Lesson #372: The Right-Hand Man

I’ve mentioned before that sometimes questions will pop into my head for no reason at all and nag me to answer them; I was literally washing my dinner dishes when this question wandered into my brain unprovoked.

Western culture* has a tenet that one’s most loyal and trusted advisor/soldier/business partner is one’s “right-hand man.” But why? My immediate thought was that it’s born of religion because I’ve studied both the Tanakh and the Bible at some length, and I know the lyrics to ‘Once in Royal David’s City’ and ‘Heaven on Their Minds’.** It’s also the most obvious answer because that phrasing shows up nearly three dozen times over both scriptures.***

But it’s not the right answer. It seems those two documents absorbed some combat history.

In all likelihood the concept of the person to your right being the person you trust the most because he’s the person on whom you rely the most (and therefore being your “right-hand man” comes from the phalanx formation. In the phalanx, the person on your right was the one using his shield to protect your entire right side — including, since roughly 85% of the population are right-handed****, your sword hand. This actually raises a whole separate question about where they put lefties. Did they have entire phalanxes of lefties that were mirror images of the right-handed phalanxes? Did they simply train lefties to fight right-handed? If I can find that answer, you can be sure I’ll let you know.


Interestingly, though we generally associate the phalanx with the ancient Greeks — specifically the Spartans if you payed attention in grade 9 World History — the first known depiction of the formation is actually a fragment of the Sumerian Stele of the Vultures, which dates to the 25th century BCE.

You can read more here. Of course, I would be remiss if I failed to mention that there’s no definitive answer to this question and if you google the origins, many, many (most) people submit JESUS! as the answer. Which is fine, if not particularly logical. Just because it appears in scripture doesn’t make it the origin; I choose logic.

*I don’t know enough about Eastern culture to comment on the validity of the idiom there.

**I’d urge you to take those two pieces for what they’re worth.

***1 Kings 2:19, Ezekiel 16:46, Ezekiel 21:22, Zechariah 3:1, 1 Chronicles 6:39, 2 Chronicles 18:18, Psalms 16:8, Psalms 77:10, Psalms 80:17, Psalms 91:7, Psalms 109:6 and 109:31Psalms 110:1 and 110:5 — the first of which is directly referenced in Matthew 22:44, Mark 12:36Luke 20:42, and Acts 2:34, and Hebrews 1:13  — Matthew 26: 64, Mark 14:62, Mark 16:19, Luke 22:69, Acts 2:33,  Acts 5:31, Acts 7:55 and 7:56Romans 8:34Ephesians 1:20, Colossians 3:1, Hebrews 1:3, Hebrews 12:2, and 1 Peter 3:22. Lest you think I just know those offhand, remember I’m really good at finding things and very patient in my research. Also, given that John is our non-synoptic friend, his absence from this list shouldn’t be particularly surprising.

****Though, as with the blue eyes, a disproportionate number of actors are lefties. Pay attention the next time you see an actor writing something onscreen. I promise you more of them will be left-handed than is representative of the actual population.


Lesson #368: The Roman Short Sword…is Spanish.

I learned today, in my reading of random things, that the official name of the Roman short sword you’ve seen in every movie about the Roman army ever is the gladius Hispaniensis. I’m a native French speaker; I have a pretty good grasp of Latin etymology.* And I know — and so should you if you paid attention to any colonial Caribbean history in school — the root of the word Hispaniensis. 

So, as I am wont to do, I went digging.

It seems that while it was developed on the Iberian peninsula, the strength (iron) and efficacy of the sword made it so popular that it was already in use by a large swath of the Rome’s armies by 200 BCE. Because of it’s durability and ability to be used both to stab, and in the right hands, to lop heads off — or limbs, whatever — the gladius Hispaniensis‘ design remain unchanged for the duration of the two hundred years it was in fashion as a Roman weapon.

More on the gladius Hispaniensis here, here, and here.

*Greek, not so much.

