The most recent major Italian “Invasion” of America, entirely friendly and widely welcomed, was launched this week by Pope Francis as he clambered down his Alitalia jet at Andrews Air Force Base. Some may object that Pope Francis is Argentine and that is true. But he is also deeply Italian. As we point out in the Argentinian chapter of our forthcoming book, Italy Invades: How Italians Conquered the World, Pope Francis is ethnically Italian-Argentine. Thus Pope Francis himself is the product of an Italian Invasion. In his Rose Garden address delivered on September 23, 2015 he was quick to point out that he too is a son of immigrants — like so many Americans.
The Pope will advocate some positions (mainly economic) that may alienate Republicans and some positions (mainly pro-life) that alienate Democrats. Good for him — I hope that he makes politicians of both parties squirm in their seats and rethink their tired talking points.
The Pope is the Vicar of Christ and Christ is the Prince of Peace. So we can expect the Pope to advocate on behalf of peace in our world.
But we should not forget that the papacy once wielded tremendous secular power and has, in fact, launched many real invasions. We wrote in the Introduction to Italy Invades…
Pope Alexander VI (1431 – 1503)
“Many popes based in Rome directed Christians to embark on crusades to the Holy Lands. Alexander VI, a Borgia pope, imposed the Treaty of Tordesillas, which split South America into Spanish and Portuguese bits in the fifteenth century. The Papal States had their own armies for many centuries. Pope John Paul II, with his special insight into Eastern Europe, helped to steer the West to victory in the Cold War.”
Indeed the papacy did not give up its secular powers without a fight. And that fight was with the Italians. In the Vatican City chapter of Italy Invades we wrote…
French Foreign Legion Museum, Aubagne, FR
“During the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, Napoleon III, desperate to defend France, was compelled to withdraw the French garrison from Rome. King Victor Emmanuel II saw his chance to fulfill his long- cherished dream of capturing Rome.
Pope Pius IX (1792 – 1878)
When Pope Pius IX, whom a conclave had declared infallible the same year, was presented with a demand that he submit to the protection of the Kingdom of Italy, he exploded, “Fine loyalty! You are all a set of vipers, of whited sepulchres, and wanting in faith.” The Pope’s Army was outnumbered six to one by the Italian forces, who also threatened to bombard Rome with a navy. The pope knew that all was lost but refused to submit without “a bit of resistance” to show the world that he acted under duress. On September 11, 1870, the Italian Army, not just irregulars of the Garibaldini, finally began an invasion of the Papal States. The defending papal forces were, in some sense, surprisingly well equipped with the latest weaponry. Their infantry were armed with the breech-loading Remington model 1868. Their leader, General Kanzler, was competent and had been the victor of the Battle of Mentana just three years before.
“The Pope’s Machine Gun”
Grand Curtius Museum, Liege, BE
The papal forces were one of only three armies in the world at the time (along with England and France) that were equipped with a Claxton gun, a forerunner of the machine gun. This type of gun had been invented by an American—F. S. Claxton—and featured six horizontally mounted 25mm canons. A Claxton gun, likely of Belgian manufacture, was concealed in one of the towers of the San Giovanni gate. But even the pope’s machine gun could not save Rome. By September 18, the Eternal City was surrounded. Italian forces, led by General Cadorna, had orders to attack anywhere in Rome except for the Leonine City, which included the Vatican and the Castel Sant’Angelo. No one wished to see an artillery shell land on St. Peter’s Basilica or wound the Holy Father. The battle for Rome was fought on September 20. Thirty-two Italian soldiers were killed, along with twelve in the papal army. At last, Rome was Italian.” Pope Francis in the 21st century is a Pope of a very different stripe who has no machine guns. And even if the Holy Father did have a machine gun it would be loaded with benedictions and candy for the children!
The Duke of Wellington, Napoleon’s nemesis, famously said, “Being born in a stable does not make one a
horse.” Wellington was a phlegmatic Englishman who insisted that being born in Dublin, Ireland in 1769 did not make him an Irish “anchor” baby.
