This week in 41 CE, a faction Roman leaders assassinated their emperor, Caligula. The emperor had oppressed the nobles and the Senate (though not necessarily the common people), so this was not the first plot against his rule. The trigger for this final and successful conspiracy isn’t entirely clear, but Caligula had recently announced plans to move his seat of power from Rome to Alexandria, in Egypt. That would have robbed the Roman elite of much of their power. Another theory suggests Caligula was just too dangerous, since he was mentally imbalanced and possibly insane. His enemies claimed Caligula considered himself a god – and not just holy and exalted, like the two Roman emperors before him, but actually a living deity, on par with Jupiter and Minerva. They also say he slept with his sisters, as gods do, made his horse a senator, declared war on Neptune, and worst of all, executed high-ranking Romans on a whim. Whatever the cause, a faction of the imperial Praetorian Guard and some senators attacked Caligula as he addressed a troupe of actors near his palace. Caligula’s more loyal German guard – foreigners from the wild lands of the north – arrived quickly to rescue the emperor, but too late: the conspirators had stabbed him 30 times. The conspirators also killed Caligula’s wife and young daughter, no doubt to avoid repercussions, but they did not catch the emperor’s old uncle, the lame, stammering scholar Claudius. Loyal member of the Praetorian Guard escorted Claudius to safety and soon proclaimed him emperor. So it fell to Claudius to execute the conspirators and restore order, and possibly sanity, to the Roman Empire. Continue reading “This week in history: Caligula”
Scientists used to think Stone Age people domesticated the dog by adopting wolf pups and breeding the friendliest of them, or the most obedient. But more recent thinking says dogs domesticated themselves.
This week in 1801, astronomer-priest Giuseppe Piazzi discovered a new astronomical body between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. He named it Ceres Ferdinandea. Ceres was the ancient Roman goddess of agriculture and motherhood – the Latin version of the Greeks’ Demeter, mother of Hades’ wife Persephone. So in choosing Ceres, Piazzi followed tradition: naming astronomical bodies after Roman gods (e.g., Venus, Jupiter, Saturn). In choosing Ferdinandea, however, Piazzi departed from tradition. The name honored Ferdinand III, king of Piazzi’s homeland, Sicily – who was also Ferdinand IV of Naples. The astronomers of other nations declined to honor King Ferdinand, so only the name Ceres stuck. Piazzi originally reported Ceres as a comet, but he suspected it was a planet, and other astronomers soon agreed. By the 1850’s, however, star-watchers had discovered many other small astronomical bodies orbiting between Jupiter and Mars, and they coined a new terms for the whole group: asteroids. Ceres has been considered an asteroid ever since. But Ceres stands out from its crowd, since it’s the biggest asteroid and the only one to be rounded (globe-shaped), due to its own gravity. As a result, Ceres’ status changed again in 2006, when astronomers demoted Pluto from planet status and created a new category: dwarf planet. Dwarf planets are globe-shaped bodies that don’t orbit a planet – they’re not moons – but that have not cleared their orbit of other objects, the way full planets do. Pluto’s demotion outraged many astronomy fans, but Ceres had been promoted. Today, it’s the only object classified as both an asteroid and a dwarf planet. Continue reading “This week in history: Ceres”
This week in 537, eastern Roman emperor Justinian I finished construction of the Hagia Sophia: the great cathedral of his capital, Constantinople. Upon completion and for centuries thereafter, it was the largest building in the world. Justinian’s realm was the remainder of the Roman Empire: the original mega-state’s eastern half, which survived the fall of the West and which we call the Byzantine Empire. And the Hagia Sophia became the central cathedral of the eastern region of the Roman Christian Church, not to mention the seat of the Patriarch of Constantinople. Eventually, the two great sections of the church broke into the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church — the latter led by the Patriarch of Rome, a.k.a the Pope. The Hagia Sophia remained the central cathedral of the Eastern church and the Byzantine Empire until 1453, when Constantinople fell to Muslim invaders and became the capital of the Turks’ new Ottoman Empire. The conquerors turned the cathedral into a mosque and added its now-iconic minarets: the slender towers you see on many mosques, used for the call to prayer. In the 1930s, however, the new, secular state of Turkey closed the mosque and transformed it into the Ayasofya Muzesi, or the Museum of the Hagia Sophia. You can visit the museum to this day, in Istanbul: the Turkish name for Constantinople. Continue reading “This week in history: Hagia Sophia”
