The Real Game of Thrones – Part 2: Seven Times History Inspired G.R.R. Martin

This is Part 2 of Rest is History’s “The Real Game of Thrones” – Click Here to check out Part 1 if you have not already done so.

Unless you have been living under a rock in recent years, you will have no doubt heard of the hit television show Game of Thrones, based on the fantasy novel series by author George R.R. Martin. Much of Game of Thrones and it’s source material are taken from history, with Martin’s wondrous fiction woven through them as they blend into one massive incredible tale. The backbone of Martin’s story is lifted straight from the English Wars of the Roses which you can find over in Part 1.

This article will look into seven instances where the show touches on historical themes, people and events. Before we start though, two quick caveats: the story lines that I’ll be looking at come from the television show rather than the books, mostly because I believe more people are familiar with them and partly because I have not read all of them yet. Secondly, it goes without saying that this article contains spoilers, so if you are not fully caught up then read at your own peril!

1 – Lyanna’s Abduction and the Rape of Lucretia

Before Rome was an empire it was a republic, and before it was a republic it was a kingdom. What brought around the end of the Roman Kingdom was an act so heinous that the people of Rome were horrified and decried that they “would rather die a thousand deaths in defence of their liberty than suffer such outrages to be committed by the tyrants.”

Legend has it that in 510 BCE, Lucretia was assaulted and raped by Sextus Superbus, the son of Rome’s last king Tarquin (Targaryen), while he was staying with Lucretia’s husband, Collatinus, on a military campaign. The next day Lucretia told her father what had happened, asking for vengence before plunging a knife into her heart and dying in his arms. Revenge came swiftly as her husband and uncle led a rebellion that drove out the Tarquins and established a republic.

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There are many similarities between this tragic (most likely mythical) tale and the story of Lyanna Stark, sister of Ned Stark, whose immediate family became the standard bearer’s of the revolution (Robert’s Rebellion) that did away with the Mad King. It was her brother Ned Stark and betrothed, Robert Baratheon, who led the armies after her supposed abduction by Rhaegar Targaryen.

We now know, thanks to Brann’s vision that Lyanna was not forcefully taken, but fled willingly and married Rhaegar in secret. But, as Game of Thrones likes to drill home – history is written by the victors, and as Robert’s Rebellion was successful and the Targaryens were all but annihilated, the truth behind the revolt was buried with them.

2 – Valyria and Rome

Just as medieval Europe clawed its way out of the ruins of the Roman Empire, Westeros too stands in the shadow of an older and, yet, superior civilisation: the Valyrian Freehold. Both conquered vast swathes of land through their military and technological superiority; both prospered off the back of slave economies; and both ultimately crumbled.

Upon arriving in Valyria in Season 5, Tyrion Lannister asks Jorah Mormont: “How many centuries before we learn how to build cities like this again?” There is evidence of people being equally awestruck when looking back at Roman architecture during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. While gazing upon the dome of the Pantheon in the early 1500s, Michelangelo opined that it seemed of “angelic and not human design.” The Roman temple was already over 1,350 years old by this point. It was not just the architecture that the people felt nostalgic for. Valyria’s language was taught as part of the education of Westerosi nobility – much like Latin was (and still is) an important part of the Catholic Church and European nobility of later ages.

For all that the Roman Empire contributed to the world in terms of laws, language, markets, technology, architecture, and infrastructure, it was still not enough to prevent it’s downfall. A series of factors, including political incompetence, military defeats and loss of traditional values led to Rome being sacked by the Visigoths in 410 CE. This was not the case for Valyria, which was wiped out through natural, rather than man-made, causes. In making the “Doom of Valyria” a catastrophic volcanic eruption, Martin draws inspiration from two other civilisations: one historic, the Minoans; and one mythical, the city of Atlantis.

3 – The Wall

In northern England there stands the remnants of an ancient Roman wall that stretches 117 kilometers (73 miles) from coast to coast. Although little more than a ruin nowadays, in its heyday this wall stood at a formidable 6 metres (20 foot) high. This is the famous Hadrian’s Wall and inspired the 300-mile long, 700-foot-tall Wall that spans the two coastlines of Westeros in the frozen north. Scientifically, Martin’s Wall would never stand, even in the sub-zero temperatures of his fictionalised North, had it not been for the magic that bound it together. However, the 8,000-year old structure did not fair too badly… until it came up against an Ice Dragon!

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Back to reality. After its completion in the late 120s CE, Hadrian’s Wall marked the northernmost frontier of the Roman Empire, shutting out Rome’s enemies. It was not the undead army of the Night King that the Romans were trying to keep out, but the northern British tribes and Caledonians. While the army of the Night King represents the antithesis of the people of Westeros, non-Roman tribes too were seen as “other” and considered barbarian in Roman thinking. This is evident in not just the Britons north of Hadrian’s Wall but also with the Germanic and Gallic tribes – the Romans used these peoples against whom the Romans could differentiate themselves with culturally.

4 – The Iron Bank of Braavos and the Medici

The Iron Bank of Braavos lurks behind the scenes of Westerosi finance from the first season. Ned Stark arrives in King’s Landing to find that the Iron Throne is in considerable debt, owing half to the Lannisters and half to the Iron Bank. Even Tywin, the powerful head of the Lannister family fears the Iron Bank, acknowledging its power as an inflexible operation that can not be evaded, lied to, or avoided.

Institutional money lending stretches back well into antiquity, with interest rates being set in law codes such as the Hammurabi Code (1754 BCE) in Ancient Mesopotamia and examples of pawnbroking in Classical Greece. It is not until 15th century Italy, however, that we see anything as formidable as the Iron Bank. Combining sound financial investment with political scheming, the Medici family went on to finance (and produce) popes and fund European kings. The money that their investments returned, however, they poured back into their city, Florence, partly to keep up the façade that it was still a republic and that there was no all-powerful family ruling over the citizens.

One way that the Iron Bank makes its fortune is by financially backing those that they believe will win. But as both the show and history has made clear, the uncertain nature of war proves to be the greatest enemy of certainty – the Bank invested considerably in Stannis Baratheon but lost it all when he was killed by Brienne of Tarth.

We also have parallels between the Iron Bank of Braavos and the Medici family during England’s Wars of the Roses. The Medici’s London branch got itself into serious trouble after lending to King Edward IV who defaulted, as did his enemies, the House of Lancaster, who also owed the Medici a considerable amount. This failure brought business in the London branch to a close and marked the beginning of the end for the Medici’s dominance over European banking.

5 – The Ironborn and the Vikings

Aside from the Dothraki hordes being inspired by the Mongol hordes, one of the most obvious comparisons between the people of Westeros is the Ironborn and the Vikings. The cultural disparities between the feudal system on the main land and the militarism of the Iron Islands are highlighted in the show through Theon Greyjoy. As Ned Stark’s hostage, he is exposed to a different, more softer, way of life at Winterfell than that of his fellow Ironborn.

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In Theon’s father, Balon Greyjoy, we see indications of the Viking King Ceolwulf, who was installed on the Mercian throne, replacing the previous king. Ceolwulf was little more than a puppet, answerable to those he derived power from.

The extreme violence of the Ironborn’s liestyle boils all the way down to their bartering system – the “iron price” generally being beating one’s enemies to death until the desired possession becomes yours. King Balon’s brother, Euron Greyjoy, proves very talented at bludgeoning his opponents with his axe. This choice of weapon fits him within a Viking context as they were the most commonly used weapon of the Norsemen.

There are, however, a number of important differences between the Ironborn and the Vikings. While Martin would have the Ironborn as an almost totalitarian warrior society, the real Norsemen were a lot more socially stratified. There was so much more to Viking society than the brutish raping and pillaging that is, too often, associated with them. Vikings such as Leif Erikson and Erik the Red led voyages of exploration and the culture relied heavily on trade, both things that the Ironborn are against. The men from the Iron Islands represent the absolute worst of the Vikings and their culture.

6 – The Red Wedding and Scotland’s Bloody Past

George R.R. Martin revealed that two events from Scottish history inspired his infamous “Red Wedding” scene. The first was the execution of the 16-year-old William Douglas, 6th Earl of Douglas and his younger brother, David, in 1440 at an incident known as the “Black Dinner”.

The brothers had been invited, in the name of 10-year-old King James II, to visit the king at Edinburgh Castle in November. They were entertained at the royal table, where King James was charmed by them. During the feast, a platter was brought to the table and placed in front of Douglas. When lifted, the platter revealed the head of a black boar – a symbol of death. The brothers were dragged to the courtyard, given a short mock trial over trumped-up charges, and beheaded, over the protests of the young king.

In a showing of family disunity worthy of Game of Thrones, historians tend to agree that the boys’ great-uncle, James Douglas, was the main perpetrator of this shocking event. He became the 7th Earl of Douglas, and gained most from the executions. History remembers him as “James the Gross”.

The second event took place at Glencoe in the Highlands of Scotland. The massacre of thirty-eight members of the MacDonald Clan took place here in February 1692. For nearly two weeks the members of the Campbell Clan had been staying as the guests of the MacDonalds in Glencoe, but just as in Game of Thrones, the reality behind the massacre was more convoluted. Just as it was actually Tywin Lannister who organised the Stark’s massacre with the help of the Boltons, the order at Glencoe was given by the Scottish Secretary of State, John Dalrymple, 1st Earl of Stair.

