October 17

401 BC  Xenophon sneezes

If anyone tries to tell you that the ancient Greeks were a people governed by reason and that rationality fled the world when Christianity began to dominate western civilization, refer them to the events described here by Xenophon in his Anabasis.

Xenophon, a young aristocratic Athenian and student of Socrates, joined a Spartan-led army in the pay of the Persian prince Cyrus the Younger who was attempting to seize the throne from his brother Artaxerxes II. When that attempt failed with the death of Cyrus and the murder of the Greek generals, Xenophon urged his fellow mercenaries to fight their way home rather than submit to the humiliating and dangerous terms offered by the Persians.

Xenophon in particular, having armed himself with a splendor becoming his present rank, endeavored to inspire sentiments of honor; and fortunately the favorable omen of sternutation occurred in the midst of his speech; on which the soldiers, all with one accord, worshipped Jupiter the Preserver, from whom the omen was reputed to proceed; and Xenophon breaking off his harangue, proposed a sacrifice to the god, desiring those who approved of the motion to hold up their hands: the show of hands being unanimous, the sacrifice was formally vowed, and a hymn sung; after which he resumed his discourse, and at great length set before the army, now full of hope and cheerfulness, the system which they must adopt to insure a safe and honorable return to their native country.

Thus, an inadvertent sneeze was perceived as having been sent from the gods, and was taken as an omen which helped Xenophon persuade the Greeks to follow his proposals. It should also be noted that when Xenophon had asked Socrates whether he should agree to serve against Artaxerxes, the philosopher did not use reasoned argument  to come to a conclusion but recommended that his student consult the oracle at Delphi.




October 16

1854 Birth of Oscar Wilde

The Irish playwright and novelist Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde was born on this date to a prosperous upper-middle class family in Dublin. After a brilliant apprenticeship at Oxford, Wilde launched himself into London society, becoming  famous for his wit and barbed attacks on social conventions.

Though a loving father and husband, Wilde entered the demimonde of gay culture, taking his pleasure with lower-class boys and the corrupt son of aristocrats. These associations brought him down, robbed of his place in society and sentenced to two years hard labour in Reading Gaol. In De Profundis Wilde describes the humiliation of his journey to prison:

Everything about my tragedy has been hideous, mean, repellent, lacking in style; our very dress makes us grotesque. We are the zanies of sorrow. We are clowns whose hearts are broken. We are specially designed to appeal to the sense of humour. On November 13th, 1895, I was brought down here from London. From two o’clock till half-past two on that day I had to stand on the centre platform of Clapham Junction in convict dress, and handcuffed, for the world to look at. I had been taken out of the hospital ward without a moment’s notice being given to me. Of all possible objects I was the most grotesque. When people saw me they laughed. Each train as it came up swelled the audience. Nothing could exceed their amusement. That was, of course, before they knew who I was. As soon as they had been informed they laughed still more. For half an hour I stood there in the grey November rain surrounded by a jeering mob.

For a year after that was done to me I wept every day at the same hour and for the same space of time. That is not such a tragic thing as possibly it sounds to you. To those who are in prison tears are a part of every day’s experience. A day in prison on which one does not weep is a day on which one’s heart is hard, not a day on which one’s heart is happy. 

October 15



Birth of P.G. Wodehouse

The greatest 20th-century wordsmith at work in the English language was Sir Pelham Grenville Wodehouse. Stand aside, Hemingway, Joyce, Nabokov and Churchill, you are as but tykes, tyros or tots in the shadow of P.G. Wodehouse.

After a brief stint as a banker, Wodehouse tried his hand at writing fiction in 1900 and never looked back. He became an enormously successful playwright on Broadway, and a screenwriter in the Golden Age of Hollywood, but his lasting fame and fortune came with writing short stories and novels of a comic nature. He became the creator of the Jeeves and Wooster saga, the chronicler of the strange deeds done at Blandings Castle, and the observer of that stylish member of the Drones Club, Psmith (the “p” is silent, as in “pshrimp”).