Lesson #348: Simon Magus and Goethe’s Faust

As you may have picked up at some point (possibly because I expressly said it), many of my problems with religion lie in the idea that you’re supposed to believe a whole slew of things for which there is absolutely no historical evidence. But sometimes, there is evidence, which is why, whatever trouble I may have with faith, I have never fully abandoned religion as a subject to learn.

I’m sure you’re all familiar with Goethe’s story Faust (and if you’re not, I’d ask what library-less island you’ve been living on your whole life) at least enough to understand that it’s a story of a man who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for worldly riches.*

Here’s an interesting note: the character of Faust is based on Simon Magus, who apparently referred to himself as Faustus (the favoured one). Here’s a more interesting note if you’ve been following this blog at all: Simon Magus is the man for whom simony is named.

Biblically, Simon shows up in the eighth chapter of Acts. He’s portrayed as a wizard (okay, a sorcerer, but that makes me think of Mickey Mouse and sentient brooms) who has fooled people into believing in his power. He follows Philip around for a bit before running into Peter and John in Samaria and attempting to buy aspostle-ship.** For their part, those two chastise Simon rather severely before heading back to Jerusalem.

Here’s the thing…Simon is not a one-off Biblical character who shows up in order to act out some sort of morality play. He’s kind of everywhere and kind of a big deal. Irenaeus (whom I know best from a grad school paper I wrote on the canonical portrayal of Judas Iscariot in the early Church), Hippolytus, and our friend Epiphanius (last seen discrediting the position of the desposyni), among others, all discuss Simon as a heretic. ***

In Against Heresies, Irenaeus suggests that after his failed purchase, Simon made a bit of a habit of presenting himself as God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit in different places throughout the Near East and Rome (which I’m sure went over spectacularly). He notes, in Book I, Chapter 23, section 2, that Simon is the one “from whom all the heresies took their origin.” Simon hung out with a prostitute from Tyre called Helen, whom he claimed — as God, one expects — was the first creation of his mind and it was she who created the world.  In a fun twist I didn’t see coming, Irenaeus explicitly says of Helen that she transmigrated between bodies including occupying, for a time, “Helen, on whose account the Trojan War arose.”****

This is not the only reference to Simon’s Helen and Menelaeus/Paris’ Helen being one and the same. Tertullianus says in De Anima that, “she became also that Helen who proved so fatal to Priam.” (see Section II, point iv. of the G. R. S. Mead’s essay, “Simon Magus: An Essay on the Founder of Simonianism Based on the Ancient Sources”, below)

Fun fact while we’re on the subject, more or less, of Simon’s delusions of godliness, according to Justinus Martyr’s Apologia, he went to Rome in the time of Claudius (who was the fourth Emperor of the Roman Empire and ruled between 41 and 54 BCE and whose name I can never hear without thinking “Mom, tell me more about Livia.” “She killed everybody off so her son Tiberius could inherit the throne. Just like Nixon.”) and was so convincing at being a God, the nebulous “they” erected a statue to him.

Anyway, on to Hippolytus. Hippolytus presents something of a rant against Simon Magus in Refutatio Omnium Haeresium. It’s a very philosophical rant on why Simon isn’g God, but it’s very “modern academic” in its approach, which amuses me. It’s a very well-structured argument, but it reads like a graduate paper. Hippolytus goes on at length about the metaphysical error in Simon’s understanding of God (and to some degree the tautological errors inherent in the magic). (see section II, point v. of the essay)

Epiphanius’ Contra Hæreses identifies Simon’s birthplace for us, Gittha. I don’t, however, seem to be able to find any record for where that was on a map apart from Samaria, which is like saying that a town is in Alberta and leaving it to you to figure out where, exactly. It turns out, though, that with a bit of digging I was able to find out that Gittha (or Gitta) was not popular among the orthodox Jews because it was a hotbed for healers and magicians.***** Anyway, to Epiphanius’ credit he mentioned that Gittha was a city during Simon’s time, but says that it “still exists as a village today”, which would have been sometime in the early to mid 4th century. The problem, if you can call it that, with Epiphanius’ accounts of Simon is that by the time he was writing, a whole slew of scholars had gone before him and he was essentially retelling their work for a newer audience.

