This website uses cookies to provide a rich user experience. Please consult our Cookie Policy to learn about what cookies this website uses, or to control the cookies you receive. You need do nothing if you are happy to receive cookies.
Look and Learn History Picture Library Image from the history picture library

Subject: ‘Ancient History’

All of these articles and images are available for licensing: click on an image to see further details and licensing options; contact us about licensing textual content.

Pompey the Great was defeated by the even greater Julius Caesar

Posted in Ancient History, Famous battles, Historical articles, History, War on Saturday, 15 March 2014

This edited article about Pompey the Great first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 590 published on 5 May 1973.

Pompey the Great,  picture, image, illustration
Pompey the Great

In the last century before the birth of Christ, the powerful Roman republic unwittingly built itself a monster. The menace came in the form of thousands of foreign slaves, taken in conquest and put to work on farms in southern Italy.

There were too many of them and they were unmanageable. And, just as some earthquake-prone cities wait for the predicted catastrophe to destroy them, so the ancient Romans waited in dread for the slaves to revolt.

And it happened. The year was 73 B.C. and the man who began it was a Tracian slave named Spartacus. With the speed of a forest fire spreading, a hundred thousand slaves burst from their bonds and held the lower half of Italy in a grip of terror. In Rome, there was panic, with the mob clamouring for action against the bandit insurgents.

In haste, the Senate appointed Marcus Crassus to lead the attack against Spartacus. Crassus was given six legions and he did his work well. He drove Spartacus back across Italy and in the year 71 B.C. defeated the slaves and killed Spartacus. Crassus was pleased with his triumph and celebrated it by crucifying 6,000 of his prisoners along the Appian Way all the way to Rome.

As the victorious general began his triumphant homeward march, a remarkable thing happened. A small band of slaves who had escaped were surprised by the army of another Roman general, Gnaeus Pompeius, on his way home from a war in Spain. The band of slaves was, of course, swiftly annihilated.

A few days later, before the astonished Crassus, Gnaeus Pompeius blandly told the Roman Senate that he was the man who had put down the slave revolt and saved Rome.

This astonishing claim was typically Roman in its flamboyance and typical of Pompeius, whom we call Pompey the Great. Like many of his great contemporaries – the famous orator Cicero, the immortal Julius Caesar – he was a man driven almost mad by ambition, ready to lie, cheat and conquer to earn personal fame.

Pompey’s ultimate target was the dictatorship of the Roman Empire. In the end only one man was capable of cheating him of it – Gaius Julius Caesar, the greatest military leader the world has ever known. But if Caesar had not been there Pompey, always easily influenced, never quite sure of himself, may not have gone down in the record books as one of the greatest of world leaders.

He was born into a noble Roman family in 106 B.C., the son of a high ranking Roman army officer. At 17, he was serving in the army under his father: young Pompey had already found his forte, for it was as a soldier that he was going to make his name and as a civil administrator that he was to unmake it.

Read the rest of this article »

The quest to find Noah’s Ark was briefly ended

Posted in Ancient History, Archaeology, Bible, Boats, Historical articles on Friday, 14 March 2014

This edited article about the discovery of Noah’s Ark first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 589 published on 28 April 1973.

Discovery of Noah's Ark,  picture, image, illustration
Lieutenant Roskovitsky of the Russian Air Force was convinced that he had spotted the ark by Roger Payne

Lieutenant Roskovitsky, of the Russian Air Force, stared down at the mountain top below him. He knew only two things about Mount Ararat in Armenia. One was that it was almost 17,000 feet high, which was a point worth remembering when flying the shaky aeroplanes of 1916, and the other was the well known tradition that it was on that very peak that Noah had grounded his ark at the end of the Great Flood.

Suddenly Roskovitsky caught his breath. On one of the highest slopes there was a shape that seemed too regular to be natural. In fact it looked for all the world like a huge boat. A boat? Could the old Bible story be true after all, and was he actually looking down on what was left of that extraordinary floating zoo?

