Monthly Archives: April 2021

This sketch was driving me nuts

I drew this sketch for The Die Is Cast Part IV. Pope Leo’s head was too far to the right. It made him look like he had really long arms. So I cut and pasted (the old fashioned way, with a razor blade and a piece of masking tape) his head a bit to the left and it made all the difference. I also redrew Charlemagne’s sleeve so his arm is more foreshortened. I must not have had my wits about me last week.

Here’s the old sketch:

Charlemagne is crowned Holy Roman Emperor on Christmas Day, ad 800

How do you run an empire once you have one?

What would you do if a handful of kingdoms—inhabited by tribes who fought with each other a lot—were thrown together and styled “The Holy Roman Empire” and you were put in charge? How would you get the empire up and running? Here are your main problems:

Communication. Each of those tribes is speaking some weird variation of Latin and other languages so they don’t understand each other too well. The economy. There’s been a constant, dreary, never-ending state of war for the past few centuries. Unless they sell swords, it’s been tough for regular shmoes to make a living. Farmers might sell their crops if (apart from the usual worry of late frost or early frost or too much rain or drought) a battalion of soldiers doesn’t march through your field. Banking, finance and the stock market haven’t been invented yet so wealth accumulation isn’t something that most serfs do. Culture. Forget about being a writer or an artist or a musician: those sensitive plants have been drafted into the army. Hardly anybody reads—even Charlemagne has to sound out the letters. Except for a few monks in monasteries, nobody writes. Architecture is mostly about fortifications. There may have been music but nobody wrote down any tunes. So, not much culture. Religion. Not every tribe in the Holy Roman Empire is Christian. Do we force those non-Christians to get with the program?

The Holy Roman Empire is a hot mess. Those countries have been conquered, all right, because Charlemagne came from a family that’s good at commanding a large military. He was great at it. But how was Charlemagne going to run this empire in peacetime?

What would you do?

Back to the beginning of The Western Civ User’s Guide to Reading & Writing.

The die is cast! Part IV

Charlemagne is crowned Holy Roman Emperor on Christmas Day, ad 800

(continued from the previous post) …in spite of the non-stop mayhem of Justinian’s rule he manages to achieve the ripe old age of 83 even surviving his beautiful young wife Theodora so the next emperor is his nephew Justin II then Tiberius then Maurice then Phocas who has Maurice and his whole family killed so you can guess Phocas is a pretty violent ruler and the eastern Byzantine Empire continues along the same lines for the next six or so centuries it’s run by despots and becomes a giant complicated overregulated corrupt slow-moving bureaucracy with a population attached so let’s switch back to the western half after all this is supposed to be a history of Western Civ okay since the 400s the Frankish Merovingian kings and Theodoric the Ostrogoth keep France, Italy, Germany & Spain running more or less the same way they had during the Empire one big unifying force is the Christian Church so as these kingdoms and duchies are turning into countries they have Christianity in common in France the Carolingian Dynasty gets started with Charles Martel who slaps down an Arab invasion next is his son Pepin and after him is Charlemagne—Pope Leo III crowns Charlemagne emperor of the Holy Roman Empire (as they’re calling themselves by now) from ad 800-814 Charlemagne rules over France, Spain, Italy, Germany, & Hungary and oversees a mini cultural renaissance (more about that in a minute)…

Whew! Time out. Let’s give Gibbon a rest here—after 4 Western-Lit-In-Only-One-Sentence ® posts of Decline & Fall it may be possible that I’m losing the room. My goal at any rate was to make the jump from the Roman Empire to the Middle Ages. So here we are! Mission accomplished, gang!

Back to the beginning of The Western Civ User’s Guide to Reading & Writing.

The die is cast! Part III

(I’m still giving Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of The Roman Empire my patented Western-Lit-In-Only-One-Sentence ® treatment! Continued from the previous post)

The Byzantine power couple: Justinian & Theodora (or maybe it’s Boris & Natasha, or Gomez & Morticia…)

