“Crossing the Rubicon” is now an expression for passing the point of no return: this is the original incident from which it derives. In 49 BCE, Gaius Julius, at that time just a general and not yet Caesar, led his army across the Rubicon river, which marked the border of Rome: to cross it marked him as a treasonous leader of a revolt against the Roman state. Famously, he is said to have quoted the Greek playwright Menander, saying “alea iacta est” – “the die is cast.”
Julius would be successful in his quest for the leadership of Rome and its empire (much of which, particularly Gaul, added by his own military genius): which is why history knows him best as Julius Caesar.
In the final engagement of the Punic Wars, the Roman forces brought to war to the very doorstep of Carthage. From 149 BCE until the spring of 146 BCE, they laid siege to the city itself, which is located near the site of modern Tunis. The Romans could probably have won sooner, but incompetent commanders hamstrung their efforts. By the time they finally breached the walls and poured into the city, the Carthaginians had turned every building into a fortress, and armed every citizen.
However, the battle was never seriously in doubt. Although both sides suffered terrible losses, a Roman victory was inevitable once the city itself was invaded. The fall of Carthage represented the demise of the last organised opposition to Roman expansion in the Mediterranean, as the Carthaginians were their major rivals in the early days of Roman civilisation.
Although it is commonly taught that the Romans plowed Carthage under and sowed salt in the new fields, this claim does not appear in any contemporary sources, and appears to be an invention of nineteenth century historians.
One of the greatest conquerors and military leaders the world has ever known was born in Pella, the capital of Macedon. His father was the king of Macedon, Philip II, and he himself was Alexander the Great. The genealogies of his parents were not merely royal – Philip claimed descent from Heracles, while his mother, Olympias, claimed descent from Achilles – and Alexander’s second cousin was the noted general Pyrrhus of Epirus.
He was raised as a noble’s son, and taught the arts of his class and sex – which naturally included warfare. From the ages of 13 to 16, he was tutored by the philosopher Aristotle, after which he served as his father’s regent while his father was absent pursuing military conquests. After Philip’s death and Alexander’s own accession to the throne of Macedon at the age of 20, Alexander began what would become one of the greatest conquests the world had ever seen.
Socrates is one of the most influential, and also most enigmatic, figures in Western Philosophy. An Athenian who lived at the dawn of both writing and philosophy, if he wrote anything himself it has not survived, and today he is known only for the works of others that mention him. Foremost among these are the works of his student, Plato, similarly influential in philosophy, but also prone to idealize his master.
Socrates was particularly noted for his contributions to the field of ethics, and for his creation of the Socratic Method, a philosophical tool no less useful today than it was 25 centuries ago. He was also, if the writings about him are to be believed, a great fan of irony. He was, of course, executed for heresy, although his trial and death appear to have been the result of political infighting, and thus the charge may not accurately reflect the true reasons for his downfall.
Chapter Seventeen of the First Book of Samuel describes Goliath thusly:
And there went out a champion out of the camp of the Philistines, named Goli’ath, of Gath, whose height was six cubits and a span.
And he had a helmet of brass upon his head, and he was armed with a coat of mail; and the weight of the coat was five thousand shekels of brass.
And he had greaves of brass upon his legs, and a target of brass between his shoulders.
And the staff of his spear was like a weaver’s beam; and his spear’s head weighed six hundred shekels of iron: and one bearing a shield went before him.
6 Cubits and a span is 2.97 metres (or 9 foot 9 inches, if you prefer). Fortunately for the Israelites, it turns out that this Schwarzenegger of the ancient world has a glass jaw, or rather, a glass forehead. (And a suspiciously convenient gap in his helmet of brass.)
David, our Israelite hero, is able to slay the Phillistine man-mountain with a single well-cast stone, that cracks open his mighty head and kills him stone dead. David goes on to become King of all Israel; Goliath doesn’t go on at all.
