The Roman Emperor Vespasian (9 – 79 AD) was born Titus Flavius Vespasianus in an unremarkable village named Falacrinae, northeast of Rome. He hailed from a relatively comfortable but otherwise undistinguished family without pedigree. His family was of the equestrian class – the second of the property based classes of ancient Rome, that ranked below the senatorial class. His ancestors included a common legionary who went on to become a centurion, a debt collector, and a small scale money lender with a clientele of barbarians.
Vespasian rose from his humble origins to become emperor of Rome and found the Flavian Dynasty, which ruled the Roman Empire for three decades. A self-made man, he entered the cursus honorum (the career ladder of Roman officialdom) as a military tribune, and steadily rose through its military and civilian positions. His first big break came in the invasion of Britain in 43 AD. He displayed exceptional brilliance in command of a Roman legion, and won the esteem of Emperor Claudius. That led to a consulship, but Vespasian displeased Claudius’ wife, and was forced to retire soon thereafter.
Vespasian reemerged from retirement after Emperor Claudius’ passing, and won favor with his successor, Nero. His restored career was derailed, however, when he fell asleep while Nero was giving a lyre recital. Things got so bad for Vespasian that he was forced to become a muleteer to make ends meet. His fortunes revived when he was yanked out of retirement to suppress the Jewish Rebellion in 67 AD. He was busily engaged in that when Nero was forced from power and driven to suicide in 68. In the subsequent scramble for power, rival governors and generals mounted the throne in quick succession.
By April of 69, the year was already known as “The Year of the Three Emperors”. Vespasian, by then sixty years old – long in the tooth by the era’s standards – reasoned why not four? He secured support in the Roman east, then declared himself emperor and sent his forces to Rome. By year’s end, his armies had triumphed, and won a final victory that secured the Empire for Vespasian. His rule was successful, as he restored stability and good governance, and launched a massive building and public works program.
Vespasian had a reputation for wit and amiability. As emperor, he seldom stood on ceremony, but cultivated a blunt and even coarse mannerism, and was given to forthright speech. He never forgot his origins, and resisted the temptation to put on airs to which most Roman emperors succumbed. One of his schemes to raise revenue involved a tax on public urinals, which was widely ridiculed. His son and designated heir took him to task for that, and argued that it was beneath imperial dignity to collect revenue from bodily excreta.
In response, Vespasian held a coin beneath his son’s nose, and asked whether he could smell any urine. He concluded the lesson with the statement: “money does not smell” – which became a Latin proverb. Vespasian’s final words were in line with his character. Ever since Julius Caesar, who was declared a god after his assassination, Roman emperors who passed in good repute were deified after life. When he was on death’s door in 79 AD, Vespasian, in a final illustration of a lifelong penchant to not take himself too seriously, joked just before he drew his last breath: “dear me, I think I am becoming a god“.
In 1815 at the Battle of Waterloo, the army led by the Duke of Wellington conducted a tenacious defense against attacks by Napoleon Bonaparte’s forces. As the day wore on, the pressure steadily mounted on Wellington’s men, as the intensity of French onslaughts increased. By that day’s afternoon, despite the stoicism and courage of his soldiers, Wellington knew that his enemy was about to gain the upper hand. He was saved from defeat by the arrival of an allied Prussian army at the decisive moment.
The Prussians fell upon the French right flank, and turned the tide of the battle. Their relentless pursuit of the defeated foe afterwards turned the French retreat into a rout, and spiked Napoleon’s career for good. The timely Prussian intervention was commanded by Field Marshall Gebhard Leberecht von Blucher. Nicknamed Marshal Vorwarts (“Forward”) for his aggressive style, Blucher was a capable commander despite the fact that he was crazy and prone to delusions. Among them was the then 72 year old Blucher’s belief that he had been impregnated by a Frenchman, and that he was about to give birth to a baby elephant.
Gebhard Leberecht von Blucher (1742 – 1819) was born in northern Germany, in the Duchy of Mecklenburg-Schwerin, into an aristocratic family whose roots went back to the thirteenth century. When he was sixteen years old, he went off to soldier, and became a hussar in the Swedish Army. Sweden fought against Prussia in the Seven Years War (1756 – 1763), and in a 1760 skirmish, Blucher was captured by the Prussians. Luckily for him, the colonel of the Prussian regiment that took him prisoner was a distant relative. Impressed by Blucher, he invited the young man to join his regiment.