The pilot headed for home and made his report with some misgivings. As an official report it sounded hopelessly far fetched, and Roskovitsky was well aware that his superiors were quite likely to haul him over the coals for wasting time on fantasies in the middle of a war. As it turned out, he had no need to worry. The story of the stranded ark worked its way from office to office until it came to the ears of the Czar himself, who promptly organised an expedition to Mount Ararat in order to recover the ancient timbers. The war against Germany might be important, but men had dreamed of finding the ark for two thousand years!

To ordinary men and women there had always been something logical about the quest, for was it not clearly stated in the Old Testament that “the ark rested in the seventh month, on the seventeenth day of the month, upon the mountains of Ararat”? The Flood had receded long ago, so surely it stood to reason that Noah’s wonderful vessel must still be up there?

This belief was shared by the Armenians, who up to the beginning of the 19th century refused permission for anyone to climb Mount Ararat on the grounds that a monk had once attempted the ascent, only to be turned back by an angel. This meant, they argued, that the mountain was particularly holy and quite inaccessible to ordinary men. So far as the Armenian Church was concerned, the ark would have to remain undiscovered.

Read the rest of this article »

Treacherous Arminius broke the might of Imperial Rome

Posted in Ancient History, Famous battles, Historical articles, History on Thursday, 13 March 2014

This edited article about Ancient Rome first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 587 published on 14 April 1973.

Battle of Teutoburg, picture, image, illustration
The Battle of the Teutoburg Forest in which Arminius beat the Roman forces

Augustus, the first of the Roman emperors, did not like war. “Laurels,” he declared, “are beautiful but barren.” Before he died in A.D. 14, those words were to be brutally thrown back at him by a then little known officer in his Roman army.

He was Arminius, and he had been born the Prince of the Cherusci tribe in Germany about the year 12 B.C. One of the ways the Romans used to subjugate countries over which they marched was to take local chiefs and send them to Rome to be educated, trained and “Romanised.” Thus it was with Arminius and like many other princelings dealt with in this manner, when he returned to his own land he seemed to be more a Roman than a true-born German.

He had done well for himself in Rome. His heroism in battle had earned him honours which included the distinction of Roman citizenship. When he returned to Germany, thoroughly “Romanised,” he was given the command of 1,000 foreign soldiers with which to continue the service of the Emperor Augustus.

With Germans like Arminius and with their own legions, the Romans set about demonstrating to the German barbarians the advantages of the civilised way of life and “the superiority of Roman ways and arts.” The Germans soon realised “their own rudeness” and learnt to take pleasure “in a world of strict order, rigid law, and manifold arts and enjoyments.”

All might have gone well had not the Emperor Augustus sent to Germany a governor named Quintilius Varus, who had earned himself a reputation for brutality and hardness as governor of Judea. Varus imposed the same kind of tyranny upon the Germans, and while he served the Roman governor loyally, Arminius brooded with resentment over the injustices being done to his native people.

Varus never seemed to suspect the true feelings of Arminius, who had been so thoroughly educated in Rome that “the Romans could scarcely recognise the barbarian in him.” But the governor was several times warned by one of his officers, Segestes, another Roman educated German princeling, that Arminius could be a traitor. That the governor refused to heed any of these warnings was astonishing in view of the events that followed.

Read the rest of this article »

Marcus Atilius Regulus returned to Carthage and died with honour

Posted in Africa, Ancient History, Famous battles, Historical articles, History, War on Saturday, 8 March 2014

This edited article about Marcus Regulus first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 586 published on 7 April 1973.

Marcus Atilius Regulus in Carthage,  picture, image, illustration
Marcus Atilius Regulus returned to Carthage by Tancredi Scarpelli

Shading his eyes from the hot sun, Marcus Regulus took one last look at the little farm upon which he sustained his family on the outskirts of Rome. Then he kissed his wife Marcia and his two sons goodbye and mounted his horse. The brief act in the life of Regulus that was to give him an amazing place in history had begun.

Regulus was mindful of it. As he rode towards the Senate House in Rome, his mind dwelt on the circumstances that were projecting him, a poor farmer, into a limelight he had never sought.

In this year of 256 BC Rome was at war with Carthage, her bitter enemy on the north coast of Africa. In time of war, the Senate decreed that the command of the army should go to the two consuls elected for that year – one from the rich patrician class and one from the plebian, or working class.

The patrician consul was Lucius Manlius. And his plebian counterpart was Marcus Atilius Regulus, the farmer.

Regulus had no fear of war, not even with the barbarian Africans of Carthage, who were known to feed their prisoners to the flames of the furnace in the belly of their giant, grotesque idol Moloch. But he was justified in being apprehensive of this particular war, for Carthage was famed for her fleet which ruled the Mediterranean, and to defeat the Africans Rome had first to win the war at sea.

To that end, the shipyards of Rome had been at full strength for months, building a fleet to match that of Carthage. Nearly 150,000 sailors were planned to man the new ships – helmsmen, oarsmen, and perhaps most important of all, handlers of the corvus, the secret weapon with which Rome’s architects of war hoped to win the sea battle – the victory they had to have before the land battle on Carthagian territory.

The corvus was simply a grappling iron. With it the Romans planned to pull the Carthaginian ships to their side so that their soldiers, who had little or no experience of fighting at sea, could turn the fight into a land battle, the land being the decks of the two ships linked by the corvus.

Regulus dwelt on all these things as, with his orders from the Senate, he embarked with his co-consul Manlius at the head of Rome’s 330 glittering new fighting ships. It wasn’t long before, off the coast of Sicily, they sighted the Carthaginian fleet, larger still, and commanded by Hanno and Hamilcar, two of ancient history’s shrewdest, battle-hardened admirals.

The Romans used ships as they used men – always in tight formation. To break that formation was the enemy’s first priority. Hanno and Hamilcar sailed their great quinqueremes straight at the Roman wedge formation, splitting it in two. Then they split the two into three, isolating each section before bringing it under fire.

Regulus had one strategy, and only one. That was the corvus. If it failed, if he could not bring his ships close in to the enemy, he would be at the mercy of their superior seamanship. Through the Carthaginian broadsides of deadly arrows and huge, burning darts, he sailed remorselessly closer – and closer.

The iron chains of the grappling irons rattled ominously as they swung out through the air, fell, and anchored themselves on the Carthaginian decks. Wooden prows struck and splintered as the Romans, glistening with sweat, pulled on the chains, dragging the enemy ships full against their sides, crunching the outstretched oars as the gap between them closed. Up went the drawbridge and over them went the Roman soldiers, shield to shield, spears poised to strike a thousand lethal blows.

They had turned the sea battle into a ‘land’ battle. And on land they were the masters.

Read the rest of this article »

The monumental saga of Cleopatra’s Needle

Posted in Ancient History, Archaeology, Historical articles, History, London on Thursday, 6 March 2014

This edited article about Cleopatra’s Needle first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 581 published on 3 March 1973.

Cleopatra's Needle,  picture, image, illustration
Cleopatra's Needle in its proposed position at Westminster

Two pink granite obelisks lay among the rubbish of a squalid quarter of Alexandria in Egypt. Once they had stood as magnificent memorials to King Thotmes III. The finest of the pair had been made in 1460 BC at Aswan and taken 700 miles down the Nile to Heliopolis.

Here it stood outside the Temple of the Sun as a proud symbol of Egypt’s might. Many centuries later, on the orders of Cleopatra, it is said, it was taken down and moved to Alexandria and the Palace of the Caesars.

Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt brought the British to the country. They drove Napoleon away. Britain returned Egypt to the Turks, although some British soldiers remained there for a year or so under the command of General the Earl of Cavan.

By now the obelisks had been removed from their former positions and deposited among the rubble of Alexandria’s poorer quarter.

But the Earl of Cavan took a fancy to one of them, the finest of the pair. It would, he thought, make a fitting memorial to the British victories in Egypt, if it were shipped to London and erected there as a monument.

