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A Palace Portrait of Lombard Fashion

Queen Theudelinda was a Bavarian noblewoman who married into Lombard high society at the turn of the 6th and 7th century. She wed King Authari of the Lombards (r. 584-590), who fought off many coordinated invasions by the Frankish kings and the emperor of Constantinople during his reign. His service to the defense of the realm was poorly repaid, however, as his life came to an end through the means of poisoning. Authari died without an heir, so the throne was seized by the most able and ambitious of the Lombard dukes—Agilulf, who had been previously ruling the dukedom of Turin. Widowed Queen Theudelinda married this King Agilulf (r. 590-616) and together they crushed any dissident nobles or rival claimants to the throne that emerged. Theudelinda and Agilulf had a son named Adaloald, who was quickly proclaimed to be the heir, so as to reduce the risk of another succession crisis. Suffice it to say, Queen Theudelinda was a powerful woman who had a personal hand in government for decades. Her descendants would continue to rule the Lombard kingdom until a new dynasty emerged in the 8th century.

While Theudelinda was flourishing as a queen and matriarch, she reportedly built for herself a great palace near Milan. A variety of craftsmen and artists were hired to adorn and decorate the luxurious home. In particular, the palace was known to have featured elaborate paintings that depicted scenes of Lombard history and achievements. These artworks were reportedly quite detailed, portraying a fairly accurate depiction of Lombard fashion from Theudelinda’s heyday in the 6th and 7th centuries. These painted portals to the past were of special interest to later Lombard historians, who wished to know how their ancestors dressed decades or centuries in the past. One such interested scholar was Paul the Deacon (c.  720-799), who eagerly took down notes on what gear and clothing the painted Lombard (or Langobard) figures were wearing. He wrote:

“In this painting it is clearly shown in what way the Langobards at that time cut their hair, and what was their dress and what their appearance [was like]. They shaved the neck, and left it bare up to the back of the head, having their hair hanging down on the face as far as the mouth and parting it on either side by a part in the forehead. Their garments were loose and mostly linen, such as the Anglo-Saxons are wont to wear, ornamented with broad borders woven various colors. Their shoes, indeed, were open almost to the tip of the great toe, and were held on by shoe latches interlacing alternately. But later they began to wear trousers, over which they put leggings of shaggy woolen cloth” (Paul the Deacon, History of the Lombards, 4.22).

Queen Theudelinda’s palace, as well as a specially commissioned church, were built at the city of Monza, just to the northeast of Milan. Although artifacts from the queen’s reign remain in the region, the painting has apparently been lost. Yet, its memory is preserved by the brief, but valuable, description it was given in Paul the Deacon’s History of the Lombards.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (Merovingian and Lombard costume design, created by Friedrich Hottenroth in 1894, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the Smithsonian Institute Digital Library).



Alexander The Great Threatened By His Father, Painted By Donato Creti (c. 1671 – 1749)

In this painting, the Bolognese artist Donato Creti (c. 1671 – 1749) re-creates a tale of courtly drama between King Philip II of Macedonia (r. 359-336 BCE) and his famous son and heir, Alexander the Great (r. 336-322 BCE). The historical event that inspired this scene can be dated to around 338 or 337 BCE, when Philip II married a Macedonian noblewoman named Cleopatra, adding her to his preexisting harem of wives. Polygamy was an accepted practice for Macedonian kings, but this did not stop teenage Alexander and his mother, Olympias, from feeling slighted. And any further children that Philip fathered could pose a problem to Alexander’s claim to the throne. As the wedding date neared, the marriage became a powder-keg of emotion for all involved, and the volatile situation finally erupted once Alexander, Philip, and the father of the bride were brought together for the alcohol-inundated wedding banquet. The Greek-Roman biographer, Plutarch (c. 50-120) described the awkward scene that unfolded during the festivities:

“Their quarrel was brought to a head on the occasion of the wedding of Cleopatra, a girl with whom Philip had fallen in love and whom he had decided to marry, although she was far too young for him. Cleopatra’s uncle Attalus, who had drunk too much at the banquet, called upon the Macedonians to pray to the gods that the union of Philip and Cleopatra might bring forth a legitimate heir to the throne. Alexander flew into a rage at these words, shouted at him, ‘Villain, do you take me for a bastard, then?’ and hurled a drinking-cup at his head. At this Philip lurched to his feet, and drew his sword against his son, but fortunately for them both he was so overcome with drink and with rage that he tripped and fell headlong” (Plutarch, Parallel Lives, Life of Alexander, chapter 9).