Dalrymple was no fan of the Highland Clans in general as he viewed them as an obstruction towards a political union with England. After the first Jacobite uprising in 1689 failed to restore the Stuart monarchy, a Royal Proclamation was offered to those who swore allegiance to King William of Orange by January 1st 1692. Alisdair MacIain’s (head of the MacDonalds in Glencoe) failure to sign the oath of allegiance provided Dalrymple with the excuse he needed to eradicate the MacDonalds and send a message to the other clan heads who had failed to swear fealty to the new king.

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Robert Campbell’s soldiers arrived at the MacDonald’s stronghold in Glencoe on 1 February and took shelter from the harsh winter conditions whilst being treated to the hospitality that they were entitled to under the Highland hospitality code. On the night of 13 February 1692, as a blizzard raged outside, the Campbells set about murdering every sleeping MacDonald they could find. Thirty-eight lay dead inside the fort the next morning and around forty others, mainly women and children, who had fled, ended up dying of exposure in the winter storms.

To this day the Glencoe Massacre still brews feelings of bad blood: visit the Clachaig Inn in Glencoe and you’ll read a sign declaring: “NO HAWKERS OR CAMPBELLS”.

7 – The Night’s Watch and Medieval Catholic Military Orders

The Night’s Watch was established as a military order tasked with defending the realm of men from the “Others“, beyond the Wall, shortly after the end of the Long Winter. The men of the Night’s Watch share many similarities with some of the Catholic Military Orders of knights throughout Medieval Europe and the Middle-East.

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One such group was the Knights Templar who were a military Holy Order charged with protecting pilgrims passing through the Holy Land. Another was the Teutonic Order, originally set up in 1190 to care for the sick and wounded during the Siege of Acre, similar to the Knights Hospitaller, but soon began to militarise in 1198. Both Templars and Teutons took vows of celibacy, renouncing all female contact; and this observation of chastity rings echoes in the vow of the Night’s Watch: “I shall take no wife, hold no lands, father no children. I shall wear no crowns and win no glory.

We do not know the wording of the original vow sworn by the knights of the Teutonic Order or the Knights Templar, but its safe to assume that it centered around defending the Holy Land and the Christians who sought to visit the lands of Christ. We do know that there were many similarities with the Night’s Watch vow, including encouraging poverty and chastity.

Additionally, there are a number of similarities regarding the hierarchical structures of the fictional and historical orders. Just as men of the Night’s Watch are entirely loyal to their elected Lord Commander, the Templars and Teutons were utterly obedient to their elected Grand Master. Both the fictional and real military orders were autonomous: they were not answerable to kings or countries as they swore allegiance to their order which they viewed as serving a higher purpose.

The Rest is History

Click Here to read The Real Game of Thrones Part 1: The Wars of the Roses

The Real Game of Thrones – Part 1: The Wars of the Roses

Unless you have been living under a rock in recent years, you will have no doubt heard of the hit television show Game of Thrones, based on the fantasy novel series by author George R.R. Martin. It is no secret that Martin borrows heavily from European history for his themes of power struggles. Even the map of the main continent, Westeros, appears to be an upside down Ireland attached to the bottom of a slightly warped England.

Much like real European history, Martin’s fantasy world is full of multi-layered, Machiavellian politics, brutal behaviour and family drama. Plus magic and dragons. But if you strip away the ice zombies, prophecies, magic and dragons what is left is a clear jumble of some pretty savage history.

This will be the first of two articles exploring the historical analogies from which Martin drew inspiration for his epic fantasy series. Initially, I had planned on doing one post but the struggle for the Iron Throne and dominion over the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros was plucked directly from the three-decade-long Wars of the Roses fought between the House of Lancaster (Lannister) and the House of York (Stark). This war really is deserving of more than a few paragraphs.

Click Here to read The Real Game of Thrones Part 2: Seven Times History Inspired G.R.R. Martin

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The Roses

The conflict originated after the Hundred Years’ War (1337 – 1453), fought primarily between England and France. Defeat in this lengthy war at the hands of the French and their allies left England in social and financial turmoil that, combined with the eventual mental health problems suffered by King Henry VI, revived an interest in Richard, Duke of York’s claim to the throne.

King Henry VI and his House of Lancaster was represented by a red rose whilst the Yorks were symbolised by a White Rose – even today, the counties of Lancashire and Yorkshire associate with these colours and flowers.

Neither family had dragons or crippled youths with magical abilities to warp time and control animals, but the story of the Wars of the Roses does include plenty of throne rivalry, shifting loyalties, weak monarchs, murdered princes, and scheming protectors of the realm (Hand of the King/Queen). Much like its fictionalised counterpart, the Wars of the Roses were a complex and brutally violent series of events that rocked the kingdom. The Battle of Towton (1461) is considered the largest and bloodiest battle ever fought on English soil – upwards of 50,000 men fought for hours amidst a snowstorm with 28,000 losing their lives. George R.R. Martin was able to take these events and put them at the centre of his fantasy world, expanding outward with an interlaced tale of history and magic.

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To truly understand and absorb the complicated history of the Wars of the Roses takes far more energy and effort than this post can adequately achieve, so we will look at the  summarised version and how it pertains to Game of Thrones.

A Right Royal Muddle-Up

The death of King Edward III in 1377 sparked the drama. Edward’s eldest son, Edward the Black Prince, had already died, but his grandson, Richard II, was ten years old and he was crowned king, leapfrogging Edward’s three other surviving sons. This skip of a generation created numerous claims to the throne within the family. This entitlement became particularly strong within the Lancaster and York lines of the family. Fans of Game of Thrones will note similarities between this historic feud and the claims made by the brothers of Robert Baratheon, Stannis and Renly, upon his death.

Richard II was deposed in 1399 by his cousin, Henry of Bolingbroke (Henry IV), which installed the House of Lancaster onto the throne. The Lancastrian hold of power continued through Henry IV’s son Henry V who died in 1422, leaving the throne to his eight month old son, Henry VI. The young king proved weak-willed and was easily manipulated by his advisors, who convinced him to marry Margaret of Anjou to gain French support. She was both beautiful and ruthless… Queen Cersei, anyone?

York Triumphant

Queen Margaret was prone to persecuting anyone who threatened her… Queen Cersei, anyone? She also harboured a deep distrust of Richard of York, a prominent figure in the Royal family who still held a legitimate claim to the throne. In the Game of Thrones narrative, Richard of York translates into Eddard “Ned” Stark. Guess who is no fan of Ned Stark… Queen Cersei, anyone?

York was Henry VI’s closest ally, advisor, general and trusted confidant so naturally, the Queen did everything possible to keep York from further climbing the political ladder and attaining higher position. Richard of York began to protest and openly argue with the Lancasters at this treatment. He was exiled to Ireland for his efforts. Meanwhile, Queen Margaret’s malicious tactics and questionable alliances caused great distrust of her husband’s rule among the people.

Richard of York eventually returned to England with an army and became Lord Protector of England, the real-world equivalent of Hand of the King. He was appointed as the regent in charge of the government after King Henry VI suffered a mental breakdown. Unfortunately for York, the King soon recovered from this confused state and reversed York’s position at the request of his Queen. Once again, York attacked with an army, was reinstated as the Lord Protector of England and succeeded in securing his and his heir’s succession to the throne following Henry’s death.

Richard of York was killed along with one of his sons by Margaret’s forces at the Battle of Wakefield in 1460 but his eldest son took the throne soon after in 1461 and was crowned Edward IV.

King Edward IV continued to battle the House of Lancaster, including at the violent blood-letting of the Battle of Towton, mentioned earlier. The former King Henry IV was captured in 1465 and imprisoned in the Tower of London whilst his Queen was captured in 1471 after a battle in which their only son, Edward of Westminster, was killed (the only Prince of Wales to ever fall in battle). Edward of Westminster was allegedly an exceptionally cruel and hot-tempered child who served as the template for one of the most loathsome characters in Game of Thrones: King Joffrey.

The Plot Thickens

Edward IV’s success was undermined when he backed out of an arranged marriage with a French princess, secretly marrying the widow of a minor noble instead – how dare he marry for love rather than political gain!! Edward’s marriage to someone of a lesser station than himself at the expense of a more politically gainful marriage is clearly the foundation for Robb Stark’s ignored betrothal arrangement to the daughter of Lord Walder Frey.

King Edward IV’s marriage alienated some of his allies, especially the Earl of Warwick (inspired Roose Bolton in Game of Thrones) who turned many people against the king and briefly had Henry VI reinstated. This did not last long, as Edward took the throne back and imprisoned Henry in the Tower once again, where he died in 1471 under suspicious circumstances – most likely at the orders of Edward to prevent any further contest. Edward’s reign continued, mostly peacefully, until his death in 1483.

…then the violence recommenced.

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Edward had a 12 year-old son due to succeed him, but his younger brother, Richard declared that the boy did not deserve the crown, arguing that the son was the product of his father’s secret and inappropriate marriage. Richard had himself crowned King Richard III in 1483 and imprisoned his nephews in the Tower of London: the “Princes in the Tower” were never seen again. It is easy to see how William Shakespeare could portray Richard as a Machiavellian villain who ruthlessly committed numerous murders in order to claw his way to power. Richard III’s argument rings similar to that of Stannis Baratheon’s about the legitimacy of King Joffrey.