This week in 1773, the Sons of Liberty disguised themselves as Native Americans, boarded British ships in Boston Harbor, and dumped 342 chests of tea into the water. Continue reading “This week in history: The Boston Tea Party”
This week in 1768, Colin Macfarquhar and Andrew Bell of Scotland published the first edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica. It had just 3 volumes—quite a contrast to the thirty-two volumes of the fifteenth and final edition, published in 2010. Despite small beginnings, Britannica quickly gained a reputation for excellence and was soon considered the most authoritative English language encyclopedia. Ironically given the name, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc. has become an American company. Sears Roebuck bought the rights in 1920, and the company now operates out of Chicago. Continue reading “This week in history: Encyclopaedia Britannica”
This week in 1852, Charles-Louis Napoléon Bonaparte became Emperor of France. His father was the younger brother of the original Napoleon. And his mother was the daughter of the famous Josephine – the long-term mistress and eventually wife of the first Napoleon — by her other (first) husband. To capitalize on his famous uncle’s reputation, the new emperor took the name Napoleon III. (In theory, the first Napoleon’s four-year-old son had ruled for about two weeks in 1815, as Napoleon II.) Continue reading “This week in history: Napoleon III”
This week in 534 BCE, Thespis of Icaria became the first person we know of to portray a character on stage in ancient Greece. He sang about myths to an audience in Athens. But rather than just narrating by song, he played the various characters in the story, using masks to differentiate them. Thespis also won Athens’ first recorded “Best Tragedy” competition. Then he took it on the road, performing in the various Greek city-states with his masks, props, and costumes. Thespis changed theatrical story-telling in the ancient world – and today, we use “thespian” as a synonym for actor, in his honor.
This week in 1558, Elizabeth Tudor was declared queen of England and Ireland, following the untimely death of her half-sister, Queen Mary. Elizabeth was the daughter of King Henry VIII by his second wife, Anne Boleyn. Her first and most important job as queen was to marry and produce an heir. Her sister Mary had married the King of Spain (leading to an unhappy long-distance marriage), and Elizabeth could have chosen a foreign royal too. Many of her advisors, on the other hand, preferred a noble English husband. Either way, conventional wisdom demanded marriage, since a kingdom without an heir is unstable, and since a mere woman can’t reign alone. Yet after Elizabeth had flirted with various foreign and English suitors for years, it became clear the queen would never marry. It’s not that Elizabeth disliked men. In fact, she apparently had a taste for big, athletic bad boys. Rather, the queen probably felt that, in a man’s world, a husband would steal some of her authority. And for an energetic, forceful, and smart ruler like Queen Elizabeth, that was unacceptable. So she reigned alone and became known and loved as the Virgin Queen (though her actual virginity seems doubtful). And she ruled well, blazing her own trail as a ruling queen without husband or heir. Her forty-five-year reign saw a steady rise in English might and witnessed the defeat of Europe’s greatest power – as Elizabeth’s navy (and bad weather) foiled a Spanish invasion and destroyed the Spanish Armada, in 1588. The Elizabethan era also saw a great flowering of English culture, including the rise of English drama and the start of Shakespeare’s career. Continue reading “This week in history: Queen Elizabeth”
On this day eighteen years ago, al-Qaeda carried out the most ambitious and deadly terrorist attack in history. The Islamist group hijacked four large commercial jets and crashed three of them into major U.S. targets: the two towers of the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington DC. (Courageous passengers stormed the cockpit of the fourth hijacked plane, blocking its planned strike but leading to a crash in rural Pennsylvania, with all aboard lost.) The two towers fell, the Pentagon was partly wrecked, almost 3,000 people died, and Americans were terrified. The attack’s immediate success probably surprised even its planners. So what did 9/11 achieve for al-Qaeda? Nothing. In fact, the attack led to disaster for the Islamist group. That’s because terrorism does not work.