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Inspirational Reads

Cave Idus Martias...

March 16, 2016

This particular week of the year is a big week for this blog.  One thing that always fascinates me, or at least tickles that little piece of my brain that implores me to write, are the various holidays, observances, and feast days that litter our calendar.  Monday (March 14) was Pi Day, or, if you're into that kind of thing, Steak and Blowjob day (which I've never observed/celebrated).  Thursday of this week is St. Patrick's Day, which has a special meaning to me since I went to Notre Dame AND my blog readership saw a sudden uptick in traffic when I first began writing summaries of a few of the big saint feast days, St. Valentine's Day and St. Patrick's Day.

But Tuesday...Tuesday was the Ides of March, which, on the Roman calendar, translated to the fifteenth of March.  In case you've been living under a rock, you should know that I love some Roman history as well as Shakespeare.  That makes the Ides of March one of those days that, as a blogger with a penchant for writing about ancient history, I should circle on the calendar and put gold stars in the little box marking the date.  It was especially fitting because Tuesday, on the Roman calendar, was dedicated to Mars...for whom the month of March was named!  The Ides of March on the day honoring Mars!  Whoa!

Stabby stabby.
And...I kind of dropped the ball on that one. 

The Ides of March are famous for being the day that Julius Caesar was murdered in the Theater of Pompey by a gang of sixty senators who feared that Caesar had grown too strong politically and was looking to consolidate his power, thus ending the Roman Republic.

Kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy, then, when the murder of Caesar was one of the events that sounded the death knell for the Republic and ushered in the age of the Empire.

But, I have not come here to bury Caesar.

No, our story takes us to a time roughly 500 years later.  Even though the Roman state--kingdom, republic, empire--had existed for some 1200 years, all good things must come to an end.  By the end, the Western Empire was a ramshackle shell of itself, a ghost barely clinging to the territories that men had conquered and secured centuries before.  The last Roman Emperor--and that's a contentious title--was Romulus Augustulus, who knelt before a Germanic invader named Odoacer in 476.  This ended the Roman Empire in the west and ushered in the very first Kingdom of Italy on that fateful September morning.  Odoacer placed the crown upon his head and was ever since known as the first Rex Italiae, or King of Italy.

For all intents and purposes, Odoacer was allowed to rule in Italy (which included some of modern day France, Switzerland, Hungary, Austria, Slovenia, and Croatia) by the grace of Emperor Zeno, who controlled the Eastern Roman Empire (later, the Byzantine Empire).  For the most part, Odoacer was a decent king.  He settled the unrest within the kingdom, helped secure the borders against outside tribes (especially the Burgundians), and generally saw himself as a proxy ruler for the real last Roman Emperor, a man named Julius Nepos, who had been deposed (but not killed) by Romulus Augustulus' father.  Told you that "last Roman Emperor" title was contentious.

Unseating the "rightful" Roman Emperor in the West had never sat well with Zeno, and so he tried to control both parts of the empire by setting Odoacer upon what was essentially a throne in Italy.  As mentioned earlier, for the most part, Odoacer was a decent guy (for a barbarian) and a fairly good king.

It's good to be the king.
We know this both from records that exist as well as the fact that he became popular enough and powerful enough that Zeno began to worry.  A man of Odoacer's status and charisma (he was a very successful military leader, prior to becoming King of the Italians) would most likely chafe at Zeno's hegemony and eventually become a threat.  To that end, Zeno decided that Odoacer must be killed.

Odoacer, for his part, was satisfied with just being Rex Italiae and not worrying about the East so much; he saw Zeno and the Eastern Roman Empire as allies and friends and had no designs on conquest of the other half of the Roman Empire.  Zeno didn't see things that way, however.

This was not the first rodeo for Zeno in which he murdered someone he had set up on a puppet throne to ostensibly extend his rule.  Which is why Theodoric the Ostrogoth--or Theodoric the Great--was so eager to lead the invasion of the Kingdom of Italy from his home in the Balkans.  Theodoric had already seen Zeno assassinate and murder several other men who were in positions of power--positions that Zeno had set them in.  Theodoric, who was smart enough to know what was up, saw that he, too, would probably soon become one of Zeno's targets, and so he decided to get the hell out of Dodge.

Theodoric and his merry band of warrior Goths--along with some other tribes--led a very successful invasion of Italy, beating back Odaocer's forces time and again.  Odoacer managed to punch back and hold off Theodoric's forces for a while, even besieging a city in which Theodoric and a large portion of his army was trapped.  However, in a very strange, and likely one of the few moments of Gothic solidarity, one of Theodoric's cousins sent over a large force of Visigoths to savage the Italian countryside. 

This spelled doom for Odoacer.

In addition to protecting and rewarding his people, Odoacer had been good to the church.  Odoacer had been very respectful of all of the various Christian sects that were spreading out across Europe at the time, even though he, himself, was an Arian Christian.  With Theodoric's forces pressing in, Odoacer retreated to Ravenna--the seat of his power, where he had been crowned king when Romulus Augustulus abdicated--and continued to fight what he had to know was a losing battle.  Finally, in 493, the Bishop of Ravenna, a man name John, out of respect to Odoacer and all he had done for the Italian people and the church, brokered a peace between Odoacer and Theodoric.

The war ended and things were promising to become a little more normalized.  To celebrate the peace, Theodoric invited Odoacer and some of his men to a feast.
This is fabulous.

Cue the Rains of Castamere.

In a very Game of Thrones twist, Theodoric planned and planted several of his men among the crowd at the feast with the very intent of killing Odoacer and his allies.  Odoacer, who was not quite the bumbling idiot that Theodoric assumed him to be, caught wind of the plot against him and planned appropriately.  When the time came for the attacks, Odoacer and his men were able to foil them.  Theodoric, however, would not suffer defeat lightly.  In frustration, he drew his sword and hurled it at Odoacer, striking him somewhere in the upper chest/throat area--it was described as "hitting his collarbone."  Odoacer fell and died there at the feast with Theodoric standing over him.

The date:  March 15th, 493.

In another very Game of Thrones twist, Theodoric hunted down and killed Odoacer's family, including his wife and daughter.  His son was exiled to Gaul, but when he entered Italy later in life, Theodoric had him captured and executed. 

So, while the Ides of March are most famous for being the day that Julius Caesar was cut down for having too much power and potentially tearing down the fabric of the Republic, the Ides of March are also famous for being the day that the first King of the Italians was cut down for having too much power and potentially tearing down the fabric of Zeno's rule in the East.

If you're an Italian ruler, you would be wise to beware the Ides of March, indeed.