Magical Flatulence: the Ancient (f)ART of Divination?

By Pat Lowinger

I rarely find myself laughing out loud while conducting academic research.  This article reflects one of those rare occasions. I would like to thank Sarah Iles Johnston PhD for her insightful examination of ancient Greek divination in Ancient Greek Divination, 3rd edition (2008).

Among the ancient Greeks, various modes of divination were discussed by numerous historical sources, such as Herodotus, Aristotle, Iamblichus, Posidonius, Chrysippus, Melampus and many others.  The modes, as well as prophetic authority of divination, varied greatly throughout the Greek world.  There were those who practiced the ‘reading’ of flames- a method known as pyromancy (with several sub-categories).  Others, listened to/channeled daimones contained within their bellies (engastroimuthoi) and/or the ‘art’ of astragalomancy which relied on the casting of bone-dice (most often sheep’s knuckles).  Some diviners were wanderers, others were associated with a particular town or city, while others were associated with sacred locations.  Some institutions of Greek divination were widely revered throughout the ancient Mediterranean, such as the oracles of Apollo at Delphi and Didyma.


Black Figure Vase c. 6th century BCE, depicting Apollo, standing standing across from Zeus and Maia, all of whom stand over the infant Hermes. Getty Museum (Image Collection).

Prior to reading Johnston’s book, I was familiar with the major aspects of divination in the Greek and Roman religious traditions. It was during her analysis of palomancy (body twitches and spasms) that she referred to the following verses of the Homeric Hymn to Hermes, which I just had to read for myself:

So said Phoebus Apollo, and took the child and began to carry him. But at that moment the strong Slayer of Argus had his plan, and, while Apollo held him [Hermes] in his hands, sent forth an omen, a hard-worked belly-serf [flatulence], a rude messenger,  and sneezed directly after. And when Apollo heard it, he dropped glorious Hermes out of his hands on the ground: then sitting down before him, though he was eager to go on his way, he spoke mockingly to Hermes: “Fear not, little swaddling baby, son of Zeus and Maia. I shall find the strong cattle presently by these omens, and you shall lead the way.” -Hymn to Hermes IV, 293-303. Emphasis added.

A fart and a sneeze- the former being called ‘a rude messenger’ of the gods.  It appears that not even the author of the Homeric Hymn to Hermes wasn’t without a sense of humor.  On the other hand, this might have been only one of many forms of divination practiced by the ancient Greeks and might go a long way to explain Herodotus’ observations as to why ancient Egyptian priests avoided the eating of beans… to actively avoid unwanted divination?

I hope you have enjoyed this rather lighthearted examination of ancient divination.


Recommended Reading and References:

Johnston, Sarah.  Ancient Greek Divination. Blackwell Publishing, 2008.

Homeric Hymn to Hermes.



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The Coinage of Augustus: Projecting Power and a Divine Lineage.

In antiquity, coinage not only served as an easily portable means of wealth, it also served as an important medium of propaganda.  Through powerful imagery and messaging it was not only possible to influence public opinion, it could wholly reshape it. 

At the time of Julius Caesar’s death in 44 BCE, an eighteen-year-old Octavian stood to inherit not only Caesar’s immense wealth but also his unprecedented public legacy.   In the chaotic aftermath of the dictator’s assassination it was critical that Octavian protect Ceasar’s legacy as well as bolstering his own political capital.  Caesar’s murderers and their cries of libertas could not go unanswered if the Julii were to maintain their prominence within Roman society. Octavian’s actions were as bold as they were decisive. Upon his arrival in Rome, Octavian began to rallying Caesar’s supporters as well as recruiting many of Caesar’s veterans into a standing army (Goldsworthy 2014, 103).  In addition to this outward manifestation of military strength, Octavian reservedly supported the call by some members of the senate to deify the slain dictator.  Cicero’s advocacy on behalf of Octavian is noteworthy:

Let us then confer on Caesar [Octavian] a regular military command, without which the military affairs can not be directed, the army can not be held together, war can not be waged. Let him be made propraetor with all the privileges which have ever been attached to that appointment. That honour, although it is a great one for a man of his age, still is not merely of influence as giving dignity, but it confers powers calculated to meet the present emergency. Therefore, let us seek for honours for him which we shall not easily find at the present day (Cicero, Philippics 5.45).

Cicero’s support of Octavian’s inclusion into Rome’s highest political body, as well the granting of considerable military authority by the Senate, illustrates how successful Octavian’s claim as heir had been.  Caesar’s deification was formalized by the Roman senate on 1 January, 42 BCE, exactly one year after Octavian had been inducted into the senate (at the unprecedented age of nineteen).


Image I

Despite dangerous tensions with Marcus Antonius (Mark Antony), Octavian was able to forge the Second Triumvirate, which was ratified by the Roman Senate on 27 November, 43 BCE.  In effect, each of the triumvirs acted with enhanced consular powers.  Mark Antony would rule over the provinces of Gaul, Marcus Aemilius Lepidus (Lepidus) would control Spain and Octavian, North Africa.  As per their senatorial mandate, the triumvirs were to bring those responsible for Caesar’s death to justice and restore order within the Republic (Suetonius, Divus Augustus, 10.3). Again, Octavian (as well as the other triumvirs) wasted no time in exercising his military authority.  Coinage from the period (from 44 to 33 BCE) are inscribed with legend “III VIR R P C” served as abbreviation for “tresviri rei publicae constituendae”, which is most often translated as “One of Three Men for the Regulation of the Republic” (American Numismatic Society inventory number 1957.172.251).  See Image I.  Despite their earlier antagonism, coinage jointly bearing the images of Octavian and Antony was minted (American Numismatic Society inventory number 2012.34.25).  In addition to their names and designation as one of the triumvirs (previously mentioned), the legend added the title “IMP” or “Imperator.”  See Image II.


Image II

As Octavian and Antony prosecuted the war against Sextus Pompey, Marcus Junius Brutus (Brutus) and Gaius Cassius Longinus (Longinus) the need to continuously foster his bond as Ceasar’s son was not ignored by Octavian (Beacham, 2007, 152).


Image III

Upon coinage minted during and after the war(s), Octavian’s image and the legend “DIVI F” or “Divus Filius” which is commonly translated as “Son of the Divine [Julius Caesar] (American Numismatic Society inventory number 1941.131.348).  The obverse bore an image of Caesar (wearing laurels) and the legend, “DIVOS IVLIVS” which translates as “Divine Julius.”  See Image III.  By the issuing of coinage and building of temples dedicated to a deified Caesar, it could be suggested Octavian was simply engaging in an act of ancestral veneration and/or devotion, which was a common and respected social norm within Roman society.  Through this public veneration, Octavian was able to promote his own interests in a manner most Romans would not only accept, but applaud.

During his tenure as one of the triumvirs, Octavian had continued to honor the legacy of Julius Caesar.  As powerful as this association could be it was necessary for Octavian to promote his own military and political power.  To this end Octavian ordered the issuing of coinage bearing traditionally powerful symbolism (Wolters 2016, 342-346).  For example, a silver denarius (American Numismatic Society inventory number 2012.34.23) minted at Rome in 42 BCE bears the image of Octavian (absent any legend).  The reverse bears the image of the goddess Fortuna holding Victory (goddess) in her right hand and cornucopia (a symbol of abundance and prosperity).  The legend accompanying Fortuna’s image was C.VIBIVS VARVS, translated as (Consul Vibius Varus).  See Image IV.  While the value of such imagery as propaganda is obvious, it demonstrates Octavian’s own rapidly developing list of victories and honors.  Honors granted and supported by the state.


Image IV

Upon his confirmation as emperor, Augustus remained aware he needed to continue promoting his temporal and divine relationship with Caesar. As shown earlier, this was accomplished by the incorporation of religious motifs upon Roman coinage (Stevenson 1964, 157-158).  One excellent example, minted 19 BCE depicts a comet (falling) incorporated into an eight-rayed sunburst on its reverse (American Numismatic Society inventory number


Image V

1957.172.1476).  Within the starburst contains the legend, “DIVVS IVLIVS” again which translates as “Divine Julius.” While the obverse contains the image of the Emperor (his head wreathed in laurels), and the unabbreviated legend of “CAESAR AVGVSTVS.”  See Image V.  What is important to note are two key points.  First, that throughout his reign, Augustus continued to promote his familial connection to Julius Caesar as well as Caesar’s status as a divine being (god).  While the frequency of such depictions upon coinage decrease after 27 BCE, they do not disappear entirely.  The second point is that the radiant starburst and comet imagery were directly tied to mythology designed to support Caesar’s divine origins.  The promulgation of Caesar’s divine status was cross-pollinated through every available medium during Augustus’ reign.

Though Aesculapius came as a stranger to our temples, Caesar is a god in his own city. Outstanding in war or peace, it was not so much his wars that ended in great victories, or his actions at home, or his swiftly won fame, that set him among the stars, a fiery comet, as his descendant. There is no greater achievement among Caesar’s actions than that he stood father to our emperor.- Ovid, Metamorphoses, 15.1-2.

In a future post I will further examine Augustus’ claims of divinity and purported apotheosis following his death. 


Cicero, Marcus. Orations, The Fourteen Orations Against Marcus Antonius (Philippics), trans. C.D. Yonge. Perseus Digital Library.

Ovid. Metamorphoses, trans. David Raeburn (Penguin Classics). London: Penguin Books. 2004.

Suetonius, Gaius. The Lives of the Twelve Caesars: Divus Augustus, trans. Robert Graves (Penguin Classics). London: Penguin Books. 1957.

Beacham, Richard. 2007. The Emperor as Impresario: Producing the Pageantry of Power. In Galinsky, K. (Ed) The Cambridge Companion to the Age of Augustus: 151-174. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Goldsworthy, Adrian. 2014. Augustus: First Emperor of Rome. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Stevenson, Seth. 1964. A Dictionary of Roman Coins. London: B.A. Seaby LTD.

Wolters, Reinhard. 2016. The Julio-Claudians. In Metcalf, W. (Ed) The Oxford Handbook of Greek and Roman Coinage: 235-51. New York: Oxford University Press.



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Of Gods, Kings and Men: the Coinage of Antiochus IV.

By Pat Lowinger


Silver Tetradrachm of Antiochus IV, (c. 167-164 BCE) obverse shown.  Source: American Numismatic Society (Identifier 1908.115.1)

For archaeologists, historians and numismatists ancient coins are much more valuable than their material composition might suggest. Whether found individually or within hordes, ancient coinage often fuels the impetus of the professional and amateur numismatist.  When discovered in situ, coins often serve as invaluable pieces of evidence in the dating of contemporaneous objects (Crawford 1983: 192). Although coins are typically limited to the establishment of a terminal date (not being older than), coins continue to be reliable piece of evidence in dating.  From the Archaic period Greek coinage typically contained identifying illustrations and/or inscriptions.  By the beginning of the third century BCE, coinage of the Hellenistic world increasingly contained inscriptions identifying both their issuer and their place of origin (Ashton 2016: 200-03).  Ancient coinage often serves as a vital source of social, political, religious and economic information as demonstrated in the coinage minted during the reign of Antiochus IV.

Historical Background


Map of the Seleucid Empire c. 167-164 BCE.

Following the death of Alexander the Great, the vast empire he had amassed was systematically carved up by his chief generals and familial relations.  Peace between these Diadochi or Successors would be short-lived, ushering in a turbulent period known as the Wars of the Diadochi (c. 322-275 BCE).  One of the principle belligerents and benefactors of this conflict was Seleucus I Nicator who would become the founding member of the Seleucid dynasty (c. 312-63 BCE).  Just over a century after Seleucus’ death (c. 175 BCE), Antiochus IV Epiphanes (r. 175-164 BCE) would come to the throne of a still powerful, but recently humiliated, Seleucid Empire which had been forced to concede the majority of its possessions in Anatolia.  In an attempt to restore a portion of the Empire’s former pre-eminence, Antiochus launched two major campaigns (c. 170 and 168 BCE) against Egypt and gained control of Judea and the Sinai.  Antiochus’ despotic reign of Judea and his persecution of its Jewish population would be the catalyst for the Maccabean Revolt (c. 167-160 BCE).  Antiochus died suddenly (c. 164 BCE), presumably of disease, while campaigning in Armenia against the armies of King Mithridates I of Parthia.

