Thursday, 30 July 2015

“Mine is the victory” – Marius’ Mules and the end of the Cimbri tribe at the Battle of Vercellae

30 July 101 BCE, The twenty years of the Germanic Cimbri’s meandering through Europe ended with a crushing defeat and obliteration of the tribe at the hands of Gaius Marius and his reformed army in Northern Italy after the Battle of Vercellae.

“Meanwhile the infantry of the Barbarians came on to the attack like a vast sea in motion. Then Marius, after washing his hands, lifted them to heaven and vowed a hecatomb to the gods; Catulus also in like manner lifted his hands and vowed that he would consecrate the fortune of that day. It is said, too, that Marius offered sacrifice, and that when the victims had been shown to him, he cried with a loud voice: "Mine is the victory."” (Plutarch “The Life of Marius”)

Francesco Saverio Altamura’s (1822 – 1897) Romantic imagination of 
“Marius triumphing over the Cimbri” (1859)

Whatever it was that gave three whole tribes in Jutland itchy feet around 115 BCE, the migration of the Germanic Cimbri and Teutones and the Celtic Ambrones had changed the Roman world forever. It was probably a combination of several harsh winters and crop failures that made them pack up their things and trek south, more than 150.000 people, men, women and children, first migrating from Denmark towards Bavaria, Slovenia and Serbia and then to the west again, where they had their first serious contact with the Romans at Noreia somewhere in Styria. The Romans had heard about the peoples of the north, of course, especially from the writings of the Greek geographer Pytheas, but to have hundreds of thousands right at their doorstep made them a bit wary. Consul Carbo closed the Alpine passes, negotiated with the tribal leaders to move further to the west into Celtic Gaul to find new lands to settle there – and, after the talks were finished apparently to everyone’s satisfaction, he attacked. Carbo and his two legions suffered quite a surprise, though. In a terrain where they couldn’t develop their full fighting capacity, the Germans and Celts gave them a drubbing and the Romans were saved only by a heavy thunderstorm that allegedly made the Northerners flee because they feared the skies would fall on their heads. The myth might have saved morally flexible Carbo and his men, but it didn’t stop the tribes from moving further into Gaul as it was agreed before. And five years later, they stood on the borders of Italy again and the next round of highly capable Roman consuls tried their hand at stopping the barbarian invasion. But this time, no divine intervention saved them. Had the 12 fighting legions hurried north been commanded by a Scipio Africanus or Aemilius Paullus, the spook would have been over by then, but in 105 BCE at Arausio, present-day Orange in France, they had Maximus and Caepio, and the Cimbri and Teutones wiped the floor with them and their 80,000 men, the same type of legionaries who had won at Zama, Magnesia and Pydna against the former Mediterranean Great Powers.

A late 19th century imagination of the Cimbri and Teutoni on the march.

Back home, Rome was shocked accordingly, probably even more than a hundred years before, when Hannibal’s three subsequent victories brought the Republic on the verge of collapse. Something had to be done, of course, and legend has it that Gaius Marius reformed the army out of nothing and fought back. In fact, most of his innovations had already been introduced decades before and the legionaries did no longer fight organised as Hastati, Principes and Triarii at least since the days of Scipio Aemilianus. The Gracchi reforms 15 years before already took care that the state cared for the legionaries’ equipment, provisions and pay and not every man for himself. However, as it was customary, a Roman commander was still responsible for the drill and training of his troops and Marius surpassed himself in this field along with his insistence that the legionaries carried their own baggage, earning them the nickname muli mariani, Marius’ Mules. The Marian Reforms might just have been a codifying and standardisation of existing innovations, but there was one improvement that can be clearly traced back to Marius himself, his pension plan of granting army veterans land plots when their active service had ended, usually after twenty years. An idea that would prove to be fateful for the Roman Republic over the next generation. But for now, Marius had plucked six new legions almost out of thin air, better drilled and better equipped than any fighting force before them. In the meanwhile, the Cimbri and Teutones mysteriously decided not to invade Italy after their victory at Arausio, split up and remained in Gaul. In 102 BCE, Marius finally marched his reformed army north, defeated the Teutones and Ambrones at Aquae Sextiae, Aix-en-Provence, in October, wiping out the two tribes, men, women and children, with no losses to speak of and turned towards the Cimbri who had by then moved finally into Italy.