Jason was a little-known hero who, in order to win the throne of Iolcus (in Thessaly), recruited a mighty crew and set sail in the Argo in search of the Golden Fleece. They found it only with the assistance of the goddess Hera and the princess Medea, who betrayed her father and eloped with Jason and the Fleece. Jason made it safely home, claimed the throne and married Medea. This did not end well for either of them.
Jason’s crew was a who’s who of Ancient Greek heroes. It included Hercules, Theseus, Castor, Pollux, Laertes (father of Ulysses), Bellerophon, Iolaus, Nestor, Orpheus, Deucalion, Asclepius, Atalanta, Peleus (father of Achilles) and Autolycus. In fact, not counting the heroes of the Trojan War (who were mostly not yet born at this point), the only significant Greek hero not to participate was Oedipus.
The best known of all of the Egyptian Pharaohs, largely due to the sensational circumstances of his tomb’s discovery in 1924. At the time he was placed in it, Tutankhamen is believed to have been about 18 years old, and to have been Pharaoh for about a decade. His age has led many to speculate that he may have been assassinated by his regents, who wished to keep power and legally would not be able to do so once the Boy King reached adulthood.
However, recent research points at a combination of diseases (chiefly malaria, which he seems to have suffered from several times in his short life) and congenital defects (most likely due to the inbreeding that was common in many pharaonic dynasties) as the actual cause of his death – although the political advantages remain the same regardless of the cause.
The story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah shows God’s mercy at its finest. After he threatens to destroy the cities, Lot, who resides in one of them, bargains with his god, finally convincing him to spare the cities if Lot can find five righteous men in them (apparently, righteous women aren’t good enough).
The bar is not set high: Lot himself is considered righteous, although he clearly suffers from the sin of pride (it takes a pretty big ego to bargain with god as an equal). However, he does have one virtue that god appreciates, that of shameless toadying. Indeed, Lot is so desperate to curry favour with god and his servants that he offers his virgin daughters to the baying mob to do with as they please if they will simply consent to leave god’s servants alone.
For this, god spares Lot and his daughters, allowing them to flee the city before he smites down upon it with great vengeance and furious anger – although Lot’s wife, whose only crime is to like watching explosions, is turned into a pillar of salt as a punishment – which is pretty harsh considering how few fans of action movies have ever been similarly afflicted.
So God, in all his moodswingy glory, decided to wipe out the entire human race.
Except for this one guy, his wife, his three sons and his three daughters-in-law. So Noah gets told to engage in one of the world’s most unlikely acts of carpentry. He builds an Ark in which to place a breeding pair of every kind animal in the world – which, by the way, would totally not fit in the cubic volume of Ark, unless “cubit” is an ancient hebrew word for “mile” – and apparently successfully places them there.
And then God makes it rain for forty days and forty nights. Fortunately, the flooded Earth has a very low albedo, and all this water eventually evaporates into the vacuum of space, allowing the ludicrously small gene pool we are allegedly all descended from to not suffocate from the vast quantities of water vapour in the air. And there’s a rainbow.
And down the rainbow rode the Norse gods, and they looked at Noah for a while, told him “no way are you getting into Valhalla” and then rode back up the rainbow to Asgard.
So one day, God, in his infinite wisdom and mercy, got pissed off at basically everyone. I mean everyone.
Except for this one guy, Noah. And Noah’s family and their families. And all but two of each different kind of animal. God told Noah that he was planning to flood the entire planet and drown, well, everyone. He further instructed Noah to build an ark of the dimensions 300 cubits by 50 cubits by 30 cubits, to carry those whom God, in his infinite mercy, had deemed worthy of salvation.
Admittedly, no one’s quite sure exactly how big a cubit is – it’s based on the length of one’s forearm, but of course, no two forearms are exactly the same size either. What is fairly certain is that there’s no way that any such creation could be large enough to fit two of every animal, even allowing for excluding fish.