This Day in History (13-Feb-1633) – Galileo Galilei arrives in Rome for trial after publishing his thoughts on heliocentrism

Galileo used his mathematics knowledge and technical skills to  build a telescope in 1609.  Galileo’s observations strengthened his belief in Copernicus’ theory (published in 1514)that Earth and all other planets revolve around the Sun. Galileo expected the telescope to quickly make believers in the Copernican system out of all educated persons, but he was disappointed. The Catholic Church, which was very powerful and influential in Galileo’s day, strongly supported the theory of a geocentric, or Earth-centered, universe. In 1616, on orders of the Pope Paul V, Cardinal Bellarmine called Galileo to his residence and administered a warning not to hold or defend the Copernican theory; Galileo was also forbidden to discuss the theory orally or in writing. After repeated convincing attempts by Galileo, Pope Urban VIII allowed him to write about the Copernican theory as long as he treated it as a mathematical hypothesis.

In 1630 he completed his book Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems in which the Ptolemaic and Copernican models were discussed and compared. Vatican cleared (conditionally) to publish the book. The book was printed in 1632 which was quickly sold out and soon became the talk of the literary public. Enemies of Galileo had convinced the Pope that the Dialogue was nothing but a thinly-veiled brief for the Copernican model. Pope Urban VIII, convinced by the arguments of various Church officials, stopped its distribution; the case was referred to the Inquisition and Galileo was summoned to Rome despite his infirmities, to answer the charges in February 1633. Old Galileo travelled for twenty-three days in cold winter from Florence to Rome.

He was formally interrogated for 18 days and on April 30 Galileo confessed that he may have made the Copernican case in the Dialogue too strong and offered to refute it in his next book.  Galileo was sentenced to life imprisonment. Because of his age and poor health, he was allowed to serve his imprisonment under house arrest until his death in 1642. The Church finally accepted that Galileo might be right in 1983.



This Day in History (12-Aug-30 B.C.) – Cleopatra Commits Suicide as Octavian Advances on Alexandria

In 51 BC, Ptolemy Auletes died and left his kingdom to his eighteen year old daughter, Cleopatra, and her younger brother. According to Egyptian law Cleopatra had to marry to her younger brother Ptolemy XIII, twelve years old then. By 48 BC, Cleopatra had alarmed the more powerful court officials of Alexandria by some of her actions. A group of men overthrew her in favor of her younger brother. Meanwhile Roman knight Caesar captured Alexandria. Cleopatra had herself smuggled in through enemy lines rolled in a carpet. She was delivered to Caesar. Caesar fell in love with her and killed Ptolemy XIII. Cleopatra was now the sole ruler of Egypt. But she had to marry her younger brother Ptolemy XIV, who was eleven years old. During July of the year 46 BC, Caesar returned to Rome and brought Cleopatra over. The conservative Republicans were very offended when he established Cleopatra in his home. Caesar also openly claimed Cleopatra’s son as his son. Many were upset that he was planning to marry Cleopatra regardless of the laws against bigamy and marriages to foreigners. Caesar was assassinated outside the Senate Building in Rome. After Caesar’s murder, Cleopatra fled Rome and returned to Alexandria.

When she met Mark Antony, another Roman knight in 41, she charmed him such that he decided to spend the winter with her in Alexandria. Late in 40 BCE, she gave birth to a son and daughter. In 37 BCE, Antony, on his way to attack Parthia, returned to Alexandria to rekindle the romance with Cleopatra and made the city his home for the rest of his life.  Marrying her according to the Egyptian rite, the two conceived another child. In Rome, In 31, Roman noble Octavian would defeat Antony in a pitched sea battle off the coast of Actium.  Moving to land, the Roman armies began pushing toward Alexandria.  Clearly no longer able to maintain her place as the Queen of Egypt, Cleopatra ended up dead on August 12th – whether by the asp or a toxic drink is still up for debate to this day.  Cleopatra’s death opened the door for Rome to be the dominant power in the Mediterranean for centuries to come.



This Day in History (19-Jul-64) – Nero’s Rome burns

The great fire of Rome breaks out on 18th July and destroys much of the city on this day in the year 64. Despite the well-known stories, there is no evidence that the Roman emperor, Nero, either started the fire or played the fiddle while it burned. Still, he did use the disaster to further his political agenda. The fire began in the slums of a district south of the legendary Palatine Hill. The area’s homes burned very quickly and the fire spread north, fueled by high winds. During the chaos of the fire, there were reports of heavy looting. The fire ended up raging out of control for nearly three days. Three of Rome’s 14 districts were completely wiped out; only four were untouched by the tremendous conflagration. Hundreds of people died in the fire and many thousands were left homeless.

Although popular legend holds that Emperor Nero fiddled while the city burned, this account is wrong on several accounts. First, the fiddle did not even exist at the time. Instead, Nero was well known for his talent on the lyre; he often composed his own music. More importantly, Nero was actually 35 miles away in Antium when the fire broke out. He rushed to Rome and ran about the city all that first night without his guards directing efforts to quell the blaze. For the relief of the homeless, fugitive masses he threw open the Field of Mars, including Agrippa’s public buildings, and even his own Gardens. Nero also constructed emergency accommodation for the destitute multitude.  Legend has long blamed Nero for a couple of reasons. Nero did not like the aesthetics of the city and used the devastation of the fire in order to change much of it and institute new building codes throughout the city. Nero also used the fire to clamp down on the growing influence of Christians in Rome. He arrested, tortured and executed hundreds of Christians on the pretext that they had something to do with the fire.

From the ashes of the fire rose a more spectacular Rome. A city made of marble and stone with wide streets, pedestrian arcades and ample supplies of water to quell any future blaze. The debris from the fire was used to fill the malaria-ridden marshes that had plagued the city for generations.