January 17



395 A bad day for the Roman Empire

The death of the Roman emperor Theodosius I (347-395) meant the permanent separation of the eastern and western halves of the realm and his succession by a pair of nitwit sons unable to deal with the barbarian incursions.

Theodosius was a general and politician who emerged as emperor out of the civil wars that followed the death of Valens who died in 378 battling the Visigoths. His reign was extremely consequential. On the positive side he summoned the First Council of Constantinople which established Trinitarian orthodoxy; he suppressed pagan sacrifices, gladiatorial games, child slavery, and the Olympic Games. His massacre of civilians in Thessalonika led to his excommunication by Ambrose, Bishop of Milan. Theodosius was forced (above) to repent and beg forgiveness before being allowed the sacraments, an act which clergy over the centuries used as an example of the supremacy of the Church over the State.

His death in 395 led to the empire being split between incompetent sons, Honorius in the West and Arcadius in the East.

December 27


1911 The first performance of the Indian national anthem

Written in Bengali by Nobel Prize winning poet Rabindranath Tagore, the song  “Jana Gana Mana” was first sung at a meeting of the Indian National Congress. After independence, it was adopted as the Indian national anthem. In English the first verse proclaims:

Thou art the rulers of the minds of all people,

Dispenser of India’s destiny.

Thy name rouses the hearts of Punjab, Sindh , Gujarat and Maratha,

Of the Dravida and Orissa and Bengal;

It echoes in the hills of the Vindhyas and Himalayas,

mingles in the music of Yamuna and Ganga and is chanted by

the waves of the Indian Sea.

They pray for the blessing and sing thy praise.

The saving of all people waits in the hand,

thou dispenser of India’s destiny,

Victory, victory, victory to thee.

December 26



The largest mass execution in American history

In the summer of 1862, a number of Sioux tribes in Minnesota and the Dakota Territory rose up in a violent protest against their mistreatment by American government agents. Encroaching settlements had reduced their ability to hunt for food and promised supplies did not arrive, leaving the natives starving. On August 17, a hunting party of Sioux massacred 5 settlers, an act which encouraged a Dakota war council under Little Crow to sanction an all-out war which they hoped would drive the white man from their territory. Indian agencies were attacked, farm families were killed, detachments of troops were defeated and a number of towns were burnt to the ground. Trade on the Red River between Winnipeg and St Paul was halted and travel on the roads became too dangerous.

Because the United States was deeply involved in the Civil War, Washington was slow to send reinforcements to the area but when they arrived their numbers and firepower proved overwhelming. Bit by bit the tribes’ war-making capacity was reduced and though fighting would continue farther west, the majority of Sioux had surrendered by late September. Hundreds of their men were subjected to a far-too-speedy and ruthless trial; 303 were convicted of murder and rape and sentenced to death.

Henry Whipple, the Episcopal bishop in Minnesota, travelled to Washington to appeal for clemency but feeling among whites in the state was all for the execution of the Sioux. Politicians and generals warned that if mercy were granted, private vengeance might be the result. Abraham Lincoln personally helped whittle down the list to 38 who seemed most guilty. These men were executed at Mankato on a single gallows platform on December 26, 1862.

December 25

Some interesting folk beliefs about Christmas:

From a curious old song preserved in the Harleian Manuscripts in the British Museum, we learn that it was thought peculiarly lucky when Christmas-day fell on a Sunday, and the reverse when it occurred on a Saturday. 

Lordinges, I warne you al beforne,
Yef that day that Cryste was borne,
Falle uppon a Sunday;
That wynter shall be good par fay,
But grete wyndes alofte shalbe,
The somer shall be fayre and drye;
By kynde skylle, wythowtyn lesse,
Throw all londes shalbe peas,
And good tyme all thyngs to don,
But he that stelyth he shalbe fownde sone;
Whate chylde that day borne be,
A great lord he shalbe.

If Crystmas on the Saterday falle,
That wynter ys to be dredden alle,
Hyt shalbe so fulle of grete tempeste
That hyt shall sle bothe man and beste,
Frute and corn shal fayle grete won,
And olde folke dyen many on;

Whate woman that day of chylde travayle
They shalbe borne in grete perelle
And chyldren that be borne that day,
Within half a yere they shall dye par fay,
The summer then shall wete ryghte ylle:
If thou awght stele, hyt shel the spylle;
Thou dyest, yf sekenes take the.’

