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Let’s talk about the First Punic War, the great contest for the Mediterranean between Rome and Carthage with rulership of the known world as the prize. The Punic war was a battle between a lion and a whale—the Romans were peerless at fighting on land, whereas the Carthaginians had unrivaled skill as sailors. To win the war, the Romans had to learn to sail, and they spent enormous sums of money building a fleet. Unfortunately, having a fleet is not the same as knowing how to sail and, in 255 BC, after an unsuccesful invasion of Africa, the whole war fleet was sent to the bottom by an enormous storm (along with the 90,000 sailors and soldiers aboard). This was a disheartening setback, but the Romans weren’t going to give in so easily: they built a second fleet and placed it under the command of Publius Claudius Pulcher.
Pulcher decided to launch a sneak attack on the Carthaginian fleet which was at anchor in the harbor of Drepana. He had the element of surprise on his side, but he also had a problem—chickens!
The Romans were great believers in reading auspices before battles. The most important of these auspices came from the sacred chickens which were kept aboard the fleet flagship. If the sacred chickens ate their grain on the morning of combat, the day would be a martial success. On the morning in 249 BC when Pulcher was moving his ships into position to sweep unexpectedly into Drepana the chickens were decidedly not peckish. To the frustration of Pulcher (and to the superstitious horror of the crews of his 120 quinqueremes), the chickens refused to eat anything at all. Pulchher’s augurs suggested he abort the battle.
But Pulcher was not about to let some poultry ruin his chance for everlasting glory. He took fate in hand and he took the chickens in hand too…and then he threw them overboard. “If they will not eat, let them drink!” he said. The sacred chickens drowned and Pulcher’s fleet proceeded to take the Carthaginians unaware…except the Carthaginians were not unaware. They were expecting something and they weighed anchor in record time and escaped the harbor. Pulcher ordered his fleet into battle formation, but the Carthaginian navy of 100 boats was better at maneuvering, and the sharp rocks of Sicily were behind him. By the end of the day, the Romans lost 93 of their 120 ships. The Carthaginians did not lose a single ship in the Battle of Drepana. Forty thousand Romans perished. It is one of history’s most lopsided naval disasters.
Pulcher survived the battle, but maybe he should have followed the chickens into the waves. The Roman senate convicted him of blasphemy and sentenced him to exile. Thus ended his political and military career. The terrible losses at Drepana broke Roman naval morale utterly, and for seven years they stayed ashore, arguing about whether it was even worth it to rule the world. But of course, in the end, the Romans were not quitters and they built a third fleet. I guess the lesson of this story of ancient naval battle is to never give up. However pantheists (or chicken lovers) might draw different conclusions.
LG, the hero of yesterday’s post, is a charismatic genius of a goose: he went from being a wild animal (of a sort which most people consider to be a pest!) to having a whole hobby farm organized around him for his own amusement. Of course there are geese at the opposite likability end of the spectrum….
My parents had this one asshole goose (he had a name too, but I have forgotten it). He was always cropping up in unexpected places hissing at you like a feathery viper and lunging at you. If you are a domestic goose, it is unwise to alienate your human liaisons. Sure, we look all innocent when we are handing out corn, but we are really giant axe-wielding tragic apes…insatiable, invasive, and dangerous. Apparently the other geese realized this and they didn’t want my parents to get any notions about how delicious geese are (by the way, geese are really really delicious…maybe the most delicious thing there is–like eating heaven, if heaven were a rich fatty poultry). Also, the geese didn’t like this jerk goose either, because he was a jerk to them all day every day. He messed up really badly at gooseatics and made everyone—human and goose–hate him, so, before the axes came out, the flock banded together and straight-up murdered him. When they were all at the pond, the other geese grabbed the jerk goose, and held his head underwater until he drowned.
I know about all of this because my parents watched it happen. When it was obvious that gooseatics had turned sour and gone completely Roman, my father rushed down from the farmhouse to the pond, but he got there too late. The corpse of the hated goose was floating in the water and all of the other geese were looking extremely innocent & abashed as if to say, “Who us? We certainly didn’t murder anyone!” There was nothing left to do but transform the unpleasant goose into delightful cutlets, quill pens, and throw pillows. I have one right here (a goose quill pen, not a cutlet). I can use it for ink wash drawings or writing out inflammatory political treatises.
I mention all of this as a way of explaining why I find geese so fascinating. They are clever omnivorous, bipedal creatures which live for decades. They are sort of imperfectly monogamous, insatiably hungry, and prone to clans and squabbling (which can turn murderous). Does anything seem strangely familiar in this description?
King Ludwig II of Bavaria reigned from 1864 to 1886—a period which saw the kingdom of Bavaria integrated into Bismarck’s unified Germany. Ludwig ascended the throne at the age of 18 after his father Maximilian II died unexpectedly of an illness. He was a strange figure as a king. Although introverted and shy he was also an extravagant aesthete with little taste for governing (although he enjoyed touring the countryside and conversing with everyday Bavarian farmers and workers). At first he was admired for being a romantic and tragic young figure, but ominous rumors piled up around the reluctant king and fate had dark plans for him.