Consider these sentences:

The Right Hon. was a tubby little chap who looked as if he had been poured into his clothes and had forgotten to say “When!”
It is a good rule in life never to apologize. The right sort of people do not want apologies, and the wrong sort take a mean advantage of them.
I could see that, if not actually disgruntled, he was far from being gruntled.
There is only one cure for gray hair. It was invented by a Frenchman. It is called the guillotine.
Unseen in the background, Fate was quietly slipping lead into the boxing-glove.
And she’s got brains enough for two, which is the exact quantity the girl who marries you will need.
It was my Uncle George who discovered that alcohol was a food well in advance of modern medical thought.
I once got engaged to his daughter Honoria, a ghastly dynamic exhibit who read Nietzsche and had a laugh like waves breaking on a stern and rockbound coast.
Honoria, you see, is one of those robust, dynamic girls with the muscles of a welterweight and a laugh like a squadron of cavalry charging over a tin bridge.
Nature, when planning this sterling fellow, shoved in a lot more lower jaw than was absolutely necessary and made the eyes a bit too keen and piercing for one who was neither an Empire builder nor a traffic policeman.

October 14


Pope Saint Callixtus I

There have been three popes who started off as slaves and Callixtus (d. c. 223) was the third of them. If that wasn’t a bad start to a papal career, consider that Callixtus was also condemned (probably unfairly) for embezzlement and sentenced to a life term in the mines of Sardinia. Fortunately for him, the favourite mistress of the murderous emperor Commodus (the bad guy in the movie Gladiator) was a Christian and secured his release.

After leaving the mines, Callixtus was given a pension by the pope and then a series of church positions, becoming the superintendent of the Christian cemetery just outside of Rome, still known to this day as the Catacombs of Callixtus. By 218, he had rehabilitated his reputation enough that he was elected pope. His gentle spirit and love of forgiveness made him a number of enemies who would have preferred a harsher line toward repentant sinners or schismatics rejoining the Church. Tertullian wrote against his decision to readmit to communion those fornicators or murderers who had repented. Hippolytus denounced him as a heretic and had himself elected as the first anti-pope. Legend has it that Callixtus was martyred in 223 by being thrown down a well.

October 13

St Edward the Confessor

The sort of demands placed on kingship means that very few national rulers are ever recognized as saints. The French have St Louis IX; Hungarians have Stephen; Russia has the feckless Nicholas II, who got the title only by virtue of being murdered by Bolsheviks; and England has the very peculiar Edward the Confessor.

Edward (c. 1003-66) was the son of Ethelred the Unready and Emma, the daughter of the Duke of Normandy, born at a time when the Anglo-Saxon monarchy was crumbling before the last onslaught of Viking invaders. When Sweyn Forkbeard landed in England with a Danish army, Emma and her children fled to Normandy. After a brief civil war and the death of Ethelred, Emma married Sweyn’s son Cnut and became Queen of England a second time but Edward remained in Normandy where he was brought up as a pious Catholic. He attempted to return to England in 1036 but the murder of his brother made him return to safety in Norman territory.

In 1042, after more civil war and deaths of rival claimants, Edward became the unchallenged king in England. Having spent most of his life abroad, he was unfamiliar with his new realm and had to contend with powerful earls, particularly the ambitious Godwin of Wessex with his brood of even more ambitious sons. In 1045 Edward married Godwin’s daughter Edith; though historians disagree over whether this was a chaste marriage, it produced no children. Gradually, Godwin, and then his son Harold, came to dominate English politics and Edward seems to withdrawn from such affairs, preferring to spend his time in hunting and religious devotions. He was also involved in the construction of Westminster Abbey whose architecture broke with local methods and introduced a Norman form of Romanesque style to England; it is where all English kings have been crowned since the death of Edward, who is buried there.

Childless Edward seems to have left conflicting wishes about who would succeed him, creating disastrous consequences for his country. Harald Hardrada of Norway, Harold Godwinson and William of Normandy all claimed the throne after Edward’s death in 1066. The Battle of Stamford Bridge eliminated Hardrada and William’s victory at the subsequent Battle of Hastings ended Anglo-Saxon rule and saw the beginning of the Norman ascendancy.

