Thursday, February 28, 2019

The Great Athenian Baiting Of Syracuse

In 415 BCE, a fleet of over 130 Athenian and allied trireme ships, accompanied by more than a hundred supply boats, reached the eastern shores of Sicily on the pretext of combating the potential threat posed by Syracuse. While most Sicilian communities on that stretch of coastline wanted nothing to do with the Athenian expedition, the cities of Naxos and Catana allowed the foreigners into their walls, albeit the latter city took some coercion. After expelling the minority pro-Syracusan party in Catana, the Athenians built their camp there, reportedly housing more than 7,000 hoplites, skirmishers and some cavalry in or around the premises.

At least one prominent member of the pro-Syracusan party managed to stay behind in Catana. The unnamed man began taking notes about the Athenian forces, such as repetitious schedules, the locations of armories and even the positioning of their sleeping quarters. After memorizing such details, the man departed from Catana and rushed to Syracuse. As the refugee was a well-known member of the downfallen pro-Syracusan party in Catana, the contacts that he had in Syracuse vouched for his loyalty, and the military leaders of the city took his words with all seriousness. Once allowed to speak, he vividly described to the Syracusans the layout of the Athenian camp, as well as their daily routine. He claimed that the camp became especially lazy at night and that the Athenian warriors would leave their weapons outside the city walls while they slept without their armor in makeshift barracks within Catana. In addition to this, the informant also swore that there was still a spirited pro-Syracuse core of the population in Catana that would betray the Athenians if given a chance.

After being told these details, the military of Syracuse fell into a bloodlust. They assumed that a night attack, or an assault at dawn, would result in the Athenians being cut off from their weaponry and ships. If the foreigners were caught unprepared, the enemy ships and weapons outside the walls could easily be torched and then the unarmed Athenians in their stockades would not be able to avoid being slaughtered by a Syracusan assault. Thinking it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, the Syracusans mobilized virtually their entire army, and, with any allied forces they had on hand, they began marching overland toward Catana.

It was a fairly slow march for the warriors of Syracuse, but their cavalry was out ahead scouting the region. When the mounted warriors reached Catana, they discovered a horrible sight—there was no sign of life in the Athenian camp at Catana. All of the foreigners were gone and the large Athenian fleet was nowhere to be seen. Taking in this unsettling information, the scouts rushed back to their army to relay the news. When the generals of Syracuse were briefed on the scene at Catana, they immediately turned the army around and began a forced march home to Syracuse.

Unfortunately for the leaders of Syracuse, they had not questioned how the informant from Catana had survived the Athenian purge of dissidents and they similarly did not investigate his supposed escape from the tight Athenian occupation of the city.  Furthermore, they had not devoted enough time to discovering if his information about the Athenians in Catana was credible. It was a costly mistake—according to the Athenian general and historian, Thucydides (c. 460-400), the informant from Catana had defected to the Athenian side and had been sent to Syracuse by the leaders of the Athenian expedition specifically to sow disinformation.

Although Syracuse had hoped to catch the foreigners in a trap, it was the Syracusans who had fallen victim to a ploy. While the entire army of Syracuse set out on a long march to Catana, the Athenians were simultaneously sailing their whole force to the now defenseless Syracusan homeland. By the time the forces of Syracuse realized that they had been duped, they had already marched a great distance away from their city and it would take time for them to rush home.

Luckily for the Syracusans, the defenses of their city were intimidating even without a full garrison manning the walls. When the Athenians and their allies disembarked outside of Syracuse, they decided to not assault the city but instead focused on choosing a defensible location and devoted themselves to building camp fortifications. It took so long for the Syracusan army to return home that the Athenians were given enough time to demolish a bridge, build a stockade around their ships and construct a makeshift stone fort. Moreover, this was all constructed on land specifically chosen to counteract Syracuse’s vast cavalry superiority.

When the army of Syracuse finally arrived, they besieged the Athenian camp, but did not attack on the first day. On the second day, however, both sides prepared for battle. According to Thucydides, the commanding general in charge of the Athenian forces for the battle was Nicias. Even though the Athenians had spent a lot of time fortifying their position, Nicias apparently decided to make the first move. Perhaps the Syracusans had been lured into unfavorable ground, but Nicias reportedly marched his men forward to ignite a pitched battle.