The Turks said he could have it. But the Earl’s plans to have it shipped to Britain fell through, and he compromised by having a brass plate put on the obelisk. Engraved on this were details of the principal events of the Egyptian campaign. Tribute was paid to Napoleon’s valour with a warning that the British nation was ordained by divine providence to defeat its enemies.

Once this had been done the obelisk stayed where it was. Mohamed Ali, one of the local rulers, reminded the British government that the needle was theirs. Would they please remove it?

But the government did not share the Earl of Cavan’s enthusiasm for the needle. They accepted the advice of an Egyptologist, Sir Gardner Wilkinson, who said, “It is unworthy of the expense of removal.”

Read the rest of this article »

An ancient copper scroll told of fabulous treasure in the desert

Posted in Ancient History, Archaeology, Bible, Historical articles, History on Friday, 28 February 2014

This edited article about the Dead Sea Scrolls first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 574 published on 13 January 1973.

Dead Sea Scrolls,  picture, image, illustration
The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls

It was a clear and brilliantly sunny morning in early summer, with the promise of a scorching heat later in the day. The Arab shepherd lad idly watched his sheep and the rocky, barren landscape on one side with the shores of the Dead Sea on the other. His name was Muhammad, his nickname “The Wolf” but today he hardly had the energy to live up to this name. It was 1947, at a place called Qumran; he had been up since dawn and now all he wished to do was look for some shade as the sun rose higher.

The sound of stones being dislodged made him look upwards and he saw that one of the goats which fed with the sheep had strayed up a steep cliff path. His shouts were of no avail and, unwillingly, he rose to his feet and went after it. Unless he could drive the goat back to the plateau there would be real trouble. But the goat simply scampered on, with Muhammad wearily climbing afterwards. Soon he came on an overhanging crag of rock, and decided to use its shade for a brief rest.

As he sat down, his eye was caught by a small, queerly placed hole. Tossing a stone through, he was even more surprised when he heard the sound of breaking pottery. Soon he had cleared the entrance to a long, narrow cave, and inside were several tall, wide-necked jars. At this, Muhammad began to fear, for who would expect such signs of habitation in this wilderness? He wondered about evil spirits and swiftly decided that this was no place for him. Forgetting all about his goat, he dashed back to the camp and told his story.

Next day Muhammad returned, more boldly, with a friend. They squeezed through the entrance hole and took the bowl shaped lids off the jars. But instead of the Aladdin’s treasure they had hoped for, all they found were some evil smelling cloth-covered bundles – and underndeath each cloth was simply a roll of parchment.

Although the shepherd boys may have been disappointed, they were, in fact, looking at some of the most precious manuscripts the world has known. The “Dead Sea Scrolls” as they became known include copies of parts of the Old Testament older by a thousand years than anything we had ever seen. The fact that they were still in such good condition seemed miraculous and it was only the heat and dryness of the Dead Sea Rift Valley, 1300 feet below sea level that had made it possible.

Read the rest of this article »

Fortified citadels of the Byzantine and Muslim world

Posted in Ancient History, Architecture, Famous battles, Historical articles, History, War on Friday, 21 February 2014

This edited article about post-Romano citadels first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 562 published on 21 October 1972.

The Fall of Constantinople,  picture, image, illustration
The city wall is breached and the Fall of Constantinople begins, by Angus McBride

The crunch of wooden ships beaching on the shingle shore sent a shiver of fear through the soft and luxury-loving population of Britain. It also sent messages spreading through the land from signal tower to signal tower like the ripples from a stone dropped in a stream. “The Saxons are coming! To arms! To arms!”

The Romans had evolved a superb system of defence in depth in Britain. Hadrian’s wall still stood to keep the Picts at bay while a chain of small forts along the Northumbrian coast watched for raiders from the sea. If an enemy were sighted signals were rushed to the Duke of Britain’s main army based at York. Further south another chain of fortresses known as the Saxon Shore stretched from the Wash, around East Anglia and Kent as far as the Isle of Wight. These were the responsibility of the Count of the Saxon Shore. But forts, towers and walls are useless without soldiers to garrison them. As Rome withdrew her legions so Britain’s fine defences fell one by one.

