Thursday, August 15, 2019

The Destructive Trek Of The ‘Ten Thousand’ Mercenaries Along The Black Sea Coast

In late 401 BCE, an army of over 10,000 Greek hoplite mercenaries fought on the side of the rebel, Cyrus the Younger, against King Artaxerxes II of Persia at the Battle of Cunaxa, which took place somewhere in Babylonia. The rebel leader, Cyrus, was slain during the battle, but the Greek mercenaries survived remarkably intact. With their employer dead and the rebellion crushed, the Greek mercenaries found themselves in an incredibly precarious situation—they were deep in foreign territory beside an army of the king they had just tried to kill. Nevertheless, the two sides maintained peace for a time.

A truce was brokered and Artaxerxes II entrusted the handling of the Greek problem to several governing satraps, including Tissaphernes, a Persian noble who was often entangled in Greco-Persian issues. The mercenaries and the watchful Persians coexisted as the Greeks marched past several villages and cities, yet at a place along what was called the Zapatas River, the situation changed drastically. Both sides blamed the other for the breakdown in relations. Greeks accused the Persians of treachery, while Persians decried the mercenaries for looting. Both sides were partially right—it appears that Tissaphernes provided the Greeks too little food at too high a price, and the mercenaries scavenged for food out of necessity. Whatever the case, the Persians arrested twenty-five of the highest-ranking mercenary officers and executed them, some immediately, and others at a later date.

After the arrest of the mercenary commanders, a group of around one hundred surviving field officers gathered to elect new leadership. The two most important of these newly elected mercenary generals were Chirisophus (a Spartan who would command the front) and Xenophon, an Athenian who took command of the rear guard. That same Xenophon would later write down the experiences of these mercenaries, remembered as the Ten Thousand, in his Anabasis Kyrou (The Upcountry March/Expedition of Cyrus).  

Under the leadership of the likes of Chirisophus and Xenophon, the mercenaries began the next phase of their journey. Persians forces were now openly hostile to the Greek mercenaries, and the stranded warriors-for-hire were often stalked and harassed. Yet, the Greeks were not the only people endangered because of the breakdown in relations. As the Greeks were no longer provided with a supply line by the Persians satraps, local villages and cities (with their food, shelter and wealth) became more and more tempting to the army of hungry mercenaries. In consequence of their foraging and looting, the Greek mercenaries made many enemies during their journey through Mesopotamia and Armenia, and finally the shores of the Black Sea.

Around 400 BCE, the mercenaries reached the Greek-populated city of Trapezus, located on the southeast end of the Black Sea. By this point, the discipline that had allowed the mercenaries to survive Persian armies and local militias in multiple roadblocks, mountain ambushes, and full-scale battles began to diminish. Upon reaching the coast of the Black Sea, more and more mercenaries began to seek loot to the point of insubordination against their commanders. To keep the troops happy (and fed), the mercenary generals were now always on the lookout for places to pillage.

The city of Trapezus was spared, but the region surrounding it was foraged to the extent that scavengers sent out by the mercenaries were gone for more than a day before returning with supplies. Meanwhile, the mercenaries received one or two ships from the Trapezuntians, with which the mercenaries tried their hand at piracy and commandeered several unlucky merchant vessels. Eventually, the people of Trapezus thought of a way to gain a respite from their rowdy guests—they sent the mercenaries off to raid a rival people, called the Drilae. Half of the mercenary army accepted the plan and invaded the Drilae lands, where they besieged and broke into a stronghold and gathered as much loot as they could before being forced out by local opposition.

After the raiders returned from the territory of the Drilae, the mercenaries decided to resume their travels. They had not commandeered enough ships to carry the reported 8,600 mercenaries who were still fit to fight, but some of the camp followers and injured were able to sail alongside the marching adventurers. Departing from Trapezus, the mercenaries and their rag-tag fleet of commandeered ships reached the nearby city of Cerasus. This city, too, was mainly populated by Greeks. Yet, the rowdiness of the mercenaries was increasing and they showed this city less respect than they did Trapezus.

According to Xenophon, a certain Clearetus and a band of warriors went rogue and attacked some villages that were under the protection of Cerasus. Three elders from the afflicted villages traveled to Cerasus to report the incident. They delivered their message, but were soon after murdered by some of the guilty mercenaries. The mercenaries also caused trouble for the Greek inhabitants of Cerasus—Xenophon claimed that a mob of angry mercenaries tried to stone an unfortunate market official named Zelarchus to death.

From Cerasus, the mercenaries bumbled their way into the midst of a civil war among a group of people known as the Mossynoecians, which roughly translates to ‘those who live in wooden towers.’ The mercenaries joined the rebel side of the conflict and besieged what the Greeks thought was the capital city of the region. The mercenaries captured the city for the rebels, but not before looting the buildings and setting fire to its wooden structures.