Alphonse-Marie-Adolphe de Neuville’s (1835 – 1885) 
somewhat racy imagination of the
climax of either Aquae Sextiae or Vercellae 

and the end of the Germanic womenfolk.

Uniting his 30,000 men with the 20,000 under Quintus Lutatius Catulus who were originally charged with guarding the Alpine passes against the 200,000 Cimbri on the march, Marius met with the Germanic chieftains in the plains of Piedmont. They offered the Romans peace for keeping the territories they currently occupied, the Roman commander flatly refused and the Cimbri asked him to name a place then to fight it out. Marius chose the Raudine Plain and there, on 30 July, his 50,000 mules prepared to face the horde of well-equipped and desperate Germanics. Marius chose the battlefield with some deliberation. The horde had to advance right into the midday sun, reflected dazzlingly from the lines of mail-clad Roman legionaries and blinding the Cimbri, their advance stalled, a dashing young cavalry tribune named Sulla seized the opportunity, dispersed the Germanics’ horsemen and Marius gave the signal for a general advance into the huge dust clouds raised by the cavalry action. Marius’ mules smashed into the confused enemy infantry and destroyed them piecemeal. When the Cimbri warriors finally broke, legend has it that their womenfolk defended the baggage train to the last, then strangled their children lest they were captured as slaves and finally hung themselves from the wagon boards. Nonetheless, Plutarch records that more than 60,000 Cimbri were sold into slavery after the Battle of the Raudine Plain had ended and 140,000 were slain. And even if the numbers might be exaggerated, the tribe of the Cimbri was obliterated like the Teutones the year before. Marius was awarded the title pater patriae, father of the fatherland and the course was set for the conflict between him and his cavalry commander at Vercellae, Felix Cornelius Sulla, that climaxed into the Roman civil wars of the 1st century BCE and, ultimately, the end of the Roman Republic.

And more about the Battle of Vercellae on:

Sunday, 26 July 2015

“Faithful Unto Death” – the dying world of Sir Edward Poynter

27 July 1919, the English Academic painter and President of the Royal Academy Sir Edward Poynter died in London at the age of 83.

“ … conceived in the severest mood and revealing Mr Poynter’s true love of classical art." (The Art Journal on the exhibition of Poynter’s “Ides of March“ in 1883 at the Royal Academy)

"… every evidence of having fully profited by recent Egyptological research ... a typical example of the successful application of the modern principle of wedding archaeology to art" as the London Illustrated News put it in 1867. Poynter’s “Israel in Egypt”.

Few epochs have concerned themselves with myths and legends as much as the long 19th century did. While technological and social progress advanced with the steam-powered speed of the iron horse and time-honoured knowledge and customs were superseded by the decade, there was the subliminal urge to keep a lid on it, somehow, to cry “stop!” and to find something to cling to, bourgeois morals and pride of rank, nationalism and myths of all sorts. The Romantics began to recreate the past along with several otherworlds as it should have been and the Academics, entangled in Classicistic respectability, divested these myths of Dionysian outbursts, clothed them in white chitons, togas and Biblical garments only to undress them again to suit the repressed tastes of connoisseurs and art buyers. The world of Academic Art was, in her own way, as divorced from reality as that of the Romantic Movement, only better behaved and educated. By the end of the epoch, the Academics made their last stand in the losing battle against reality, most of their output had degenerated into pure kitsch and their beacons, if they were still alive by then, had usually occupied important positions in the art world and preferred to close their eyes to the death of Classicism. When Sir Edward Poynter became President of the Royal Academy in 1896, there was not even a Swan Song sung of High Victorian Art, he just oversaw the creation of artworks painted a generation too late like those highlights of his fellow mourners Dicksee and Waterhouse. Poynter carried the latter to his grave in 1917 and died two years later in a world that was completely turned upside down.

