Pyrrhus ended up in Egypt, where he married king Ptolemy I’s stepdaughter, and his new in-law gave him financial and military backing that restored him to the Epirote throne in 297 BC. Pyrrhus then spent the next few years making a name for himself as a brilliant general in a series of conflicts in the Balkans.
In 282 BC, the Greek city of Tarentum in southern Italy got into a dispute with an expansionist Rome, and turned to Pyrrhus for help. Encouraged by a prophecy from the Oracle of Delphi, and eager for an opportunity to create an empire in southern Italy, Pyrrhus agreed. He formed an alliance with the neighboring kingdom of Macedon, and landed in southern Italy in 280 BC with an army of about 20,000 infantry, 3000 cavalry, and 2500 archers and slingers.
Pyrhhus defeated the Romans in costly battles whose losses he could not afford, but which the Romans, with their deep manpower reserves, could. After one such victory, he quipped “If we are victorious in one more battle with the Romans, we shall be utterly ruined“. Taking a break from Italy, he took off to fight the Carthaginians in Sicily, but by the time he returned, the Romans had recovered and formed a vastly superior army.
So Pyrrhus cut his losses and left Italy in 275 BC. His end came in 272 BC, when he took sides in an internal dispute in the city of Argos. An old woman threw a tile from a roof that hit Pyrrhus in the head, knocking him off his horse and snapping his spine. Whether or not he survived the fall, his fate was sealed when an enemy soldier rushed in and beheaded the Epirote king.
In the ninth century, Vikings from Sweden penetrated deep into today’s Russia and the Ukraine, and by 850, they had formed their own principalities in Kiev and Novgorod. From there, they dominated the surrounding Slavs as a ruling caste of a new civilization that came to be known as Kievan Rus. The princes of Rus tended to hire new fighters from Scandinavia, who were known as Varangians – a term meaning a stranger who had taken military service, or a member of a union of traders and warriors.
By the early 900s, some of these Varangian Vikings had ventured further south, sailed across the Black Sea, and raided Constantinople and the Byzantine lands. Some, however, took service with the Byzantine emperors as mercenaries, and as early as 902, contemporary records describe a force of about 700 Varangians taking part in a Byzantine expedition against Crete.
Mercenary units seldom last for more than a few years before they are disbanded, once the conflict that gave rise to their creation is concluded. The Varangian Guard were an exception, and their history as a mercenary unit lasted for hundreds of years, stretching from the early 10th to the 14th centuries.
In 988, Byzantine Emperor Basil II sought military aid from his ally, Prince Vladimir I of Kiev. The Rus ruler sent 6000 of his most unruly warriors, whom he was having trouble paying anyhow. The emperor put Vladimir’s discards to good use against his enemies, then organized them into what became the nucleus of the Varangian Guard. As foreigners, the Vikings had no local ties, and thus few political links that could enmesh them in the Byzantine court’s intrigues and cabals. That made them suitable as bodyguards. They were not just palace soldiers, however, but accompanied the emperor on campaign, and formed the Byzantine army’s shock infantry.
In 1690, England’s newly crowned Protestant king defeated his Catholic predecessor, James II, at the Battle of the Boyne in Ireland. James fled to Europe, leaving his mostly Irish Catholic supporters to try and retrieve the situation. Despite their best efforts, the Irish Jacobites were decisively defeated at the Battle of Aughrim in 1691, and forced to capitulate.
Peace was concluded with the Treaty of Limerick, signed in October 1691. It offered favorable terms to Jacobites willing to swear allegiance to William III. Those unwilling to do so were allowed to leave Ireland en masse, and join the exiled James II in France. In what came to be known as “The Flight of the Wild Geese”, roughly 14,000 men, accompanied by 10,000 women and children, left Ireland for France.
The Wild Geese took service as mercenaries, and for the next century, the French army included an Irish Brigade whose nucleus was the exiles of 1691, its ranks constantly replenished by new arrivals from Ireland. French ships smuggling brandy and wine into Ireland usually smuggled out recruits for the Irish Brigade, who were often listed in the ship’s log – in a nod to the 1691 core – as “Wild Geese”.