Despite all of the drama, buildup and pre-battle maneuvering, the actual armed clash outside of the city of Syracuse did not last long. According to Thucydides, the battle was initially a stalemate, but as the men began to fatigue, the experience that the Athenians and their allies had picked up during the Peloponnesian War (begun in 431) began to sway the battle in their favor. After a while, the Syracusan infantry lines began to give way under pressure, and they became so disjointed that the army of Syracuse was ultimately split in half. After the Syracusan line was broken, it did not take long for the spirit of the army to break completely. With the forces of Syracuse fleeing for the safety of their walls, the Athenians were victorious.

Fortunately for Syracuse, the battle was more of a psychological defeat than a physical massacre. According to Thucydides, the Syracusan cavalry survived the battle virtually unscathed and they provided cover and support while the rest of the army fled to the city. As a result, even though the army of Syracuse had been routed, there were only 260 reported lives lost on the Syracusan side of the battle. Interestingly, the Athenians were content with the damage they had done in the battle and decided not to do anything else against Syracuse for the time being. Instead, the Athenian warriors returned to their fleet and sailed back to Catana for the winter.

As for the battle’s blow on the morale of the Syracusans, the city took the defeat as a teaching moment and strove to take the war more seriously. In response to the battle, a council of three generals reportedly took control in Syracuse to whip their city into shape militarily and diplomatically for the war to come.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (a trireme from a panel of the Temple of Isis, Pompeii; Naples Archaeological Museum, Italy, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

  • History of the Peloponnesian War (Book IV) by Thucydides, translated by Rex Warner and introduced by M. I. Finley. New York: Penguin Classics, 1972.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

The Deadly Ghost Story Of Killer-Hrapp

According to Icelandic folklore, a belligerent and bullying farmer named Hrapp immigrated to Iceland from the Hebrides sometime in the 10th century. He built a farmstead called Hrappsstadir, which was adjacent to lands owned by the leading settlers of the Laxardal region in Iceland. As portrayed in the Laxdæla saga, which was centered on that region of Iceland, Hrapp and the dominant chieftain of the region, Hoskuld, jostled for power and influence in their community. Hrapp never surpassed Hoskuld in importance, yet the stubborn farmer maintained a fierce reputation in Laxardal until the day he died. He came to be known as Killer-Hrapp, but whether he gained this name before or after he died is unclear. Whatever the case, the legend of Killer-Hrapp only continued to grow after his death.

According to the saga, Hrapp died in the mid 10th century, either during the reign of King Hákon the Good of Norway (r. 946-961) or Harald II Graycloak (r. 961-970). Hrapp left his wife strict instructions for how he wanted to be buried—his wish was for his body to be laid to rest in an upright position underneath the threshold of the kitchen. The request was not unique; similar burials were made in at least three other sagas, including Hen-Thorir’s Saga, Saga of People of Svarfadardal, and the Saga of the People of Vatnsdal. Such a burial was thought to allow the spirit of the deceased to guard over the homestead and the people that were left behind.

Hrapp’s dutiful wife carried out her late husband’s wishes and buried him exactly as he had asked. According to the saga, the ritual was a success and the spirit of the deceased landowner became anchored to the farmstead. Yet, if the people of Hrappsstadir thought that the spirit would be a benevolent guardian, they were quickly and brutally shown just how wrong their assumption had been. In fact, the bullying and malicious nature of Killer-Hrapp was only amplified after his death. As the saga put it, “if it had been difficult to deal with him when he was alive, he was much worse dead, for he haunted the area relentlessly” (Laxdæla saga, chapter 17).  

Life at Hrappsstadir quickly became a nightmare. It did not take long for Killer-Hrapp to live up to his name. He haunted and frightened the whole region, but he seemed to have a special hate for his farm staff. On Hrapp’s dogged targeting of this unfortunate group of people, the Laxdæla saga reported, “It is said that in his hauntings he killed most of his servants” (chapter 17). The brutal haunting eventually caused the whole population of Hrappsstadir, including Hrapp’s widow and son, to flee from the farmstead, and the region became an abandoned ghost town.

