Friday, 20 December 2013

Murder on Christmas Day!

For anyone seeking an antidote for all that tiresome 'Peace and good will to all men' over the next week look no further. Here is the cheerful Medieval tale of the murder of the Byzantine Emperor Leo V, who was struck down in church on Christmas morning 820 AD. Few crimes have been committed with less regard for the niceties of Christian tradition than this one.

It is an oft repeated lesson of history that those who usurp the royal power often show the way to those who would usurp them in turn. With the overthrow of a dynasty somehow a spell is broken and the crime of regicide loses its awful gravity. So it was with Leo V, who through skulduggery at the Battle of Versinicia in 813, had engineered the downfall of emperor Michael I and thereafter ushered in the second era of iconoclasm.

Michael I and Leo V - Madrid Skylitzes
The Byzantine chroniclers would have us believe that the events to come were all mapped out long before. Christian though they may have been, the Byzantine writers still liked to look to the touchstone of the pagan past for inspiration. The pages of Plutarch and Livy are filled with purported prophecies foretelling the rise and fall of great men, all of them doubtless safely composed with the benefit of hindsight. In the Byzantine sources, who sought to emulate the style of these ancient writers, in the place of the Pythia or Sibyl we find the holy man. The utterings of these ascetic hermits, we are given to believe, often foretold events to come. It is a contrivance easily enough reconciled with Christianity, for after all, were there not prophets in the Old Testament too?

A story is told by the anonymous continuator of the chronicle of Theophanes the Confessor of how, many years earlier, back in the reign of Nicephorus I, three men accompanied the would-be rebel Bardanes Turkos to seek the advice of just such a hermit as he plotted his revolt. The hermit is said to have advised Bardanes against his rebellion but prophesised that his three companions; Leo, Michael and Thomas would all attain the purple, although Thomas, he warned, would never sit upon the throne. Bardanes’ revolt against Nicephorus failed and he was blinded and stripped of his property just as the old hermit had predicted.

If Leo gave any credence to this prophesy, if indeed such a prophesy there was, then it did not prevent him from elevating the two men who had accompanied him that day to high office under his rule. Michael, known as the Stammerer, was appointed Count of the Excubitors; commander of the imperial bodyguard and one of the most senior military positions within the empire. More than one former incumbent of this position had risen to claim the throne in the past. Thomas, known as the Slav, was appointed to Leo’s former command of the elite regiment of the Foederati.

Michael, not content with his station, soon began plotting to seize the throne for himself but proved to be loose tongued and incautious in company and drunkenly declared his intentions in the hearing of those who would report his words back to the emperor. On Christmas Eve 820,  Michael was arrested and charged with plotting against his friend the emperor. He confessed all. Placed under guard in chains, Michael was left to await a truly terrible fate. He was to be executed by being thrown into the furnace beneath the baths of Zeuxippos the next day. It was the empress Theodosia, we are told, who fatefully interceded for Michael, imploring Leo not to taint his rule with such a savage act on the sacred feast of Christmas day. Leo too was troubled by the judgement he had passed upon his former friend and spent a sleepless night. He agreed to put off the execution until after the Christmas festivities. It would prove a fatal delay. During the night, Michael’s supporters put a conspiracy into action. Under the pretext of the prisoner wishing to confess his sins, a priest was sent for from the city. The servant sent to bring the priest summoned a number of conspirators who, disguised as monks, made their way into the Daphne palace complex and entered the chapel of St Stephen, where the emperor would celebrate a dawn mass.

As the emperor arrived for morning prayers the conspirators drew swords from under their habits and set upon him. In the confusion the priest was struck down instead of the emperor, who grabbed a large cross from the alter and wielded it desperately against his attackers. It was to no avail however and a mighty blow severed Leo’s arm, with his hand still gripping the cross. Falling to the floor, the emperor was beheaded.
Michael II receiving a delegation from the Bulgars - Madrid Skylitzes

Michael was carried from his prison cell and then sat upon the throne to receive oaths of loyalty with the fetters still upon his legs. Not until mid day was he released from his chains in order to make his way to St Sophia where a scandalised but compliant Patriarch placed the crown of empire upon his head.

When news of Michael’s usurpation reached the ears of Thomas the Slav, he gave no heed to any doom-mongering predictions of his ultimate failure that he may have received in the past and immediately raised the standard of revolt in the eastern provinces of the empire. It is difficult to separate the truth of Thomas’ motives from the propaganda put about by himself and his enemies. It seems probable however that Thomas sought to be all things to all people in order to gain for himself the widest possible base of support.

At times Thomas is said to have claimed to be the murdered emperor Constantine VI back from the dead, although surely he would have been too well known a figure in his own right to pull this subterfuge off with any but the most credulous of peasants and it is likely to be a later fabrication. In the east he presented himself as the avenger of the murdered Leo and the champion of the poor and oppressed. In the west, where anti-iconoclast opinion prevailed, his supporters hinted that he would be sympathetic to the cause of the restoration of the icons. Despite the fact that Thomas’ base of Amorion in the Anatolian heartland of the empire was the home town of Michael, supporters flocked to his side. Thomas was by all accounts a charismatic leader and soon almost every Anatolian theme, as Byzantine military provinces were known, had thrown their lot in with the rebel.
 Thomas the Slav in Syria - Madrid Skylitzes
In 821 Thomas marched into Syria at the head of his considerable forces in a show of strength calculated to impress. Here too, the chameleon-like Thomas presented himself to best effect to gain the friendship of the Caliph Al-Mamun. His emissary to the Caliph was sent with extravagant promises to make. Allowing for propaganda intended to blacken his name as a traitor to the empire, Thomas is variously credited with signing away frontier provinces or perhaps even undertaking to en-fief the entire empire to the Caliphate in exchange for an alliance which would safeguard his rear whilst he turned his forces against Constantinople. The Caliph accepted with alacrity and provided Thomas with a substantial contribution to his war chest. The rebel was even permitted to celebrate his coronation as Emperor of the Romans in the city of Antioch. Al Ma’mun would have been advised to remain sceptical of the bargain. Thomas, after all, was not the first Byzantine rebel commander to promise much and deliver nothing. Leo III had struck a similar bargain a century before. At any rate Thomas’ friendly overtures were well timed for the Caliph had his hands full already with the rebellion of Barbak. 
More on Babak's revolt here

