A History Teacher’s Dilemma

When you teach history at secondary schools, curriculum is the major focal point.  You’re trained early on to really make sure you noodle on the assignments and the material you teach, because schools don’t really have any tuppence to spare and wasting three days on a dumpster fire of a lesson or some sort of forum theater is considered to be a disservice to the tax-paying public who keep the lights on as well as to the students.  For most subjects there is a liturgy of standards that obligate the teacher to cover certain topics and certain materials, but for history the standards are decidedly vague.  As they should be, it should be added.
Image result for history standardsHistory is a broad, broad field that covers the entire human experience (depending on who you ask) from the origins of the species, the origin of the planet, or everything post-writing.  When queried about it, most history teachers answer in one of three veins:
1. That the subject can teach students necessary skills that they utilize in the world of the future (i.e. writing, research, reading, critical thinking, etc.).
2. That learning history is the most direct path to becoming a citizen of the world/citizen of the United States.
3. That history inspires people to learn from the past as an extension of their experiences in the present (like vicariously living through Casanova’s stories when you get stood up on a Friday night).

The above reasons for why history should be taught are all well and good, but they are abstract and vague, and theoretically can apply to nearly every era and epoch of history that could be taught.  Our current paradigm on education is that it is a travesty if individuals are given educations that are sub-par (hence the focus on standards, mostly to ensure that everyone hits a minimum bar) so things must be standardized to ensure that no child is left behind.

Image result for no child left behind

Where this leads into the blog-post is the concept that a history teacher must ensure that they are not failing their students by ensuring they reach a theoretical bar.  This means teachers must do conceptual triage on the events, people, and things that have happened over the extravagant course of humanity.  My own inquiry has seemed to show that nearly every person has a triage system in mind when asked the question, “What are the most important things in history?  Given that you only have a couple years, what things MUST you teach, and what things can you ignore?”

“What are the most important things in history?  Given that you only have a couple years, what things MUST you teach, and what things can you ignore?”

Answers vary for what thing is the most important to teach from cultures, to systems of oppression, to religions, to stories of singular nations or singular people, to technological development, ad nauseam for ever and ever.  Some people advocate a combination of things, “teach Rome, teach steam engines, teach World Wars, teach expansionism,” others advocate a combination of ignored things, “teach women’s roles in the politics, teach minority population’s impacts in wars, teach about divergent sexualities in ancient times,” while the K-12 standards essentially throw their hands in the air and say “if you can make it work, it works.” (check http://www.k12.wa.us/SocialStudies/Outlines/UnitOutlinesNinthTenthGrade.pdf if you want to see the rat’s nest that is 9th and 10th grade standards in the state of Washington).  To do a quick survey of links for most important events in history, I’ve included the list below with descriptions of the lists:

owlcation.com/humanities: Largely a list of European impacts, nothing further east than Saudi Arabia or further West than Washington DC

listovative.com: Same criticism as above, little outside Europe, little outside America

www.omgtoptens.com: Same as the first two links, almost identical in fact.

www.bbc.com: This one is more or less a scientific history; granted the Cambrian explosion was a dramatic turning point in Earth’s history, but this list is more easily placed in a biology or physics classroom than in a history one.

www2.esm.vt.edu: Probably the best of the links in this short set, but there are more things on this link than a teacher could reasonably be able to teach in a few years.  The question would become “Should breadth be taught in place of depth?”

Admittedly, it is a straw-man fallacy of sorts to simply drop a handful of lists from the google-machine to support a point, but outside a very in depth search of the web, most lists will be similar.  Surveys of Western impacts on the world, limited to the modern and post-biblical eras.  If we truly believe that the World Wars are important enough to be a standby for anyone to know, the question should be what it is about the wars that we want people to know.  If the Enlightenment is truly a golden standard of knowledge, teachers should have a unified answer for why the Enlightenment is so valuable to know about.

If we were truly teaching students things that are most impactful in history, consider for a moment why we do not teach more about the history of the Judaic people.  At the point of the Babylonian exile in the early 600s BCE, there were thought to be roughly 80,000 people from the population of Judah (some 20,000 were taken into slavery).  This relatively small population of individuals and their beliefs eventually grew into the Jewish people, as well as branching off into the Abrahamaic religions of Christianity and Islam.  The simple survival of that 100,000 people has dramatically impacted the world through the ripples of history.Image result for exiled jews

If we are talking about events that were most destructive to mankind, then we should be far and away talking about diseases like the Bubonic plague, and outside the realm of illnesses, rather than discussing World War II (roughly 3.7% of the world population was killed) we should be talking about Genghis Khan and Tamerlane (each killed roughly 5% of the global population).