King Across the Sea

Two years after Richard III stole the crown from his nephew, a figure from across the English Channel (Narrow Sea) challenged his reign. Henry Tudor, a direct descendant of the first Duke of Lancaster, had been raised in exile after his father’s death. Any of this sound familiar? Game of Thrones also knows of a character directly descended from royalty who was raised in exile across the sea after their father’s death: Daenerys Targaryen.

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Henry Tudor succeeded in winning the support of some dissatisfied York allies, raised an army in France, crossed the English Channel, and defeated King Richard’s forces and was crowned as King Henry VII. His final victory at the Battle of Bosworth Field was the final time that an English monarch won their crown on the field of battle. Henry married Elizabeth of York, the older sister of the “Princes in the Tower” and daughter of Edward IV, thus securing the legitimacy of his crown further. This linked the Houses of Lancaster and York for the first time, ending the Wars of the Roses after 32 years. The Tudor family, who combined the White and Red Roses in one, continued to rule over the Kingdom of England until 1603 when King James VI of Scotland became King James I of England in a personal union after Queen Elizabeth died without an heir.

Beyond the Wars of the Roses, George R.R. Martin draws on other histories for the different groups and factions within his story. The second part of “The Real Game of Thrones” will look into some of these other events and factions that draw on real-world history for inspiration.

The Rest is History

Click Here to read The Real Game of Thrones Part 2: Seven Times History Inspired G.R.R. Martin

 

The Human Story – The Roman Republic. Or Was It Empire?

The Romans. The ancient world’s kings of badassery! Or, perhaps “king” is the wrong word to describe them.

Legend has it that the city of Rome was founded on seven hills in 753 BCE by a chap named Romulus who, along with his twin brother Remus, was raised by a wolf. Romulus and Remus had a falling out and the former killed his brother in a rage (in Romulus’ defence, I cannot imagine that there was much in the way of emotional education during their canine upbringing). As its founder Romulus was, naturally, appointed to act as the first King of Rome with six more were to follow him.

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The final and seventh king was a man by the name of Tarquinius who grew to become a very unpopular king despite various military victories (usually something that proved very popular throughout Roman history). He diminished the size and authority of the senate by killing some senators and refusing to replace them, and he failed to consult the senate on matters of government anyway. In another break with tradition, he judged capital criminal cases without the advice of counsellors, thereby creating fear amongst those who may oppose him. The final straw came when his son raped Lucretia, a married noblewoman, who could not live with the shame and tragically stabbed herself and died in her father’s arms. The people were so disgusted and horrified that in one voice they cried “that they would rather die a thousand deaths in defence of their liberty than suffer such outrages to be committed by the tyrants.”

And so, it was. The Roman people overthrew their monarchy in 509 BCE and established the Roman Republic with Lucius Tarquinius Collatinus and Lucius Junius Brutus, the two men who had led the revolution, as the first co-consuls.

Governing the Roman Republic

In order to understand the transition from the Roman Republic to the Roman Empire we need to indulge in a bit of Great Man History. No man epitomises this transition as much as Julius Caesar, “great man” that he was.

Caesar was stabbed in the back by some of his colleagues from the senate because they were convinced that he was going to destroy the Republic. Even if he that was what he was planning, we still need to ask ourselves two questions:

1. Was the Roman Republic worth preserving?
2. Whether or not Caesar actually destroyed it?

One thing that made the Roman Republic endure as long as it did (509 – 27 BCE) was its political balance. The Greek historian Polybius said that the three forms of government – Monarchy (although in the Republic’s case “Diarchy” – two-person rule would be more accurate), Aristocracy and Democracy – could all be found unified within the structure of the Roman political system. At the heart of this blended system was the senate (the body of legislators chosen from a group of elite families). Essentially, Roman society was broken into two broad categories:

Patricians – Small group of aristocratic families (where the senators were selected from)
Plebeians – Everyone else

The senate was a mixture of legislature and advisory council whose main job was to set policy for the consuls. Each year the senate would choose two co-consuls from amongst its ranks to serve as the heads of Rome – the monarchy (diarchy) aspect of Polybius’ description of the Republic. Two senators were elevated to the rank of consul in order to check one another’s ambitions and so that one could deal with domestic issues whilst the other was off fighting Rome’s enemies and conquering new lands. There were also an additional two checks on power. Firstly, the single year term – I mean, how much trouble can someone really cause in one year? Secondly, once a consul had served then he was forbidden from holding that office again for at least ten years (or at least that was supposed to be the case anyway).

Because co-consuls only reigned for one year, the calendar year was named after the reigning consuls of that given year. For example, 509 BCE, the first year of the Roman Republic was known as the “Year of Brutus and Collatinus” whilst 82 BCE was remembered as the “Year of Marius and Carbo”. An additional post was created for times of extreme danger when the Republic itself was in danger. This post was filled for the first time in 494 BCE when the Republic was scarcely a teenager and the senate decided that Manius Valerius Maximus was the right man for the job. However, the archetypal dictator was Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus – the selfless Roman general (and ex-consul) who came out of retirement from his farm, took command of an army and defeated Rome’s enemy before relinquishing power and returning to his modest life on the farm. He did this twice!! First in 458 BCE and and then again in 439 BCE.

The Life & Times of Julius Caesar

Now, back to Julius Caesar and Great Man History.

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Gaius Julius Caesar was born in July 100 BCE (Year of Marius and Flaccus, in case you were wondering) to one of Rome’s patrician families. It is often claimed that he was born of Caesarean Section, hence the name. This is, however, false – his family gained the name “Caesar” after an earlier ancestor had been born via this operation.

Seeing as Caesar was from the upper class of society it was only natural that he would serve both in the army and the senate. He proved to be a competent general and was rewarded with the post of governor of Hispania Ulterior (modern southern Spain) before deciding to run for the office: that of consul. However, Caesar was in debt and in order to win the consulship he needed financial aid. He turned to Marcus Licinius Crassus, the richest man in Rome at the time.

In 59 BCE, Caesar was elected to the office of consul and aimed to dominate the Roman political arena by allying himself with Crassus and Rome’s other powerful player, General Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (better known as Pompey – who you will remember egomaniacally styled himself as “the Great” in homage to Alexander).

Crassus, Pompey and Caesar made up the First Triumvirate and this alliance worked out exceedingly well for Caesar. Meh, not so much the other two.

After his year as consul, which involved getting the senate to pass laws largely through intimidation of Pompey’s troops, Caesar landed the governorship of Roman controlled Gaul. He quickly conquered the rest of the territory and his four loyal Legions became the source of his own personal power. He continued conquering new territories in the north, and even brought parts of Britain into the Roman sphere of influence.

While Caesar was off fighting his Gallic Wars, Crassus, the governor of Roman Syria (one of the richest Roman provinces, thanks in no small part to the Silk Road trade routes) by this time, was killed in battle with the Parthian Empire. Crassus’ wealth and political influence had acted as the counterbalance to the other two egos of the Triumvirate and the alliance quickly began to unravel after Pompey was elected consul. The senate and Pompey decided to strip Caesar of his command and recall him to Rome. Caesar knew that if he returned without his army he would have been prosecuted for corruption and exceeding his authority. So instead he returned to Rome with the Thirteenth Legion, crossed the Rubicon River and cast the die.

Pompey fled the city and by 48 BCE Gaius Julius Caesar was named both consul and dictator (although he resigned the office of dictator after only 11 days). He promptly left for Egypt to track down his old friend, only to discover that he had already been killed by the Pharaoh Ptolemy. Egypt had its own problems, however, and was also going through its own civil war between the pharaoh and his sister, Cleopatra. Ptolemy had been trying to gain favour with Caesar by killing Pompey, but Caesar was furious as he had wanted to capture his nemesis alive and so sided with Cleopatra after she seduced him. He withstood the Siege of Alexandria and later defeated the pharaoh’s forces at the Battle of the Nile in 47 BCE and installed Cleopatra as Egypt’s ruler.

Eventually, after much celebration, he made his way back to Rome, stopping off to defeat a few enemies in the east, most notably the King of Pontius. He then travelled the length of the Mediterranean Sea to defeat Pompey’s sons in Hispania Ulterior. When he arrived home he was, once again, declared as dictator and this was extended to 10 years and then for life. In 46 BCE he was elected consul and in 45 BCE he was elected as the sole consul. Julius Caesar truly was the undisputed master of the Roman Republic and he pursued reforms and policies that only strengthened his own position and consolidated his power. He granted land pensions for his soldiers; he restructured the debts of a huge amount of Rome’s debtors; and he changed the calendar to look much more like the one we have today; think of the “Julian Calendar”. Between crossing the Rubicon in 49 BCE and 44 BCE, Caesar established a new constitution which intended to accomplish three separate goals:

1. Suppress all armed resistance out in the provinces and thus bring order back to the Republic.
2. Create strong central government in Rome
3. Knit together all of the provinces into one single cohesive unit

The first of these he achieved after defeating Pompey and his supporters. He needed to ensure that the central government faced no internal challenge in order to secure the other two goals. Using his position as dictator, he simply assumed these powers by increasing his own authority which, in turn, decreased the power of Rome’s other political institutions.