After helping the rebel Mossynoecians win their war, the mercenaries continued their march westward along the coast of the Black sea. They then reached the Chalybian people, who were likely spared maltreatment because they were subjects or allies of the Mossynoecian regime that the mercenaries had just helped. After the Chalybians, the Greeks encountered a group called the Tibarenians. The appraising eye of the mercenaries recognized that the land would be easy for an army to maneuver over and that the Tibarenian settlements were poorly defended. It was a tempting target for even the most pacifistic of the mercenary leaders. The Tibarenians, who likely had heard tales of the devastation left behind in the wake of this mercenary army, sent out delegates to offer the foreigners friendship and military access. Xenophon (in third person perspective) gave a blunt account of the his and his comrades’ response to these delegates: “The generals wanted to attack the villages, to give the men a little something by way of profit, so they refused to accept the tokens of friendship which arrived from the Tibarenians, but told them to wait until they had decided what to do” (Anabasis Kyrou, Book V, section 5).

After delivering this eerie response, the mercenary generals called for animal sacrifices to be performed and had diviners read omens to determine if the gods were in favor of the Greeks attacking the Tibarenians. As stated earlier, the mercenary commanders were eager to attack, so when the first sacrifice and omen reading produced a disappointing outcome, they sacrificed a second time…and a third time, so on and so forth. Xenophon described their battle with the will of the gods: “They performed sacrifices, and eventually, after many victims had been sacrificed, the diviners unanimously declared that the gods were absolutely opposed to war” (Anabasis Kyrou, Book V, section 5). With no divine support for the planned raids, the mercenaries accepted the friendship of the Tibarenian people and marched peacefully through their land to reach the Greek-inhabited city of Cotyora.

The Tibarenians were lucky, for when the mercenaries reached Cotyora, they quickly began to cause drama. Although the city and the mercenaries initially exchanged cheerful greetings, held religious processions and competed in athletic contests, the warriors-for-hire soon began to cause tension by scavenging from the local villages. The mercenaries caused such a stir that delegates from the powerful city of Sinope (the colonizer of Trapezus, Cerasus and Cotyora) arrived on the scene and told the mercenaries to behave themselves or face dire consequences.

The army, however, did not change their ways. They went on to threaten Sinope to send a fleet of transport ships for the mercenaries to use, and later attempted to extort money from the city of Heraclea. Even after the mercenaries reached Byzantium—the seat of Spartan power in the region—the roaming army remained chaotic. The mercenaries momentarily occupied Byzantium, forcing the Spartan officials to seek shelter in a stronghold. Yet, there were smooth-talkers in the ranks of the mercenaries who were able to miraculously talk the Spartans out of imposing any drastic consequences. Instead, the army left the city and offered their services to Prince Seuthes of Thrace.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (Sketch of the Ten Thousand reaching the Black Sea, by Bernard Granville Baker (1870-1957), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

  • Anabasis Kyrou (The Expedition/Upcountry March of Cyrus) by Xenophon and translated by Robin Waterfield. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Thursday, August 8, 2019

The Vengeful Tale Of Hrafsi Ljotolfsson

Hrafsi Ljotolfsson lived in Iceland around the time of the Age of Settlement (approximately 860-930). His father, the blacksmith Ljotolf, had been given permission to settle on lands belonging to Kjallak, a powerful figure who claimed as his domain everything in Iceland between what was then called the Dogurdar River and Klofningar. Under uncertain terms, Ljotolf and his family settled down in a place called Fellswood.

Kjallak had at least eight sons, of which Eilif the Proud, Asbjorn Muscle, Bjorn Whale-Belly and Thorgrim Tangle-Weed are the most important for this story. It should also be noted that Thorgrim Tangle-Weed and Bjorn Whale-Belly both had children, the former a daughter named Alof and the later a son named Kjallak the Younger. Additionally, the younger Kjallak had a foster-brother named Oddmar, whom the Kjallakssons treated as one of their own. All of these people would play a role in the life of Hrafsi Ljotolfsson.

Ljotolf fathered far fewer children than Kjallak. The blacksmith had with him in Fellswood three sons—Thorstein, Bjorn and the aforementioned Hrafsi. The mothers of these brothers were not recorded, but Hrafsi’s mother was said to have been someone different than the woman who birthed Thorstein and Bjorn. Hrafsi apparently looked physically different than his brothers, and the talk of the town was that his mother had been a giant.

Kjallak’s clan and the smaller family of Ljotolf were able to coexist in peace for a time, but everything was about to change when Kjallak’s granddaughter, Alof Thorgrimsdottir, suddenly fell ill. Without any signs of warning, Alof became delirious or insane and the 10th-century Icelanders could make no sense of her unexpected mental breakdown. In the end, Thorgrim Tangle-Weed (Alof’s father) became convinced that his daughter had been cursed. This theory was supported by other members of the Kjallak clan and they soon pointed the finger at Hrafsi Ljotolfsson, who, after all, was said to have been the son of an otherworldly giant.