With peace secured and having defeated a loyalist army from the Armeniakon Theme, Thomas turned his vast polyglot army which may have been as large as 80,000 men, against Constantinople. The fleets stationed along the eastern shore of the Marmara also declared for Thomas and so he was able to ferry his troops across the straits and lay siege to the land walls at Blacharnae. The defences here proved too strong for the attackers however and the massive catapults stationed on the towers wrecked destruction on every engine of war that Thomas was able to send against them. Just as it had seemed that the resolve of the defenders was weakening and the emperor Michael had appeared upon the walls in person to deliver a heartfelt plea for peace to the besiegers, lulling them into a false sense of security, a sortie launched from the gates fell upon the disorganised rebels and inflicted much slaughter upon them. At sea too Thomas’ forces were bested by the loyalist fleet and many of his ships were destroyed by Greek Fire. The siege dragged on through 822 and the besiegers endured a second miserable winter outside the walls before in the following spring came the fatal blow. From out of the west, falling like a hammer blow upon the rebel’s rear, came the army of Ormortag, son of Krum, who had been unable to resist the lure of easy plunder and come to Michael’s assistance. The Bulgar attack shattered Thomas’ army which withdrew westwards with the emperor’s forces hot on their trail; Michael himself at their head.
Thomas placed his final hopes of victory in the favourite Byzantine tactic of feigned flight, calculated to draw the imperial forces on in disorganised pursuit before turning upon them. In the event however the morale of Thomas’ army was in tatters. Pretended rout swiftly turned to the real thing as the rebels lost all heart and as Thomas fled for his life, his remaining forces surrendered in their droves. Run to ground in the Thracian city of Arcadiopolis, Thomas and his remaining followers held out through the summer as provisions ran short and at last, in October, all loyalty was exhausted. Handed over to the emperor by his treacherous companions in exchange for clemency, Thomas was flung at Michael’s feet whilst the emperor placed a purple booted foot upon his neck and pronounced a terrible sentence of death. Thomas’ hands and feet were cut off and he was then impaled outside the city. If only he had heeded the words of the hermit.

Thomas besieges Constantinople - Madrid Skylitzes
Michael had survived the great challenge to his reign but his remaining years brought little glory as freebooting Arab raiders fell upon imperial territory in the Mediterranean. In 825 Crete was overrun by invaders who had originally fled Andalusia following an unsuccessful rebellion. Having been ousted from Alexandria, these rebels-turned-pirates seized control of the island, founding the settlement of Candia, today known as Heraklion, and thereafter would use it as base to harass Byzantine shipping and launch raids against the coastal settlements of the empire. An expedition sent to the relieve the island ended in dismal failure and the pirates would long remain a thorn in the side of the empire.

Two years later worse was to follow when a disgraced admiral in Sicily by the name of Euphemius provoked the wrath of the governor by eloping with a nun. The penalty for his offence was rhinocopia and rather than be deprived of his nose, Euphemius launched a revolt against imperial power. When his plans began to unravel, Euphemius escaped to North Africa and plotted with the Emir of Kairouan to conquer the island between them. Euphemius would then rule Sicily as the Emir’s vassal. The rebellious admiral then returned to Sicily backed by an Arab invasion force of ten thousand men. Euphemius, dressing himself in imperial regalia and styling himself emperor, came to a sticky end as his forces advanced on Syracuse. Arriving to accept the surrender of the town of Castrogiovanni, Euphemius was approached by a welcoming committee of two young men of the town, who prostrated themselves before him. As he bent his head to bestow a sovereign’s kiss upon the brow of one of the men, Euphemius was summarily beheaded by the other, reflecting perhaps in his last moments on the irony of his fate. The course that he had taken to avoid the loss of his nose had led in the end to the loss of his head. Another usurper had been dispatched but the damage was done. The Arab invaders were not so easily removed and with a firm foothold established in Sicily they would continue to gain ground on the island over the ensuing half century until they made it their own.

 Michael died from dysentery in 829. He was succeeded by his son Theophilus who had ruled alongside him as his co-emperor from the age of seventeen. At twenty six, Theophilus promised to be a vigorous young ruler. He is remembered for many things, not least for being the last of the iconoclast emperors. He is remembered both for his love of justice and his love of pomp and ostentation. Like many an absolute ruler he could be capricious or merciful as the mood took him.

