Archive for the ‘300s’ Category


teotihuacan1pTeotihuacan (fl. 300 to 700) was the ancient and holy city of Mexico, “the city where the gods were created”. At its height it had 160,000 people, making it the sixth largest city in the world at the time. In the centre of the city was the third largest pyramid of the world, the Pyramid of the Sun. Teotihuacan is about 40 km north-east of Mexico City.

We do not know what the city called itself. All we have is the Aztec name: Teotihuacan, “the city of the gods”. It was the seed of a civilization that had lasted more than a thousand years by the time the Spanish appeared. Only the Mayans were able to pass Teotihuacan in science and the arts.

The city fell in 700, destroyed by fire. Mexico fell into a dark age that lasted until the time of the Toltecs 250 years later.

In its day the city was the centre of religion and trade. It seemed to have been the centre of an empire too: it was rich yet had no walls and its gods demanded regular human sacrifice which meant fighting and ruling foreigners. Under one of their temples are 130 bodies.

We do not know what language the city spoke. It may have been Nahuatl, what the Aztecs spoke. None of its books have come down to our time.

Teotihuacan started out as a place where people journeyed to in order to worship the gods. In time it built huge pyramids to the gods and grew into a big city. It was ruled by priests who lived in palaces. On holidays the priests walked up the steps to the top of the pyramids and sacrificed humans to the gods.

The priests lived in the centre of the city. Further out were craftsmen and businessmen, who came from all over Mexico. About two-thirds of the people who lived in the city were farmers. They went out to work their fields in the morning and came back at night. Despite that the city did not grow enough food to feed itself but also needed trade and tribute to live.

The Street of the Dead is the main street. It is very wide and runs north to the holy mountain of Cerro Gordo. Along the street were the main temples, palaces and squares.  The two main temples were:

  • The Pyramid of the Sun at the centre of the city, the largest pyramid in Mexico and the third largest in the world. It is now 63 metres tall but once it was 73. The base 225 by 222 metres – about two Manhattan city blocks on a side.
  • The Pyramid of the Moon is to the north along the Street of the Dead. It is smaller, only 43 metres tall.

There is also the temple of Quetzalcoatl, a snake god with feathers seen in the sky as the morning star. The square in front of the temple can hold 100,000, more than half the city.

Under the city are caves and tunnels.

– Abagond, 2009.

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Ephesus is an ancient Greek city about halfway down the western coast of what is now called Turkey. It is where the Ephesians of the Bible lived. Paul preached there. It is where John wrote his gospel and they say that it is where the Virgin Mary went up to heaven. The Greek philosopher Heraclitus comes from Ephesus.

In our time Ephesus is just some broken-down remains of ancient buildings near the sea.

In Greek and Roman times, Ephesus was:

  • The centre of the Roman slave trade from -100 to +100;
  • The centre of the cult of Diana, the virgin goddess, known as Artemis to the Greeks;
  • One of the main ports of the Mediterranean Sea;
  • The main city in Ionia;
  • The capital of the Roman province of Asia.

It reached its height about -150 when it had 300,000 people – a giant city in those days, though not as big as Rome or Alexandria.

Giant is right: it had the largest theatre in the Roman empire, one with 50,000 seats. And its Temple of Diana was huge too. One visitor said it “mounted to the clouds”. It took 120 years to build.

The Temple of Diana was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. It was the centre of Diana’s worship. Inside the temple was a big black rock that fell from the sky. (The Kaaba, that square building in Mecca, also has such a rock.) The temple of Roman times was built in -550, but there had been a temple there since the days of Troy.

The temple is gone. In the 300s the Roman Empire became Christian, so the temple was shut down in 381 and destroyed in 405. And then, in 431, all the top bishops of the Church came to Ephesus for the famous Council of Ephesus. In order to stamp out Nestorian Christianity, they said that the Virgin Mary was the “Mother of God”. (The Nestorians said that made no sense, but that is another post.)

