An Ancient History of Rugby

Now with the Six Nations competition in full swing and with the Rugby World cup  around the corner in Japan, this post will trace the Ancient origins of the sport that is played and watched around the world today. 

Often, the modern game of Rugby is attributed to the English town of Rugby, specifically by William Webb Ellis, a pupil from Rugby school who was said to have ran and carried the ball during a football match. However, this has been heavily debated by Rugby hisorians and is largely viewed as a myth. That being said, there is more to the origin of modern day Rugby and in some shape and form similarities can be drawn from ball games played in the Ancient World.

Ball games in the Ancient World-

It is no surprise that when the ‘Ancient World’ is mentioned, the Greeks and Romans are arguably the most popular civilisations studied in Ancient times. Much in the way of Art, Culture and Philosophy is strongly attributed to Ancient Greece and Rome. Ball games played a role in both cultures.

The Greeks played many ball games, whereby participants could use their hands and feet, although not much evidence survives of these ball games, one game in particular is an interesting pre cursor. 
The Greeks played a ball game called ‘Episkyros‘ and appears to be depicted on ceramics. The game was played by 12-14 with one side pitted against the other. The rules allowed players to handle the ball.
The aim of the game was to frequently pass the ball and to push one of the opposing team behind the line at their end of the pitch. The game was regarded as being violent in nature, with many players landing up on the ground. This violent nature of the game was particularly noted in Sparta with the limited source material available.

Elsewhere, further west from Athens in Sparta, teams were divided into two and two white lines were drawn onto the pitch, with one line in front dividing the teams along with another line behind either team. It is interesting to note, although the lines are not the same as what is displayed on a rugby pitch today, the lines are not difficult to figure out. This is especially the case with the line behind the two teams indicating where to score. This is the case today in Rugby as one way to score is for either side to bring the ball past the opposing goal lines ahead of them for a try.

Additionally, women as well as men played, albeit being rare.
Later, the Romans adapted the game ‘Episkyros‘ as well as another Ancient Greek game called ‘Phaininda‘.  ‘Phaininda’ was another ball game that the Romans were known to have adapted. There are limited sources about the game in question. However, from the small amount of source material on offer, it is similiar to ‘Episkyros‘. The game involved two teams pitted against eachother, there was a central line dividing both teams and that the game was again considered to be violent when either side were attempting to win the ball. In this game the ball was small in size and looked as if more balls were used.

The Romans named their version of the game, ‘Harpastum‘. This ball game was played with a small ball, much smaller than a modern day Rugby ball and was similar in size to a modern day cricket ball or base ball. Unfortunately, much with the Greek ball games discussed previously very little is recorded about the rules and style of play. Nevertheless, this game was documented in contemporary Roman writings. The Greek Polymath, Claudius Galenus (129 AD- c. 200/216 AD) lived in the Roman Empire commented, 

‘This exercise is a very heavy, vigorous one involving much use of the hold by the neck and many wrestling holds’.   

In addition, Sidonius Apollinaris ( c.130 – 489 AD) a poet, diplomat and bishop from Gaul in the Western Roman Empire commented,

‘Filimatus sturdily flung himself into squadrons of the players, like Virgil’s hero’.

These accounts are in actual fact reminiscent to modern Rugby in that the game requires much strength, resilience and agility to enable either side to intercept, run with the ball and score. 

Caesar & the Celts: Nationalistic Propaganda and Fear of Foreigners

Julius Caesar, for many a hero, for others a master of war, a tyrant. Whatever your take on Caesar is, the fact is that he was a rather intelligent man who used all the tools he had at hand to complete his objectives. Part of this involved building a narrative for Rome; tales of the greatness of their people and their military victories. Caesar in this regards was fantastic at crafting political propaganda; a common Roman sport that we have already explore in this blog with stories of Cicero and Augustus. And there was a particular enemy that Caesar needed to deprive of any glory: The Celts.  Accounts of the Galic War mystified and bastardised the history of these people and who they really were, to the point that the comics of Asterix do, in many ways, represent that image that the Romans held of their neighbours. This did not stop just with Gaul; the same story is repeated with the Britons and the people of Iberia – And let’s not even get into the nitty-gritty details of the defilement of the Germani, you know, just the same people but on the other side of the Rhine river…Of course, it all makes sense if we consider that Caesar was only delivering the information that his audience wanted of him. Meanwhile, if we have a look at what Greek authors such as Timagenes had to say about the Celts, the picture varies drastically. The Celts of the Greeks weren’t described as dirty or in rags, even if the Greeks believed them to have lower economic power than themselves in some cases. They were described as a people with a culture and a cultural exchange that happened often between the two.

There are plenty of evidence, however that confirm that Caesar was writing with propagandistic accents and that the Celts were people of culture, and not uncivilised societies. Here in Britain and archaeological excavation directed in 2011 of Roman Callevva (Silchester) shows the existence of an earlier Celtic town. This was what is commonly known as an oppidum built following a grid pattern that reflected the sun solstice. It is believed to be one of the most important archaeological discoveries of the last decade. There are also archaeological evidence that the Celts used their own roads that were funded by toll systems, and this is confirmed by evidence of chariots found in Yorkshire as well as in the Rhineland. According to Graham Robb, author of The Ancient Paths: Discovering the Lost Map of Celtic Europe, he advises that the druids – another terribly mystified group of people, not just by the Roman but by many more since them, particularly the Victorians and the waves of Hippies from the 60s- we key in these networks. Robb states that the druids devised network of continental wide solstice lines used in the locations for temples and towns. This seems to correlate with the discoveries found at Silchester too. Another thing he points out is that the Celts and these networks may have led into the earliest types of accurate maps that would have use the Greeks systems for longitude and latitude, again a sign of communication and borrowing between the two cultures.

