not exactly the useless last scion of a degenerated dynasty. Both factions, the Arsacids and the one that was later known as the Sasanians after Ardashir’s grandfather Sasan, battled in the valleys between the Zagros and the Kuhrud Mountains for almost four years until they met in a place known as Hormozdgān, fielding each about 10,000 horse soldiers, archers and the feared, heavily armoured cataphracts. According to tradition, Ardashir’s son Shapur led these Sasanian knights, Artabanus fell in battle and Ardashir was crowned as the Shahanshah, King of Kings of Iran, of the House of Sasan.

Historical re-enactment of a Sassanid-era cataphract,
complete with a full set of scale armour for the horse. 

, it takes one to know one. The Sasanians did their best to establish something along the lines of a central authority, but experienced more or less the same territorial and dynastic struggles as their Arsacid predecessors. The times were a-changing though, since much of the Hellenistic religious lenience and multi-ethnic pluralism seems to have been substituted already by the early Sasanian kings in favour of a strict monotheistic state religion, Zoroastrianism along the old Achaemenid “ride, shoot the bow and speak the truth” lines and a clear Iranian cultural dominance in their empire. Parthian heritage, though continued to flourish in obscurity well into the Middle Ages. The intermediary role they played between east and west, with their embassies going far beyond the borders of the Hellenised north of India into China, the opening of the Silk Road in 115 BCE, their favoured blend of Hellenistic and later Roman and oriental architecture that became an essential foundation of Islamic building styles as well as their tradition of minstrels, courtly romance and brave knights, adopted by the Sasanians and later imported to the western Europe in the backwash of the Crusades are only among the most obvious traits and achievements of a half-forgotten people that ruled the Middle East 2,000 years ago.

And more about the Parthian Kingdom and Parthian history and culture, or what we believe we know about it, on:

Sunday, 26 April 2015

The End of "Black Sam" Bellamy, Prince of Pirates, in 1717

26 April 1717, the pirate captain Samuel “Black Sam” Bellamy and his treasure-laden ship “Wydah Gally” perished in a storm off Cape Cod.

"...they spread a large black flag, with a Death's Head and Bones across, and gave chase to Cap't. Prince under the same colors." – Thom. Baker (Bellamy's crew)

A piratical romance, as imagined by the American author and illustrator
Howard Pyle in his “Book of Pirates”, posthumously published in 1921

When the War of the Spanish Succession, or Queen Anne’s War, as it was called in the Americas, was over in 1713, the “Golden Age of Piracy” dawned upon a lot of privateers in the employ of the local governors. Having profited from raiding enemy shipping for more than 10 years, privateersmen, captains, mates and their crews, became suddenly very unemployed while the French, Dutch and English authorities, hardly better than robber barons themselves during the war, were made to toe the line by their governments. Royal Navy crews didn’t fare much better when the fleet was reduced to peace-time size and thus, young Samuel Bellamy from Hittisleigh in Devon, formerly of the RN, found himself on the beach in the Royal Province of Massachusetts Bay, in Eastham on Cape Cod, to be more precise. Young Sam had plans, though, of becoming a famous pirate captain. And of getting Maria Hallett between the sheets and being a smart, charismatic lad with a pirate-like West Country accent, he succeeded with both. Of course, he promised Mary Hallett to return when he left for the West Indies to sail with the infamous Captain Benjamin Hornigold, but he took his time. Admittedly, Sam had to win over the crew and assume command of Hornigold’s ship “Marianne” as next step on the piratical career ladder and indeed, in the summer of 1716 he did that and soon became known as Captain “Black Sam”, not for his foul deeds but for his refusal to wear a white-powdered wig over his long black hair. In fact, “Black Sam” Bellamy was one of the more prudent pirate captains, capturing more than 50 vessels in a year, showing considerable skill in naval warfare and seamanship, displaying mercy and generosity towards his victims, fairness in distribution of the plunder and leading within almost democratic structures aboard his ships. In all modesty he called himself the “Robin Hood of the Sea” and his crews were obviously content to play Robin Hood’s merry men. His greatest success though was the capture of the English slaver “Wydah Gally”. Her master, the Dutchman Laurens Prins, a former buccaneer himself and one of the leaders of Henry Morgan’s men during the sack of Panama in 1671, had successfully sold his African captives in Cuba, the “Wydah” was laden with gold and valuables and bound for England when “Black Sam” sighted her in the Windward Passage between Cuba and Hispaniola, obviously well informed about the treasures she had laden as well as about her course. Prins surrendered after a three-day chase, “Black Sam” made the “Wydah” his new flagship and sailed his small fleet of now three ships north towards Cape Cod to claim his Mary Hallett. Or so the story goes.