Plutarch’s quote describes what is occurring in Donato Creti’s painting. The artwork features the precise moment when King Philip drew his sword against his own son. Yet, as was written above, Philip was too drunk to do any real harm that night, and therefore Alexander escaped unharmed. In protest and self-preservation, Alexander and his mother, Olympias, withdrew from Macedonia. To King Philip’s credit, he did regret threatening his son once the anger and drunken haze subsided. Alexander soon returned to Philip’s court and a working relationship resumed between the strained father and son.

Written by C. Keith Hansley



Dante Alighieri

Dante Alighieri (c. 1265-1321)

“Heaven calls,
And, round about you wheeling, courts your gaze
With everlasting beauties. Yet your eye
Turns with fond doting still upon the earth.
Therefore He smites you who discerneth all.”

  • Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy (Purgatory, Canto XIV), translated by Henry F. Cary in the Harvard Classics series, edited by Charles W. Eliot, and published by P. F. Collier & Son (1909, 1937).

The Financial Conquests Of The Banker-Tyrant, Eubulus, In the War-torn 4th Century BCE

A certain Eubulus (not to be confused with the Athenian statesman with the same name), was a banker or moneylender who operated in the region of Anatolia during the reign of King Artaxerxes II of Persia (r. 404-358 BCE). It was a profitable place for a war profiteer, as satraps and vassals from the Anatolian region continuously rebelled against King Artaxerxes during his reign. Both the rebels and the loyalists needed money for their military goals, and Eubulus was there to lend it—for interest and sureties, of course.

Artaxerxes’ own brother, Cyrus the Younger (who governed the Anatolian regions of Lydia, Cappadocia, and Phrygia) rebelled in 401 BCE and died trying to usurp his brother’s throne. Although Cyrus was killed, the revolt lived on in many Greek settlements in Anatolia, which refused to submit to Artaxerxes II’s authority. Sparta aided these rebellious Anatolian cities for the first half of the 390s BCE, but Spartan attentions were soon called back to the Greek mainland by the Corinthian War (c. 395-387 BCE). Just as Artaxerxes’ loyalists were regaining momentum in Anatolia, King Evagoras (in Cyprus) rebelled against the Persians, persisting in his unsuccessful revolt for around a decade, lasting from about 391/390 to 381 BCE. Although a decade of relative peace in Anatolia followed Evagoras’ defeat, an even greater uprising was brewing—the so-called Satraps’ Revolt.

In 368 BCE, Datames (satrap of Cilicia and Cappadocia) rebelled against Artaxerxes II, and the revolt was joined by Ariobarzanes (satrap of Hellespont Phrygia) the next year, in 367 BCE. Although loyalist forces were again dispatched to crush the rebellion, the revolt only grew. By 364 BCE, reportedly all of the major Anatolian satraps had joined the rebellion, and Orontes (satrap of Armenia) also took the opportunity to rebel. Yet, after about 362 BCE, the rebellion began to lose momentum. In the following years, internal dissension, assassinations, and the surrender of key rebel leaders back to the side of Artaxerxes II led to the downfall of the revolt. Before the rebellion was finally over, however, the aforementioned banker and moneylender, Eubulus, had already made some interesting deals.