Theophilus condemns the assassins - Madrid Skylitzes

Upon his accession Theophilus gave a stark and unmistakable demonstration of his commitment to the rule of law. Summoning the great and the good to appear before him in the great vaulted audience hall of the Magnaura, Theophilus declared that he wished to reward those who had loyally supported his father. He called forth those who had participated in the murder of Leo nine years before and proudly the men stepped forward, eagerly expecting the new emperor  to bestow gifts and honours upon them. Instead Theophilus called upon the Eparch of the city, responsible for maintaining law and order, to have the men seized and declaring:

‘Go to it Eparch! You have authority from God and from our own serenity to pass judgement on these persons and to reward them according to their deeds: not only for having stained their hands with human blood, but also because they slew the lord’s anointed within the sanctuary.’

It was a remarkable act. From the unlikeliest of quarters; the hands of the son of the man who had usurped him, Leo V had received his justice. For Theophilus perhaps, it was an act without which he could not feel that his accession to the throne was legitimate, tainted as it was by the heinous crime of Leo’s murder. Having seen justice done, he could set about ruling his empire with his hands washed clean.

Sunday, 8 December 2013

Lightning Strikes Twice – The Sinking of HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse

This week we generally remember the events of 7th December 1941 when aircraft of the Imperial Japanese Navy fell upon the US naval base at Pearl Harbour and the Second World War went global.

10th December 1941
It remains one of the most audacious military operations of all time and was followed up by attacks the following day on the British possessions of Malaya and Hong Kong and on the American held island of Guam. Having dealt their tremendous blow to the US Pacific fleet, the Japanese actions of 8th December were launched with a confidence in their success which may have been owed in great measure to a critical British intelligence blunder of over a year before. A heavy price was paid two  days later on 10th December with the loss of the capital ships Prince of Wales and Repulse.
On 11th November 1940 the Blue Funnel steamer SS Automedon had been steaming towards Singapore, 250 miles off the western tip of Sumatra when she was intercepted by the German surface raider Atlantis. This most successful German armed merchantman of the war had been terrorising allied shipping in the Atlantic, Indian Ocean and Pacific. Under her swashbuckling captain Bernhard Rogge (pictured below) the ship was a master of disguise, concealing her six inch guns beneath false canvas deck structures and side flaps, altering her silhouette with false masts and funnels and sailing under Soviet, Japanese, British, Dutch and Norwegian colours.

By the time she crossed the path of the Automedon, Atlantis had accounted for a dozen allied merchantmen in the past six months, sinking nine and capturing three as well as laying a minefield off of Cape Agulhas. The Automedon however was a prize of a different magnitude. Having raked Automedon with gunfire and left her a listing wreck with six of her crew dead, the crew of the Atlantis boarded the stricken ship.

On board they discovered bags full of secret mail, decoding tables and classified naval documents and the greatest prize of all was found inside a green bag marked ‘highly confidential – to be destroyed'. It was nothing less than a copy of the Chiefs of Staff Far Eastern Appraisal, intended for the eyes of the new Commander in Chief for the Far East ,Sir Robert Brooke Popham. This document which listed air, naval and troop strengths in the region also carried a gloomy assessment of the British position in the Far East, the vulnerability of Singapore, the inadequacy of its defences, the lack of available warships which could be sent to defend it, given the present state of war with Germany and the frank dismissal of the chances of any attempts to relieve or retake the colony in the event of its capture by the Japanese.
It was  intelligence dynamite and Rogge could hardly believe that such a sensitive document had been sent by such an insecure means. Popham would never see the document, instead within a month it was on the desk of the Japanese naval attachĂ© in Berlin. The rest as they say is history.

SS Automedon
On 4th December 1941 the battleships HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse sailed into Singapore harbour, their mission to deter Japanese ambitions in the region. Far from deterred, the Japanese had made their preparations in the knowledge that these ships represented the full extent of the British commitment to the protection of their far eastern colonies and that they were depending on reinforcement by the US Pacific fleet in the event of war. In July 1941 Japanese forces had moved to extend their occupation of Vichy French Indochina, securing key naval and air bases, fully aware from the captured appraisal that such a move would not precipitate any military action against them by the British.
The bulk of the Japanese carrier force was available for the fateful attack on Pearl Harbour on 7th December, with the attack having been planned on the understanding that no substantial British fleet would be sent to the Pacific theatre. On the following day Japanese aircraft began to bomb Hong Kong and troops began landing at Kota Bharu in northern Malaya.
HMS Prince of Wales
In the early hours of Tuesday 9th December 1941 Force Z comprising the new battleship Prince of Wales, the veteran battle cruiser Repulse which had seen action in WW1 and the destroyers Electra, Express, Tenedos and Vampire sailed from Singapore in order to attack the Japanese transports supplying the landings at Kota Bharu and perhaps seeking an encounter with the battleship Kongo, which was known to be in the area.
The Prince of Wales, serving as the flag ship of Force Z commander Vice-Admiral Tom Phillips, had been commissioned for less than a year but had already born witness to one British naval disaster. In May 1941 she had fought in the engagement with the Bismarck in the Denmark Strait which led to the sinking of HMS Hood. Having survived this encounter, Prince of Wales had transported Churchill to his meeting with Roosevelt in Newfoundland in August before being redeployed to the Pacific.
Steaming north 250 miles off the Malayan coast Force Z was spotted by Japanese reconnaissance aircraft. Fatefully the carrier HMS Indomitable which had been intended to join Force Z in the Pacific had been damaged by running aground on her maiden voyage and thus the British force was proceeding without air cover. Phillips had a dismissive attitude towards the threat posed towards capital ships at sea by aircraft and had refused offers of air cover from Australian and New Zealand Air Force units stationed in Malaya. It was a view shared by many senior naval officers and one which would be substantially revised within the next 24 hours. Nevertheless Phillips (pictured right) appreciated that he had lost the element of surprise and decided to reverse his course and steam back to Singapore. During the night in poor conditions a Japanese bomber strike sent out against force Z instead attacked their own cruiser Chokai which was at the time just five miles to the north of the British ships.
At midnight a false report came through of new Japanese landings at Kuantan, midway between Kota Bharu and Singapore. Phillips took the fateful decision to sail towards Kuantan, where at dawn on 10th December, sixty miles from the Malayan coast, Force Z was once more spotted by Japanese reconnaissance aircraft.