Most of the raiders who rampaged across Britain ignored Rome’s ruined defence systems and built little of their own to replace them. The Picts from Scotland were however, an exception. These wild, half naked warriors have left strange circular forts of dry stone in their distant homeland of Shetland Orkney and Caithness. Their forts are called brochs and they prove that the northern warriors who built them were not quite so wild and barbarous as their Roman foes claimed. Unfortunately we know so little about the Pictish broch builders that we have to admire their strange round fortresses in silent wonder.

While Britain collapsed before the invading Angles, Saxons, Picts and Scots. Roman Europe was fighting a hopeless battle against a sea of barbarian foes. Goths, Vandals and Huns smashed the walls and gates of Rome’s once proud Empire until only the “New Rome” in the East the huge city of Constantinople, guarded the flickering light of civilization.

This “New Rome” of Constantinople which is now called Istanbul was the capital of a Christian Empire, an Empire that most people know as the Byzantine Empire. Byzantine engineers built some of the world’s finest and most impressive fortifications and by far the greatest of all were the mighty triple-walls of Constantinople itself.

The main wall of Constantinople was built in 413 AD to keep out the Huns, the most terrible of all the barbarian invaders. It stretched from the Golden Horn, an inlet of the sea to the Sea of Marmora, securing the city snugly on its promontory. This wall was improved some years later and other defence works added until the enemies of Constantinople were eventually faced with a wide, water-filled moat, a low outer wall, a larger middle wall six and a half feet thick, and finally the massive inner wall which was 15 ½ feet thick with tall towers every 60 yards. This great stone, concrete and brick bastion was Christian Europe’s main line of defence against its eastern foes for over 1,000 years. In fact the walls of Constantinople were only overthrown by the Turks with their huge cannon some 500 years ago.

Read the rest of this article »

Archimedes died devising new defences for Syracuse

Posted in Ancient History, Famous battles, Famous Inventors, Historical articles, History, War, Weapons on Friday, 21 February 2014

This edited article about Ancient Rome first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 561 published on 14 October 1972.

Archimedes at Syracuse,  picture, image, illustration
Archimedes directing the working of his defences of Syracuse by Arthur A Dixon

After three long years of desperate fighting and sullen siege the proud Greek city of Syracuse fell to the legions of Rome. Not surprisingly the Roman soldiers made the people of Syracuse in Sicily pay dearly for those many months of frustration – yet one man in Syracuse met the conquerors calmly.

He was the man whose genius had held up the powerful army of Rome for so long. His name was Archimedes the mathematician and throughout the siege of Syracuse he had turned his brilliant mind to problems of defence. In fact he was still working away, scratching lines and angles in the sand of his garden, when a band of war-crazed Romans burst in.

Archimedes was seventy-five. He didn’t fear death. He met the victors calmly – but when one of the Romans blundered across the sand, disturbing the old man’s calculations, it was more than Archimedes could bear. Turning on the rough soldier the mathematician ordered him off the sandy calculations – in return Archimedes felt the brutal Roman’s sword. So died one of Ancient Greece’s greatest men.

Some of the defences that Archimedes designed for his native city of Syracuse were straightforward but others seem to have come from a Hollywood epic. Little can be seen today of the old man’s genius except for ruined walls on Epipolae hill. These were the key to Syracuse’s defences. Partly cut from virgin rock, with sally-ports, drawbridges and underground passages these fortresses certainly gave the Romans something to think about!

Among the strangest machines conjured up by Archimedes were his “disappearing petrariae.” These enormous catapults lay hidden out of harm’s way behind the city walls until the enemy came within range. Then, with a mighty groaning of wooden beams, the “petrariae” were hoisted above the walls to hurl five cwt rocks at the attackers. One of Archimedes’ most terrifying engines must have been his “grappling cranes” mounted on the sea-walls of Syracuse. If a Roman ship came too close a great iron hand came down from one of these grapples to grab the ship, lift it bodily from the sea then drop it back with a sickening crash.

Of course Archimedes wasn’t the only inventor interested in the techniques of siege and counter-siege. As you would expect, the warlike Romans put a lot of effort into this science. They worked out some ingenious ways of attacking enemy defences. One of the oddest must have been the “tortoise.” A picked body of soldiers huddled together like a rugger scrum, some carrying their rectangular shields above their heads, others holding them vertically around the edge of the “scrum.” The result was a completely shielded body of warriors who could advance fearlessly against any foe.

Read the rest of this article »

Nebuchadnezzar raised Babylon to spectacular heights

Posted in Ancient History, Architecture, Bible, Historical articles, History, Royalty, War on Wednesday, 19 February 2014

This edited article about Nebuchadnezzar first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 558 published on 23 September 1972.

Nebuchadnezzar in Babylon,  picture, image, illustration
Nebuchadnezzar surveys his works in a New Year's Day Procession in Babylon by Peter Jackson

At the fall of Nineveh, that mighty citadel of Assyrian supremacy, in 612 B.C., the captive peoples of the Assyrian empire expressed their relief and happiness from the rooftops. King Nabopolassar of Babylon, whose armies, together with his allies the Medes, had brought about the destruction of Nineveh but who himself had not gone to the siege of that city, preened himself in his royal palace when the news reached him.

Now all the glory was his. Now a new Babylonian empire would arise; an empire fashioned by him for his successors; a renaissance Babylon that would last for ever.

And indeed, Nabopolassar and his successors did create a dazzling empire. It did not last for ever, for empires never do, and although in fact its glory was short-lived, it was an empire that the Bible tells us a great deal about.

Meanwhile other peoples – peoples like the Hebrews of Judah – who had cheered the fall of Nineveh, took stock of their new Babylonian rulers. What was in store for them under the new regime, they wondered.

There was still plenty of “mopping up” work for Nabopolassar to get on with. There were other Assyrians besides those who had died in their scorched capital, and they had to be cleared out before real peace could be established. So, while Nabopolassar laid the foundations of the new rule, his dynamic young son Nebuchadnezzar went to war against the Egyptians and routed them.

In time King Nabopolassar died, and his now famous son had to return to Babylon to succeed him.

Nebuchadnezzar proved himself as successful a king as he had proved himself a soldier.

Read the rest of this article »

The Roman Gladiatorial Games at the Italian Exhibition, 1888

Posted in Actors, Ancient History, Historical articles, History, Leisure, London, Theatre on Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Italian Exhibition 1888,  picture, image, illustration
The Roman Gladiatorial Games at the Italian Exhibition, Earl's Court; illustration for The Graphic, 14 July 1888.

The Italian Exhibition at Earl’s Court in 1888 was a triumphant success, its most spectacular achievement being what today is called an historical re-enactment. The Souvenir Guidebook describes it thus:

“A reproduction of the Coliseum with its Roman sports, gladiatorial combats, wrestling bouts, chariot and foot races, triumphal processions, and all the other stirring spectacles that went to make up a Roman holiday. In the proceeding year the huge space at Earl’s Court, now transformed into the Flavian Amphitheatre, had formed the scene of ‘Buffalo Bill’s’ performance; but the revolver, the scalping-knife, the lasso, and the Winchester repeating-rifle of ‘Wild West’ warfare were now exchanged for the gladiatorial short sword, the net, and the trident of the Roman arena; and it was hard to say which species of personal combats exercised the greatest spell on the spectators.

As a mere show this reproduction of ‘Rome under the Caesars’ was admitted to be one of the finest and most interesting things of the kind that had ever been essayed in England, and a perfect triumph of scenic art. By continuing the semicircle of seats right round, the ‘Wild West’ Arena had been converted into a wonderful resemblance of the Flavian Amphitheatre, its dimensions, for one thing, being exactly the same as those of the Coliseum.”

Many more pictures relating to games can be found at the Look and Learn picture library.