The hauntings of Killer-Hrapp began to worry other regions of Laxardal, so the farmers petitioned the chieftain Hoskuld to do something about the deadly ghost. In response to his people’s pleas, Hoskuld gathered his courage and traveled to Hrappsstadir. There, he exhumed the body of Hrapp from underneath the farmstead’s kitchen and then had the remains reburied far away in a forest. To everyone’s relief, the relocation of the body drastically reduced the number of reported hauntings in Laxardal. Yet, although Killer-Hrapp’s supernatural influence over Hrappsstadir and Laxardal had been diluted by the exhumation of his body, the ghost found more subtle means to sow mayhem in the region.

After Hoskuld had restored a semblance of order to Hrappsstadir, Killer-Hrapp’s son, Sumarlidi, returned to the property and tried to revive the farm. Not long after the young man went home, however, he was said to have become delirious and suddenly died. The people of Laxardal quickly attributed the death to the malicious spirit of Hrapp and the farmstead once again was abandoned. Sumarlidi’s mother inherited the estate after her son’s death, but she vowed to never return to that cursed land. Her apprehension about the estate, however, was not shared by her brother, the brave Thorstein Surt. Disregarding the ghost stories, Thorstein Surt packed his belongings onto a ship and set sail with eleven companions for Hrappsstadir, where he intended to bring the farm back to prominence. Unfortunately, Thorstein Surt’s dream was not realized—his ship sank in the final stretch of the trip and ten out of the eleven passengers onboard drowned, including Thorstein Surt. Next to inherit the cursed property was Thorstein’s daughter Gudrid, and her husband, Thorkel Scarf. The couple, however, pointedly left Hrappsstadir abandoned.

To the northeast of Hrappsstadir lived Olaf Peacock, so named because of his prideful demeanor and his ever-gilded fashion sense that applied to clothing and weaponry, alike. Olaf wanted to expand into Hrappsstadir and build a new farmstead on the deserted land. As a result of the hauntings and suspicious deaths connected to the region, Thorkel Skarf gladly sold the land for a measly three marks of silver. After acquiring the land, Olaf Peacock constructed the farm of Hjardarholt in a location just a short distance from Hrapp’s original farmstead.

Hjardarholt thrived, but farmhands began to report unnerving supernatural events. The epicenter of the hauntings seemed to be the cowshed for non-milking cattle, a structure located in a forested section of Olaf’s new property. The ghostly presence there was so bad that the cowherd threatened to leave if he was not transferred to another task. Instead of reassigning the man, Olaf Peacock accompanied the cowherd to the shed to help manage the cattle. While the two were working, the ghost of Killer-Hrapp appeared in the cowshed. In a comedic scene from the saga, the cowherd saw the ghost first and “suddenly came running back into Olaf’s arms” in freight (Laxdæla saga, chapter 24).  After wrenching himself free of the cowherd, Olaf Peacock heroically rushed at the ghost and stabbed at the spirit with a spear (gold-inlaid, of course). The spear did not harm the ghost, but the spectral Killer-Hrapp had enough supernatural power to snap off the weapon’s gilded spearhead before spookily sinking into the ground, taking the spear with him.

Olaf Peacock interpreted Killer-Hrapp’s disappearance into the earth as evidence that the ghost’s body was located underground in that very spot. The next morning, Olaf and his farmhands grabbed their spades and excavated the earth around the cowshed. They eventually discovered Killer-Hrapp’s restless body, which was reportedly still clinging to Olaf’s lost spearhead with the inlaid gold. After the body was exhumed for a second time, the remains were burned and then the ashes were dumped into the sea. With this, Killer-Hrapp’s reign of terror finally ended.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (Scene of Gudrun and the ghost by Andreas Bloch (1860–1917), based on a passage from the Laxdæla saga, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

  • The Saga of the People of Laxardal and Bolli Bollason’s Tale, by an anonymous 13th-century Icelander and translated by Keneva Kunz. New York: Penguin Classics, 2008.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

The Costly Battle of Champoton

In early 1517, over one hundred Spaniards on three ships set out from Cuba to explore the Yucatan Peninsula. The expedition, led by Francisco Hernandez de Cordoba, was met with mixed receptions whenever it made landfall. In some regions, the natives attempted to ambush the explorers when they came ashore. Yet, in other locations, locals received the conquistadors in peace, allowing the foreigners to tour their communities for a limited amount of time while under supervision. All in all, the expedition must have seemed lackluster—they had suffered casualties in the ambush and had found very little gold. Nevertheless, they were still making progress, if only in mapping the shores of the Yucatan Peninsula and learning about the local population.