Blucher accepted the offer, switched teams, and fought the rest of the war on the Prussian side. He remained in Prussian service – with one long spell of forced retirement between duty stints, caused by the fact that he was a hothead – for the rest of his life. Blucher gained significant experience as a cavalry officer in the Seven Years War. He had an abundance of wild courage and an aggressive way about him. Those traits made him a great combat leader.
Blucher was high strung and a hard charger – great assets in wartime. However, those traits were decided liabilities in peacetime. That became clear in 1772, when then-Captain Blucher subjected an unruly priest to a mock execution. Even by eighteenth century standards, mock executions of priests were frowned upon – the behavior of a barbarian, not that of a professional officer in the army of a civilized state. As a result, Blucher was passed over for promotion to major in 1773. Unfortunately, he was never known for his ability to keep his temper in check, and he let his ire show.
Angered at the perceived slight, Blucher submitted an angry letter of resignation from the Prussian Army. An incensed King Frederick the Great responded: “Captain Blucher can take himself to the devil!” Blucher retired to the countryside and became a farmer. He was good enough at it to gain financial independence. However, after the heated passion of the moment that led him to resign from the Prussian Army had passed, Blucher had second thoughts about what he had done. He pined for his days as a soldier, and sought to rejoin his regiment.
Unfortunately for Blucher, King Frederick the Great had a long memory, and knew how to hold a grudge. He did not forget the hotheaded officer’s rude resignation, and did not forgive. He blocked Blucher’s return to the Prussian military – a ban that remained in place for the next fifteen years. It was only a year after Frederick died in 1786, that Blucher was allowed to rejoin his regiment, the Red Hussars, as a major. Blucher was a head case and everybody knew it, but he was a great fighting officer for all that. So his superiors put up with the crazy, and continued to promote him up the ranks.
After service in the Netherlands in 1787, Blucher was a made a lieutenant colonel the following year. The year after that, he was awarded the Pour le Merite, Prussia’s then-highest military award. In the early 1790s, he distinguished himself as a cavalry officer in combat against the armies of Revolutionary France, and by 1794, he was colonel of his regiment, the Red Hussars. That same year he made another jump up the ranks to major general, and in 1801, he was promoted to lieutenant general.
An Old Maniac Who Thought the Floor Was Made of Lava
Among Blucher’s crazier delusions, which came and went over the years, was his belief that a Frenchman had impregnated him. Blucher was convinced that he was about to give birth to a baby elephant at any moment. Another nutty conviction was Blucher’s paranoia that his servants, bribed by France, had heated the floor of his room to lava levels, in order to scorch his feet. So when he was seated in a chair, Blucher kept his feet raised from the floor. Whenever he had to get up, he skipped around swiftly, and hopped gingerly on tiptoe. Another of Blucher’s manic episodes occurred when the house was roused by the sounds of a ferocious struggle in the general’s bedroom.
When servants and aides rushed in, they discovered that Blucher was fighting thin air. He claimed that he was in a near fatal struggle with the vindictive ghost of a dead officer, whom Blucher had dismissed from the Prussian Army. To his credit, Blucher realized in his stretches of sanity that there was something wrong with his head. However, the problem as he saw it was that his head was made of stone. He did not mean that as a figure of speech: he literally thought his cranium was made of stone, and routinely asked people to hit him in the head with a hammer.
Despite Being Old and Crazy, this General Ended Napoleon’s Career
Blucher’s crazy spells did not detract from his effectiveness as a fighting general. Indeed, he proved himself to be Prussia’s best general of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. He bounced back from setback after setback, and in 1813, when he was seventy one years old, he played a pivotal role at the head of a Prussian-Russian army in defeating Napoleon at the Battle of Leipzig – the biggest battle of the Napoleonic Wars. Two years later, on June 16th, 1815, he bounced back from a serious battlefield loss at Ligny, from which he miraculously escaped with his life, and shaped history.
Rather than retreat, the old general led his defeated, but still game, army on a forced march to link up with Wellington at Waterloo. Blucher arrived two days later, on the 18th, in the nick of time to fall upon Napoleon’s flank and crush him. That aggressive spirit and determination are why the Prussians hung on to Blucher, despite his craziness. As his chief of staff, Scharnhorst, wrote him on one occasion: “You are our leader and our hero“, insisting that he head the Prussian Army “even if you have to be carried before or behind us on a litter“. On another occasion, he put it even more succinctly: “He must lead even if he has a hundred elephants inside him“.
Quintus Fabius Maximus Verrucosus (circa 280 – 203 BC) was a Roman statesman and general who became famous for his cautious delaying tactics and strategies against the Carthaginian general Hannibal. Those tactics earned Fabius the nickname Cunctator, or “the Delayer”, saved Rome after a series of massive defeats, and gave it time to recover its equilibrium and gird itself for a difficult war. Hannibal had led an army into Italy at the start of the Second Punic War (218 – 201 BC) and won crushing victories against Rome, threatening its hold on Italy, as allies joined Hannibal or declared neutrality.
Fabius by then was an old man in his sixties – quite over the hill by the day’s standards – and a respected senior statesman. He had been elected Consul in 233 and 228 BC, as well as Censor – a highly prestigious position – in 230 BC. Faced with a dire emergency, the Romans appointed him dictator for six months. He realized that Rome had no general at the time, not even himself, who was Hannibal’s equal as a battlefield commander. So he adopted an attrition strategy which came to be known as “Fabian”. He shadowed the Carthaginian, and refused to offer pitched battle. He gradually whittled the enemy’s strength with scorched earth tactics, coupled with attacks against his supplies and isolated detachments.
An Old Man’s Tactics Aroused the Ire of Rome’s Younger Hot Heads
Quintus Fabius Maximus’ delay tactics stabilized the situation. However, they aroused the resentment of many Romans, who began to call Fabius Cunctator, or “Delayer”. It was intended as an insult, but in light of how things turned out, it became a badge of honor. When Fabius’ six-month term as dictator expired, his countrymen amassed 87,000 men, the biggest Roman army to date, and marched off to crush Hannibal. He was eager to let them try. At Cannae in 216 BC, Hannibal adopted a brilliant tactical plan that was executed to perfection, lured the eager Romans into a double envelopment, and destroyed them.
Of the 87,000 Romans who took to the field at Cannae, only 10,000 escaped. All the rest were slaughtered or captured. There were no more snide comments and sneers about old man Fabius’ caution, and Cunctator became an honorific instead of an insult. Fabius was elected consul three more times before his passing in 203 BC, and his Fabian strategy became the official one followed by Rome for the remainder of the war, which was finally won in 201 BC. Fabius did not live to see the victory, but he laid the groundwork that led up to it.
The Old Woman Who Led Her People in a Fight Against the British Empire
Frederick Mitchell Hodgson, British governor of the Gold Coast – today’s Ghana – travelled to Kumasi, capital of the Ashanti tribe, in March, 1900. There, he delivered a provocative speech, in which he demanded that the Ashanti produce the Golden Stool, the tribe’s most sacred object, so he could sit upon it. Unsurprisingly, that upset his audience. Into the spotlight stepped Nana Yaa Asantewaa, an old woman in her sixties, and a badass Ashanti Queen Mother. She rallied her people into resistance, in what came to be known as the War of the Golden Stool. Thousands of Ashanti took up arms, and Asantewaa was appointed war leader.
The Ashanti were eventually defeated and annexed to the Gold Coast, but retained their autonomy. They also did not produce the Golden Stool. It was largely thanks to Nana Yaa Asantewaa, born circa 1840 into the royal line of the Edweso clan of the Ashanti Confederacy. The Confederacy was an African state founded in 1701 by a chieftain named Osei Tutu. The new state’s foundation myth revolved around the Golden Stool – a mystical seat supposedly summoned from the sky by Osei Tutu’s chief priest. It fell into the lap of the Ashanti Confederacy’s founder, and thus confirmed his right to rule. The Golden Stool became the Ashanti state’s most sacred object, and the chief symbol around which the tribe united.
In the nineteenth century, Britain’s African Company of Merchants began to support rivals of the Ashanti. That created friction, which Britain inherited when it dissolved the African Company and took over its holdings in 1821. Continued British support for Ashanti tribal enemies eventually led to a war that lasted from 1823 to 1831. That conflict, the First Anglo-Ashanti War, was followed by frequent skirmishes that grew into war four more times in subsequent generations. It was against that backdrop of conflict between the Ashanti and Britain that Yaa Asantewaa was born, raised, got married, and had a daughter.
Asantewaa, the elder of two children, became a major landowner and prosperous farmer in her region. Her younger brother eventually became chief of Edweso. When he died in 1894, his sister exhibited signs of the badass she would become, when she used her position as Queen Mother to nominate and secure the succession for her own grandson. The eruption of yet another conflict with the British disrupted her plans. Britain demanded that the Ashanti sign a letter in which they would consent to become a British protectorate. When the Ashanti refused, the Fourth Anglo-Ashanti War broke out.
The Fourth Anglo-Ashanti War turned out to be a brief and largely lopsided conflict that lasted from December, 1895, to February, 1896. It was decided by a massive British firepower advantage, in which Maxim machine guns and the latest in field artillery were pitted against Ashanti spears and obsolescent muzzle-loading firearms. The victorious British exiled the Ashanti monarch, Prempeh I, to the Seychelles in the Indian Ocean, along with his chief supporters. Yaa Asantewaa’s grandson, for whom she had secured the rule of Edweso, was among those exiled.
Asantewaa had to step into her grandson’s shoes, assume his place, and rule as regent. She demonstrated her badass chops and maintained order amongst her subjects. None too fond of the British to begin with – as few Ashanti were – the exile of her grandson further alienated and soured Edweso’s regent and old Queen Mother against the colonial power. Then in March, 1900, the pot boiled over when Governor Frederick Mitchell Hodgson, accompanied by his wife, travelled with a military escort to Kumasi, chief city of the Ashanti.
A Patronizing Speech from a Foreigner that Infuriated the Locals
In Kumasi, Frederick Mitchell Hodgson summoned the Ashanti chiefs, and oblivious to their sensibilities, delivered an offensive speech. As Governor Hodgson told the assembled leaders: “Your king Prempeh has been exiled and will never return to you. His power and authority will be taken over by the British Queen and her representative. The terms of the 1874 peace treaty between the Ashanti and Britain, which required you to pay for the cost of that war, have not been forgotten. The Ashanti are required to pay £160,000 a year, plus interest. Then there is the matter of the Golden Stool of Ashanti.
What must I do to the man, whoever he is, who has failed to give the Queen the stool to which she is entitled? The British Queen is entitled to the stool, and she must receive it. Where is the Golden Stool? I am the Queen’s representative, so why have you made me sit on this ordinary chair? You knew I was coming to Kumasi, so why did you not take the opportunity to bring the Golden Stool for me to sit upon? However, you may rest assured that although you have not delivered the Golden Stool into the hands of the British Government, it will rule over you with the same impartiality and fairness as if you had produced it.” As seen below, the audience did not like what they heard.
Governor Hodgson’s speech did not go down well with the Ashanti, to say the least. It was as if an extraterrestrial had arrived in Mecca, addressed a throng of Muslim religious leaders and other faithful, and requested that they take him to the Kaaba so he could defecate atop it. It was unfortunate that Hodgson was so ignorant about his audience and of what made them tick. For generations, the Ashanti had been West Africa’s fiercest tribe. Pride alone would have demanded that they fight rather than meekly submit. A less oblivious governor would have known that the Ashanti would never willingly produce the Golden Stool – symbol of their state and people, past, present, and future – for a foreigner to sit upon and defile.
When the assembled Ashanti chiefs dithered, old Nana Yaa Asantewaa stepped up. She shamed her people for their passivity and perceived cowardice, and fired them up into resistance with a speech, the gist of which went: “I see that some of you are afraid to step forward and fight for our king. If we were still in the brave days, the days of Osei Tutu, Okomfo Anokye, and Opoku Ware, our chiefs would not simply sit down and see their king being taken away without firing a shot. In those days, no white man could have dared to speak to an Ashanti chief the way the Governor spoke to you chiefs this morning“.
Nana Yaa Asantewaa continued on, and stirred up her tribe to stand up against the British. “How can a proud and brave people like the Ashanti sit back and look while white men take away their king and chiefs, and humiliate them with demand for the Golden Stool? The Golden Stool only means money to the white man; they have searched and dug everywhere for it. I shall pay nothing to the Governor. If you, the chiefs of Ashanti, are going to behave like cowards and not fight, you should exchange your loincloths for my undergarments.
Is it true that the bravery of the Ashanti is no more? I cannot believe it. It cannot be! If the men of Ashanti will not go forward, then we, the women, will. We will fight the white men until the last one of us falls in the battlefields“. The old Queen Mother put an exclamation mark on her badass speech when she grabbed a gun and fired it into the air. The effect was electric. The speech fired up the audience and whipped the embers of Ashanti resentment into a massive blaze of resistance.