G3M 'Nell' torpedo bomber
The fate of Prince of Wales and Repulse was sealed. From airfields established in former French Indo-China waves of G3M ‘Nell’ bombers were sent to engage the British ships. The first wave mistook the destroyer Tenedos for a capital ship and wasted their bombs in an unsuccessful attack upon her. Successive waves of Nells then came upon the main force. The first wave of eight aircraft carried 500lb bombs which they dropped on Repulse, with only one hit which penetrated to the hanger deck but did no significant damage. This first wave were seen off with AA fire but another seventeen Nell bombers approached carrying torpedoes; splitting into two formations and attacking both ships at once. Prince of Wales was hit by two torpedoes on the stern and aft port quarter which inflicted crippling damage and flooding and caused her to slow and list.
At this point Repulse, relatively undamaged, radioed for air cover but the squadron of Australian Brewster Buffalo fighters that were scrambled would arrive too late to save the battleships. Another wave of 26 Japanese bombers, G4M ‘Bettys’ now closed in and split to attack both ships once more. Prince of Wales was hit by four torpedoes on the starboard side which destroyed her remaining good propeller shaft and caused further catastrophic flooding.

HMS Repulse
Twenty Bettys along with the surviving G3M bombers from the very first wave now concentrated on Repulse which manoeuvred frantically to avoid their torpedo and bomb attacks but was unable to evade attacks coming simultaneously from port and starboard. Four torpedo strikes did fatal damage and the order was given to abandon ship. Just eleven minutes after the first torpedo hit, Repulse sank. A final attack by eight aircraft carrying 1000lb bombs scored a single hit on Prince of Wales, bringing her to a halt. As the destroyer Express came alongside to assist, Phillips persisted in doomed attempts to save the ship and ordered them away. The order to abandon ship came 35 minutes after the final fatal bomb attack and Prince of Wales capsized and sank eight minutes later.
Admiral Phillips and Captain Leech of the Prince of Wales went down with the ship along with 325 of her crew. Captain Tennant of the Repulse was rescued but 513 men went down with the stricken cruiser. 2081 survivors were taken off or rescued from the water by the destroyers. Just two minutes after the Prince of Wales sank the air cover arrived, too late to do anything but chase off the remaining bombers. Japanese losses amounted to just four aircraft, with seventeen men killed. Phillips has been widely condemned for his failure to call for air support at any point during the attack.
Brewster Buffalo aircraft of the Australian 453 Squadron were called in too late
Singapore fell on February 15th 1942. Many of those who had survived the sinking of Prince of Wales and Repulse were killed during the evacuation or taken prisoner. See links below for a personal account from one survivor.
The raider Atlantis was sunk by HMS Devonshire in October 1942. Her commander Bernhard Rogge survived the war having received the knights cross for his efforts as well as being presented with a ceremonial samurai sword by the Japanese for his actions in the capture of the Automedon. This extremely rare honour for a foreigner is telling as to the significance of the ship’s capture to the success of future Japanese plans.

The raider Atlantis
Footage of the sinking
Discussion of the significance of the capture of Automedon

Force Z in detail

More naval warfare posts from Slings and Arrows

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

When Theophilus met Theophobos

Whilst currently enjoying the chronicle of John Skylitzes I came across the interesting story of Theophobos. This one-time Persian renegade enjoyed a turbulent career of highs and lows which brought him briefly and reluctantly to claim the imperial title and ultimately to his ruin.

The Khurramite leader Babak

Our story begins in the year 816 when a revolt by the Khurramite sect centred on present day Azerbaijan broke out against the incumbent regime of the Abbasid Caliphs. The Khurramites followed a belief system which fused ideas from the Zoroastrian cult of Mazdakism, which had been suppressed under the Sassanid Persian rulers, with Shi’a Islam. Both had a certain egalitarian appeal for the downtrodden and the dis-enfranchised. The Khurramites revered the memory of Abu Muslim, who had led the revolt which had swept the Abbasid Caliphs to power only to be slain in a fit of jealousy and paranoia by the second Abbasid Caliph al-Mansur. Ultimately the revolt could be seen as a Persian backlash against their Arab rulers in Baghdad. The leader of the revolt was Babak, who claimed descent from Abu Muslim and also claimed rather interestingly to have inherited the soul of the previous Khurramite leader, which had fused with his own.

In true guerilla style Babak took to the mountains when the Caliph al-Ma’mun sent a succession of governors of Azerbaijan against him and by using the terrain to his advantage he was able to win many victories over them; falling upon and slaughtering his enemies in bad country and then melting away once more. His successes brought more support for the revolt and pockets of Khurramite resistance sprang up all over the Persian territories.

In 830 another army of Khurramite rebels holding out in the Zagros Mountains of Western Iran led by a Persian nobleman by the name of Nasr was heavily defeated by the Caliph’s forces. Seeing the writing on the wall for the Khurramite cause, Nasr chose to lead his surviving troops through Armenia out of harm’s way and sought refuge within the Byzantine Empire.

The arrival of Nasr with some fourteen thousand armed followers who professed themselves willing to fight for the Empire against the Caliphate was greeted rapturously by the emperor Theophilus. The new arrivals were given land and incorporated into the Byzantine military under the command of Nasr himself, upon whom the emperor bestowed Patrician rank. Nasr and his followers agreed in principle at least to embrace Christianity and were baptised. Nasr now took a new Christian name and became Theophobos. As Christians, the former Khurramites were now permitted to marry and Theophobos was given the emperor’s own sister-in-law as a bride. The fugitive rebel had landed on his feet.

The fortress of Badd - Babak's last stronghold

Al Ma’mun died in 833 to be succeeded by his half-brother  al-Mu’tasim. The new Caliph was determined to crush the Khurramite rebellion and soon appointed a man equal to the task of rooting Babak out of his mountain stronghold. The new governor, a Persian noble named al-Afsin, adopted a methodical approach and moved forward steadily into the mountains, taking control of one rebel stronghold at a time. Babak attempted to counter the invasion by targeting al-Afsin’s supply lines but al-Afsin succeeded in inflicting a series of significant defeats upon Babak who retreated back to his seemingly impregnable mountaintop fortress of Badd.

Babak’s revolt came to its bloody end in 837. Despite the difficulties of reaching the fortress of Badd which could only be approached in single file through a narrow defile, al-Afsin’s soldiers succeeded in storming the stronghold and overcoming its defenders. Barbak and his few remaining followers slipped away into the forests but he was ultimately betrayed and run to ground. Paraded through the streets of Samarra on an elephant, Barbak had his hands and feet cut off before being beheaded. His body was then publically displayed on a gibbet.

Al Afsin and Babak - Tarikhnama of Balami

Any relief felt by the Caliph at this victory was soon tempered by the arrival in his territory of the emperor Theophilus at the head of an invading army. Theophobos and his Persian brigade marched with the emperor. Theophilus was eager to avenge a series of humiliating defeats at the hands of al-Ma’mun in 830-31 and may also have been responding to a call for aid from Barbak, although his intervention came too late to save the doomed rebel leader. The emperor’s forces reached the upper Euphrates and put the cities of Arsamosata and Zosopetra to the sack.

Following this victory and in the aftermath of Babak’s defeat another sixteen thousand Khurramites fled to the empire and were both converted to Christianity and enrolled in Theophobos’ Persian brigade, bringing its total strength to thirty thousand men.

Zosopetra was the birthplace of al-Mu’tasim who vowed revenge upon Theophilus and in the following year led his armies in a campaign of reprisal, aimed at the destruction of the emperor’s own birthplace of Amorion. Whilst the Caliph led his forces towards his target of Amorion, a second army under al-Afsin, fresh from his victory over Barbak which had seen him showered with honours by the Caliph, marched into Cappadocia.

The armies of Theophilus and al-Afsin met in battle at Anzen. Theophilus was accompanied by Theophobos and his Persian troops and probably outnumbered al-Afsin. Having disregarded advice from Theophobos to mount a night attack, feeling such tactics to be beneath his honour, the emperor led his troops into battle at dawn. At first the battle went the way of the Byzantines as their right wing made progress and forced their enemies back. Theophilus and Theophobos now led a contingent of troops from the right wing behind their army to their left in order to reinforce this wing and complete the victory. A well timed counterattack by Afsin’s Turkoman horse archers however threw the Byzantine right wing into chaos and, thinking themselves abandoned by their emperor, they routed. Theophilus found himself isolated and retreated to a hill top protected by those soldiers of the imperial Tagmata who had not fled along with some of the troops of Theophobos.
Al-Afsin brought up his siege engines to batter at the defenders who were also showered by arrows by the horse archers. The wretched Byzantines were saved by the elements as it began to rain and at last night fell.

Theophilus flees for the high ground at the  Battle of Anzen - Madrid Skylitzes

Skylitzes, himself writing some two centuries later and compiling his account from various surviving sources, tells two stories of the events of the night which show Theophobos in differing lights. In one version we are told that during the night the Domestic of the Scholae Manuel, Theophilus’ senior commander, persuaded the emperor that the troops of Theophobos could not be trusted. They must flee, he told the emperor, before the Persians sold the emperor out to the forces of al-Afsin. The emperor, accompanied by Manuel and his loyal troops succeeded in breaking through the enemy lines in the night and fled westwards. In another version however it is Theophobos who saves the emperor by the stratagem of ordering his troops to shout and sing joyfully as if they were being reinforced by friendly troops, causing the encircling enemy to withdraw and allowing the emperor to escape.

The events that followed suggest that the troops of the Persian brigade indeed had cause to believe that they had lost their emperor’s trust.

After the battle Theophobos and his troops withdrew to Sinope on the Black Sea coast. Fearful now of the consequences of the emperor’s wrath, the Persian brigade proclaimed their commander as emperor of the Romans. Arriviste though Theophobos may have been he was nevertheless a member of the imperial family and may well have been seen as a suitable candidate by those who longed for a restoration of the veneration of icons. The recent reverses suffered by the staunchly iconoclast Theophilus were cause for many to wonder if the displeasure of the Almighty was being manifested in Byzantine defeat at the hands of the infidel.

The court of Theophilus - Madrid Skylitzes

At any rate Theophobos had no wish to be raised to the purple and appealed to the emperor, declaring that his usurpation had been forced upon him by his troops. Whatever reservations Theophilus may have had, he pardoned his friend and recalled him to Constantinople where he was received with honour. As for the Khurramites, although pardoned for their actions, they nonetheless found themselves scattered throughout the forces of the empire in units of two thousand men so that they no longer represented a threat to the stability of the empire.

In 842 the emperor began to sicken and soon it was apparent that he would not be long for this world. Once again the potential of Theophobos as an imperial candidate was feared by those in the emperor’s inner circle. He posed a threat to the succession of Theophilus’ infant son Michael and this time although he had done nothing to warrant it, he was shown no mercy. Arrested and imprisoned, Theophobos was executed on the emperor’s orders. Skylitzes tells us that when the emperor was brought Theophobos' head he wept and held it in his hands, declaring.

‘Now you are no longer Theophobos and I am no longer Theophilus.’

Make of that what you will.
You may also enjoy: Enemies at the Gate Part One - The Reign of Michael III

More on the Khurramite rebellion

Battle of Anzen

Monday, 4 November 2013

The first bones - early dinosaur discoveries


I got wondering the other day, as I do, who the first people were to come across the remains of dinosaurs. What did they make of them? Who was the first to realise that they had unearthed a long extinct creature from the distant past? My initial google search soon had me reading deeper into the story and as often happens I  have ended up writing another blog post on a random subject that I wasn't planning to cover. Perhaps that is the best way to do it? So here we go. Ironically enough, our story begins with a man of the cloth.
In 1676 the Reverend Robert Plot, who was also professor of Chemistry at Oxford University, published his work Natural History of Oxfordshire. Within it he discussed an unusual discovery that he had once come upon in a local quarry. Clearly identifiable as the top part of a femur, the fossilised bone fragment was far too large to have come from any creature native to Britain that Plot was aware of. Falling back on his history, Plot opined that perhaps the specimen was the remains of one of the elephants which Tacitus tells us were brought over to overawe the natives during Claudius’ invasion of 51 AD. It was such a good piece of deduction that it deserved to be right but Plot would have been astounded to learn that what he had actually described was the first recorded discovery of dinosaur remains.
He would have scoffed at the idea of a seven metre long, one and a half ton giant lizard roaming around the Oxfordshire countryside. Indeed, having dismissed his reasonably sensible Roman elephant idea as fanciful, Plot had eventually decided that his bone must have belonged to a British Goliath. Giants after all were attested in the Bible whereas enormous lizards patently were not.
Robert Plot 1640-1696

In an age before the concept of evolution, the idea that the earth and all the creatures upon it had not remained precisely as God had made them, unchanged since the day of creation, was considered risible even by some of the most learned of men. As the enlightenment gathered pace however, it became harder for some to deny the evidence of their own eyes. James Hutton was such a man. This well-travelled geologist came to the conclusion that the very rocks of the earth were part of an ever changing ‘great geological cycle’ in which the twin forces of erosion and volcanic activity shaped and renewed the landscape. Hutton was convinced that such processes had taken place over long millennia and that the evidence in the rocks belied the prevailing biblical view of an earth that was just six thousand years old.
In an even greater leap of logical deduction recorded in his work of 1794 Investigation of the Principles of Knowledge Hutton wrote:
If an organised body is not in the situation and circumstances best adapted to its sustenance and propagation, then, in conceiving an indefinite variety among the individuals of that species, we must be assured, that, on the one hand, those which depart most from the best adapted constitution, will be the most liable to perish, while, on the other hand, those organised bodies, which most approach to the best constitution for the present circumstances, will be best adapted to continue, in preserving themselves and multiplying the individuals of their race.
He was thus a man well ahead of his time. The work was never published and the proposal of the mechanism of evolution by  natural selection would not appear in print until Charles Darwin’s 1859 Origin of Species.

James Hutton 1726-1797

Despite Hutton’s insight into these essential truths, the study of geology continued within the constraints of a biblical framework. William Buckland, another Oxford man who combined the seemingly contradictory duties of a clergyman with the pursuit of scientific enquiry, set out to reconcile the two. In his treatise of 1820 Vindiciae Geologiae Buckland was obliged, in order to secure the academic future of the discipline, to explain the stratification of sedimentary rock formations and the presence of fossilised animal remains within them as evidence of the great flood of Noah. The presence of creatures not native to Britain was put down to their bodies having been swept here from far off lands by the flood waters.
The evidence however told a different story and Buckland was later convinced by the quantity of remains that he had found that these creatures must have lived here all along. By comparison of similar features of the British landscape with those he had seen during a visit to Switzerland, Buckland was persuaded that the land had been gradually shaped and that layers of rock had been laid down by the action of glaciers over thousands of years, rather than by a single catastrophic event.
Buckland’s  arguments met with much hostility but he had made one electrifying discovery over the course of his investigations into the remains of long dead creatures. In 1815 at Stonesfield Quarry in Oxfordshire, teeth and bones of a previously completely unknown beast had been uncovered. After a decade of painstaking reconstruction Buckland announced that he had found the remains of a giant carnivorous lizard. He named it Megalosaurus. Although the name dinosaur had not yet been coined, the first example of their kind had been found.
Megalosaurus Bucklandii

