3874 BCE — Cain murders Abel

It’s not clear exactly when Cain murdered Abel in any biblical chronology I’ve been able to find. Some of them even date it to 4004 BCE, the same year usually given for the Creation of the earth. Which implies that not only were Cain and Abel both full grown men in the space of a single year, but that their mother’s two pregnancies (Cain and Abel were not twins – Cain is the older), also took place in that same year.

Nevertheless, as brothers, they didn’t always get along. This may or may not have had something to do with the notoriously fickle and hard to please deity that they worshiped, or that deity’s changing of the rules on them – Cain presumably would not have made an offering that God (who is, according to the Gospel of Luke, Cain’s grandfather) that God found unacceptable had he known ahead of time that it would be rejected.

Cain responds to his rejection by God by hunting and killing his brother, Abel. (Which makes him sound a little older than >1 – about 16 or so, I would guess.) And then God, not done with the mind games, pretends not to know about it and questions Cain, leading to his infamous declaration that he was “not his brother’s keeper” (which is a rare concession to historical accuracy by the Book of Genesis – cricket had indeed not yet been invented). God curses Cain and exiles him, making him the earliest biblical figure to be set up and knocked down by God.

1772 BCE — The Code of Hammurabi is created

The oldest surviving written code of laws in the world, the Code of Hammurabi was a landmark in the development of the ideas of laws, justice and human rights. Although it massively favoured the rich – who generally suffered lighter punishments than the poor – it still actually gave the poor some rights for restitution for crimes committed against them.

The Code was brutal and bloodthirsty by modern standards – it was the first codification of the “an eye for an eye” principle – but it was a massive advance on the idea that judges made decisions and assigned punishments however they wanted. The Code of Hammurabi created the idea of consistency of outcome in legal cases. It is the foundation stone of all Western jurisprudence, and was a direct and strong influence on the law-makers who wrote the book of Leviticus and the later Roman legal codes.

F0182 Louvre Code Hammourabi Bas-relief Sb8 rwk

As mentioned in:

Mesopotamia — The B-52’s

January 10, 49 BCE — Caesar crosses the Rubicon

“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.

CæSAR PAUSED ON THE BANKS OF THE RUBICON

As mentioned in:

Rvbicon — Ancient Rites

March 15, 44 BCE — Julius Caesar is assassinated

Shakespeare’s version might be better known, but the best historical account of the death of Big Julie was written by imperial biographer (and obsequious toady) Seutonius. It is from Suetonius that we have Caesar’s famous last words (asking Brutus ‘even you, my child?’, which Shakespeare rendered as ‘et tu, Brute?’) – although curiously, Seutonius himself reports those words as claimed by others, and for himself believes that Caesar said nothing.

This is somewhat hard to believe, given that Seutonius also recounts that Caesar was attacked by 60 or more men, and received a total of 23 stab wounds from his assailants – it appears that the proximate cause of death was loss of blood. (Fun fact: Caesar’s autopsy report is the earliest one to have survived to the present day.) In a larger sense, the cause of the death of Gaius Julius Caesar was political ambition – his own, and that of others.

April 3, 33 CE — Jesus dies upon the Cross

It is the central event of Christianity: Jesus Christ surrendered to the Romans, was briefly tried by Pontius Pilate, and sent to be crucified. Once up on the cross, he died in an unusually short time (crucifixion is a slow and painful death). In his last words, he called on his heavenly father, saying “Eli Eli lama sabachthani?” (in English “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”). (At least, he did according to the Gospels of Mark and Matthew – John and Luke each tell different stories.)

When the Romans came by to break the legs of the crucified (a measure that hastens death), they discovered that Jesus was already dead. He was taken down and buried, rising from the dead on the third day (somewhat undermining the “last words” thing, but he’s the Son of God. Different rules apply.)

Today, these events are commemorated by the eating of chocolate (not introduced to Europe, Asia and Africa until 14 centuries later) delivered by a rabbit (because… I have no idea why).

May 15, 1252 — Pope Innocent IV unexpectedly authorizes the Inquisition to torture heretics

The Medieval Inquisition was a series of Inquisitions that slowly merged into a more or less continuous process of arrest and interrogation of suspected heretics. Like all good coppers, the Inquisitors often complained that they were hamstrung by the limitations under which they worked – i.e., that they needed more powers, more authority to use them, and so on. In the middle ages, what that basically meant was torture.

On May 15, Pope Innocent IV, who had been Pope for nine years and would continue in that capacity for another two, issued the now-infamous papal bull ad exstirpanda, which authorized, with some limits, the torture of suspected heretics for the purpose of eliciting confessions. The limitations were as follows:

  • that the torture did not cause loss of life or limb
  • that it was used only once
  • that the Inquisitor deemed the evidence against the accused to be virtually certain

In practice, these limitations were meaningless – loss of life or limb could be deemed accidental, ‘only once’ was often interpreted to mean a series of tortures collectively defined as one, and Inquisitors were somewhat less objective than the bull appeared to assume. Subsequent Popes would expand the scope and powers of the various Inquisitions.

June 26, 1284 — The Pied Piper plays Hamelin

The legends are very specific: in the year 1284, the town of Hamelin, in the in Lower Saxony region of Germany, was overrun with rats. Hordes of rats. One day, a piper claiming to be a rat-catcher appeared in the town. A deal was soon struck: he would play his pipes and draw the rates away, the townspeople would pay him handsomely.

The piper led the rats into the nearby Weser river, where they drowned. But then the townsfolk reneged on their part of the deal. This was decision-making roughly on a par with saying “oh, what a lovely wooden horse, let’s drag it into the middle of Troy.”

The piper returned on the feast day of Saints John and Paul. He played once more, and this time, he enchanted the children of the town. 130 children followed him, leaving behind only one or two (accounts vary). Accounts also disagree over what happened to the children – some say he drowned them like the rats, some say they were safely returned after he was paid several times his original price. So it’s six to five and pick ’em whether the Pied Piper was a mass murderer, or merely a staunch advocate of contract law.

June 15, 1381 – Wat Tyler’s rebellion dies with him

Walter ‘Wat’ Tyler was born in 1341, and little is known of his life before his involvement in the Peasant’s Rebellion of 1381. He is believed to have served in the English army, seeing action at both Crécy and Poitiers, among others.

Tyler joined the rebellion apparently due to his strong egalitarian views, and sought an end, or at least a reform, of the feudal system. He led an army 50,000 strong into London, and their show of force persuaded the king to meet with them. Richard II, who was only 15, met with Tyler at Smithfield, although no account of their conversation survives. Tyler was struck down and stabbed repeatedly – it is widely believed that his first assailant was the Lord Mayor of London, who took exception to Tyler’s perceived ‘insolence’. Upon Tyler’s death, the king declared himself leader of the rebels, and commanded them to disperse. The promises he made to them were not kept, and the other leaders of the revolt were also killed, at his order.

May 30, 1431 — Jeanne d’Arc burned at the stake

After a trial lasting from January 9 until May 24, Jeanne d’Arc was convicted of heresy by her somewhat less than unbiased prosecutors. Jeanne (the French original of her name, equivalent to the English Joan) had led the French to several victories over the English, claiming divine inspiration.

Her accusers and judges were, unfortunately for her, strongly influenced by English interests in the matter, and she was found guilty and forced to abjure. Finally, she was executed by being burnt at the stake in Rouen, France. After her death, the coals were raked back in order to expose her charred body – so that no one could claim she had escaped alive – and then her body was burned twice more to reduce it to ashes. Her remains, such as they were, were cast into the Seine to prevent any collection of relics.

October 26, 1440 — Gilles de Rais is executed for his crimes

Gilles de Rais first came to prominence as a wealthy nobleman who was one of Jeann D’Arc’s greatest allies, fighting alongside her in battle and helping her politically. But after her burning at the stake, he seems to have lost his way. He spent much of his fortune on self-indulgence and dissipation, and his early high moral standing was slowly but surely tarnished. In particular, he became interested in occultism and did not conceal his contempt for the Church – and that was an enemy he could ill-afford to make.

In 1440, he was arrested and charged with many crimes, including the murder of numerous children belonging to his subjects. De Rais confessed to many of the charges, and witnesses gave lurid testimony. He was hanged above a fire, although his corpse was cut down for burial before it was consumed in the flames.

Gilles de Rais’s trial and execution have been the subject of considerable speculation over the years. His guilt and the veracity of his confession have both been questioned, particularly in light of the fact that there was little evidence other than testimony that is similarly questionable, and the fact that his prosecutors were the Church (of which he was a known critic) and the nobleman who stood to inherit de Rais’ property. Event today, whether as a serial killer or a victim of the Church, he remains a puzzling enigma.