On 13 October, 1269 Edward’s relics were moved (or “translated”) to a new shrine in the Abbey. This date is regarded as his feast day, and each October the Abbey holds a week of festivities and prayer in his honour.

October 12


1799 Jeanne Geneviève Garnerin takes a pioneering jump

Late in the 18th century, the French were fascinated by the globe aérostatiquehot-air ballooning. Since the Montgolfier brothers made the first ascent in 1783, the possibilities for air travel — military, commercial, recreational — tickled the French imagination. Women were among the first passengers and in 1799 Jeanne Geneviève Garnerin (neé Labrosse) became the first woman to fly solo and pilot a lighter-than-air craft when she took a hydrogen balloon aloft.

Mme Garnerin was made of very brave stuff. Her husband André-Jacques Garnerin, who would be named the Official Aeronaut of France, had been the first to jump from a balloon and survive with the aid of a parachute. On October 12, 1799 Jeanne Geneviève took a balloon to an altitude of 900 meters and separated her basket from the balloon, controlling her descent with an attached parachute — the first woman to do so. They later filed a patent for  “a device called a parachute, intended to slow the fall of the basket after the balloon bursts. Its vital organs are a cap of cloth supporting the basket and a circle of wood beneath and outside of the parachute and used to hold it open while climbing: it must perform its task at the moment of separation from the balloon, by maintaining a column of air.”

October 11

Barabino, Nicolo; The Death of Pope Boniface VIII; The Collection: Art & Archaeology in Lincolnshire (Usher Gallery); http://www.artuk.org/artworks/the-death-of-pope-boniface-viii-81675

1303 Death of an ambitious pope

Since the middle of the eleventh century, popes had been asserting their power over secular rulers. They claimed that the spiritual authority ordained by God held precedence over mere earthly power. They had deposed kings and emperors and named substitute rulers; they had precipitated civil wars; claimed dominion over entire kingdoms and excommunicated princes right, left and centre. By 1300 they had gutted the power of their chief rival, the Holy Roman Emperor, and begun to quarrel with the new centralized monarchies of western Europe.

Benedetto Caetani, elected Pope Boniface VIII in dubious fashion in 1294, had twice forbidden the kings of England and France from taxing the Church in their countries. The King of France Philip IV “the Fair” responded by cutting off money from the French church to the papacy. Boniface replied by hinting that he might exercise his right of deposing Philip who immediately began a campaign of vilification of the pope including circulating forged documents.

This led Boniface on November 17, 1302 to issue the proclamation Unam Sanctam, which asserted the doctrine of papal monarchy in the most uncompromising terms ever. He asserted (1) there is but one true Church, outside of which there is no salvation; (2) that head is Christ and His representative, the pope who is above, and can direct, all kings; (3) whoever resists the highest power ordained by God resists Himself; and (5) it is necessary for salvation that all humans should be subject to the Roman Pontiff.

Philip the Fair now summoned a kingdom-wide assembly, and before it he accused Boniface of every imaginable crime from murder to black magic to sodomy to keeping a demon as a pet. A small French military force crossed into Italy in 1303 and took Boniface prisoner at his palace at Anagni with the intention of bringing him to France for trial. The French plan failed—local townspeople freed Boniface a couple of days later—but the proud old pope died shortly thereafter, outraged that anyone had dared to lay hands on his sacred person.

This marks the beginning of the waning of medieval papal power. In 1305 the cardinals elected the Frenchman Clement V who submitted to the French king on the question of clerical taxation and publicly burned Unam Sanctam, conceding that Philip the Fair, in accusing Pope Boniface, had shown “praiseworthy zeal.” A few years after his election, Clement moved the papacy from Rome to Avignon in southern France, the start of the period of papal humiliation known as “The Babylonian Captivity”

October 10

680 The Battle of Karbala

Though relatively bloodless, few combats in Islamic history have been as consequential as the Battle of Karbala.