Wellington’s maxim applies equally to Napoleon himself who was born the same year on the island of Corsica. From 1559 right up until the year before Napoleon’s birth — 1768 — this mountainous island belonged to the Republic of Genoa. It was then purchased from Genoa and annexed to the kingdom of France.
Grand Curtius Museum, Liege, BE
Napoleon’s parents, Carlo Buonaparte and Maria Letizia Ramolino. were both born in Genoese controlled Ajaccio.
They gave him the name “Napoleone Buonaparte” which might be Google translated into “Lion of Naples Good Parts” which hardly sounds French.
San Miniato, Italy
Napoleon boasted of his Italian heritage. He said, “I am of the race that founds empires.” He also once said, “I am more Italian or Tuscan than Corsican” (“Io sono Italiano o Toscano, piutosto che Corso”). The ancestral home of the Bonaparte family is in San Miniato in Tuscany. A visitor to San Miniato will find a piazza Buonaparte and other reminders of the Buonaparte clan.
General Napoleon fought and won many battles on behalf of Revolutionary France in Italy such as Rivoli (1797) and Marengo (1800). This in itself does not make him Italian any more than winning the battle of Waterloo made Wellington Belgian.
Musee de L’Armee, Paris, FR
On May 26, 1805 Napoleon was crowned king of Italy with the iron crown of Lombardy inside the cathedral in Milan. Over 165,000 Italians, representing two percent of their total population, fought for Napoleon’s empire from 1802 to 1815 on battlefields from Madrid to Moscow. Napoleon had a healthy respect for his Italian soldiers, writing in 1809: “The troops of the Kingdom of Italy covered themselves with glory…since the Romans, no period has been so glorious for Italian arms.”
Bust of Julius Caesar
Arles Archaeological Museum, FR
From his youth Napoleon studied the life and writings of Julius Caesar. He was a lifelong admirer of Caesar and often emulated the Roman general. Napoleon adopted the eagle as the rallying symbol for his troops just as the Romans had done centuries before. You could even say that Napoleon had a bit of a Caesar complex.
Not all invaders are male!
Years after his exile and death on St. Helena Napoleon continued to exert an influence on the Italian peninsula. In 1859 Napoleon’s nephew, Napoleon III, would dispatch a French army to fight on behalf of a unified Italy against the Austrians at battles such as Solferino and Magenta. Some have suggested that he was prompted by his beautiful Italian mistress, the Countess of Castiglione, who was also Cavour’s cousin.
Napoleon passed through Levico Terme in 1796, Trentino, IT
Was Napoleon Italian? Well, Napoleon, although he adopted and loved France, was Italian in pretty much the same way that the world’s most famous Argentine, Pope Francis, is also Italian.
The 19th century English historian, Lord Acton, once wrote, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.” Suetonius, living 1,900 years ago around the zenith of the Roman Empire, would surely have agreed. Suetonius was the private secretary to the Emperor Hadrian. His intimate portrayals of the Roman emperors demonstrate the corrupting influence of power. The Roman Emperors had absolute power over the lives of their subjects; they were also, with good reason, terrified of assassination. Their savage example provides the classic rationale for the necessity of limited central government.
They were also the chief inspiration for Mussolini’s fascist state.
When master storytellers such as George Lucas and George R.R. Martin go looking for plot-lines it is to colorful histories like the Twelve Caesars that they turn. Star Wars’ Galactic Federation devolves from Republic to Empire much like the Roman Republic. Game of Thrones has no more lust for power and erotic content than Suetonius’ biographical sketches.
Mixed more than Salad
100 BC – 44 BC
Julius Caesar was the accomplished Roman general who crossed the Rubicon (“the dye is cast.”) and became the founding father of Imperial Rome or the chief destroyer of the Roman Republic. Caesar was not just a winning general; he was an excellent writer who, like Churchill, chronicled his own accomplishments. He famously subdued Gaul — “Veni, Vedi, Vici” — and divided it into three parts. He led a raid of Britain perhaps for its oysters and pearls which were extraordinarily rare and valuable in the ancient world. His troops adored him.
Julius Caesar lived large. Suetonius tells us that, “his affairs with women are commonly described as numerous and extravagant.” The most famous of these was surely with the Egyptian Queen Cleopatra who bore him a son.
The month of August is named in honor of Augustus even though he was born Octavian. Augustus was adopted by Julius Caesar at the age of eighteen. After Caesar’s assassination he joined with Mark Antony and avenged him. Suetonius informs us that very few of the dictator’s assassins “outlived Caesar for more than three years.”
Augustus would later fight and win a civil war with Antony and Cleopatra. But Augustus was not always a victorious Roman leader. In the wilds of the German forests three Roman legions led by Varus were massacred to a man in the Teutoburger Wald. Augustus was so shaken by these events that he beat his head against a door and shouted, “Quinctilius Varus, give me back my legions!”
Augustus was undoubtedly a tremendous builder. He famously said, “I found Rome a city of bricks and left it a city of marble.”
It was during the month of August in 14 AD that the emperor died falling victim to an intestinal complaint. Some spread the rumor that his wife Livia may have helped him to the afterlife with poisoned figs.
“A wolf by the ears”
42 BC – 37 AD
Tiberius was Augustus’ stepson, the oldest son of Livia. Tiberius distinguished himself as a Roman commander leading successful campaigns in Illyricum (roughly modern Croatia), Panonia (modern Hungary) and Germany.
Suetonius fairly blushes to tell us that “some aspects of his criminal obscenity are almost too vile to discuss, much less believe. Imagine training little boys , whom he called his ‘minnows’, to chase him while he went swimming and get between his legs to lick and nibble them.”
Tiberius was the Caesar that Jesus Christ himself told his followers “to render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto god the things that are God’s.” (Matthew 22:21) He was also Caesar at the time of the crucifixion.
Tiberius had a fondness for islands interrupting his meteoric career to exile himself to Rhodes in 6 BC. Later as Emperor he would retreat to beautiful isle of Capri of the coast of Sorrento. Reigning Rome from afar, he used the equestrian Sejanus to do his dirty work for him until he turned against him and wiped out Sejanus and his entire family.
Tiberius said that being emperor of Rome was like ‘holding a wolf by the ears‘.
Some sources suggest that his heir, Caligula, had Tiberius poisoned. Others assert that he was suffocated to death with his own bedclothes. We know for certain, however, that he his passing was little mourned. Suetonius writes that ‘the first news of his death caused such joy at Rome that some people ran about yelling “To the Tiber with Tiberius!”
Bad Boy or just Nickname Victim?
12 – 41 AD
The cruelty of Tiberius meant that the ascension of his nephew Gaius Caligula to the throne was greeted with general rapture; little did they suspect the horrors to come. Tiberius himself had prophesied that Gaius would prove to be a “viper in Rome’s bosom“.
Gaius had been raised in a Roman army camp where he had acquired the nickname “Caligula” or “little Soldiers boot” or “bootie-kins”.
Caligula would become perhaps the most notoriously depraved Emperor in the long history of Rome. His brief life and bloody reign would become fodder for pornographers. He slept with boys, men, married women, all three of his sisters and even had time for his own wife, Caesonia, with whom he had a daughter.
He squandered the roman treasury with his extravagance. He would drink valuable pearls that had been dissolved in vinegar.
Gaius had nothing but contempt for the Roman senate. He even tried to award his horse, Incitatus, a consulship.
Finally, at the age of 29, he was assassinated along with his wife Caesonia and infant daughter by a conspiracy of Praetorian guards.
10 BC – 54 AD
After butchering Gaius Caligula, his assassins began to search the palace. Suetonius writes, “A common soldier who happened to be running past noticed a pair of feet beneath the curtain, pulled their owner out for identification, and recognized him. Claudius dropped on the floor and clasped the solder’s knees, but found himself acclaimed emperor.” Claudius was the grandson of Augustus’s wife Livia. He was assumed to be dull-witted on account of a series of diseases which struck him in childhood. He would, in fact become one of the most literate Roman emperors writing long historical works which, alas, have not survived.
He had notable successes such as the conquest of Britannia which even Julius Caesar had failed at. He went personally to Britain and earned a triumph.
The ‘mis-underestimated’ Claudius rates as one of the better Roman emperors who was proclaimed ‘divine’ after his death. Though he did mange “to execute thirty-five senators and 300 Roman equities” with little apparent concern.
Claudius was unhappy in love. His wife Messalina was notoriously unfaithful going so far as to enter into a bigamous ‘marriage’ with her lover Silius. After having her executed, a befuddled Claudius went in to dinner and asked, “Why is her ladyship not here?’
In his 64th year the emperor Claudius died. Suetonius relates that most Romans believed him to have been poisoned by a dish of mushrooms — his favorite food.
“Angler in the lake of Darkness”
37 – 68 AD
It is a damned lie that “Nero fiddled while Rome burned“! He was actually 35 miles away in the town of Antium by the sea on the night Rome caught fire; besides, his preferred instrument was the lyre.
Shakespeare summed up Nero best in King Lear describing him as “an angler in the lake of darkness.”
According to Suetonius, Nero raped the Vestal Virgin Rubria. He dressed in the skins of wild animals and “attacked the private parts of men and women who stood bound to stakes.”
Suetonius informs us that he killed his second wife Poppaea by kicking her to death. She was pregnant and had complained about him coming “home late from the races“. He was rumored to have had a hand in the death of Claudius. He did poison Britannicus who was a rival to the throne.
Suetonius blandly informs us that under Nero, “punishments were inflicted on Christians, a sect professing a new and mischievous superstition.” Nero embarrassed Romans with his extravagant philhellenism and grotesque vanity. He visited Greece and participated in Lyre competitions always managing to win the laurel. Nero really didn’t want to be emperor; he wanted to be a contestant on Rome’s Got Talent. Some of the crowd at these competitions feigned death in order to escape these excruciating performances. Nero was angler who didn’t mind fishing for compliments in a stocked pond.
Inevitably Nero’s excesses led to the formation of a conspiracy. Before being stabbed to death by one of his slaves, “he muttered through his tears, ‘Dead! And so great an artist!'”
The chaos begins
3 BC – 69 AD
On Nero’s death the aged Galba assumed the purple. He would only reign for seven months. His accession marked the beginning of 69 AD an orgy of civil violence known as the “year of the four emperors”. Successive Roman generals of dubious pedigree would battle to win the Roman game of thrones.
Galba committed the unpardonable sin of slighting the Roman army. Suetonius tells us simply that “he outraged all classes at rome, but the most virulent hatred of him smouldered in the army.” He was murdered and decapitated by Roman soldiers beside the Curtian lake.
32 – 69 AD
Otho led the rebellion against Galba. On the night of his ascension he was said to have been haunted “by Galba’s ghost in a terrible nightmare.”
He reigned for three months which ended in his suicide.
Just before his death, he told his nephew, “Do not altogether forget, and do not too well remember, that you had a Caesar for an uncle.”
15 – 69 AD
Vitellius, his name says it all — “emperor veal”! Could you imagine in America a President Porkchop or Senator Sausage?
Suetonius confirms his eternal status as a glutton. He writes, “Vitellius’ ruling vices were gluttony and cruelty. He banqueted three and often four times a day, namely morning, noon, afternoon, and evening — the last meal being mainly a drinking bout — and survived the ordeal well enough by vomiting frequently.” Roman legions began repudiating him. Soldiers grabbed while a rabble began hurling insutls such as “Greedy guts” before he was tortured, killed and beheaded. His pathetic final words were, “And yet I was your emperor.”
“Pitch me into the Tiber!”
9 – 79 AD
The ascension of Vespasian, acclaimed “divine” after this death, ended the brutal civil war that wracked Rome throughout the ‘Annus horribilis’ of 69 AD. He was the founder of the Flavian dynasty that brought a measure of stability back to an empire in turmoil.
In Matthew Dennison’s Twelve Caesars (www.amzn.com/1250049121) he tells us that Vespasian “was a stranger to snobbery and too canny to allow himself to be rebranded in the Julio-Claudian mould. Even in his portraiture (see Aureus above) he eschewed their model, a bull-necked, bald-headed, warts and all imagery of age and its imperfections replacing the classicized perfection of those god-like Augustans.”
Vespasian rolled up his sleeves and set to work rebuilding a shattered Rome. Suetonius writes that “he personally inaugurated the restoration of the burned Capitol by collecting the first basketful of rubble and carrying it away on his shoulders.”
Vespasian delivered the funniest line attributed to ANY Roman emperor. On his deathbed Vespasian said, “I think that I am becoming a god.”
39 – 81 AD
Vespasian was succeeded by his son Titus who was an effective Roman military tribune in Germany, Britain and especially in Judea where he crushed a Jewish revolt, sacking Jerusalem.
Titus ruled with compassion providing assistance to the survivors of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in Campania. He stripped his own mansions to provide relief for the victims of fire and plague.
Titus completed me in 80 AD!
Titus managed to complete construction of the Roman Colosseum that tourists gawk at today.
After a short but productive reign of just over two years Titus died of a fever at the age of forty-two.
“Ah, to be as good-looking as Maecius thinks he is.”
51 – 96 AD
Domitian, Titus younger brother, succeeded Titus to the throne. He was a frustrated young man who had lived under the shadow of his successful father and older brother.
He staged expensive entertainments such as sea battles in the Roman Amphitheatre but could never seem to purchase his people’s affection.
Domitian’s cruelty was heightened by cunning. He imposed heavy taxes upon the Jews. Suetonius tells us that, as a boy, he witnessed a ninety year old man stripped naked to determine whether he had been circumcised.
Again Suetonius dishes the dirt on Domitian writing that he “was extremely lustful, and called his sexual activities ‘bed wrestling‘”.
It all ended very badly for Domitian who was stabbed in the groin and seven more times by the inevitable conspirators. Eventually, it would end badly for the Roman empire as well.
History may be nothing more or less than the record of man’s crimes and follies, but Suetonius’ lively and gossipy tales from two millennia ago prove that history can be entertaining.
Columbus and Queen Isabella
Capitol Building, Sacramento, CA
Our historical view of Christopher Columbus is conditioned by two competing mythologies.
According to the first myth, Columbus was a heroic Italian explorer who sailed the ocean blue in 1492 and discovered America. His first voyage to the New World was funded by the jewelry of Queen Isabella of Spain. This bold captain, the first European to reach America, dared to sail off the edge of a world thought to be flat.
Yet this myth is easily busted.
The Greek philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras posited a spherical earth in the sixth century BC—a theory later confirmed by Hellenistic astronomers. By the eleventh century, the Persian astronomer al-Biruni had calculated a measurement of the earth’s radius that was only 10.4 miles off the accurate modern reckoning of 3,959 miles. The major challenge faced by Columbus was not the fear of sailing off the edge of the world, but rather the incapacity of ships of his era to travel the entire distance from Europe to China over, presumably, blue ocean. They simply could not contain sufficient fresh water and supplies to provide for the crew.
Columbus’s voyages were not financed by Queen Isabella’s jewels but rather by loans from mainly Italian bankers. And Leif Erikson, another bold European captain, apparently established a Norse settlement in Newfoundland about five hundred years before Columbus.
Columbus Coit Tower, SF, CA
According to the second, more recent myth, Columbus was a demon of unknown origins and indeterminate age who was consumed by a rapacious lust for gold and love of slavery. He deliberately launched a genocidal war against the native Americans. He was a religious fanatic who falsely claimed to have discovered the New World more than ten thousand years after the migration of Asian people across the Bering Strait.
Yet this myth does not really hold up either.
Columbus’s date of birth, or even year of birth (1450 or 1451?), has not been conclusively proven. Overwhelming evidence, however, suggests that he was the son of Domenico Colombo and his wife Susanna Fontanarossa, who were both from the Republic of Genoa in what is today Italy. His father worked as a weaver in the wool trade.
Columbus’s diary is filled with references to God and gold; he was Catholic and he sought a tangible return on behalf of his speculative investors. Columbus was comfortable with religion and the institution of slavery, but no more so than the majority of his contemporaries.
In 1493, when Columbus returned on his second voyage to the island of Hispaniola where he had left a small garrison, he found that it had been wiped out by the native Taino people. This skirmish marked the beginning of a long and violent history between European and native peoples in the Americas. Over the next thirty years, 90 percent of the Taino population would be tragically killed, but they were primarily victims of disease, not a deliberate policy of extermination. It is absurd to lay the blame for all the subsequent depredations by European settlers on the shoulders of Columbus.
When we strip away these two Columbus myths and try to approach the historic Columbus in the context of his times, we are left with a more complex and more fascinating figure, who was neither an angel nor a demon. At the end of the day, Christopher Columbus was one of a handful of global historic individuals who changed our world for good, for ill, and forever.
No Columbus = No Chocolate!
To biologists, he is known as the father of the Columbian Exchange. Both Old and New Worlds were transformed by Columbus’s voyages. As a result of the Columbian Exchange, Europeans received tomatoes, potatoes, cocoa, tobacco, and boatloads of silver from the New World. Before Columbus, spaghetti Bolognese did not exist and pizza lacked tomato sauce. His voyages led to the eventual introduction of chocolate to the rest of the world. Imagine a world without chocolate!
Those living in what became known as the Americas received horses, pigs, the lowly earthworm, and Christian missionaries. Lacking immunities, they also received new diseases, such as the smallpox that eventually ravaged the indigenous population of two continents.
Not all exchanges are fair.
It is the historic Columbus that we should remember and even celebrate this Columbus Day.
Caproni Ca.20 Monoplane
World’s first fighter plane
Museum of Flight, Seattle, WA
The very first bombing raid from a plane was launched by the Royal Italian Air Force (Reggio Aeronautica) in 1911 in Libya. And on January 6, 1912, an Italian monoplane bombarded an Arab encampment in Libya with proclamations that fluttered in the sunlight “like so many flakes of toy snow.” (Source: The Sleepwalkers, Christopher Clark, www.amzn.com/0061146668). The world’s first fighter plane was also Italian (see photo of Ca.20 above).
American airmen, led by the future mayor of New York, Captain Firello LaGuardia, trained on Italian planes in Foggia, Italy during World War I. (Source: Dear Bert, Edward Lewis Davis, www.amzn.com/8887621209).
In 1940 the Reggio Aeronautica launched the longest bombing raid in history up to that point in time. An Italian raid from an airbase on the island of Rhodes attacked oil fields in Saudi Arabia and changed the world forever (see video above and Saudi Arabia chapter of America Invades…www.americainvades.com).
RAF Museum, Hendon, UK
“In September 1940, the Italian Air Corps was sent to Belgium to take part in the Luftwaffe’s Battle of Britain, which was Hitler’s attempt to make an invasion of Britain possible. During October and November of that year, bombers and fighters of the CAI (Corpo Aero Italiano) carried out a number of raids on ports in southeast England, including Harwich, Felixstowe, and Ramsgate. The slow-flying CR.42 biplanes of the Italian Air Force were no match for the RAF’s Hurricanes and Spitfires. A Beaufighter pilot later reported that CR.42s ‘just disintegrated’ when hit.” (Source: Italy Invades: How Italians Conquered the World, Kelly/Laycock, 2015, www.italyinvades.com).
USAF Museum, Dayton, OH
“The Macchi fighters that were deployed after the Battle of Britain were a distinct improvement, though underarmed compared to the German Messerschmitt, the Me 109.” (Source: Italy Invades: How Italians Conquered the World, Kelly/Laycock, 2015, www.italyinvades.com).
In our forthcoming work Italy Invades: How Italians Conquered the World, we also note that the Italian Air Force (renamed Aeronautica Militare in 1946) continues to see action in the 21st century. In the Latvia chapter we wrote, for example, that “in January 2015, Italian Air Force planes took over NATO’s Air Policing mission in the Baltic States. Italian Eurofighter Typhoon fighter jets had already visited the region to prepare for the mission.” (Source: Italy Invades: How Italians Conquered the World, Kelly/Laycock, 2015, www.italyinvades.com).
You can now order your copy of Italy Invades: How Italians Conquered the World here…