…so even though Romulus Augustulus surrendered his crown to Odoacer the barbarian it doesn’t mean Odoacer’s the new emperor in the west because let’s face it: the western Empire is over, kaput, yesterday’s news, stick a fork in it—there’s no imperial law enforced by imperial military any longer so Odoacer is king of a handful of kingdoms that will one day become Italy and Dalmatia the Vandals take over the African parts of the old Empire the Huns are still pillaging villages and killing everyone, the Visigoths, Goths, Burgundians and Franks are duking it out over Gaul, in the British Isles the Celtic Britons (like King Arthur) are trying to keep out the Angles and the Saxons but the Saxons take over so the Celtic Britons head for the frontiers (what are today Scotland, Ireland, Wales, the Isle of Man, Cornwall and northern France), Visigoths take over Spain, the Lombards (long-beards!) conquer northern Italy then from 493-526 Theodoric the Ostrogoth reclaims a big chunk of the old western Empire by invading Italy then forming alliances with the Goths and Visigoths (during this time the philosopher Boethius is imprisoned and writes A Confederacy of Dunces*) meanwhile in the east we got Emperors Anastasius, Justin I, then in 482 Justin I’s nephew Justinian who more or less shares the throne with his wife the actress, Theodora (before Justinian it was illegal to marry actresses so good news for Hollywood) there’s violent rioting by sports fans who really really support their chariot race teams he builds a new beautiful cathedral, the Hagia Sophia, where an old one had burned down Justinian’s generals Belisarius and Narses fight the Persians, the Vandals in Africa, and the Moors Belisarius also gets back Sicily and Naples from the Goths—Rome too the Franks invade Italy and Belisarius fights them then fights the Persians in Syria Ethiopians ally with Justinian then the Goths revolt and re-recapture Rome until Narses beats them the Franks and Alemanni invade Italy again but get beat again Belisarius keeps out the Bulgarians there are comets and an earthquake a tsunami possibly a volcano whose smoke dimmed the Sun for awhile the bubonic plague famine Justinian codifies the Law everybody in the eastern half decides to speak only Greek except for the government who stick with Latin…**

* Please forgive my lame gag. Arianism—the heresy that says Jesus wasn’t really divine—had rattled Christianity and people were touchy about it. Boethius wrote using his knowledge of Greek philosophy and logic to explain the existence of G-d and the divinity of Christ. When he was (innocently) caught up in political intrigue, Boethius was imprisoned and later executed. While serving his sentence Boethius wrote his masterwork, The Consolation of Philosophy (which book is one character’s obsession in the zany novel A Confederacy of Dunces).

** Even by the standards of the other emperors Justinian seems to have a whole lot of war and mayhem going on—Procopius wrote about it in his tell-all biography:

Back to the beginning of The Western Civ User’s Guide to Reading & Writing.

The die is cast! Part II

(continued from our previous post)

The teen-aged emperor Romulus Augustulus surrenders the crown to Odoacer the barbarian

…so after Julian gets killed by the Persians the next emperor Jovian says okay let’s forgive & forget he also stops massacring Christians up next the 2 brothers Valentian I and Valens decide east is east and west is west they split up the Empire for good Valentian I gets the western half and fights the Alemanni, Burgundians, Saxons, Scots, Picts, Ostrogoths, Quadi and Sarmatians until he dies of a burst blood vessel (there was a lot of that going around) Valens gets the eastern half and fights the Huns, Goths, Vandals, Visigoths until he’s killed at the battle of Hadrianople then Valentian I’s son Gratian likes to step out dressed like a Scythian—Scythians, Tartars & Huns: tribes from the Asian steppes—and is assassinated by Maximus who wants to be emperor but is killed by Theodosius I the Great’s soldiers in battle in ad 388 Theodosius I the Great is a really great military leader who defeats all the barbarians and makes peace for awhile he keeps Maximus from killing Valentinian II, too and Christian doctrine is sorted out for instance Theodosius gets rid of Arianism (Arius said Jesus wasn’t divine) and says no more pagan idol-worshiping (saints & relics are okay, though) teen-aged Valentinian II takes over in the west but Arbogastes (a Frank) gives him the coup de grâce as soon as he’s old enough to drive next the usurper Eugenius steps up and Theodosius I’s soldiers kill him Theodosius I’s kid Arcadius is next up in the east but he’s weak sauce and Arcadius’ cabinet runs the show meanwhile in the west Theodosius I’s other kid sleepy Honorius is emperor but General Stilicho has the military power he fights Alaric & his Goths, Vandals, Suevi, Alani and Burgundians but he’s disgraced & executed in 408 the wheels are beginning to come off the Roman Empire: there’s plague, Alaric the Goth sacks Rome and after Alaric dies Honorius makes a treaty with Adolphus who marries Honorius’ sister Placidia there are revolts in Spain and Gaul; the Suevi and Vandals invade Spain; Adolphus gets assassinated; the Merovingian kings start getting Burgundians, Franks and Goths on the same page in Gaul; then everybody in Britain revolts so they’re left to themselves until the Saxons invade ‘em but before that happens Honorius drops dead of dropsy in 423 some guy named John usurps the western throne for 3 years then Placidia’s kid Valentinian III is up even though he’s a kid so Placidia runs things the generals squabble and bicker and there’s a lot of fighting each other as well as fighting the barbarians so Attila the Hun invades Persia, then Gaul, then Italy but dies of a burst blood vessel in 453 (I’m telling you, dying of burst blood vessels was a thing) Valentinian III murders his general Aetius then he gets fresh with Mrs Maximus so Maximus kills him in ad 455 (different Maximus from Theodosius I’s Maximus who was killed in 388), Arcadius’ kid Theodosius II rules the eastern half for a couple of years then his brother-in-law Marcian, on the western side we got Maximus who got fresh with the widowed empress Eudoxia so she got some Vandals to throw rocks at him and he’s killed after that the Vandals sack Rome then Avitus is emperor for a bit then deposed Theodoric II beats the Suevi in Spain then Marjorian takes over in ad 457 after him comes Severus but Ricimer is the real boss after him Anthemius who tried to beat the Vandals but he couldn’t close the deal so Rome is sacked by Ricimer and Anthemius gets killed next up Olybrius then Ricimer dies then Julian Nepos who is assassinated, then Glycerius, finally teen-aged Romulus Augustulus in ad 476—and it’s the end of the Western Roman Empire when he surrenders his crown to Odoacer the barbarian…