Not only is it strange how the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, took the place of Diana, a virgin goddess, but even the old name of the city, Apasas, means “city of the mother goddess.”

The Virgin Mary and Ephesus: When Jesus was on the cross he gave the care of his mother into the hands of John. That much is in the Bible. But there are old stories that go on to say that he went to Ephesus to live and brought Mary with him. And so there is a house on a hill near the city that they say was hers. It has become a place where both Christian and Muslim pilgrims go. August 15th is a special day there – the day they she went up to heaven.

Ephesus was killed by mud, malaria and Christianity: without the temple one of its main industries was lost. Then mud filled up the river on its way to the sea, creating a marsh that spread malaria. The rise of Constantinople to the north did not help either.

– Abagond, 2008.

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St Nicholas

Picture of St Nicholas from the early 1200s

Picture of St Nicholas from the early 1200s

Saint Nicholas (early 300s) was the Christian saint that Santa Claus comes from. He is one of the best loved saints, especially among the Eastern Orthodox. Because of him Nicholas is a common name. Because of him people get presents on Christmas.

Nicholas once knew a nobleman who was poor. He had three daughters but no money to marry them off. Nicholas could have just given him the money, but he was too proud to accept it.

Nicholas had an idea. In the middle of the night he secretly put gold into the daughters’ stockings that hung by the fire to dry. They all got married off.

This is where the idea of Christmas stockings come from. It is the one bit of Christmas that comes from the life of Nicholas.

The Dutch in New York gave their children gifts on St Nicholas’s Day, December 6th. The English liked the idea but did not believe in saints. So instead they gave their children presents three weeks later on Christmas. And over the years St Nicholas himself was changed from a Christian saint into a department store Santa.

St Nicholas was bishop of Myra in Lycia on the southern coast of what is now Turkey. In those days, before the Turks came, it was a Greek land ruled by Rome.

He was the only child of rich parents. They died when he was a boy. The ships that came from Egypt carrying grain to Rome stopped at Myra. One day they brought a terrible disease from Egypt. The plague killed his parents but not him. His uncle, the bishop, brought him up.

When he was a young man his uncle died too. The other bishops of the region came to Myra to choose a new bishop. One of them had a dream: God told him to choose the first man named Nicholas who came to church the next morning. That was how Nicholas became bishop even though he was so young.

In his day some still worshipped Diana, the old Greek goddess. They did it under a particular tree that was sacred to her. Nicholas had the tree cut down.

To get back at Nicholas, the story goes, Diana assumed the appearance of a holy woman and gave oil to some pilgrims on their way to his church. She told them to paint the walls of the church with it.

It was a trick. Just then a man who looked like Nicholas appeared and took the oil and threw it into the sea where it burst into flames, burning on the water for hours, saving the church and the lives of the pilgrims.

Most of his miracles were just like that: he appears at just the right time to save the day – to save men about to be lost at sea, to save princes about to have their heads cut off, and so on. But these appearances were just that: appearances. Nicholas himself was always far away at the time.

Feast day: December 6th.

– Abagond, 2007.

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St Catherine of Alexandria

Saint Catherine of Alexandria (early 300s) is a Christian saint who is not well-known these days, but she was during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Raphael painted her; she spoke to Joan of Arc.

Catherine said she was the daughter of King Costas. She was born rich and had a fine Greek education. She lived alone in palace with her servants.

This was in the time of emperor Maximinus, when the Roman Empire was still trying to wipe out the Christian faith. When Maximinus came to Alexandria he forced Christians to offer sacrifices to the gods. The old stories say it was emperor Maxentius, but it was Maximinus who ruled the east in those days. Since the names are so alike they were probably mixed up.

Many Christians offered sacrifice to the gods out of fear of the emperor.

When Catherine saw this she went to the emperor and tried to reason with him, even though she was only 18. Standing at the doors of a temple, she pointed out that as beautiful as the temple was, it was nothing compared to the beauty of the heavens and the earth. We should worship the god who created those things, not the gods inside a temple which will one day turn to dust.

The emperor could have killed her right there, but he took up her challenge. He would prove to her that Christianity was nothing but a pack of lies.

He tried to do it himself, but soon found that he could not match her education and wit. So he gathered together 50 of the most learned men in the empire and brought them to Alexandria to debate her.

They wondered why they were brought from so far away to do such a simple thing. But she wound up persuading them that she was right! She did it with their own books which they took to be true, like those of Plato and Sibyl.

The emperor threw Catherine into a dark cell for 12 days without food. The queen visited her secretly in the middle of the night. Catherine brought her and the guards over to Christ.

After 12 days the emperor brought Catherine before him. He gave her a simple choice: either offer sacrifice to the gods and be made a queen or be put to death. Her king and master was not the emperor nor the devils that he worshipped as gods, but Jesus Christ. She had no doubt what to do.

They were going to kill her on a breaking wheel, which would cut her to pieces. But she prayed to God and it fell apart. So they cut off her head instead.

They say that when she died milk, not blood, flowed from her body. Then angels carried her body to Mount Sinai, where Moses once talked to God. There is an ancient monastery in her name that stands there to this day.

Feast day: November 25th.

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Roman Empire


The Roman Empire, circa +197.

The Roman Empire (-27 to +476) was the circle of lands round the Mediterranean Sea ruled by Rome. Its ideas about law, government, religion, language and writing became those of the West.

Before -27 Rome was called a republic because the Senate still had some power. But Rome had ruled lands outside of Italy since at least -220. Did it matter to those in Greece or Carthage whether they were ruled by one Roman (the emperor) or many (the Senate)?

And even after Rome fell in 476, the empire in the east continued, ruled from Constantinople, which did not fall to the Turks till 1453. We call it the Byzantine empire, but that is a name made up by French scholars in the 1800s. The empire called itself Roman. Even the Arabs and Turks called them Rumi.

In 117, Rome at its height ruled the lands from Scotland to Egypt, from Morocco to Mesopotamia. It was bound by the Rhine and Danube rivers in the north (except for Dacia, now Romania), the Atlantic Ocean in the west, the Sahara in the south and Persia in the east.

Rome brought peace to all the lands round the Mediterranean Sea for hundreds of years: the Pax Romana or Roman peace.

Rome took the best ideas of Egypt, Babylon and Greece and added ideas of its own about law and government.

Latin was the main language in the west, Greek in the east.

Some of the early emperors were cruel and sick men, like Caligula, Claudius and Nero. They ruled from 37 to 68. Later it was ruled by five good emperors, from 96 to 180: Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius. They brought Rome to the height of its power and glory in the 100s.

In the 200s war was common: the empire had no peaceful, orderly way to hand power from one emperor to the next.

By the 200s the Christians were seen as a threat to the social order: they did not believe the emperor was a god. They would not even give the idea lip service. But by the 300s most people were Christians. They now became the social order, closing down the old temples and burning old books.

By the 300s the emperor rarely came to Rome. He spent most of his time in Milan and the new city of Constantinople, founded by Constantine. Sometimes the empire was ruled by two emperors, one in the west and one in the east. The last emperor to rule both halves together was Theodosius I from 379 to 395.

In the 400s the army in the west was mainly German defending the empire against other Germans! No surprise, then, when the west soon found itself cut up like a birthday cake among German generals, some of them from the Roman army itself. One of those generals, Odoacer, overthrew the last emperor in the west in 476.

In the 500s Justinian sent Belasarius to take back the west. He took much of Italy – by destroying its cities – but in time even Italy was lost.

– Abagond, 2007, 2016.


The Roman Republic / Empire from -510 to +530.

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Christmas (354- ), which falls on December 25th, is a holiday that celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ. In America and in many Christian countries it is the most important holiday of the year.

Note: This post is about Christmas in America (the US).

Over the years Christmas has become something that has little to do with Christ. Many people celebrate it who have not been inside a church in years or who do not even call themselves Christians.