By 44 BCE many senators were, understandably, beginning to feel that Caesar controlled too much power in Rome. According to the Roman historian Eutropius around 60 senators conspired to kill the dictator. Caesar was attacked and stabbed 23 times on the senate floor on the 15th March, a Roman holiday known as the Ides of March.

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The conspirators believed that the death of Caesar would bring about the restoration of the Roman Republic. Boy, were they wrong!!

Out With The Old, In With The New

There was one thing about Caesar’s policies and reforms…. they were very popular with the people who were quick to acknowledge his adopted son (his maternal great-nephew) and named heir Octavian, Caesar’s second in command, Mark Antony and his friend and ally Marcus Aemilius Lepidus as the Second Triumvirate.

This new Triumvirate proved to be an even bigger disaster than the first one and the Republic descended into another civil war. Octavian and Mark Antony fought it out with Octavian emerging as the victor. He changed his name to Augustus and became the sole ruler and first emperor of Rome. Augustus liked to pretend that the structures and form of the Republic were still in tact but the truth is that he made the laws and the Senate was reduced to nothing more than a rubber stamper.

So, the question remains. Did Caesar destroy the Roman Republic?

Well, he did start a series of civil wars that ravaged the Roman Republic, seized power for himself, subverted the ideas of the Republic and alter the constitution to suit his own ambitions. But he would only be to blame if he had been the first to do these things. Spoiler – he was not.

The General Gaius Marius (an uncle of Julius Caesar) served as consul seven times and rose to power on the strength of his military leadership and willingness to open the army up to the poor. He promised land in exchange for service and because of this Marius’ soldiers were loyal to Marius, not to Rome. There was one small drawback to this scheme, however. In order to grant these new lands to the soldiers, the army had to keep conquering new lands.

Another General, Lucius Cornelius Sulla Felix (Sulla), was around at the same time as Marius and he ensured that his armies pledged loyalty to him. The two men fought a brutal civil war, which many believe to be the beginning of the end for the Republic. Sulla emerged triumphant and installed himself as dictator, executing thousands in a political purge in 81 BCE.

Julius Caesar grew up during these violent and uncertain times. He was nothing more than a product of his time who was, himself, on the list of Sulla’s political enemies due to his connections with Marius’ regime. The threat against him was only lifted after the intervention of his mother’s family, which included supporters of Sulla. The dictator gave in reluctantly and is said to have declared that he “saw many a Marius in Caesar.”

All of this occurred only 20 years before Julius Caesar first took the office of consul. Ideas of grandeur must have been formulating in Caesar’s head during these formative years.

Another way to look at the question of whether Julius Caesar destroyed the Roman Republic is to set the Great Man outlook of history aside and focus on the fact that Rome became an empire before it had an emperor because… well, Rome was an empire. If we think back to the Persian Empire, we will remember that the empire had some characteristics that made it imperial:

1. A unified system of government
2. Continual military expansion
3. Diversity of subject peoples

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The Roman Empire possessed all three of these empire-creating qualities long before it became the “Roman Empire”. It may have started out as a city, but it soon morphed into a city-state and then kingdom before it became a republic. That entire time, it comprised only the area around Rome and was wholly confined to the Italian peninsula. During the fourth century BCE the Roman Republic began to incorporate neighbouring cities and their territories, such as the Latins and Etruscans, and pretty soon Rome was the undisputed king of Italy. However, there was not really diversification of subject peoples at this point.

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The real expansion of diversity began during the Punic Wars (so called because the Romans called the Carthaginians, their enemies, the Punics). There were three Punic Wars in all. The first one broke out because Rome wanted the island of Sicily which was under the control of the Carthaginians. Rome won the war and captured Sicily which made quite a few Carthaginians upset, so they began the Second Punic War. This was the war of the Roman Republic! In 219 BCE the Carthaginian general Hannibal attacked a Roman town and led an army through Spain and up across the Alps (all the more impressive as he brought war elephants with his army). Hannibal delivered stunning and monumental victories for Carthage but ultimately was unable to win the war, the result being that Rome took the Iberian Peninsula. Now, the people of Iberia are definitely not Roman and so the argument can be made that Rome had an empire in all but name as early as 201 BCE. The Third Punic War was really nothing more than a formality – Rome found an excuse to attack Carthage and utterly destroy it. Eventually, the whole area of North Africa (Carthage was located in modern day Tunisia) and much, much more became incorporated into Rome’s system of provinces and millions of people found themselves living in this Roman Empire.

To argue that Rome was not an empire before Augustus became its first official emperor is ludicrous. By the time that Augustus dissolved the Republic and proclaimed himself as Emperor, Rome itself had already been an empire for nearly 200 years.

There is a good argument to be made that the death of the Roman Republic came long before Caesar and probably around the time that it became an empire.

If anything destroyed the idea of republican Rome it was the concentration of power into the hands of one man – it was always an ambitious general. You cannot march on Rome without an army, after all. Why were there such powerful generals capable of this in the first place? Well, because Rome decided to become an empire and empires need to expand militarily (particularly the Roman Empire as it always needed new land to dole out to retired troops). This military expansion created the all-powerful general and the integration of diverse peoples into the army made it easier for the individual general to extract personal allegiance from his soldiers rather than them be loyal to the abstract idea of the Roman Republic.

Julius Caesar may often be accused of dissolving the republic and creating emperors, but the truth is he did not, he was just a catalyst. In the end it was empire that created the emperors of Rome.

The Rest is History

Enjoy this? Then check out the rest of the series in the links below:

  1. The Wise Man’s Journey
  2. The Agricultural Revolution
  3. Early Settlement
  4. The Indus Valley Civilisation
  5. Mesopotamia
  6. Ancient Egypt
  7. West Vs East
  8. Hinduism, Buddhism & Ashoka the Great
  9. Ancient China
  10. Alexander…the Great?
  11. The Silk Road & Ancient Trade

Black Agnes – The Sassy Thorn in The English Lion’s Paw

Agnes, Countess of Dunbar and March, better known as Black Agnes due to her dark complexion, was the wife of Patrick, 9th Earl of Dunbar and March. She became renowned for her heroic defence of Dunbar Castle in East Lothian, Scotland against an English siege led by William Montague, 1st Earl of Salisbury.

The Second War of Scottish Independence (1332–1357) was in full swing when Salisbury arrived outside the gates of the formidable castle on 13 January 1338. Dunbar Castle overlooks the entrance of the town’s harbour and is defended on the west, north and east sides by water. Nonetheless, this should have been a relatively easy castle for the English army to take as its lord, Patrick Dunbar, was away fighting an English army in the north.

The English never banked on the resilience of the Lady of the Castle, though.

Women were known to take charge of castle or manor business while their husbands were away during the Middle Ages and even defend it if needs be. With just her servants and a handful of guards, this was exactly what Black Agnes was intent to do in the face of a 20,000 strong English army. When ordered to surrender the castle she replied:

Of Scotland’s King I haud my house, I pay him meat and fee, And I will keep my gude auld house, while my house will keep me.

Basically, Agnes was telling Salisbury that it was on!

The Siege

Salisbury’s first attempt to take the castle centred on catapulting massive rocks and lead shot against the ramparts. This was met with complete disdain by Lady Agnes, who, between attacks, sent her ladies-in-waiting, dressed in their Sunday finest, to dust off the ramparts with their handkerchiefs. In a showing of true sass, she literally brushed the attack off!

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Next, Salisbury rolled out his secret weapon – an enormous siege tower, known as a sow. Black Agnes was ready for this attack and advised Salisbury to “take good care of his sow” before ordering one of the giant boulders, which had been hurled at the castle earlier, be thrown from the battlements. The sow was smashed to pieces, sending the surviving Englishmen fleeing in every direction for their lives.

Frustrated that he was unable to make any progress through arms, the Earl of Salisbury attempted more Machiavellian, and less chivalrous, tactics. He bribed the guard of the principal entrance to Dunbar Castle, advising him to either leave the gate unlocked or to leave it in a manner that the English could easily break through. However, in an equally unchivalrous act, the guard accepted the money and then informed Agnes of the plan. Salisbury led his men to the gate, but at the final moment one of his men pushed past him just as the garrison lowered the portcullis, separating him from his comrades. Agnes, of course, had meant to trap Salisbury and taunted him from the battlements by shouting:

Farewell, Montague, I intended that you should have supped with us, and assist us in defending the Castle against the English.

At one point, having earlier captured Agnes’ brother, John Randolph, 3rd Earl of Moray, the English paraded him in front of the castle and threatened to hang him if Agnes did not surrender. She simply pointed out that should her brother, who had no children, be killed then she would personally greatly benefit as she would inherit his title, lands and holdings. The humiliated Salisbury quickly recognised the flaw in his plan and let the earl live.

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Salisbury had one final throw of the dice and moved to isolate the castle from roads and any outside communication in an effort to starve the garrison into surrender. Fortunately for Agnes, Sir Alexander Ramsay of Dalhousie, who had earned a reputation for being a thorn in the English king’s side, heard what the English were attempting to do and moved from Edinburgh to the coast with forty men. Ramsay and his company approached the castle by sea, with supplies, and entered the castle via the half-submerged postern (secondary gate) next to the sea. Utilising the tactic of surprise, the Scotsmen charged out of the castle and pushed their enemy’s advance guard all the way back to their camp.

Salisbury, realising that he was not going to get the better of Agnes, Countess of Dunbar and March, finally admitted defeat five months after arriving at the castle and lifted the siege on 10 June 1338. The triumph of a Scotswoman over an English army lives on in a ballad made up by the English as they marched away:

She makes a stir in tower and trench,

That brawling, boisterous, Scottish wench;

Cam I early, cam I late,

I found Agnes at the gate.

The Rest is History

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Human Story – The Silk Road & Ancient Trade

In the last chapter of this series, upon looking at the life and legacy of Alexander the Great we briefly touched upon the impact that he had on trade and culture across his Afro-Eurasian empire in the centuries following his early death. We will follow up on this and delve into the incredible network of road and sea commerce routes that evolved, in part, from Alexander’s legacy. This trade network is colloquially known as the Silk Road and we shall now take the magnifying glass to this massively significant historical anomaly.

Before we do though, let’s first imagine the life-cycle of the ubiquitous t-shirt. Let’s assume that it was designed in France and contains cotton from both India and Texas which was turned into cloth in China. This in turn was stitched in Haiti, screen printed in England and sold to me in Scotland. When I tire of it then it will find its way to Kenya or Cameroon or possibly back to Haiti. The fact that most t-shirts see more of the world than most people is quite astonishing really! This is possible due to globalisation and international trade.

The Silk Road was how complex international trade was facilitated in the ancient world and it is nearly impossible to overestimate just how important these trade routes were to the human story and the subsequent development of civilisation: the first truly massive cultural exchange.

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Ancient International Trade

The Silk Road was not the beginning of trade in the ancient world, but it radically expanded its scope and the connections formed between the (now mostly unknown and forgotten) traders and merchants arguably changed the world more than any political or religious leader ever did. One of the more amazing things about the Silk Road was that it did not only benefit the rich. To paraphrase one John F. Kennedy speech, “everyone’s boat was lifted by this particular rising tide”. Sure, the rich now had more things from distant lands to spend their money on other than temples and palaces but the poorer citizenry also benefited from the free transfer of ideas across thousands of miles. The Silk Road touched the lives of nearly everyone living in Afro-Eurasia.

Although known as the Silk Road, it is better to think of it as two distinguishable routes with a halfway hub station located in Central Asia. These routes were:

  • Eastern Mediterranean -> Central Asia
  • Central Asia -> China

Han China (207 BCE – 220 CE) expanded their trade routes in the Central Asian section around 114 BCE through the missions and explorations of the Chinese Imperial Envoy Zhang Qian who visited much of the region, including the Bactrian country of Daxia (modern northern Afghanistan, southern Uzbekistan, and southern Tajikistan) with its remnants of Greco-Bactrian rule (the progeny of Alexander’s army at the eastern most extent of his empire). Zhang Qian also provided reports on the countries that he did not visit: India to the south and the lands of Mesopotamia to the west.

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Believe it or not the Silk Road actually came into existence largely due to horses. The Chinese lacked horses strong enough to carry soldiers and so Zhang Qian sought to trade with the nomads of the Eurasian steppes, who in turn sought goods that only agricultural societies produced, such as grain and silk. This Chinese westward expansion and exploitation led to the opening of the Silk Roads which gave people the chance to exchange goods, cultures and ideas.

A Maritime Silk Road equivalent soon opened up, connecting China with Indian and Sri Lankan ports as well as Roman ports via Roman controlled Egypt. Many goods and ideas also found their way from Central Asia to the islands of Japan and even Java (modern Indonesia). According to the Chinese Histories, it was through these sea routes that the first Roman embassies made their way to China in 166 CE during the reigns of Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius and Emperor Huan of Han.

So, we should not think of the Silk Road as a purely land based road but rather as a series of interconnected trade routes.

Just as now, the goods travelled more than the people who traded them (think of the t-shirt analogy). Very few traders traversed the entire Silk Road (there were exceptions of course, such as the Italian explorer and merchant Marco Polo who famously documented his nearly 24,000 kilometre journey of the Silk Road in the 13th century) but rather moved back and forth between towns and trading posts selling their goods and wares to other traders. These new owners would then take the goods to the next town and further along the route and towards its final destination with each trader marking up the prices along the way.

What Was Traded?

What exactly was traded along the Silk Road? Well, silk for starters duh. For thousands of years silk was only produced in China (the earliest example of silk found was in tombs at the Neolithic site of Jiahu and dates back an astounding 8,500 years!).

Silk is spun from the cocoons of mulberry worms and the processes involved in silk making as well as the techniques for using the worms were a closely guarded state secret as much of China’s wealth came from silk production. As an export, it was mostly used for clothes as it feels light in the summer and, yet, keeps the wearer warm in the winter. Silk proved to be the number one way to display wealth in the ancient west.

It may now be known as the Silk Road (the phrase was coined in 1877 by the German traveller and scientist Baron Ferdinand von Richthofen) but the trade flowed in both directions. Some of the Mediterranean world’s exported goods included olives, olive oils, and wine. China, in turn, traded jade, silver and iron as well as silk. India provided fine cotton textiles whilst East Africa traded in ivory and the Arabian Peninsula exported spices, incense, and tortoise shells.

Money, Money, Money

Until this point, we have mainly focused on the city-dwelling “civilised” types but with the opening and growth of the Silk Road the nomadic peoples of the Central Asian steppes became much more important to the human story. The majority of Central Asia is not particularly great for agriculture, but the barren, rocky and mountainous terrain that makes it poor for growing crops also makes it an incredibly difficult region of the world to conquer (even the great Alexander of Macedon failed to meaningfully conquer the lands around the Hindu Kush mountain range).

The lands of the area lend well to herding and seeing as nomadic people are definitionally good at moving around from place to place they made natural traders. They were moving from Point A to Point B anyway; so why not make an extra bit of scratch from simply moving goods with them? Another benefit to all that travel was that it made them a hardier people who became more resistant to disease.

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One group of nomads, the Yuezhi, were defeated and humiliated in battle by a rival group, the Xiongnu, in 176 BCE and split into two separate migrating groups: the Greater Yuezhi and Lesser Yuezhi. The Greater Yuezhi eventually settled in Bactria (modern Afghanistan, Pakistan and northern India) and defeated the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom – the aforementioned descendants of Alexander the Great’s soldiers who had previously settled the area. The victorious Yuezhi formed the Kushan Empire (30 – 375 CE) which stretched south into the Indian subcontinent and wrapped east and north around the Himalayan mountain range. The Kushan Empire went on to play an integral role in the development of trade on the Silk Road as well as the introduction of Buddhism to China; particularly through the patronage of Emperor Kanishka the Great who was a great advocate of the religion.

Although trading around the routes that would later become the Silk Road had begun as early as 1,000 BCE it really accelerated in the second and third centuries CE and the Kushan Empire became a huge hub for that trade. By that point nomadic traders were beginning to be eclipsed by professional merchants who travelled the trade routes, often making huge profits, and the cities founded by the once nomadic peoples became hugely significant. They continued to grow because most of the trade along the Silk Road was increasingly being done by caravan and these caravans had to frequently stop for food, water, shelter, companionship – all the usual things that make life possible and worth living really.

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These towns and cities became fabulously wealthy. Palmyra in modern Syria was particularly important as all the incense and silk that travelled to Rome had to go through here. Silk was so popular amongst the Roman elites that the Senate repeatedly attempted to ban it, complaining about trade imbalances and that the material’s delicate characteristics were inadequately modest and immoral. Despite these arguments, all of the Senates attempts to ban silk failed. This speaks volumes to how even in the ancient world, just as it does today, wealth shaped the governance of the society.

Trade provided people with the opportunity to become wealthy without the need to be a king or a lord who took a cut of whatever the citizenry produced through taxes and levies. This new Merchant Class that grew along with the Silk Road even came to acquire a fair amount of political clout. In some ways this new class with its wealth began the tension that is still so obviously present in the modern world between wealth and politics.

How the Silk Road Changed Everything… For Everyone

The goods that were exported along these trade routes only really changed the lives of the wealthy but the Silk Road itself affected everyone else for three primary reasons:

  1. Economic Impact – Relatively few people could afford silk, but a lot of people were employed in the production of it. As the market for silk grew, more people chose to dedicate their lives to the production and exportation of the product. This was true of many luxurious items across Afro-Eurasia: the trade routes provided economic opportunity to a greater number of people.
  2. Trading Ideas – It was not just goods that travelled across the Silk Road, but it also provided the ideal tool for the proliferation of ideas. The Silk Road routes provided a cultural bridge between east and west and no idea benefited more from this than the teachings of Siddhārtha Gautama. The trade routes acted as the primary route used for the spread of Buddhism east into China and Japan. The religion was beginning to dwindle in its Indian homeland but the ideas of the Buddha were transported along the routes and it, once again, began to flourish when it came into contact with other traditions and cultures. Today, Buddhism is regarded as one of the Great Religions of the world. Many traders became strong supporters of monasteries which, in turn, became convenient way stations and staging posts for the travelling caravans – all the better for preaching.
  3. Disease – The world-wide interconnection of populations and civilisations led to the spread of disease. Measles, smallpox and bubonic plague all found their way across the trade routes. Terrible outbreaks of bubonic plague travelling from east to west occurred on numerous occasions with the most devastating outbreak beginning in 1347. This was one of the deadliest pandemics in human history and we now know it as the “Black Death” and it is estimated to have wiped out between 75 and 200 million people – two-thirds of the city of London alone died in the outbreak. This plague created a series of religious, social and economic upheavals, which had profound effects on the course of European history. This probably would not have happened without the Silk Road and its convenient intercontinental transportation for vermin and bacteria.

When we view the Silk Road from these different angles, it becomes clear that the interconnectedness fostered by the Silk Road had a much broader impact on the lives of the every day man or woman than simply buying clothing material or trinkets from far-off lands. Much like globalisation of the modern era affects everyone – from the poor child searching the scrap heap for minute amounts of precious metals in discarded mobile phones in a developing country, to the wealthy businessman transporting his infectious flu across continents in the airplane on the way to his meeting – the Silk Road affected more than just those wealthy enough to afford silk.

The Rest is History

Enjoy this? Then check out the rest of the series in the links below:

  1. The Wise Man’s Journey
  2. The Agricultural Revolution
  3. Early Settlement
  4. The Indus Valley Civilisation
  5. Mesopotamia
  6. Ancient Egypt
  7. West Vs East
  8. Hinduism, Buddhism & Ashoka the Great
  9. Ancient China
  10. Alexander…the Great?

Three Campaigns of the Chinese Civil War – How the Red Flag Rose in China

China is the most populous country on the planet. It has always had a massive population. From a military logistics point of view this equates to more canon fodder – an unsympathetic view to take, but true nonetheless. Six of the five deadliest conflicts in human history involved Chinese soldiers (it would have been six if they had been allowed to fight during World War One – although they were used as labour) with three of the conflicts raging exclusively in China. Few people in the west realise how many casualties the Chinese suffered during World War Two – second only to the Soviet Union, between 15 and 20 million in all, one third of all casualties in the war, in case you were wondering.

So the country is no stranger to armed insurrection, invasion nor civil strife. The first half of the 20th century appeared to be shaping up for more of the same. After being thoroughly humiliated by European, Japanese and American powers near the turn of the century the country fell into a seemingly endless series of wars between the old imperial regime, opportunistic warlords, a republic of questionable democratic ideals and communists. However, by 1927 the various conflicts had coalesced into the Chinese Civil War, fought between the Nationalists (the Kuomintang) under Chiang Kai-Shek and the Communists who were led by Mao Zedong. Chiang’s army gained the upper hand in the fighting and nearly destroyed the Communists in 1934 but Mao, along with 100,000 men, escaped and retreated 6,000 miles in what became known as the Long March – only 20,000 survived the arduous trek.

However, some respite for the demoralised communist army was near.

The civil war was temporarily suspended in the late 1930s and early 1940s as the combatants were forced to turn their attention on the Imperial Japanese armed forces who had invaded their country. Mao and his army fought in the rural northern provinces, primarily employing guerilla hit-and-run tactics. He also used the time to solidify his support from the local peasants whilst stockpiling weapons provided by the Allies and captured from the Japanese. During the war the Communists actually gained strength. Meanwhile the Nationalists faced stronger Japanese opposition in the south, greatly weakening their army.

In 1946, a year after the end of World War Two, the Chinese Civil War resumed in earnest. Thanks to the Soviet army, who had liberated Manchuria (north-east China) and turned over large stockpiles of captured weapons to the Communists, the balance of power began to shift against the Nationalist regime. From 1946 to 1948 the war raged with no significant advantage being gained by either side. However, throughout this period the Communists continued to grow ever stronger.

By September 1948 the Communists had enough manpower and material to gain the initiative and launched a series of three successful campaigns that all but ended the war in near total Communist victory (the Nationalists managed to hold onto the island of Taiwan where the Kuomintang are currently in opposition in the legislature).

Liaoshen Campaign (12 September 1948 – 2 November 1948)

For the first time since the beginning of the civil war the Communist People’s Liberation Army (PLA) had expanded so considerably in Manchuria that it surpassed the Nationalists in total operational strength. In response to the deteriorating situation against Communist offensives, Chiang Kai-Shek decided to replace the commander of his armies in the region. However, this proved problematic as he often clashed with the new commander, Wei Lihuang, over tactics. Wei believed that it was better to “preserve the status quo” and concentrate on defending the cities of Shenyang and Changchun, whilst Chiang felt the army should pull back and defend the Shanhai Pass and prevent the PLA from entering the North China Plain.

By Spring 1948, the PLA were in control of of the countryside across north-east China, forcing the Nationalists into defensive pockets in Shenyang, Changchun and Jinzhou. The Communists had also seized control of the Jingha Railway, cutting off the Nationalist land supply lines to Shenyang and Changchun.

The city of Jinzhou was a vital point in the passage from Manchuria to the North China Plain. Between 12 and 28 September the Communists launched a series of attacks and maneuvers that cut Jinzhou off from its supply lines, effectively isolating the city. The Nationalists attempted to reinforce Jinzhou and break the PLA encirclement attempt as well as fortify their positions in another vital point of the passage, the city of Huludao.

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By 8 October, the PLA had amasssed 250,000 troops and completed the encirclement of Jinzhou. Between 10 and 15 October, the Nationalist reinforcements for the city from both the west and east began closing in on the Communists, but were decisively stopped in the Blocking Battle of Tashan. This halt of the enemy allowed the PLA to assault Jinzhou, capturing the city on 15 October along with 80,000 soldiers of the garrison.

Next up. Changchun.

Changchun had been encircled for more than five months prior to the Liaoshen Campaign. The weakened and starving garrison were unable to break out of the city despite Chiang Kai-Shek ordering them to do so. Following news of the fall of Jinzhou the entire Nationalist 60th Army in the east of the city simply switched sides and the Nationalist Seventh Army agreed to terms of surrender on 19 October with the remaining forces in Changchun surrendering on 23 October.

In a desperate response to the heavy defeats in Jinzhou and Changchun, the Nationalist Ninth Army Group attempted a counteroffensive in Heishan county, north of Jinzhou. The Communists successfully defended their positions and subsequently encircled and destroyed the Nationalist army group.

Now it was Shenyang’s turn.

The PLA began to move in on the city which fell into disarray and the Nationalist Eighth Army Group collapsed as their commander fled the danger via plane on 30 October. On 1 November, the Communist forces launched the final assault on Shenyang. The 140,000 strong Nationalist garrison quickly surrendered. On 2 November the Communists moved to capture nearby Yingkou on the coast – the Nationalist 52nd Army narrowly escaping by ship. The remaining Nationalist forces in the area managed to preserve strength and made an orderly withdraw from Huludao to Tianjin.

The northeast was completely clear of Nationalist forces and the Liaoshen Campaign effectively came to an end. However, the Communist leadership did not sit back on its haunches and savour its victory for long. Instead they launched two more campaigns running simultaneously. One in the north, the Pingjin Campaign, aimed at ending Nationalist dominance of the North China Plain and concentrated around the cities of Beiping (Beijing) and Tianjin (Hence the name Pingjin). The southern action, the Huaihai Campaign (named after the Huai River and the Lung Hai Railway), was a major offensive against the Kuomintang headquarters in the city of Xuzhou.

Huahai Campaign (6 November 1948 – 10 January 1949)

After the city of Jinan in Shandong province fell in September 1948 (an unrelated action to the Liaoshen Campaign), the PLA began planning for a larger campaign to engage the remaining Nationalists in the province – the bulk of which was based around Xuzhou. In the face of the deteriorating situation in the northeast, the Kuomintang government decided to deploy their forces on both sides of the Tianjin-Pukou Railway to prevent the PLA from advancing south to the Yangtze River.

The Communist War Council approved a plan to encircle the Nationalist Sixth and Seventh Armies stationed in the Shandong province and dispatched their forces to assault the garrisons in Henan and Anhui provinces with the objective of breaking through to Shandong.

The attack began on 6 November and the two Nationalist armies began retreating to Xuzhou by crossing the Grand Canal. On 8 November, 23,000 Nationalist troops defected to the Communist side, exposing the retreat route of the Seventh Army. 70,000 PLA soldiers marched on, surrounding the main force of the Seventh Army east of Xuzhou, and intercepted the remaining force as they were crossing a river. The Nationalist garrison in Xuzhou planned to rescue the Seventh Army, but the Communists had anticipated this move (thanks, in part, to superior intelligence) and deployed more than half of their force to block the relief effort. The Seventh Army managed to hold out for 16 days without supplies and reinforcements, inflicting nearly 50,000 casualties on the PLA forces. But in the end it was not enough and the Seventh Army was destroyed after it’s ferocious fight for survival.

Now that the Seventh Army was no longer in existence, the east flank of Xuzhou was completely exposed to PLA attack and Chiang Kai-Shek was persuaded to re-locate the Nationalist headquarters to the south.