Many new recruits sought adventure, others simply wanted to make a living, and most were looking for an opportunity to fight the English. Thousands of Irishmen thus served France, fighting in her numerous wars, and proving instrumental in some notable victories against the British, such as at the Battle of Fontenoy in 1745. After the French Revolution, the unit’s existence as a separate entity came to an end, when foreign regiments were integrated into the French army’s line infantry.
The Raven King’s Mercenary Black Army sounds like something from George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. It actually refers to a real life monarch and military unit, who became Europe’s most formidable warriors in the second half of the 15th century. To wit, king Matthias Corvinus of Hungary (1443 – 1490), whose name translates as “Matthew the Raven”, and a mercenary army he assembled to hold back the Ottoman Turks.
When Hungary’s king Ladislaus V died childless in 1457, the Diet of Hungary convened in January of 1458 to elect a new king. It eventually chose 14 year old Matthias Corvinus as a compromise candidate to avert a civil war between rival factions. The plan was for Matthias’ uncle to rule as regent until the new king came of age, but the teenager surprised everybody by administering state affairs independently from the start.
Matthias was crowned only five years after the Ottoman Turks had conquered Constantinople and ended the Byzantine Empire, so military matters were a priority for him. The Turks, brimming with confidence, turned their attention to Hungary. Against all precedent, Matthias taxed Hungary’s nobles, and ignoring their howls of protest, used the funds to recruit 30,000 mercenaries, mainly from Germany, Poland, Bohemia, and Serbia, and after 1480, from Hungary.
They were organized into a combined arms mix of light infantry operating around a base of heavily armored infantry, and supplemented by even more heavily armored knights. In a pioneering innovation that took advantage of recent firearms developments, every fourth soldier was armed with an arquebus. Matthias’ mercenaries, who came to be known as the “Black Army”, became a formidable force that dominated Central Europe and the Balkans, and held back the Ottomans for decades.
Paul “Big Paulie” Castellano ran NYC’s Gambino crime family from 1976 until his death. The son of a mobster in the Mangano family – forerunner of the Gambinos – who ran a numbers game, Castellano dropped out of school in eighth grade to become a hoodlum. By the 1950s, Castellano had risen to become a capo. Although up to his neck in mob rackets, he acted as if he was a legitimate businessman – an affectation that annoyed many of his hoodlum underlings, who had no delusions about their careers.
The disgruntled underlings included an ambitious capo named John Gotti. When Castellano skipped out on a prominent subordinate’s funeral in 1985, it offended many Gambinos, and disgruntlement soon grew into rebellion. On December 16th, Gotti organized a team that waited for Castellano’s outside one of his favorite restaurants, Sparks Steak House, in midtown Manhattan. As Castellano exited his car, Gotti watched from across the street as the hitmen rushed the mob boss, and shot him dead.
The Civil War overshadowed all that Abraham Lincoln said and did, but America’s sixteenth president was extraordinary for reasons beyond his wartime leadership. Republicans have traditionally been pro business, and the GOP has usually been a reliable ally of employers in disputes with labor unions and employees. Surprisingly, however, the party’s first president had some views that could qualify him as a Marxist.
In his first speech as an Illinois state legislator in 1837, Abraham Lincoln stated: “These capitalists generally act harmoniously and in concert, to fleece the people“. Contra the conventional wisdom that people become more conservative the older they get, Lincoln’s views drifted ever closer to Marx as he aged. He was never a communist, but some of what he said and wrote would cause consternation in the US Chamber of Commerce.
17. Lincoln’s First Annual Message to Congress Was… Different
In Lincoln’s first Annual Message to Congress, on December 3rd, 1861, he wrote: “Labor is prior to and independent of capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed.
Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration. Capital has its rights, which are as worthy of protection as any other rights. Nor is it denied that there is, and probably always will be, a relation between labor and capital producing mutual benefits. The error is in assuming that the whole labor of community exists within that relation. A few men own capital, and that few avoid labor themselves, and with their capital hire or buy another few to labor for them“. Lincoln’s Marxist views came from Karl Marx himself.
Karl Marx was a prolific contributor to the New York Daily Tribune, the most influential Republican newspaper of the 1850s, when the GOP was founded. In 1848, the Tribune’s publisher had invited Marx to become a correspondent, and over the following decade, Marx wrote over 500 articles for the Republican newspaper. Unsurprisingly, considering how much Marx detested labor exploitation, he became a huge Lincoln fan, and cheered him on as he wrecked slavery, the era’s most exploitative labor system.
In 1864, Marx wrote a letter on behalf of the International Working Men’s Association, to congratulate Lincoln on his reelection, and to wish him ultimate success in the war. Lincoln instructed the American ambassador in Britain, where Marx lived, to thank him, and let him know that the United States: “derive new encouragements to persevere from the testimony of the workingmen of Europe that the national attitude is favored with their enlightened approval and earnest sympathies“.
Brazil’s biggest city, Sao Paolo, was reeling under a series of scandals in the 1950s. Corruption was rampant, garbage went uncollected, sewers overflowed, inflation was rising, and supplies of basic foodstuffs were dwindling. As City Council elections neared in October of 1959, voters had to choose from amongst 540 candidates, ranging from the uninspiring to the outright criminal.
Faced with such dismal options, some students decided: “Better elect a rhinoceros than an ass“. Their candidate of choice was a five year old female black rhinoceros named Cacareco, residing in the local zoo.
Cacareco the Rhinoceros charged to first place and won in a landslide, garnering over 100,000 votes – 15% of the total cast. As The New York Times reported, she “earned one of the highest totals for a local candidate in Brazil’s recent history“. It was actually the highest ever total won by any city council candidate up to that date.
A sore loser party leader complained bitterly: “A ridiculous vote for a ridiculous rhinoceros. Nowhere, and never before, have 100,000 literate adult voters cast their ballots for a silent, absent, and nut brained quadruped“. One of the failed candidates was so humiliated, that he committed suicide.
13. Abraham Lincoln Was Not a Vampire Hunter, But He Was Badass
With his craggy features, lanky frame, and stovepipe hat, Abraham Lincoln is perhaps America’s most recognizable historic president, well known for many things. As The Great Emancipator; as the president who successfully navigated the United States through the Civil War; and as the author of the Gettysburg Address, recited by kids on school stages to this day.
Less known is that in his youth, Lincoln was a lean, mean, wrestling machine, who performed feats of strength that became part of local legend and frontier lore. Contra Tim Burton’s Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, the 16th president never hunted the undead, but he did kick ass and take names.
Abraham Lincoln’s most famous fight took place when he was in his 20s. Shortly after he moved to Salem, Illinois, the newly arrived Lincoln was challenged by a local bully named Jack Armstrong. The bout was inconclusive for some time, but when Armstrong resorted to dirty tricks, an enraged Lincoln grabbed him by the neck, and extending his arms, “shook him like a rag doll“, before tossing him to the ground.
Standing over his rival, Lincoln then challenged Armstrong’s followers: “I’m the big buck of this lick. If any of you want to try it, come and whet your horns!” Armstrong admitted he’d been fairly beaten, and proclaimed Lincoln “the best feller that ever broke into this settlement“. The duo shook hands, and became friends.
On April 26th, 1962, Britain launched the Ariel-1 into space, and became the third country, after the USSR and US, with its own satellite. It was a source of national pride, and a reminder that despite the end of its empire, Britain was still a major power. A few weeks later, America nuked the Ariel-1 during a high altitude nuclear test codenamed Starfish Prime.
