The Fruits of Victory
In 1493, although only 24, Charles VIII had been on the throne of France for 10 years. That year, he decided to assert a dubious claim to the throne of Naples. Naples had been in dispute between the house of Aragon and the house of Anjou for some two centuries. In 1442 King Alfonso V of Aragon had deposed Charles’ uncle, Rene “the Good,” and set himself up as Alfonso I of Naples. This passed to his illegitimate son Ferrante I in 1458. By 1493 Ferrante was ill, and the Neapolitan barons, long unhappy with Aragonese efforts to curb their power in the interests of national unity, were encouraging Charles to step in. By the time Ferrante died, in January of 1494, leaving the throne to his son, Alfonso II, Charles was already preparing an invasion of Italy.
Now at the time, France had the best army in the world, essentially the first professional standing army in Western Europe since the fall of Rome. So when Charles invaded Italy in a surprise late-season campaign in September of 1494 with 18,000 troops, including French men-at-arms, Swiss pikemen, and a train of 40 cannon, his army proved remarkably effective. With the finest artillery train in the west, great fortified cities fell so easily into his power, that in short order places began surrendering as soon as Charles’ gunners set up their pieces. By December, the French had occupied Rome, forcing Pope Alexander VI, hardly the finest occupant of the See of Peter, to concede his claim to Naples, which was technically a papal fief.
From Rome, Charles launched an unprecedented winter campaign, invading Naples on two fronts with an army swollen to 40,000 by alliances with various Italian princes.
At this point, Alfonso, an artistically-inclined prince of no great intelligence, abdicated and passed the throne to his son, Ferrante II. Ferrante, although already a proven campaigner despite his age, only 25, could put up little resistance, faced with an empty treasury, an invading army, and unreliable barons, and so fled to Sicily, where his cousin Ferdinand II (as in “Ferdinand and Isabella”), reigned. While Ferrante and Ferdinand concentrated an army in Sicily, Charles captured Naples itself on February 20, 1495, and soon was in control of most of the kingdom.
Believing his work done, within weeks Charles marched back to France. Italian efforts to interfere in his retirement led to a spectacular French victory at the Taro, in Tuscany, on July 6, 1495. Oddly, this victory came just a few days before Charles received word that an Aragonese-Neapolitan army landed from Sicily had liberated Naples on July 7th. Despite news of this reverse, Charles continued on his way, returning to France.
So in the end, Charles gained nothing from his campaign.
Well, not quite.
He did manage to keep one “conquest.” While fleeing Naples, Ferrante had neglected to take along his mistress, Caterina Gonzaga. Applying the ancient maxim, “To the victor belong the spoils, Charles promptly made the young woman his misters.
But Charles didn’t get to enjoy even that little bit of his victory for very long. Early in April of 1498, Charles accidentally bunked his head against a stone door lintel, and died of a concussion on the 7th.
The only lasting legacy of Charles’ invasion of Italy was to initiate over a generational conflict between France and Spain for control of the peninsula that would last more than 60 years (1494-1559), and end in complete Spanish dominance
The Horse of Seius
Aulus Gellius was a wealthy second century Roman with a penchant for collecting miscellaneous information in a commonplace book, which by chance survived the ages to bring us some odd, often amusing, and occasionally useful, bits of information about his times. One item that is a little of all three is the story of the “Horse of Seius.”
Gnaeus Seius was a Roman official who owned a wonderful horse, which he kept on his estate in Argos, in Greece. This steed had been born at Argos, descended from the mares that tradition says had once belonged to of King Diomedes of the Bistones in Thrace. Diomedes fed his mares on human flesh, until slain by Herakles, who took the horse to Argos.
Now Seius’ horse was, in Gellius’ words, “of extraordinary size, a lofty necked bay with a thick, glossy mane, and . . . far superior to all horses in other points of excellence.” It’s not known how long Seius had the horse, but in 44 B.C. he ran afoul of Marc Antony, who was Caesar’s partner in the consulship that year. Antony, the future Triumvir and lover of Cleopatra, had Seius bumped off. Meanwhile, the horse was still in Argos. By chance, Publius Cornelius Dolabella, another of Caesar’s henchmen, was passing through Argos on his way to Syria, where he had been appointed governor. Having heard of the horse, he checked it out and decided to buy it, for the staggering sum of a hundred thousand sesterces, the equivalent of several score years pay for a common Roman soldier.
Hardly had Dolabella reached Syria Caesar was assassinated, and then civil war broke out between the assassins and Caesar’s adherents, led by Antony and Caesar’s very young adopted son, Octavian. One of the assassins, Gaius Cassius, had previously commanded in Syria, and promptly raised a rebellion in the province, killing Dolabella. Taking the horse for himself, Cassius marched off to join his fellow-assassins in Greece, where the two factions were concentrating armies to settle control of the state.
Cassius met his end at the First Battle of Philippi, in 42 B.C., defeated by Marc Antony. In the aftermath of the battle, Antony took the horse for himself.
And, of course, in 30 B.C., Antony, having lost all to Octavian, committed suicide. And the horse? Well, considering the fate of the animal’s previous owners, certainly Octavian (who shortly adopted the name “Augustus”), certainly wouldn’t have wanted it. Or perhaps it had died in the interval. In any case, we never hear of it again. But ever afterwards, whenever someone had a streak of particularly bad luck, Romans were wont to say that he “owned the horse of Seius.”