1897 BCE — Sodom and Gomorrah are destroyed by God’s wrath

The story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah shows God’s mercy at its finest. After he threatens to destroy the cities, Lot, who resides in one of them, bargains with his god, finally convincing him to spare the cities if Lot can find five righteous men in them (apparently, righteous women aren’t good enough).

The bar is not set high: Lot himself is considered righteous, although he clearly suffers from the sin of pride (it takes a pretty big ego to bargain with god as an equal). However, he does have one virtue that god appreciates, that of shameless toadying. Indeed, Lot is so desperate to curry favour with god and his servants that he offers his virgin daughters to the baying mob to do with as they please if they will simply consent to leave god’s servants alone.

For this, god spares Lot and his daughters, allowing them to flee the city before he smites down upon it with great vengeance and furious anger – although Lot’s wife, whose only crime is to like watching explosions, is turned into a pillar of salt as a punishment – which is pretty harsh considering how few fans of action movies have ever been similarly afflicted.

November 1, 4004 BCE — Adam hides his nakedness from God

Stop me if you heard this one: so, a naive chick is tricked by some snake into eating something she probably shouldn’t have. Suddenly much less naive, she tricks her partner into seeing things her way. We’ve all heard it a million times, right? Except that in this case, the chick is Eve, the snake is better known as the Serpent in the Garden, and her partner, of course, is Adam.

It turns out that eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil tells you that it is evil to be naked, which is why when God (who is elsewhere desrcibed as both omniscient and omni-present) comes back, Adam hides from Him, so that God – who has seen him naked as often – if not more often – than any parent has ever seen their child, will not see him naked again.

Anyway, it’s all holy and ineffable, so quit your snickering.

1789 — Marie Antionette (allegedly) says “Let them eat cake”

The French phrase “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche” is usually translated as “Let them eat cake”, and is widely attributed to Marie Antionette.

However, in the original – Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions, which he finished writing in 1769, when Marie Antoinette was 13 – the remark is attributed only to “a great princess”. The phrase was attributed to Marie Antionette only after the Revolution began, and many citations for it exist prior to this, and not referencing her. In fact, the emerging consensus among historians at this time is that the Rousseau was referring to Marie-Thérèse, the wife of Louis XIV, and pre-dates Marie Antionette by at least a century.

Referenced in:

Killer Queen — Queen
Ain’t That Just Like A Woman — Louis Jordan

1117 BCE — Delilah cuts Samson’s hair

Samson is one of the great heroes of Judges era of the Isrealites. A judge and priest, he was also a mighty warrior, gifted by God with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal man. (I don’t describe him this way by accident – Samson was explicitly one of the inspirations for Siegel and Shuster in creating Superman.) He had strength and skill at arms that made him a great hero to his people at a time when they were under constant attack from the Phillistines.

His great success came at a price, however. It’s fairly well-known that his power would desert him if he shaved or cut his hair. Less well-known is that he was also forbidden to drink alcohol. But maybe it was worth it to him. This is a man who once tore a lion apart with his bare hands. Who smote the Phillistines ‘hip and thigh’ – on one occasion, using ‘the jawbone of an ass’ as a weapon – and mowed through their armies like the Rambo of his day. Who, on one particularly slow day, tied flaming torches to the tails of no fewer than three hundred foxes, and drove the panicked animals through the farms of his enemies.

Understandably, he did not endear himself to the Phillistines, but they were unable to defeat him by force of arms. And so they resorted to guile.

Samson’s wife, Delilah, was approached by the Phillistines and bribed to cut his hair. Thus weakened, Samson was easy prey for his foes, and was captured, blinded and imprisoned in one of their temples where anyone could mock or hurt him without penalty. To the extent that his story has a happy ending, it is that many years later, God answered his prayers to restore his strength long enough for him to pull down the temple on top of himself and all his foemen inside it.

64 — Nero fiddles while Rome burns

It’s an iconic image, symbolising madness, decadence and a corrupt lust for power. But did it actually happen?

In all probability, it didn’t. For a start, the fiddle would not be invented for another thousand years – Nero played the lyre. And according to Tacitus, Nero not only wasn’t in Rome when the fire occurred, but raced back to organise the relief efforts and funded a large portion of the reconstruction of the city from his own purse. Hardly a picture of a depraved monster, is it?

The fire is believed to have started near the Circus Maximus. It burned for seven days and five nights – on the fifth day, it was nearly quelled before flaring up with renewed strength. Of the city’s 14 districts, seven were damaged and three destroyed outright.

Referenced in:

Downfall — Exodus
Procession Commence — This Is Hell
Ain’t That Just Like A Woman — Louis Jordan