If the focal point should be on events that were most dramatic in how they changed social and political boundaries, Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon or Gandhi’s passive resistance of the British Empire are more dramatic examples of change than the Haitian revolution or the Napoleon’s coups.  Hannibal is forgotten in our curriculum, even though he waged a war that the world idolized for the next two thousand years.  The empire of Xerxes is only referenced as a foible overcome by the Spartans.  Marco Polo gets a week of study, as does Alexander, Galileo gets two at best.

Image result for alexander the great knotGold star for whoever can answer who this chap is and what he is doing to that rope.

The question we should be asking ourselves is whether or not there is actually a set of things in history every person should know in order to operate as a human being.  If we cannot as a society come to a solid conclusion that rectifies the historian’s dilemma, then we should be asking ourselves what it is that we truly want people to have when they finish a high school diploma.  If we want them to learn skills, then we should ask why they have any homework whatsoever that tests for anything but skills, if we want them to learn factoids, we should ask ourselves “why those particular facts?”  If we think the subject is valuable, the first step should be knowing what it is that we value in it.

When I Despair

Mahatma Gandhi once said, “When I despair, I remember that all through history the ways of truth and love have always won.  There have been tyrants, and murderers, and for a time they can seem invincible, but in the end they always fall.  Think of it- always.”  In saying this, he did not necessarily mean that goodness always overthrows evil or that darkness is immediately overcome by light; rather that goodness will always eventually overcome evil.  Gandhi’s struggles with the British empire are a testament to his creed, he pressed for civil, stoic, quiet, and proud resistance to the British.  In a more abstract way of describing it, Gandhi believed that the moral strength of a people will always overcome the indiscretions of their nature.  Humanity has been around for a long time.  A really long time.  We’ve had some of the greatest rulers of all time and some of the worst villains to ever pilfer control by sneaking an army into a capital.  For all our struggles, somehow mankind has survived.  Through the brinksmanship, the bloodshed, the dehumanization, and the backward steps we have always managed to resurface bruised and battered, but unbowed.

Image result for the wandererMankind’s resilience is our strength, our history is a testament to it.

In our checkered past, there have been a host of rotten apples that reached the highest degree of power.  Here are two of them, neither the worst nor the best, laid out with particular focus on their faults.  Each has merits of their own, but the merit is for another day’s research.

Image result for Qin Shi Huang

Qin Shi Huang

The first emperor of the Qin dynasty in the late 200s BCE, Shi Huang is known for unifying China, pressing to create the first part of the Great Wall, desperately seeking the elixir of immortality (some people just can’t give up the seat of power), and for burying himself in one of the most famous tombs of all time surrounded by thousands of terracotta soldiers.  Why Qin Shi Huang makes the list for tyrants is for his famous disagreement with scholars.
In 213 BCE, Huang’s head adviser Li Si proposed that the emperor ban all history books that did not follow Huang’s philosophy of legalism were to be burned, and that any scholar discussing the books was to be executed.  Satire and poetry were subject to extreme repression, and any officials who did not burn or execute the law within thirty days of it being created were branded as criminals and were sent to the Great Wall to work on the ancient chain gang.  After a run in with a pair of treacherous alchemists later in his life, Huang went further in his repression of academics and scholars by burying some 460 alchemists alive and banishing an untold number more.  Truthfully, our knowledge of the Qin dynasty’s founding stories are likely apocryphal, but in most parts of human history the repression of academics is a troubling sign for a nation.

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Caligula (Gaius Julius Caesar Germanicus)

The Roman emperor Caligula was literally insane.  He didn’t start out that way, but by the time he got shanked by the Praetorian Guard he was quite touched in the head.  Nicknamed Caligula, meaning “little boot” because of the miniature soldier uniform his parents dressed him in before their untimely demise (sometimes when your parents get killed you become batman, other times you become the worst Roman emperor of all time), Gaius Germanicus was the son of a popular Roman general and nephew to the emperor.  After the death of his father and banishment of his mother, Caligula was adopted by the Emperor Tiberius and was allowed to indulge his basest instincts to the maximum degree.  Caligula put on orgies, fawned over executions, and purportedly had incestuous relations with his sisters, all before he was twenty-five.  Tiberius is to have said, “I am nursing a viper for the Roman people.”
When Tiberius finally expired in 37 CE, Caligula took the throne and repealed a number of his adopted father’s more unpopular measures, freeing political prisoners, undoing taxes, and putting on gladiator shows and chariot races.  Six months into his tenure as the Emperor of Rome Caligula got sick, and when he recovered something was not quite right.  He started to break from social norms, built a bridge from the palace to the temple of Jupiter so he could personally enter whenever he pleased, and executed political rivals (forcing parents to watch as their children were off’d).  Then stuff got weird.
By 41 CE, Caligula had gone off the deep end.  He sent an army to Britain, but stopped them on the beaches and ordered them to collect seashells, he hemorrhaged money on his orgies and food (some stories say he would drink pearls dissolved in vinegar and roll about on piles of gold), demanded to be treated like a god, and declared that his favorite horse should become a consul (this one may have just been a rumor at first, but by the second historian’s telling of it, Incitatus the horse’s consulate was a dyed-in-the-wool fact).  One story tells of him demanding that Roman merchants constructed a 2 mile long bridge out of boats so Caligula could ride his horse back and forth on it.  The Romans were done with his nonsense by January of 41 CE, so a conspiracy of guards, senators, and cavalry troops met up and stabbed him, his wife, his daughters, and probably his horse.  His biographer dryly noted that “Caligula learned by actual experience that he was not a god.”

Image result for justice statueThe strength of the story of history is that we know that we shall overcome.  We are hard pressed to find examples of wrongs that are eternally set in stone and wrongdoers who escape the overwhelming weight of time.  Remember, justice may not be swift or loud, but it is inevitable



Twenty-Six Soldiers of Lead

There’s a quote that is bouncing about on the internet that has been attributed to Benjamin Franklin, Johannes Gutenberg, some random French printer, and a couple others.  It goes “Give me twenty six soldiers of lead and I will conquer the world.”  Essentially, it’s a more eloquent version of the phrase “knowledge is power.”

Image result for degree in historyLet’s be honest, not all knowledge is power…

Gutenberg himself recognized that principle in the 1440s, and his gift to history was that he wanted to market knowledge.  Before waxing about Gutenberg’s invention and his impact and all that, there are a few things that people should know:

Das ist ein Gutenberg Press.  Basically, you’d put down your lettering, flop a page on top of the letters, stick the thing under the flat press, twist the knob and Bob’s your uncle.

1. Gutenberg didn’t invent the printing press, or the concept of the printing press.  Chinese woodblock printing was being used during the Tang dynasty in the mid 600s, and they had likely taken the idea from earlier use of seals that impressed images and words on clay and silk.  Block printing was very much a thing by Gutenberg’s time, the only difference is that he was a European and dealt with roughly 26 characters instead of the 10,000 or so that Chinese printers had to mess with.

2. Gutenberg didn’t invent movable type printing either.  Again, China did that in the the 1040s when a guy named Bi Sheng built a set of clay characters and popped them into a box character side up.  The top of the types would be covered in inks and then the thing would be used like a wood block print.  Again though, the issue was that a typographer would need to rifle through an incredible number of clay dies to find the one he needed, rather than Gutenberg’s compact squad of letters.

Image result for chinese block printingChinese wood block and movable type were pretty normal for about 800 years before Gutenberg came about.

3. Gutenberg didn’t even invent the press, according to John Man, author of Gutenberg: How One Man Remade the World with Words, Gutenberg started off as a mirror maker in Aachen, Germany.  Pilgrims to the city wanted mirrors, and Gutenberg realized the power of mass production when meeting mass demand.  Gutenberg used a press similar to the design to that of an olive or grape press.

Image result for renaissance olive axel pressIt is possible to enjoy your job too much.

4. Gutenberg DID however invent a metal alloy that provided him with durable, easy to cast letters.  This invention combined with the above things produced his printing press.  The man was deep in debt over the production costs, but was able to produce and sell around 200 bibles at an impressive cost.  Each book cost as much as three clerks’ annual salary.

Gutenberg lost his printing business in a lawsuit within a few years of his first sale.  His financier who had loaned him the startup money, Johann Fust, sued and won, taking Gutenberg to the cleaner over the failure of settlement.  Gutenberg’s invention, however, caught on like wildfire.  The middle class was ravenous for knowledge, even though many of them were illiterate (odd thought, that European mass literacy follows books rather than the reverse.  That means you had a period of time where most people had books or access, but couldn’t really read them).  When Archbishop Adolph II raided the city that Gutenberg was based out of, oodles of printers fled the city and spread into other parts of Europe, sharing the information more widely.

Interestingly enough, much of the early printing press material was not religious work or political pamphlets; the thing people were exceptionally ravenous for was travel writings.  People wanted to know more about the world around them and Gutenberg opened the door just a smidgen more than before.  Arguably one of the greatest inventions of human history, Gutenberg’s creation and his “twenty six soldiers of lead” allowed mass education and mass imagination to flourish more Europe had seen before.  Some people even claim that Gutenberg’s press was the seed of insight that grew into mechanization and manufacturing because it was the first poignant shift away from professional artists and craftsmen into an era of gears and machines.

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Prize-Fighting Mathematicians

There are a set of math problems out there  that are part of a thing called the “Millennium Prize.”  It is basically a handful of exceptionally difficult math questions that each carry a $1 million prize for solving.  In theory, a mathematician could wander into a college with a yellowed notebook and a solution to the problem and walk out (after many weeks of deliberation and a final agreement by the mathematics community) as a millionaire.  Math has been done this way for a long, long time.  Mathematicians would peddle their craft for cash and patronage since the time of Archimedes, the Greek math-man who solved a gold density problem using his bathtub and ran about the streets of Athens naked shrieking “eureka”.  Kings would pay good money to have a man (pretty much only men did math for most of history) who would count and calculate for them, both for economic purposes and for curiosity’s sake.

Image result for archimedes bathtubLookit that guy, he’s so cute when he’s excited to figure out that mass displaces water.

Towards the 1500s, algebra (from the Arabic word for “bringing together”, al-jabr) was beginning to be taught commercially and to the public.  This meant that there were mathematicians who built careers teaching math to the public and required more students.  One of the best ways to prove that you were a great mathematician was to hold a public contest of calculations with other mathematicians.  Each person would be given a list of equations and a third party would hold the prize money, the mathematicians would scurry off and solve as many as they could and come back to claim the prize if they solved more equations or solved the equations faster.  In their work, Robber Barons and Politicians in Mathematics: A Conflict Model of Science, Sociologists Randall Collins and Sal Restivo took to calling the Prize-Fighting mathematicians “Robber Barons” because the climate of contested solutions encouraged secrecy and theft.  A mathematician’s formula would be his most prized possession because of the prize money and the prestige that it could bring.  A winning solver would have money to burn and students lining up at their doors.  Mathematicians who published their theories would no longer have an edge over other mathematicians in the contests, and would lose revenue and teaching income for it.  This encouraged some shady business at times, and discouraged the publishing of math books.  Two illustrative examples of the problems with “Robber Baron” math:

Fermat’s Last Theorem: in the margin of one of his Arithmetica books, the mathematician Pierre de Fermat wrote that he had solved one of the unsolvable questions of math!  But that it was too large to fit in the margin.  Then he died.  Without writing it down.  For the next three hundred and sixty years, mathematicians strained and failed their way to solving Fermat’s problem until we were able to solve it in 1994.
Image result for pierre de fermatThis is Pierre de Fermat, and he trolled the Math world from the grave.

Tartaglia and Cardano: A mathematician with a wicked stutter in the mid 1500s named Niccolo Fontana Tartaglia (thought to be the first person to create the science of ballistics by applying math to cannonball trajectory) discovered a formula for cubic equations and set about absolutely crushing every math contest in Milan.  When a down-and-out ex-physician named Girolamo Cardano heard about the winning Tartaglia, he dressed up as an aristocrat and offered patronage to Tartaglia.  After what amounts to blackmail and threat of violence, Cardano was given the formula under the oath that he not tell anyone.  Cardano happily galumphed about Italy using the formula to win contests until he ran into another mathematician named Annabale della Nave, who claimed to have come up with Tartaglia’s solution in the early 1500s.  Cardano took that claim as justification to break his promise and published a book with Tartaglia’s life work in it.  Cardano gave some credit to Tartaglia, but took the book’s profit for himself.  Tartaglia rapidly produced a scathing counter to the book that tried to stake a claim in his own discovery, but was largely ignored.