Analysis and Evaluation


Silver Tetradrachm of Antiochus IV, (c. 167-164 BCE) reverse shown.  Source: American Numismatic Society (Identifier 1908.115.1)

Upon seizing the throne, Antiochus ordered the minting of new coinage which bore his image.  This had been the norm for previous rulers of the empire.  However, in Antiochus’ case, these newly minted coins were markedly different than those of his predecessors (Houghton 2016: 241-42).  These new coins while bearing many typically Greek conventions, bore the additional legend of ΘΕΟΥ ΕΠΙΦΑΝΟΥΣ (Theos Epiphanes), which is most commonly (directly) translated as “God Manifest” or more descriptively as “God (divinity) Manifest in the Flesh” (Montanari 2015).”  By formal pronouncement through this newly minted silver and bronze coinage, Antiochus was not only declaring his own divinity but also invoking the protective patronage of none other than Zeus himself.

One particularly illustrative and beautifully preserved sample is contained within the collection of the American Numismatic Society (Identifier 1908.115.1, see attached image).  The denomination of this particular coin is a silver tetradrachm, measuring 16.61 grams, and an average diameter of 30 millimetres.  The coin is believed to have been minted at Antioch on the Orontes based upon its mint legend.  The archival information dates the minting of the coin near the end of Antiochus’ reign (c. 167-164 BCE).  The obverse of the coin bears the image of a youthful (non-bearded) Antiochus in right profile.  This was typical with personal portraits placed upon coinage throughout antiquity.  On the reverse the image of Zeus enthroned is prominently portrayed.  In Zeus’ right hand he holds the goddess Nike (in minuet form).  In addition, the legend contains three separate lines of Classical Greek text (listed in no particular order).  The first, ΘΕΟΥ ΕΠΙΦΑΝΟΥΣ (Theos Epiphanes), has already been translated and discussed above.  The second ΒΑΣΙΛΕΩΣ ΑΝΤΙΟΧΟΥ (Basileus Antiochus) which translates as “King” or “Emperor” (Montanari 2015).  The third line, located under the seated image of Zeus, is ΝΙΚΗΦΟΡΟΥ (Nikephoros) which is most often translated as “Bringer (or Bearer) of Victory” (Montanari 2015).


Marble and bronze statue of Zeus holding Nike in his right hand.  Roman copy of Greek original (c. 100 CE).  On display at the State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg.  Photo from museum’s own website.

In addition to its value as a temporal marker within an archaeological context this particular sample illustrates much of the imagery Antiochus wished to promote during his reign. From its inception, Seleucid dynastic rule had been supported by the inclusion of overt portrayals of Greek gods and goddesses (Houghton 2016: 240-241).  This association of well-known and easily identifiable Greek deities did much to associate various rulers with divine authority granted by the gods themselves.  The depiction of Zeus holding the goddess Nike is a powerful one.  In commemoration of his victories in Judea and the Sinai, as well as to promote the suzerainty of his rule it appears that Antiochus ordered the inclusion of additional line of text ΝΙΚΗΦΟΡΟΥ (Nikephoros).  This allows for distinction (visual and chronological) of this sample from similar coins which predate the conclusion of Antiochus’ Egyptian campaigns (c. 167 BCE).  While the practice of dating coins in some regions of Syria had begun during the reign of Antiochus III (c. 241-187 BCE) the practice was not adopted at the mint of Antioch until four decades later (c. 155 BCE) (Houghton 2016: 244).  So powerful was the Zeus-Nike imagery that it would be reproduced by subsequent Seleucid rulers until the reign of Alexander II Zabinas (r. 128-123 BCE) as a powerful piece of dynastic propaganda (Morkholm 1983: 62-63).

While the quantity, purity, rate of recall and issuance of ancient coinage can yield significant information about the internal and external strength of an ancient economy, that type analysis often relies upon a considerable sample size to be authoritative.  Individually, as in the case discussed above, an individual coin can provide significant information regarding the nature of the land, its people and its ruler.  Was Antiochus, as recorded by Livy, a devoted follower of the god Zeus to whom he built spectacular temples at Athens and Antioch (Livy, Periochae, 41)?  Antiochus’ personal piety alone was an unlikely source of the Zeus-Nike images placed upon Seleucid coinage issued during his reign.  It was a multifaceted piece of propaganda.  The Emperor Antiochus was a divine or semi-divine being.  Almighty Zeus would protect the kingdom.  Nike, the personification of victory, would insure future victories.  All this religious, political and dynastic information was contained upon an unassuming and relatively small silver coin.

Reference and Citations:

Livy. Periochae, trans. Jane D. Chaplin (Oxford World’s Classics). Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2010.

Ashton, Richard. 2016. The Hellenistic World: The Cities of Mainland Greece and Asia Minor. In Metcalf, W. (Ed) The Oxford Handbook of Greek and Roman Coinage: 191-210. New York: Oxford University Press.

Crawford, Michael. 1983. Sources for Ancient History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Houghton, Arthur. 2016. The Seleucids. In Metcalf, W. (Ed) The Oxford Handbook of Greek and Roman Coinage: 235-51. New York: Oxford University Press.

Montanari, Franco. 2015. The Brill Dictionary of Ancient Greek (Greek-English Edition). Leiden: Brill Publishers.

Morkholm, Otto. 1983. A Posthumous Issue of Antiochus IV of Syria.  The Numismatic Chronicle 143: 57-64.

American Numismatic Society. Mantis Numismatic Objects Database: 1908.115.1.

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Diocletian: Forging the Byzantine Empire.

by Pat Lowinger

Historians are often overly concerned with dates- which is understandable given the nature of their collective field of study.  Dates help to temporally organize significant events and eras into convenient timelines; facilitating the use of descriptive terminology such as Geometric, Archaic, Classical and Imperial.  One of the more problematic but commonly used terms is ‘Byzantine.’ 

A Tradition of Divided Power

The division of power with the Roman Empire was nothing new.  With roots as far back as the Republic, authority and power (particularly power involving the military) was often divided between appointees of competing camps.  In the Republican era, the division of power was ascribed between consuls, who during their one-year term(s) of service, alternated monthly as the reigning head of state and as the supreme commander(s) of the military during times of war.  From these Republican ideals grew other traditions which ascribed the division(s) of power within the Empire.  In particular, the First and Second Triumvirates- dedicated to division of military and political power under the auspices of ensuring stability within the Late Republic.

Diocletian as Jupiter of the East


Map depicting the division(s) of the Roman Empire under the reign of the Tetrarchs.

Beginning with the reign of Maximinus I in 235 AD through reign of Carinus ending in 285 AD- the Empire had seen rise/fall of 22-26 emperors within a 50 year period.  This Crisis of the Third Century saw the near destruction of the Empire from internal and external threats. [1] While some of these emperors, like Aurelian, were able to consolidate enough military and political power to prevent the Empire’s total collapse, the future was certainly grim.  Numerous civil wars and uprisings drained the frontier garrisons which were bypassed or overwhelmed by Germanic invaders.  Eventually, Rome’s legions defeated the Vandals and Visigoths in a series of costly military campaigns.  The Empire’s coffers and manpower were at critically low levels.

After securing his position as Emperor following the death of the Emperor Carinus, Diocletian could have, and in all likelihood should have become just another in a long list of short-reigned Emperors.  Despite the still festering wounds of civil war, Diocletian enacted a general amnesty (clementia), guaranteeing the lands, titles and offices of recent belligerents- upon a simple oath of loyalty.  Their status secure, the Empire’s aristocracy largely capitulated to Diocletian’s rule, while the urban and rural poor largely welcomed it.   Diocletian initially followed the earlier Roman convention of divided rule (east and west), by the appointment of Maximian as co-Emperor in 286 AD.  With each


Gold Aureus c. 294 CE, minted at Nicomedia. Obverse (top)- “Diocletian the happy, pious Emperor.” Reverse (under)- Jupiter holding thunderbolt, “Jupiter the Preserver.”  American Numismatic Society ID# 1955.191.4.

Emperor appointing their own successor who would control their own (4) territories within the Empire- the ‘Tetrarchy’ was formed. [2] Whether Diocletian resigned himself to this division of power out of tradition, a practical need for more centralized authority within the various provinces of the Empire, the trust which existed between himself and Maximian and/or all of these reasons the effect was the stabilization of the Empire.

In effect, Diocletian had formally divided the Empire into east and west, each Emperor (Augustus) and that Emperor’s chosen successor (Caesar) ruling large swathes of the Empire independently from each other.  Stability of the larger ‘Empire’ was rooted in mutual cooperation between each of the four rulers.  The Tetrarchy would last for 19 years.  During this period Diocletian and the other Tetrarchs were able to stabilize the military frontier of the Empire, quell internal unrest and enact economic reforms designed to stabilize the Empire’s economy.  By establishing the seat of his rule in Nicomedia (in the northwestern portion of Anatolia), Diocletian symbolically and in  practice transferred the seat of Imperial rule to the east.  While Rome, under Maximian remained the seat of power in the west, his status as Hercules to Diocletian’s Jupiter, cemented the transfer of power outside of Italy, as well as affirming Diocletian’s primacy. [3]  This realignment of power preceded the founding of Constantinople by 38 years- a fact this is often ignored or underdeveloped by too many modern historians analyzing the period.  From this point forward, imperial power would be concentrated in the east, in effect re-centering the Roman world.


Whether Diocletian was a visionary or realist can be debated.  He was an experienced military and political leader. Diocletian, born in Illyria of strong Illyrian stock, appears to have been less impressed by the status of Italy than his predecessors.  He also realized the importance of securing Asia Minor and the vital trade routes which passed through it.  By the establishment of his imperial residence and administrative headquarters at Nicomedia, Diocletian shifted the loci of imperial power eastward.  While Rome may have retained a symbolic link to the past glories of the Empire, it was no longer the epicenter of Roman dominion.  “The beginning of Byzantine history can be traced back to the Roman Empire as it emerged from the crisis of the third century.  The economic difficulties of this period had had particularly disastrous effects on the western half of the Empire.  The east had greater powers of resistance-a factor which afforded future development and accounted for the Byzantinizing of the Roman Empire.”[4]  Perhaps, Diocletian himself could best be described as the first Byzantine Emperor…


Sculpture of the Tetrarchy (material: porphyry) dated to c. 300 CE.  Originating from Constantinople – it was taken to Venice during the early 13th century CE.


Glay, Marcel Le, Jean-Louis Voisin, and Yann Le Bohec. A History of Rome. 4th ed. Cambridge, MA, USA: Blackwell, 2009.

Ostrogorski, Georgije. History of the Byzantine State. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1969.


[1] Marcel Le Glay, Jean-Louis Voisin, and Yann Le Bohec, A History of Rome, 4th ed. (Cambridge, MA, USA: Blackwell, 2009), 459-462.

[2 &3] ibid., 473.

[4] Georgije Ostrogorski, History of the Byzantine State (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1969), 29.

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The Jews of Sparta: Diplomatic Origins of Religious Synchronization.

By Pat Lowinger

Were the Spartans actually ancient Jews?  Of course not, but within the turbulent political period of the 2nd century BCE there appears to have been a desire to foster a Spartan-Israeli alliance.  In antiquity, as today, few relationships were stronger than those of blood… but how? The answer is contained within a few ancient texts which preserve a bizarrely contrived lineage intended to bind the Greek polis of Sparta to the Hasmonean Kingdom of Israel- both temporally and spiritually.



Marble statue depicting Hercules as a youth dated to c. 80 CE.  On display at the MET Museum, New York.

The Hasmonean Kingdom of Israel emerged in c. 140 BCE as a semi-autonomous region within the Seleucid Empire and eventually gaining its independence in 110 BCE- until being conquered by Rome in 63 BCE.  Prior to the establishment of this kingdom, Jewish rebels had engaged in a long and bloody uprising, commonly known as the Maccabean Revolt (c. 167-160 BCE).  In celebration of their victory over the Seleucid Empire and the re-dedication of the Temple of Jerusalem the Jewish tradition of Hanukkah was created.

The Spartans on the other hand, despite their once great renown, were in c. 170 BCE breathing their last breaths as a military and political power, after losing the Laconian War in 195 BCE.   Despite this loss of status, or perhaps because of it- there might have been an active diplomatic missions between Israel and Sparta designed to strengthen/renew Spartan/Israeli alliances and oaths of friendship.  In 146 BCE, the Spartans and the remaining independent poleis of Greece would succumb to Roman domination.

Mythological Traditions:

Within their own mythological traditions, the Spartans traced the founding of their city to several related myths.  The first is that the territory (kingdom) of Lacedon was founded by the Lacedaemon- who was himself the son of Zeus and the nymph Taygete.  Lacedaemon married Sparta (person), who was the a granddaughter of Zeus through Lacedaemon’s older brother, Eurotas.  This mythological tradition was supported/enhanced by the interjection of Herculean blood into Sparta’s two kingly lineage(s)- the Agiad and Eurypontid.

While rooted in mythology, was the belief that the Doric people (including the Spartans and their kings) were actual descendants of Hercules where attested to by several ancient sources, including the venerable Herodotus who records it as follows when discussing the lineage of the famous Spartan King Leonidas:

The various nations had each captains of their own under whom they served; but the one to whom all especially looked up, and who had the command of the entire force, was the Lacedaemonian, Leonidas.  Now Leonidas was the son of Anaxandridas, who was the son of Leo, who was the son of Eurycratidas, who was the son of Anaxander, who was the son of Eurycrates, who was the son of Polydorus, who was the son of Alcamenes, who was the son of Telecles, who was the son of Archelaus, who was the son of Agesilaus, who was the son of Doryssus, who was the son of Labotas, who was the son of Echestratus, who was the son of Agis, who was the son of Eurysthenes, who was the son of Aristodemus, who was the son of Aristomachus, who was the son of Cleodaeus, who was the son of Hyllus, who was the son of Hercules.  – Herodotus, The Histories 7.204. Emphasis added.

The Greeks weren’t the only ones with great heroes.  The mythical traditions of the Hasmonean Kingdom of Israel contained similar progenitors- arguable the most famous of which was Abraham (the son of Terah and a direct descendant of Noah).  It should come to no surprise that the connection between Abraham to the ancient Kingdom(s) of Israel was of considerable importance not only to the various kings of Israel but also to the cultural identity of the Jewish people.  It was through Abraham that Yahweh (the god of Israel) had made himself known- a covenant which marked the Jews as Yahweh’s chosen people (Genesis 15: 13-21).

Synchronizing Traditions for Diplomatic Ends:

The old adages blood is thicker than water and politics and religion make strange bedfellows are wonderfully apropos in this case.  How does the Hasmonean Kingdom of Israel foster a diplomatic relationship (treaty of friendship) with the Spartans?  The answer is simple, find a common blood-relationship which binds the two groups ancestrally.  And who better to be the root(s) of this Spartan-Jewish shared origin story other than Abraham and Hercules?  The book of Maccabees purports to preserve a correspondence (letter) between the High Priest Johnathan Apphus (died c. 143 BCE) and the Council of Sparta:

Jonathan the high priest, the senate of the nation, the priests and the rest of the Jewish people to the Spartans their brothers, greetings.  In the past, a letter was sent to Onias, the High Priest, from Areios, one of your kings, stating that you are indeed our brothers, as the copy subjoined attests. Onias received the envoy with honor, and accepted the letter, in which a clear declaration was made of friendship and alliance.  For our part, though we have no need of these, having the consolation of the holy books in our possession, we venture to send to renew our fraternal friendship with you, so that we may not become strangers to you, a long time having elapsed since you last wrote to us. We, for our part, on every occasion, at our festivals and on other appointed days, unfailingly remember you in the sacrifices we offer and in our prayers, as it is right and fitting to remember brothers. We rejoice in your renown. We ourselves, however, have had many trials and many wars, the neighboring kings making war on us. We were unwilling to trouble you or our other allies and friends during these wars, since we have the support of Heaven to help us, thanks to which we have been delivered from our enemies, and they are the ones who have been brought low. We have therefore chosen Numenius son of Antiochus, and Antipater son of Jason, and sent them to the Romans to renew our former treaty of friendship and alliance, and we have ordered them also to visit you, to greet you and deliver you this letter of ours concerning the renewal of our brotherhood; we shall be grateful for an answer to it. – 1 Maccabees 12: 6-18.  Emphasis added.

The Spartans’ letter (referred to above) purportedly originating from King Areios of Sparta (aka Areus I, reigned 309-265 BCE):

Areios king of the Spartans, to Onias the High Priest, greetings.  It has been discovered in records regarding the Spartans and Jews that they are brothers, and of the race of Abraham.  Now that this has come to our knowledge, we shall be obliged if you will send us news of your welfare.  Our own message to you is this: your flocks and your possessions are ours, and ours are yours, and we are instructing our envoys to give you a message to this effect. – 1 Maccabees 12: 20-23. Emphasis added.

While the relationship between a Greek Hercules and a Jewish Abraham is alluded to within this purported exchange of letters, the precise lineage was recorded by Josephus during the 1st century CE:

ABRAHAM after this married Keturah, by whom six sons were born to him, men of courage, and of sagacious minds: Zambran, and Jazar, and Madan, and Madian, and Josabak, and Sous. Now the sons of Sous were Sabathan and Dadan. The sons of Dadan were Latusim, and Assur, and Luom. The sons of Madiau were Ephas, and Ophren, and Anoch, and Ebidas, and Eldas. Now, for all these sons and grandsons, Abraham contrived to settle them in colonies; and they took possession of Troglodytis, and the country of Arabia the Happy, as far as it reaches to the Red Sea. It is related of this Ophren, that he made war against Libya, and took it, and that his grandchildren, when they inhabited it, called it (from his name) Africa. And indeed Alexander Polyhistor gives his attestation to what I here say; who speaks thus: “Cleodemus the prophet, who was also called Malchus, who wrote a History of the Jews, in agreement with the History of Moses, their legislator, relates, that there were many sons born to Abraham by Keturah: nay, he names three of them, Apher, and Surim, and Japhran. That from Surim was the land of Assyria denominated; and that from the other two (Apher and Japbran) the country of Africa [and the town of Aphra] took its name, because these men were auxiliaries [helpers or companions] to Hercules, when he fought against Libya and Antaeus; and that Hercules married Aphra’s daughter, and of her he begat a son, Diodorus; and that Sophon was his son, from whom that barbarous people called Sophacians were denominated.- Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 1.XV.  Emphasis added.  Bracketed/green sections denote supplemental translations added by R.A. Shilleto (1888) to that of William Whiston (1737).

Now, by way of clarification, it is important to note that some historians approaching this from an overly minimalist perspective would assert that the reference to Aphra only denotes that Hercules took/married a woman from that town and doesn’t offer a strict lineage with the line of Abraham.  Such scholars would be hard pressed to defend such an assertion in light of the prevailing and well-documented practice in antiquity of identifying key historical figures and the peoples of a particular region (ethnic groups) by place names (i.e. cities, regions and even countries).  Given that context, Josephus is clearly indicating that Hercules married the daughter of Apher or one of his decedents- who was a Jew.  From this union, a son was born and given the ethnically Greek name, Diodorus.  The dubious veracity of this lineage apparently didn’t go unnoticed by Josephus, who clearly attributes the origin of this account to Malchus, without giving any further attestation as to its validity or additional written sources.


Outside of the Books of the Maccabees and Josephus’ Antiquity of the Jews there appear to be few, if any, direct assertions of a Spartan-Jewish origin story.  In a Hellenized Israel, the attempt to blend these two religious traditions should not be as surprising as it at first appears.  Where the accounts in Maccabees which referenced letters and other diplomatic sojourns fictitious?  Possibly, but for the purposes of supporting a Spartan-Hasmonean alliance, forgery of such documents would have been a small concern if the alliance between the two parties proved fruitful and mutually beneficial.

Although we can never be certain, this Abrahamic-Herculean union does appear to have lacked large scale acclaim throughout the ancient world.  Nevertheless, this mythological tradition was preserved within the Book of Maccabees and by the historian Josephus, each of which were of particular interest to those studying the history of Israel.  Regardless of how broadly received this linage mythology was in antiquity is largely unimportant- the root purpose behind the invention of the mythological narrative appears to have been largely diplomatic.  Reaffirming what has long been known about many ancient peoples; that origin mythologies were a key component of what shaped their own cultural identities.

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The Death of the Roman Republic: Cicero’s Lamentations.

By Pat Lowinger

The Roman Republic effectively ended on January 16, 27 BCE when the Roman Senate granted the title and commensurate powers of Augustus to Gaius Octavius, the adopted son of Julius Caesar.  Preceding the Empire, the last body of Senators of the Roman Republic watched as strife, rivalries and ultimately civil war would act as the catalyst of this tumultuous transformation.  By analyzing the writings of one of Rome’s most notable Senators, Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 BCE), we can attempt to better understand these events.  In his letters, Cicero is keen to point to the failings of the Roman State, and what he believes to be the roots causes; the first being the influence of the military and the popularity of its leaders.  This was closely followed by the corruption of the Senate, and lastly, the formation of the Triumvirate in 59 BCE. 


Marcus Tullius Cicero (in his later years). Statue dated to 2nd Century AD on display at Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology, U.K.

The 1st Century BCE had presented many difficulties for the Republic, not the least of which was the civil unrest following the Social Wars (90-88 BCE).  Rome’s allies, who contributed greatly to Rome’s military and economic strength revolted.  According to Appian, this revolt was in response to unequal land distribution which lead to the concentration of wealth among the Roman Aristocracy and reduced many Italians to a state of pauperism. [1] Shortly thereafter, in 82 BCE, Lucius Cornelius Sulla seized control of Republic and during his two-year reign as Dictator enacted a series of Constitutional reforms which placed even more power in the hands to the Aristocratic Senate.  With Pompey Magnus’s defeat of Quintus Sertorius in Hispania (Spain) and Marcus Licinius Crassus’s defeat of Spartacus during the 3rd Servile War- two very popular and wealthy commanders had been able to exert considerable pressure upon the Senate.  Pompey and Crassus then quickly secured key political offices for themselves.  Both Pompey and Crassus were elected consul(s) in 70 BCE- setting the stage for the later conflict that would ultimately be the end of Cicero’s beloved Republic.

Rise of the Military

The reforms of the Roman military under Gaius Marius in 107 BCE changed forever the relationship the state would have with the army.  The increasing territories controlled by the Republic needed a standing army to defend it.  To this end, the previous requirement of land ownership was removed and all Romans of the capite censi were eligible for service.   This was the formation of a professional army, equipped by the state, and motivated by the promise of pay, loot and a considerable pension.  Cicero was aware of the power which a charismatic leader could exert over their troops; this was evident in 76 BCE, when Pompey had initially been denied tenure as proconsul of Hispania by the Senate.  Rather than accept the Senate’s decision, Pompey refused to disband his legions- in light of this display of military power the Senate reversed their earlier decision and Pompey was appointed to proconsul.  In effect, Pompey had nullified the Senate’s lawful decree by threat of military force.  Pompey had shown not only his willingness, but his ability to defy the Senate.  By 62 BCE, Cicero embarked on an attempt to ingratiate himself with Pompey as had other key members of the Senate:

For you have given us that strong hope of peace, of which, in sole reliance on you, I was assuring everyone.  But I must inform you that your old enemies- now posing as your friends- have received a stunning blow by this dispatch, and, being disappointed in the high hopes they were entertaining, are thoroughly depressed.  Though your private letter to me contained somewhat slight expression of your affection, yet I can assure you it gave me pleasure. [2]

Whether genuine or more likely duplicitous, by 54 BCE Cicero was presenting the case to Julius Caesar that Pompey was attempting to usurp power, possibly going so far as assuming dictatorial powers:

Cicero greets Caesar, Imperator.  Observe how far I have convinced myself that you are my second self, not only in matters which concern me personally, but even those which concern my friends.  It had not been my intention to take Gaius Trebatius with me for whatever destination I should be leaving town, in order to bring him home again honored as much as my zeal and favor could make him.  But when Pompey remained at home longer than I had expected, and a certain hesitation on my part (with which you are not unacquainted) appeared to hinder, or at any rate retard, my departure.  [3]

Pompey the Great. Marble. Beginning of the 1st century A.D. Inv. No. 733. Copenhagen, New Carlsberg Glyptotek.

Marble bust of Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (Pompey the Great).  Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek- Copenhagen, Denmark

Pompey, as governor of Hispania, and simultaneously holding the office of praefectus annonae (controller of Rome’s grain supply) was concentrating his power.  Additionally, rather than return to Spain, Pompey had opted to rule the province in absentia- remaining in Italy.  Cicero makes no effort to conceal his suspicions of Pompey’s motives in his letters to Caesar.  Ironically, five years later (49BCE), Cicero would be railing against Caesar’s famous crossing of the Rubicon and framing Pompey as the best hope of the Republic against this apparent grab at power.   Cicero laments his failure to avert Caesar’s actions, “for on both sides there are those who desire to fight.  The long and short of it is that Caesar himself- once our friend- has sent the Senate a menacing and offensive dispatch, and is so insolent as to retain his army and province in spite of the Senate.” [4] The Senate was no longer able by law or custom to prevent legions from entering Rome.

Corruption of the Senate

Cicero walked a fine political line.  Much of his politics could be considered that of a pro-constitutionalist, allied with the Optimates; the pro-aristocratic faction within Rome who were opposed by the Populares.  Throughout Cicero’s work(s), particularly those written in the last year of his life called upon ‘true Romans’ to put aside their own interests and to seek justice within the law (as codified within the Roman Constitution):

This contempt of the mind for outward fortunes thus excites great admiration; and most of all, justice, for which one virtue men are called good, seems to the multitude a quality of marvelous excellence, – and not without good reason; for no one can be just, who dreads death, pain, exile or poverty, or who prefers their opposites to honesty.  Men have, especially, the highest admiration for one who is not influenced by money; for they think that the man in who this trait is made thoroughly manifest has been tested by fire.  Thus justice constitutes all three of the requisites which I have named, -affection because it aims to do good to the greatest number, and for the same reason, confidence and admiration, because it spurns and neglects those things to which most men are drawn with burning greediness. [5]

With that said, Cicero’s own correspondence betrays his nature and through him the political nature of the Roman Senate.  Perhaps Gaius Sallustius Crispus (86-35 BCE), a contemporary of Cicero stated it most succinctly; “Fortune turned against us (the Senate) and brought confusion to all we did.  Greed destroyed honor, honesty and every other virtue, and changed: a government which had once surpasses all other in justice and excellence now became cruel and unbearable.” [6] Cicero decries what he sees the degeneration of the Senate, legal injustice(s) and corruption of the restored tribunes:

There never was a seedier lot round a table in a gambling hell. Senators under a cloud, equites out at elbows, tribunes who were not so much made of money as “collectors” of it, according to their official title.  However, there were a few honest men in the panel, whom he had been unable to drive off it by rejection, and they took their seats among their uncongenial comrades with gloomy looks and signs of emotion, and were keenly disgusted at having to rub elbows with such rascals. [7]

The Triumvirate

During the consulships of Crassus and Pompey, the powers of the tribunes were restored.  This placed both Crassus and Pompey in opposition to the pro-aristocratic powers which had been enacted by Sulla.  In 59 BCE, Julius Caesar formed a political alliance with Crassus and Pompey (commonly referred to as the First Triumvirate).  While informal, each of the men agreed to support each other and ensure control of the Senate while supporting their own personal agendas.  Opposition to the Triumvirate appeared initially stiff, but quickly dissipated- followed by Cicero’s own reversal concerning the Optimates and his outward support of Pompey (in 54 BCE):

If I had seen the Republic in the hands of bad or profligate citizens, as we know happened during the supremacy of Cinna, and on some other occasions, I should not under the pressure, I don’t say of rewards, which are the last things to influence me, but even of danger, by which, after all, the bravest men are moved, have attached myself to their party, not even if their services to me had been of the very highest kind.  As it is, seeing that the leading statesman in the Republic was Pompey, a man who had gained this power and renown by the most eminent services to the state and the most glorious achievements, and one of whose position I had been a supporter from my youth up. [8]


Bust of Gaius Julius Caesar- Vatican Museum,  Italy.

The Triumvirate ended in 53 BCE with the death of Crassus.  In 52 BCE, Pompey would be elected as the sole Consul of Rome, thus setting Caesar and Pompey on the collision course Cicero had earlier encouraged, “I have numberless witnesses to the fact that I warned Pompey not to form a union with Caesar, and afterwards not to sever it.  By this union I saw the power of the Senate would be broken, by its severance a civil war would be provoked.” [9] In the opening days of the civil war, Cicero would place his support behind Pompey and Senate- “And he (Caesar) says that he is doing all this “to support his honor”! How can there be any “honor” where there is no moral right?  Can it be morally right to have an army without commission from the state?” [10] As Caesar enters Rome, Cicero chides those Senators who rally to Caesar, “Ye Gods! Optimates indeed!  See how they are rushing to meet Caesar, and parading their loyalty to him!” [11]

Being ever mercurial, as Pompey prepares to flee Italy; Cicero would again prepare to shift his support, “I may add that he (Pompey) has acted in every case against my counsel and advice.  I put out of the question the old scores: how he fostered Caesar against the Republic, promoted, armed him; assisted him in the passing of laws by violence and against auspices; supported the addition of farther Gaul to his provinces; married his daughter.” [12] Following Pompey’s defeat, and Caesar’s rise to power, Cicero shifts again and in 45 BCE entertains Caesar at his residence.  Four months later (44 BCE), Caesar would be assassinated- an act Cicero would herald as “a fine piece of work.” [13]


As attested to in his writings, Cicero was a complex and skilled politician- keenly observing the shift in power from the Senate to the military and by extension their populist commanders.  Through inaction, impotence or corruption of the Senate the Republic was irrevocably set its course towards Empire.  The bureaucracies which had served the Republic so well were ultimately unable to contend with the influx of new territories and the bureaucracies needed to govern them.  Cicero’s concerns were embodied by the formation of the First Triumvirate. [14] Cicero and it appears other Senators, had attempted to ensure the status quo by reliance upon political intrigue and feigned patronage.  The Republic, weakened by its own social disparity was not prepared to deal with the concerted effort and alliance(s) of popular military commanders.   Perhaps, the duplicitous and self-serving nature of many aristocracy ultimately fostered an environment in which a populist dictator could offer a more socially equitable and less chaotic form of government.