December 19


1675 The Great Swamp Fight

It was inevitable that the arrival of European colonists on the shores of North America would result in warfare. Though relations between natives and colonists could be peaceful and local treaties made, the expansive nature of European settlement would assuredly pit the peoples against each other in violence.

In 1675, a vicious conflict known as King Philip’s War was raging in New England. King Philip was the English name given Metacomet, the chief of the Pokanoket tribe, who had built a coalition of various native tribes, who began attacking settlements in Connecticut and Massachusetts. The war would prove the deadliest threat ever faced by colonies on the eastern seaboard. Twelve towns would be over-run by the tribesmen and a tenth of the male population killed in battle.

Though the Narragansett tribe had declared themselves neutral and retreated to a fort in the middle of a swamp near Kingston, Rhode Island, their warriors had attacked a nearby colonial garrison, killing at least 15 people. On December 19th, a colonial army and its native allies attacked the over 1,000 Narragansetts at the fort. Over 300 were killed  and over 150 militia men were killed or wounded. The Great Swamp Battle was a crucial turning point in the war. Before too long the chief of the Narragansetts and King Philip himself had been killed. The war lasted until 1678, after which tribal threats to the colonies severely diminished.

December 4



1783 George Washington bids farewell to his officers

By 1783 the American War of Independence had been won and the military services of George Washington were no longer required. There was talk of him seizing power in a coup but he put down an army plot and resolved to return to civilian life.

After a seafood dinner in Fraunces Tavern in New York, Washington took his parting from the men he had served with. Colonel Benjamin Tallmadge wrote his account in 1830:

The time now drew near when General Washington intended to leave this part of the country for his beloved retreat at Mt. Vernon. On Tuesday the 4th of December it was made known to the officers then in New York that General Washington intended to commence his journey on that day. 

At 12 o’clock the officers repaired to Fraunces Tavern in Pearl Street where General Washington had appointed to meet them and to take his final leave of them. We had been assembled but a few moments when his Excellency entered the room. His emotions were too strong to be concealed which seemed to be reciprocated by every officer present. 

After partaking of a slight refreshment in almost breathless silence the General filled his glass with wine and turning to the officers said, “With a heart full of love and gratitude I now take leave of you. I most devoutly wish that your latter days may be as prosperous and happy as your former ones have been glorious and honorable.”

After the officers had taken a glass of wine General Washington said, ‘”I cannot come to each of you but shall feel obliged if each of you will come and take me by the hand.”

General Knox being nearest to him turned to the Commander-in-chief who, suffused in tears, was incapable of utterance but grasped his hand when they embraced each other in silence. In the same affectionate manner every officer in the room marched up and parted with his general in chief. Such a scene of sorrow and weeping I had never before witnessed and fondly hope I may never be called to witness again.

December 3


The birth of Bayezid II

In 1453, Mehmet the Conqueror took Constantinople for the Ottoman Turks, thus ending the Christian Roman Empire. Mehmet spent the rest of his life consolidating his gains by expanding into Europe and turning Constantinople into a glorious new capital for his regime. At the early age of forty-nine he died very suddenly; suspicions fell on a poisoner acting for his oldest son Bayezid, born on this day in 1447.

Bayezid claimed the throne but had to deal with the opposition of his brother Çem (or Jem). It was customary for a new sultan to murder all of his brothers and half-brothers so Çem fled to the Knights of St John, fierce enemies of the Turks; the Knights sent Çem to the pope who accepted a bribe from Bayezid to keep him locked up and not interfering in his rule.

Bayezid had a successful reign, warring against the Persians on his eastern border, mopping up more Christian territory, and taking advantage of the Spanish expulsion of their Jewish population. Bayezid sent Turkish ships to Spain to take on Jews wishing to migrate to Ottoman territory, laughing at the folly of Ferdinand and Isabella. “You venture to call Ferdinand a wise ruler,” he said to his courtiers, “he who has impoverished his own country and enriched mine!” Ironically, the pope held the same opinion and welcomed Jewish refugees into his Italian holdings.