The Nationalist Twelfth Army was marching, from Henan province, to reinforce their beleaguered comrades… but, they were intercepted and after nearly a month of bloody fighting they too ceased to exist. Only 8,000 survivors managed to penetrate and breakout from the enemy encirclement. Many of the newly captured Nationalist POWs joined the Communist forces. Chiang did try and save the Twelfth Army by ordering three armies to relieve them. I’m sure you can guess what happened by this point – that’s right, the Communists caught up with these reinforcements and they too were encircled only 9 miles from Xuzhou. How were the Communists able to catch them so quickly? Again, superior intelligence.

On 15 December the Sixteenth Army broke out from the Communist encirclement, but at great cost – although the General of the Army, Sun Yuanling, eventually made it safely back to Nanjing, most of his officers and men were killed or captured in the process.

Another General, Du Yuming, one of the most capable strategists in the Nationalist Army, decided to hold out as Chiang had ordered. He came up with three different options for the current situation: recall Nationalist troops from Xi’an and Wuhan provinces to battle the Communists; wait for reinforcements; or break out on their own. Du was disappointed when Chiang selected the riskiest option for his army – breakout. Time was running out though.

There was a full month of heavy snowfall, which made it impossible for the Nationalist Air Forces to provide air support to the besieged ground units. As food and ammunition began to diminish, many soldiers killed and ate their horses whilst Communist forces enticed them with food to surrender – around 10,000 did so. On 6 January, the PLA launched a huge offensive on the Thirteenth Army, who promptly withdrew to the Second Army’s defensive lines. Four days later General Du Yuming was captured whilst the Sixth and Eighth Armies retreated to the south of the Huai River.

This was arguably the most successful of the Three Campaigns. The Nationalist forces suffered over 500,000 casualties, including much of their most elite forces under direct command of Chiang Kai-Shek. This greatly weakened Chiang within the Kuomintang government and he announced his temporary retirement. As the PLA began to approach the Yangtze river, the momentum was completely shifting toward the Communists and without any effective measures to stop them from crossing, the Nationalist government began to lose support from the United States and American military aid began to dry up.

Pingjin Campaign (29 November 1948 – 31 January 1949)

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After the great success of the Liaoshen Campaign, the balance of power in Northern China had shifted in favour of the Communists and their People’s Liberation Army. After the Communist Fourth Field Army entered the North China Plain, the Nationalists abandoned Chengde, Baoding, the Shanhai Pass, and Qinhuangdao and withdrew their remaining forces to the cities of Beiping, Tianjin and Zhangjiakou and strengthened the defences of these garrisons. The Nationalists were hoping to preserve their strength and reinforce Xuzhou – where we know there was another campaign underway – or alternatively retreat to the nearby Suiyuan province if necessary.

On 29 November 1948 the PLA launched an assault on Zhangjiakou (later identified as one of the most strategically important cities in China and aptly named “Beijing’s Northern Door”). The Nationalist 35th and 104th Armies were sent to reinforce the city, only to be recalled to defend Beiping on 5 December as it became obvious that it was at risk of becoming encircled by the enemy.

As had become custom by this point, on their return from Zhangjiakou, the 35th Army found themselves encircled by the PLA at Xinbao’an and friendly forces sent to relieve them were, themselves, intercepted. The PLA launched their offensive against the city on 21 December, destroying the 35th Army.

After capturing both Zhangjiakou and Xinbao’an, the Communists began to amass troops around the Tianjin area from 2 January 1949. Almost immediately after the conclusion of the Huaihai Campaign (10 January) in the south, the PLA launched its final assault on Tianjin on 14 January. After nearly 30 hours of fighting, the Nationalist 62nd and 86th Armies were destroyed – a total of 130,000 men were either killed or captured. The remaining forces retreated south by boat on 17 January.

That’s the “jin” part. Time for the “Ping”.

Now that Tianjin had fallen into enemy hands and the Communists held the north and had recently driven the Nationalists further south in their Huaihai Campaign, the Nationalist garrison in Beiping was effectively left isolated – one tiny dot of blue in a sea of red. The garrison’s commander, General Fu Zuoyi, realising that resisitence was futile, decided to negotiate a peace settlement on 21 January and within the following week 260,000 Nationalist troops exited the city in anticipation of the immediate surrender. The PLA’s Fourth Field Army entered Beiping on 31 January to take control of the city, marking the end of the Pingjin Campaign.

The Aftermath

In only a period of several months, Mao Zedong’s Communists had achieved near total victory through three exceptionally successful campaigns. Chiang Kai-Shek’s support, both inside and outside of the country, dwindled with each successive Communist victory – and they came in quick and often. US Secretary of State, George C. Marshall stated that:

The present regime has lost the confidence of the people, reflected in the refusal of soldiers to fight and the refusal of the people to cooperate in economic reforms.

Within weeks of Marshall’s announcement (20 December 1949) the Communists had overran the remaining Nationalist positions in Xuzhou, forcing the Nationalists south of the Yangtze River and captured the whole northern sector of the country. The remaining Nationalist army and Kuomintang government continued their retreat until they finally withdrew to the island of Formosa, which was later renamed Taiwan. Here, Chiang Kai-Shek regained power and developed the island into an Asian economic power – to this day, the island, officially called the Republic of China, still lays claim to the whole of the Chinese mainland. Mainland China, however, remains firmly in control of the Communist Party and Mao Zedong’s political descendants.

175px-Mao_Zedong_with_cap

The Communist takeover of China achieved by the battles of the Three Campaigns greatly influenced not only that country but the entire world. Over the next two decades, Mao focused on consolidating and then wielding his complete control over his country, ruthlessly putting down any opposition. Under Mao’s rule, an estimated 65 million Chinese citizens died in his pursuit of his new socialist country – anyone who got in his way was simply done away with through execution, imprisonment and even forced famine!

Fortunately for the rest of the world, Mao remained focused on his own country, disagreeing with the Soviets on political and philosophical aspects of Communism and the two nations suspicioulsy eyed one another as potential enemies rather than natural allies. China’s internal struggles and regional disputes with it’s neighbours have restricted its influence on the world. Even though it remains the largest and strongest Communist nation and the only potential Communist threat to the West, China remains more interested in internal and regional disputes than in international matters – although it has, in recent years, began to expand its soft power through trade and international development, particularly in Africa.

Had the Nationalists held back the Communist onslaught during the battles of the Three Campaigns, China would likely have played a very different role in subsequent world events. There would have been no Communist China to support North Korea during the Korean War or North Vietnam’s efforts to take over South Vietnam. Had Chiang Kai-Shek with his outward views and Western links been victorious then China may have taken a more assertive role in recent world history. Instead, the Liaoshen, Huaihai and Pingjin Campaigns would keep China firmly under the yoke of one man and locked in his inward looking bubble for decades rather than opening to the outside world earlier than 1978 – only 2 years after Mao’s death.

The Rest is History

10 Really Old Companies

I was watching the first Harry Potter movie, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, with my son recently and in it there is a shop called Ollivanders which makes and sells magic wands. Why am I telling you this? Well, because the shop’s sign claims that the company has been operating since 382BCE. That is one hell of a long time to be in business!

But it did get me thinking… What are the world’s oldest companies and what industries do they operate in?

Interestingly, a huge amount of the world’s oldest companies still operating today are in Japan, most of which boast of being “family run” for dozens of generations. The majority of these long surviving business were created along trade routes from Tokyo to Kyoto and consist of many hotels and sake producers – you know, just the kind of businesses that traveling traders would make use of.

This post will focus on the oldest companies in a specific field, industry or specialisation rather than listing off the “10 oldest companies in the world” as it would be a list dominated by Japanese companies, three of which are hotels and two that create ceremonial or religious goods.

Of course, each of the companies listed below have stood the test of time throughout various natural disasters, wars, plagues, and periods of social and economic upheaval. When you consider that countries come and go, empires rise and fall, and millions of businesses have failed over the past millennium then the staying power of the companies listed below is all that more impressive.

Construction – Kongō Gumi – 578

Let’s start off with the oldest business and I’m sure you have figured out that it is, indeed, a Japanese company. This entry is a little bit of a cheat as the company technically underwent a liquidation in 2006, but it is still worth mentioning as the remnants of the business are still around.

Kongō Gumi is a Japanese construction company which was the world’s oldest continuously ongoing independent company, operating for over 1,400 years until it was absorbed as a subsidiary of another Japanese construction firm. The final president of the family run company was the 50th Kongō to lead the firm!

Kongo_Gumi_workers_in_early_20th_century

The Kongō Gumi construction company was founded in 578 – only 100 years after the fall of the Western Roman Empire and 1,200 years before the United States declared independence – after Prince Shōtoku invited skilled Korean immigrants over to build the Shitennō-ji Buddhist Temple. One of these migrants decided to found his own company, Kongō Gumi, which over the centuries has participated in the construction of many famous buildings, including the 16th century Osaka Castle.

For more information – Click Here

Hotel – Nishiyama Onsen Keiunkan – 705

The second, third and fourth places of the world’s oldest companies all go to Japanese hotels so let’s focus on the oldest of these, Nishiyama Onsen Keiunkan. In 2011 the hotel was officially recognised by the Guinness Book of Records as the oldest hotel in the world.

Nishiyama Onsen Keiunkan is a hot spring hotel (onsen hotel) located in the beautiful town of Hayakawa in Yamanashi Prefecture which was founded in 705 by Fujiwara Mahito. The hotel has been continuously operated by 52 generations of the same family for over 1,300 years.

Since its foundation over 1,300 years ago, the hotel has sourced all of its hot water directly from the Hakuho Springs at the foot of the Akaishi Mountains. The hotel was renovated in 1997 and offers 37 rooms for guests.

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Restaurant – Stiftskeller St. Peter – 803

The distinction of being the sixth oldest company in the world, oldest non-Japanese company in the world, oldest restaurant in the world, and oldest European company belongs to the Stiftskeller St. Peter.

Eingang_zum_St._Peter_Stiftskeller

This is an interesting one as the restaurant lies within the walls of St Peter’s Abbey in the Austrian city of Salzburg. The restaurant claims to be the oldest as it was mentioned in an early Middle Ages document. The English scholar Alcuin of York mentioned Stiftskeller St. Peter in the Carmina anthology in 803 when he served the Emperor Charlemagne.

Incredibly, Stiftskeller St. Peter has boasted some very impressive giants of European and world history as guests. The explorer Christopher Columbus, alchemist and inspiration for many works of art Johann Georg Faust, and musical composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart are all said to have been served at the restaurant.

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Winery – Staffelter Hof – 862

The earliest known evidence of winemaking at a relatively large scale has been found in the Middle East with the oldest winery press, dating back 6,000 years, found in an Armenian cave.

MKn_Staffelter_Hof

To find the oldest (still functioning) winery in the world, look no further than the Staffelter Hof Winery in Kröv, Germany. The Staffelter Hof name goes as far back as 862 – the first written record of the Staffelter Hof abbey is on an original document located in the city archives of Liège, Belgium. Lands belonging to the Frankish Carolingian Empire, which spread as far east as Kröv and beyond were donated to the abbey to work as a source of income. These lands were in the possession of the abbey until the introduction of the Napoleonic Code in 1804 when it was purchased by Peter Schneiders and subsequently passed down 7 generations to the current owner and wine maker.

This business witnessed and survived the fall of the Holy Roman Empire, the bloody wars of religion that ravaged central Europe following the Reformation, Napoleon’s conquests, and the destruction of two world wars… and still, to this day, cultivates several hectares of vines.

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Mint – Monnaie de Paris – 864

The Monnaie de Paris is the world’s oldest active government-owned institution and has been minting coins for France since 864. The French people have had many masters and regimes since Charles the Bald ordered the creation of the mint, including:

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  • Carolingian Dynasty
  • Capetian Dynasty
  • House of Valois
  • House of Bourbon
  • First Republic
  • House of Bonaparte
  • House of Orléans
  • Second Republic
  • Third Republic
  • Nazi Regime
  • Fourth Republic
  • Fifth Republic

The Monnaie de Paris produced and issued coins for each and every one. Many ancient coins are housed in the collections maintained at the headquarters located in Paris. Since 1973 the main coin striking plant has been located at Pessac, Nouvelle-Aquitaine after it was decided in 1958 to move the minting facilities away from the capital.

During the Middle Ages, there were numerous local mints located in the provincial cities officially issuing legitimate French coinage struck in the name of the ruler and this practice continued as late as 1878. Despite this, the Monnaie de Paris was always the prime issuer.

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Foundry – Marinelli Bell Foundry – 1040

Founded in 1040 the Marinelli Bell Foundry is Italy’s oldest business and one of the oldest family-run businesses in the world. The foundry, which produces cast metals, has a tradition of foundries dating back ten centuries. As such, in 1924 the foundry was awarded the title of “pontifical foundry” by the Vatican and the Catholic Church now accounts for roughly 90% of all orders placed for the company.

Typically, the foundry currently produces around 50 bells a year and employees between 10 and 15 skilled employees. Amazingly, the firm still applies the same casting technique that the founders used nearly 1,000 years ago.

Due to the age of the foundry, the company hosts tours for enthusiasts seeking a museumesque experience. Again, due to the longevity of the foundry the Marinelli Bell Foundry have created a huge amount of bells and their work can be seen on many of the historic churches around Italy. In recent years, the foundry have also supplied bells to New York (United Nations Building), South America, China, and Jerusalem. In 2000 the Foundry presented Pope John Paul II with the official Jubilee Bell that now hangs in St. Peter’s Square.

Agriculture – Halydean Corporation – 1128

The only company on this list to reside in the “New World”, the Halydean Corporation operates out of Hayward, Wisconsin, United States of America. The company dates back to 1128, roughly 650 years before the United States existed… wait! What!?

There are well documented legal records showing that the business that would later become the Halydean Corporation was established in 1128 in Roxburgh, Scotland by King David I of Scotland, with holdings primarly consisting of thousands of acres of grazing land. Although founded by a monarch, it was operated by the Catholic Church which allowed it to enjoy perpetual tax exemption. In 1545, ownership passed hands to the local Royal Burgh (which was held by the Crown) after the Earl of Hertford reduced the abbey, where Halydean was run from, to ruins during English King Henry VIII’s Rough Wooing.

King James

During the reign of King James VI (later the first “King of Great Britain and Ireland”) in 1602 proprietorship was reorganised and passed into private ownership, albeit assigned to various members of the Scottish peerage. The company remained this way until 2014 when the company was, once again, reorganised – this time into a US company, as a wholly owned subsidiary of the Barony and Lordship of Halydean (Scotland) by the current Lord of Halydean.

The present business plan remains consistent with the original charter of 1128. The main difference is that the company no longer holds the right to carry out the death sentence… under it’s feudalistic roots it really could do this!

For more information – Click Here

Harbour – Aberdeen Harbour Board – 1136

One of the oldest businesses still in operation in the United Kingdom is the Aberdeen Harbour Board. Lying at the mouth of two rivers (the Dee and the Don) feeding into the North Sea in North-East Scotland, Aberdeen was, and still is, ideally located to trade around the North Sea with Scandinavian and Baltic ports. There has been a harbour in Aberdeen since at least the 10th century when the Vikings burned the city, but it was our friend from the Halydean Corporation, above, King David I that first granted the Bishops of Aberdeen the right to tax ships trading in the port in 1136.

Although the medieval harbour was considered as a safe anchorage it was difficult to access at low tide. Records show that a crane was installed in 1582 to load and unload the ships and that in 1596, King James VI granted a charter to pay for a bulwark to help deepen the harbour entrance. Several more enhancements to the harbour throughout the following centuries, including involvement from the likes of the civil engineer Thomas Telford and the famed lighthouse designer Robert Stevenson, have led to the modern harbour.

Like any other business, Aberdeen Harbour Board are looking to the future and the latest major development to the harbour is currently under construction. This ambitious plan seeks to add an entire new harbour to the city in order to improve infrastructure and service levels of the city.

For more information – Click Here

Bank – Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena -1472

The six oldest banks in the world currently still operating were all founded in Italy near the end of the 15th century, at the high point of the Renaissance, but the oldest of these is the Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena (MPS).

Tracing its history back to a mount of piety (an institutional pawnbroker run as a charity) founded in 1472, in the Republic of Siena, the current form of the bank dates to 1624 when Siena was incorporated into the Grand Duchy of Tuscany and Grand Duke Ferdinando II granted to the depositors of the mount of piety, in their warrant, the income of the state-owned pastures of Maremma (the so-called “Paschi”). During the 17th and 18th centuries the bank increased its banking activities. The unification of Italy in 1861 presented an opportunity for further expansion across the peninsula, and MPS began to initiate new activities such as mortgage loans – the first company in Italy to do this.

The bank was successfully listed on the Italian stock exchange in June 1999 and wasted no time in taking full advantage of its new capital by beginning an intense phase of commercial and operational expansion, and acquired several regional banks.

MPS appeared to survive the onslaught of the 2008 Global Financial Crisis, but after a string of scandals the share price of the bank began to plummet and the bank was forced to ask the Italian government for a bailout. Despite the Italian government currently being the major shareholder of MPS it is still the fourth largest commercial and retail bank in the country and operates 2,000 domestic branches and a further 40 abroad.

For more information – Click Here

Firearms – Beretta – 1526

Another Italian company, the Beretta Gun Factory opened its doors in 1526 in the town of Gardone Val Trompia in the province of Brescia in Lombardy.

Val Trompia, an Italian river valley in Brescia, has been mined for iron ore since the time of the Romans. During the Middle Ages, the area was known for its ironworks, and after the Renaissance it came to be a centre for weapons manufacturers. By the mid 16th century Val Trompia was home to forty ironworks, supplied by fifty mines – it was here, in this smithy’s playground that Beretta was formed on the banks of the Mella river in Gardone.

It is thought that the Beretta forge was in operation from around 1500, but the first documented transaction is a contract dated October 1526 for arquebus barrels from the Republic of Venice. By the end of the 17th century, Beretta had grown to become the second largest gun barrel maker in Gardone – yeah, just the small town. Not quite the heady heights of global recognition at that point.

Musket_and_Arquebus_Gheyn

But still, the company continued to grow and by all accounts Beretta-made barrels equipped the Venetian fleet which helped to defeat the Ottomans at the pivotal Battle of Lepanto in 1571 and the company has supplied weapons for every major European war since 1650.

In the 1980s. Beretta enjoyed a renewal of popularity in North America after its M9 pistol was selected as the service handgun for the United States Army.

For more information – Click Here

The Rest is History