Hrafsi responded quickly to the allegations. He rejected the claims and proposed his own suspect—Oddmar, the foster-brother of Kjallak the Younger, who had apparently been with Alof when she fell ill. This accusation obviously soured the relationship between Hrafsi and Oddmar, but the scheme worked and Hrafsi caused enough doubt to be found not guilty of Alof’s madness. Consequently, Thorgrim Tangle-Weed must have felt socially or emotionally obligated to give Hrafsi some sort of apologetic gift for the wrongful accusation. Thorgrim offered him an island called Deildar Isle, yet the stubborn Hrafsi wanted money in addition to the island. While this was being negotiated, Thorgrim’s father, Kjallak, stepped in and forbid Hrafsi from receiving either the money or the island.

Outraged at this outcome, Hrafsi Ljotolfsson then escalated the already mounting tensions by reportedly stealing money from the Kjallak clan and then pointedly sailed with the plunder to Deildar Isle. Eilif the Proud, the mightiest of the Kjallakssons, went to the island presumably to retrieve the stolen wealth, but he was forced to flee after being hit by a non-fatal arrow. Despite the theft and archery, relations between the two sides seemingly calmed for a while. The families, thankfully, became cordial enough for Bjorn Whale-Belly and Bjorn Ljotolfsson to even compete in friendly games together. Yet, when Whale-Belly accidentally killed his opponent during one such game, the feud was destined to continue on its bloody course.

In response to his son’s death, Ljotolf mobilized his remaining sons and friends, preparing them for war. They convinced or tricked Oddmar to send Bjorn Whale-Belly into an ambush. Bjorn’s son, Kjallak the Younger, accompanied his father on the ill-fated trip. Despite the unexpected presence of the innocent son, Ljotolf launched his ambush and killed Bjorn Whale-Belly, likely doing the same to Kjallak the Younger. With the killings complete, Ljotolf and his sons went into hiding.

When the Kjallak clan learned of the deaths, they wanted blood—equal or more than that which Ljotolf and his kin had spilled. Eilif the Proud, who had by now recovered from his wound, led the war party into Fellswood and they scoured the region for their hated foes. Ljotolf and his son, Thorstein, were eventually found hiding together in a cave. Eilif reportedly slew them both single-handedly.

Hrafsi Ljotolfsson, now the last member of his family, was in no way ready to admit defeat. He reportedly infiltrated deep into the territory of his rivals, arriving at Orrastead, where Asbjorn Kjallaksson was hosting a feast for his father and other family members. In a likely-embellished feat, Hrafsi reportedly disguised himself as a woman, snuck into the hall while the revelry was in full swing, and audaciously murdered Asbjorn in sight of all the banqueters. To top off the deed, Hrafsi reportedly jumped out a window or smashed through a wall to make his escape.

The Kjallak clan was obviously going to take revenge, but they decided to take their time plotting the downfall of the giant-spawn, and therefore delayed their payback until the right moment. They eventually won over to their side a certain Thord Vifilsson, who had, until then, been a family friend of Hrafsi. Thord successfully hid his defection from Hrafsi and managed to lure the last Ljotolfsson to a vulnerable cliffside, where the Kjallak clan had set up an ambush. Unfortunately for Thord, the Kjallakssons launched their attack before their accomplice could flee the scene. Hrafsi, realizing that he had been betrayed, reportedly pushed Thord Vifilsson off the cliff in a rage before turning to face the ambushers. Eilif the Proud was present at the fight, but, for whatever reason, chose not to participate in the attack. Instead, he watched as his brothers and friends, in a tight shield-wall formation, advanced against the formidable Hrafsi. The ultimate fate of Hrafsi Ljotolfsson remains vague—the Book of Settlements, the source for this story, abruptly ends with “They couldn’t get at him until they’d crowded round him with boards. Eilif sat by idle when they attacked Hrafsi” (Landnámabók, Sturlubók manuscript, chapter 111). As a supposed son of a giant, and a man who could reportedly break through walls, it is possible that Hrafsi escaped, but the odds of that are silm, and he never made a reappearance in the often-overlapping stories of the Book of Settlements.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (Scene of Egil Skallagrimsson, by Johannes Flintoe (d. 1870), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

  • The Book of Settlements (Sturlubók version) translated by Hermann Pálsson and Paul Edwards. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 1972, 2006.

Thursday, July 25, 2019

The Dramatic Downfall of Bishop Praetextatus Of Rouen

Praetextatus reportedly became the bishop of Rouen around 544. In his early years in office, he apparently was able to stay out of the limelight. Yet, by the 570s, Praetextatus began to dabble in the bloody Merovingian politics of the Frankish empire. Although the bishop had a network of supporters in Rouen and the church, his meddling in the affairs of the nobles would eventually leave him publicly criticized, exiled, and ultimately assassinated.