Ottoman politics were often a blood sport. Late in life, Bayezid faced revolts by two of his sons. He defeated the rebellion of Ahmet but was deposed in 1512 by his son Selim (later known to history as “the Grim”). He died shortly thereafter and is buried in Istanbul.

November 8



The birth of Vlad III, aka Vlad the Impaler, aka Vlad Drakul, aka Dracula, prince of Wallachia. Though known in folklore for his extreme cruelty and for his inspiration for Bram Stoker’s literary villain, Vlad is renowned in the Balkans for his defence of Christian lands against Turkish Islamic expansion. After the fall of Constantinople in 1453, the Ottoman emperor Mehmet the Conqueror attempted to complete the Muslim conquest of southeastern Europe. Vlad refused to acknowledge Turkish overlordship or pay the jizya tax imposed on Christian subjects. His armies inflicted a number of defeats on the Turks before he died in battle in 1476.

October 28


1886 Dedication of the Statue of Liberty

To celebrate the centenary of American independence, and to mark their own contribution to that effort, the French were determined to make the USA a splendid gift. The anniversary present would prove to be  La Liberté éclairant le monde, the gigantic Statue of Liberty (more properly “Liberty Enlightening the World”)

Work began on Liberty years before the centenary but the difficulty of the task and financing problems meant that by 1876 only the statue’s arm bearing the torch could be sent to Philadelphia for the festivities. It was designed by Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi and built by Gustave Eiffel. Made of copper, it depicted the Roman goddess Libertas carrying a torch and a law tablet inscribed with “1776”; at her feet is a broken chain signifying freedom from oppression. The statue was shipped in pieces to New York where it was erected on an island platform in the harbour, towering 305′ above the ground.

On this date in 1886 President Grover Cleveland dedicated the statue after a grand ticker-tape parade (the first ever) through the streets of New York.

October 27


312 Constantine has a vision

The chaos in Roman politics that weakened the empire in the 3rd century was ended by reforms put in place by Diocletian (r. 284-305), particularly his institution of the Tetrarchy. Henceforth there would be four emperors: a senior Augustus in the East and in the West, each with a junior Caesar. There would be four capitals, each close to strategic border areas to allow rapid response to barbarian incursion. The plan was that when the senior rulers stepped down they would be replaced by their Caesars and the usual unseemly battles for power would be avoided. Alas, the scheme did not work in practice. After the retirement of Diocletian in 305, fighting broke out in the western part of the empire between rival generals who each thought they should be next in line. In the fall of 312, Constantine brought his army into Italy to contest the throne with Maxentius; they would meet outside Rome at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge.

According to Lactantius, on the evening of October 27 Constantine saw a vision:

Constantine was directed in a dream to cause the heavenly sign to be delineated on the shields of his soldiers, and so to proceed to battle. He did as he had been commanded, and he marked on their shields the letter Χ, with a perpendicular line drawn through it and turned round thus at the top, being the cipher of CHRIST. Having this sign (ΧР ), his troops stood to arms. The enemies advanced, but without their emperor, and they crossed the bridge. The armies met, and fought with the utmost exertions of valour, and firmly maintained their ground. In the meantime a sedition arose at Rome, and Maxentius was reviled as one who had abandoned all concern for the safety of the commonweal; and suddenly, while he exhibited the Circensian games on the anniversary of his reign, the people cried with one voice, “Constantine cannot be overcome!” 

Dismayed at this, Maxentius burst from the assembly, and having called some senators together, ordered the Sibylline books to be searched. In them it was found that:— “On the same day the enemy of the Romans should perish.”
Led by this response to the hopes of victory, he went to the field. The bridge in his rear was broken down. At sight of that the battle grew hotter. The hand of the Lord prevailed, and the forces of Maxentius were routed. He fled towards the broken bridge; but the multitude pressing on him, he was driven headlong into the Tiber. This destructive war being ended, Constantine was acknowledged as emperor, with great rejoicings, by the senate and people of Rome. 

Eusebius has another, more detailed account of the vision, which in his version seems to have taken place somewhat earlier. There is no doubt, however, that the triumph of Constantine led to the legal recognition of Christianity and its eventual conversion of the Roman Empire.