Back to the beginning of The Western Civ User’s Guide to Reading & Writing.

The die is cast!

It’s time once again! The moment you were all hoping for: Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of The Roman Empire is getting my patented Western-Lit-In-Only-One-Sentence ® treatment. I’ll try to do it all at once without fainting from oxygen deprivation. Hang onto your laurel wreath tiaras ‘cause here we go:

Julius is a Roman general who is really good at coming at, seeing and conquering everybody he has a big army who likes him so he thinks “Hey, why not conquer Rome?” they cross the Rubicon River and after that there’s no turning back the Republic is over, baby he uses his army to take over Rome and run the whole show until he’s assassinated by some senators then it’s civil war between Marc Antony and Julius’ nephew Augustus—Augustus wins and becomes Rome’s first emperor then his stepson Tiberius who is a good general takes over but he’s pretty gloomy then it’s Caligula who tries to appoint his horse to be a consul but the army kills him then Claudius who walks with a limp and has a show on PBS next up is Nero who fiddles while Rome burns and blames the fire on the Christians Nero kills himself so another civil war and there are 4 emperors in one year: Galba, Vitellius, Otho and last is Vespasian who sticks around for 10 years then his son Titus takes over for 2 years and Titus’ brother Domitian for 15 years then there is Nerva then Trajan who has a column with some nice lettering and Hadrian who builds a wall in England to keep the Picts out Gibbon really liked Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius Antoninus but Marcus’ son Commodus is a nutjob who likes to play gladiator (Russell Crowe had to fight him in the movie) then there were 5 emperors in one year the fifth one Septimus Severus had an 18-year term his son Caracalla was in for 6 years until he was murdered after him I can quote in elegaics all the crimes of Heliogabalus who is murdered then his cousin Alexander Severus (assassinated) after him for 3 years Maximinus of Thrace so he celebrated his coronation anniversary thrice then is assassinated and Gordian III is assassinated who’s next? Phillip who is killed in battle and then Decius who is killed in battle just for laughs let’s remember the old empires run by the Assyrians, Medes Babylonians, then Persians okay back to ad 251: Gallus is around for 2 years, there’s a civil war then Valerian rules from the eastern half then his son Gallienus rules from the west again Claudius II keeps the Goths out but dies of the plague Aurelian defeats just about all of Rome’s enemies but he’s cruel and gets assassinated then for 9 years we get in quick succession Tacitus, Probus, Carus, Carinus, Numerian who are all killed by their own soldiers then Diocletian says “This place is pretty big, maybe we should have 3 emperors at the same time” so he and Maximian, Galerius & Constantius Chlorus then Severus, Maximinus Daia, Constantine, Maxentius, Licinius try to work out a tetrarchy but there’s more civil war until Constantine the Great takes over he changes Byzantium to Constantinople and converts to Christianity, makes it okay to worship Jesus and sets up a lot of Christian doctrine but, oh! his kids: Constantine (slain), Constans (murdered), Constantius II (persecuted and exiled), Magnentius (suicide) and Vetranio meanwhile there’s a war in Persia and another civil war, Sarmatian and Quadian wars, Sapor invades Mesopotamia, Germans invade Gaul and the Greek and Latin churches start arguing Constantine’s nephew Gallus is executed by Constantius II and nephew Julian massacres Christians, invades Assyria and Mesopotamia, is killed by the Persians…

(whew—give me a second—just need to catch my breath—pant-pant)

Back to the beginning of The Western Civ User’s Guide to Reading & Writing.