Friday, December 22, 2023

Caligula Christianized

In October of AD 37, Gaius Caesar Augustus Germanicus fell ill. He was often known by his nickname "Caligula" ("Little Booties") during his youth growing up on campaign in his own military uniform. As Tiberius sought to continue Roman stability, he determined that Gaius would be, so at age 25 he came to be emperor. Only a few months later, fever plagued him. The illness stretched into weeks, and the Roman public became frantic. After the heavy taxes of Augustus and the strict rule of Tiberius, Caligula's first months had been a godsend. Since being ratified by the Senate in March, Caligula had overturned many of Tiberius's harsh legal decisions, given 75 sesterces to each citizen (~$450 today), doubled the bonuses to the praetorian guard to 1000 sesterces, and overseen weeks of feasts and games with over 160,000 animal sacrifices. Some questioned how benevolent he truly was as Caligula had ensured Tiberius's will was destroyed and purged Gemellus, whom Tiberius had listed as co-heir, along with all of his supporters. The public, however, loved him and feared losing him.

Crowds thronged outside the gates of the imperial palace, and many held placards asking the gods to take their own lives instead of Caligula's. Sacrifices to the massive pantheon of the Roman gods did not seem to make Caligula any better. Others sacrificed to foreign gods, such as one Caligula had come to known while living in Syria: Mithras with his cult popular among the soldiers. Rumors had reached Rome of another miraculous figure in the east, a Jewish man who had not only healed and resurrected others but resurrected himself three days after being executed by crucifixion. In desperation, people became willing to try anything.

The palace doctors sent for Pontius Pilatus, the former governor of Judea who had been recalled to Rome near the end of Tiberius's rule for judgement on excessive force when executing Samaritans seeking artifacts of Moses. Tiberius had died before Pilatus arrived back in Rome, leaving his fate in legal limbo. Pilatus was eager to please the court, and he confirmed meeting the man (who was actually from Galilee and technically out of his jurisdiction), allowing the execution anyway, and witnessing the strange events afterward including an earthquake and a lengthy eclipse. He said that there was great contention among the Jewish people that the body may have been stolen while others say he had resurrected and toured the countryside for weeks until ascending into heaven itself while dozens or hundreds watched.

The palace then sent for Jewish leaders from the numerous synagogues in Rome, which had been established through diplomacy since the days of the Maccabees and Republic. Although the Jewish community in Rome had been favored by Julius Caesar, their position had struggled under Tiberius. Leaders were nervous, since they wanted to be popular with Caligula but they did not want to confirm the radical group that had followed this Jesus of Nazareth. Eventually a Christian Jew (as the Greeks used the term "Christos" rather than the Hebrew "Messiah") named Aquila was found, and he preached over Caligula's sickbed.

Approximately at that time in November of AD 37, Caligula began to recover. As he came out of his stupors, he embraced the new religion fervently, especially the rituals of baptism and communion. His practice then became more and more extreme. Caligula drank heavily and argued bitterly with anyone who suggested he stop, pointing that it was the blood of a god. Critiques from Aquila and his wife Priscilla, who had become court favorites, caused them to be banished from Rome as Caligula began to rewrite the rites for his own preferences.

Caligula sent for delegations from Jerusalem, which included Simon Peter and others of Jesus's original disciples. Their message calmed Caligula's madcap twists for a time, but ultimately he would break with the core of the church to develop his own rituals including cannibalism and partial-drowning. Numerous Romans seeking political favor joined his cult, keeping most of their actions as mysteries, while the major temples in Rome were shuttered. Caligula dispatched armed "missionaries" to close other religious centers, such as the famed Temple of Diana ("Artemis" in Greek) at Ephesus. This crackdown spurred riots and contributed to Caligula's guard assassinating him in AD 41.

