When he was a young man in his mid-twenties, future Roman leader Julius Caesar was voyaging across the Mediterranean Sea. Pirates swarmed over his ship. They took him to their base on tiny Farmakonisi Island, which lies off the coast of Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey), and held him for ransom.
When he learned how much the pirates were demanding for his release, Caesar laughed. Do you have any idea who I am, he asked. I belong to one of Rome’s most important families. So you can get more money for me—a lot more—almost three times as much. The astonished pirates were only too happy to oblige him.
Keeping a friend and two servants with him on Farmakonisi, Caesar ordered the rest of his traveling party to go to Asia Minor and raise his ransom. While they were doing that, Caesar acted as if he were the ruler of the tiny island, rather than a captive cowering in fright. He ordered the pirates to attend lectures and poetry readings he gave, and prodded those who nodded off as he droned on and on and on. When he wanted to sleep, he ordered the pirates to either speak in whispers or go to another part of the island. He even played games with them. He also told them that when he was released, I promise I will hunt you down and execute you. In the spirit of bonhomie he engendered, the pirates apparently thought he was joking.
He wasn’t. Though outwardly he was friendly with the pirates, he seethed inwardly at the humiliation of being taken prisoner. After the ransom was paid, Caesar sailed to a nearby port. He raised a fleet of ships and scores of armed men. He returned to Farmakonisi, captured the pirates, and reclaimed the ransom money. He threw his former captors into prison. They didn’t stay there long. Caesar crucified them. He did show some mercy. Since crucifixion was a long, lingering death, he cut their throats so they died instantly.
Jim Whiting has written on many subjects. Check out his page on Amazon.com
MLA 8 Citation
Whiting, Jim. "A Man of His Word." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 26 Mar.
The Renaissance began in Europe in the 15th century and marked the change from the medieval period to the modern world. Towering figures such as Michelangelo, Galileo, and especially Leonardo da Vinci were known as Renaissance men because of their talents and lasting achievements in several important areas of knowledge. They were also accomplished musicians, public speakers, athletes, poets, and so forth. And they were expected to do all this stuff without breaking a sweat.
You could give the same title to an ancient Egyptian named Imhotep, who lived about 2600 BCE. He was the vizier, the most important government official, during the reign of Pharaoh Djoser. He served as the high priest of the god Ra and was an expert astronomer.
Imhotep designed and oversaw the building of the first major pyramid in Egypt. Located at Saqqara, at the time it was the world’s tallest structure. He innovated the use of stones rather than mud bricks to build it, and it was that added strength that enabled the pyramid to rise so high. He is also credited with the invention of several devices that facilitated the construction.
Many people believe that Imhotep, rather than the Greek Hippocrates who lived more than 2,000 years later, is the real “Father of Medicine.” In an era when most physicians relied on magic spells and appeals to the gods, Imhotep prescribed dozens of effective down-to-earth treatments for illnesses and injuries.
He is credited with ending a seven-year famine in Egypt. He advised the pharaoh to make sacrifices to Khnum, the god of the annual flooding of the Nile River, and thereby provide desperately needed water to farmers. On a more practical level, he invented an improved irrigation system to carry water to the crops even if the river level was abnormally low.
In addition to these accomplishments, an inscription at the base of one of his statues notes that he was “Chief Carpenter, Chief Sculptor, and Maker of Vases in Chief.” In his little spare time, he wrote poetry and dispensed philosophical advice.
Imhotep can also boast of two accomplishments that eluded even Leonardo da Vinci. He was deified after his death and worshipped for many centuries, an honor accorded to hardly anyone besides the pharaohs. And today the comic book community gives him the credit for founding S.H.I.E.L.D., the Marvel Comics espionage and crime-fighting agency that became the basis for blockbuster movies such as Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America.
Jim Whiting has written a book on another great Egyptian leader -- Ramses the Great who lived about 1350 years after Imhotep. He fully lived up to the "Great" part of his name. His reign lasted for 67 years, the second longest in Egypt’s 3,000-year history. He had dozens of wives and more than 100 children, outliving many of them. He was a military leader who expanded the borders of his country. That resulted in decades of peace and prosperity for his people. He ordered huge statues of himself to be erected all over Egypt. For more information, click here.
MLA 8 Citation
Whiting, Jim. "A Renaissance Man - 4,000 Years before the Renaissance."
Nonfiction Minute`, iNK Think Tank, 8 Feb. 2018,
Way, way back in the year 111 BCE (Before our Common Era), thousands of Chinese warriors armed with fine iron swords and lethal crossbows, rode and marched south to conquer the little kingdom of Nanyue. To the people living there, the little kingdom was Nam Viet. To us, faraway in their unimaginable future, their land is northern Vietnam.
After the invaders came all sorts of Chinese colonizers. They would build roads and temples plus new trading ports on Nanyue’s coast, where the Red River empties into the South China Sea perfect for China’s merchant ships, on their way to or just returned from India. The Chinese brought their culture, language, and top-down style of government too. It would all be for the glory (and increased wealth) of the empire and for the betterment of the conquered barbarians. You’d think they’d appreciate it!
Not necessarily. Over the next thousand years or so, the ancient Vietnamese would get fed up with their heavy taxes and harsh treatment. They’d rise up more than once to challenge their Chinese overlords. One particular revolt would inspire stories ever after. It took place around the years 39-43 CE. Who led this famous revolt? Two daughters of a military ruler; they lived in the vicinity of the modern city of Hanoi.
The women of ancient Vietnam enjoyed much more social equality than Chinese women. Females worked in business, as public officials and they could inherit property. They could become proficient in the martial arts, as did Trung Hac and her younger sister, Trung Nhi. With their knowledge of armor and swords and with their fury, they raised up an army of 80,000 soldiers! Other women, including their mother, were generals, mounted on war elephants at the head of the Trung Sisters’ army! They liberated fortresses, battled the Chinese, and drove them out of Vietnam!
Alas, this is not the end of the Legend of the Trung Sisters. The warriors of wealthier, more powerful China returned to defeat them in the year 43. And rather than surrender, the sisters took what was for them the more honorable action: They took their own lives. Some stories say they drowned themselves in a river. Some say they disappeared into the clouds. Whatever did happen, the Trung Sisters are remembered in plays, poems, and songs to this very day, as Heroines of Vietnam.
Even though the Trưng Sisters' revolt against the Chinese was almost 2,000 years ago, its legacy in Vietnam remains as they are seen as symbols of Vietnamese resistance and freedom. To this day, the people of Vietnam perform memorial ceremonies for the sisters every year at a Hanoi temple named for them. This is a statue of the Trung sisters in Ho Chi Minh City.
In a 1776 letter cautioning her husband to "remember the ladies," Abigail Adams made one of the earliest pleas for women's rights in America. How could she have known, in the years to follow, just how many strong and independent women would step forward to forge new paths in their fight for equality?
From Clara Barton and Harriet Tubman to the less well-known but equally important Belva Lockwood and Maya Ying Lin, Remember the Ladies spans the centuries to provide an engaging look at one hundred outstanding women who have helped shape our great nation. Click here.
MLA 8 Citation
Harness, Cheryl. "The Real Life Legendary Trung Sisters of Ancient Vietnam."
Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 22 May 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/
The onset of spring, summer, fall, and winter every year is precisely measured, depending on the sun’s position. But there’s no similar astronomical or scientific reason for celebrating New Years on January 1.
Many people don’t. The Chinese New Year occurs on the second new moon after the winter solstice, between late January and mid-February. Muslims mark the occasion on the first day of Muharram, the first month of the Islamic calendar. That calendar is based on the lunar cycle, 11 or 12 days shorter than the solar calendar. So their New Year comes a little earlier every year. Rosh Hashanah, the start of the Jewish New Year, is a two-day observance that begins 163 days after Passover and varies between September 5 and October 5. Unlike other New Year’s celebrations, Rosh Hashanah is holy, a time for piety rather than parties.
There was just as much variation in ancient times. In Babylon, the first new moon after the vernal equinox marked the New Year. Egyptians celebrated it in early August, when the annual Nile River flooding began. In Greece, Athens and Sparta couldn’t get along, so their respective new years didn’t occur at the same time. In Athens, it was the first new moon after the summer solstice, while the Spartans waited until early fall.
So how did January 1 become the most widely accepted start of the New Year? The answer: Julius Caesar. For centuries, the Roman calendar was in a state of chaos, with the number of days in the year fluctuating widely. In 46 BCE, Caesar worked with the brightest Egyptian astronomers to retool the calendar. He wanted the year to begin on the first of January, a month named after the god Janus. Janus had two faces: one looking backward (at the year just ending) and the other facing forward. For the Romans, it was party time!
Caesar didn’t stick around very long after his innovation. On the Ides of March—March 15, 44 BCE—he went to the Roman Senate as usual. While one senator distracted him, others swarmed around him with knives they’d hidden inside their togas, hacking and gashing. He collapsed and died.
His calendar proved more durable. When Roman legions conquered new territories, the natives had to adopt the Roman calendar. Every day, especially at the start of the new year, it was a reminder of Roman power.
You've been hearing from Jim Whiting almost weekly, so we thought you might want to know more about him. He's an interesting fellow:
Children's book author. Acclaimed multi-genre freelance editor. Entertaining and informative classroom visitor. Middle school running coach. Award-winning magazine publisher. Workshop presenter. Sportswriter. Light versifier. E-commerce and e-book writer. Teacher. Runner. World traveler. Sailor. Scuba diver. Photographer. Actor. Patron of the arts. Hometown Hero. And of course Voracious Reader.
For more about Jim, read his biography and background.
MLA 8 Citation
Whiting, Jim. "Happy New Year--in August?" Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 2 Jan. 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/Happy-New-Year-in-August.
Nonfiction is the new black
When the Seleucid emperor Antiochus IV came to power in 175 BCE after his brother was assassinated, he insisted on being called Antiochus Epiphanes (“Antiochus the Visible God”). To the Jews who had the misfortune to be among his subjects, he was Antiochus Epimanes (“Antiochus the lunatic”).
No matter his name, he was definitely bad news to the Jews. Because of his Greek background, Antiochus believed in many gods. The Jews, on the other hand, were monotheistic. Antiochus soon began imposing his beliefs on the Jews and making it much more difficult for them to practice their religion. For example, anyone caught circumcising their newborn children would be put to death.
In 168 he sacked Jerusalem. His forces cut down thousands of defenseless Jews of all ages, looted and desecrated the Second Temple, and erected a massive statue of the chief Greek god Zeus (using himself as a model for the sculptor who created the statue). Soon the altar ran red with the blood of swine that were slaughtered as sacrifices. For good measure, Antiochus also outlawed the Hebrew religion.
The outraged Jews fought back. An elderly priest named Mattathias and some of his men killed a group of Seleucid soldiers. That ignited a revolt against Antiochus’s rule. When Mattathias died, his son Judah assumed the leadership role. Judah soon acquired the surname of Maccabee (“the hammer”) for his skill in battle. After a series of successful guerrilla operations, he led his vastly outnumbered forces to two decisive victories that resulted in the recapture of Jerusalem in 165.
The first order of business was cleansing the temple so it could be rededicated. The ceremony began on the 25th day of the Hebrew month of Kislev. According to legend, the small amount of purified oil that was readily available for the rites was expected to burn just a single night. Instead it burned for eight nights, when a new supply became available. That miracle gave rise to the ceremony of lighting one candle for each of the eight nights of Hanukkah, which means “dedication.”
Because the Hebrew calendar is lunar-based, the dates of Hanukkah change each year. This year Hanukkah begins [December 12] at sunset and lasts until sunset on December .
To the Jewish families who celebrate the holiday, Happy Hanukkah!
The holidays are approaching and millions of people will be listening to Handel’s Messiah. Read all about the composer in Jim Whiting’s Masters of Music biography.
MLA 8 Citation
Whiting, Jim. "The Story of Hanukkah." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 11 Dec. 2017, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-story-of-hanukkah.
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