Around early April, 1517, the Spaniards had traveled a fair distance down the western shore of the Yucatan Peninsula. In a fateful decision, the explorers decided to anchor their ships and paddle their rowboats to shore in order to gather water from some freshwater pools that they could see further inland. There were approximately one hundred conquistadors that were healthy in the expedition at the time, and all of them went ashore with their weapons. When they reached the freshwater pools, they saw signs of life—there were some small buildings nearby, and enough corn was planted there to make the Spaniards believe it was a local plantation.

Before the Spaniards could gather their water and leave, an army of natives arrived from a nearby city that the Spaniards later identified as Champoton. The approaching masses were armed for war, carrying bows, spears, slings and shields. Many of the native warriors also were described as wearing cloth armor and had their faces painted in red, white and black. Even though the two groups were armed and mistrustful, peace was maintained. Neither side had a translator, so they communicated as best they could through hand signals. The awkward attempt at sign language continued until night began to fall. As the sky darkened, the natives started heading back to Champoton. In an unwise move, the Spaniards decided not to return to their ships, but to instead camp by the beach.

When the dark of night arrived, it did not take long for the conquistadors to realize something was wrong. Rustling and voices reverberated from every direction around the Spanish camp. Although no native archers or slingers launched any projectiles into the camp during the night, the Spaniards soon came to believe that hostile and armed forces were amassing outside.

Bernal Díaz del Castillo, a conquistador and historian, was present in that camp and later wrote about his experiences. The Spaniards in the camp were in disagreement about what to do. Some wanted to launch an attack that very night against the forces they could hear rustling in the dark. Others wanted to flee to the boats immediately. In the end, however, the conquistadors just held their ground and waited until morning. When light returned, the Spaniards discovered that what they had been imagining in the dark of night was all true. During the night, several nearby towns and cities had sent warbands to besiege the conquistadors. Thinking back on the situation, Bernal Díaz felt that he and his companions were “outnumbered by two hundred to one” (The Conquest of New Spain, Chapter IV).  The Spaniards were surrounded and it did not take long for the battle to commence.

According to the account by Bernal Díaz, it was the besieging native army that made the first move. After arranging themselves around the outside of the camp, the besiegers loosed a vicious barrage of projectiles with their bowmen and slingers. Bernal Díaz vividly wrote, “they assailed us with such a shower of arrows and darts and stones from their slings that more than eighty of our soldiers were wounded” (The Conquest of New Spain, Chapter IV). After the opening volley, native infantry charged forward against the camp while the archers provided support. By now, the conquistadors still standing were returning fire with their muskets and crossbows, yet they could not stop the momentum of the oncoming wave.  When the charging native warriors reached the threshold of the camp, the Spaniards fought back with their swords. After a brief melee, however, the native infantry apparently became frustrated by the Spanish armor and weaponry and they decided to withdraw back to their original position with their archers.

Although they had won the melee, the Spaniards were far from winning the battle. In fact, they were on the verge of destruction. In assessing the state of the conquistadors after facing the opening barrage and the infantry charge, Bernal Díaz wrote, “All our soldiers had received two or three arrow wounds, three of them had their throats pierced by lance-thrusts, and our captain was bleeding from many wounds” (The Conquest of New Spain, Chapter IV). With many Spaniards dead and all other survivors wounded, the conquistadors decided their only option left was to flee for the rowboats. After packing tightly together, the ragged force pressed their way through the besieging natives and did not stop running until they reached their boats. With the enemy on their trail, the Spaniards did not take time to consider weight distribution and consequentially their rowboats began to take on water. Luckily, the vessels did not completely sink and the damp conquistadors eventually reached their ships.

The battle was reportedly only about an hour in length after the opening volley. Yet, although short in duration, it was incredibly costly in lives. According to Bernal Díaz, over fifty-five of the approximately one hundred men at the camp died of wounds sustained in the battle. Upon returning to the ships, the injured conquistadores immediately decided to return to Cuba. The captain of the expedition, Francisco Hernandez, was said to have suffered ten arrow wounds, but he lived long enough to lead his ships home. Tragically, he died of his wounds soon after successfully anchoring in Cuba.

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

Picture Attribution: (17th-century depiction of the entrance of Hernan Cortés into the city of Tabasco, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

  • The Conquest of New Spain by Bernal Díaz, translated by J. M. Cohen. New York: Penguin Books, 1963.