All of the passages I’ve noted can be read in this excellent essay. Also, see Klauck’s Magic and Paganism in Early Christianity: The World of the Acts of the Apostles. Read basic background on Simon here.

*I’d encourage you to read it.

**Or at the very least the “ability” to impart the Holy Spirit to converts. Although what kept him from doing it without sanction, I don’t know.

***Simon also appears in the Apocryphal texts Acts of Peter and Epistle of the Apostles, which portray him as a sorcerer with the ability to levitate and fly. That’s really more Harry Potter than historical source, so there will be no discussion here

****This is also in Book 1, Chapter 23, section 2. See Section II, point ii. of the essay.

*****That link  has an interesting take on the attitude of the early Christian writers towards our mischievous friend, Simon, including that while none of the writers denied that any of the miracles he was performing were things that happened, they were pretty adamant that because these things could only be done through Jesus Christ, Simon was clearly a heretic. Solid, if imperfect, logic.  This position, incidentally, is supported by Klauck’s work.

Lesson #337: Adelphoi, Desposyni, and Christianity

Autobiographical note: This is the most fun I’ve had doing research in a long while because it was the most challenging research I’ve done in a long while. The four hours it took me to get everything together and written (I don’t f**k around with my research) is time I rarely have to devote, but it’s a slow weekend in my world. This is also why yesterday’s post is as detailed as it is — though that took only half the time. 

Both the Gospels of Matthew and Mark acknowledge Jesus’ siblings. Four brothers by name, even. They’re called James, Joseph, Judas (or Jude depending on which version you’re reading), and Simon. They also make mention of at least two sisters, who aren’t named, but because the noun is plural, I’m sure you can do the (super basic) math.* 

If you never learned that in Sunday school, ever, that’s because modern Christianity sees the whole thing as a problem. Because Christianity on the whole likes to view Mary as pure as all get-out despite the fact that women of her time would never have had one kid and then been all, “yeah, that’s enough.”

There has been debate raging about the meaning of the word “brothers” in this context since pretty much the dawn of Christianity. Proponents of the perpetual virgin version of Mary — pretty much all of Christianity — choose to see this translation as a figurative association between Jesus and these four. Cousins, maybe.** Or brothers from another mother (literally…there’s discussion as to whether they might be Joseph’s children from a previous, completely unmentioned marriage). Or, you know, bros.

Here’s the problem with that argument: the Greek word from which we get the translation “brothers” is adelphoi, which literally means “from the same womb.”*** I’m not exactly sure how that gets misinterpreted because it’s pretty explicit.

Whatever the modern interpretation, early Christians didn’t doubt the consanguinity of Jesus’ brothers. The historian Josephus (who was Jewish, but that’s so very much not the point here) addresses James’ fate in Antiquities of the Jews. He notes in Book 20, Chapter 9, paragraph 1 that James, who was stoned to death, was “the brother of Jesus called Christ.”****

And they had a word for people who were Jesus’ blood relatives: desposyni, meaning “belonging to the Lord.” The word was widespread enough in its use that the early third century historians Sextus Julius Africanus and Hegesippus both addressed the concept in their writing. Hegesippus’ work is mostly lost, but large portions are quoted in Eusebius’ Historia Ecclesiae. Book 3, chapter 20 makes reference to the grandsons of Judas, whom he calls a blood brother of Jesus. Julius Africanus’ work, which actually uses the word desposyni, is quoted in book 1, chapter 7 of the same Eusebius work. 