The military brought Caligula's uncle Claudius to power, and Christianity fell out of favor while Claudius restored the pantheon. Pockets of Christians survived, but they were disparate in beliefs and generally considered taboo, especially after Claudius ordered the Jewish people out of Rome. Monotheism was seen as the strange philosophy of an esoteric ruler, which historians compare with the Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten's founding of Atenism. Instead, Rome continued its pantheistic growth, adding gods collected as new realms became part of the empire. Many gods became syncretized with existing gods, such as principles of Isis being adapted to Venus and Mithras to Hercules. Jupiter remained supreme, eventually blending with Odin as Germanic peoples conquered Rome from the north.

Yet Christianity continued as a religion of the downcast, slaves, and women, teaching that in the next life "the first shall be last, and the last shall be first." Its modern form of humility is a far from Caligula's passions of prosperity and mysticism.


In reality, Caligula recovered. Historians debate what the illness may have been, whether epilepsy, lead poisoning, encephalitis, or something else. Some scholars even question the illness as one of many legends about the short-lived emperor along with numerous other incidents that may have been taken out of context or even completely fictitious. The story could have been used by those who embraced Caligula's early months as emperor with reforms while distancing them from other legendary acts of cruelty. One legend is that Caligula ordered the executions of those who had offered their lives in sacrifice for his own so that the gods would be appeased, just in case.

Tuesday, December 19, 2023

Guest Post: Inquisitors Root out Witchcraft in Germany

This post first appeared on Today in Alternate History.

December 5, 1484 -

Pope Innocent VIII issued the Summis desiderantes affectibus ("desiring with supreme ardor"). This papal bull conferred upon inquisitors Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenge the authority to prosecute witchcraft in Germany. The bull was effectively a carte blanche, granting them immunity from "being molested or hindered in any manner whatsoever" during the course of their workings.

This Vatican order to deputize Kramer and Sprenge occurred only after the Archbishop of Salzburg had denied them episcopal jurisdiction. Such a central intervention was historically significant because the Vatican had previously taken a very strong line and was far more likely to prosecute witch-hunters than alleged witches in the belief that witchcraft was a form of superstition and therefore heretical. By 1484, however, the belief of supernatural intervention had become so widespread that it was integrated into Catholic doctrine. Having acknowledged the existence of witches, these German churchmen would be instrumental in establishing the period of trials in the early modern period.

Writing under his Latinized named "Henricus Institor," Kramer himself subsequently wrote Malleus Maleficarum, "The Hammer of Witches which destroyeth Witches and their heresy as with a two-edged sword" (1486). This witch-hunting manual fueled the trials, endorsing detailed processes for the extermination of witches. A misogynist who blamed his lust on women, the idea of witches being female-only came from the Malleus Maleficarum, a manual that promoted the idea that women are inherently evil and form pacts with the devil.

The actions of Kramer and Sprenge were met with great distaste in some quarters of the clergy, but it was far too late to stop the Burning Times. The Vatican had forcefully asserted its primacy over weak local authorities at a critical moment when heresy was threatening to undermine the supremacy of the Catholic Church across Europe. Draconian measures would save Roman authority, and the widespread use of burning at the stake was used to eliminate heretic thought. Indeed, by 1519 Sprenger was added as the co-author of Malleus Maleficarum under the preamble "Thou shalt not suffer a heretic to live." It was timely, because by this time, the manual was guiding the execution of leading reformationists such as Martin Luther.

Author's Note:

In reality, there is no evidence any actual witches were tried and executed in medieval times. A total figure for exterminations is approximated at around 40,000. Conversely, in the eighteenth century, Voltaire mentioned a speculative estimate of 100,000 executions for witchcraft.

Provine's Addendum:

As later described by scholars, Europe fell under a deep shadow of superstition from its own creation. The dramatics of the Burning Times incited many to fear anyone out of the ordinary. King Christian III of Denmark and Norway was so terrified by descriptions of those caught dealing with the devil while on his princely tour of Germany as a prince that he instituted witch-hunters into his court. The same notions spread to Sweden, where Gustav I conducted a crusade through his own land to ensure proper conduct in religious services, and England, where Henry VIII suspected witches had hexed the queen in their struggles for progeny. In a surprising move, Henry and Catherine of Aragon made a pilgrimage to Rome for blessings and protection. During Henry's absence, the Church gained oversight on Parliament, reporting back to the king and Pope Clement VII. Their resulting son, Henry IX, seemed to be proof of the royals' need to defend themselves from witchcraft. Others suggested the son may have been the result of the king and queen spending more dedicated time together with Henry having fewer opportunities to be with his mistresses instead.

With inquisitions and witch-hunts periodically rolling across Europe, even Italy faced crackdowns. In Rome itself, Polish canon and apprentice at the Papal Curia Nicolaus Copernicus gave a private critique of ancient astronomy after moon-gazing during the lunar eclipse in November of 1500. Copernicus attempted to flee to Bologna and back to Warmia, Prussia, but he was apprehended and tried for heretical rituals, resulting in his eyes being plucked out that he might no longer be tempted to sin. This sparked a fervor in hunting down "scholars" who attempted to twist man's understanding of God's creation. Through the coming generations many magicians would be burnt, such as Johan Georg Faust, Pan Twardowski, and John Dee. The study of mathematics and alchemy came under close watch of the Church, ensuring that there would not be any chance for the devil to confuse the minds of students.

Europe boasted huge wealth from its conquests in the New World, but eventually the money ran out. Colonies abroad held advantages for a time with superiority in steel and gunpowder. Without new developments in firearms and exploration viewed with suspicion by the Church who routinely stamped out attempts of religious factions to start their own independent colonies, however, Europe's influence waned. Native populations recovered from introduced-disease and adapted to European techniques for warfare and trade, leading to a balance in power across the globe.

Thursday, December 7, 2023

December 7, 1884 - Tesla Arrives at Menlo Park

When Continental Edison manager Charles Batchelor returned to New York City in 1884, he brought along with him twenty-eight-year-old Serbian engineer Nikola Tesla. Batchelor had been abroad for years, first to oversee the Edison Telephone Company expansions in London in 1879 and then to install electrical lighting in Paris in 1881. While in Paris, Batchelor had hired a brilliant young dropout, Tesla, who had been recommended by Tivadar Puskas, who had and suggested the telephone exchange (an invention later built by the Bell Company from his designs). Puskas also suggested Tesla work for Batchelor as he was hungry to tinker and make improvements on electrical devices and already outgrowing his electrician job in Budapest. Batchelor was impressed with Tesla's skills in physics and soon set him to designing new equipment as well as troubleshooting difficult pieces of equipment.

Tesla came to New York to continue his troubleshooting and design position in the Edison Machine Works. The shop was notoriously crowded, loud, and hot, but Tesla threw himself into his work with a decent pay of $18/week. It was here Tesla first met his hero, Thomas Edison. Tesla had pulled an all-nighter repairing dynamos aboard the SS Oregon, completing a task that many thought impossible as the equipment had been installed during ship's construction. When the two men saw Tesla walking down Fifth Avenue at five in the morning toward the shop as they were heading home, Edison had, "Here is our Parisian running around at night." Tesla explained that he had not been out on the town but instead working and now headed back for more work, and Edison met him with a silent look. As the men went their different ways, Tesla overhead Edison comment, "Batchelor, this is a damn good man." Tesla then worked ever harder, with regular hours from 10:30 AM to 5:00 AM for an 18+ hour workday. Edison told Tesla, "I have had many hard-working assistants, but you take the cake."

Edison nearly lost his man when a manager promised a whopping $50,000 award (~$1.6 million today) if Tesla could design 24 different types of standard machines, making improvements to DC generators and arc lighting. When Tesla showed the improvements, the manager refused to give him the award, saying it had been a joke and Tesla didn't "understand American humor." Tesla complained, although Batchelor was already notoriously stingy and did not have anything like the kind of cash needed to pay such an award. Tesla might have quit, but Edison himself arrived to soothe his wounded pride with promises of payments in installments over years to come. He took Tesla back with him to Menlo Park, thinking that if the young genius could rise to the challenge of sorting out DC generators, there might be no limit to his insights with the right prompting.

Tesla proved to be the workhorse Edison had dreamed. The two frequently bickered, especially about alternating current and direct current as it came to bringing power to increasingly electrified cities. Tesla argued for transmitting power from large power stations using alternating current, a generator he had invented in 1888 (Edison put both names on the patent). Edison preferred DC with localized generators, despite the massive power loss as it was transmitted only a few blocks. Ultimately Tesla won out as investors sought to build expansive power generators utilizing the forces of nature, namely Niagara Falls. Edison liked the idea of a larger initial investment not needing to pay for fuel, just upkeep. He challenged Tesla to improve transmission even more, which Tesla completed with a "free energy" broadcast through the air itself.

The term "free energy" was not part of Edison's business-mindedness, but demonstrations at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago showed bulbs lit up without cumbersome wires. Newspapers marveled, and Edison knew good press. He soon began courting city councils with the offer of electrifying an entire area with enough power for public lighting and home machines, paid for by contracts with the Edison companies, which in turn would be paid by taxes. Facilities with larger power needs like factories would have to have their own power stations, likely Edison DC generators. St. Louis became the first "air-electrified" city in the world for its Louisiana Purchase Exposition in 1904. While anyone with the proper wires could simply tap into the broadcast energy, Edison's legal teams were quick to sue anyone who infringed on the broad patents they used to keep "electro-pirates" from thieving free energy. This put the lawyers into practice for lawsuits against Guglielmo Marconi in wireless telegraphy, creating such a quagmire that the Edison Wireless Telegraph Company gained the upper hand in radio worldwide.

By this time, Tesla was already dreaming of free energy anywhere on Earth broadcast through the ionosphere, so Edison put him to a different task to keep him occupied. Edison had overtaken the motion picture industry in the US, but he was frustrated by the costly film needed to record images chemically. His phonograph had won him great praise as the "Wizard of Menlo Park" in 1877, so he challenged Tesla to find a way to record electrically. Magnetic recording had already been done with sound by Danish engineer Valdemar Poulsen in 1898 with a wire recorder on the telegraphone, but images were a monumental task. The task required Tesla to invent a slew of new inventions for an electric camera as well as a projector to reinterpret the recordings. These inventions brought in millions for Edison, who was careful to share enough cash and, more importantly, credit with Tesla to keep him loyal.

When Edison died in 1931 at age 84, the world was very different from the wood-fire-and-candle society he had been born into. People used electricity to light, heat, cool, and operate their homes. They could turn on appliances by radio remote control while they placed televisual calls to family members hundreds of miles away, all without wires in cities that boasted broadcast energy. Outside of electrified zones, most people either passed through on trains with their own wireless broadcast or lived on farms or in villages with smaller, localized generators frequently operated by solar power. Edison's massive corporate holdings even survived the days of Trust-Busting thanks to patents protecting his many products for decades. Rents in free-energy cities skyrocketed, leading to extensive social turmoil as employment rates dropped due to automation.

Tesla spent his last years working away in Edison's laboratory in West Orange to develop automation. He felt that electrical recording had great potential in "switches" following "dockets" of different tasks. Soon his work on "processor" machines would revolutionize the world again with Edison Automations rivaled only by companies like International Business Machines and Electronic Control Company in creating handheld computing devices for work and play. He died in 1943, and many obituaries in the newspaper commented on who the true "wizard" was.


In reality, Tesla quit. One long sentence stretched in his diary from December 7, 1884, to January 4, 1885, "Good by Edison Machine Works." He went on to meet other investors, who helped found the Tesla Electric Lighting & Manufacturing Company. Some versions of the "$50,000 joke" story attribute it to Edison himself, although Tesla maintained it was a manager. 

(Quotes from Nikola Tesla's autobiography, My Inventions.)

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