The downfall of Praetextatus began innocently enough—with him performing a royal marriage around 576. Medieval weddings could often be politically and genealogically complicated, but that particular wedding raised some eyebrows even among those living in the 6th century. The groom was Merovech, the son of King Chilperic of the Franks (r. 561-584) and the late Queen Audovera—the first of three women that King Chilperic would marry during his lifetime. After Audovera was set aside (and reportedly killed), Chilperic married a Visigothic princess named Galswintha. This woman, however, was soon murdered and Chilperic immediately married a mistress named Fredegund. Galswintha’s cruel death, however, set the different branches of the Merovingian Dynasty into decades of feuds. As it happened, Galswintha had a sister named Brunhild, who was married to King Sigebert, a brother of Chilperic. The brothers went to war and Sigebert was seemingly on the winning side. Yet, the balance of power suddenly shifted in 575, when Sigebert was assassinated, reportedly on the orders of Chilperic and Fredegund. While this tale may seem like a long digression from the marriage later overseen by Bishop Praetextatus, the relevance of the story will soon be made clear.

Brunhild’s young son, Childebert II, succeeded his father as a king of the Franks, and his position was supported by another Merovingian co-king of the day, Guntram (r. 561-593), who was Chilperic’s brother and Childebert’s uncle. Although Childebert II was able to escape the machinations of Chilperic and Fredegund, his mother Brunhild had less luck, as she was captured by Chilperic and banished to the city of Rouen. There, however, the widowed queen dowager met the unlikeliest suitor—her nephew Merovech, the rebellious son of King Chilperic. To bring the narrative full circle, it was Bishop Praetextatus of Rouen who oversaw the marriage of this odd couple in 576. When Chilperic heard of his son’s union with Brunhild, he promptly disputed the marriage and separated the couple. From that time on, Chilperic questioned the loyalty of his son, as well as that of Bishop Praetextatus. Merovech would spend the rest of his life trying to flee from his father’s influence and apparently wanted to reunite with Brunhild at her new base of power in Austrasia.

In 577, Chilperic and Fredegund turned their wrath on Bishop Praetextatus. The bishop already angered the powerful couple when he performed the marriage of Merovech and Brunhild. In addition, rumors began to spread that Praetextatus had been also guarding bundles of treasure belonging to the newlyweds. Chilperic wanted the valuables for himself, but the bishop had reportedly smuggled around three-fifths of the treasure to the court of Brunhild in Austrasia before the king was tipped off. Bishop Praetextatus was further accused of using the remaining two-fifths of the treasure left behind in his city to fund a bribery operation meant to support Merovech and undermine Chilperic.

When all of this was made known to Chilperic, he convened a council of bishops in Paris and asked them to judge Praetextatus, urging that the man be stripped of his bishopric and sent into exile. Among the bishops was Gregory of Tours, who wrote of the trial in his text, The History of the Franks. Praetextatus apparently had very few friends among the judges. Gregory of Tours claimed that he was the only bishop in the group to speak in defense of Praetextatus, yet he also claimed that he would not personally go against church law and precedent for Praetextatus’ sake. Despite these poor odds, Bishop Praetextatus apparently prepared an effective defense and had the initial advantage during the trial. With the tide turning, Chilperic and Fredegund reportedly began using other means to sway the judges—Gregory claimed that the king used threats and the queen tried bribery. In the end, Bishop Praetextatus publicly confessed to using Brunhild’s money to harm Chilperic’s interests. Praetextatus was subsequently removed from his bishopric and sent into exile on an island somewhere near Coutances. Although it is plausible that Bishop Praetextatus was guilty of what he confessed, Gregory of Tours claimed that the bishop only made his confession after being given false assurances of a pardon.

Praetextatus got off easy compared to the rest of Merovech’s faction. Chilperic’s wayward son was trapped by his father’s forces in 578. With no options for escape, Merovech apparently chose death instead of letting himself be captured.  His friends and companions, unfortunately, faced a much worse fate—mutilation, torture, and execution were among the punishments they suffered. Yet, as so many proverbs stress, those who live by the sword die by the sword. King Chilperic, too, met with a violent death in 584, when he was struck down by an assassin at Chelles.

When news of Chilperic’s death reached Praetextatus, the exiled clergyman returned to Rouen, where the locals welcomed him back with open arms and proclaimed him to be their bishop once more. Praetextatus then went to Paris to meet with King Guntram, seeking to gain royal support for his reappointment to the bishopric. Ironically, the widowed Fredegund and her young son, Chlotar II, were also in Paris, where they were being sheltered from the faction of Brunhild. When Fredegund learned that Praetextatus had returned from exile and was attempting to regain his bishopric, she tried to sabotage his plans. Yet, King Guntram decided that the years of exile were enough penance and he approved of Praetextatus’ reappointment to the bishopric of Rouen.

