By Judith Cullen
All text © 2015

While engaged in historical research for a variety of writing projects, I’ve run across little incidents and details that amuse me, or spark ludicrous questions that make me laugh.  We acknowledge that history, for the most part, has been implemented by the equivalent of frat boys and cleaned up by scholars (i.e. frat boys with extensive vocabularies who can make things sound real good).  If it had been “herstory,” a popular phrase among some, the suggestion is there would be a lot more pregnant pauses and meaningful gazes, and fewer things blowing up – a LOT fewer!

But what does history look like from the view of the simple every-man? He’s not a hero, not a scholar, not a member of the elite, and possibly he is not even particularly bright. He’s just the lad on the street – the guy from the pub.  He’s the number in your history text book, which can record the names and doings of notable men and women, while the majority of the rest of the population are reduced to the digits of statistical records.

Meet “Bob” and “Sam” – two of those digits.  In a series of episodes we will follow them through time and chuckle, hopefully, at their view of moments that made the big headlines.  This is not an attempt to actually answer some of the niggling, unresolved details of history – simply to abuse them.  As someone wise once observed (maybe it was Herodotus), “you’ve got to laugh, look around you!” *

* = the quote is actually from a Robin Williams 20th C stand-up routine, rest his soul.

Note: any similarities between “Bob” and “Sam” and persons living, dead, or on my facebook friends list are purely accidental.

EPISODE #3 – The Fashions of War

It’s hard to look about at stealth mechanization, smart bombs and modern military naval hardware the size of small atolls and realize that there was a time when political and societal aggressions were exercised with little or nothing at all. The ancients fought with not much more than the power of the warrior with spear, shield, and sword.  Of course, things being as they are, war accouterments expanded to include “the next best thing” much like competitive neighbors with lawn equipment or outdoor Christmas displays.

The ancient Celtic peoples were many and various, connected by a root language and a style of living that was distinct from the people of the Mediterranean and near eastern lands.  Coming out of the forests of Europe and settling through out the continental core, eventually pushing down into northern Italy and the Po River valley.  Imagine the shock to the early Roman sensibility.  While Rome grew and thrived on assimilating the customs and traditions of the nations they absorbed, from the Greeks to the Egyptians and into Persia, there was nothing in the Roman handbook to prepare them for the Celts.  So they branded them “Barbarians,” which is what you do when you don’t understand a culture, and don’t want to understand it.

It’s not very hard to imagine the very first campaign in the 4th century BC, when a very young Roman military, already quite full of itself but not having attained the glory it would after centuries of conquest, encountered the Celts in battle for the first time.  The Celts fought in a completely different style from the people’s proto-Romans knew.  Celtic warriors fought for individual glory, and they swarmed onto their adversaries in horn blowing, screaming, pounding, singing hordes that flung headlong to their dream of martial and heroic immortality.  They went into battle naked, their skin dyed with mystical swirls and emblems, and their hair saturated with lime so it was white and spiky.  It didn’t help that the average Celt was thought to be taller than your average garden variety Roman of the day. Talk about your fashion statement!

How would Sam and Bob have taken this?

First Contact – 4th Century BC

Bob and Sam stand together, shifting nervously on their feet as the sun rises over a valley north of the young city of Rome.

Sam breaks the nervous silence as they stand with their legion fellows awaiting battle,
“Have you seen these Celts before?”

“No, I have not,” Bob replies, yawning and still wiping the sleep form his eyes, “what’s there to see?  They are just another barbarian horde to fall beneath our sandals.”

“I’m not so sure, Bob.  I have heard some pretty weird things about these guys.  I mean REALLY weird. 
Ancient Janus figure found in Ireland's North
Freakish, weird.”

“Ack!  I bet it’s just nonsense tales spread by the drunk and ignorant.  Their just men like you and I. How weird can they be, Sam?”

“I dunno, I dunno, but I have a bad feeling about this - a really bad feeling.”

“As bad as the time we peeped at the vestal virgins in their bath, and then drew naughty doodles of them all over the market?”

“No, this is really bad.’

“As bad as the time we tied those strings of bells to the sandals of the soothsayer at Jupiter’s temple when we found him snoozing in the afternoon sun?”

“Oh, much worse than that!”

“If it’s as bad as that, I’ll need a drink.  What’s in your gourd?”

“My gourd! I thought it was your turn to bring the wine!”

“I brought the wine last time, when we fought the Samites.”

“Which time?”

“The first time?”

“No, which time was the last time?”

Sam cuffs Bob with his helmet and the two begin arguing in earnest.

Their squabble is abruptly ended by an earsplitting call of a deep, wild horn that echoes through the surrounding hills. Sam and Bob cover their ears, physically cowering.

“What the heck was that?” Bob asks.

“It’s them!  They are coming!” Sam replies on the edge of hysteria.

More ancient figures from Northern Ireland
The pounding of sword on buckler is heard and the shouts of a multitude of martial voices raise over the surrounding hills, a terrifying precursor of the army approaching.  Just when the din seems to reach an awful crescendo, the shadows of a thousand warriors appear on the crests of the hills. 

The clamor continues. Sam is squinting at the forms on the horizon.

“HOLY! … do you believe that?”

Bob doesn’t quite see. 


“Bob!  Their naked! Their naked and their skin is all blue and scrolly.”

“It’s probably just paint”

“It’s probably just scales!  They probably grow their hides like armadillos!”

Sam looks at his sword in panic. “This will be useless against skin like that!”

“Sam, you’re losing it.”

“Look at their heads!  They are covered with spikes!  It looks like metal. See how they shine in the sunlight.  Did they grow that way?  What kind of unnatural freaks are they?”

Sam screams and running behind Bob uses him as a shield.

“They are coming this way!  What will we do, Bob, what will we do?”

Bob is trying to remain calm but this is all starting to be too much for him.

“Just hang on, they probably just put something in their hair, and . . . oh my…”

“What?” Sam cries hysterically.

“Oh my, they ARE naked!  They are naked and… well … they're ‘excited’ if you know what I mean.”

“They are what?”

“Oh Hell!  Will you look at the size of that guy’s …”

- Fade to black-


Fortunately for Rome, the ancient Celts lacked ambition.  They were not into conquest, only plunder.  This served them well for a long time.  A century later, when the next major advancement of the Celts toward the City of Rome came, the Celts had not changed their tactics or their attire substantially.  They really hadn’t needed to.

The Romans, on the other hand, had been all over the Med looting and conquering. Their warriors had acquired experience, discipline, and battle gear the Celts did not possess including full body length shields and the first versions of what would become chain mail and armor.  There was also the Roman strategy itself that had taken on a mathematical precision and unbending mechanical ruthlessness attained through continual evolution born in continual engagement.

Naked and shouting didn’t work so well anymore.

When you’re green you grow; when you’re ripe, you rot!

Stay tuned for future episodes!

EPISODE #2 – The Art of Mythical Exaggerations

The fundamental premise of myths and legends are that they are not 100% accurate. Strictly speaking, they are not history. I respect that.  Tales grow larger by the telling in a variety of ways.  Some are allegorical, some are political, and some are simply fish stories that grow beloved with each new invention. It inspires the imagination to wonder how these stories, which were no doubt based on actual events and beings, grew to become so “expansive” as to merit being considered a legend. 

Things sometimes catch on in unexpected ways.  When I was in college, our campus had a stream running through it that was un-inspiringly called “the millstream.”  One year the university did some work on the millstream, routing it to flow into, and out of, a created pool in front of the Student Center.  It was very scenic!  My roommate and I started calling it “Hudson’s Bay” after the university president at that time.  The name stuck.  Who knows why?  We were two people among hundreds, and not necessarily that prominent in the overall campus scheme of things.  So there is no telling how the name spread into the common usage except that somehow we had hit on something that resonated and “worked” with a broad number of people.

So let’s take a look at a well-established myth: The Great Bull of Cooley.  This magnificent bovine and the cattle raids surrounding it are the backbone of Ireland’s Ulster Cycle of legendary tales.  The large black animal was said to be of prodigious size and uncommon potency – enough to make any cattleman bust his leather-sewn seams with pride.  In a market system where cattle was currency, and cattle ownership a source of social and political status, it isn’t surprising that the bull should be central to such an epoch.  But how did the bull’s legend get so large as to inspire not just one tale, but a whole epic cycle of interlocking adventures?

Let’s see what Sam and Bob have to contribute to the matter:

From the Setanta Wall, Desmond Kinney’s 1974 mosaic mural off Nassau Street 
in Dublin, which also goes by the name of the Táin Wall. 
“Some Bull”

Our scene opens in an immense Irish pasture filled with cattle on a hot summer day.  Sam and Bob are sitting on a small hillock ostensibly watching the stock.  Bored, (have you ever watched cows?) they are trying to pass the time.

“Hey, is your gourd still full of mead? I’m thirsty,” Bob asks.

Fumbling among his clothes and mumbling, Sam finally finds his gourd and triumphantly raises it high in the air before uncapping it and sniffing.

“Smells okay, and I’ve hardly touched it all day.” He pauses, thinking, “What happened to your gourd?  They were both full when we left this morning.”

Bob pats his lumpy sides, “It’s right here. I got it right here full and brimming. Just wanted to know if we had everything that we needed to begin.”

Sam is puzzled, “Begin?  Begin what?”

“The game, of course,” Bob replies, “These beasts aren’t going to do anything.  All they have been doing for the last four hours is chewing grass.  All they have been doing for the last four weeks is chewing grass.  The only excitement we’ve had was when that hare ran through the pasture that one day.  I don’t remember when, they all seem like the same day.  But I remember that hare!”

“Who knew cattle were so afraid of a hare?”

They chuckle at one another, uncap their gourds and proclaim, “To the hare!” and drink deeply.

Bob wipes his mouth on his sleeve, “That was quite the day, surely,” he reminisces.

Sam is chuckling. Sam does not stop chuckling, and after a minute passes Bob notices.

“What’s so funny?”

“Oh, I’m thinking of that day some idiot let the bull loose in the cow pasture.”

“What idiot?  That was me!”

Sam looks incredulous, “You?  No, it couldn’t have been you.” He sloshes another drink from his gourd, “You’re no fool.  You’re not crazy enough to set a bull loose among the cows.”

Bob is unmoved.

“Why’d ya do it?” Sam’s words start to get sloshy, like his gourd. “Why’d ya let the bull loose? Were ya crazy, or just bored or somethin’?”

Bob self-consciously takes a generous swallow. Not considering himself either an idiot or crazy, he seizes on the remaining choice.

“Bored mostly.  I mean, have you seen these cows?”

Warriors from the Setanta Wall
 Sam sighs, “Endlessly since that night we got drunk, stormed the kitchen, and broke all the pots. The chief was not amused that our bit of tom foolery got out of hand.”

“Yeah, and it’s been nothing but cows, cows, and more cows ever since.”

Sam raises his gourd again, “To the pots!”

Bob joins in tribute, “To the pots!”

More glugging and sloshing ensue. They both take satisfied swipes of their faces with their sleeves.

“Oh yeah!  That’s good!” Bob is now smiling, giddily. “That bull was wicked-good fun.”

“Hee hee hee heeeeeeeee,” Sam replies. “He sure was!  The cows didn’t know whether they were coming,” he swings woozily in one direction, “or going,” he swings back.

“That, my friend, was a truly good day.”

The two laugh companionably between successive gulps. 

“To the bull,” Sam cries out.

“To the bull!”  Bob rejoins

Together they toast, “To the bull!”

Sam leans into Bob in drunken earnest, “Hey, ya know, thas was sum bull too.”

“A king among his kind,” Bob concurs.

“Ya know (burp) ya know, that was one great bull.”

“Yeah, one great bull.”

“I mean he was HUGE!”

“One HUGE bull.”

“And, and he was black, black as midnight!”

“One huge black bull, you bet.”

They drink and toast again, “To the bull!”

Bob looks up at the hot midday sun, his head wobbling on his neck.  “Thas bull was so big.”

Sam echos, “sooooooooo big!”

“He was so big that I bet four or five sturdy warriors could find shade in his shadow on such a day as this, don’t ya think?”
Bull detail from the SetantaWall

“Ten!  Ten strapping warriors at least.”



“One hundred!  Thas it!” Bob grins wetly from ear to ear, “Thaaaas it, one hundred big beefy warriors could find shade from the heat in its shadow.”

“Thas sum bull!”

Their gourds clunk as they toast once more, “To the bull!”

Sam and Bob are leaning into each other, as a cow lazily takes momentary notice of them before returning to the grass which seems of far more significance.

Sam scoffs, “Damn cows” he gestures in their general direction, attempting to mock them with his lightening gourd.

“Yeah, that bull’d show em, he would”

“You know what, Bob? I bet thas bull would show them cows.”

“He would!  Indeed he would!”

“I bet every day a bull like thas would bestride twenty miserable cows like these…”

“No, no, fifty cows like these!” 

“Yeah! Fifty cows in a single day, and … and ya know what else?” Sam drops his voice to a confidential whisper.

Bob looks puzzled, his head visibly weaving through the air, “No, I don’t know what else?”

“I bet a great huge black bull like thas, like thas bull, would be sooo bloody potent that allll fifty of those cows would calve the … the very next day.”

Sam spits out a laugh of pure contempt towards the cows, and takes a self-satisfied slosh from his gourd to punctuate his theory.

“Nooo!” Bob complains, “Nooooooooo!”

“Uh-huh,” Sam contends, “Fifty cow, and the next day fifty calves.”

“Really!” Bob is amazed

“Yes, really.”

“Fifty cows and fifty calves?”

“Thas,…(burp)… thas right!”

“Fifty cows and fifty calves, and all that while one hundred warriors hiddin’ beneath the bull?”

Sam turns in boozy surprise to Bob, as if he has assumed the horns of said mythical bull.

“Don’t be daft!  There’d be no bull on earth so full of it as to pull off that!”

They stare at one another before pushing each other, laughing, almost falling over in their shared mirth.

The cows edge away.


Can you imagine?  This could well be how legends are born.

Stay tuned for future episodes!

EPISODE #1 – How Did the Elephants get to Spain

The history of elephants used in war goes way back to the many centuries before Christ. It has its origins in India, from whence it spread both west and east.  There are stories of war elephants in China and the Middle East.  The use of “elephantry” (as opposed to “cavalry”) continued well into history A.D. and ended with the introduction of the cannon.

"Hannibal Crosses the Alps" from Wikimedia
Commons - Public Domain in the United States
One of the most famous recorded stories of war elephants involves the Carthaginian Commander Hannibal Barca, and his attempt to subdue Rome by leading an attacking force from the Carthaginian territories on the Iberian Peninsula (Spain) over the Alps and into Italy in 218 BCE.  At the height of its power, Carthage ruled a significant fringe of North Africa, and territories in Spain almost touching the Pyrenees.  Their land holdings included a nice slice of coastal Mauritania (modern Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia), and a little burg on the opposite side of the straits that we know as Gibraltar.

Hannibal launched his force from Cartagena on the south eastern coast of Iberia, skirted the Pyrenees and crossed the Alps, descending into the Po River valley. The numbers vary wildly in terms of how many men, carts, and elephants were involved.  Scholars of the era report that less than half of the elephants that left Spain made it to Italy. They even report that the beasts used were North African Forest Elephants; a species now long extinct (THANKS a lot Hannibal!).  The Carthaginians being all about commerce, scholars are even quick to note that they sailed about the Mediterranean and other destinations, trading – and provided ivory as a luxury item to Rome.  The question still remains unanswered, how did the elephants get to Spain in the first place?

There are a couple of possible answers.  Let’s see what Sam and Bob have to say:

Scenario One: “Boys Night Out In Mauritania

Shortly after midnight in a North African coastal township drunken laughter is heard as Sam and Bob, two of the Empire’s men-at-arms, weave their way down the quay.  Words and ideas slur together as the two buddies punctuate their ongoing conversation by sloshing their wine gourds at each other.  Suddenly, Sam grabs Bob by the arm and points excitedly.

“Wot the heck ish thad?!”

“Was wot?”  Bob squints into the night.

“Thad big gray thing wit da long nose.” He gestures broadly, “Wot ish thad?”

Bob leans forward, dizzily. “Elphans!  Those are elphans.  Therez two, … no, … four, no wait, … eight… thirteen …”

“Elphans!” Sam exclaims, “Elphans are big.  Elphans are skarrry.”

Sam begins a slow retreat back up the quay, keeping the two (count’em, two!) young elephants clearly in view, in case they make any sudden moves.  The beasts in question, a male and a female, munch lazily from their feed pile.  Bob begins to giggle.

“Wos sa funny?” Sam inquires.

Bob erupts into open laughter.

“I saaaaaaaaid, wos sa funny?!” Sam persists.

Bob doubles over with laughter, until Sam finally grabs him and shakes him to get his attention.

Bob grins inanely at Sam, his eyes wide with a “bright idea.”

“Wooodnnit be funny?” Bob bursts into laughter again, wobbling on his feet, but gets control of himself before boozily continuing “Wooodnnit be funny if we put those elphans on a BOAT?!”

A moment of silence, before Sam makes a disgusting snort and joins Bob in laughter so intense they can both barely stand.

(Fast forward to the following morning)

Bob and Sam awaken abruptly from their wine-induced stupor to find themselves on a ship and most definitely at sea.  There is a peculiar and pungent smell in the air.

“Bob, I told you to cool it with the beans at dinner.  Phew!”

“I did not have beans; you know how they upset my stomach.”

“Where are we, Sam?  And what the hell is that awful stench?”

As their vision clears, they see their platoon commander standing over them.  His face is devoid of amusement and in his hand he holds a shovel.


Scenario Two: “Don’t Mind Akbar”

Sam steps into the divisional cantina just outside Cartagena for a little refreshment before joining the rest of the Army leaving for Italy.  He spots Bob with an old friend they haven’t seen in over a year. Bob is holding a cloth over his nose.

“Hey there stranger!  It’s been ages, dude, what have you been up to?  WHOA!”

Sam stops in his tracks, noting for the first time Bob’s oddly held cloth.

“Is it just me, or does something really smell…”

Bob cuts him off, “Yeah, doesn’t Akbar look great!  He’s been traveling abroad, and he just got back in time for the big war.”

Leaning in to Sam, Bob confides in a whisper, “Don’t mind Akbar.  He just got back from bringing elephants around the Mediterranean and he’s not quite ‘right’ yet, if you know what I mean?”


History might have been a whole lot different if Hannibal had just flung the elephant dung at the Romans.

Stay tuned for future episodes! 

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