A beached pirate, again from Pyles’s “Book of Pirates”

There is an old sailor song, giving the advice to young ladies to “never let a sailor lad an inch above your knee”. Mary Hallett didn’t quite pay heed to it and found herself left with a boy to dangle on her knee. Quite a slip in local Puritan society, famously. Mary spent a few weeks in jail even though she was absolutely willing to name the father of her child, “Black Sam” Bellamy, the pirate captain. After her release, she was seen wandering the dunes of Cape Cod, muttering curses on “Black Sam’s” head into the wind. In the late April of 1717 then, the “Wydah” and her companions were headed for Provincetown Harbor when she sailed into a fog bank off Chatham and then the wind turned into a violent nor’easter. Around midnight of 26 April, the “Wydah” struck a sandbar, her masts snapped and the storm battered her to pieces. According to the few survivors, the pirate ship was laden with several tons of silver, gold and gold dust, orderly stored between her decks in 180 50-pound sacks. The “moon-cussers”, the local beachcombers, did find nothing of the treasure on the morning, nor could the remains of “Black Sam” be discovered. The wreck of “Wydah” lay under just 14’ of water for the next 260 years until found by an expedition in 1985. She is the first and still one of the very few pirate ships that could be clearly identified so far and about 200,000 individual artefacts were recovered as of yet, exhibited in “Expedition Whydah Sea-Lab and Learning Center“ in Provincetown, Massachusetts. What became of Goodie Hallett remains untold, but that the “Witch of Wellfleet” summoned “Black Sam” and his crew from their wet grave to serve her in her old age is certainly just local folklore.

And more about Captain “Black Sam” Bellamy and the wreck of the “Wydah” on:


The song “Home, Boys, Home” quoted above can be found here in a rendition by Luke Kelly:  


Saturday, 25 April 2015

"Play the Marseillaise! Play it!" - The natal hour of an iconic song in 1792

25 April 1792, “La Marseillaise” is composed by the royalist French Army captain Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle in Strasbourg.

“With just the ‘Carmagnole’ to sing he will only overthrow Louis XVI; but give him the ‘Marseillaise’ and he will liberate the world.” (Victor Hugo, “Les Misérables”)

An inspired Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle writing the tune of “La Marseillaise”
 with the Goddess of Freedom waving the Tricolore à la Delacroix and pointing the way,
as imagined by the Swiss-born painter Auguste de Pinelli (circa 1875)

The French Army wasn’t what she used to be many long years ago when the revolutionaries declared war on Austria on 20 April 1792 and the invasion of the Austrian Netherlands, allegedly pro-revolutionary, ended in a disaster with the children of the revolution running away after killing their own officers. Meanwhile in the Rhine valley, the Austrian and Prussian armies gathered to nip the revolution in the bud. Not that the Prussians were up to Frederick the Great’s standards any more either, but the outcome of the war seemed obvious for all parties involved except die-hard fanatics. Under these auspices, Marshal Count Luckner, the Bavarian-born French commander of Strasbourg, lamented over dinner with his officers that the young republic and Captain Rouget de Lisle not even had a national anthem. The young royalist who had refused to take an oath on the new constitution took the words of his foreign aristo CO to heart, went to his quarters, sat down and wrote the first lines of “Allons enfants de la Patrie, / Le jour de gloire est arrivé !“ and set it to music along the lines of King Frederick William II of Prussia’s compositeur de notre chambre Luigi Boccherini’s flute quintet in C major. Publicly performed during the following days as “Chant de guerre pour l'armée du Rhin“, “War Song for the Army of the Rhine", the revolutionary audience’s reaction was so-so, but the Provençal greffer Charles Barbaroux seemed to like it and when his battalion of volunteers from Marseille arrived in Paris to storm the Tuileries Palace in August of the same year, they had made it their battle song. The tune became known as “La Marseillaise” and somehow, the tides of the revolution had turned. Austrians and Prussians received one trashing after the other by French revolutionary armies in the Rhine valley and Goethe said to Prussian officers after the planned allied “Walk to Paris” had foundered at the Battle of Valmy in September 1792: “From this place, and from this day forth begins a new era in the history of the world, and you can all say that you were present at its birth." Accordingly, the revolution began to eat its own children, Luckner received an appointment with the national razor just for being a bothersome foreign aristo in January 1794 and Rouget de Lisle escaped the same fate by a hair’s breadth.

A broadsheet from 1792 with the sheet music of “La Marseillaise”
called “Marche des Marseillois chantée sur diferents theatres

Like books, songs have their fate as well. “La Marseillaise” did become the French National Anthem for 10 years. Napoleon didn’t like it one single bit, though, the tune was discarded and banned during the Bourbon restoration. When liberty led the people again in July 1830, the old song gained immense popularity but it was not until the 3rd Republic (1871-1940) that it was made again into the national anthem of France. Meanwhile, “La Marseillaise” had been the signature tune of Proletarian internationalism, only to be superseded by “L'Internationale", written during the days of the Paris Commune and originally intended to be sung to the tune of “La Marseillaise”. Ironically enough, Kerensky made “La Marseillaise” the anthem of the Russian Provisional Government from February 1917 until the October Revolution, when “L'Internationale" was found to be more en vogue. Nonetheless, “La Marseillaise” remained a signature tune for France, the French and other Revolutions, at least those of the 19th century, and was quoted by various composers in their works, from Beethoven and Schumann to Verdi and Tchaikovsky. It was probably the 20th century composer Max Steiner, though, an Austrian-born émigré to the US, who characterised the internationalised character of the song best in his powerful integration of “La Marseillaise” into the film music of Michael Curtiz’ “Casablanca”, played by a Franco-American jazz band, conducted by a Czech resistance fighter and sung by the international assembly of refugees as counter tune to the Nazi officers belting out “Die Wacht am Rhein” after their occupation of Sam’s piano in "Rick's Café Américain".

Below is a rendition from the Warner Bros. movie Casablanca, Michael Curtiz, 1942.

And more about “La Marseillaise” on: