Famous Military-Related Deaths for the Week of October 16-22

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Famous Military-Related Deaths for the Week of October 16-22

Patrick Stewart as Sejanus in BBC TV series I, Claudius (1976)
Image courtesy of http://www.memorabletv.com/features/classic-tv-revisited-claudius/
(Unless otherwise indicated, all illustrations are courtesy of Wikipedia)

This Week in Military History

October 18, AD 31 – Lucius Aelius Sejanus, Praetorian Prefect, aged about 51

Sejanus was close to the center of power of the Roman emperor his entire life. His father, Lucius Seius Strabo, was appointed prefect of the Praetorian Guard around the year 2 BC. When Augustus – the first Roman emperor – died in AD 14 and was succeeded by Tiberius, Sejanus was appointed as co-commander of the Praetorian Guard. When Strabo was appointed governor of Egypt in 15, Sejanus assumed sole command of the Praetorian Guard.

The Praetorian Guard was an elite unit of the Roman army formed by Augustus in 27 BC, with the specific function to serve as a bodyguard to the emperor and members of the imperial family. Much more than a guard, however, the Praetorians also managed the day-to-day care of the city, such as general security and civil administration. Furthermore, their presence served as a constant reminder to the people and the Senate of the substantial armed force which served as the basis for the imperial power. Augustus was careful however to uphold the republican veneer of his regime, and only allowed nine cohorts to be formed (one fewer than in a normal Roman legion), which were inconspicuously scattered across various lodging houses in the city, and commanded by two prefects.

As sole prefect of the Guard, Sejanus instigated reforms that helped shape the guard into a powerful tool of the empire. In 20 the scattered encampments inside the city were centralized into a single garrison just outside Rome and the number of cohorts was increased to twelve, one of which now held the daily guard at the palace. The practice of joint leadership between two prefects was abandoned, and Sejanus himself appointed the centurions and tribunes. With these changes in effect, Sejanus now commanded the complete loyalty of a force of around 12,000 soldiers, all of which were at his immediate disposal.

As Tiberius’s reign progressed, Sejanus worked ever harder to ingratiate himself into the good graces of the imperial family. But he also sought to make himself the successor of Tiberius. He received numerous honors, and tried to arrange a marriage with Livilla, widow of Drusus, son of Tiberius (who it is suspected was poisoned by the Praetorian Prefect). Sejanus’s request was refused, and the emperor warned him he was in danger of overstepping his social class. With this “slap in face,” Sejanus began to take control of the information given to Tiberius. By magnifying the emperor’s paranoia toward the Senate and Tiberius’s mother Livia (an opponent of the Praetorian Prefect), Sejanus induced Tiberius to withdraw from the intrigues of Rome. In 26 the emperor first moved to the countryside of Campania, then finally to the island of Capri. Tiberius never set foot again in Rome, dying on Capri in 37.

When Livia died in 29, Sejanus stepped up his quest for power. He began a series of purge trials of senators and wealthy equestrians in the city, removing those capable of opposing his power as well as extending the imperial (and his own) treasury. Networks of spies and informers brought the victims to trial with false accusations of treason, and many chose suicide over the disgrace of being condemned and executed.

In 31, despite his equestrian rank, Sejanus shared the consulship with Tiberius in absentia, and finally became betrothed to Livilla. Tiberius had not been seen in Rome since 26 and senators and equestrians courted Sejanus's favor, as if he were emperor. His birthday was publicly observed and statues were erected in his honor. With most of the political opposition crushed, Sejanus felt his position was unassailable.

According to the historian Josephus, it was Antonia, the mother of Livilla, who finally alerted Tiberius to the growing threat Sejanus posed. She dispatched a letter to Capri in the care of one of her freedmen. On October 18, 31, Sejanus was summoned to a Senate meeting by a letter from Tiberius. The Praetorian Prefect believed he would be receiving further honors from the emperor. However, after several digressions into unrelated matters, the letter ended with a denunciation of Sejanus, and an order for his arrest. He was surrounded by soldiers and escorted to prison.