Image result for ThiefComing soon to a theater near you: A gritty crime thriller about the dark, pulsing underworld of Milan’s bean counters

There are a handful of other examples of the math competitions going on throughout history, perhaps most notably Newton and Leibniz, but those stories are for another time.  It should also be noted that competitions like those of the Renaissance did spur a great deal of innovation.  Mathematicians would fall over themselves to find solutions to some of the greatest questions ever posed in their era.  By the same key however, the limited incentive to share meant that theoreticians would be constantly weighing the lasting use of their theories with the single burst of cash that publishing a new book of theories would produce.  In the end, many mathematicians would pass their theories along to students or publish a compendium of their work on their deathbed, so barring obvious examples like Fermat, the actual impact of laissez-faire math on progress is disputable.


Randall Collins and Sal Restivo, Robber Barons and Politicians in Mathematics: A conflict Model of Science, (The Canadian Journal of Sociology / Cahiers canadiens de sociologie, Vol.8, No.2, Spring 1983), published by Canadian Journal of Sociology.

S.T.S. Historic Contests in Mathematics, (Mathematics News Letter, Vol.8, No.3, Dec. 1933), published by Mathematical Association of America.



Tartaglia – The Stammerer, (The Mathematics Teacher, Vol. 23, No. 6, October 1930) published by National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

David Bergamini and the Editors of LIFE, LIFE Science Library: Mathematics (Time Inc., 1963).

A Crown for the King

There’s a saying that “the clothing maketh the man.”  There are however, certain pieces of clothing that maketh more of a man than others.  Perhaps the most extreme example would be the crown; a piece of headgear that represents a position of power, while holding none of the power within itself.  Every fantasy series in the last decade seems to have the same trope go on in it, where a king or queen is assassinated, a crown goes tinking across the stone floors, and their usurper gently reaches down and plucks the diadem off the rough hewn grown.  They daintily place the ring of gold upon their brow and assume a sly grin as the credits begin to roll, the background fades to black, and the director serves the watchers another cliffhanger.  Such a scene is readily consumable by the public, we understand the concept that the crown means the kingdom almost implicitly.  Now consider that for a moment: a crown is just a hunk of metal, yet it is the symbol of power.  It isn’t just a European phenomenon either, Chinese emperors, Arabian grave sights, Egyptian Pharaohs, and Persian lords all hopped on board with the whole crown = power idea.

Image result for clothing makes the manHe’s not wrong…

Some theories exist as to why it is that the crown/fancy hat is so strongly associated with power, beginning with one put forth by the New Yorker.  In an article by Judith Thurman about a 6,000 year old crown that was unearthed in the southern part of Israel, known as the Levant, she put forward the idea that humans are simply trying to imitate alphamanhood in nature.  We see antlers on powerful elk and manes on lions who lead the prides.  To offer a counterpoint to Thurman’s claim however, the crown is not the only ancient symbol of lordship.  In Rome, power was signified by wearing cloaks of Tyrian purple.  Sumptuary laws and the exorbitant prices made it both illegal and impractical for commoners to wear the color.  Rome, a location with arguably more access to elk and lions than any other society in the ancient world, used the color purple to designate lordship.  Byzantine (Eastern Post-schism Romans) emperors were called “purple-born” for similar reasons.

To point to another society that did not rely on hats to signify power, the Aztec emperor would have specific colors and designs of his mantle (cloak/shawl) that no other person could wear under penalty of death.  The Aztec emperor would gift designs and colors to his lords and their sub-lords to signify their positions.  According to Patricia Anawalt’s article in Archaeology magazine, Aztec soldiers were allowed to wear simple cotton mantles, but anyone who was in any lower position would be executed for wearing cotton.  The maguey fiber cloaks that the commoners could wear had to be specific lengths too, showing too much ankle was punishable by death.  Additionally, only nobles were allowed to wear sandals, and even then would need to remove their shoes in the presence of the emperor.  In the case of the Aztecs, power was designated by the coats and shoes, not by the hat.

Image result for aztec punishment“Sorry Camaxtli, this is what you get for wearing cotton after Labor day”

Another theory about the reason for crowns is one that I came up with, drawing heavily on Herman Freudenberger’s work, “Fashion, Sumptuary Laws, and Business” in the Business History Review.  Essentially, the concept is that the crown exists as a symbol of one’s wealth and though that became a symbol of power.  The backing to the theory is in that sumptuary laws (laws that regulate consumption by the people) really begin to be used in earnest when Europe begins to get wealthy in the Age of Discovery and began to move towards industrialization.  During this era where merchants became more and more wealthy, nobility and royalty began to place laws into the books that would prevent the riffraff from dressing like them.  Similar to the laws that existed in Rome and the Aztec empires, nobility secured the stature of their outfits through aggressive legal action that prevented people from following in suit.  Positions of prestige are only prestigious when nobody else is dressing in a similar way.  When one thinks further back to more ancient times, disposable wealth and jewelry are hard to come by.  Only the wealthiest and the most powerful could afford to barter for enough precious metals to create a crown.  The theory is not bulletproof however, in Bruce G. Trigger’s article “The Social Significance of the Diadems in the Royal Tombs of Ballana” in the Journal of Near Eastern Studies, after excavating a host of tombs belonging to royalty, he found crowns only in the tombs of kings and queens, whereas more wealthy princes (more wealthy because their tombs are massive) are found crownless while nearby kings of much lesser material wealth are coronated.

Image result for coronationA couple theories exist that the crown is only a symbol of power for most of history when it is plopped on the king’s head by a pope.  For that reason, most new kings would first ensure that there was a public coronation by the divine representative to legitimize his power.

The history of the crown is completely undeveloped.  While it would be wonderful to have some sort of conclusive and final answer as to why the crown is a representation of power, the history does not exist yet.  Bookshelves are full of cultural histories, biographical histories, and chronological histories, but very few historians have waded into the depths of sartorial history, and fewer still have logged the interplay between political power and physical presentation even though it exists.

Hat Fact#2: the Mad Hatter from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass is thought to be inspired by something called “the mad hatter’s disease”.  Also known as “Hatters’ Shakes” or “Danbury Shakes”, the hatter’s disease was a result of prolonged exposure to mercury vapors.  Hatters in the 17th century would use mercury to make the felts that they used to create hats with, so through long-term exposure to mercury in the felting process, many hatters would end up with severe neurological damage, kidney damage, “intentional tremors”, pathological shyness, and  extreme irritability.



Bruce G. Trigger, The Social Significance of the Diadems in the Royal Tombs at Ballana in “Journal of Near Eastern Studies”, Vol.28, No.4, (Oct., 1969) pp. 255-261.

Herman Freudenberger, Fashion, Sumptuary Laws, and Business in “The Business History Review”, Vol.37, No.1/2, Special Illustrated Fashion Issue (Spring-Summer 1963), pp. 37-48.

Patricia Anawalt, Costume and Control: Aztec Sumptuary Laws in “Archaeology”, Vol.33, No.1, (January/February 1980), pp.33-43.

Pisani refloated his ships and sailed on.

While reading Roger Crowley’s book, “City of Fortune: How Venice Ruled the Seas”, I stumbled across one of the greatest things that happens in a history book.  A line that the author drops with obscene nonchalance, yet it contains another book or two worth of information in a few short words.  In this case, it was a paragraph about an ongoing naval battle between Genoa and Venice, where the Genoans caught Venice’s admiral Nicolo Pisani in the harbor of Negroponte.  Crowley writes, “chased back to Negroponte with an inferior force, [Pisani] scuttled his galleys in the harbor rather than risk a fight.  Doria [the Genoan admiral] was forced to withdraw.  Pisani refloated his ships and sailed on.”

“Pisani refloated his ships and sailed on”

Image result for Venetian People historySince a picture of Nicolo Pisani does not seem to exist on the internet, pretend this image of two random stereotypical Venetian masqueraders is actually an image of Pisani lifting the boats from the sea with his bare hands.

This battle happened in 1351, how in the dickens did the Venetians salvage scuttled boats from the harbor or Negroponte without some sort of exceptional technology that allowed them to pump air into a ship some ten or fifteen feet or more deep in the water? The assumption is that the water of the harbor would need to be at least ten feet deep to allow for merchant ships to sail in and out; though it is possible that the ships were not totally submerged, though the scuttling was designed to prevent damage to the ships and crew, and partially submerged ships are still vulnerable to fire and damage.  In the modern era, raising a ship is a technological endeavor that uses cranes and pumps and hydraulics, so how then did a handful of merchant marines from a half millennium ago lift the ship out of the water?

Image result for negroponte greeceThis is a picture of Negropone’s harbor, just to give some context.  Venice straight up Lazarus’d galleys and went on their merry way without even a footnote in history.

The answers to the questions about how the plucky Venetians figured out how to lift the ship remain elusive and apparently unresearched.  As for the simple act of raising a ship or doing other versions of marine salvage, one of the earlier references of a salvage operation comes from Albrecht von Treileben’s salvage of the Vasa in Sweden.  According to some sources, Treileben used diving bells to assist his divers while they meandered around in the ship 100 feet below the surface of Stockholm’s harbor.  Simply peeling cannons out of the water took thirty years between 1630 and 1660, nearly three hundred years after Pisani’s actions.  Not only was it three centuries later, the Vasa salvage was a monumental undertaking and required engineering minds from England and Germany to just get the expensive parts of the ship back (people were salvaging the cannons before the main body, which was only raised out of the water in 1961).  Crowley’s Venetians seem to be otherwise unphased by the difficulty of the more modern undertaking of actually raising a ship.

Image result for sunken wooden shipFor reference, this is what a scuttled ship looks like; somewhat like a sad fish bowl decoration.

The practice of marine salvage was quite normal, in fact, Samuel G. Margolin has an article in the “North Carolina Historical Review” that describes the legal ramifications in the late 1600s Carolinas if one went off “wrecking”, or pilfering the remnants of a shipwreck (technically the products still belonged to the merchant shipping company, so it was theft.  Individuals who were caught wrecking were often branded with a letter T by their left thumb to mark them permanently as a thief).  In one case, a man named “Captain Anthony Dawson” was hanged because he had apparently been attempting to disable the wrecked ship during the rescue operations to “imbezell purloyne and convey away” all her “sailes rigging apparell furniture and stores in his possession.”  Perhaps more damning than his attempts to steal the sails and drapes was that Dawson was described as “having not the fear of God before his eyes and his alegiance to… the King not regarding.”

Actual information on the history of raising ships is much more difficult to find than the filching of stuff that was in a shipwreck.  In a newspaper from 1945, buoyancy and air-tightness were discussed in a set of lectures by a speaker at the Liverpool and Glasgow Salvage Association, where the primary method of lifting the ships is described as a pump that forces air into the underwater vessel, thereby displacing the water and eventually raising the ship.  If the hole in the ship gapes too widely, divers need to be sent in first to repair the inside of the ship to a degree.  Hydraulics and pumps allow the modern person to raise a boat, but earlier references to similar technology becomes much more sparse.  Perhaps the earliest reference to a raising of a ship came a full two centuries after Pisani, when Henry VIII’s flagship, Mary Rose capsized and sank right in front of him in 1545.  At low tide, wires were passed beneath the ship and fastened to pontoons.  When high tide arrived, the boat was lifted off the bottom of the seabed and could be towed to shallower water, at which point the process would be rinsed and repeated.  The pontoon method failed and the Mary Rose remained underwater until 1982.

A visual of the Pontoon method from “Bells, Barrels and Bullion: Diving and Salvage in the Atlantic World, 1500 to 1800” by John E. Ratcliffe

The style used for the failed raising of the Mary Rose would likely have been as close to the technology that would have been available to the Venetians at the time, but the pontoon method requires several turns of the tide, and works very slowly.  Based on that, it must be assumed that one of several things is at play in the story of Pisani refloating his ships and sailing on:

  1.  Crowley made an assumption in his writing and simply passed over the information without worrying about the accuracy of the statement with regards to either the scuttling or the refloating of Pisani’s ships.
  2. Venice had access to pumps or some other technology that is not found on Google or JSTOR.org, and they were able to raise ships without struggle.
  3. Pisani’s ships were scuttled in shallow water parts of the harbor, making the repair easier and the subsequent bilge pumping possible.
  4. Pisani never actually scuttled his ships or refloated them.  People in history tell self aggrandizing stories about their exploits with shocking regularity (here’s looking at you, Bernal Diaz del Castillo), it’s quite possible that Pisani never sank his ships but told people that he had and the source survived the last 600 years.
  5. Lastly, it is possible that I have neither access to, nor the understanding of maritime history and technology enough that I would be able to do justice to the question of raising a ship 600 years ago.  The raising of the Mary Rose is theoretically the most important single thing to show that Pisani’s actions are possible, but it was the most difficult source to find.

In the end, the mysteries of the raising ships of Pisani have yet to be answered definitively or with ease.  The act of raising a ship in the 1350s is nearly two hundred years earlier than the next most notable example, and even then the Mary Rose refloating was a failure.  Pisani sank and floated a substantial number of galleys in a single season.  In all likelihood, either a piece of vital information is missing or a piece of information was fabricated.


Crowley, Roger. “City of Fortune: How Venice Ruled the Seas”, (Randomhouse, 2011).


Margolin, Samuel G. “”Contrary to All Law and Justice”: The Unauthorized Salvage of Stranded and Sunken Vessels in the Greater Chesapeake, 1698-1750.” The North Carolina Historical Review 72, no. 1 (1995): 1-29. http://www.jstor.org/stable/23521868.

Critchley, Geo. R. “(2) HOW WRECKED AND SUNKEN SHIPS ARE SALVED.” Journal of the Royal Society of Arts 93, no. 4686 (1945): 164-72. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41361896.

Ratcliffe, John E. “Bells, Barrels and Bullion: Diving and Salvage in the Atlantic World, 1500 to 1800.” Nautical Research Journal 56, no. 1 (2011): 34-56.  http://www.academia.edu/1522075/Bells_Barrels_and_Bullion_Diving_and_Salvage_in_the_Atlantic_World_1500_to_1800


In the spirit of the Olympics, here’s a history of the most famous of the track and field events: The Marathon.
Image result for original marathon
To begin with, the Marathon is a race that has the participants stumble and groan over 26.2 miles of track, or 42.195 kilometers.  No race in any sport has a similarly inauspicious origin story as the marathon does.  In the 500s BCE, Persia was one of the world’s greatest empires, the wealthiest, the strongest, and potentially the most expansionist at the time.  The Persian king Darius, father of the later Xerxes of Thermopylae fame, had quashed all internal rebellion and dissent to his rule and began to expedition outwardly towards other parts of the Levant and Aegean sea.  As the 490s BCE came to a close, the Persian war machine ground closer and closer to Athens, wiping out Thrace and a few other Grecian strongholds along the way.

The Athenian assembly feared the Persians and sent a runner to Sparta in hopes of gathering allies to fight the Persian invasion.  As the Persian navy was making headway towards a landing point in the Greek city of Marathon, the Athenians were struggling to find support.  The runner they sent to Sparta was supposedly a man named Pheidippides, and he ran the 150 miles between Athens and Sparta to request aid.  The Spartans were busy with a religious festival, so the Greek army (Pheidippides ran back to Athens, then marched to Marathon, so this dude had to be exhausted by now) assembled along the coasts of Marathon to meet the Persian army.  Darius had been collecting his annihilation army for some time; he outnumbered the Greeks nearly two to one.

Image result for Marathon GreeceThe city of Marathon on a map, it’s oddly enough about 26.2 miles away from Athens

The Greek armies scored a truly unexpected victory over the Persians, and routed Darius’ armies completely.  As the Persians retreated to their ships and shuffled off the shores, the Greek commanders realized the dire straits they were in:  The city of Athens did not expect them to have beaten the Persians.  None of the Athenian government knew that they had won the war.  If the Persian fleet they watched winking below the horizon arrived at Athens before the Athenian army came back, they would think that the Persians had destroyed all of their military.  It would be likely that the Athenian Assembly would capitulate to the Persians and all the fighting at Marathon would be essentially wasted.

Image result for Battle of Marathon Ancient GreeceThe Battle of Marathon battle map looks like the Battle of Cannae, but flipped around.  Flanking and baiting have been the most effective tactics for most of history.

According to the sources, the Greek generals sent out Pheidippides to run to Athens and tell them to hold out for as long as possible, because the victorious Athenian army was marching home as fast as possible.  Pheidippides, who had just run 300 miles from Athens to Sparta to Athens, and then marched 26 miles to Marathon, then fought a battle against one of the world’s greatest fighting forces, hit the road running and didn’t stop until he got back to Athens.  According to the Roman chronicler Lucian, Pheidippides arrived in Athens, shouts out “Joy to you, we have won” and then expired right there in the middle of the Assembly.    Athens geared up for war, and when the Persian fleet comes sailing around the banks, they saw that the entire city was bristling with determined partisans.  Darius tested the Athenian defenses a few times to no avail, and the Athenian army came marching up to further reinforce the city.  The First Persian war ended with the Persians losing some 6,400 men at Marathon to the 192 that Greece lost.  Pheidippides’ extreme and fatal run became a sports staple.

Image result for Ancient Greek CountrysideJust so people are clear, it wasn’t a nice flat run either.  Greece has some gnarly hills that Pheidippides had to gasp and gurgle his way up on his way back to the Assembly.