On July 9th, 1962, a Thor rocket carrying a thermonuclear warhead was launched from Johnston Island in the Pacific, climbed to a height of 250 miles above earth, and produced a 1.4 megaton explosion. The resultant electromagnetic pulse (EMP) was greater than expected. It caused electric damage in Hawaii, nearly a thousand miles away, knocking out hundreds of street lights, setting off burglar alarms, and wreaked havoc on the telephone system. It also produced debris and a radiation belt that destroyed or damaged a number of satellites, including Ariel-1.
10. Why Are the Streets So Wide in Salt Lake City?
Walking a block in Salt Lake City probably takes longer than in any other American city. First time visitors to SLC’s downtown often ask for directions, are told their destination is “four or five blocks away“, and discover that means a fifteen or twenty minute hike. While similar sized cities such as Austin or Little Rock have downtown blocks measuring 300 x 300 feet, or 200 x 200 feet in the case of Portland, SLC’s downtown blocks are a whopping 660 x 660 feet.
Downtown SLC’s streets are similarly wide: at 130 feet, they are double the width of Manhattan’s. That is because the Mormon faith’s founder, Joseph Smith, thought cities should have large blocks, to allow for small farming plots. When the Mormons reached Utah in 1847, church president Brigham Young added wide streets to the plan, in order to allow ample room for farmers to turn their cattle around, without “resorting to profanity“.
9. Ship on Fire and Sinking? Grab Some Ice Cream Before Leaving
The USS Lexington (CV-2), nicknamed “Lady Lex”, was an early US Navy aircraft carrier. Commissioned in 1927, she joined the Pacific Fleet, with which she spent her entire career. Luckily for the Lexington, she and the other Pacific Fleet carriers were at sea when the Japanese struck Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941, and so escaped damage.
However, Lady Lex’s luck ran out on May 7th, 1942, when she was crippled by Japanese carrier planes during the Battle of the Coral Sea, then caught fire. In the ship’s dying moments, a warrant officer broke the lock on a freezer, and started handing out ice cream. As an eyewitness recalled: “He didn’t think anything of it because we were abandoning ship. We just figured we might as well do it“. Sailors in the vicinity gorged on vanilla ice cream, polishing off entire containers, before heeding the order to abandon ship and lowering themselves into the water.
As told by Homer, a Mycenaean Greek coalition led by the High King Agamemnon besieged Troy for ten years. Their goal was to recover Helen, wife of Sparta’s king and Agamemnon’s brother Menelaus, after she had been seduced by Paris, the son of Troy’s king Priam. The epic poem features plenty of rollicking adventures, a surfeit of graphic and gory combat, and numerous plot twists and turns from humans and gods.
In the end, the city falls when the wily Odysseus tricks the Trojans into letting in a huge wooden horse, packed with Greek warriors. As a story, the Iliad was awesome, but as history, Troy and the Trojan War were dismissed for centuries as pure myth. However, German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann was convinced that there was actual truth in the Iliad, and set out to prove it.
Heinrich Schliemann excavated from 1870 to 1890, and found some gold and silver artifacts that convinced him that he had found Homer’s Troy. As it turned out, Schliemann had excavated the right city, but the wrong period: his initial finds dated from about 1000 years before the Trojan War. The site actually held the remains of nine different Troys, built atop each other. Excavations continued after Schliemann’s death in 1890, and today his finds are labeled Troy I through IX, with Troy VI being the likeliest candidate for Homer’s Troy.
Few archaeologists have ever been as lucky as Heinrich Schliemann. After his accomplishment of excavating and proving the existence of ancient Troy, he captured lightning in a bottle once more, this time in mainland Greece, where he found what came to be known as the Mask of Agamemnon – the king who led the Greeks against Troy.
In 1876, Heinrich Schliemann went digging in the royal cemetery near the Lion Gate, the entrance to the citadel of Mycenae in southern Greece. In one of the graves, he found a funeral mask covered in gold, which he attributed to the legendary king from the Iliad. As Schliemann put it in a telegraph announcing the discovery: “I have gazed upon the face of Agamemnon“. However, as with his finds in Troy, Schliemann got the broad outlines right, but jumped the gun when it came to the details.