On Christmas Day almost everyone gets off work or school. They give gifts to each other and then at night have a large meal. For children it is the happiest day of the year.

In the north it comes a few days after the start of winter. Getting ready for Christmas and looking forward to it makes the coming of the cold seem not so bad.

American Christmas is really two Dutch holidays rolled into one: Saint Nicholas’ Day on December 6th and Christmas itself. The Dutch in New York gave their children gifts on St Nicholas’s Day and put treats in their stockings. Christmas, meanwhile, was a more serious church holiday, like Easter.

The English in New York copied the Dutch, but did all the St Nicholas’ Day things on Christmas.

Over time St Nicholas became what we now know as Santa Claus.

Santa Claus is a fat man with a long white beard who dresses in red and white. He laughs a lot and says “Ho, ho, ho.” He lives at the North Pole with his wife. He keeps a list of good children and bad children.

On Christmas Eve Santa Claus delivers gifts to good children all over the world. Bad children get coal. Or nothing. Santa is helped by flying reindeer. The most famous of these is Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. His nose is so bright Santa can fly through any weather.

Children and shopkeepers love Santa. He has largely taken over Christmas from Baby Jesus. Many shops, and even some industries, would go broke if it were not for the Christmas that comes in a box.

There are special Christmas songs, food, television shows, films and so on. It is not just any day.

A few weeks before Christmas you put up a Christmas tree. There is even a song about that! The gifts go under the tree and wait there to be opened on Christmas Day (or Christmas Eve).

The gifts are put inside of boxes and covered with colourful paper so you cannot tell what they are. The expectation and surprise is part of the experience.

Children put up Christmas stockings, which get filled with treats overnight. This part goes back to a story about St Nicholas.

As a child I liked opening gifts best. Most of what I got as a child came on Christmas and my birthday.

Now that I am older I like the church part better. I go to mass on Christmas Eve. It is the only part of Christmas that has not been ruined by shopkeepers and in-laws.

– Abagond, 2006, 2015.

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Zero is the number that comes before one, the number that stands for “nothing”. For example, if I had three books and gave you two, then I would have one book left. But if I gave you all three books, then I would have none left – that is, I would have zero books left.

It might seem strange to have a number for nothing. That might be why it took so long to be invented. But zero makes arithmetic far easier. For example, before zero came to the West, multiplying numbers was something only experts in the field could do. But with zero even an eight year old can do it.

Today in the West we write the numbers from one to nine this way: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9. Zero is written this way: 0. Those are all the numbers we need.

But how, then, do you write ten or twelve or fifty-two or six hundred? Like this: 10 (ten), 12 (twelve), 52 (fify-two), 600 (six hundred).

Six hundred and fifty-two looks like this: 652. What does that mean? It means:

six (6) hundreds and

five (5) tens and

two (2).

The position of a number matters:

six: 6
sixty: 60
six hundred: 600
six thousand: 6000
six thousand and fifty-two: 6052

And that is the power of zero: it holds a place where there is nothing. 600 means six hundred and zero (0) tens and zero (0). Which might seem to be a strange way to think of it, but it makes the number much easier to handle.

We think of inventions as building on what came before and becoming more and more difficult to understand and make. Most are like that. But every now and then a true genius comes along and invents something that takes a hard thing – like arithmetic or reading – and makes it easier. The codex, the fork and letters are all examples of this.

Before zero people thought that multiplying numbers had to be hard – there was no way around it. Not so!

Zero was invented at least two times: first by the Olmecs in Mexico by 36 BC and again 400 to 500 years later in India. The Babylonians had something close to zero but it did not take hold – unless, of course, that is where India got it from.

The Greeks had a sign for zero but it was just something added to their number system. For all their genius they never got farther than that. No one knows why, but it is probably because they thought in geometry not in numbers. Geometry and number were not united into one solid system till the 1600s by Descartes.

The West got the zero and the new number system from the Arabs. We know because the word “zero” comes from Arabic. It came in the 1100s but it took centuries to really take hold. Even today you still see the old Roman numbers here and there.

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