Battles

“A Fortunate Shot”: The Venetian Destruction of the Parthenon, 1687

A week and a half ago, 26 September, marked the 327th anniversary of the destruction of the Parthenon in Athens during a Venetian siege of the city. On that date in 1687—and in fact, it was a Friday as it was this year—a mortar round penetrated the marble roof of the 2,000 year old temple and ignited a store of gunpowder that the defending Ottomans had placed there. The resulting explosion killed about 300 people and destroyed a building that was in succession a Greek temple, a Christian church, an Islamic mosque and, ultimately, an enduring symbol of the splendor and longevity of Athenian history.

The origins of the siege of Athens and ultimately the destruction of the Parthenon lay in the larger Great Turkish War (1683-1699), which pitted a “western” alliance of the Venetian Republic, the Holy Roman Empire, and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth against the Ottoman Empire. Venice and the Ottomans had long competed for hegemony in the eastern Aegean Sea, and Venice sought to gain territory.

Francesco Morosini was chosen as Captain General of the expedition. He swiftly gained the southern peninsula of the Greek mainland, the Peloponnese, known at that time as the Morea. He marched all the way up to the Isthmus by the middle of 1687. At a council at Corinth, it was decided that Athens would be the next objective.1

Francesco Morosini, doge of Venice (1688-1694) and commander of the expedition to Morea and Athens in 1687.

Francesco Morosini, doge of Venice (1688-1694) and commander of the expedition to Morea and Athens in 1687.

On 21 September, the Venetians landed at the Piraeus, then called Porto Leone for the classical lion statue that stood by the harbor. The Turkish garrison withdrew to the Acropolis, where it then improved the walls and installed guns. Morosini’s forces advanced into Athens uncontested. Venetian indirect fire assets occupied Mouseion Hill, the Pnyx, and the Areiopagos; shelling began 23 September.

Venetian artillery and mortar positions during the siege of 1687.

Venetian artillery and mortar positions during the siege of 1687.

In one of his reports to Venice, Morosini explains that “two batteries, the one made up of six pieces of cannon, and the other of four mortars”2 were deployed to harass (“tormentar”) the enemy. Of particular interest is a set of maps, produced by the chief engineer of the expedition, Verneda, showing the Venetian positions in the city. Two mortars were emplaced on the east side of the Acropolis, and Verneda’s drawings make it seem that these were the guns that fired the shot that destroyed the Parthenon.

While the cannons were accurate, the mortars left something to be desired. The mortars commander, Mutoni, had to be “publicly corrected” by Morosini’s second-in-command, the Swedish Count Koenigsmarck. Venetian “bombs,” the term for mortar rounds, had struck an ammunition deposit in the Propylaea, igniting it. Then, a Turkish defector made his way to the Venetians and explained that the Ottomans had moved their gunpowder into the Parthenon.

This is where questions come in about whether the Venetians intentionally targeted the Parthenon, or that it was simply a lucky (or unlucky) round that managed to penetrate the heretofore intact marble roof of the ancient temple. Morosini called it a “fortunato colpo”—fortunate shot. A companion to Koenigsmarck’s wife recounts that Koenigsmarck felt compelled to fire on the temple. An anonymous Venetian officer present at the time believed that the bombardment was conducted randomly, owing to Mutoni’s poor gunnery. A Hanoverian soldier fighting with the Venetians reported that the Parthenon was deliberately bombarded for two days before the fateful round struck the powder inside. Finally there is the account of a certain Major Sobiewolsky; he relates the story of the Turkish deserter. Then he writes:

Upon this report [of the Turkish deserter], several mortars were directed against the temple, but none of the bombs was able to do damage, particularly because the upper roof of the temple was somewhat sloping and covered with marble, and thus well protected. A lieutenant from Lüneburg, however, offered to throw bombs into the temple, and this was done. For one of the bombs fell through (the roof of) the temple and right into the Turkish store of powder, whereupon the middle of the temple blew up and everything inside was covered with stone, to the great consternation of the Turks.”3

Ultimately, it seems the evidence supports the Sobiewolsky’s account and the “intentional” interpretation. Historian Theodor E. Mommsen points to a 1684 agreement between Duke Ernst August of Braunschweig (Brunswick) and Lüneburg and the Venetian Republic that stipulates that the Duke send troops to Venice, including mortars. So, Mommsen concludes, the mortars in the Venetian expedition were probably from the Duchy of Braunschweig and Lüneburg, making it not unlikely that a “lieutenant from Lüneburg” did indeed direct the fatal shot. One of Verneda’s plans greatly strengthens this interpretation: the mortar position east of the Acropolis is shown to fire the ultimate round, and that area is labeled “Quartieri del Reg[imen]to del Principe di Bransuich”—the quarters of the Prince of Braunschweig’s regiment.4

View of the destruction of the Parthenon, with illustrations of trajectories of Venetian rounds. From Fanelli's "Atene attica" (1707).

View of the destruction of the Parthenon, with illustrations of trajectories of Venetian rounds. From Fanelli’s “Atene attica” (1707).

Three hundred people, both men and women as Morosini reports, were killed, and fragments of marble were sent into the Venetian lines. Three out of the four walls of the Parthenon nearly collapsed and most of the famous frieze fell to the ground. Fourteen of the 46 outer columns, each weighing an average of 80 tons, fell.5 A fire burned for two days on the Acropolis before the Turks surrendered and ultimately evacuated on 4 October. But with an Ottoman force encamped to the north at Thebes, it was necessary to supply Athens entirely from the sea. Morosini had foreseen some of the logistical difficulties of holding on to the city and had objected to attacking Athens in the first place. By March 1688, the Venetians had evacuated Athens, but not before Morosini had collected some antiquities as victory trophies, including the Piraeus Lion mentioned earlier. Their occupation had accomplished little besides temporarily pushing the Ottomans north and is only well known for the destruction it did to the Parthenon. It was, as the archaeologist James M. Paton wrote, “one of the earliest and surely one of the most deplorable instances of ‘military necessity’ directing modern weapons against a supreme work of art.”6

Pockmark from Venetian artillery on the Parthenon

Pockmark from the Venetian assault on the Parthenon.

Marks left on the Parthenon from Venetian artillery or mortars

Marks left on the Parthenon from Venetian artillery or mortars.

Modern view of the Parthenon showing the damage to columns and roof.

Modern view of the Parthenon showing the damage to columns and roof.

1 A general history can be found in W. Miller, “The Venetian Revival in Greece, 1684-1718,” The English Historical Review 35 (1920): 343-354.

2 “due batterie, l’una di sei pezzi di cannone, e l’altra di quattro mortari da bombe,” from C. de Laborde, Athènes aux XVe, XVIe et XVIIe Siècles, Vol. 2, J. Renouard et C. (1854): 158, n. 1.

3 T.E. Mommsen, “The Venetians in Athens and the Destruction of the Parthenon in 1687,” American Journal of Archaeology 45 (1941): 553. For all the other contemporary reports that Mommsen analyzes, see pp. 547-554.

4 C. de Laborde: 182; Mommsen: 552-554.

5 K. Chatziaslani, “Morosini in Athens,” http://www.eie.gr/archaeologia/En/chapter_more_8.aspx.

6 J.M. Paton (ed.), The Venetians in Athens 1687-1688: From the Istoria of Cristoforo Ivanovich, The American School of Classical Studies at Athens (1940): 3.

Landing at Peleliu: 70 Years Later

On 15 September 1944, American forces landed on the shores of a tiny spit of lobster-claw-shaped coral rock in the western Pacific named Peleliu. The landing was spearheaded by the 1st Marine Division of the United States Marine Corps under MajGen. William Rupertus, as the U.S. pushed forward in its island hopping campaign against the forces of Imperial Japan. The 11,000 Japanese defenders of the 14th Infantry Division under Col. Kunio Nakagawa were well-fortified in the ridges of the island’s center. They exercised effective fire discipline in order to prevent their positions from being discovered, and planned out interlocking defensive positions with fields of fire covering almost every part of the island.

Eugene B. Sledge was a mortar man with Company K, 3d Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment during the landing and subsequent battle across Peleliu. In his 1981 memoir With The Old Breed At Peleliu And Okinawa, Sledge leaves us with a haunting description of the terrifying effect that Japanese artillery had on the attacking Americans.

There was nothing subtle or intimate about the approach and explosion of an artillery shell. When I heard the whistle of an approaching one in the distance, every muscle in my body contracted. I braced myself in a puny effort to keep from being swept away. I felt utterly helpless.

As the fiendish whistle grew louder, my teeth ground against each other, my heart pounded, my mouth dried, my eyes narrowed, sweat poured over me, my breath came in short irregular gasps, and I was afraid to swallow lest I choke. I always prayed, sometimes out loud.

Under certain conditions of range and terrain, I could hear the shell approaching from a considerable distance, thus prolonging the suspense into seemingly unending torture. At the instant the voice of the shell grew the loudest, it terminated in a flash and a deafening explosion similar to the crash of aloud clap of thunder. The ground shook and the concussion hurt my ears. Shell fragments tore the air apart as they rushed out, whirring and ripping. Rocks and dirt clattered onto the deck as smoke of the exploded shell dissipated.

To be under a barrage or prolonged shelling simply magnified all the terrible physical and emotional effects of one shell. To me, artillery was an invention of hell. The onrushing whistle and scream of the big steel package of destruction was the pinnacle of violent fury and the embodiment of pent-up evil. It was the essence of violence and of man’s inhumanity to man. I developed a passionate hatred for shells. To be killed by a bullet seemed so clean and surgical. But shells would not only tear and rip the body, they tortured one’s mind almost beyond the brink of sanity.

MajGen. Rupertus had predicted the island would be secured in four days. The effectiveness of the Japanese defense dragged the battle out for two months. By the end of November, the Americans had suffered more than 8,000 casualties, including more than 1,500 killed in action. Nearly all the Japanese soldiers died defending the island, and the Imperial Japanese Army’s 14th Infantry Division effectively ceased to exist. Peleliu was targeted by the Americans in order to use the airfield and to protect the eastern flank of the planned assault on the Philippines. However, the island ended up being of limited value as U.S. forces moved to re-take the Philippines.

Peleliu, with airfield visible in the southwest.

Peleliu, with airfield visible in the southwest.

Peleliu, in the modern Republic of Palau, in the western Pacific.

Peleliu, in the modern Republic of Palau, in the western Pacific.

The Charge of the Light Brigade

Crimea has very much been in the news lately, and many have made comparisons between Russia’s reasons for intervening in that region in 2014 and its reasons for doing so in 1853, which triggered the Crimean War (1853-1856). So it seems apropos to look back on the most famous episode that war: the charge of the Light Brigade of British Cavalry under Major General James Brudenell, Earl of Cardigan and the poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. (I also can’t help but wonder if Lord Cardigan was wearing a button-up sweater during the attack!).

Where it ties into artillery is that the cavalry was ordered to attack Russian gun positions, though there is some confusion about what the order actually was or where the attack was intended to take place. The British attacked up a valley and found themselves faced with Russian batteries to their front and flanks–hence the repeated refrain of “Cannon to right of them / Cannon to left of them / Cannon in front of them / Volley’d and thunder’d.” The Russians subjected the cavalry to withering direct fire; the British suffered around 670 casualties. Six weeks later, Tennyson’s poem was published.

Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death,
Rode the six hundred.
‘Forward, the Light Brigade!
Charge for the guns’ he said:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

‘Forward, the Light Brigade!’
Was there a man dismay’d?
Not tho’ the soldiers knew
Some one had blunder’d:
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon in front of them
Volley’d and thunder’d;
Storm’d at with shot and shell,
Boldly they rode and well,
Into the jaws of Death,
Into the mouth of Hell
Rode the six hundred.

Flash’d all their sabres bare,
Flash’d as they turned in air
Sabring the gunners there,
Charging an army while
All the world wonder’d:
Plunged in the battery-smoke
Right thro’ the line they broke;
Cossack and Russian
Reel’d from the sabre-stroke
Shatter’d and sunder’d.
Then they rode back, but not
Not the six hundred.

Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon behind them
Volley’d and thunder’d;
Storm’d at with shot and shell,
While horse and hero fell,
They that had fought so well
Came thro’ the jaws of Death,
Back from the mouth of Hell,
All that was left of them,
Left of six hundred.

When can their glory fade?
O the wild charge they made!
All the world wonder’d.
Honour the charge they made!
Honour the Light Brigade,
Noble six hundred!

Charge of the Light Cavalry Brigade, 25th Oct. 1854, under Major General the Earl of Cardigan, by William Simpson. Simpson depicts the battle from the Russian point of view.

Charge of the Light Cavalry Brigade, 25th Oct. 1854, under Major General the Earl of Cardigan, by William Simpson. Simpson depicts the battle from the Russian point of view.