So where does this fear and defamation of the Celts? Well, believe it or not ladies and gentlemen, this is something that will resonate incredibly without modern society. It was in fact fear of foreign people. Yes, you know, Trump, Brexit, all these movements and people are just representations of ideas that are rather ancient and demodee. Some cool guys with swords and original republics had already gone that far (and much classier and cooler I must say, if I am allowed to be flippant). Before the Rome succeeded in the supremacy for the West, there were in fact Celtic settlements all over their beloved patria. Notorious in this list are those in Turin, Milan and Bologna: all of which are, by the way, names of Celtic origin. There was conflict between these people, not just Rome and the Celts but also the Etruscans – or you know just a different type of Celts who happened to be really successful at what they did and were worthy of specific remarks. The conflict between all of these got to the point that arms were taken. As a result we have an important moment in the early history of Italy and one that will be forever ingrained in the memory of Rome: such was the Battle of Allia. During this confrontation (date c.390 BC, though Polybius suggests it may have been more like 387 BC) the Celts were the victorious side, and the trifle by the river Allia was not going to stop them. Their retaliation took them to the very gate of Rome, and as a consequence the city was sacked by you know them dirty Celts – and it was quite  a frightful moment for the inhabitants of the city, many of which actually fled the settlement in despair. Collective memory is a power thing, it shapes us all and our perception of history, and no one likes to be on the losing side. Therefore, years later with the great Caesar in charge, things started being turned around for the glory of Rome, would not die at the hands of them Celts but subdue them, for sure…


…For sure? Well, let’s see…It would take a long while but it would be in fact the Germani – or you know, our friends the Celts but with a  different name cause they happened to be on the other side of the river – that eventually lead to the fall of Rome, fall that was promoted by the very corrupted and broken system that our glorious Caesar had himself invented (and died for). And just some more food for thought: what of identity? A bit like the Vikings, whose past lives are misshapen by collective memory and political propaganda, the Celts are very much alive not just in our memory, but in our identity as people. There are certain parts of the world that if you walk around and ask their people who they are, or what they are, they will tell you they descend from the Celts. And to them those Celts are not the dirty barbs that the Romans painted. They are a proud and defined people, whose values, cultures and tales are still valued. Why, of course, you can accused me of being biased here for my Celtic heritage, but you just need to look around places in Britain, Ireland, France, Spain, and many more. The Celts are embraced as part of them alive, whilst often the Romans are referred to as those people who came here and left all these things behind for us. Identity and ‘foreignity’ (here I have invented my own word, yeah) are often related. We identify us by what others who aren’t us are. Just keep that in mind when you deal with people around you and more importantly, with people in the past.

Conflicts with Funny Names

Today I bring you an idea I borrowed from a history magazine I found at work (I am not sure if it was BBC history or History Extra, but it must have been one or the other). There were a few pages dedicated to  armed conflicts with some pretty silly or bizarre names. Now their list was pretty extensive, and in no means I have time to cover that amount of stuff in here. So instead I had a look at some of the issues that I found more interesting, and tried to keep them varied in terms of geographical location as well as historical period. So here it goes to a collection of pretty random war names.

War of the Bucket: sometimes also referred to as the War of the Oaken Bucket; a bellicose dispute between Bologna and Modena. The year was 1325 and the area where the vast majority of the conflict actually develops, is in the district of Emilia. It all started with some troops from Modena pilfered a bucket from a well belonging to the Bologna city walls. And you would think: all that fuss for a blooming bucket?! Well my friends, in case you are not up to speed with the Italian politics of the period, this was obviously not just about the bucket, but about the fact that Modena and Bologna where on opposite sides of the power struggle between the Holy Roman Emperor and the Pope. Bologna, as a supporter of the Pope was part of the Guelfs, whilst Modena sided with the HRE and the Ghibellines. In short, the outcome of this not so silly war was a victory for Modena, despite the 30000 soldiers that Bologna sent to confront their enemy. And what happened to the bucket? In case you are interested, this is apparently still displayed at Modena’s city hall – just out of spite.

Football War: this was a relatively recent conflict between El Salvador and Honduras. It is often referred to as well as the Soccer War or the 100 Hours War due to its duration – whether that makes it qualify as a war or not… And it is all because of football; indeed. It started in 1969 during the world cup qualifier match for the 1970 FIFA competition between these two nations. And was this really about football? Well, just like with the bucket; not quite that simple I am afraid. Issues rise up regarding immigration due to disputed border and land ownership which affected the mix population of Hondurans and Salvadorans in the area, the latter being effectively kicked out of the country in 1967. So y the time the match comes up, people in Honduras were concerned there were Salvadorans crossing the border not just for the sake of the match, but to stay. A series of nationalistic riots pushed the military to get involved, to the point that the Honduran government was sincerely concerned there would be a trespassing on behalf of the Salvadoran army which eventually happened. For the  over 100 hours that the conflict lasted, the number of casualties added up to around 3000 deaths, most of which were Honduran civilians.

The Flagstaff War: British v Maori. This is the conflict that in fact relates to Hone Heke’s rebellion. After a somewhat peaceful coexistence between the inhabitants of New Zealand and the newcomer British Empire, Heke instigated the war against their new friends due to many things, but I guess the straw that broke the camel’s back was the fact that the British transferred their capital to Auckland from Okiato. This resulted in dramatic economic loses for Heke and his fellowmen. Thus, they decided to take their anger out on the British flag on Maiki Hill, which was chopped down repeatedly in 1844. This caused severe grievances as the British would keep on putting it back on the ground, and Heke and his people kept on cutting it down. The last time this stand-off was performed, it actually ended in violence with the death of one of the keepers of the flag. Leading to several battles; the entire conflict becoming a stalemate, which nonetheless has mostly been presented as a British victory as it meant grounds for reconciliation with Heke and the rest of the Maori communities…

Potato War/Plumfuss (1778-9). This was a conflict involving Austria against Prussia, with the special and additional mentions of Bavaria and Saxony. During the Bavarian War of Succession there was an attempt made by the alliance of Prussia and Saxony to stop the Hapsburg control over the region of Bavaria. As a result the fight entangles into a series of skirmishes. However, although the conflict was not so terrible there were thousands of death due to starvation as the result of  the raiding and pillaging soldiers who spoilt the vast majority of the food supplies. So, yes, perhaps this one war and its funny name have a higher affiliation in terms of terminology than the others. And the reason for the variance between potato and plum? It is a German thing: the Prussians and Saxons referred to it as the Kartoffelkrieg (Kartoffel being potato, krieg: war), whilst the Austrians used the term zwetschgenrummel (zwetschgen – plum, rummel – hustle). So it really depends on which side of the war your stand with this one.



In A Farewell to Arms, Ernest Hemingway described the desolate environment of the Soča Valley:

There was fighting for that mountain too … the branches were bare and the trunks black with rain. The vineyards were thin and bare-branched too and all the country wet and brown and dead with autumn.”

It is hard to believe that Hemingway’s description here is of the same valley that stands today; a wide expanse of deep forests cut by canyons and rivers. Of course, his description was from a time in history when desolation was the norm: The First World War.


In the early twentieth century the Soča Valley “evoked horror and sorrow” as John R. Schindler argued. The Isonzo River was a battleground from May 1915 to October 1917, utilized by the Italian and Austro-Hungarian armies. The goal of the Italian army was to seize the Bainsizza Plateau- a way north. Over the course of almost two and a half years, twelve battles were fought along the Isonzo river, and today, 18th August 2017, marks the 100-year anniversary of the eleventh instalment of these battles.

By 1917, both armies were at breaking point. After victories on the Eastern Front, General Erich Ludendorff sent more divisions to enforce the Austrian-Hungarian Army. The Eleventh Battle of the Isonzo lasted for almost a month, beginning on the 18th August and ending 12th September 1917. With new reinforcements and tactics, the assault had immense consequences for both sides; Italy had 40,000 recorded dead, 108,000 wounded and approximately 18,000 missing. The Austrian-Hungarian army had a total of 15,000 dead, 65,000 wounded, and 30,000 missing.


Schindler, in his book Isonzo: The Forgotten Sacrifice of the Great War, emphasised how the cost of the battle outweighed any gain that was achieved by either army. Other than gaining a few miles of land every now and again, the only decisive victory came with the Battle of Caporetto in late 1917, when the Austrian-Hungarian army broke through the Italian front. The Italian army was only able to cross the Isonzo river in November 1918 after 29 months of fighting, and this was mostly due to the political collapse of Austria-Hungary, as opposed to any considerate military prowess.

With this tragic loss of life, a debate has surfaced which attempted to identify why the Isonzo campaign is generally a forgotten aspect of history. Perhaps to the trained historian, who specialises in Italian history, the mere mention of the word “Isonzo” would bring a torrent of information otherwise hidden in general history books. But to the average member of the public, the Isonzo campaign is virtually unknown compared to other World War One battles such as the Somme. Schindler has argued that the impact of the Isonzo was immense, especially in terms of politics, culture and society, and yet it has disappeared from history. This could be due to the fact that the Italian army was once the greatest in the world, and the twentieth century left it in tatters. But for English-speaking and western historians, Schindler states that battles that did not occur on the Western Front “apparently are not worth exploring.”

In a review of Schindler’s book, Lawrence Sondhaus agreed, stating that English, French, and German literature focussed mainly on the Western Front with a “heavy bias.” All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque, Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks and the works of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon are just a few examples. Sondhaus also supported Schindler’s argument in that ultimately the sacrifices made along the Isonzo were enormous, and yet did not play a decisive role in the aftermath of the war. For many Italians and Central Europeans, the Isonzo campaign symbolized the “utter futility” of World War One.

Having said this, one could argue that perhaps the Isonzo was not as futile as it may appear. Michael Howard suggested that for English Prime Minister Lloyd George, the collapse of the Italian front was “providential.” With a reshuffle of troops across the Western Front to stabilise the Italian one, it led to a collaboration with French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau to create the Allied Supreme War Council in 1917. Based in Versailles, the council would lead the world to an armistice and eventual treaty in 1919.

In addition to this, Kirsten Amor has pointed out that the Ustanova Fundacija Poti Miru v Posočju Foundation was set up to avert the disappearance of one of many tragic marks of the First World War. The Foundation worked with the Institute for the Protection of Cultural Heritage to create ‘Pot Miru’ (‘Walk of Peace’); a 90-kilometre trail through the Soča Valley highlighting the major sites of the war.


Ultimately, the Isonzo Campaign cost Italy approximately 1.1 million casualties, and Austria Hungary 650,000. Schindler is adamant that these people were “sacrificed in pointless battles for useless objectives.” Whilst this is undeniably true, the Battles of the Isonzo are a reminder of the loss, sacrifice, and tragedy of war as a whole. They may be forgotten, but they are not insignificant.

The Glory of Rome: Imperial Monumental Architecture

Right, I am back banging on about architecture. We left it on the Greeks last time, so it only makes sense to talk about the Romans a bit today! But today I am going to do something slightly different from last time. I will give you a run through the uses of Roman architecture and then I will talk about certain buildings which are renown and explain them from this architectural/historical point of view. Just to keep things interesting…!

So, the thing with Roman architecture is that it really evolves from its uses in Greek times, so these construction industry advancements are deployed in multitudes of ways. For the Romans a building had to comply with three principles: firmitas (how solid something is), utilitas (it must be functional) et venustas (but it also gotta be pretty). For this purpose, the individual architect gain more prestige in Romans, and this is also the time where the construction and decoration process of a building gets separated. For the purpose of decoration and statement-making, the Romans develop the idea of a main facade for a building: the face of the structure if you like. They also become obsessed with making huge things, not just buildings but sculptures as well. in this regards the borrowed a lot from the Egyptians Pharaohs who were up until this moment the key example of monumental and colossal art. And this is a tendency that we see from here on in nationalistic movements and revivals: think of all the nationalist, particularly fascist movements of the 19th and 20th century. I am sure you will notice they are inspired by Roman architecture a fair bit. From the point of view of structural and ornamental elements, we see both old and new things appearing. In terms of structure support we have walls, pillars and columns as well as midpoint arches. The style use in columns and capitals reflects new patterns: the still used the Greek orders, but they created new or altered these ones as we see in the Doric-Tuscan style and the composite which often involved the use of Ionic and Corinthian ornamental elements at combined.When creating roofs and ceiling, the Romans went further than the triangular and rectangular bases the Greeks were used to. It is thanks to them that we start seeing the development of more elaborate architraves and vaults, and on this they were particularly prolific as we see the creation of semi-spheferic, pointed quarter spheres, edged and barrel vaults.

The Romans did not keep their glorious architectural styles just for private building such as the domus and the insulae; they applied this to religious and political sites as well. Their temples imitate those of the Greeks but they move away from the rectangular shaped tier, and start creating completely circular colonnades. Their artistic aspirations are also visible in public buildings such as roads, bridges and aqueducts, baths, theatres and amphitheatres, but we also start seeing the triumphal arches and columns which again highlight these idea of imperialistic monumental ornamental commemorations.

Trajan's column
Trajan’s Column, Rome. I took this picture in 2008 in a trip of Italy that we did with school, so you know, a few years back. However, you get the sense of what i mean with monumental architecture for public uses – this is political propaganda.

Some of the best examples of these types of structures used throughout the Roman Empire you can find them, of course, in Rome. Just above we have Trajan’s column. This piece has traditionally been attributed to Apollodorus of Damascus, who was a favourite of the emperor Trajan – he did a few works for him including, the column of course, Trajan’s bridge following his campaign in Dacia, and Trajan’s forum – (Good guy Trajan, giving us monumental architecture, roads, sewers, 3 months of gladiatorial games…devaluation of currency…the alimenta act for the welfare of the poor…Little knew the Dacians that their loss would bring such high stakes to the Empire, not just pretty buildings). In any case, this artefact is pretty impressive. Built in the high roman empire – completed in 113 AD – it manages to combine all of the arts in one. The column is made of 40 metres of solid marble, erected over a podium, decorated with a massive helical frieze (200 m ) going from its base to the capital; this was super innovative at the time. The frieze, of course, talks about the conquest of the Dacians, the glory of Rome and how cool Trajan was – if you gonna do it, go big: at the top, the pillar is crowned with a statue of the man and legend. I mean this is the ultimate example of firmitas, utilitas et venustas. This is also very noticeable in another structure seemingly erected during Trajan’s reign too, but much closer to his own homeland in Hispania. I am talking about the aqueduct that we have in Segovia, which is obviously a UNESCO heritage site.

I am sure you appreciate here the qualities that make this such a perfect example of the objective and purpose of Roman architecture. This structure is 818 metres long by 56 m high and it serve a public function: providing and transporting water for the city and the area. But the actual technique used is just as impressive as the sheer size of the thing itself: this is made out of square blocks of granite, without any mortar, and it is composed by 2 superposed  midpoint arch rows. For the Roman mind it is really the use of the space, and of this chunky material in such a graceful way and scale what makes it truly extraordinary. The perfect harmony obtained once away by the vertical and horizontal lines is something taken from the Greeks and their obsession with symmetry. But this building says more about Rome as a society that one might think. This is making a blatant statement of the power of Imperialism and the strength of the romanisation process in areas like Spain, it is telling us about Roman society being an urban community with high needs and demands – and of course, the thing those pieces of stone cannot talk to you about is all the slaves that worked in the construction of this building…

However, Rome starts struggling with one issue: religion. And it will be the rise of Christianity that will show us the new changes in architecture that start cropping up in Europe, but that, is another story…

Fight for Gorizia: The Italian Front and the Isonzo Battles

Following our First World War timeline, we take a trip to the Italian Front to have a brief look over a conflict that was of significant meaning in the war narrative of Italy – despite the actual lack of strategic value and impact it had over the events at the front line. Gorizia itself was not part of the war zone for nearly the first year of the war. Regardless, the region still felt the brutality of the conflict. According to Nello Christiani, the first victim to be known of in Gorizia as a result of the war was the countess Lucy Christalnigg, who seems to have got shot while traveling on her car to a mission for the Red Cross by some Landsturmer guards (10th August 1914). However, as we know, Italy did not actually join the war until 1915. Italy had joined the Allied side with the promise of gaining territory in the area of Slovenia, and with the thought that the war would be relatively quick. But soon they found themselves in an expensive armed conflict that would last longer that they could afford. For the Italian troops positioned in the Isonzo Valley, this would be mean the constant quarreling with the Austro-Hungarian Empire over the frontier territories for three years. General and Field Marshal Luigi Cadorna was the main figure in this operation. His intention was to create a corridor to Vienna, however this proved an arduous task. Italy’s threat to invade the territory up to the capital through Slovenia made the Austria-Hungary Empire redirect some of the troops fighting at the Eastern Front down to the area where the eleven battles of the Isonzo took place. Cardona was also aware that the geography of the region would not aid his cause. The Isonzo Valley is known for flooding problems and, in fact, during the period between 1914 and 1918 a higher amount of rainfall and flooding has been recorded. This made the terrain particularly unsuitable for battle, and a great inconvenience for the troops of either side. Moreover, if the italian troops wanted to continue their advancement into the Austro-Hungarian territory beyond the valley, this meant they would have to either cross the river or debunk the enemies defended positions over the mountains. As you can imagine, all these geographical factors did not help the situation Cadorna and his army had to deal with.

To put things in context: at the beginning of the operation Cadorna had brought together originally an army of around 200.000 men in strength, whilst the Austro-Hungarian Empire counted with roughly 100.000 who had the advantage of the terrain plus the multiple fortresses that had been built for the defense of this frontier. Even with the numbers on their side, the results for Italy were unremarkable. Five battles before Gorizia took place at the Isonzo with practically no impact what so ever in the strategic advancement of the front line:

  • First Battle of the Isonzo – 23 June–7 July 1915
  • Second Battle of the Isonzo – 18 July–3 August 1915
  • Third Battle of the Isonzo – 18 October–3 November 1915
  • Fourth Battle of the Isonzo – 10 November–2 December 1915
  • Fifth Battle of the Isonzo – 9–17 March 1916

The Italian troops were simply unable to get a breakthrough. Then came August and a sixth attack was launched again, reinvigorating the conflict on this front. The sole purpose of this movement was to take over the town of Gorizia. The assault was intended to be a quick operation, starting with some distraction artillery manoeuvres and ultimately successful due to the what in war is called the Principle of Mass or Concentration – the active concentration of the essential forces at the time and positions required to fulfill the mission. For this purpose,  the Italian army deployed a total of 800 bombards plus an extra 400 middle to large-caliber pieces of artillery. However, despite Cadorna’s attempts, the fight got out of hand: the diversion failed to derail the Austro-Hungarian defence, and although further Italian tactics were deployed without issues, the battle lasted for 5 days when it should have not gone for more than 24 or 48 hours. The real turn point and lucky moment for the Italian troops was the fact that their enemy found themselves lacking reserves – or rather the fact that their enemy would happily retreat upon facing some difficulties, whilst the poorly equipped and sustained Italian army had no choice but to push on. Yet on the 8th of August, units of the 12th Italian Division occupied Gorizia, thus making the Austro-Hungarian forces take a step back on the front line. Cardona attempted to make of this a full on strategic advance, however the terrain complications did not allow the Italian artillery to move faster. Thus by the 16th of August 1916, the Field Marshal called off the offensive. Thus, the Sixth Battle of the Isonzo caused the Austro-Hungarian side 37,500, and a larger 51,200 for Cardona’s troops.

Just so you get an idea of how incredibly slow was the conflict on this side of the war, here I leave you a list of the remaining battles after Gorizia:

  • Seventh Battle of the Isonzo – 14–17 September 1916
  • Eighth Battle of the Isonzo – 10–12 October 1916
  • Ninth Battle of the Isonzo – 1–4 November 1916
  • Tenth Battle of the Isonzo – 12 May–8 June 1917
  • Eleventh Battle of the Isonzo – 19 August–12 September 1917
  • Twelfth Battle of the Isonzo or Battle of Caporetto- 24 October–7 November, where the Italian army was ultimately defeated by the German offensive.

Overall, and as anticipated earlier on this post, these set of conflicts in the border between Italy and Slovenia really meant nothing for the overarching war effort, and we particularly disappointing from the point of view of Italy. This is highlighted by the fact that, although Gorizia was a marginal victory, for the purpose of political propaganda and morale, in Italy it was exaggerated and glorified by the press, making this a great national achievement. However, the rest of the contemporary international press hardly offers a mention of any of these advancements by the Italian army. This was no more than a slight break in the war of attrition. Nevertheless, this allowed Italy to promote the event as a moment of greatness, with heroes to remember for their valiant effort during Great War.

Nowadays, there is a museum dedicated to the entire conflict in the area, which is a highly recommended visit if you are interested on this subject and if you are visiting the alpine region bordering with Slovenia:


Revisiting Burckhardt’s Italian Despot – The Este and Borgia Families

Once again, I have found myself revisiting some old research. You may know already that around 2010 I was particularly keen on the Renaissance  – repressed art historian at the core, what could you expect? Having spent some time analysing the different Italian factions of this period, I came across Buckhardt – as you should if you are looking into this topic!- and ended doing some research on some of the most prominent Italian families and their rulers. Therefore, today I will revisit my early ideas as a student of the Italian magnates and their power politics.

Jacob Burckhardt presents his model of Italian despot in his book The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy. According to him, the despotism in Italy was different from the system of tyrannies established in these states during the 13th and early 14th centuries. “The earliest firm tyrannies in important towns were achieved by feudatories who owed their position in part to alliances with Frederick II” – he says very eloquently. However with the Renaissance changes these dynamics. The despots were meant to seek for fame, have passion for arts and count scholars in their courts to give their like the other European princes. Theirs was an absolute power over their realm,  but their situation was delicate; the rule of a despot was brief. It was easy to make enemies, and family interests could be either one’s salvation or condemnation. For reasons I cannot fully remember, my investigation then went to focus on two main families, d’Este and the Borgia. So the following lines will try to compare their strategies as families, and how this is reflected by their leaders.


They controlled a considerably big area configured by the cities of Modena, Reggio, Rovigo and Ferrara, which would be the capital of their realm. Their interest in this region grew since 1185 when Azzo d’Este married Machellesa degli Adelardi, who was the heiress of her family’s properties there. The Este developed good diplomatic skills and administrative bureaucracy which, in addition to the control of rural-agrarian economy instead of commerce, gave them a lot of power, as well as a firm grip over the rich people in their land. Furthermore, they also knew that maintaining the public order and making their citizens happy was a major issue, crucial indeed to avoid rebellions. Due to this The Este cared for the food supply, flood control and irrigation, as well as for the provision of an effective judicial system, religious and philanthropic works and entertainment of their areas of influence. The family found a strong leader in  Ercole d’Este Following Buckhardt’s teaching, it appears that he possessed many of the characteristics that later on Machiavelli would appoint in Il Principe. He was well-known for using his family members for representation, alliance and marriage, which made him a very well-connected and supported ruler.

The Este were remarkable in the flourishing art patronage of the Renaissance and for this reason their main competition were the Medicci.  Ercole’s role in this is particularly important as he promoted the revival of classical theatre, and supported the Boiardo’s poetry, and focussed on creating a magnificent ducal capital. In addition, the family also had ties with the church. In fact, Borso d’Este played a major role in the patronage of the Carthusian order in Ferrara. I guess it could be said that the spirit of the Este family based on strong family unity, patronage of the arts and religion is encompassed in the monastery of Santa Maria degli Angeli, which became their burial site.

The Borgia

The Borgia’s success was mainly due to the links they established within the church, and it is precisely Pope Alexander VI, or Rodrigo Borgia, who made them powerful. But the Borgia’s control was flawed in nature. Although it is true that the  Papal States had become a vast thanks to Alexander and his son, Cesare, the authority that the pope had varied from one city to another. Religion was at the stakes – The Reformation drew near. Meanwhile, the Borgia aimed for a centralised government, especially outside the Romagna, which they had recently conquered. This centralisation was based mostly on their ability to amass large quantities of money. Alexander managed to collect large amounts of wealth due to new taxes, heavy tithe rates, retributions from cardinals, etc. Violence was also their friend. Conquering the Romagna was no easy task, but with Alexander’s money, Cesare managed to rise an army capable of great military success. The militia from this area was meant to be an instrument of unification and a demonstration of local support, but it rather looked like forceful conscription in the modern sense. And so, the problems began…the French invasions, the rebellion in Umbria, the problematic pilgrims of the 1500 Jubilee…And yet, the crusade against the Turks was somewhat successfull.Art patronage does not seem one of their main concerns. It is known that the Pope Calixtus III, the first Borgia pope, had no dedication to art patronage rather that the eventual reconstruction of ruined churches[28], while Alexander seemed more dedicated to his iconographic project of the Virgin. So this makes one wonder, if the Borgia cause was a family business, or rather a means to complete individual pretensions. Some scholars support the idea that both Alexander and Cesare used Lucrezia Borgia (daughter and sister respectively) for their political gains through arranged marriages. Yet after two troublesome relationships, the woman ends up married to Alfonso d’Este, much to her interest rather than that of her relatives – by this union she would become duchess of Este, not just the daughter of the Pope…Alexander, and so Cesare, had been more identified in the way of a ruler of the Middle Ages rather than of the Renaissance. Despite the presence of remarkable people in their court such as Machiavelli or Leonardo Da Vinci, they seem to lack the “renaissance” experienced elsewhere in Italy. The way they took control and power seemed ruthless and aggressive. They were more alike with the so-called tyrants than despots per se.

So, upon reflecting on my work, this makes me know think that, although Buckhardt’s premises are a great basis to understand the Renaissance politics of Italy, his idea of the despot does not seem to find common ground among all these people. In addition, I do not think anymore that this is a particularly useful way of understanding the political dynamics of Italy in this period. The concept of the Italian despot seems to miss the wider picture in which these people developed their strategies that suited them best for the sake of competition and survival of their regime. Of course, this is based on just two families, but with a little research in the Medicci or the Sforza, one can only wonder if there was such a thing as the ultimate Italian despot, or rather a multiplying configuration of regional, powerful magnates driven by individual thought and family agendas.


PS: for this I have quite an extensive bibliography of works that made me reconsider Buckhardt’s concept, and this is what my reassessment is based upon, but any comments are of course welcomed, as this is not even remotely my specialty nowadays…This is just a selection of those I perhaps found most interesting or useful/insightful.

Burckhardt, J., The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, (New York, 1960) – where you should start, preferably.

Tuohy, T., Herculean Ferrara: Ercole d’Este (1471-1505) and the Invention of a Ducal Capital, (Cambridge, 1995) – This is the real deal. Solid arguments, in-depth analysis, different perspectives on the argument.

Gundersheimer, L.W., Ferrara: a Style of a Renaissance Despotism, (Princeton; N.J, 1973) – perhaps a bit outdated now? But it does provide a nice complement to Tuohy from a more descriptive and traditional approach.

Mallet, M., The Borgias: Rise and Fall of a Renaissance Dynasty, (London, 1969) – Again, I know it’s an old book, but like Buckhardt, it does establish the grounds for the understanding of the Borgia enterprise.

Gwynne, N.M., The Truth about Rodrigo Borgia, Pope Alexander VI, (Sainte Croix du Mont, 2008) – quite blunt review of the Borgias, a bit sensationalist even I would say, but some interesting theories regarding personal identity and the Pope as both religious leader and head of family

Bradford, S., Lucrezia Borgia: Life, Love and Death in Renaissance Italy, (London, 2004) – perhaps too focussed on her amorous affairs than her actual identity and power. However, as a biographical piece it does comprise her entire life, and explores the ambiguities of her background as a “legitimate Borgia”.

























A Guide to Norman Art and Architecture in Southern Italy and Sicily

Once again, I am doing a runner back to my roots. When I graduated from University, I had done more work on art history and the Normans that there were modules available, I swear – probably because that it what my dissertation was about, but regardless, Norman art and architecture, the peak of the Romanesque, the Bayeux Tapestry, you name it. My parents even took me to Normandy to experience the glory of the old great duchy in real life. Now, another thing you may all well know me for is for anything that involves intercultural syncretism ideas. And what best to put them both together than a post on the artistic works of the Normans during their rule in Italy, and particularly Sicily? Well, get ready then, because I am about to get technical with this stuff!

If you are jumping on the boat of Norman studies, ditch Caen and Rouen, forget the British Isles and take a trip to the Mediterranean. Why? Because despite the field is evolving, there is still a lot of research to do in their rule over Italy and Sicily, due to the great cultural exchange and the intrinsic political and social dynamics of their reign.

So lets start with the architectural side of things. The Normans arrived nicely to the shores of the Mediterranean, most of the second and third sons of Norman lords, who had not a plot of land for themselves and that perhaps could not be bothered to make it all the way to the Middle East. Everyone knows that buildings are sign of power and lordship, therefore they then start erecting new structures, both for secular and religious purposes. As Norman builders were masons, stone was normally their main resource for construction. However, once they got used to the surroundings its materials and traditions, they incorporated the use of brick and mortar for the creation of vaults, and also rubble for the thick walls, creating different textures and polychromatic effects. They used two different types or arches. The rounded arch was used for small openings, window-frames and decorative purposes, while the pointed arch, which was adopted from the Islamic population, had its uses in the major openings of the buildings. Another common characteristic is the use of regional motifs. Instead of getting rid of the old decorative elements of each region and imposing prototypical Norman patterns, they actively promoted these ornaments and integrated them in their constructions, allowing to prevail the distinct character of the local artists. This is the reason why even nowadays interlaced arches, string courses and rose patterns can be distinguished in many churches, like in St.Maria la Nuova (Monreale).

From WikiCommons Inside of the cloister of Monreal Cathedral

The mesmerising architecture can be found all across the area. For instance, there is a large collection of domed basilicas in the zones of Valdemone and Calabria, dating from c.1091-1130 which are believed to have been, at least originally, orthodox churches for the large Greek population of the realm. A common feature of the Apulian churches, which is very well represented by the one in Trani, is that their apse is directly projected from the transept. Also, there are some evidences of Moorish architectural influence. An example of this could be the tower of the cathedral of Cefalù, which K.J.Conant described as “North-African minarets in design”. Islamic influence can also be seen in Sicilian Norman castles, like La Zisa. Apparently, the Normans ‘recycled’ these very appealing and elegant Muslim castles, rather than building their typical motte and bailey ones, although there are few examples of the latter, like the one in Petralia Soprana, and even one carved in the rock in Sperlinga. Last but not least, there is even the strange case of a church in Venosa (La Trinità), that was never finished, but its layout suggest that otherwise, it would have been one of the few Norman churches in Italy to have a stereotypical French ambulatory and radiating chapels. It has been suggested that the reason why the project was abandoned had something to do with the moving of patronage influence from Apulia to Sicily.

In what concerns the art, the influence of the Byzantine civilization is quite pronounced, as the Atlantes of the cathedral of San Mateo (Salerno) represent. Also,this is clearly seen in the use of mosaics for wall decoration in practically every single church of the area. Mosaics present a great advantage for ornamental purposes as the colour does not fade away, it is elegant, and both geometrical and figurative patterns can be created with no problems, as it can be seen in those about Geoffrey of Antioch in the church of la Martorana. The mosaic skills got mixed with the Norman traditions to create wonderful pavements such as those made by the monk Pantaleone in the cathedral of Otranto, representing scenes from the Bible. Despite of the use of mosaics, the fresco tradition was not left behind. The best specimens are found in the church of San Angelo in Formis (near Capua). L.I.Hamilton has the theory that the meaning behind this work commanded by abbot Desiderius is linked with his reforming character, and these would be the images that reflected his religious dominance in Capua.

Modern copy of the Tabula by Al-Idrisi

On Islamic influence, the most relevant work to be mentioned, without considering the planisphere from ‘The Book of Roger’, by the Arab geographer al-Idrisi, would be the honeycomb ceiling of the Capella Palatina (Palermo). This wonderful ceiling is covered with painted stalactites, which work has been attributed to Muslim artists working shortly after the consecration of the chapel (c.1140). There was a great deal of ivory work within their culture. Ivory was a very precious material, and because of its rarity, it was used for very special and important artefacts. The best example of this could be one of the caskets found in the Treasury of the already mentioned Capella Palatina that is meant to contain the privileges of chapel, which is quite rare and likely the reason why it was kept in this ivory box. Furthermore, it would be a crime if i did not mention the metal work produced at the doors of the cathedral of Trani made by the local artist Barisano. Finally, a quick mention to manuscript illumination, as it differed from what is known elsewhere about the Normans. Oddly enough, considering the great Anglo-Norman tradition of manuscript keeping and decoration, there are not many from the southern lands. There is notice of a copy of the Homilies in the area of Troia, and an epistolarium of marked muslim influence from Palermo. But, the most important is the Expositio Orationis Dominicae, by Maio de Bari (12th C), which is the only Sicilian manuscript preserved from this period that also contains some traces of illumination.

But perhaps the most important aspect of everything the Normans created in the south had to do with their identity. R.H.C Davis questions if these were the same Normans than those from Normandy or England, as he supports the theory that they were trying to portray themselves as new Byzantine emperors rather than anything else. It has to be considered that these Normans left their home-land some years before it reached the glory days of William the Conqueror, and even though they kept in touch, something was changing. The feeling rises that when the Normans established themselves in the Mediterranean their drive was not one of simple conquest but of ‘new found land’, a whole new place to start with their lives again, to make a difference…to take a chance. And that is precisely what they did. They did not just brought together several different cultures and make a Norman version of it. They adapted and bent them in a way it was understandable for everyone, it did not matter if your origin was Greek, Moorish or from up north. And this is reflected in their art. It was not a new Romanesque…it was not even Romanesque any more. It was something different, something unique from those lands. Art was the instrument these Normans used to create a whole new identity for the population of these territories, to preserve their diversity, to create a strong and united kingdom.

On a final note, I’ll give you a sample of the bibliography one can dig from the Martial Rose library at the University of Winchester in order to find anything of use on this subject (this is not including the generic art books…sad but true)- note the old dates – remember my comment on the field that needs to improve? Get on it!

-Browne, E.A., Great Buildings and How to Enjoy Them: Norman Architecture (London, 1907)

-Buchthal, H., ‘The Beginnings of Manuscript Illumination in Norman Sicily’, Paper of the British School of Rome, Vol. 24, (1956), pp. 78-85

-Conant, K.J., ‘The Two Sicilies’, Carolingian and Romanesque Architecture, 800 to 1200, (Harmondsworth, 1973), pp. 214-224

-Davis, R.H.C., The Normans and Their Myth (London, 1976)

-Diringer, D., ‘Italy: Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries’, The Illuminated Book; its History and Production, (London, 1967), pp. 294-307

-Hamilton, L.I., ‘Desecration and Consecration in Norman Capua, 1062-1122: Contesting Sacred Space during the Gregorian Reform’, The Haskins Society Journal, Vol. 14, (July, 2005), pp. 137-150

-Matthew, D., The Norman Kingdom of Sicily (Cambridge, 1992)

-Nicklies, C.E., ‘Builders, Patrons, and Identity: the Domed Basilicas of Sicily and Calabria’, Gesta, Vol. 43, No. 2, (2004), pp. 99-114

-Norwich, J.J., The Normans in Sicily: The Normans in the South 1016-1130, and, The Kingdom in the Sun 1130-1194 (London, 1992)

-Pinder-Wilson, R.H., and Brooke, C.N.L., ‘The Reliquary of St. Petroc and the Ivories of Norman Sicily’, Archaeologia, Vol. 104, (1973), pp. 261-305

-Ville de Caen, ‘Les Normands, peuple d’Europe’,


For Food history week I am going to write about a very famous liquor I came across on my travels this summer called Limoncello. Although Limoncello is a drink it is relevant for the food theme as it is a product made from lemons. The drink originates from the Campania region of Southern Italy, primarily associated with Sorrento, the island of Capri and the Amalfi Coast.

In terms of when the drink was invented, this is currently unknown as there have been many theories circulating about who actually made the drink first. Many of the theories stem from the Middle Ages and contain elements of myth and legend, making the exact origins of the drink near impossible. However there does appear to be a general consensus with these theories in question. Some say fisherman used to drink Limoncello as a way of warding of the cold at a time when there was a Saracen invasion from the Middle East. Another popular theory states monks made Limoncello as a treat for themselves between their daily prayers. Again these theories perhaps should not be taken literally as there have been no documented evidence to support this and these stories have been heavily reliant on word of mouth. The only documented evidence of Limoncello making we have is from the early twentieth century and that it was not consumed on such a large-scale amongst Italians until the late 1980s.

This June in 2015 I was lucky enough to visit a Limoncello factory on the Sorrentine Peninsula and the process of making Limoncello was explained. Firstly the lemons are grown on large plantations across the Sorrentine Peninsula, the Amalfi coast and sometimes on the island of Capri. They are then harvested by hand between February and October when they are above 3 metres in height. The lemons are then put into warm water and the zest of the lemon is removed as the lemon zest is the main ingredient for the flavour. Then two litres of pure alcohol is added to the zest of the lemons and is stored in a cool dark place at room temperature until the mixture turns yellow. The alcohol content is expected to be approximately 28 to 32%. After a month of putting the mixture into storage syrup and sugar is added with boiling water. After allowing the sugar to dissolve and allowing the syrup to cool, when this is done it is added to the zest of lemons and alcohol. Once again when this process is done they leave the mixture in a cool dark place for forty days. When the forty days have finished the mixture is then bottled ready to be dispatched and sold. After purchasing the Limoncello it is customary to store it in a freezer.

Sometimes the Limoncello is added with Pistachios, Walnuts, Berries and Fennel in order to make different flavours and I as the typical student I am could not help but down a few shots of Limoncello!

The primary industry focuses on agriculture and the growing of lemons aids the local economy. The lemons in this area of Italy have also been used to make other products like cosmetics, soaps, olive oil and biscuits and has done for many years maybe due to the popularity of Limoncello in recent years.

Blood and snow; Myth and poetry. The White war re-visited.

There are not so many opportunities to find, in the same book, knowledge, literary prowess and entertainment. Historical research, moreover, is prone to lack at least one of the former (not wanting to stir polemics, though, I would not mention which one). But in this particular case you can find all of them, plus accuracy, clear analysing and an overwhelming command of the data. If I ever write a book, I would like it to be as easy reading and well-informed as this one is. And the name of this jewel is “The white war”, the goldsmith being Mark Thompson.

Cover of my copy of the book.
Cover of my copy of the book.

This was true the first time I wrote this, back in 2012, and still is in 2015. Only that now we are engaged in this multi-year WWI following, so some polishing is needed, given the evolution of History as a science and mine as a writer. If interested, you can still find the original article searching in March 2012.

The issue is not very amenable: the Italian front during World War I. But if the tale is told in the way Thompson does, every matter could turn into a fascinating story. This one, in particular, is not only about politics, war, and the usual madness about both. There is more to it, there is life, as a developing creature whose growth is deeply affected by the environment, both social and political, and which is trampled underfoot men’s ambition and ethnic dreams of purity and supremacy. And with life comes everything, even poetry. Now, WWI was a rare event of poets becoming soldiers, or soldiers becoming poets, a case we will study further on in our ongoing work about the conflict. Not that poetry is the thing you first think of in the morning, one guess, when you are in a trench. Probably hunger, lice, fear, or relief would be better options. Yet again, poetry came to soldiers’ minds every so often it seems. At least when they were not killing each other for the sake of frontiers, industrial resources or simple nation pride.

Thompson dedicates a whole chapter here to poets, properly called “Starlight from violence”. In it, we go from Ungaretti’s delicate lyricism, “This morning I lay back/ in an urn of water/ and like a relic/ took my rest” to Govoni’s brutality and joyful aggressiveness, “Burn, burn,/ set fire to this world till it becomes a sun./ Devastate smash destroy,/ go forth, go forth, oh lovely human flail,/ be plague earthquake and hurricane.” Such were the different moods of the soldier on the field of the Isonzo and the civilian prior to Italy’s declaration of war. Sometimes poetry is a kind of note to self. Ungaretti didn’t want to be an officer, desiring not a single privilege from their comrades. So he writes about the soldier’s experience of war: “Struck/ in these guts/ of rubble/ hours and hours/ I dragged/ my bones/ given to mud/ like a boot-sole/ or a seed/ of hawthorn”. Ungaretti was first rejected for active service. When the casualties began to surmount, standards relaxed, so our poet ended up serving two and a half years in the front.

This is, obviously, a story about war. No surprise in that. The Italian front is better known thanks to Hemingway’s contribution in “Farewell to arms”, but all the same is probably the perfect stranger in World War I records. Not as huge but yet as brutal as the Western front, not as epic as Suvla Bay or Anzac Cove but with all the epics that mountain warfare has. Without the wider and deeper political implications that the Eastern front was ready to provide but with connections that extend till the Balkan Wars in the nineties, it is, in fact, a perfect example of the “niceties” of war, and its uselessness, and its long-term political implications.

Thompson explains the misunderstandings and lack of trust between the Allies and Italy, which was part of a treaty with the Central Powers at the beginning of the war. Italy decided the that there was more to gain turning the coat. As it turned out Italy’s sense of self-importance and grievance was nothing but a pebble in the political game of post-war treaties. Wilson was set on achieving his own political (even religious) goals about anti-imperialism and self-determination, and Italy’s territorial claims sounded too much like Mediterranean imperialism. So much bloodletting to so little advantage.

What Thompson achieves better (my own uneasiness aside) is transporting you there, to the center of a nonsensical war theater, but without cruelty, without all the blood and guts so usually found in books of the sort. Don’t get me wrong, there is plenty of blood when needed, this was, after all, a bloodletting conflict if ever there was one; but the sense of fear, hatred, un-awareness, feebleness, despairing solitude is transported on the back of more solid arguments tan the mere bloodshed. There is analysis here, both of the men’s souls before, during and after the war, and of the circumstances that lead the world to an era of chaos, hatred and destruction which probably has not yet finished as we see in everyday news. In the end you will find that after all, the whim of so few was the damnation of so many. So History goes.

And then, there is myth. Fighting in the mountains, carrying artillery pieces to the summits, caving trenches in the snow. And above all the literary myth, the new men, new order myth was arising and Benito Mussolini was riding it. The seeds for WWII were already sown. Thompson’s depiction of the military cemetery between Gorizia and Monfalcone, at Redipuglia, is chilling and disturbing, knowing the facts. A cyclopean tomb, a shrine to the Third Army, is now the eternal resting place of over 100000 soldiers, built in the place of the original cemetery in which families had created a quiet, secluded place. But that was not enough for the Fascist Heroes, something gigantic, colossal, was needed. In the edges of the terraces, the word PRESENTE, soldier’s reply at roll call. The Fascist martyrs were there, ready to raise and defend their country once again. Lessons learned? Sir, no sir. So Italy will be once again amidst the fraught some years later. And this time the amount of blood and death would be unheard-of.

Now then, if you are to read but one book this year, you will probably would like to try either Kate Morton or The Hobbit or maybe one of those popular Scandinavian detective stories . But, if you want to be enlightened by a book, if you want your conscience awaken, if you want a deeper understanding of what mankind is willing to do to itself, I would keep an eye on “The white war”.