The concept of the adelphoi and desposyni fell out of favour by the time Third Synod of Carthage set the books of the Bible in 397, with help from major early Christian theologians like Hippolytus and Epiphanius, who held to the perpetual virgin doctrine that continues to exist today. There is, however, some scholarship that suggests that a meeting took place between Pope Sylvester I and Jewish Christian leaders in 318, wherein the Jewish Christian leaders, speaking on behalf of the desposyni, asked that the papacy a. recognize the bloodline of Jesus, b. make Jerusalem the mother church (and have the church’s money sent to Jerusalem), and c. revoke the authority of the Greek Christian bishops of Jerusalem, Antioch, Ephesus, and Alexandria, and appoint desposynos bishops in their stead. Rome declined. This meeting is the last known communication between the Church and the desposyni.***** 

There is no doubt some political motivation in all of this. It’s unlikely that, with the papacy under Roman patronage by this time, the Church was ever going to agree to lose the money it was making in being the mother church and in being in control of bishopric appointments. And it’s not exactly good publicity to change your mind about the purity of your holiest saint. In canonizing the Bible not long after, Rome solidified its place as the power of Europe for the next 1125 years — until Martin Luther showed up and said “eine minuten, bitte” — and shaped the way modern Christianity believes without much question into the finer points. The Church, like every other ruling faction, became a political entity ahead of everything else. It just so happened their political interest was in saving souls. For money.******

And lest you think this is critical of Christianity, it is and it isn’t. I’ve long been critical of the unchecked political agency of the early and medieval Church. But I’m most impressed by people like priests and bishops, whose job it is to learn and know these things, but still manage to reconcile them with their faith (and then let me ask a million questions about it all like a petulant four-year-old who wants to know why she has to go to bed); it’s exactly these sorts of smaller details that, when taken as a collective, made me walk away from religion. As an academic, the whole notion of the Church saying, “just trust me!” without ever giving compelling evidence for why I should — especially when my scholastic motto is “sources or GTFO” — led to a wholesale mistrust in the fundamental tenets of the entire faith.

As an aside: There’s an interesting alternate history to be drawn if the mother church moves from Rome to Jerusalem.

*See here (verse 55) and here (verse 3)

**Unlikely. The Greek word for cousin is a distinct word, anepsios.

***The etymology of the word brother even identifies the as “Greek adelphos…meaning, specifically, “brother of the womb” or “brother by blood.”

****For the record, religious scholars agree that of the two references to Jesus in Josephus’ work (both in Antiquities of the Jews), this is the only one that is authentic. The reference in Book 18 to Jesus’ crucifixion is universally held to be a later addition by an outside source. For more on that, see Schrekenberg and Schubert’s Jewish Traditions in Early Christian Literature, Vol 1, Evans’ Jesus and His Contemporaries: Comparative Studies, Wansbrough’s Jesus and the Oral Gospel Tradition, Dunn’s Jesus Remembered: Christianity in the Making, Vol. 1, Wells and Hoffman’s The Jesus Legend, and probably half a dozen others.

*****See Malachi Martin’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Church.

******See: tithing, which was required by law. And any number of shady practices employed by the medieval church to scare every last cent out of people in order to ensure their eternal salvation. But that fear-mongering and widespread abuse of power made the Church exorbitantly wealthy.

Lesson #336: Damnatio ad Bestias

Damnatio ad bestias is the Latin for “condemnation to beasts.”

As you may remember, if you’ve been reading long enough, the Roman Army was not especially tolerant of rebellion within its ranks, which led to the practice of decimation.

Turns out, they were even less a fan of desertion. At least if you took part in some sort of rebellion, you stood a nine in ten chance of surviving your failed attempt at change.

Deserters were sentenced to death by being thrown, woefully under-armed — if they were armed at all — into the arena with angry, hungry wild animals that wanted to, and did, tear their throats out. Sometimes, they were simply tied to a pole. Sometimes, they got their skulls crushed by elephants. Sometimes, if they were especially bad, smaller animals were introduced to kill them more slowly. Good times! The Romans certainly took their bloodsport seriously.

Damnatio ad bestias wasn’t strictly a sentence for deserters. It was also handed down to early Christians, but was most often the fate of criminals. Both the Codex Theodosianus (429-438 CE) and the Corpus Juris Civilis (529-534 CE) actually stipulate who may and who may not be sentenced to damnatio ad bestias. The list of those who were allowed to be executed by damnatio ad bestias includes: deserters, anyone hiring a sorcerer with the intent to harm another, plebian prisoners*, counterfeiters, political prisoners, anyone who committed patricide**, anyone instigating an uprising (!), and kidnappers.

The practice of damnatio ad bestias originated in Asia, where it was practiced from the sixth century BCE. One of the earliest recorded instances is the biblical story of Daniel being thrown to the lions (from which he was delivered, if you remember your Sunday/Hebrew school lessons).*** There is some question as to whether the earliest instances of damnatio ad bestias were actually human sacrifice rather than the punishment the sentence would later become, though by the time of Alexander’s campaigns in the fourth century BCE, the sentence was being carried out as punishment.****

According to historians Polybius and Pliny the Elder*****, damnatio ad bestias arrived in Europe in the second or third century BCE by way of the Punic Wars, and by the first century CE, the practice had become an entertainment event, including being part of the first games at the Colosseum in Rome (under the Emperor Titus). Nero became the first emperor to use the punishment as a way to persecute early Christians. His version involved simply wrapping Christians in animal skins and throwing them to the dogs******, but later emperors changed this practice to become more entertaining-bloodsport-in-the-arena and less guy-on-the-street-being-attacked-by-dogs. This aspect of damnatio ad bestias continued until the 313 CE Edict of Milan, which granted freedom of religion. However, the practice itself continued for another three hundred years, until it was (purportedly, I can’t find any evidence that this is true*******) outlawed in 681 CE.

For more reading (in case the citations above weren’t enough), see here (this one’s a whole book!), here, and here.

*Patricians were beheaded, slaves were crucified.

**Apparently, the usual punishment for any crime of parricide was drowning whilst sewn into a bag of snakes (poena cullei), but damnatio ad bestias was the fallback in case a sufficient body of water could not be found.

***The Tanakh version of that story is here. The Old Testament version is here. They’re exactly the same story in almost exactly the same words, but people are weird about acknowledging that the Tanakh and the Old Testament are nearly identical, so in the interest of fairness, I give you both. In the Old Testament link, I’ve provided the NIV text, but the link gives you a drop down menu that allows you to choose from 47 different English versions. And if that doesn’t suit you, there are options in 61 other languages.

****See Plutarch’s Life of Demetrius.

*****Polybius’ The General History of Polybius and Pliny the Elder’s Natural History.

******See Tacitus’s The Annals.

*******While I can’t speak to the legal accuracy of this, everything suggests that after the seventh century CE, the practice all but disappears, though there are a couple notable instances that take place much later.

Lesson #325: Cambyses II’s Cat Army

A word about my prolonged absence: I have no excuse, really, except that I’ve been focused on other, sometimes (but not always, unless you count plowing through all of Breaking Bad, Friday Night Lights, and Sons of Anarchy as more important) more important, things.

Also, I’ve had no word from Fulham. Evidently, they didn’t think I was being sincere, despite my best efforts at explanation. Anyway, Spurs have shown reasonably well, even without Gareth Bale, so that’s what’s important.*

Moving on…

There are many things I love about history. Not the history you learned about in school because school history — all memorized names, dates, and events to be forgotten as soon as the final has been taken — is the worst. I’m talking about the history that’s interesting.**

As we all know from our grade four history unit on Ancient Egypt, — we all had that, right? — the Egyptians believed in the sanctity of cats. They also lived in an era when there Persians were enjoying a delightful conquering romp through the better part of the known world. Enter Cambyses II, son of Cyrus the Great, who, five years after the epic death of his father, leads the Persian army on a little jaunt to make friends with Egypt.