Like his nephew Kipling, Poynter probably was a Freemason – hence several depictions of King Solomon. Here: “The Visit of the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon“ (1890)

Having studied in Rome at the feet of Sir Frederic Leighton in the 1850s, Poynter, something of a stepson of the muses, lived a bit of the vie de Bohème in Paris, public health patient edition, until he returned back home to England in 1865, married one of the four celebrated MacDonald sisters, Agnes, became brother-in-law of the pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Burne-Jones and uncle of Rudyard Kipling and prime minister Stanley Baldwin and thoroughly respectable. Like Alma-Tadema and other Academic artists, Poynter took great pains to create his historicising, religious and mythological imagery as anatomically and archaeologically accurate as possible. Not that the nascent disciplines of history and archaeology were not caught in the same Victorian web of myths and drew, more often than not, rather similar Romantic conclusions as artists did. When Poynter finally succeeded Leighton as President of the Royal Academy, the number as well as the quality of his works declined, even though he proved to be a competent Academy administrator and buyer for the National Gallery. Nothing too modern, of course. Ironically enough, Poynter achieved his breakthrough as painter in 1865 with the image of a Roman sentry staying at his post while the eruption of Mount Vesuvius destroys Pompeii in the background. He named his work “Faithful Unto Death” and it would characterise his own attitude and the beauty of resisting the destruction of everything he regarded beautiful in art until his own death and that of his world.

And more about Sir Edward Poynter on:

Sir Edward Poynter “Faithful Unto Death” (1865)

Saturday, 25 July 2015

“A brave vessel, Who had, no doubt, some noble creatures in her” – the wreck of the “Sea Venture” in 1609, the earlies of Virginia and “The Tempest”

25 July 1609, During a three-day hurricane in the West Indies, Admiral Sir George Somers sailed his flagship “Sea Venture”, part of the “Third Relief” bound for Jamestown, Virginia, on the reefs off Bermuda, inspiring Shakespeare’s “Tempest”.

“If by your art, my dearest father, you have Put the wild waters in this roar, allay them. The sky, it seems, would pour down stinking pitch, But that the sea, mounting to the welkin's cheek, Dashes the fire out. O, I have suffered With those that I saw suffer! A brave vessel, Who had, no doubt, some noble creatures in her, Dash'd all to pieces! O, the cry did knock Against my very heart! Poor souls, they perish'd! Had I been any god of power, I would Have sunk the sea within the earth, or e'er It should the good ship so have swallow'd, and The fraughting souls within her.“ (William Shakespeare “The Tempest”)

Miranda witnessing the shipwreck in Shakespeare’s “Tempest” 
as imagined by John William Waterhouse (1849–1917) in 1916

There is probably no place on Earth anymore, where a herd of tourists is a noticed for being particularly well dressed. That was a bit different 400 years ago, though, when locals felt compelled to mention: "What good clothes you wear!", “wingandacoa” in their native Carolina Algonquian, upon the arrival of Raleigh’s first settlers in North America. “Wingandacoa”, together with the name of an obviously well-dressed Secotan chief, one “Wingina”, became “Virginia” by order of Good Queen Bess, the Virgin Queen, the oldest recorded English place name in the United States. However, after the greatest colonial empire the world had ever seen somehow got out the wrong side of bed with its first colony in North America. After two failed attempts to settle lush Roanoke Island in the late 1500s and the Virgin Queen’s successor James being quite strapped of funds, the whole undertaking of colonising the New World was privatised, the Virginia Company was founded and with the “First Landing” of Company-sponsored settlers arriving in three ships at Cape Henry and the foundation of Jamestown in 1607, the next round began, almost as staggering as the first two. Disease, starvation and rather lamentable relations with the locals had left 400 of the original 500 settlers dead and the rest was in a rather dismal shape. Shareholder value of the Virginia Company went belly up and something had to be done. Fault analysis provided by Captain John Smith from back there stated: “When you send againe I entreat you rather send but thirty Carpenters, husbandmen, gardiners, fishermen, blacksmiths, masons and diggers up of trees, roots, well provided; than a thousand of such as wee have: for except wee be able both to lodge them and feed them, the most will consume with want of necessaries before they can be made good for anything.“ It seems that reports and assessments from front-line operatives about the needs of the business were taken serious by the board 400 years ago and, supposedly, they did no half-measures in equipping the third supply mission for Virginia. They even fitted out a purpose-built 300-ton emigrant ship, being able to carry more than 150 people alone across the Atlantic, the “Sea Venture”.

