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.