What happened this month in history?

August 1st 527 CE

Justinian I becomes sole emperor of the Byzantine Empire.

The remarkable rise of a peasant boy named Petrus Sabbatius (Justinian I The Great), to the lofty heights of the imperial palace in Constantinople could not have happened if it wasn’t for his uncle Flavius Justinus (Justin). Escaping a life of poverty in Illyricum, Justin travelled on foot, all the way to Roman Empire’s political heart Constantinople, to join the army. His career started of slow and nothing exciting happened until around 490 when he was made a commander of a regiment in the palace guard. From this promising position he sent for many of his younger relatives to give them important appointments and obviously a life away from poverty. Amongst these relatives was a young Petrus Sabbatius, who rose through the ceremonial ranks of the palace guards.

His uncle Justin became emperor, upon the death of Anastasius in 518, something that often happened with political manoeuvring. What followed was an orchestrated affair where Justin was hailed emperor upon the shields by his imperial guard and likely led by his nephew Petrus. It was here, also at some point during Justin’s early reign, that he adopted his nephew Petrus, and thereafter became known as Justinian.

In the years that followed Justinian worked hard behind the scenes, as his uncle’s most trusted advisor. He took advantage of his power and lavished the capital with extraordinary games to improve his popularity. By 525, his uncle first gave Justinian the title Caesar, preparing the way for Justinian to be his successor. Then, on August 1st 527, his gravely ill uncle, Justin passed away, leaving Justinian as sole ruler of the empire.

His rule would become a pivotal period in Byzantine history. In short, he was instrumental in reorganizing the administration of the empire, his sponsorship of a codification of laws (Codex Justinianus) and the flourishing of the first golden age of art and culture.

Finally, it has to be said that his extreme confidence in his abilities, led him to become the first emperor, in almost two hundred years, to reclaim parts of the western provinces of the old Roman Empire. His vision made Rome, once more a part of the empire, until the empires influence eventually again retreated eastward.

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August 4th 1936

Jesse Owens wins his fourth gold medal.

Jesse Owens is one of Olympic history’s greatest stars. He was the standout Olympian from the 1936 Berlin Olympics, who shamed Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany’s views on Aryan racial superiority. Hitler tirelessly preached how white skinned blue-eyed Aryan athletes were superior over most people, especially Jews and dark-coloured people. Owens ‘single-handedly’ smashed Hitler’s myth of Aryan supremacy by winning four gold medals during the Berlin games, in the 100 m, 200m sprints, the 4 x 100 m relay and on the 4th August, the long jump with a record-breaking 8.06 metres. Hitler refused to present Owens with his gold medals and left the stadium to avoid having to congratulate Owens, an African-American, in front of the whole world.

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August 12th 1912

John Ford kicks into motion mass motoring.

Some argue the greatest motoring revolution began when John Ford starting rolling out of his Detroit, Michigan factory, the first mass production of Model T’s, on 12th August 1912. First introduced in 1908, the Model T quickly became a popular vehicle and as purchase orders grew, Ford was forced to reconsider how he would update or change the delivery of his vehicle. Although Ford isn’t credited with inventing the assembly line, his advancements in the efficiency of the system, particularly the speed of its production with interchangeable parts, made Ford famous. The key to Fords success also lay in his low pricing policy, which meant millions of Americans could afford to buy a motor vehicle, effectively changing the way they lived, worked and travelled. Between 1908 and 1927, an estimated 15 million Model T Fords were rolled off the assembly line.

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August 15th 1939

The Hollywood premiere of The Wizard of Oz .

Film fairy tales often need a special quality and ingredient to help them stand the test of time, if they are to be treasured by successive generations. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1939), based on the novel written by L. Frank Baum, is a fine example of the film-making that does exactly that. Made up of the most extraordinary colourful characters, an imaginary world and memorable songs, ranging from ‘Over the rainbow’ to ‘Ding Dong, the Witch is Dead’, it isn’t hard to see why it is one of American cinema’s most beloved movies. Its Hollywood premiere on August 15th 1939 at the Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, introduced the world to a young teenage girl named Dorothy, who with her scruffy little dog Toto, is blown away by a tornado to the magical world of Oz. Arriving in Munchkin Land with a thud, Dorothy and Toto must travel along the yellow brick road to find the Wizard of Oz, who will help them get back home to Kansas. Along the way, Dorothy is befriended by a Scarecrow, Tin Man and a Cowardly Lion and stalked by the vengeful Wicked Witch of the West.


August 15th 1943

The day we almost lost Da Vinci’s ‘The Last Supper’ forever!

On 15th August, 1943, bombing destroyed the great cloister of the Santa Maria delle Grazie monastery but miraculously spared the three walls of the refectory, including the one with Leonardo Da Vinci’s famous ‘The Last Supper’. Was it a case of divine intervention or just dumb luck? Maybe we should thank the British and American air bombers for their bad aim? (It wasn’t until the US obliterated the monastery at Monte Cassino, Italy in February 1944, that US attitudes changed to the preservation of historical monuments and sites.) Nevertheless, it was the frantic efforts of the people of Milan, who helped stabilize and sandbag the painting against any further bombing splinters. Then, after the Second World War, the monastery was rebuilt with a ‘clean and stabilise’ resortation undertaken by Italian restorer and painter, Mauro Pellicioli between 1951 and 1953.

It wasn’t the first time in its history that Da Vinci’s painting of the Last Super needed some love and care. Its last major restoration took placed between 1979 to 1999. (The main source for the restoration was Giampetrino’s extract copy of The Last Supper which he copied in 1520. It includes lost details such as Jesus missing feet and the salt-cellar spilled by Judas. Giampietrino is believed to have been one of Leonardo Da Vinci’s pupils who worked closely with him when he was in Milan.) Today, the refectory wall that the painting sits on is sealed in a climate controlled room. Hopefully, generations of art experts, people and pilgrims can enjoy viewing the original for a few more centuries. See related article here.

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August 23rd 1973

Bank siege at Kreditbanken and the Stockholm Syndrome. 

Forty-three years ago, after four people were taken hostage by a bank robber in a Stockholm bank, the hostage drama that unfolded over six days gave rise to the term ‘Stockholm Syndrome’. The phenomenon is still being used and misused today to describe the relationship between captor and captives. It is also sometimes referred to as capture bonding, trauma bonding and terror bonding. Hostages or victims of crime express feelings of compassion and even loyalty to their captors. These feelings are almost always considered illogical in light of the danger or risk experienced by victims. They also tend to mistake a lack of abuse from their captors for an act of kindness.

In 1973, Jan-Erik Olsson walked into the Kreditbanken at Normalmstorg in Stockholm pulling out a submachine gun and took four employees as hostages. To add to the drama the police gave into Olsson’s demands by releasing one of Sweden’s most notorious criminals from prison, bank robber Clark Olofsson , who joined in on the hostage ordeal. During their captivity the bank employees became emotionally attached to their captors rejecting assistance from government officials and even defending their captors after they were freed from their six-day ordeal. The world was absolutely mortified and shocked by photographs later of them kissing and hugging their captors after release.

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August 24th 410

The Visigoths sack of Rome.

The sack of Rome by the Visigoths in 410 has often been described or exaggerated, and embellished over time, as a horrible devastating landmark in Roman history. Graphic descriptions and pictures of half naked barbarians pulling down statues, looting and burning is far from the truth. (The Visigoths were not uncivilized barbarians, most of them were Christians.) The actual sack was surprisingly restrained, by standards of the age, with no general slaughter of citizens or willful destruction.

The cause of the sack was, as much the fault of the imperial governments, as it was of the pillaging Visigoths. In short, the execution of Stilicho, Emperor Honorius’ domineering regent, was arguably the moment that led to the collapse of order. With the empire left without a protector, Italy was beset by Visigothic invasions from 408, on at least three occasions. After huge brides and broken promises failed to satisfy the Visigoth’s leader Alaric, his impatient army broke into Rome through the Salarian Gate on the night of the 24th August. Facing little opposition, they spent three days in Rome, ransacking the city, before withdrawing.

The sack of Rome, far from being a devastating landmark in Roman history, did though expose the decline of Roman power, for all to see.

*This article was originally published on August 1st 2016. It will continue to be on occasions updated to include additional material, giving you the reader a rough guide to what happened this month in history!

Photo credit: All images are in the public domain except the b&w image of Jesse Owens, which is used under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Germany license. The image of the Santa Maria delle Grazia, in Milan, during WW2, appears to be in the public domain with an expired copyright. I believe my inclusion of this image constitutes as ‘fair use’ to highlight a unique historical moment in time. The image of the press photographer and police sniper side by side on a roof opposite the Kreditbanken bank and part of the production line at Ford’s Highland Park factory, Detroit, Michigan, USA, c1914, is licensed and used under the Getty Images embedding service.