Eubulus evidently was a ruthless negotiator in his terms, as can be seen from what he obtained from the Persians during the years of profitable chaos. Somehow or other, Eubulus was able to loan and lend his way into seizing power and lordship over certain Persian lands. Through his terms and conditions, the banker is known to have taken possession of at least two cities—Atarneus and Assos—where he ruled as an authoritarian tyrant.

After the Satraps’ Revolt had run its course, the Persians tried to retake Eubulus’ cities. The philosopher, Aristotle (who was a friend of Eubulus’ successor, Hermias), recorded for posterity a story of how Eubulus dealt with Persian attacks on Atarneus. Aristotle wrote:

“When Autophradates [satrap of Lydia] was about to lay siege to Atarneus, its ruler Eubulus told him to consider how long it would take to complete the capture of the place, and then count the cost of a war of that duration. ‘For,’ he added, ‘I am willing now to abandon Atarneus in return for a smaller sum of money than that.’ These words of Eubulus caused Autophradates to think again and to abandon the siege” (Aristotle, The Politics, Bekker page 1267a).

Eubulus was able to maintain power, ruling his realm independently from the Persians. He died around the year 355 BCE, by which time Hermias took over the reins of government. Under Hermias’ rule, Assos became a center for learning, attracting prominent scholars from mainland Greece. As was hinted earlier, Aristotle was one of the philosophers who traveled to Assos. Besides studying, Aristotle also found a wife while he was abroad, for he married Hermias’ adopted daughter, Pythias.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (An Exchange of Money from the Psalter manuscript BL Royal 2 B III, f. 51, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and The British Library).



Jove Casts His Thunderbolts At The Rebellious Giants, By Johann Michael Rottmayr (c. 1654-1730)

This painting, by the Austrian artist Johann Michael Rottmayr (c. 1654-1730), was inspired by myths about the ancient Greco-Roman gods. Jove is an alternative name of the Roman god, Jupiter, who—for all intents and purposes—was a Latinized copy of the Greek god, Zeus. Therefore, the myth that inspired this scene with ‘Jove’ and his thunderbolts came not from Rome, but from ancient Greece. For the story depicted in the painting, we must go back in the mythological timeline to the so-called Titanomachy (the war in which Zeus and the Olympian gods overthrew the Titans). During that war, the primordial earth goddess, Gaia, forsook her Titan children and became an ally (or at least an advisor) to Zeus. Although Gaia apparently did not mind the authority of her children being usurped by her grandchildren, she did evidently feel anger at the decision made by Zeus to imprison certain Titans in Tartarus. As the story goes, Gaia let this rage fester for a long time, and she only decided to act after the hero, Heracles, had been born. Nevertheless, when she decided to act, Gaia brought about the scene featured above in the painting. Hoping to punish Zeus and his followers, Gaia looked to another race of her offspring—the giants—and incited a war between them and the Olympians.

Zeus and the Olympians learned of the approaching army of giants in advance. Having prior knowledge was vital, for this particular army of giants had somehow been fortified by Gaia against the skills of the Olympian gods. Zeus and his comrades would only be able to maim these creatures, not kill them completely. Yet, there was a chink in the armor of these giants—they could be killed by mortal humans. Armed with this knowledge, Zeus and the Olympians made sure they had the still-mortal Heracles among their ranks before they fought the army of giants. A scholar known as the Pseudo-Apollodorus (c. 1st-2nd century) described the mythological battle that ensued, naming several giants and the particular gods that they challenged:

“Zeus struck the Giant [Porphyrion] with his thunderbolt, and Heracles killed him with a shot from his bow. As for the others, Apollo shot Ephialtes in the left eye with one of his arrows, while Heracles shot him in the right. Eurytos was killed by Dionysos with a blow from this thyrsos, Clytios by Hecate with her torches, and Mimas by Hephaistos with missiles of red-hot iron. Athene hurled the island of Sicily on Encelados as he fled; and she flayed Pallas and used his skin to protect her own body during the fight. Polybotes was pursued through the sea by Poseidon and made his way to Cos, where Poseidon broke off the part of the island called Nisyron and threw it down on him. Hermes, who was wearing the cap of Hades, killed Hippolytos in the battle, and Artemis killed Gration, and the Fates, fighting with bronze cudgels, killed Agrios and Thoon. The others were destroyed by Zeus, who struck them with thunderbolts; and all of them, in their death throes, were shot with arrows by Heracles” (Apollodorus, Library, 1.6).

This chaotic battle between the gods and the giants is what inspired Johann Michael Rottmayr’s painting. He focused on Zeus’ actions during the mayhem, but as can be seen from the quote above, it was a group effort involving all of the Olympians and their allies. Most important of all was Heracles, whose role of finishing off the incapacitated giants was pivotal to the victory of the gods.

Written by C. Keith Hansley




Socrates (c. 469-399 BCE)

“Surely it is the most blameworthy ignorance to believe that one knows what one does not know.”

  • This saying, attributed to Socrates, was recorded in Plato’s Apology (section 29b). The translation used here is by G. M. A. Grube, revised by John M. Cooper (Hackett Publishing, 2000).

The Tale Of The Sacrificial Prophet At The Battle Of Munychia

Around the year 403 BCE, a revolution erupted against a Spartan-supported Athenian oligarchic government, known as ‘the Thirty’. Leading the revolutionary cause was an exiled Athenian general named Thrasybulus. He inspired hope for the anti-oligarchy Athenians when he and a small band of comrades captured the fortress of Phyle, near Athens. The oligarchs attempted to recapture the fort, but Thrasybulus and his rebels held out against the assault. Next, Thrasybulus and his growing revolutionary army startled a camp of careless Spartan warriors that had been sent to assist the oligarchs. Only a fraction of the oligarchy’s manpower was killed in the ambush of the camp, but the assault invigorated Thrasybulus’ rebels and demoralized the oligarchs. Thrasybulus followed up this attack by abandoning his base at Phyle and advancing against Piraeus, the main port used by Athens. Thrasybulus successfully took the region, but he immediately had to defend against a retaliatory attack from the oligarchs. As the oligarchic army was the larger of the opposing forces, Thrasybulus wisely lured his opponents to a battlefield that favored the rebels.

Both armies met at a steep hill called Munychia (or Munichia), with Thrasybulus naturally positioned defensively on the high ground. In contrast, the army sent by the oligarchs had to awkwardly assault up a predefined roadway that steeply climbed to the top of the hill. The battle was winnable from the start, for Thrasybulus had the often clichéd (but palpably deadly) high ground for this battle. Yet, according to legend, the rebels also were especially emboldened by a prophecy that gave the army a simple game plan for victory.

Thrasybulus, so the odd story goes, supposedly had a warrior with prophetic abilities in his army. This mysterious supernaturally-informed figure allegedly told Thrasybulus that victory would be assured if the rebels held their ground at the top of the slope. No matter how tempting it may be, claimed the prophet, Thrasybulus must not sound a charge until after his army had suffered a casualty while they were still positioned at the top of the hill. After that first casualty occurred, however, Thrasybulus would then be guaranteed victory if he sent his troops charging downhill. This tale of prophesy and fate in the battle of Munychia was recorded by the warrior and scholar, Xenophon (c. 420-350 BCE). In his account of the battle, Xenophon claimed that the mysterious, unidentified, and folkloric prophet decided to sacrifice himself to make sure that Thrasybulus’ army seized victory that day. Xenophon wrote, “His prophecy came true. When they had taken up their shields, he, inspired by some kind of fate, sprang forward in front of them, fell upon the enemy and was killed. He lies buried at the ford of the Cephisus. The others, however, were victorious and drove the enemy down the hill to the level ground” (Hellenica, II.4.19).

Due to advantageous terrain and an effective troop composition (plus the morale boost of a prophecy), Thrasybulus was able to win the Battle of Munychia, which allowed him to carry on his war efforts in the Piraeus region. In the aftermath of the battle, he and the rebels would be required to endure a siege and skirmishes from the Spartan leaders, Lysander and King Pausanias. Yet, Thrasybulus and the rebels would survive these trials and tribulations, enter Athens, and eventually restore democracy.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (Terracotta neck-amphora (jar), dated c. 510 B.C., [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the MET).



Erminia And The Shepherds, By Francesco Guardi (c. 1712 – 1793) And Gian Antonio Guardi (c. 1699 – 1761)

This painting, by the Venetian artists Francesco Guardi (c. 1712 – 1793) and Gian Antonio Guardi (c. 1699 – 1761), was inspired by a scene from a poem called Gerusalemme liberata, written by the Italian poet, Torquato Tasso (c. 1544-1595). Tasso’s poem, which translates as The Liberation of Jerusalem, is a fictitious tale that is set in the times of the First Crusade (c. 1095/1096-1099). Despite the deceptive name of the poem, the Gerusalemme liberata more closely resembles ancient epic poems such as the Iliad and the Aeneid than an actual account of the First Crusade. Instead of Greeks besieging Troy, Tasso’s epic has Crusaders besieging Jerusalem. Whereas Greco-Roman gods helped or hindered the ancient heroes of old, Tasso’s newer characters instead meet angels, demons, wizards, witches, and a diverse host of other supernatural creatures. Nevertheless, this particular painted scene is quite mundane, and does not feature any such spiritual beings or monsters that can be found elsewhere in the poem. Instead, this painting focuses on the fictional character, Erminia, and an encounter she had with a community of shepherds.

As Torquato Tasso tells it, his character Erminia was a refugee who fled from the Crusader armies and found sanctuary in the city of the then unconquered Jerusalem. While she was being driven from her home, only one crusader was allegedly kind to her. This crusader was Tancred (a historical figure spliced into this fictional plot), and his kindness caused Erminia to fall in love with him. During the siege of Jerusalem, the two were on opposite sides of the wall, but Erminia watched Tancred’s actions with interest. When she eventually saw that Tancred was wounded during a duel, she was compelled to slip out of Jerusalem’s defenses to treat her beloved crusader’s wounds. To do this, she stole a suit of armor and a horse, and was able to bluff her way out of the gates. Nevertheless, Erminia was not able to reach Tancred at that time, for she was discovered by Crusader scouts and was chased away. It is this turn of events that led the armored Erminia to stumble upon a community of shepherds, who were understandably shocked and startled by her appearance. Torquato Tasso poetically described the scene:

“She sees an old man in the pleasant shade,
braiding (his flock close by) some basket thing
and listening while three striplings play and sing.
They, struck with terror at the sudden view
of unaccustomed arms, stare in surprise,
but then Erminia greets them kind and true,
and heartens them, uncovering her eyes
and golden hair. ‘Pursue,’ she says, ‘oh you,
beloved by Heaven, your fair enterprise.
These arms shall never urge a war to wrong
your wholesome labour or your lovely song.’”
(Torquato Tasso, Gerusalemme liberata, Canto 7, stanzas 6-7)

It is this passage that inspired the painting by Francesco and Gian Antonio Guardi. Their painting re-creates many elements from the short quote. In the artwork, Erminia has removed her helmet, ‘uncovering her eyes and golden hair,’ to calm the family of herdsmen. Three young children, or ‘striplings,’ can be seen playing before her. Sitting beside them is the ‘old man,’ weaving a basket as his flock (here a goat and a sheep) rests close by.

Written by C. Keith Hansley



Spain Used Ancient Myth And Legend In An Attempt To Bolster Its Claims On The New World

When Spain began colonizing the American continents, its colonial land-grabs were already condoned by geopolitical norms of the era, as well as papal support. Nevertheless, when it comes to the actions of government entities, more justification is always better than less. Therefore, although Spain’s colonization and conquest of parts of the New World were rarely deemed unjustified in colonial-age Europe, the Spaniards still took opportunities to further strengthen and expand their claims on the Americas. One of the more curious ways that Spain tried to bolster its ownership of the New World involved harkening back to ancient legend and myth. In particular, patriotic Spanish scholars mused over the tales of Hesperus—the personified evening-star god, who came to be associated with the Iberian Peninsula and the Canary Islands. In connection to Hesperus, the scholars also investigated the Hesperides, a name attached to the daughters of Hesperus, as well as to mythical islands owned by the evening-star god. The so-called Hesperides Islands had long been associated with the Canary Islands, but when Christopher Columbus arrived in the Bahamas and the Caribbean, Spaniards began reassessing the myth. In effect, by insinuating that the Iberian Peninsula’s Hesperus had ruled islands in the New World, the Spanish scholars peculiarly proposed that Spain’s rightful ownership over the American continents dated back to the vague days of ancient legend and myth. This imaginative, but bizarre, theory was explained by the enthusiastic colonist and writer, Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo (c. 1478-1557):

“The islands known as the Hesperides mentioned by Sebosus and Solinus, Pliny and Isidore must undoubtedly be the [West] Indies and must have belonged to the Kingdom of Spain ever since Hesperus’s time, who, according to Beroso, reigned 1,650 years before the birth of Our Lord. Therefore, if we add the 1,535 years since Our Saviour came into the world, the kings of Spain have been lords of the Hesperides for 3,193 years in all. So by the most ancient rights on this account and for other reasons that will be stated during the description of Christopher Columbus’s voyages, God has restored this realm to the kings of Spain after many centuries. It appears therefore that divine justice restored to the fortunate and Catholic Kings Ferdinand and Isabel, conquerors of Granada and Naples, what had always been theirs and belongs to their heirs in perpetuity” (Oviedo, General and Natural History of the Indies, II.3).

This argument, of course, was not very convincing, especially to rival colonial powers that wanted their own pieces of the New World. Besides, many conquistadores needed only cite religion, conquest and wealth to feel justified in their actions. Proponents for the Hesperus theory, however, could be commended for their creativity and enthusiasm. ‘A’ for effort, as it were.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (16th Century Print Depicting Christopher Columbus With Mythical Beings, printed by Johann Theodor de Bry in 1594, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the Rijksmuseum).



Alexander at the Tomb of Cyrus the Great, Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes (c. 1750-1819)

This painting, by the French artist Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes (c. 1750-1819), depicts the historical event of Alexander the Great (r. 336-323 BCE) visiting the tomb of Cyrus the Great (r. 550-529 BCE) at Pasargadae. Alexander reportedly visited the tomb in the winter season that linked 325 to 324 BCE, after returning westward from his campaigns along the Indian borderlands. When Alexander and his companions arrived at the site of the tomb, they were reportedly shocked to find that it had been vandalized and plundered. As Alexander was an admirer of Cyrus, he decided to rebuild and refurbish the tomb. An official named Aristobulus was tasked with overseeing this project. Aristobulus left a written record, which was cited by the Greek-Roman historian, Arrian (c. 90-173+), who wrote, “Aristobulus relates that Alexander found the tomb of Cyrus, son of Cambyses, broken into and robbed, and that this act of profanation caused him much distress” (Anabasis of Alexander, 6.29). Aristobulus also evidently made a list of what needed to be repaired or replaced in the damaged tomb. Arrian again summarized Aristobulus’ account:

“He was to restore to the coffin what was still preserved of the body and replace the lid; to put right all damage to the coffin itself, fit the divan with new strapping, and to replace with exact replicas of the originals every single object with which it had previously been adorned; and, finally, to do away with the door into the chamber by building it in with stone, covered by a coat of plaster, on which was to be set the royal seal” (Anabasis of Alexander, 6.29).

Such, then, is the incident from history that is seen unfolding in Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes’ painting. Alexander can be observed looking on with shock at the vandalized tomb. Following the scene, Aristobulus would receive his orders to restore and refurbish Cyrus’ resting place.

Written by C. Keith Hansley