Unfortunately for Praetextatus, King Guntram sent Fredegund and her supporters to live at a manor near Rouen. The two were able to co-exist for a time, but they were known to get into arguments. Fredegund would apparently tell Praetextatus to enjoy his bishopric while it lasted, for she or her son would eventually send him back into exile. The bishop, for his part, would reportedly retort on such occasions that Fredegund’s political heyday was over and that she would be better to focus on her spiritual needs and motherhood. One such comment from the bishop was said to have particularly enraged Fredegund, ending the working relationship between the two figures forever. On February 24, 586, Bishop Praetextatus was reclining on a bench in his church when an assailant with a knife dealt the clergyman a fatal blow. Although mortally wounded, the bishop clung to life for several hours. Neither Praetextatus nor other clergymen in the church at the time could identify the assassin, but virtually everyone was said to have believed Fredegund was responsible for the killing. According to Gregory of Tours, Fredegund had the audacity to visit the wounded Bishop Praetextatus as he lay on his deathbed, which unsurprisingly caused quite a scene. Praetextatus reportedly told her, “as long as you live you will be accursed, for God will avenge my blood upon your head” (Gregory of Tours, History, Book VIII, section 31). The future did not play out quite as the bishop had hoped—Fredegund died peacefully in 597 and her son, Chlotar II, won the Merovingian family feud and executed the elderly Brunhild in 613.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (Fredegund by the deathbed of Bishop Praetextatus, by Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836–1912), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

  • The History of the Franks by Gregory of Tours, translated by Lewis Thorpe. New York: Penguin Classics, 1971. 

Thursday, June 27, 2019

The Raids Of Saint-King Olaf In England And The Brutal Execution Of An Archbishop of Canterbury

Olaf Haraldsson, born in 995, was a member of the Norwegian royal family and the alleged godson of the Christian King Olaf Tryggvason of Norway (r. 995-1000). Although Olaf Haraldsson eventually became the king of his homeland, he had to wait for his throne, as a Scandinavian coalition of Danes, Swedes and Norwegians killed Olaf Tyggvason and imposed a new regime on Norway. Nine years later, Olaf Haraldsson would have been in his early teens when England was hit by a massive wave of reinvigorated Viking activity—these invasions would eventually force the English king, Æthelred the Unready, to flee to Normandy. Olaf, who later became a respected figure in the medieval church, was among the Vikings who journeyed to England in the first decades of the 11th century. His behavior there, however, was not so saintly.

At the head of a fleet of ships with a veteran band of guardians and family friends, young Olaf reportedly reached the shores of England around 1009.  Commentary on what exactly he did in England from this point on is a curious topic. Sources such as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Florence of Worcester (d. 1118), Henry of Huntingdon (d. 1160), and the 11th-century court poets, Sigvat the Skald and Óttar the Black, who are also cited in the Saga of St. Olaf from the Heimskringla, all agree on the same setting and timeline of events. According to all of these texts, Viking armies were present at London in 1009, at East Anglia in 1010, and captured Canterbury between 1011 and 1012. The 11th-century Nordic sources place Olaf Haraldsson usually on the side of the Vikings during these battles and sieges. Yet, Snorri Sturluson (c. 1179-1241), the compiler of poems and writer of the Heimskringla, contradicted his sources (Sigvat and Óttar) and oddly placed Olaf on the side of the English at all times during his stay in Britain. Snorri Sturluson, however, was writing long after Olaf Haraldsson had become a beloved and respected figure in the church, and he may have been trying to paint this unsaintly period of Olaf’s life as rosily as possible. Olaf did indeed eventually aid the English, but that defection came as late as 1012, by which point he had been slaughtering Englishmen for years.

The reason Olaf Haraldsson is believed to have been in England in 1009 is because he was a witness to (and participant in) a Viking siege of London during the reign of Æthelred the Unready. Only in the year 1009, were both King Æthelred and Olaf alive at the time of a Viking siege of London. For that year, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle stated, “And they [the Vikings] often fought against the town of London, but to God be praise that it yet stands sound” (ASC 1009). The aforementioned Scandinavian skald, Óttar the Black, also wrote of the event:

“Boldly brokest London
Bridge’s towers, thou Odin’s-
Storm-of-steel’s keen urger,
Striving to win England.”
(cited in Saint Olaf’s Saga, chapter 13)

Perhaps, as Snorri Sturluson claimed, Olaf’s participation in the attack on London Bridge was a move to help the English—Óttar the Black was also cited as stating, “Landedst, and land gavest, liege-lord to Æthelred [the Unready]. Much did need thee, mighty man of war, the sovran” (cited in Saint Olaf’s Saga, chapter 13). Then again, due to the unknown location of these lines in the skald’s original poem, the “land gavest” phase in Olaf’s relationship with Æthelred the Unready may have occurred years after the incident at London.

Olaf Haraldsson’s actions are easier to decipher when he reached East Anglia in 1010. The entry for that year in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle stated:

“the beforementioned army came to East Anglia, and went forthwith to where they understood Ulfkytel was with his force…And then the East Anglians immediately fled. Then Cambridgeshire stood firmly against them. There were slain Æthelstan, the king’s son-in-law, and Oswig and his son, and Wulfric Leofwine’s son, and Eadwig Æfic’s brother, and many other good thanes, and people out of number… And the Danes had possession of the place of carnage” (ASC 1010).