That evening, the Senate met at the Temple of Concord and condemned the now-former Praetorian Prefect to death. Sejanus was taken from his prison cell to the Gemonian stairs, and publically executed (by strangulation). His body was thrown down the stairs, and the corpse was torn to pieces by the Roman public over the next three days. Following the issue of damnatio memoriae (damnation of memory) by the Senate, his statues were torn down and his name obliterated from all public records.

Sir Richard Francis Burton (1864)
Sir Richard Francis Burton (1864)

October 20, 1890 – Sir Richard Francis Burton, soldier, explorer, translator, adventurer, linguist, poet, and diplomat; age 69

Sir Richard F. Burton was famed for his travels and explorations in Asia, Africa and the Americas, as well as his extraordinary knowledge of languages and cultures. According to one count, he spoke 40 European, Asian and African languages, including dialects.

He was born in Devonshire, England in 1821. He had an insatiable curiosity about other languages and cultures. After being expelled from Trinity College, Oxford, he enlisted in the East India Company Army, becoming a subaltern in the 18th Regiment of Bombay Native Infantry. He learned several languages while in India, including Arabic. In 1853, after several years of study and preparation, Burton disguised himself as an Indian Muslim and undertook a pilgrimage (hajj) to Mecca. As a European non-believer, he would likely have been expelled from the city at the least, or probably killed out of hand at the worst.

After returning to India after this adventure, he was asked by the Royal Geographical Society to undertake exploration of the east coast of Africa, including Ethiopia and Somalia. During this expedition, he was accompanied by Lt. John Hanning Speke, a fellow explorer. During their journey to the interior of Ethiopia, their party was attacked by a large group of Somali warriors. Speke was wounded 11 times and captured, but later escaped. During this fight, a Somali javelin struck Burton in the face; the tip went in one check and came out the other. He managed to escape, but with the javelin still transfixing his head.

In 1855, Burton rejoined the army and traveled to the Crimea, hoping to see active service in the Crimean War. He served on the staff of Beatson's Horse, a corps of Bashi-bazouks (local irregular fighters), under the command of General Beatson, in the Dardanelles. The corps was disbanded following a "mutiny" after they refused to obey orders, and Burton's name was mentioned (to his detriment) in the subsequent inquiry.

From 1857 to 1858, Burton and Speke led an expedition from Zanzibar into the east African jungles to explore some “inland seas” (Lakes Tanganyika and Victoria), as well as investigating possible trade routes and possible trade commodities. The expedition was very rigorous as each man fell ill from various maladies. They returned to England separately, with Speke arriving first and claiming he found the source of the Nile River.

The two men became rivals for the acclaim and prestige of their discoveries. The Royal Geographical Society arranged for the two men to present their findings on a single night in September, 1864. However, the day before the scheduled lecture, Speke was found dead in the country of a single shotgun wound. An inquest determined Speke’s death was accidental.

After this, the balance of Burton’s life was spent in diplomatic activities, and translating a number of Indian and Middle Eastern literature. He produced an English translation of The Arabian Nights (1885), and the Kama Sutra (1883). [Burton is credited with adding the stories of Aladdin and the Magic Lamp” and “Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves” to the Arabian Nights.] The Kama Sutra was published by subscription through a publishing house created by Burton, to avoid legal strictures against pornography. Burton also produced 43 volumes of his explorations in eastern Africa.

Burton died in the city of Trieste (today part of Italy), while serving as British consul to the city. He was diagnosed as having suffered a heart attack. After Burton’s death, his wife burned most of his letters, his journals, and even an unpublished manuscript for another erotic book to be called The Scented Garden. He was buried in a London suburb, in a tomb shaped like a Bedouin tent.

19th century statue of Charles Martel; On display at Versailles Palace, near Paris, France
19th century statue of Charles Martel
On display at Versailles Palace, near Paris, France

October 22, AD 741 – Charles Martel, Duke and Prince of the Franks, Mayor of the Palace; age c. 55

Charles Martel is best known to history as “The Hammer” (from the Latin martellus) who stopped the last great Muslim invasion of Europe in AD 732 at the battle of Tours. He was born in the town of Herstal – now in Belgium – in about the year 686. His father was Pepin of Herstal, who was Mayor of the Palace (essentially prime minister) for the Frankish realm of Austrasia. Pepin functioned as the de facto ruler of that realm, but later managed to unite Neustria and Burgundy into one Frankish nation.

Upon Pepin’s death in 714, his son Charles (issue of Pepin’s second wife) was imprisoned to keep him out of the way of his nephew Theudoald, who Pepin had designated his heir. Charles did not take this lying down, but escaped from prison and received the support of the nobles of Neustria, who elected him to the position of Mayor of the Palace for their realm.

Between 715 and 718, Charles waged a civil war against the other Frankish realms, consolidating all power to himself. With the Frankish kingdom united under one ruler, Charles then launched a number of foreign operations that expanded and consolidated his nation’s borders from 718 until 731. These included Alemannia, Bavaria, and West Frisia, and the Saxons were attacked and made tributaries to the Franks. [It would not be until late in the eighth century before the Saxons would be conquered and Christianized by Charles’s grandson, Charlemagne.] He also expanded church holdings in Francia, founding churches, abbeys and monasteries throughout the realm.

During this time, Charles realized he would need a professional, standing army to police the Frankish realm and to answer any attacks by foreign invaders. He training an army of mainly heavy infantrymen that would perform well in later years. To help pay for this standing army, Charles took back a number of the ecclesiastical lands which he had recently endowed.

In the summer of the year 732, a large Muslim raiding force from Spain (which the Muslims called al-Andalus) invaded the province of Aquitaine, which was nominally tributary to Francia. Duke Odo of Aquitaine sent a frantic appeal to Charles for help against the invaders. Charles marched his army south to meet Odo and his scattered light cavalry and infantry. In return for his help, Charles extracted a promise of Aquitanian submission to Frankish authority.

In October of 732, the Moorish army was headed to the city of Tours, which boasted the most prestigious and lavish shrine in western Europe at the Abbey of Saint Martin of Tours. Quite unexpectedly, the Muslim invaders ran into the Frankish army under Charles. After staring down their enemy for seven days, Muslim raiding parties conversed on the plain, and on or about October 25, the Muslim cavalry attacked the Frankish phalanx, positioned on a forested ridge.

The battle raged for most of the day. The Muslims were convinced they would prevail, but, one of the most famous quotes concerning the Franks comes from the Mozarabic Chronicle of 754, saying:

"And in the shock of the battle the men of the North seemed like a sea that cannot be moved. Firmly they stood, one close to another, forming as it were a bulwark of ice [emphasis added]; and with great blows of their swords they hewed down the Arabs. Drawn up in a band around their chief [Charles Martel], the people of the Austrasians [Franks] carried all before them. Their tireless hands drove their swords down to the breasts [of the foe]."

By nightfall, the Muslim camp was under attack, and finally the Franks pulled back to their original battle line. After staying on alert all night, they encountered no further Muslim attacks. The enemy camp was deserted, and the Franks celebrated a major victory.

As a result of his success at this battle, Mayor of the Palace Charles acquired the nom de guerre of Martel (“the Hammer”). In 737, when the Merovingian monarch died, Charles titled himself maior domus and princeps et dux Francorum [prince and duke of the Franks]. He did not appoint a new king and nobody acclaimed one. The throne lay vacant until Charles's death. As historian Charles Oman said, "He cared not for name or style so long as the real power was in his hands."

Charles Martel continued his rule of the Franks until his own death in October of 741. He was buried in the St. Denis Basilica in Paris.

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News from the World of Military and Veterans Issues. Iraq and A-Stan in parenthesis reflects that the author is currently deployed to that theater.