Just whose fault was it anyway? Was it a cow kicking over a lantern, that strange new sect known as Christians, or the Emperor himself whom rumor would have wailing on a fiddle during the conflagration? It started in the central slums, spread rapidly through the market area and neroeventually engulfed most of the city. When the flames finally died out more than a week later, nearly two-thirds of Rome had been destroyed.

History likes to blame Emperor Nero, suggesting that he not only started the fire because he did not find the city architecturally pleasing, but staged his one-man concert as the flames surrounded him. History does not recall the name of the tune or tunes he played. History is funny that way. He did use the fire as an opportunity to rebuild Rome in a more orderly Greek style. And he did blame the curious Christian cult for the fire, responding with what became the popular Roman pastime of feeding them to the lions and other pagan parlor games.

Unfortunately for conspiracy theorists, Nero was 35 miles away when the fire started, couldn’t play a lick on the fiddle (which hadn’t been invented anyway), and let his palace be used as a homeless shelter (no Christians need apply, of course).

Actually, Nero wasn’t musically inept. He could play a mean lyre, an ancient Greek stringed instrument sort of like a zither but sort of not. This is probably why conspiracy theorists determined to blame him for the fire, chanted “Lyre, lyre, pants on fire.”







Romans got two emperors for the price of one, when in 238, Gordian I and II became father-and-son tag-team Caesars after an insurrection against Maximinus Thrax, a rather unpopular emperor who had come to the position by the popular tradition of assassinating his predecessor.romeGordian I was a bit long in the tooth so the younger Gordian was attached to the imperial throne and acclaimed Augustus too – sort of like if Poppa Bush and W had been presidents together, mano e mano so to speak.

Some supporters of Maximinus Thrax who were not happy with this turn of events staged a rebellion in Africa. Gordian II fought against them in the Battle of Carthage but lost and was killed for good measure. Hearing the bad news, Gordian I took his own life.  All of this happened within a month. Fortunately, there was no dearth of Gordians in Rome, and Gordian II’s 13-year-old nephew Gordian III soon became emperor. During his six-year reign, the teenage ruler endured pimples, the fickleness of teenage girls, and Persians until he was done in by the latter in yet another battle. He was succeeded by Philip the Arab (son of Ahab) sometimes referred to as the Gordian Not.

Slow and steady wins the race

Back in 1767, Lord Robert Clive of the East India Company was given a gift of four Aldabra tortoises from the Seychelle Islands. Three soon died, but the fourth, a gent named Addwaita “the one and only,” prospered.  He was transferred to a Calcutta zoo in 1875.

Addwaita was a bit of a loner, content to pass the decades in his zoo cubicle, munching on carrots, lettuce, chick peas, bran, bread and grass, growing to a stately 550 pounds and living  to the ripe old age of 250, give or take a year or two.

Alas, Addwaita bought the reptilian ranch on March 24, 2006. Foul play was not suspected.

Charlie Chan’s Words of Wisdom


February 14, 278: Roses Are Red, Etc., Etc.

How did St. Valentine’s Day become a day associated with hearts and flowers and all things romantic? One account puts a definitely sinister spin on the origin of this holiday. It begins back in the third century with a fellow named Claudius the Cruel. As you might guess, Claudius is not going to be the hero of this tale.

Claudius (II, if you’re counting) was the Emperor of Rome, a barbarian that proved that any young boy can grow up to be emperor if he believes. Valentinus, or Valentine, was not a saint at the time, but he was a holy priest.

Claudius, in addition to his barbarianism and cruelty, was a bit of a be_my_valentine_coloring_pagewar-monger. Continually involved in bloody campaigns to destroy upstart nations throughout the region, Claudius needed to maintain a strong army.  But it was a constant battle to keep his military at full strength what with Christianity gaining a toehold and everyone  into family values. The men for their part were unwilling to be all they could be in the army because of their annoying attachment to wives and families.

Claudius had a fairly simple solution; he banned all marriages and engagements in Rome. Valentine, part of whose livelihood was the performing of marriages, thought this decree unjust and defied the emperor by continuing to marry young lovers on the sly.  Claudius, as emperors will, got wind of Valentine’s doings and, true to his name, ordered that Valentine be put to death. Valentine was arrested and condemned to be beaten about the head, and then have said head cut off. The sentence was carried out on February 14, 278.

Legend has it that while in jail, Valentine left a farewell note for the jailer’s daughter, with whom he had had a brief relationship (that will not be explored here), and signed it “From Your Valentine.”  There may have been other cute little Valentine poems as well,  but they have been lost to history.

For this, Valentine was named a saint and had a holiday created after him, though not a legal one with school closings and such. Conspiracy theorists will naturally jump up and down, saying there were several St. Valentines and the holiday could have been named after any one of them. Or it could have come from the pagan festival Lupercalia, a day of wanton carrying on. They should mind their own business.




January 10, 49 BC: Wade in the Water

Back in 49BC, Julius Caesar was a mere governor commissioned by the Roman Senate to oversee a portion of the empire that stretched from Gaul to Illyricum (pretty much most of today’s Europe except Italy). When his term of governorship ended, the Senate ordered Caesar to disband his army and return to Rome. Whatever you do, Julie baby, don’t bring that army across the Rubicon River for that is treason and insurrection and very bad manners. Oh, and the punishment is death.

Caesar may have misunderstood for didn’t he just up and cross the Rubicon into Italy on January 10. His biographer suggests that he was under the control of a supernatural apparition (the Devil made him do it). Willful or not, Caesar is said to have shouted “alia iacta est” as he and his merry men waded across the shallow river (or ‘the die has been cast,” certainly more dramatic in Latin).

Crossing the Rubicon was a declaration of war, but instead of arresting Caesar the Roman Senate fled Rome in fear. Caesar, far from being condemned to death, became dictator for life. Sometimes it’s good to cross the Rubicon. Crossing the Rubicon has endured as a phrase meaning passing a point of no return.

The Hole in My Record Is Bigger Than the Hole in Your Record

RCA Victor it might be said crossed the Rubicon when on January 10, 1949, it introduced a new kind of record — a vinyl disc, just seven inches in diameter with a great big hole in the middle, the 45 (referring to its revolutions per minute). The 45 replaced the big noisy shellac disc that rotated at a breakneck 78 rpm. The first 45 rpm single was “Peewee the Piccolo.” Remember it?

January 1, 45 B.C.: Et Tu, Sosigenes

saturnaliaToday is January 1, New Year’s Day, the start of a brand new year. It wasn’t always thus. New Year’s Day was celebrated on January 1 for the first time in 45 B.C. On that day the Julian calendar went into effect — created by Julius Caesar himself — with the aid of his trusty sidekick Sosigenes, an Alexandrian astronomer. Note that the calendar was not named the Sosigenian calendar — it’s good to be the dictator.

The calendar was in a real mess at the time. It did its best to follow the lunar cycle, but it fell out of sync with the seasons and had to be corrected. Then there was the Roman Calendar Commission, which frequently added or subtracted days for political reasons, an early kind of gerrymandering. And on top of it all, the years were going backwards toward zero.

Sosigenes advised Caesar to dump the whole Roman calendar and start from scratch. New Year’s no longer came in March (leaving that month with nothing to celebrate except the Ides). A one-time bonus of 67 days was thrown in, with the promise of an extra day every four years in February (more of a crowd-pleaser in Rome than in, say Stockholm.

Once he had started fiddling with the calendar, Caesar couldn’t stop. In 44 B.C. (that’s a year later than 45), he changed the month of Quintilis to Julius (July, to friends). He would no doubt have done more damage had not a group of noble Romans assassinated him that same year.

Several years later the calendar reached zero, and since the end of the world did not come despite many predictions, the following years moved back into positive territory. Unfortunately, the Julian calendar had this pesky little 11-minute-per-year error that seemed minor at first but which by the the mid-15th century had added up to ten days, forcing Pope Gregory to step into the breach and give the world the calendar we use today and the ability to accurately celebrate the new year, awaiting only Dick Clark and the ball atop Times Square.

Now is the accepted time to make your regular annual good resolutions. Next week you can begin paving hell with them as usual. Yesterday, everybody smoked his last cigar, took his last drink, and swore his last oath. Today, we are a pious and exemplary community. Thirty days from now, we shall have cast our reformation to the winds and gone to cutting our ancient short comings considerably shorter than ever. We shall also reflect pleasantly upon how we did the same old thing last year about this time. However, go in, community. New Year’s is a harmless annual institution, of no particular use to anybody save as a scapegoat for promiscuous drunks, and friendly calls, and humbug resolutions, and we wish you to enjoy it with a looseness suited to the greatness of the occasion. ~Mark Twain

January 1, 1995

Gary Larson’s wacky, surrealistic comic, The Far Side, debuted on January 1, 1980, and ran for 15 years in more than 1,900 daily newspapers. It has been translated into 17 languages, and collected into calendars and 23 best-selling books. The last panel appeared on January 1, 1995:


Some minds are like soup in a poor restaurant—better left unstirred. ~ P. G. Wodehouse