Leaving out “Disease, starvation and rather lamentable relations with the locals” – a 1906 print of Captain John Smith landing in Jamestown, Virginia, 1607. From “The Story of Pocahontas and Captain John.“

“Sea Venture” left Plymouth as flagship of the eight vessels of the “Third Supply” mission on 2 June 1609 on her maiden voyage. There is, however, a trick in in doing no half-measures, for example thinking things through and consider a few details from the beginning to the end of the design stage. In the case of the “Sea Venture” it was that she was not yet ready for sea, her timbers were new and had not set and when the fleet ran into a storm in the West Indies, the 300-ton floating death trap filled up with water faster than all hands on board could bail. Sir George Somers, Admiral of the small fleet, took the wheel himself and drove the ship on the reefs of the island that was sighted on the morning of 25 July. Thanks to Sir George’s rather desperate action, all 150 souls aboard could be brought safely ashore, marooned, though, on an island in the middle of nowhere, later known as Bermuda. Based on Smith’s “rude answer”, the castaways consisted of rather capable hands and managed to survive for the next ten months on Bermuda and constructed two small pinnaces, one-masted 50’ ships displacing about 30 tons, from local cedar and parts salvaged from the wreck of the “Sea Venture”. They left Bermuda in the “Deliverance” and “Patience” in May 1610 and reached Jamestown a fortnight later, out of the fire and into the frying pan. Without the provisions from the “Third Supply”, the colony was indeed dying and Somers decided to ship its 60 survivors on board of his two pinnaces and head back home to England. And just while the two cockleshells sailed out of the James River into Chesapeake Bay, they ran into the next relief fleet under the newly appointed governor of Virginia, Thomas West, Baron De La Warr, Delaware, who persuaded the people of “Deliverance” and “Patience” to return to abandoned Jamestown with him and make a new start. They did and it was for keeps this time, while Somers, trying to salvage more supplies from the wreck of “Sea Venture” in Bermuda with “Patience”, died en route, allegedly from a “surfeit of pork”, probably scurvy.

Construction of a small pinnace in the early 1600s,
albeit under more favourable circumstances than on Bermuda

The earlies of Virginia and the wreck of the “Sea Venture” naturally spawned a lot of stories and legends. John Rolfe and his first family were aboard the ship, his wife and child died on Bermuda, leaving him free to marry Pocahontas in 1614. And while Rolfe cultivated the first tobacco plants in North America that would eventually make the Virginia Colony profitable and two guns of “Sea Venture” served as the first defences of the English colony of Bermuda after 1612, the arguably most powerful tale salvaged from the wreck was Shakespeare’s “Tempest”, inspired by Ovid, Montaigne, Erasmus and, first and foremost, by the author William Strachey's eye-witness account, exhaustively named "A true reportory of the wracke, and redemption of Sir Thomas Gates Knight; vpon, and from the Ilands of the Bermudas: his coming to Virginia, and the estate of that Colonie then, and after, vnder the gouernment of the Lord La Warre, Iuly 15. 1610”. The publication of the “True Reportory”, first summarised in a letter to an “Excellent Lady”, was supressed by the Virginia Company, bad PR and all, and not printed before 1625, after the dissolution of the company and Shakespeare’s and Strachey’s death, but somehow, the Bard must have got wind of it, since some passages are almost quoted word for word, admittedly from the rather limited repertoire of imagery of ship wrecks and salvage accessible by landsmen. And since all great world-historic facts and personages appear famously at least twice, “Sea Venture” made her second coming as farce as the namesake of the ship used for filming “Love Boat” from 1977 onwards.

And more about the wreck of the “Sea Venture” on:

John Gadsby Chapman “The Baptism of Pocahontas“ 1840