There’s some pretty Game of Thrones-type political stuff involving powerful people, deposed monarchs, marriage of daughters, trickery, betrayal, and subversive doctors that leads up to the Battle of Pelusium*** in 525 BCE, but by May, Cambyses and the Egyptian Pharoah, Psamtik III, were at war over an insult to Cambyses’ pride (or honor…whatever, there was a slight, and Cambyses didn’t take it well).  It turns out, though, that Cambyses was prepared to completely obliterate the Egyptian army. He brought cats.

Knowing the Egyptians’ veneration of cats, Cambyses had the image of Bastet, the cat goddess, painted on his army’s shields and sent cats (as well as other animals the Egyptians held sacred, including dogs, sheep, and ibexes) out to march ahead of the first wave of soldiers. The Egyptians decided it was better to run screaming to Memphis and hole up there than to anger the Gods by fighting and wound up victims of a vicious rout. According to the historian Ctesias, 50,000 Egyptians were killed.**** Cambyses then wandered on down to Memphis with his troops and laid siege to it until it fell, after which he executed 2,000 of the city’s more important citizens. Psamtik was captured in the aftermath and, by all accounts, treated well, living out his life in Memphis (or jailed in Susa, depending on what you read) under the watchful eye of the Persians — right up until the point where he decided to lead a revolt against his captors, which earned him an execution.

Cambyses defeat of Psamtik ushered in the 27th dynasty, which was overseen by the Persian Shahs from Cambyses’ takeover in 525 BCE and running through Darius II’s overthrow in 404 BCE.

For more information see here and here.

*I just need to record for posterity that during the Northern Ireland/Portugal qualifier in Belfast a few months back, fans chanted “you’re just a cheap Gareth Bale” at Cristiano Ronaldo (of whom I have many things to say, few of them nice), which made me giggle. And then he turned around a scored a hat trick, which did not make me giggle. Other Cristiano Ronaldo hat tricks that didn’t make me giggle include the one he scored in the second leg against Sweden in the World Cup qualifier playoff that knocked Sweden out of the tournament before it even started. Between me and The Swede, that didn’t go over well, though he took it much better than I did.

**To be fair, my version of interesting history and other people’s versions aren’t necessarily the same. I like the chaos, idealism, and aggression aspects. Other people like quilts.

***See Herodus’ The Histories, Volume I, Book II

****See Persica

Lesson #316: If.

Sometimes, the most random things get triggered in my brain. I wrote the title to this post and immediately thought of e.e. cummings, which seemed…odd. But the interwebs tell me there’s a good reason for this and it involves a poem I had never seen before today, though I have clearly, at some point, seen the title and absorbed the information at least enough to recall, at random, both that it’s a poem that exists and the name of its author. 

“If.” is quite possibly my favourite laconic phrase, at which the Spartans were such masters the entire concept — and adjective — is named for them.* In the post-300 world, I’m sure we’re all familiar with Sparta’s most famous laconic phrase, “molon labe” (or at least its translation, “come and take [them]”), and most of us have, at one time, heard “because only Spartan women give birth to men” and/or “with your shield or on it” and/or “my father’s common sense”, but I had somehow never read the “if” response until today. I was amused.

Having brought most of the Greek city-states under his control, sometime in the mid 340s BCE, Philip the II of Macedonia sent a message to Sparta that said either, “If I win this war, you will be slaves forever” or “You are advised to submit without further delay, for if I bring my army into your land, I will destroy your farms, slay your people, and raze your city” (depending on what you read). Sparta’s response: “If.”

Since Philip wasn’t an idiot, he steered well clear of Sparta, as did his son, Alexander the Great, who chose instead to literally go halfway to China rather than take a run at Sparta.

The moral of the story: if the greatest conqueror the world has ever known and his vast, vast army want nothing to do with going to war with your city-state based on a one-word response to some trash talk, you’re doing something right.

More here and here. General historical information on Sparta here.

*What we know from our history texts as the city-state Sparta was actually the state of Laconia, of which the city Sparta was its adminitrative capital.