As later dating demonstrated, the mask did, indeed, belong to a Mycenaean king, but to one who had died circa 1580 to 1550 BC – two and a half to three centuries before the events of the Trojan War. The name stuck, however, and the artifact is still commonly referred to as the Mask of Agamemnon.
During France’s Ancien Regime, royal sex was often a public and political affair. Indeed, across Europe, royals’ sex lives were matters of state. Since the future of the dynasty and the realm depended on lineage, providing as much information as possible about how that lineage came about and was perpetuated for future generations was a political necessity. Thus, several attendants were usually present in the royal bedroom on wedding nights, to witness that things had gone the way they should.
If and when the royal coitus produced the desired result and the queen got pregnant, she could wave goodbye to whatever little privacy she had for the next nine months. When queen Marie Antoinette got pregnant, her chambers were shared not only by the king and a medical staff, but also by just about every court favorite. When she gave birth, the room was packed with so many spectators, that she passed out from the heat.
4. Strapping Bazookas Under a Plane to Blow Up Tanks
US Army Major Charles Carpenter, AKA “The Mad Major”and “Bazooka Charlie”, was a 4th Armored Division artillery observer during WWII. Flying a military variant of the Piper Cub, the L-4H Grasshopper, Carpenter’s job was to spot German artillery positions in France, then fly back to base – his plane had no radio – and report the position. He wanted more excitement, however, so he decided to take out the enemy himself.
The L-4H carried no weapons, and had a combined pilot and cargo capacity of only 232 pounds. That was enough for Carpenter, who strapped six bazookas to his airplane, three beneath each wing, and went Nazi hunting. Within a few weeks, Bazooka Charlie, flying his modified plane, now nicknamed Rosie the Rocketer, took out four German tanks and an armored car. By war’s end, Carpenter’s toll had risen to six tanks, several more armored cars, and assorted other vehicles.
In August of 79 AD, people living in the vicinity of Mount Vesuvius, a few miles east of Naples, Italy, felt some tremors, but they were not unusual. Then, on August 24th, the mountain blew its top with a force 100,000 times greater than that of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombs. The eruption tossed deadly debris, mixed with a cloud of poisonous gasses, over twenty miles up into the air.
As Vesuvius spewed into the air, lava and hot pumice poured out of the volcano’s mouth at a rate of 1.5 million tons per second. The mixture raced down Vesuvius’ side to devastate the surrounding region and destroy nearby towns, of which Pompeii and Herculaneum are the best known. The towns’ fates were tragic, but archaeology and our knowledge of Ancient Rome owes much to that tragedy.
Around noon on August 24th, 79 AD, a cloud appeared atop Vesuvius, and about an hour later, the volcano erupted and ash began to fall on Pompeii, six miles away. By 2PM, volcanic debris, begin to fall with the ash, and by 5PM sunlight had been completely blocked and roofs in Pompeii began collapsing under the accumulating weight of pumice and ash. Panicked townspeople rushed to the harbor seeking any ship that would take them away.
Vesuvius’ lava did not reach Pompeii or Herculaneum, but it sent heat waves of more than 550 degrees Fahrenheit into those towns, turning them into ovens and killing any who had not already suffocated from the fine ash.
About 1500 bodies were found in Pompeii and Herculaneum when they were unearthed centuries later, from just a small area impacted by the volcano’s eruption. Extrapolating to the surrounding regions, total casualties are estimated to have been in the tens of thousands. The towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum, whose populations at the time numbered about 20,000, were buried beneath up to 20 feet of volcanic ash and pumice.
Tragic and terrifying as that was, the ash deposits did a remarkably effective job of preserving those towns. In 1738, laborers digging foundations for a palace rediscovered Herculaneum, and further excavations unearthed Pompeii in 1748. The archaeological finds afforded historians an unrivaled snapshot of 1st century AD Roman architecture, city planning, urban infrastructure, and town life in general.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading