King, magician, general … slave: Eunus and the First Servile War against Rome

Buried in chains – a Roman-era skeleton, thought to be that of a male slave, excavated near Bordeaux. The body was buried with shackles around the neck, and dates from the 1st century AD.

Buried in chains – a Roman-era skeleton, thought to be that of a male slave, excavated near Bordeaux. The body was buried with shackles around the neck, and dates from the 1st century AD.

The omens had been terrible that year. In Rome, a slave girl gave birth to a monster: “a boy with four feet, four hands, four eyes, double the usual number of ears, and two sets of sexual organs,” most likely a case of Siamese twins. In Sicily, Mount Etna erupted “in flashes of fire,” spewing gouts of molten rock and scorching ash that torched rich landowners’ property for miles around.

It all pointed to trouble – to trouble in Sicily, and most of all to trouble with the slaves. And when that trouble came, it made sense of the portents, for it was the work of a slave who was in Roman eyes a monster. He was a magician who belched flames like the volcano, an adept who foretold futures, and a messianic priest-king who served a grotesque foreign goddess, and led his people in a revolt that lasted half a decade, and took five large Roman armies to put down.

A statue of Eunus outside the walls of a citadel in Enna, the formidable hill-top fortress that was his ancient capital.

A statue of Eunus outside the walls of the citadel at Enna, in the interior of Sicily. The formidable hill-top fortress was once his ancient capital.

His name was Eunus – which may be translated, roughly, as “the kindly one” – and although he is practically forgotten now, he was a leader fit to rank alongside Spartacus – or, in truth, above him, for while both men were slaves who masterminded wars against Rome (Spartacus six decades later), Eunus’s rebellion was four or five times as large, and it lasted something like three times as long. He built a state, which Spartacus never tried to do, and all the evidence suggests that he inspired fierce loyalty in ways the Thracian gladiator could not – after all, Spartacus (to the surprise of those who know him from romantic film and television portrayals) was undone as much by dissension within the ranks of his own army as he was by the might of the legions that were sent against him. And when the end came for Eunus, it did so in a götterdämmerung reminiscent of nothing so much as the fall of Masada, the Jewish mountain-top fortress taken by Rome around 74 A.D. At Masada, the 960 surviving defenders committed suicide en masse rather than fall into the hands of their enemies. In Sicily, the thousand picked men of the slave-king’s bodyguard hacked their way out of encirclement, only to kill one another in an identical pact when their position became hopeless – leaving their leader and his last four followers to be hunted down in the furthest reaches of the mountains that had protected them for years. Continue reading

Aqua Tofana: slow-poisoning and husband-killing in 17th century Italy

Detail from

Detail from “The love potion”, by the nineteenth century Pre-Raphaelite Evelyn De Morgan. The tangled tale of Aqua Tofana is intimately connected to the “criminal magical underworlds” of the 17th century, which supplied love philtres, potions, medicines and poisons to a mostly female clientele.

Early in the autumn of 1791, while he was still hard at work on the great requiem mass that would form such a large part of his legend, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart fell seriously ill. Convinced that there was no chance of recovery, he

began to speak of death, and asserted that he was setting the Requiem for himself… “I feel definitely,” he continued, “that I will not last much longer; I am sure that I have been poisoned. I cannot rid myself of this idea… Someone has given me acqua tofana and calculated the precise time of my death.

Scholars have wrangled now for two full centuries over the circumstances of the great composer’s passing. A handful have concluded that he really was murdered. Most support rival diagnoses of syphilis, rheumatic fever or even the deadly effects of eating undercooked pork chops. Whatever the truth, though, and however he died, Mozart was certainly convinced that there existed a rare poison, one that was colourless, tasteless, odourless, beyond detection – and also so flexibly murderous that a carefully-calculated dose could guarantee a victim’s death a week, a month or even a year after it had been administered.

Nor was the composer alone in this belief. Forgotten though it is today, the mysterious liquid that he feared so much was one of the great whispered secrets of early modern Europe. Aqua Tofana was credited with what amounted to supernatural powers, and blamed for hundreds of agonising deaths. Which is odd, since it is very far from clear that it ever existed – and, if it did, what it was, where it was invented, where first used, and when and how it got its name. Continue reading

Queen Victoria’s £5: the strange tale of Turkish aid to Ireland during the Great Famine

A destitute Irish family search a stubble field for healthy potatoes at the height of the Great Famine of 1845-51. At least a million people–one in eight of the population–starved to death during the disaster. Thousands more, though, were saved by the exertions of relief funds–the contributors to which included both the Ottoman sultan and Queen Victoria.

A destitute Irish family search a stubble field for healthy potatoes at the height of the Great Famine of 1845-51. At least a million people–one in eight of the population–starved to death during the disaster. Thousands more, though, were saved by the exertions of relief funds–the contributors to which included both the Ottoman sultan and Queen Victoria.

The most striking thing about the ghastly blight that ruined Ireland’s potato crop in 1845 was that the harvest had seemed healthy, even robust, when it was lifted from the ground.

Within a day or two, however, rot set in. Potatoes that had looked firm and edible turned black and then disintegrated into a stinking, liquid mess. No one knew why. John Lindley, the editor of the Gardeners’ Chronicle, guessed that this “wet putrefaction” was a disease borne in from the Atlantic by torrential gales. Others thought that the blight had somehow risen up from underground, so that the soil itself was now infected.

The one certainty was that every measure tried to save the harvest failed. “All specifics, all nostrums were useless,” the historian Cecil Woodham-Smith observed. “Whether ventilated, desiccated, salted, or gassed, the potatoes melted… and pits, on being opened, were found to be filled with diseased potatoes–‘six months’ provisions a mass of rottenness.’” The blight struck everywhere that year, from North America to Belgium, and the Irish had long been distressingly familiar with disastrous harvests; twenty-four previous crop failures had been recorded between 1728 and 1844. Several of these had caused suffering “horrible beyond description,” and it has been estimated that very nearly half a million people died during Ireland’s “Year of Slaughter” (1740-41), when a freezing winter caused the oat crop to fail. But the catastrophe of 1845 was was remembered as the greatest of them all, and it affected Ireland more profoundly than it did anywhere else, with the possible exception of the Scottish Highlands. Continue reading

The last secret of the H.L. Hunley

Submarine inventor James R. McClintock as he looked in the later 1870s, from a carte de visite photographed in New Albany. McClintock was living in the Illinois town when he journeyed to Boston in February 1879–apparently to meet his end there.

James R. McClintock, the inventor of the H.L. Hunley, shortly before journeying to Boston in February 1879–apparently to meet his end there. Image: Naval Historical Center.

At a quarter to nine on the evening of February 17, 1864, Officer of the Deck John Crosby glanced over the side of the Federal sloop-of-war Housatonic and across the glassy waters of a calm Atlantic. His ship was on active duty, blockading the rebel port of Charleston from an anchorage five miles off the coast, and there was always the risk of a surprise attack by some Confederate small craft. But what Crosby saw that night, by a wintry moon that barely illuminated the dark ocean, was a sight so strange that he was not at first quite certain what it was. “Something on the water,” he recalled it to a court of enquiry a week later, “which at first looked to me like a porpoise, coming to the surface to blow.”

Crosby told the Housatonic‘s quartermaster of the object, but it had already disappeared–and when, a moment later, he saw it again, it was too close to the sloop for there to be time to slip the anchor. The Housatonic‘s crew scrambled to their action stations just in time to witness a substantial explosion on their starboard side. Fatally holed, their ship sank in a few minutes, taking five members of her crew with her.

It was not clear until some time later that the Housatonic had been the first victim of a new weapon of war. The ship–all 1,240 tons of her–had been sunk by the Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley: 40 feet of hammered iron, hand-cranked by a suicidally brave crew of eight men, and armed with a 90-pound gunpowder charge mounted on a spar that jutted, as things turned out, not nearly far enough from her knife-slim bow.

The story of the Housatonic and the Hunley, and of the Hunley‘s own sinking soon after her brief moment of glory, of her rediscovery in 1995 and her eventual salvage in 2000, has been told many times. We know a good deal now about how the submarine came to be built – of her funding by a patriotic Southerner named Horace Hunley, the construction of two prototypes, and how the Hunley herself was riveted together at Mobile – not to mention the design defects and the human errors that drowned two earlier Hunley crews, 13 men in all. We also know a little of the men who did the actual work: James McClintock and Baxter Watson, two talented mechanics who were running a steam gauge business in New Orleans when the war broke out. We even have a shrewd idea of the division of labor between the two men, for Watson’s son once confided that while his father had built the Hunley, it was McClintock who designed her. Of the three men responsible for the Hunley, then, it was probably James McClintock who played the most important role–and, as thing turn out, it is McClintock who also has by far the strangest tale to tell. Continue reading

Islam’s medieval underworld

Arab city

Arab city

An Arab city of the early medieval period. Urban centers in the Middle East were of a size and wealth all but unknown in the Christian west during this period, encouraging the development of a large and diverse fraternity of criminals. From a contemporary manuscript.

The year is—let us say—1170, and you are the leader of a city watch in medieval Persia. Patrolling the dangerous alleyways in the small hours of the morning, you and your men chance upon two or three shady-looking characters loitering outside the home of a wealthy merchant. Guessing that you have stumbled across a gang of housebreakers, you order them searched. From various hidden pockets in the suspects’ robes, your men produce a candle, a crowbar, stale bread, an iron spike, a drill, a bag of sand—and a live tortoise.

The reptile is, of course, the clincher. There are a hundred and one reasons why an honest man might be carrying a crowbar and a drill at three in the morning, but only a gang of experienced burglars would be abroad at such an hour equipped with a tortoise. It was a vital tool in the Persian criminals’ armory, used—after the iron spike had made a breach in a victim’s dried-mud wall—to explore the property’s interior.

We know this improbable bit of information because burglars were members of a loose fraternity of rogues, vagabonds, wandering poets and outright criminals who made up Islam’s medieval underworld. This broad group was known collectively as the Banu Sasan, and for half a dozen centuries its members might be encountered anywhere from Umayyad Spain to the Chinese border. Possessing their own tactics, tricks and slang, the Banu Sasan comprised a hidden counterpoint to the surface glories of Islam’s golden age. They were also celebrated as the subjects of a scattering of little-known but fascinating manuscripts that chronicled their lives, morals and methods. Continue reading

The child murder that gave voodoo its bad name

An engraving–probably made from a contemporary photograph–shows the eight Haitian

An engraving–probably made from a contemporary photograph–shows the eight Haitian “voodoo” devotees found guilty in February 1864 of the murder and cannibalism of a 12-year-old child. From Harper’s Weekly.

It was a Saturday, market day in Port-au-Prince, and the chance to meet friends, gossip and shop had drawn large crowds to the Haitian capital. Sophisticated, French-educated members of the urban ruling class crammed into the market square beside illiterate farmers, a generation removed from slavery, who had walked in from the surrounding villages for a rare day out.

The whole of the country had assembled, and it was for this reason that Fabre Geffrard had chosen February 13, 1864, as the date for eight high-profile executions. Haiti’s reformist president wished to make an example of these four men and four women: because they had been found guilty of a hideous crime—abducting, murdering and cannibalizing a 12-year-old girl. And also because they represented everything Geffrard hoped to leave behind him as he molded his country into a modern nation: the backwardness of its hinterlands, its African past and, above all, its folk religion. Continue reading

In the cave of the witches

A photo sometimes said to depict members of Chiloé’s murderous society of warlocks—founded, so they claimed, in 1786 and destroyed by the great trial of 1880-81.

There is a place in South America that was once the end of the earth. It lies close to the 35th parallel, where the Maule River empties into the Pacific Ocean, and in the first years of the 16th century it marked the spot at which the Empire of the Incas ended and a strange and unknown world began.

South of the Maule, the Incas thought, lay a land of mystery and darkness. It was a place where the Pacific’s waters chilled and turned from blue to black, and where indigenous peoples struggled to claw the basest of livings from a hostile environment. It was also where the witches lived and evil came from. The Incas called this land “the Place of Seagulls.”

Today, the Place of Seagulls begins at a spot 700 miles due south of the Chilean capital, Santiago, and stretches for another 1,200 miles all the way to Tierra del Fuego, the “land of fire” so accurately described by Lucas Bridges as “the uttermost part of the earth.” Even now, the region remains sparsely inhabited—and at its lonely heart lies the island of Chiloé: rain-soaked and rainbow-strewn, matted with untamed virgin forest and possessed of a distinct and interesting history. First visited by Europeans in 1567, Chiloé was long known for piracy and privateering. In the 19th century, when Latin America revolted against imperial rule, the island remained loyal to Spain. And in 1880, a little more than half a century after it was finally incorporated into Chile, it was also the scene of a remarkable trial—the last significant witch trial, probably, anywhere in the world.
Continue reading