Ludwig’s uncle was Wilhelm I of Prussia—destined to become the Kaiser of the German Empire. At first Ludwig tried to pull away from Prussian integration by siding with Austria, but he was easily outmaneuvered during the Seven Weeks War of 1866 and ended up allied with (and subordinate to) Prussia during the Franco-Prussian War. Ludwig II was initially helped out in his kingship by his grandfather Ludwig I (an infamously bad poet who had abdicated the kingship amidst a spectacular scandal concerning the Irish dancer/courtesan Lola Montez) but the former king died in 1868, leaving Ludwig II to capitulate to Prussian Imperial hegemony. As Ludwig II grew disinterested in affairs of state, he began to follow an increasingly inward and eccentric path.
The personal diaries and letters of Ludwig II reveal that he struggled to restrain his romantic feelings for other men and behave in accordance with the strict Catholic faith of Bavaria. He was engaged to a famous & beautiful duchess but he repeatedly postponed the engagement and finally called the wedding off altogether (apparently to spare his fiancée from a loveless marriage). The king was an ardent patron of Richard Wagner and he spent huge amounts of personal time with the spendthrift composer.
Ludwig II is most famous as an eccentric and maniacal builder. Calling on the Teutonic fantasies of Wagner and the absolutist opulence of Louis XIV, Ludwig commissioned multiple palace/castles. The greatest and strangest of his projects was Schloss Neuschwanstein, or “New Swan on the Rock castle”, a dramatic Gothic fortress with soaring fairytale towers, however he also commissioned Herrenchiemsee, a smaller scale replica of Versaille, and Linderhof Palace a chateau in neo-French Rococo style. Linderhof Palace was the only one of Ludwig’s palaces completed in his lifetime. It had novelty gardens of unrivaled opulence where Ludwig enjoyed being rowed around the fancifully lit grottoes of his water garden in a golden swan-boat. Lost in extravagant fantasies of being a swan knight, Ludwig became more a recluse and indulged in ever more solipsistic behavior.
All of this building cost phenomenal amounts of money and Ludwig’s indulgence in personal fantasies left him little time to deal with his ministers and courtiers. Despite the indignation of Ludwig’s court, his buildings were constructed with funds from the King’s purse rather than from the kingdom’s coffers (an important distinction). Strangely, the buildings served the traditional purpose of follies in Ireland and England and many peasants, builders, and artisans were employed in the construction projects.
Ludwig’s brother and heir Otto was ostentatiously and deeply insane. Bavaria’s courtiers and aristocrats began to wonder if it would not be best to have both brothers declared mad and locked away while a capable regent took over the important minutiae of integration and industrialization (and colonial empire—which Germany was beginning to dabble in). In the finest tradition of Gothic story-telling, the plotters turned to alienists, the psychiatric professionals of the day. By accumulating sordid (possibly fictional) tales, personal letters, and servants’ testimony, the aristocrats built up a case against Ludwig II as a dangerous madman. The ever-pragmatic Bismarck regarded the affair as a transparent frame-up, but neither he nor the Bavarian Diet nor the German Parliament acted to save Ludwig II from conspirators who proclaimed him insane and unfit to rule.
On the 12th of June 1886, Ludwig was detained (after an unsuccessful attempt at fleeing). He was placed in confinement at Berg Castle on the shores of Lake Starnberg, under thee care of the mental doctor Doctor Bernhard von Gudden. The next day, the two men embarked on a walk together through the Schloß Berg parkland beside the lake (both the king and the alienist declined attendants). Neither man returned alive. What transpired will never be known, but that evening a powerful storm swept the area. Desperate parties went out to search the lake and the surrounding forests for the two missing men. Just prior to midnight the searchers found the bodies of the doctor and Ludwig II floating in the lake. The king’s death was immediately ruled to be a suicide by drowning although the autopsy revealed no water in his lungs. Unreliable eyewitnesses (i.e. skulking royalists involved in various dodgy plots) reported that shots were fired however there is considerable disagreement about whether there were bullet wounds to the king’s corpse (which would indeed be suspicious). Gudden was beaten and strangled—presumably by the (mad?) king.
The whole affair was entirely mysterious and grim, but with the king gone, the people who had deposed him were free to carry out their agenda (within a larger context of German nationhood, of course). Work stopped on Ludwig’s castles. His mad brother Otto became king–but their uncle Luitpold held the true kingly authority (such as it was).
The world is different than it seems to be. Aristocrats and ministers of Ludwig’s time viewed him as a miserable failure as a king (if not an outright lunatic). Yet somehow he has emerged from the ruins of the German Empire with a higher reputation than the gifted statesmen who were his contemporaries. The castles which Ludwig created, which were seen as ruinous follies, have proven to be spectacularly lucrative as tourist destinations. His patronage of the arts has left a cultural stamp on Bavaria which is widely believed to have contributed to that state’s wealth (it is today the most prosperous German state). Bavarians speak of him fondly even today. Perhaps a bizarre closeted life of secretly dressing as a swan and a terrible violent end in a German lake were the inevitable fate of someone who, from the beginning decided to live in a world of dreams.