Citations & References:

Appianus, and John M. Carter. The Civil Wars. London: Penguin Books, 1996.

Cary, M. and H. H. Schullard.  A History of Rome.  Third Edition.  New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1975.

Cicero, Marcus Tullius., and Evelyn S. Shuckburgh. The Letters of Cicero: The Whole Extant Correspondence in Chronological Order. London: Bell, 1912.

Cicero, Marcus Tullius., Miriam T. Griffin, and E. M. Atkins. On Duties. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Gaius Sallustius Crispus. The Sallust Anthology: The Catiline Conspiracy and The Jugurthine War. 1st ed. Texts from Ancient Rome Book 9.

[1] Appian, Civil Wars, p. 1.7-9.

[2] Cic. Fam. 5.7

[3] Cic. Fam. 7.5

[4] Cic. Fam. 16.2

[5] Cic. Duties. 11

[6] Sallust. The Catiline Conspiracy and Jugurthine War, p. 37

[7] Cic. Fam. 1.16

[8] Cic. Fam. 1.9

[9] Cic. Fam. 6.6

[10] Cic. Fam. 7.ii

[11] Cic. Fam. 8.16

[12] Cic. Fam. 8.3

[13] Cic. Fam. 14.12

[14] Cic. Fam. 6.6-8

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The Tropaeum Traiani: Displaying Rome’s Preeminence in Stone.

By Pat Lowinger

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The Tropaeum Traiani reconstruction.  Photo by author on 07/29/2017.

While I was onsite at this summer at Halmyris, I was fortunate enough to hear several interesting lectures on various aspects of the site and the history of the region.  While all of these presentations were extremely well-done, my historical zeal was drawn to one lecture in particular.  The topic of his lecture was the Tropaeum Traiani, erected in 109 CE following Trajan’s successful campaign against Dacia.   The lecture was given by Johnathan Quiery MA, who is currently working on his PhD at Durham University.    The contents of this post are based upon Johnathan’s lecture, subsequent discussion(s) and Brian Turner’s 2013 article in the American Journal of Philology.

What are Tropaea?

Simply put, tropaea (sing. tropaeum) are ancient monuments or memorials erected to commemorate to a military victory.  Tropaea were characterized by the display of the captured weapons and armor of the enemy- often with some pieces placed upon wooden supports, not unlike a modern scarecrow.  While the practice appears to have originated during the Greek Archaic period, it was later emulated by the Romans.  This emulation was personalized to meet the needs of the Roman state and society- it was not the rote copying of the earlier Greek tradition.  While many tropaea were temporary, during the second century BCE we see the establishment of the first permanent tropaea (in 121 BCE) by Gaius Domitius Abenobarbus and Domitus Fabius Maximus Allobrogicus after their conquest of the Allobrogenes and their Gallic allies in Transalpine Gaul.  In c. 105 BCE, Gaius Marius also directed the building of a permanent tropaea following his defeat of the Cimbri and Teutones.  Tropaea were later also constructed by Sulla (c. 86 BCE) and Pompey (c. 71) following their own military victories.  The practice continued into the period of the Roman Principate.


Detail of shield/armor of the Tropaeum Traiani.  Photo by author on 07/29/2017.

What purpose did the erection of permanent tropaea serve?  The answer is likely very simple, but very nuanced.  These permanent monuments served as testaments to the power and might of Rome, not only to the Romans themselves, but to the defeated peoples who now lived under Roman domination.  These monuments are rife with military imagery, including depictions of the army on the march, great battles and the subjugation of the enemy.  In addition to these martial images, tropaea also contain references to the divine- the depiction of ritual sacrifices being the most common.  These monuments also served as a stark warning to any nation or people who might attempt to challenge or resist the preeminence of the Roman state.

As permanent monuments, the armor and weapons of the vanquished were sometimes attached (hung) upon the stone structure.   At other times, the weapon and armor were depicted in stone, as was the case with the Tropaeum Traianai.  This commemoration in stone served to further perpetuate the surety of the Romans- as an everlasting empire.

The Tropaeum Traiani


Photo by H. Jacobi (1896) showing the Tropaeum Traiani prior to reconstruction.

As it stands today, the Tropaeum Traiani is for all intents and purposes a complete reconstruction, which was completed in 1977.   Originally built in 109 CE, the monument served to commemorate Trajan’s victory over the Dacians (101-102 CE).  Even today, there is some debate among historians as to whether the monument was erected in remembrance of one particular battle- the Battle of Adamclisi or as a testament to Trajan’s campaign (and victory) in Moesia Inferior.  The size, scale and overall theme of the monument appear to more supportive of the later assertion, but is not definitive.

Prior to it’s reconstruction, the Tropaeum Traiani was largely composed of collapsed rubble.  Many of the inscriptions, sculptures, images and panels (metopes) were damaged.  Of the original 54 metopes, only 49 have survived from antiquity.  Nearly all of the constituent components are currently on display at the Archaeological Museum of Adamclisi.  Considering the poor state of the monument (ruins), the entirety of the reconstruction was based on upon detailed archaeological examination(s), comparison to a smaller (and later) copy erected during the early 4th century CE, and more than just a little educated guess-work.  As such, there is still a significant amount of academic debate whether or not this reconstruction is wholly accurate.

Regardless, the monument is a wonder to behold.  Standing 40 meters in height, the structure is imposing and visually dominates the surrounding countryside.  For those who love history, the Tropaeum Traiani and the adjacent ruins of the fortress at Adamclisi offer a fantastic opportunity to see the might, grandeur and legacy of the Roman conquest of Dacia.


Johnathan Quiery (right), Robert Caudill (center) and yours truly (left) while exploring the fortress of Enisala.  

I would like to take a moment to express my thanks to Dr. Mihail Zahariade (Former Assistant Director, Vasile Parvan Institute of Archaeology, Bucharest) and Dr. John Karavas (International Center for Hellenic and Mediterranean Studies (DIKEMES), Athens) for dedication and perseverance in their excavation of Halmyris.  I would also like to thank my former graduate adviser, Dr. Micheal Ng (Seattle University/APUS), for his rather forceful suggestion that I participate in this once in a lifetime opportunity.





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