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This Month In History: September 2006
By Komnenos, 31 August 2006; Revised
Category: AE Magazine Columns and General Articles
A selection of great and not so great historical moments that occurred in the Month of September:
On September 4, 476 the West-Roman Empire came to an end, when its Emperor Romulus Augustulus abdicated. Unlike the East-Roman Empire that lasted for another thousand turbulent years and went out with a bang in 1453, the Western just faded away, slowly and quietly; and it’s last Emperor didn’t die the heroic death of the last Byzantine Emperor Constantine XI Dragases who died on the walls of Constantinople defending his city against the Ottomans, Romulus just retired to his estates near Naples to dedicate the rest of his life to the breeding of chicken.
His nickname, Romulus, the “tiny Augustus” already suggests that the last West-Roman Emperor was not a towering giant in Roman history. Throughout his undistinguished twelve month rule, he had been nothing more than a puppet of his father, Orestes, who had pushed his fourteen year old son onto the throne. Orestes was the half Germanic “Magister Militum” of the Empire, and thus in command of the Barbarian mercenaries that in the 5th century not only were the sole military force, but also the most significant political power in Italy. His predecessors , men like Stilicho, Ricimer or Gundobad, had virtually ruled the West-Roman Empire, and in rapid succession gone through a whole number of stooges on the throne, appointed and dismissed by whim, who only bore the title “Emperor” in name, in practice however wielded no Imperial power whatsoever.
Orestes had filled the vacuum that Gundobad had left who had returned home to rule his Burgundians, when in 475 he was appointed leader of the Imperial forces by the reigning Emperor Julius Nepus, who graced the throne courtesy to an intervention by the East-Romans. Julius Nepos came to regret his choice almost immediately when Orestes mercenaries rose in a revolt and forced the Emperor to flee Italy to seek safety in his native Dalmatia where he stayed put and ruled, still the “de facto” West-Roman Emperor till 480. Orestes, possibly due to his half-barbarian origins wasn’t deemed suitable for the throne, and so his son Romulus was chosen to head the family enterprise. Unfortunately, Orestes own troops now wanted a greater share of Italy’s riches and they demanded not only land, but also to be given “Foederati” status in Italy. Orestes refused and his troops acclaimed Odoacer as their new leader. Odoacer’s forces captured and murdered Orestes near Piacenza on August 28 and took the capital Ravenna a few days later, and on September 4 Odoacer forced Romulus Augustulus to abdicate. Odoacer was acclaimed “King of Italy” by his men and thus didn’t think it necessary to appoint a new Emperor. He sent the Imperial regalia to Constantinople and the reigning emperor Zeno accepted them gracefully, as he did Odoacer's promise to be his faithful liege. Which remained just that, a promise, in practise Odoacer ruled Italy without ever consulting his over-lord on the Bosporus.
It says a lot about Romulus’ status, that Orestes didn’t even deem him important enough to have him killed, and though the last West-Roman Emperor left history’s stage quietly through a back door, much like the whole Empire itself. It must be doubted than anyone in Italy or in the old Roman provinces in Western-Europe even noticed this historical event, or indeed mourned the Empire’s demise. Augustulus’ abdication finally acknowledged the fact that in the West the Roman world was now ruled by Barbarian chieftains. Odoacer lasted only 17 years as King of Italy, until he in turn was overthrown by another Germanic chief, Theoderic, King of the Ostrogoths who had overrun the peninsula. The East-Romans continued as normal, in their self-understanding Constantinople, the “New Rome”, was the only worthy and legitimate heir of the Roman Empire anyway, and when they briefly regained the sovereignty over Italy eighty years later, Italy just became a province of their Empire.
On September 8, 1565 the Ottoman forces withdrew from Malta and the four months long siege of the island came to an end.
Malta had been defended by the Order of the Knights Hospitaller ( The order of St. John) , who had been granted the island by Emperor Charles V in 1530, after the Knight’s expulsion from Rhodes. Under the rule of the Order, Malta had become a thorn in the side of the ever growing Ottoman Empire. In 1551 the Ottomans, under their Sultan Suleyman had taken Tripolis and its Libyan hinterland, further encroaching on Malta. From its well fortified harbours the Knights’ fleet undertook numerous raids against the Northern African coastal cities, interrupting the trade routes and pestering the pirates on the Berber coast. By 1565, the Ottomans had enough of the Christian menace, and in May an about 30.000 strong expedition army landed on Malta.
The reigning Grand Master of the Order, Jean Parisot de la Valette, had a somewhat smaller force to his disposal, about 600 Knights and a militia, consisting of a few thousand armed Maltese citizens. Suleyman had expected to dispose with the defenders and to take the island in a matter of days, and his initial success seemed to justify that. The militia was quickly defeated and decimated in an open battle in which also half of the order’s knight fell. The defenders retreated thus to the fortress of St. Elmo, and the Ottomans had no choice but to begin a siege.
It took the Ottoman artillery over the month to destroy the fort, which the few remaining Knights Hospitaller defended heroically, thereby inflicting heavy casualties on the Ottomans. It proved another temporary victory, the Order withdrew to two other fortified castles and Suleyman’s forces had to start all over again. By the end of summer both sides’ forces are depleted and their men exhausted, possibly more so the Ottomans, whose camp was stricken by the usual epidemics that plagued medieval besiegers. When in the beginning of September a relief force of over 6.000 Spanish soldiers arrived from Sicily, Suleyman gave up, he abandoned the siege and his fleet sailed home to Istanbul.
The Siege of Malta in 1565 was celebrated as a great victory of Christendom over Islam, like the naval battle of Lepanto six years later, and in some history books it is still today. On the whole it seems to have been a rather less important engagement, of no great historical significance, certainly not a decisive moment in the halt of Ottoman advance into Europe, as it is sometimes portrayed. It was probably not more than an embarrassment for the Ottoman Sultan Suleyman, who previously had gone from victory to victory in the Balkans and North-Africa.
Malta stayed in the possession of the Knights Hospitaller until 1798, when the French took it , only to relinquish it to British forces two years later. It remained a British protectorate until 1964, when malta became independent. When Malta was rebuild after the siege of 1565, the new capital was named Valetta, after the commander of the Knights Order who had defended it against the Ottomans.
On September 25, 1555,the “Augsburger Religionsfrieden”, a treaty between the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and the Protestant Princes of Germany was signed in the South-German City of Augsburg. The treaty of Augsburg guaranteed for the first time after the Reformation religious freedom in the Empire, not necessarily for its population, but for the rulers of the many independent principalities that constituted the HRE.
Luther’s rebellion against the Catholic Church and the Papacy had deeply divided Germany, as it would consequently the whole of Europe. It had spread like wildfire amongst the people who not only embraced Protestantism not only as their new faith, but also as the core of a political ideology that had informed a series of social rebellions in Germany that had , unsuccessfully in the end, attempted to overthrow the feudal society. The German Peasant War of 1525 had initially endangered the archaic social and political structures of the Empire, but in the end the mercenary armies of Germany’s rulers had defeated the rebellion, last but not least because Luther himself had come out in support of the Dukes and Princes of Germany and condemned the uprising of the peasant as an offense against the Divine order.
The outcome of the Peasant’s War and Luther’s role resulted in the first steps towards the official emancipation of the Protestant faith, in it’s more moderate form it had become acceptable for the ruling classes at last. A number of German rulers, predominantly in Northern and Middle Germany, had adopted Luther’s religion, not always for its beliefs but also for its political implications, and still being under constant thread from the still Catholic HRE and states of Southern Germany, they formed in 1531 the “Union of Schmalkalden”, an alliance with a common army and foreign policy that sought the support of other Protestant countries, or indeed any other state that had issues with the HRE.
The united Protestant states soon became a political power that first of all could neither be defeated nor be ignored, and that secondly, seriously endangered the fragile territorial unity of the Empire. In a desperate attempt to salvage what was left of the HRE, in 1555 Charles V finally agreed to a religious truce, the“Augsburger Religionsfriede” . The treaty established that each ruler of each of the many states inside the HRE could choose his religion , practice it and force his subject to adopt his faith as well. The principle “ cuius regio, eius religio” (he who rules, his religion) was introduced, and it had enormous consequences for the subsequent course of German history.
Germany became that religious patchwork that it still is today, Catholic and Protestant areas being scattered around the country. But even more significant were the political implications, although the power of the HRE had been constantly eroded up to the 16th century, the treaty was a further nail in the coffin. It paved the way for the further federalization of Germany, the formation of many states of various sizes that would increasingly pursue a policy completely independently from the HRE that became nothing more than a hollow and anachronistic super-structure. The treaty of Augsburg far from removed all the reasons for further conflicts between the German princes, and only 60 years later religion was once again used as the excuse for an all out war, the “Thirty Years War”, that devastated the country to an extent that even WW2 couldn’t repeat.
On September 27, 1822 the French linguist and historian Jean-Francois Champollion disclosed to the astonished public that he had finally succeeded to decipher the Egyptian Hieroglyphic script. In all truthfulness, the public was less than astonished, hardly anybody noticed and those few adherents of the newly founded science of Egyptology regarded Champollion’s announcement as just another claim by one of the many scholars and cranks that pretended to have unlocked Egypt’s secrets. Only after his premature death in 1832 the full significance of his remarkable achievement began to dawn.
Jean-Francois Champollion was born in 1790, at the height of the French revolution, son of a bookshop owner in Figeac in the South-West of France. News of the exploits of Napoleon’s Egyptian expedition of 1798-99 must have reached the small town somehow, and the young Jean-Francois began to show an interested in the reports about the ancient culture, its pyramids and statues and its mysterious scripture. Being somewhat of an academic failure in his early schooldays, his brother Jacques-Joseph, a teacher in Grenoble, took him under his wings, and the 11 year old began to flourish in the new environment and soon turned into a fully fledged “Wunderkind”. In no time Jean-Francois learned Latin ,Greek and Hebrew, at he age of 13 he began the serious study of Arabic, Chaldaic and Coptic, and when he had any time to spare he kept himself busy with a number of other Middle-eastern languages, or Old-Chinese. All this dedication had only one purpose, the young Champollion had come under the spell of Egypt and he attempted everything to unravel its mysteries, and especially its script and language.
At the age of 17 he drew the very first historical map of Egypt, of the Kingdom of the Pharaos, a year later the first draft of a planned book on the History of Egypt earned him a place in the Academy of Grenoble. Soon after he left for Paris to study under France’s foremost Egyptologist De Sacy, and here in the capital Champollion saw the “Rosetta Stone” for the first time. Not the real one however which was being exhibited in the British Museum, having been part of England’s loot after the end of Napoleon’s Egyptian adventure, but one of the many copies that were circulating in Europe.
The “Rosetta Stone” had been found in 1799 during building works at the French Fort Julien in Lower Egypt. It was a table-top size slap of a stone, and bore an inscription in three different scripts: Greek, Egyptian Demotic and in Hieroglyphics. The Greek was quickly translated, it dealt with a number of royal decrees issued by King Ptolemy V in 196BC, and as bi- or multi-lingual inscriptions were not that uncommon in the Hellenised East, it seemed obvious that the Demotic and the Hieroglyphs would tell the same story.
The significance of the “Rosetta Stone” thus didn’t escape the interested scholars, and a whole number of linguists began the attempt to decipher the Old-Egyptian script. To no prevail as it turned out, the main obstacle was the conception of Hieroglyphs as a pictorial script, that the symbols would represent words or even a series of words. Champollion was the only one to approach it from a different angle, somehow he came to the belief that the symbols were not just pictures, but would indeed represent letters and in their entirety a whole alphabet, just like the Greek or Latin.
But still the question remained, were to start. His next great sudden inspiration provided the breakthrough, Champollion had noticed that some of the Hieroglyphs were enclosed in an oval ring, a “cartouche”, it seemed obvious that those signs must have a special importance. He assumed that those cartouches could represent the names of Pharaos, and when he compared the cartouche on the “Rosetta Stone” that would mean Ptolemy with another one that he believed to be that of Cleopatra, he discovered certain similarities and even a certain system. Champollion had found the key, and his knowledge of the successor languages of Old-Egyptian helped with the further decipherment of the Hieroglyphic text.
On September 27, 1822 he published his findings, they were greeted with an understandable skepticism by fellow Egyptologists, but subsequently proved to be the first correct translation of an Old-Egyptian text. Champollion’s work was improved upon over the years, as new discoveries recorded the development of Egyptian language and script, but it was his deciphering of the “Rosetta Stone” that opened the way.