Óttar the Black, and his uncle Sigvat the Skald, both mentioned this event in their poems. They agreed with Anglo-Saxon sources that a large battle took place in the domain of Ulfkytel (or Ulfkel), specifically at a place that they called Hringmara Heath, which has been identified as Ringmere, East Anglia. Sigvat the Skald wrote:

“Even a seventh time Olaf
urged a bloody sword-thing
in the land of Ulfkel,
as I heard it told me.
Hringmara Heath full was—
high were piled the dead—of
Ella’s offspring [Englishmen], whom the
heir of Harald [Olaf Haraldsson] battled.”
(cited in Saint Olaf’s Saga, chapter 13)

Sigvat’s nephew, Óttar the Black, more clearly stressed that Olaf was battling the Anglo-Saxons, not fellow Norwegians or Danes, in his own poem about the battle:

“Liege-lord, then learned I that
laden was with corpses
Hringmara Heath all bloody,
when that inland you battled.
Bowed and overborne, king,
by you, country-folk of
England, awed, submitted
or else fled off headlong.”
(cited in Saint Olaf’s Saga, chapter 14)

After piling English dead high in East Anglia, Olaf followed a Viking force to Canterbury and participated in a Viking siege against the city in 1011. The poets, Sigvat and Óttar, claimed that Olaf played a leading role in the capture of Canterbury and caused great death and destruction in that city. Óttar the Black wrote:

“generous king, you captured
Canterbury in the morning.
Fiercely burning, firebrands
fell into houses, nor didst,
liege-lord, learned I, spare the
lives of luckless burghers.”
(cited in Saint Olaf’s Saga, chapter 15)

Anglo-Saxon sources corroborated that Canterbury was captured and burned by Vikings in 1011. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and the Chronicle of Florence of Worcester provided much more information than the Nordic Skalds. They claimed that the city was betrayed to the Vikings by a certain abbot or archdeacon named Ælmar, and that Archbishop Ælfeah of Canterbury (also spelled Elphege or Alphege) was among the prominent people captured during the sack of the city. In his entry for year 1011, Florence of Worcester wrote:

“they [the Vikings] dug a trench round Canterbury, and laid siege to it. On the twentieth day of the siege, through the treachery of the archdeacon Ælmar, whose life St. Elphege had formerly saved, one quarter of the city was set on fire, the army entered, and the place was taken…Meanwhile, Alphage, the archbishop, was seized, and being loaded with fetters was imprisoned and tortured in various ways. Ælmar, the abbot of St. Augustine’s monastery, was permitted to depart; Godwin, bishop of Rochester, was made prisoner, as well as Leofruna, abbess of St. Mildred, Alfred, the king’s reeve, with the monks and canons, and vast numbers of the people of both sexes…When the people had been thus slaughtered, and the city pillaged and burnt to the ground, Alphege, the archbishop, was brought out in fetters and dragged along, severely wounded, to the ships” (Florence of Worcester, AD 1011).

The Viking force that sacked Canterbury kept Archbishop Ælfeah captive for the remainder of the year, as well as several months into the next. They were apparently hoping to ransom the archbishop for a hefty sum of money. Archbishop Ælfeah and the Vikings, however, did not get along at all. As the months went on and no ransom was promised, the raiders became more and more loathsome of the clergyman. By April of 1012, the Vikings finally reached their limit and decided to kill the archbishop. Ælfeah’s gruesome and chaotic death was reported by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle:

“Then on the Saturday the army was greatly excited against the bishop, because he would not promise them any money, but forbade that anything should be given for him. They were also very drunk, for wine had been brought thither from the South. They then took the bishop, led him to their ‘husting’ [assembly]…and there shamefully murdered him; they pelted him with bones and with the heads of oxen; and one of them struck him on the head with an axe-iron, so that with the dint he sank down, and his holy blood fell on the earth, and his holy soul he sent forth to God’s kingdom” (ASC 1012).

The sack of Canterbury and the subsequent execution of Archbishop Ælfeah may have been a turning point for Olaf. According to the Anglo-Saxon sources, a sizable force from the Vikings that sacked Canterbury decided to split from the rest of the raiders not long after the killing of the archbishop. This splinter group (which likely included Olaf) then formed a mercenary contract with the English king before the end of 1012. On this event, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle stated, “Then submitted to the king [Æthelred the Unready], from the army, five and forty ships, and promised him that they would defend this country; and he was to feed and clothe them” (ASC 1012). The appearance of this band of 45 mercenary Viking ship crews meshes well with Snorri Sturluson’s statement that, after the events of Canterbury, “King Olaf had under him the defense of England” (Heimskringla, Saint Olaf’s Saga, chapter 15). The poet Sigvat also wrote a verse about Olaf, which emphasized that he battled both Englishmen and Danes during his expedition in England:

“Scatheless, in that skirmish
scalps red he gave the English.
Dark-red billowed blood on
blades in Nÿjamótha.
Now have I nine battles
named for thee, king of Norway.
Danes fell where the deadly
dart-storm raged ‘gainst Olaf.”
(cited in Saint Olaf’s Saga, chapter 15)

Olaf Haraldsson (and Æthelred the Unready, for that matter) would not be staying in England for long. King Sweyn Forkbeard of Denmark (r. 986-1014)—one of the leaders from the coalition that had killed the previous king of Norway—arrived in England with a large force in 1013. Either upon or just before King Sweyn’s appearance in England, Olaf Haraldsson decided it was the opportune time to end his mercenary contract with England and to instead go raiding and adventuring on the European mainland. He was said to have pillaged regions of Spain, and then sailed to Normandy by 1013, where he may have been baptized or re-baptized, as he had reportedly already been given a semblance of a baptismal ceremony as a child in 998, during the reign of his godfather, Olaf Tryggvason. Well-traveled and reinvigorated in faith, Olaf Haraldsson returned to his homeland to seize the Norwegian throne around 1015.

Back in England, the legend of the slain Archbishop Ælfeah grew and the martyr was considered a saint by the mid-to-late 11th century. Ironically, Archbishop Ælfeah might have been beaten to sainthood by one of the Vikings who possibly was present at his execution. King Olaf Haraldsson, upon seizing power in Norway, devoted great attention to converting his subjects to the Christian religion, if not by the persuasion of his missionaries, then by the force of his military. His dedication to the conversion of Norway to Christianity apparently far outweighed his earlier Viking career and his likely involvement in the killing of an archbishop of Canterbury. King Olaf Haraldsson was slain in battle in 1030, and only one year later he was canonized as a saint. Reverence for Saint Olaf spread far and wide in Christendom—both the Roman Church and the Orthodox Church of Constantinople recognized his sainthood.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (Scene from the Saga of Olaf Tryggvason, illustrated by Halfdan Egedius (1877–1899), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

  • The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle translated by Benjamin Thorpe in 1861 and republished by Cambridge University Press, 2012.
  • The Chronicle of Florence of Worcester translated by Thomas Forester. London: Petter and Galpin, originally published 1854. 
  • Heimskringla, by Snorri Sturluson and translated by Lee Hollander. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1964, 2018. 

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

The Vibenna Brothers And Macstrna—Possibly Forgotten Tyrants (Or Kings) Of Ancient Rome

According to the traditional story laid down by Livy and other ancient Roman historians, there were only seven kings who ruled Rome during the city-state’s regal period: Romulus, Numa Pompilius, Tullus Hostilius, Ancus Marcius, Tarquinius Priscus, Servius Tullius, and Tarquinius Superbus. These seven men, at least in the traditional scheme of things, were the sole rulers of Rome for the span of about 244 years (753-509 BCE)—an average of about 35 years per king. Given that even the most stable monarchies of the ancient and medieval world all hovered at average reigns of about 20 years or less, the timeline and list of kings presented by Roman tradition has long been viewed with skepticism. In such a militarily- and politically-tumultuous region as ancient Italy, many historians are inclined to believe that numerous unknown Roman kings and tyrants existed in pre-Republic Rome, but were forgotten by the later Romans, who only began publishing their own histories around 200 BCE.

A certain Etruscan adventurer known as Macstrna is one of those possibly lost kings or tyrants of pre-Republic Rome. He was a follower of the Vibenna brothers (Caeles and Aulus), a pair of twins from Vulci, Italy, who were powerful Etruscan chieftains living around the time of the regal period in Rome. The Vibenna brothers and Macstrna were mentioned by ancient antiquarians (Varro, Verrius Flaccus) and historians (Tacitus, Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Claudius), and archeologists have found several objects bearing their images or names, some of which date back as far as the 6th century BCE. From these sources, a framework of their lives—albeit a vague and incomplete one—can be constructed to bring these figures partially out of obscurity.

Caeles and Aulus Vibenna were both powerful chieftains and can probably be classified as condottieri—warlords with enough power to operate independently of their homeland’s government. Macstrna was their most prestigious follower, and he became the right-hand man of Caeles. When the powerful brothers and Macstrna ran afoul of their own people, they apparently chose Rome as a place of exile, where they were often known as ‘Caelius’, ‘Olus’, and ‘Mastarna’. Some Romans also called the brothers by the name ‘Vivenna’ instead of Vibenna. According to ancient antiquarians and historians, Aulus and Caeles each influenced Rome their in own way. Caeles, in particular, was reportedly so helpful to the Romans that he was given an estate on one of the Seven Hills of Rome. Yet, that pales in comparison to what Aulus may have achieved—the fascinating Chronography of 354, in its Chronicle of the City of Rome, claims that Olus (as the Romans called Aulus) became a king of Rome. It must be said, however, that no other ancient historian, antiquarian, or piece of archaeology yet found has corroborated the claim of the Chronography of 354. Aulus/Olus, be he a king or a rich refugee, was said to have been eventually murdered in Rome and his remains rested on a certain Roman hill. According to tradition, when the head (caput) of Olus was later found on that hill, the Romans began calling the site the Capitoline Hill.

Caeles, Aulus and Macstrna, however, were not always friendly with Rome. One reported episode where the Vibenna brothers and their trusty champion, Macstrna, were enemies of Rome was painted in detail on a tomb wall in Vulci around the 4th century BCE—this wall was rediscovered in 1857 at a location called the François Tomb. The paintings (which were unfortunately hauled away to a private villa) showed an interesting scene that depicted the Vibenna brothers and four companions (including Macstrna) in an armed struggle against four enemies. Along with each painted figure was a written name that identified each person in the scene. Interestingly, among the men fighting the Vibenna brothers was a man labeled by the original painter as ‘Cneve Tarchunies Rumach,’ which can be Latinized to Gnaeus Tarquinius of Rome. The Tarquin family, according to Roman tradition, produced two kings of Rome (Lucius Tarquinius Priscus and Lucius Tarquinius Superbus)—nevertheless, it must be said that no Gnaeus Tarquinius was ever mentioned in the traditional Tarquin family trees provided by ancient historians.

Upon analyzing the painting further, scholars discovered clues that led them to make an interesting theory about the meaning of the scene. In the painting, Macstrna can be seen cutting binding rope from the hands of his friend, Caeles Vibenna. Additionally, all but one of the Vibenna party was painted in the nude, whereas all of the opposing faction was depicted with some sort of clothing. Scholars have interpreted these clues to mean that the Vibenna brothers and their associates had been captured and imprisoned by Gnaeus Tarquinius of Rome. The single clothed Vibenna supporter, scholars theorize, then orchestrated a successful prison break, allowing the naked (but now armed) escapees to overcome their captors.

Little is known of the death of Caeles Vibenna, but when the powerful Etruscan chieftain did eventually die, it seems that his lieutenant, Macstrna, took command of the leaderless group and became a chieftain in his own right. Like the Vibenna brothers, Macstrna, too, was said to have run afoul of his Etruscan homeland and traveled to Rome. The emperor and historian, Claudius (r. 41-54), included some information about Macstrna in a speech he delivered in 48 CE, and a copy of the speech has survived on a bronze tablet found at Lyons. Claudius stated, “If we follow Etruscan sources, he [Macstrna] was once the faithful companion of Caelius Vivenna and took part in all his adventures. Subsequently, driven out by a change of fortune, he left Etruria with all the remnants of Caelius’ army and occupied the Caelian hill, naming it thus after his former leader” (Table of Lyons, ILS 212.I.8-27). The Roman historian, Tacitus (c. 56-117+), agreed with Claudius that the Caelian hill was named after Caeles/Caelius: ““the [Caelian] hill was originally called Oak Hill because of its dense growth of oak trees, and was later named ‘Caelian’ after Caeles Vibenna, an Etruscan chief who, for helping Rome, had been granted the hill as a residence by Tarquinius Priscus—or another king” (The Annals of Imperial Rome, Book IV, section 65).

After Macstrna took up residence in the late Caeles Vibenna’s estate on the Caelian hill, he apparently delved into Roman politics. According to Emperor Claudius, Macstrna ultimately became a king. The emperor offered an intriguing (but unverified) theory that linked Macstrna to one of the more popular Roman monarchs: “Servius [Tullius] changed his name (for in Etruscan his name was Mastarna), and was called by the name I have used, and he obtained the throne to the greatest advantage of the state” (Table of Lyons, ILS 212.I.8-27). As of now, however, there is still no evidence to truly link Macstrna to the Roman king, Servius Tullius, and until further evidence is found, the traditional stories of these two figures are too different to satisfactorily mesh them together. Yet, many historians do find it plausible that, instead of being another name for Servius Tullius, Macstrna could have simply been an entirely separate and unknown king or tyrant of Rome. Some theorize (again without definitive evidence) that ‘Macstrna’ is not a name, but a corrupted variant of the title, magister, which, when lengthened to magister populi, becomes an alternative title for dictator. Unfortunately, with the scant amount of information we currently have, the truth about the extent of power wielded by the Vibenna brothers and Macstrna will remain clouded in mystery.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (A scene of ancient Rome painted by Vincenzo Camuccini (1771–1844), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

  • The History of Rome by Livy, translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt. New York: Penguin Classics, 2002.
  • The Annals of Imperial Rome by Tacitus, translated by Michael Grant. New York: Penguin Classics, 1996. 
  • The Beginnings of Rome by T. J. Cornell. New York: Routledge, 1995.