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5 Dark Moments in Ancient and Medieval History

History can be brutal. For centuries, humans have been captivated by the spectacle of violence, often in the struggle for power. While there are numerous wars, deaths, and torture techniques that morbidly fascinate people today, below are some dark moments you may not have heard of.

The Dancing Plague of 1518

Illustration of Skeletons Dancing Alluding at the Medivial Dancing Plague

The Dancing Plague of 1518 was one of the most bizarre mass casualty events recorded in Medieval history. In July 1518, a woman whose identity is disputed began to silently dance in the streets..and did not stop until she collapsed from exhaustion a week later. By that time, tens of others had joined her, dancing non-stop without stopping for food, water, or rest. The “plague” lasted until September of that year, and it is thought that hundreds of people were affected, with many dancing themselves to their death.

This plague is the most famous (and deadly) example of a phenomenon referred to as “Dancing Mania”, which was a well-documented occurrence in Medieval Europe. People would dance in erratic and dangerous ways, “infecting” onlookers who would join them for days. Modern historians cannot accurately identify the reason for these outbreaks, but a common theory is that they were the result of “mass hysteria”. Poverty, superstition, and a turbulent socio-political environment could have caused mass psychogenic symptoms manifesting, at times, in dance.

Cadaver Synod

A Painting of Pope Formosus During the Cadver Synod by Jean-Paul Laurens via Wikipedia

Formosus was the Bishop of Rome, or pope, from 891 CE until his death in 896 CE. He was pope during a time of political uncertainty, when Italy churned through nearly 24 popes in 93 years. As different factions of the church were in conflict, Formosus became pope after having previously been condemned by Pope John VIII for treason, and then pardoned by Pope Marinus I. His papacy was controversial, and many in the Church did not recognize his legitimacy.

Less than a year after his death, Pope Stephen VI, who was a supporter of Pope John VIII, decided to exhume Formosus’s corpse and re-try him for the crimes he was originally condemned for. His corpse was dug up, dressed in papal robes, and stood trial for perjury. Since Formosus could not reasonably defend himself, Stephen VI appointed a deacon to speak on his behalf. His defense was not successful, and Formosus was found guilty, stripped of his royal clothes, and buried.

Still unsatisfied, Stephen VI ordered that the body be dug up again and thrown into the Tiber river. He was imprisoned soon after, and his successor Romanus annulled Formosus’s but was overthrown himself soon after. Finally, Pope Theodore recovered the body, and his successor John IX had it reburied.

The Brutal Suicide of Cato the Younger

A Drawing of Julius Ceasar in Battle

Cato the Younger was an influential political figure in Ancient Rome. He was known as a Stoic philosopher, a defender of the Roman Republic, and a fierce resistor of Julius Ceasar’s dictatorship. Historians argue that his uncompromising stance towards the views of Caesar and his supporters led to civil war.

Cato the Younger was put in charge of the defense of the city Utica while Caesar’s army rode through the Republic. As he was preparing for Caesar’s eventual attack, he received news of the defeat of his ally, Metellus Scipio, in the battle at Thapsus.

Realizing that his defeat was inevitable, Cato informed his servants and household that he would rather die than become a slave, and attempted to slice his stomach open using his sword. However, he fell unconscious before finishing the task, and he was sewn up by his own doctor. Not one to give up, Cato woke up and proceeded to pull out the stitches and his bowels with his own hands.

The Siege of Masada

Ruins of Masada in Modern Day Jerusalem

The first Jewish-Roman War was one of three major rebellions by the Jews against the Roman Empire. In one of the most significant acts of rebellion, the Jews fought the Romans and removed them from Jerusalem. This prompted a fierce reaction from the Emperor Nero, who sent his General Vespasian to retake Jerusalem.

Vespasian and his son Titus successfully re-captured Jerusalem and proceed to crush the rebellion. They sent the Roman army, under the command of Licius Silva to the fortress of Masada, the last place home of significant Jewish resistance. After briefly laying siege to the fortress, Silva breached the walls and, upon entry, found a group of nearly 1000 dead Jews. As a final act of resistance, the Jews of Masada committed mass suicide as their preferred alternative to capture.

The Death of Attila the Hun

A painting of Attila riding a pale horse, by French Romantic artist Eugène Delacroix (1798–1863)
A painting of Attila riding a pale horse, by French Romantic artist Eugène Delacroix (1798–1863) via Wikipedia

Attila the Hun was a fierce warrior known for ruling the Huns, a nomadic tribe in Central Asia and Eastern Europe.  Under his reign, he led the expansion of the Huns into a nomadic empire consisting of several tribes. Attila had a reputation for being one of the most powerful rulers alive, and his force were a significant threat to the Roman Empire, against which he led several failed invasions.

After invading Italy, Atilla decided to withdraw his forces because he calculated that its capture would be too costly and would have minimal strategic advantage. Back in his homeland (Modern-day Hungary), Atilla was at a feast celebrating his third (and last) marriage to Ildico. The feast would end in disaster when Atilla, heavily drunk, got a nosebleed and drowned to death on his own blood. Most historians agree that his death was not an assassination, but possibly a result of illness resulting from alcoholism.

There are countless other examples throughout history of deliberate, or accidental cruelty and misfortune. Though they may be uncomfortable to learn about, it is vital that we retain knowledge of ancient and medieval cultures in order to learn from them.


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