When Mohammed died in 632, rulership of the Muslim world fell to a series of four caliphs or “successors”: Abu-Bakr, Mohammed’s father-in-law, Umar, Uthman and Ali, Mohammed’s cousin and son-in-law. The turbulence of the time may be seen in the fact that the last three were all assassinated. At the death of Ali in 661, the succession was disputed with a regional governor named Muawiyah winning more support than Ali’s oldest son Hasan. Muawiyah would establish a new dynasty, the Umayyads, and move the capital of the Islamic world from Mecca to Damascus.

Resistance to this new caliphate was led by Husayn, Ali’s second son, whose followers came to be known as Shi’ites. Husayn claimed that in establishing a dynasty the Umayyads had forfeited their right to rule. On October 10, 680 Husayn’s caravan was attacked by Umayyad forces and everyone in it killed or taken prisoner.  This Battle of Karbala became part of Shi’ite sacred history, inspiring further resistance and engendering the annual Ashura period of mourning. The split in the Islamic world between the majority Sunni and minority Shia branches remains unhealed to this day.

October 9


Given the recent events in Afghanistan and the supposed appearance of a newer and more modern Taliban 2.0, I present this post from last year.

2012 Attempted murder of Malala Yousafzai

The Taliban group of Afghani Islamists arose out of their country’s war against the occupying Soviet army and subsequent struggles against rival rebel groups. Their strict interpretation of Muslim law (combined with Pashtun tribal codes) was enforced when the group took power and ruled Afghanistan from 1996-2001. Banned were modern democracy, women’s rights, music, popular entertainments, television and the internet. The Taliban might well have consolidated power and ruled for a long time, if they had not chosen to let the country be used by jihadist groups conducting anti-western terrorism. One of these groups was al-Qaeda.

In September, 2001 an al-Qaeda operation against the United States attacked New York and Washington, killing almost 3,000 people. The Taliban expected the U.S. to retaliate but expected that they could weather the cruise missiles and air strikes that were anticipated. They refused American demands to hand over the leadership of al-Qaeda and close terrorist training camps. On October 7, 2001 a western coalition attacked Afghanistan and soon drove the Taliban from power, with its cadres fleeing across the border to Pakistan whose government unofficially sheltered them. Since then they have attempted to retake Afghanistan and have conducted a long guerrilla war against the new Afghani government and western military forces.

In the areas the Taliban occupied they opposed education for girls and destroyed over a hundred schools that had taken in female students. One such girl student was 11-year-old Malala Yousafzai, whose father had long supported education for every child. Malala and her father agreed to cooperate with the BBC in publicizing the plight of girls under the Taliban; she wrote a blog, appeared on television and petitioned foreigners to help her cause, becoming along the way famous for her precocious opposition to the Taliban. Death threats were made against the family, quite realistic ones in light of the fact that the Taliban had decided to kill her. On October 9, 2012 a gunman boarded a school bus on which she was riding and shot her, hitting her in the brain and wounding two other girls. Malala was transferred to Germany and later to Britain where surgeons repaired the damage and allowed her to resume her campaigns.

The assassination attempt backfired in that it made of a hero of Malala who went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize. She continues to be an advocate for the education of girls and peace in her homeland.

October 8


Don Larsen’s Perfect Game

It was the fifth game of the 1956 World Series, between the New York Yankees and the Brooklyn Dodgers, with both teams having won two games. Yankee Stadium was crammed with 64,519 spectators, watching Brooklyn’s Sal “The Barber” Maglie on the mound for the Bums and Don Larsen pitching for the Bronx Bombers. Maglie had earned his nickname because his high and inside fastballs gave batters a close shave; Larsen was having his best year, with an 11-5 record and a 3.26 ERA.

The Yankee lineup was full of stars such as Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, Enos Slaughter, and Billy Martin – but the Dodgers’ lineup was equally stellar: Jim Gilliam leading off, followed by four future Hall of Famers in Peewee Reese, Duke Snider, Jackie Robinson and Roy Campanella. On this day in 1956 not one of the Brooklynites was able to get a hit; none of them reached base on a walk or an error. Using only 97 pitches, and shunning a windup, Don Larsen retired 27 Dodgers in a row, thus pitching the first, and only, perfect game in World Series history.

Listen to Vin Scully call the last pitch of the game: