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7 December: On this day in history

What events happened on 7 December in history? Dominic Sandbrook rounds up the events, births and deaths…

Published: December 7, 2021 at 7:06 am
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7 December 43 BC: Cicero loses his head – and hands – to Rome

Mark Antony’s biggest critic is finally silenced

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When Julius Caesar was murdered in 44 BC, the lawyer Marcus Tullius Cicero was one of the most powerful men in Rome. But as the champion of the senate’s opposition to Caesar’s heir, Octavian, and his own old friend Mark Antony, Cicero played his hand very badly. By December 43 BC, his arrest seemed only a matter of time.

On 7 December, Cicero left his country house outside Rome for the coast, where he hoped to catch a ship to Macedonia. Only moments later, two officers, named Herennius and Popilius, arrived in pursuit. Although Cicero’s slaves refused to tell them his destination, the officers wormed the information out of one of his brother’s freedmen.

When the killers caught up with Cicero, he offered no resistance. As the biographer Plutarch later wrote: “He looked steadfastly upon his murderers, his person covered with dust, his beard and hair untrimmed, and his face worn with his troubles.”

Cicero reportedly said to Herennius: “There is nothing proper about what you are doing, soldier, but do try to kill me properly,” and leaned out of his litter to give them a clear stroke. With that, Herennius drew his sword and slashed off Cicero’s head.

Afterwards, Herennius cut off Cicero’s hands – the hands that had written his famous speeches mocking Antony – and carried them, with the head, back to Rome. There, Antony triumphantly hung them in the Forum. But according to Plutarch, the Roman people “believed they saw there not the face of Cicero, but the image of Antony’s own soul”.

Julian Humphrys rounds up smaller anniversaries

7 December 909
After overthrowing the Sunni Aghlabid dynasty, Sa'id ibn-Hussein was proclaimed Ubaydullah al-Mahdi ('the divinely guided one') in Tunis. The founder of the Fatimid dynasty established an Ismailite (Shiite) caliphate.
7 December 1598 
The birth in Naples of the Baroque sculptor and architect Gian Lorenzo Bernini. His masterpieces will include the Piazza of St Peter's in Rome and his marble sculpture of Apollo and Daphne, now in the Galleria Borghese.
7 December 1732
The Royal Opera House opened at London’s Covent Garden with a performance of Congreve’s The Way of the World. Its history began in 1728 when John Rich, the actor/manager at Lincoln's Inn Fields, commissioned The Beggar's Opera from John Gay. The huge success of the venture provided the capital for the construction of the new theatre. The current Royal Opera House dates from 1858.
7 December 1810
Physiologist Theodor Schwann was born in Neuss, Germany. Considered the father of modern histology, he identified the cell as the basic unit of animal structure and discovered the enzyme pepsin. He also coined the term metabolism.

7 December 1703: Fierce storms batter Britain

Thousands are killed as winds and floods devastate the nation

When Daniel Defoe got up on Friday, 7 December 1703, he noticed that it was extremely windy. He thought little of it until the evening, when he glanced at his barometer and spotted the “Mercury sunk lower than ever I had observ’d it”. At first Defoe thought that “the Tube had been handled and disturb’d by the Children”. He was wrong. That night, Britain was hit by one of the worst storms in its history. “No pen could describe it,” he wrote, “no tongue can express it, no thought conceive it unless some of those who were in the extremity of it.”

How many died will never be known, though some estimates suggest at least 8,000. In London, where the winds blew the lead roof off Westminster Abbey and destroyed perhaps 2,000 chimney stacks, Queen Anne took refuge in the cellars of St James’s Palace. In the Channel, more than a dozen Royal Navy ships were sunk with the loss of hundreds of lives. In the West Country, hundreds of windmills were destroyed and the region also saw hundreds drowned as the Somerset Levels flooded. Meanwhile, in Wells, the bishop and his wife were killed in their bed by a collapsing chimney.

Defoe spent the night with his family, unable to sleep for the noise and terror. Alarmed that their own roof might come down, he opened the door to see if they might sneak to safety. But when he saw a blizzard of tiles outside, he decided it was better to risk death “in the ruins of the house, rather than to meet most certain destruction in the open garden”.

He survived, of course, and turned his experience into his 1704 volume The Storm, which is often described as the first modern journalistic book. But like most people, he was deeply shaken. A few weeks later, the government declared a national day of fasting, since the storm was an obvious sign of “divine displeasure” with England.


7 December 1941: Japanese planes bomb Pearl Harbor

A surprise attack on its Pacific fleet brings the US into the Second World War

The clock had just ticked past five to eight in the morning when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Tension between Tokyo and Washington had been building for weeks. Even so, none of the American airmen and sailors at Pearl Harbor that day had any expectation that Japan would strike with such devastating speed

Some 353 Japanese planes descended in two thick black waves on the Hawaiian naval base. What followed was hell on earth. More than 2,400 Americans were killed, almost 200 aircraft were destroyed, four battleships were sunk and another four were badly damaged. Just two hours after they had screamed out of the sky, the Japanese were gone. They left a scene of total devastation, black smoke pouring from the wreckage of the ships

In Washington, it was lunchtime. President Franklin D Roosevelt was in the Oval Office, having lunch with his close adviser Harry Hopkins, when the phone rang. It was the Navy Department: Pearl Harbor was under attack, and this was no drill. While his aides scrambled to get confirmation, Roosevelt’s wife Eleanor watched his face. It was clear, she said later that “the final blow had fallen and we had been attacked”. Yet while others panicked, Roosevelt himself remained calm. After talking to his military advisers, he spoke on the phone to Winston Churchill, and said: “We are all in the same boat now.”

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The next day, Roosevelt went to Congress to ask for a declaration of war. The American people, he assured them, would not rest until they had avenged the horror of 7 December 1941, “a date which will live in infamy”.

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Authors

Dominic SandbrookHistorian and presenter

Dominic Sandbrook is historian and presenter, and a regular contributor to BBC History Magazine

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