Ashanti Women Went on a Very Effective Strike to Encourage their Men to Fight
That night, after her fiery speech, Nana Yaa Asantewaa and the gathered chiefs “drank the gods” – libations poured out as offerings – and pledged to rid themselves of the British yoke. She was also appointed Ashanti war leader and commander of the forces – a role to which no woman had been appointed before. Within days, thousands flocked to join her. Many more who had initially been reluctant to join, were shamed into doing so after Asantewaa enlisted Ashanti women to carry out a highly effective public relations campaign. Women were organized into groups to march around their villages, and engaged in martial rituals to demonstrate their support and solidarity. The masculinity of laggard men was publicly challenged, and Asantewaa even got Ashanti women to withhold physical relations from their husbands if they did not join the resistance.
Governor Hodgson hastily retreated into Kumasi’s fort, along with his wife and military escort. They were soon surrounded by thousands of warriors, deep in Ashanti territory and hundreds of miles away from the coast and British military rescue. The fort’s machine guns and modern artillery held the besiegers at bay. So the Ashanti, who lacked artillery to breach its walls, settled down to a siege. They cut off the defenders from supplies, and hoped to starve them into surrender. Asantewaa continued to display her badass chops. She had her men erect massive barricades along the routes to Kumasi. Made of stone, logs and dirt, they proved highly resistant to British artillery. Between the barricades, ambushes, and other Ashanti tactics, the pace of a British relief expedition sent to rescue Hodgson was reduced to a crawl.
The Old Woman Who Brought a British Advance to a Crawl
A British relief column of about 700 men finally reached Kumasi’s fort, only to end up besieged themselves. When supplies ran low, Governor Hodgson organized the healthiest men into a breakout, which spirited him and his wife to safety. They left the sick and wounded behind. Eventually, a second and more powerful British expedition was organized to suppress the Ashanti. It marched into Kumasi, lifted the siege, broke the Ashanti resistance, and ended the War of the Golden Stool. It had cost the British over a thousand lives, while the Ashanti lost an estimated two thousand.
The Ashanti were annexed, and incorporated into the Gold Coast as a protectorate. However, they were allowed to run their own internal affairs, with considerable autonomy that amounted to de facto independence. The Golden Stool was not surrendered to the British, but hidden deep in the forest. It was accidentally discovered decades later by some laborers, who desecrated it by removing some of its ornaments. As to Asantewaa, the Ashanti warrior queen was exiled to the Seychelles, where she died of old age in 1921. Her body was eventually returned to her homeland, where it was buried with honors. Today, she is viewed in Ghana as a great national heroine.
Hugh Latimer (circa 1487 – 1555) was an English Protestant bishop burned at the stake in old age by Queen Mary during her campaign to restore England to Roman Catholicism. King Henry VIII had taken England out of the Catholic Church when the Pope refused to grant him a divorce from Mary’s mother. He established the Church of England, and appointed himself its head. However, he kept many doctrines and practices of Catholicism. Hugh Latimer had graduated from Cambridge University, and was elected a fellow of its Clare College in 1510.
Latimer became a Catholic priest in 1515, but switched to Protestantism in 1524. He became a zealous advocate and defender of his new faith. He gained renown as a Protestant preacher, and was appointed a bishop by Henry VIII in his newly formed Church of England. However, Latimer resigned in protest when the king refused to adopt Protestant reforms. Henry was succeeded by his underage son, Edward VI, who was more staunchly Protestant. In the son’s reign, England became decidedly more Protestant. Latimer regained royal favor, was appointed court preacher, and became the young king’s chaplain.
Unfortunately for Hugh Latimer and England’s Protestants, Edward VI died young and without issue. He was succeeded by his sister Mary, a staunch Catholic who viewed Protestantism as a heresy, and was determined to restore England to Catholicism. Mary ordered that prominent Protestants, such as Latimer, be imprisoned and tried for heresy. Latimer, along with fellow bishop Nicholas Ridley and Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, was tried for heresy in Oxford in 1555. When he refused to renounce his faith, he was convicted of heresy and sentenced to be burned at the stake.
Latimer was chained to the stake alongside Ridley. When the flames were lit, Ridley cried out in anguish. Latimer sought to comfort him even as he himself was being consumed by fire. The old bishop told his colleague: “be of good cheer, master Ridley, and play the man; we shall this day light such a candle in England, as I hope, by God’s grace, shall never be put out.” It could be argued that the candle still burns. Queen Mary’s efforts to restore Catholicism failed. When she died in 1558, she was succeeded by her Protestant sister, Elizabeth I, and England has been Protestant ever since.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading