King Chlothar and his wives

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The king [Chlothar]1 had seven sons by several wives; namely, by Ingund, Gunthar, Childeric, Charibert, Gunthram, Sigibert, and a daughter Chlodoswintha; by Aregund, sister of Ingund, Chilperic; and by Chunsina he had Chramn. I will tell you why it was he married his wife’s sister. While he was married to Ingund and loved her alone, he received a suggestion from her saying: “My lord has done with his slave-girl what he pleased and has admitted me to his bed. Now let my lord the king hear what his handmaiden would suggest to make his favour complete. I beg that you consent to find a husband for my sister, your servant, a man of dignity and wealth, so that I shall not be humiliated but rather exalted and shall be able to serve you more faithfully.” As soon as he heard this, because he was licentious beyond all measure, he began to love Aregund and went to the estate on which she was living and married her himself. Having done this he returned to Ingund and said: “I have accomplished the favour which your sweet self asked of me. I looked for a man of riches and wisdom to unite to your sister. I found no one better than myself. And so allow me to tell you that I have married her, which I think will not displease you.” And she replied; “Let my Lord do what seems good in his eyes; only let his handmaid live in favour with the king.”

Gregory of Tours, History of the Franks, 4. 3

Translation based on Earnest Brehaut [1916]

1 c. 497 – 29 November 561, King of the Franks

Queen Fredegund and Princess Rigunth have an argument

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Chilperic I and Fredegund

Rigunth1, daughter of Chilperic2, often made malicious charges against her mother [Fredegund]3 and said that she was the mistress and that her mother should pay her homage, and she continuously attacked her with abuse and provocation. Sometimes they would strike each other with slaps and punches. Her mother said to her: “Why are you so troublesome to me, daughter? Look, here are your father’s things that I have. Take and do with them as you like.” And she went into the treasury and opened a chest quite full of necklaces and costly jewels. For a long time she took them out one by one and handed them to her daughter but finally said: “I am tired; you put in your hand and take what you find.” And when she thrust in her arm and was taking things from the chest, her mother seized the lid and slammed it down on her neck. And she was holding it down with such force that the lower board was crushing her daughter’s gullet so that her eyes were actually ready to pop out when one of the maids who was within called loudly: “Run, I beg you, run; my mistress is being choked to death by her mother.” And those who were awaiting their coming outside rushed into the little room and saved the girl from imminent death and led her out. After that their hostility became even more vehement and they were always brawling and hitting each other, above all because of Rigunth’s constant sleeping around.

Gregory of Tours, History of the Franks 9. 34

Translation based on Earnest Brehaut [1916]

1 c. 570 – after 585.

2 Chilperic I (c. 539 – September 584), king of Neustria.

3 Concubine and then wife of Chilperic (d. 597)

Natural wonders, but no chickens

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8. ext. 12. Well, don’t you have to believe that nature plays tricks on human bodies? People can tolerate these tricks because they are not exactly ferocious ones, but they must also be counted as miracles. Take for example the son of King Prusias of Bithynia, who had the same name as his father.1 Instead of an upper row of teeth, he had one single bone that came down the same length all around. It was not so ugly to look at, and it was not at all awkward for him to use it.

8. ext. 13. On the other hand, Drypetine, the daughter of King Mithridates and Queen Laodice, looked very ugly because of her double row of teeth.2 She joined her father in exile when he was defeated by Pompey.3

8. ext. 14. A man had eyes that were quite amazing. It is a definite fact that he had very sharp eyesight and that he could even see the Carthaginian ships setting sail if he looked out from the harbour of Lilybaeum.4

8. ext. 15. The heart of Aristomenes of Messenia was even more amazing than the eyes of that man.5 Aristomenes had often been captured and then escaped through trickery, but the Athenians finally got him. Intrigued by his exceptional intelligence, they cut open his heart, and discovered that it was full of hairs.6

8. ext. 16. The poet Antipater of Sidon caught a fever every year on one day only – his birthday.7 When he reached the end of his days, he was finished off on his birthday by this illness, which attacked him at its usual time.

8. ext. 17. It is a good place to tell the story of the philosophers, Polystratus and Hippoclides.8 They were born on the same day, followed the same philosophical school founded by Epicurus,9 shared the fortunes they had inherited, set up a school together, and when they had reached a ripe old age, died at the same time. Who could avoid thinking that this great equal partnership in fortune and in friendship was produced, nourished, and brought to completion in the bosom of the goddess Concord herself?

Valerius Maximus, Memorable Deeds and Sayings; One Thousand Tales from Ancient Rome, trans. Henry John Walker, Hackett Publishing: 2004, p. 41.

1Prusias Monodous (“one-toothed”) was the son of Prusias II (king of Bithynia from 181-149 B.C.E.).

2Mithridates VI was king of Pontus from 120 to 63 B.C.E.

3Mithridates VI was defeated by Pompey in 66 B.C.E. and had to flee from his kingdom. Drypetine died on the journey.

4Lilybaeum was on the west coast of Sicily and over 100 miles from Carthage in north Africa.

5Aristomenes was the hero of the Messenian rebellion against Sparta in the first half of the seventh century B.C.E.

6Aristomenes was captured and killed by the Spartans, not the Athenians.

7Antipater of Sidon (in Phoenicia) wrote Greek epigrams in the second century B.C.E.

8Polystratus was an Epicurean philospher of the third century B.C.E. He was the third head of the Epicurean School.

9Epicurus founded his philosophical school in Athens in 306 B.C.E.

More chickens

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Papirius Cursor was Consul in 293 B.C.E.

That was a story of intelligence, shown in the courtroom; the next one will be a story of intelligence shown in a military campaign. When the consul Papirius Cursor was attacking Aquilonia and wanted to engage the enemy in battle, the priest in charge of the sacred chickens told him that the auspices were excellent, though the sacred birds were not in fact favourable. Papirius found out about the priest’s deception, but he felt confident because a good omen had been given to himself and the army, so he started to do battle. But he stationed the lying priest in front of the battle line so that if the gods were angry, they would have someone on whom to wreak their vengeance.

By chance, or perhaps by the providence of some god in heaven, the first spear sent from the opposing army was aimed at the chest of the priest in charge of the sacred chickens, and it knocked him to the ground, lifeless. When the consul discovered this, he attacked Aquilonia with complete confidence and captured it. 1

1Valerius Maximus, Memorable Deeds and Sayings; One Thousand Tales from Ancient Rome, trans. Henry John Walker, Hackett Publishing: 2004, p. 237-238.

The Sacred Chickens

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Publius Claudius Pulcher was a Roman General. In 249 B.C.E. he had command, as Consul, of the Roman fleet during the First Punic War. Before the great naval battle of Drepana, he had to take the auspices, i.e. check whether the omens were good, as was the custom. This was to be accomplished by observing the eating habits of the sacred chickens they had onboard. If the chickens ate the grain that was given them, the omens were good, if the chickens did not, well… you get the idea. Here’s what happened:

[Story as recorded by Julius Paris:]

Claudius wanted to fight a naval battle, and he asked for the auspices in the traditional way of our forefathers. When the man in charge of the sacred chickens replied that they were not coming out of their cage, Claudius ordered them to be thrown into the sea, saying “Since they do not want to eat, let them drink!”1

And what happened with the battle, I hear you ask.

He lost the entire fleet.

1Valerius Maximus, Memorable Deeds and Sayings; One Thousand Tales from Ancient Rome, trans. Henry John Walker, Hackett Publishing: 2004, p. 15.

Life is stranger than fiction

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So goes the wise saying and here is a collection – which I will continue to add to – of excerpts from historical sources that I find funny, entertaining, outright bizarre, or just simply bloody good stories. Stories that have happened and no one has made up. The idea for this came to me as I was reading Appian’s Civil Wars the other day, desperate for inspiration for a plot of my own that has ground to a bogged-down, unmoving halt for months on end– as plots tend to do, and anyone who has ever attempted to come up with one will happily confirm – and, despite coming up with no brilliant ideas of my own, found myself thoroughly entertained, for hours on end with my reading, in a mind-boggled sort of way.

Of course, the Civil Wars in their entirety are somewhat on the long side, and the circumstances surrounding them so complex and convoluted that I haven’t yet worked out which, if any, excerpt from them I can possibly separate from the rest and post here. So, until I work that one out – if in fact I manage to do so – we’ll start with something else. Something I can lift out of context and still do it justice.