In 1822 a quarry in Tilgate Forest Sussex, not a stone’s throw from where I grew up, began to yield up fragments of another strange beast. Gideon Mantell, a doctor by profession and keen amateur fossil digger by inclination had already turned up a variety of extinct marine creatures in the Sussex chalk when his long suffering wife Mary Ann one day brought him a large fossilised tooth that she had come across during a walk. Mantell was convinced that this must belong to an entirely new type of creature; a giant herbivorous reptile. Comparison with the teeth of the modern iguana convinced him that the creature must have resembled a larger version of the lizard, perhaps as large as one hundred feet long.
Mantell's dig in Tilgate Forest

For the next decade Mantell laboured to turn up more fragments of the beast and eventually succeeded in making the case for his discovery in the face of opposition from the doyen of the zoological academic establishment and later founder of the Natural History Museum Richard Owen. The debate between the two turned bitter as Owen, the anatomical expert, argued that the Iguanodon, as it had come to be known, could not have been so large and that it had walked upon all fours like modern large mammals. Mantell conceded defeat on the size of the creature, having initially based his estimate on an up-scaled  iguana and come up with Godzilla. He later proved however that the iguanodon’s forelimbs were shorter than its hind limbs and re-envisioned the creature as standing upright. In reality it probably spent most of its time on all fours but at the time it was Mantell’s interpretation, as depicted in the Victorian illustration at the top of this post, that prevailed. The Sedgwick Museum’s example cast of a specimen found in Belgium, pictured below, was mounted in a bipedal posture in accordance with this view.
Cast of Iguanodon skeleton - Sedgwick Museum Cambridge

Mantell is something of a tragic figure. Mary Ann finally left him after he reduced his family to penury, having abandoned his successful practice in Lewes and moved to Brighton where the family home was turned into a museum with the family forced into a single room. One can hardly blame the poor woman for taking the very unusual step of divorcing her husband in 1839. Mantell was later crippled in a carriage accident and in a supreme irony, following his death in 1852 from an overdose of opiates, he ended up as a specimen himself with his scoliosis-wracked spine preserved in a jar in the collection of his nemesis Richard Owen.
It was Owen therefore who ended up as the public face of the study of dinosaurs, having coined the word itself in 1842 and presided over the creation of full scale models of iguanodon and megalosaurus to be exhibited in Crystal Palace Park in 1853. Six years later however his opposition to Darwin’s theories would leave his credibility permanently tarnished in the eyes of a new generation of scientists.
Overlooked and somewhat sneered at in the refined air of academic circles at the time was another tireless bone digger named Mary Anning, who today is probably better known than most of those mentioned above for the same reason that she was scorned at the time. As a woman in a man's world and lacking a university education to boot, Mary Anning could never hope for inclusion at the top table. Dependant for much of her life upon charity and reliant on searching the cliffs of Lyme Regis for fossil remains which she could then sell to wealthy collectors, Mary could be dismissed as merely a finder and seller of fossils. Those who knew better knew her to be an expert in the location and identification of fossil remains and a first rate self-taught anatomist. Buckland, Mantell and Owen all beat a path to her door and her abilities were respected throughout the academic world. Her discovery of ichthyosaurs, plesiosaurs and pterosaurs in the Dorset cliffs introduced prehistoric creatures of the deep and of the air into the public consciousness.
Mary Anning 1799-1847
Mary Anning died from breast cancer in 1847, fondly remembered by the academic establishment but hardly lauded. Her story alone however was the only one it was deemed necessary for me to have been taught about school, a fact which doubtless had more to do with her gender than her accomplishments. From my viewpoint the greatest compliment one can pay notable women from the pages of history is neither to tolerate the prejudices that they endured in their own day, nor to subscribe to the modern agendas that seek to put them on a pedestal, but simply to give them their due. That, after all, is all most of them ever wanted.
This example of an ichthyosaur discovered by Anning which today resides in the Sedgwick Museum illustrates the lack of recognition that she received for her discoveries. It is not Anning's name writ large upon the slab but that of the donor Thomas Hawkins;author of a fanciful work entitled The Book of Great Sea Dragons, whom William Buckland described as 'A young man with more money than wit.' Hawkins was in the habit of adding extra bones to the specimens he purchased from Anning to make them appear more complete, a practice which Anning herself frowned upon.
In her own lifetime Mary Anning described herself as 'ill-used' by the academic community. In modern times she has found a measure of restitution. And when we look upon the treasures she unearthed, who would begrudge her that?
Ichthyosaur - Sedgwick Museum Cambridge

Robert Plot
James Hutton
William Buckland
Gideon Mantell
Mary Anning

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Monday, 14 October 2013

Andromeda Reloaded

It's getting to that time of year again when the 'Clash of the Titans' constellations fill the eastern night's sky; Pegasus, Perseus, Cassiopeia and of course Andromeda. Last night was a beautifully clear one and I managed to get a marginally better view of the Andromeda galaxy than I did last year before moving on to an utterly fruitless attempt to see Neptune through my plucky little telescope. So I thought I would repost this blog from last year on the history of its observation.

Andromeda Galaxy as photographed by  Isaac Roberts 1888

Winter is coming as they say in Westeros and with the return of dark evenings I found myself on Saturday night scurrying back and forth from the garden where the trusty scope had been trained on the patch of sky above the neighbour’s fence, frowning at the scudding clouds.

At last the sky cleared at least for a while and I cranked, swivelled and twiddled my way through the rising constellation of Andromeda until finally I beheld a cloud-like entity amongst the stars. Having repeatedly checked that the object of interest was neither a rogue regular cloud drifting across my field of view nor a greasy spot on the eyepiece, I pronounced myself satisfied that I had indeed eyeballed the Andromeda galaxy and wished as usual that I had invested in a larger telescope. Even so, it was still another tottering step forward in my astronomical adventures and one has to start somewhere. 
Just then the clouds closed in once more and ended my observations for the evening and I retired to the comfort of the living room. Whenever I feel like grumbling about the limitations of my present technology I remind myself that the pioneers of astronomy would have killed to have a telescope as good my much disparaged 76mm and that they made incredible discoveries and deductions using far more primitive instruments.

The first man known to have observed the Andromeda galaxy did not even have a telescope. Abd al-Rahman al-Sufi, known in the west as Azophi, was a Persian astronomer living in Isfahan during the Tenth Century. Having studied and augmented the works of Ptolemy, Al Sufi compiled his own Book of Fixed Stars, which was completed in 962 AD. Within it he describes a small cloud located within the constellation of Andromeda.

The Constellation of Andromeda as pictured in the
Bodleian Library's copy of Al Sufi's Book of Fixed Stars
It was not until 1612 that the Andromeda galaxy was observed by a European astronomer; Simon Marius, who is best known for infuriating Galileo by claiming to have observed the moons of Jupiter prior to Galileo’s own discovery which he announced in his seminal Sidereus Nuncius of 1610. Marius’ claim to have been the first was largely discredited but his re-discovery of Andromeda stands as his signal achievement.

Andromeda, designated M31, is flanked by two satellite dwarf galaxies. The first of these M32 was discovered by French astronomer Guillaume le Gentil , who was perhaps the unluckiest man in the history of astronomy.

Le Gentil set out in 1760 to observe the 1761 transit of Venus from Pondicherry, India. Prevented from reaching his destination by the outbreak of war between England and France, Le Gentil was at sea at the time of the transit and his efforts to observe it from the deck of the ship in rough weather were hopeless. Undeterred, he determined to wait for the next transit in eight years’ time. He spent the intervening years fruitfully, travelling the Indian Ocean on mapmaking expeditions, carrying out astronomical observations and recording details of flora and fauna. When the time came around for the next transit, Le Gentil returned to Pondicherry only to be thwarted once more by storm clouds. His frustration can only be imagined. When at last he returned to France he found that he had been given up for dead and his relatives were squabbling over his estate.

That is the fate that often awaits astronomers. I had gone more than ten thousand leagues; it seemed that I had crossed such a great expanse of seas, exiling myself from my native land, only to be the spectator of a fatal cloud which came to place itself before the Sun at the precise moment of my observation, to carry off from me the fruits of my pains and of my fatigue.
Guillaume le Gentil 1769

Caroline Herschel
The second satellite galaxy of Andromeda, designated M110, was discovered in 1783 by Caroline Herschel, sister of William, who through the course of assisting her more celebrated brother became an accomplished astronomer in her own right. Caroline blazed a trail by becoming the first woman to receive a state salary for undertaking scientific endeavours.  As she moved from under her brother’s shadow and began to make her own independent discoveries Caroline identified eight new comets as well as the galaxy M110. Following her brother’s death Caroline, who never married, returned to Germany and lived to the ripe old age of 97, receiving a gold medal from the King of Prussia for her scientific efforts.

I was interested to learn that the reason all deep sky objects are given a number with a prefix M, is due to one Charles Messier - 1730-1817 - another good innings! Messier was a prodigious hunter of comets, indeed he discovered thirteen of the things and to aid fellow comet hunters he helpfully created a catalogue of nebulous objects in the night's sky. It is for Messier therefore that M31 and all other nebulous celestial phenomena are so named. For his achievements Messier received the Legion d'Honeur. He is buried in Pere Lachaise cemetery.

Charles Messier

Andromeda’s beautiful spiral structure was first elucidated by Welsh astrophotography pioneer Isaac Roberts whose magnificent long exposure photograph appears at the top of this post. It was taken in 1888 by mounting a photographic plate in the prime focus position within his twenty inch telescope housed in a purpose built observatory at the bottom of his garden.

Roberts had shown the  Andromeda galaxy  in detail but it was still thought to be a nebula within the Milky Way rather than an entirely separate and far more distant galaxy. The debate was soon raging however as to whether  our own galaxy comprised the universe entire or whether it was just one of many galaxies in an infinitely larger ‘island universe’. In 1924 Edwin Hubble, by observing the Andromeda Galaxy through the 100 inch Hooker telescope at Mount Wilson Observatory, discovered the means to settle the argument once and for all.
The Hooker Telescope under construction

Hubble identified the presence of Cepheid variable stars within the Andromeda Galaxy, whose brightness varies over time in regular pulses. By measuring their pulsation periods, Hubble was able to calculate their luminosity since the two are relative. By comparing the observed and expected luminosities of the stars, Hubble was able to deduce their distance from the earth at some 900,000 light years. He thus demonstrated that they were so distant that they must lie outside of the Milky Way, the size of which had already been estimated at 100,000 light years.  Hubble had proved that the universe was comprised of many galaxies and was a bigger place than anyone had previously imagined. Indeed he underestimated in his calculations, for Andromeda is now known to be two million light years away.

And when I think about that I am definitely impressed to have seen it at all!

Al Sufi's Book of Fixed Stars
The ordeal of Guillaume le Gentil
Edwin Hubble
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